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Colored Pencil Artists Don't Want Their Medium Erased

Later this month, a dozen or so amateur artists will gather to learn something new and technical, trade tips and generally support each other in their love of colored pencils. It's an art form that's still relatively new.

Donna Hoffman worked with textiles like cross stitch and needlepoint. And then about two years ago, she took a class on colored pencils in Covington. "I took that class and I just took to colored pencil. Right from the very beginning, and I understood it and I could make it work for me."

Since then, she's found other people who also use colored pencils - artists in Australia, the United Kingdom, and even locally, like Cecile Baird.

"I was a graphic designer so I knew about colored pencils," Baird says. "We did our presentations before computers with those. But I'd never done fine art. When I moved back to Ohio, I found a little book in a local art store on how to use colored pencils."

In the meantime, Baird's written her own instructional book, Painting Light with Colored Pencil. "The most predominant work in colored pencil seems to be realism. Not always photo realism, but at least realism," she says. "I think that is because it's just the medium that suits itself to that. You can get nice sharp points." 

Baird and Hoffman met through the Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA). About 1,700 people across the country belong to one of the 21 chapters. A woman who now lives in Rising Sun, Ind., Vera Curnow, started the CPSA in 1990 to raise awareness and respect for the medium.

Baird says her goal is to create a demand for the artwork. "Colored pencils have been around forever, but, they have not been recognized as a fine art medium. Everybody thinks they're for kids or for coloring, or drawing and sketching and that sort of thing, but not fine art."

Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU
Cecile Baird shows off her colored pencil drawing of cherries.

There's a good reason colored pencil art doesn't get a lot of gallery showings.

Russell Ihrig is the associate director of interpretive programming at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which doesn't display a lot of drawn artwork, including colored pencil works. "That's because they're very light sensitive," he explains. "Works on paper can't be out in the light for very long or they start to degrade. Sometimes the papers themselves, if they're not archival quality, the papers will start to eat themselves."

While the museum doesn't hang its colored pencil works publicly often, they do have many among the 67,000 works scanned in and presented online.

Ihrig says the effort to protect the medium does have a downside.

"If you walk into a museum of course the impression a person gets is that drawings are less important than paintings, because paintings are always out and sculptures are always out," he says. "It's the same thing with prints and photographs and all works on paper; they just don't get displayed as often." 

He also says colored pencils are relatively new, and museums and galleries haven't had as long to collect pieces. And for some artists, a drawing, with or without colored pencils, is just the beginning of a piece; a preliminary sketch.

These hurdles are what Hoffman, Baird and other members of the Colored Pencil Society are trying to overcome. "Let's stop thinking of this as kitchen table art," Hoffman says. "How far can we go with this? Can we do landscapes? Can we reproduce a watercolor painting? What can we do with this? Let's experiment and open it up. That's my goal." 

Ihrig at the Cincinnati Art Museum expects to see some colored pencil pieces on display in February, as the museum celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. That exhibit will run through the end of April.