AN INTERVIEW WITH LISSA RACHELLE ROBILLARD
The CPSC is pleased and privileged to present our fifth Featured Artist Interview with Ottawa-based coloured pencil artist, Webmaster and Membership Director of the Coloured Pencil Society of Canada, Lissa Rachelle Robillard.
1. Do you have a formal art education or are you self-taught? How do you feel your educational and personal background has affected you as an artist – or have they?
Though I have taken a class here and a workshop there over the years, I have no formal art education and am almost completely self-taught. I worry sometimes that not having a “proper art education” puts me at a disadvantage because I don’t know all the “rules” (ie: composition, perspective, etc); however, both my Grandfather and my Dad were closet artists, and my Mom was also extremely creative and artistically inclined, so perhaps I’ve inherited a bit of natural artistic instinct that (I hope!) generally helps to keep me out of the worst of trouble with my art.
2. When and how did you first discover coloured pencil as a fine art tool and why did you choose cp as a favoured medium?
Around 2000 I received a copy of our local Continuing Education magazine, and listed under the arts section was a class on coloured pencils. I’d been using graphite pencils all my life, but aside from fooling with coloured pencils in colouring books as a child and using them to colour in maps in geography class in school, I’d never even thought to use coloured pencils to make “real art” before. I’d had no idea they were even considered to be a fine art medium and so, very intrigued, I signed up for the coloured pencil class.
I immediately fell in love with coloured pencils. They offered the very same cleanliness, accessibility, portability, and affordability, along with the control over fine detail and the direct mind to pencil to paper to story / art connection that my beloved graphite pencils did, and they offered all that in glorious, blazing colour! Unlike pastels or paint, with coloured pencils there are no associated health hazards, mess, delays, pauses or waiting times. Just as with graphite, there are no interruptions in the “I think, therefore I create” process. I love that.
3. What do you enjoy most about working with coloured pencil and why?
Aside from the benefits afforded by pencils in general as I detailed above, I love how incredibly flexible and versatile coloured pencil is and the great range of effects and results able to be achieved with such a simple, and usually very minimal, array of tools.
4. Where do your ideas and your inspiration come from?
I am deeply fascinated, and therefore inspired, by the realms of fantasy, fairy tales, imagination, religion, spirituality, the metaphysical, the mystical, the mythical, ancient and medieval history, nature, and our fragile, precious environment. Just my own thoughts and musings on these various subjects are often enough to spark an idea or flash an image inside my mind that develops itself almost naturally into a “story” for me, and the “story” is what I like to try to convey in my art.
Another great source of inspiration for me is my 22 year old daughter, who (sometimes not so) patiently allows her eccentric mother to dress her up in outlandish outfits pieced together from vintage clothing picked up from second hand shops and mismatched swaths of fabric and then pose her with bananas (trumpets) or wooden spoons (sceptres) or old bird cages found at flea markets for photo shoots that run for as much time as I can get away with until she finally growls “Enough Mother!”
5. Do you ever get artist’s block and if so, how do you deal with it? What helps you to overcome it?
I don’t find ideas or inspiration difficult to come by and don’t think I have really ever had artist’s block. If anything, I haven’t enough time or energy to execute the myriad ideas I have clamouring for attention inside my head. It is much more likely for me to feel burned out than blocked, but even that happens fairly infrequently. At those times that I may find myself in need of inspiration I will either flip through my photo references or will often just simply read something in one of my areas of interest and / or browse through art that reflects these subjects. If I am feeling really burned out I usually just give myself a break away from drawing for a time, until I feel the itch to get back to it, which doesn’t usually take too long.
6. On average, approximately how much of your time do you devote to your art (or art-related activities, such as research, photo shoots, thumbnail sketches, etc)?
I made a firm decision last year to treat my art much more seriously than I ever have in the past, and consequently, I devote a lot more consistent time to it now. I try to spend time every day actively engaged in something to do with my artistic pursuits. On average, I would probably say I spend maybe 30 hours / week actually seriously drawing, though some weeks I spend far less time and some weeks, I spend much more. It really depends on what else is going on in my life at the time.
7. How would you describe your art style?
Depending on my subject matter, I will sometimes work in a bit of an intentionally surreal style, but mainly I work in a style that strives toward realism, not in strict imitation of life but in pliant reflection of it. Being able to convincingly portray an illusion of reality to the degree that the viewer is lured to closer inspection and, ideally, feels transported into the world I create with my pencils – that is both my aspiration and my challenge as an artist.
8. What subject matter and/or themes do you prefer to explore and pursue in your art?
Besides fantasy, mythical, religious and / or historical themes, I am also very intrigued by people, and most especially by women. I love telling “our” stories. I particularly enjoy using elements of fantasy in my work in such a way that allows me to describe and explore the journeys, the beauty, emotions, strength, frailty, spirit, nature, and the very condition of what it is to be a woman, not just in our own comfortably familiar world, but in all worlds.
9. Describe your coloured pencil technique?
I have been away from coloured pencil for a very long time and have only recently returned to it after many years, so I feel that I am yet very much a student of the medium with so much left to learn and discover. As a “student”, my technique is still very much in a state of experimentation and evolution. However, that being said, I have pretty much settled now into a technique that is giving me the results I have always wanted yet never quite been able to attain using my previous methods.
I build my colours using light to medium pressure for the first few layers followed fairly quickly by harder and harder pressure in subsequent layers followed always by burnishing. I don’t concern myself at all with keeping my pencils sharp, unless I really require a sharp point to do edges or minute, detailed work. I use only as many layers and as many colours as I need to give me the depth and richness of colour I want, rather than using as many as I possibly can just because that’s the “thing to do”. I don’t use solvents for my “blending”. Instead I often use vinyl erasers to “scrub” heavily applied, burnished pencil deeply into the paper fibres and purposely “stain” my paper in this way, thereby completely eliminating the white of my paper and then building upon that. I also use erasers to pick out the light from the shadows and razor blades/knives to carve precise highlights into my work. And finally, I “buff” my work with a soft cloth, often after every layer. The “polishing” action completely eliminates all pencil strokes and glare, thereby giving a more painterly effect to my work, and leaving behind a beautiful, subtle glowing sheen
10. Generally speaking, how much pre-planning goes into your art work? Are you fanatical about working out all the little details ahead of time, or do you tend to work more “by the seat of your pants”, or do you fall somewhere in between the two extremes?
This really depends on the piece I am working on and what it is for. I would have to say that, in the past, I have fallen somewhere in between the two extremes, with maybe more of a tendency to fly “by the seat of my pants” much of the time. So many times I have just been so excited and anxious to start on a drawing that I haven’t spent nearly enough time pre-planning it. I just run with my initial spark rather than allowing my idea the time to germinate and grow fully into the story that wants to be told. When that happens I can almost always depend on being bombarded later with all kinds of additional unplanned elements that have wormed their way inside my head, and I then feel compelled to try to incorporate these extras into the incomplete story / composition. Sometimes I am lucky and my additions and changes work out beautifully, but sometimes they do not and I end up either abandoning the entire project in frustration or having to restart it (albeit, with a much better plan in place the second time around!)
Until fairly recently, most of my work has been for my own simple amusement and pleasure and, once completed, ended up filed away in a folder that rarely again saw the light of day. And so, other than some frustration if / when I messed up it was really no big deal, as time was really never much of a factor for me. However, as I mentioned before, over this past year I have begun to take my art and my goals for myself as an artist much more seriously and as a result, have begun to explore the world of art exhibition and festivals. I find myself now putting a lot more thought and pre-planning into many of my drawings, especially any that I think I may wish to enter into a future exhibit or offer for sale.
11. Can you describe your work process for us, from conception to completion?
Most often my drawings start with a general, incomplete image or idea that “flashes” into my head. This could be as a result of something I have seen, heard, read, dreamed, etc. When I’ve settled on something that appeals to me, I then try to focus mainly on the emotion the image or idea fosters in me. Whatever that emotion may be, I try to form a reason for it, based on a “story” that fits. Usually this process is instantaneous and instinctual, involving little to no thought. Sometimes though I have to really think and play around with various scenarios to come up with a “story”.
Once I have my “story”, then I usually make sketches (sometimes just very simple and vague thumbnails, sometimes more detailed drawings) and get reference photos to help illustrate what I have in mind (unless I already have the ref photos……often my idea or even the story itself evolves from photos I already have). I usually use my own reference photos, and since I mainly draw women, it’s not difficult to find models in myself, my daughter and/or my relatives and friends.
After I have the basic ref photos / sketches I need, I often fool with them in Photoshop, cutting, pasting, resizing, relighting, etc, until I have a composition and design I am happy with and that best conveys my “story”. I decide on the final size I want my drawing to be and make a working sketch on newsprint based on my ref photos, photoshopped image(s) and / or original sketch. I then prepare my good paper by cutting it to match the frame size and, to keep my edges clean, I tape the edges with green painters tape to a half inch bigger all around than the finished matted drawing size will be. Once my good paper is prepared in this way, I transfer my working sketch from the newsprint onto my good paper using a light box.
The entire process to this point can take me anywhere from a few hours to several weeks or even months, depending on how detailed and complicated the drawing is and how excited I am about it.
Then the fun part starts! I usually tend to start with the most enjoyable, most interesting part of the drawing (I am not good at delayed gratification! hehe), and so for me this usually means that I start with the face. However, if there is a part of the drawing that I worry may either be a huge challenge or extremely tedious, then I like to get that out of the way first. Once this is done (the most challenging, boring and / or enjoyable parts) then I tend to work the entire drawing to the same level of completion at the same time, rather than finishing one section at a time to completion…but not always. It really depends on my subject matter, difficulty level and my mood.
12. Name three coloured pencil artists whose work you greatly admire or who inspire you. What is it about them or their work that appeals to you?
It’s incredibly difficult to limit myself to only three, as there have been so many wonderful coloured pencil artists whom I have both admired and been greatly inspired by. But, if I must choose only three then they would be:
Johanna Pieterman: Johanna was one of the first artists I discovered in my search for cp artists when I first became aware of the medium, and she remains one of my favourites. I love the soft way she plies her pencils, her slightly surrealistic style, but I especially enjoy her fantasy subject matter.
Adolfo Fernandez Rodriguez: I only recently discovered this Spanish artist and, really, what else is there to say about his work except – “WOW!” Done in a very realistic style, all of his drawings look like paintings and many of them are almost impossible to tell apart from a photograph. I find not only his work, but also his interpretations and expressions of the love he feels for his many subjects, to be incredibly inspiring.
Erica Walker: Not only is Erica’s knowledge of colour and her ability with coloured pencil extensive, but her work is absolutely suffused with the passion she feels for the medium. Whether it is a simple still life of a single flower, or one of the portraits at which she excels, every piece of hers I have ever seen is deeply emotive. I cannot look at her work and not feel my heart touched. She was kind enough to show me some of her rather unusual techniques and consequently, I am finally getting results in my own work that had eluded my efforts until now. I count myself truly blessed to have met and come to know Erica.
13. In regards to your own work, which is your favourite piece, and why?
This is such a hard choice! I would have to say that almost every one of my drawings have been my favourite when I was actually working on them! But if I must choose one, then I really must choose my graphite work titled “Sunkissed”, which is a portrait of my daughter and her (ex) boyfriend.
I love the story it tells and especially like it because it involved a lot of firsts for me. The angle of my daughter’s face was a real challenge to get the likeness correctly. I had never done a man’s beard before and the “5 o’clock shadow” was a challenge. The reflections in the sunglasses were a challenge. I’d not done hair very often up to that point, so that was also quite a challenge. On a whim, when it was completed I entered it in my first ever exhibition and ended up winning first prize in the Works on Paper category, as well as Visitor’s Choice. So, though it’s not cp and is hidden away now in storage, it will always hold a very special place in my heart because of all the firsts it involved for me.
14. What are your artistic goals?
Generally, I want to feel that I am always learning and growing as an artist and that I am accomplishing something significant with my art – that I am affecting others in positive, memorable ways with it. Specifically, I intend to start doing more exhibitions and art fairs / festivals in the next year with the goal of making new friends and contacts in the “art world” and, hopefully, beginning to sell my work, which I have not seriously attempted to do up to this point.
15. Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you, the artist, or about your art?
Well, I have fairly serious Rheumatoid Arthritis, especially in my hands, wrists and shoulders. This is not the “typical old people” arthritis that most people get as they age (that is Osteoarthritis). RA is an autoimmune disease that affects not only joints but can also affect the eyes, internal organs and other body systems. I’ve had it since I was two, and so have lived my entire life with it. Usually the meds I am on keep it under control, but about 8 years ago I had a severe flare-up in my hands and wrists, to the point that I had to stop drawing altogether for a long time, because it was too painful to even hold a pencil, much less wield one. The fear of provoking another critical flare in my hands kept me away from drawing for a long time after my recovery, and when I decided to take up the pencil again a couple of years ago, I chose to go back to graphite rather than cp because it is much less physically stressful on the joints (not nearly as much pressure applied with graphite, nor as many layers). But, well, I love cp, and so, I have slowly snuck back into it and am just keeping my (crooked) fingers crossed that fate will be kind and keep the really bad flares away so that I don’t have to give it up again.
16. If you could offer a little tidbit of advice gleaned from your own experience with using coloured pencil to an artist just starting out in the medium, what would you say?
This is not really coloured pencil or drawing or even art-specific advice, but they are words I strive to live my life by, and I find them especially applicable to my art.
“Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.” – Confucius
“There is no try. There is only do and do not.” – Yoda