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JULY 2023

Coloured pencil

Coloured pencil

Coloured pencil


Elisabeth Sommerville graduated from the Alberta College of Art in Calgary winning the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Prize.  She moved to Vancouver in 1965 to start her own award-winning graphic design business, Sommergraphics.  In 1985 she was hired as design consultant by British Airways in London, working with U.S.-based Landor Associates in developing a new corporate design.

Returning to Vancouver, she enrolled at the University of British Columbia for a Studio Art Degree while continuing to freelance.  Courses in etching, serigraphy and plate lithography led her to a new stage in her career when she joined Malaspina Printmakers Society on Granville Island to learn the art of stone lithography.  Over the next 20 years, she became well-known for her detailed, precise and beautiful limited edition prints of wildlife.  Her skill and artistry continued with egg tempera paintings and then with coloured pencils, a medium particularly suited to her meticulous drawings.  Elisabeth attained SFCA Signature Status with the Federation of Canadian Artists and is an Elected Member of the Society of Canadian Artists.  She was recently promoted from Associate Member to AFC Signature Membership with the world-wide Artists for Conservation.  Her work is in collections in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the U.S.A.


GR - What drives you to be an artist and what satisfaction do you derive from it? What is the desired response from the viewer if any?

ES - I wanted to be an artist ever since I was very young.  One of my early memories was making drawings for other kids at my table in my kindergarten.  Art has always been my  passion and the ability to draw is a talent for which I am eternally grateful.  I don’t work for any response from viewers.  I work from my own inspirations and for my own satisfaction.  Happily it is what my viewers and collectors like.

GR - Your artwork boasts extreme and realistic detail yet there is something unrealistic about your immaculate, perfect settings.  This state of opposition results in a surreal and magical atmosphere which is your signature touch.  What are your thoughts on this?  Is this a conscious, artistic choice?  

ES - I’ve never been able to work in a loose, spontaneous style.  Sometimes I wish I could but my style has always been meticulously detailed.  I don’t try to create any atmosphere as such but I think, like many artists, I have a more acute way of seeing things.  For instance, if something catches my eye when I’m out for a walk I immediately get a picture in my mind of what I could do with it, not just what I see.  It’s not a conscious choice, it just happens.

GR - Your work demonstrates a restrained use of colour.  You offer just enough to produce vitality without flooding your elegant subjects and you often choose white, winter scenes when many artists can't wait to splash colour everywhere.  Does this sparse employment of colour challenge you?  What are the reasons behind this choice?

ES - I’ve never been into bright colours.  It’s not that I dislike them but for most of my life as an artist, I’ve preferred a subtle, more muted approach.  I guess it’s just a matter of taste.  Interesting that you comment on winter scenes, I’ve noticed myself that I’m attracted to them, perhaps because of my many years skiing and of course from living in Calgary and then Banff, which is spectacularly beautiful in winter.

GR - Your compositions are suggestive of stories and secret conversations.  What is it about birds and owls that inspire you to return to them as characters in your artwork?

ES - I like to experiment with placing my subjects, usually birds, in groups where their poses and expressions seem to form a dialogue among them; a lighthearted narrative.  Crows, for example, among the most intelligent of birds, are a favourite because they’re such social creatures.  Owls captivate me, perhaps because their binocular vision makes them seem almost human when they gaze at us.  Actually it’s harder to create the kind of narrative I’m looking for with owls so, except for the endearing burrowing owl families, I usually draw them as singles or couples.  My Métis heritage may also be a contributing factor in my love of birds and nature.

GR - What led you to coloured pencil and why do you find it suitable for your art practice?  Do you plan to experiment with other media or subjects in the near-future?

ES - I started my fine art career using stone lithography, a traditional method of printmaking discovered in 1796.  It involves drawing on thick flat stones that are transferred to a special printing press to make multiple images.  It is a time-consuming, physically strenuous and difficult medium but it was an excellent vehicle for my detailed drawings.  But after 20 years, I found it difficult to handle the heavy stones and large rollers used in the process and began to explore other media.

Inspired by Andrew Wyeth and Alex Colville, I tried egg tempera.  I was happy with the results but egg tempera is a complicated medium dating from times before the use of oil paint and it took me over three months to complete one painting.  When I first tried coloured pencils, it was immediately apparent to me this was my medium: no underpainting, no brushes.  The technique includes layering, blending, burnishing, different kinds of pencils, different kinds of papers and above all, a focus on detailed drawing.  I love it!  Although coloured pencils will continue to be my medium for the foreseeable future, I will certainly try different subjects.  Right now, for example, I am drawing a landscape which includes a lynx.


Pastel pencil



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