Dena, welcome to Reprehensible Digest. Tell the audience a little about yourself – your background, where you're from, what you specialize in as an artist.
I had a happy childhood in Los Angles as the oldest of five children. I spent the majority of my free time in my bedroom drawing pictures or reading. I hung out at friend's houses and raided their bookshelves. The library and book store were my happy places. My goal was to read all the classics in both the children's and adult section of the library.
I tried to make friends with all the neighborhood cats (my parents wouldn't let me have one). I loved kids and babysat all the neighborhood families. I also loved Shabbat, synagogue, and the many guests who came through my parent's home. Fifteen years ago, I got married and moved to Israel, where I now live with my five kids, ages 4 to 14. When my third child was a baby I began to paint and illustrate professionally. A few years later started to teach painting and illustration to adults in a local art school.
You have a definitive blend of styles and influence. Would it be safe to assume you are a fine artist, an illustrator, and a portrait specialist all wrapped in one?
Absolutely! My favorite thing to draw is people, so even though I work in a variety of styles and mediums, my paintings are almost always figurative. As a fine artist I specialize in portrait art, and as an illustrator I like to explore the relationships, experiences, and emotions that come with being human.
Where did you study art and when did you realize you wanted to be a full-time artist?
I was not formally trained at a college level, so I consider myself mostly self-taught. Growing up, I was always drawing at home in my spare time, making pictures for friends and neighbors, doodling on my school notes. I used to copy illustrations from my favorite children's books, created paper dolls, copied step-by-step tutorials and drew from my imagination. I experimented with different types of pencils, paints, markers, and inks. I feel that the many hours I spent drawing as a kid and absorbing the work of other illustrators provided me with a really solid foundation as an artist.
Fortunately, my parents realized that I had a talent for art, so they encouraged me to take many types of lessons throughout middle and high school: drawing, calligraphy, watercolor, cartooning, colored pencils, airbrushing, acrylic painting, pottery. I did not always appreciate being "forced" to draw things, like the drape of a towel over a chair, but I learned valuable skills and techniques.
In high school I did small art-related jobs like wedding monograms and illustrations for greeting cards and local advertisements. By 16, I was commissioned by a family friend to paint my first large acrylic painting of an English garden, which turned out better than I expected. I was paid $300 for that, which was a huge sum for me back then. As I grew older I sold portraits, Judiaca art, and hand-painted gifts such as picture frames and doorplates. Despite all that, I never considered myself a professional artist, and for many years worked in non-art related jobs.
Then one day, about eight years ago, a school friend of mine put me in touch with an author who was seeking an illustrator for her picture book. She liked my work... the publisher liked my work... and I was hired. I had no idea what I was doing, but I worked really hard and was very proud of that book, called Red is my Rimon (rimon means pomegranate in Hebrew). Now I look back at that first book and cringe. I was such an amateur, but I also remember how proud I was, how proud my family was, especially my Grandma! That experience led to the epiphany that I could actually make a career out of my art.
What mediums do you prefer working with and what are your favorite brands?
• Plain old-fashioned pencils and printer paper for sketching.
• PrismaColor pencils for portraits and colored drawings.
• Watercolor in pans (I now use St. Petersburg, but I've used Windsor & Newton and Van Gogh too).
• Canson watercolor paper (Coldpress 300) or cheap watercolor paper for less important works.
• India ink for black and white illustrations.
• Micron pens for inking lines.
• Various brands of acrylic paint.
In general, what does being an artist mean to you?
For me, being an artist is about capturing beauty and bringing joy or comfort to others. I love creating art that is meaningful, whether it's book art, a portrait of a loved one, or some other type of gift. I share a lot of my art online and love that I can touch people that way, even if they'll never see it in person. There's so much beauty around us: in nature, in other people, in the way we act and react to life's joys and challenges. That's what I try to focus on.
Name three artists, past or present, who have been a major influence on you. Explain briefly what their work means to you.
I am in awe of John Singer Sargent, who was considered the leading portrait painter of his generation. I saw one his paintings for the first time as a teenager in a D.C. museum, when I was visiting my Grandma one summer. I didn't know his name, but I was enthralled by his painting, specifically the sheen and pattern on the lady's voluminous dress. I have a small book of his work that I bought that day because I was so taken by that painting. His brushwork is incredible – it seems so perfect, yet almost casual and effortless.
My favorite illustrator of all time is Trina Schart Hyman. As a kid, I fell in love with her illustrated Peter Pan and have collected a few of her other books since then. Her characters are strong, complex, and graceful. She infuses beauty, elegance, and magic into everything she draws.
Third, I love the story and the work of Michelangelo. One of my favorite books is a biographical novel about his life called The Agony and The Ecstasy which really brings his personality and his times to life. What inspires me about him was his passion for beauty (notably beauty in the human body, which he believed to be created in the image of God), his faith, his hunger to create art in its purest form, and the harsh conditions under which he was forced to work.
What have been your biggest breakthrough moments and disappointments as an artist?
My big break into illustration was, as mentioned, getting my first job illustrating a children's book, which opened the door to working with other authors and publishers. One major disappointment was realizing that my illustrations will never look like Trina Schart Hyman's. I literally wanted to be her reincarnation. I draw lots of inspiration from other artists. I try to discover what makes their work powerful and attractive, so that I can incorporate that into my own. I am constantly disappointed by my own work failing to live up to my standards and my vision, and regularly need to come to terms with the fact that it will never look like the work of the artists I adore and respect. But that's okay. This feeling enables me to keep learning and experimenting and growing, and hopefully keeps me from becoming complacent.
Have your works been featured in galleries, shows or otherwise? If so, where, when and what did you learn from each experience?
Most of my work is commissioned, so I don't have a body of work to exhibit. I have created specific paintings for a few shows. One was a local art show for the city of Beit Shemesh, Israel, which won second prize. Another show I participated in was called "Face To Face," in which artists were paired up with Holocaust survivors in order to get to know them and paint their portrait. I met an incredible woman named Livia Schacther who was 100 years old at the time. It was an honor to hear her incredible life story and paint her. I also entered a painting of my daughter in Israel's first International Watercolor Society show last year.
I suppose these experiences taught me that you have to work hard and make an effort in order to get your work in the public eye. I didn't make any money. In fact, I spent my own time and money in order to participate in all of these shows. It reinforced the fact that there is so much talent out there. I need to keep upping my game if I stand a chance of achieving fame and fortune (hey, everyone's got to have goals). I'm also excited to be showing some portrait paintings in a London Gallery that opens on February 5, 2019, so if you are in the U.K. I'd love to meet you there!
How do you motivate yourself when there is no creative spark?
I don't usually lack a creative spark, but I do often lack motivation. Sometimes I'm tired or lazy. Sometimes I take too much time searching for reference. Sometimes I get caught up in "research" and spend too much time on Pinterest or Instagram, gathering "inspiration" and swooning over other artists' work. Sometimes I have an idea that's so huge in my mind that I can't find the courage to even start.
When I'm feeling lazy or intimidated, I have to force myself to shut down my social media and simply get my reference pictures and supplies set up. Once it's all laid out in front of me, I find it easier to get to work. I also need to keep my mind occupied (so I don't stray back onto LinkedIn), so I put on a podcast or something to listen to, which helps me focus on work.
Sometimes when I'm working for a client, trying to bring someone else's vision to life, I need to take a break to do a small sketch or illustration for myself. That gives me a release so that I can tackle the job with more energy. Deadlines are, of course, one of the best motivators. There's nothing like the pressure of client expectations or bills to pay to fuel the fires of inspiration.
How do you handle rejection, criticism or ignorance from those who don't understand your work or what you do?
I make it a goal for people to understand and relate to my work. Now and then I'll get an irritating comment, and sometimes my clients and editors will offer constructive feedback or ask for edits. I'm just lucky that it's never harsh or critical, which is good because I don't know if I could handle it. Ignorance is slightly different, however. I've had some strange comments and requests, but when I know it's coming from inexperience I try to be patient and educate people. I am very grateful for the wonderful, supportive people who respect and appreciate my work, especially for those who buy and commission my work.
I like to create art that is thoughtful, comforting, joyous. Sometimes an illustration evokes feelings like sadness or loneliness, but these are universal emotions, and seeing that helps us feel less alone because we can all relate to them. I love to illustrate small moments of peace and connection. I love to evoke nostalgia, the innocence of childhood, joy in a good book, love, friendship, and an appreciation of beautiful things. Willa Cather said it better than I ever could: "What was any art but a mold to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself – life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose."
What advice would you give to struggling artists trying to discover their path?
I'd tell them to try many things. Keep an open mind, learn from and copy great artists, experiment with styles and medium, take classes in person or online, absorb as much art and life as you can, draw what excites you, draw what frustrates you, don't become complacent, and don't give up. Eventually you will discover what you feel passionate about and what you are good at.
New artists are often worried or pressured about developing a personal, definitive style. It's not something that can be forced or faked. Style evolves over time, without you even noticing it. You try lots of different things, copy other artists work, try to make up your own style. Sometimes you feel good about it and sometimes you feel wretched, but one day you'll wake up and realize that you've achieved a sort of default way of drawing or painting that comes naturally to you. Of course, then there's the fact that an artist's style is constantly changing and evolving. So don't get too comfortable – complacency kills creativity and growth.
What are your long-term goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
One goal as an artist is to produce children's books that I've written and illustrated. Until now I've illustrated books that other people have written, but not yet my own. I have a couple books that are written up, with some preliminary sketches, but I'm finding it really difficult to balance client work and personal projects. I also want to work on a few different series of figurative art that explore various themes. But for me right now, large-scale painting for personal satisfaction seems like a luxury. I keep pushing off the larger projects for a day when I'll have more time.
Any additional skills, hobbies, or interests you'd like to share with the audience – fascinating statements that reflect upon the artist known as Dena Ackerman?
You have done an awesome job! This has been fun and thought-provoking, thank you... And special thanks to anyone who has managed to read to end of this interview. I'd love to connect if we aren't connected already and get to know you better as well.