Narrative Portraiture, drawing people into stories, is where artist Lis Zadravec’s brilliance lies. Rather than just creating portrait likenesses, she approaches her art as a writer creating a character. Inspired by the look and staging of old oil paintings and illustrations poured over in books of our childhoods. Lis studied at the Corcoran School of Art and she works in the modern-century medium of colored pencils. Having worked as a cosmetologist and makeup artist, she loves the precision of a pencil point and the layering of color and wax. For each face Lis wants to create 28 translucent layers, like skin. No, she wants to make real skin!
Born in Washington DC, Lis began taking art classes at age four. By 10, she was painting in the adult program at the Corcoran School of Art. On the collegiate level, she studied again at the Corcoran as well as at American University, Montgomery College and with artists of the DC Color School. Respected for her teaching as well as her artwork, Lis co-founded Crossroads School of the Arts in Herndon, VA, and has taught in many venues from Northern Virginia to upstate New York, children to adults. Lis expresses her goal as this; ‘We all have been given the directive to multiply our gifts. I can think of no better way than to share mine while watching more art be created than I’d ever be able to do myself.’ While making her art, Lis has raised two children and built a teaching business. She has ambitions in both her artwork and writing projects. She says, ‘A well-trained artist is a person who can do anything.’
I met the super talented, energetic Lis at many Montgomery Art Association shows and JKBLOG finally gave me a chance to ask her some more intimate questions about her work, process, and journey.
Q: Your primary medium is colored pencils, how did you begin with this medium? What about colored pencil appeals to your the most and what is the most challenging?
A: In college at the Corcoran, a teacher invited Jody Mussoff to speak to us. Her medium was colored pencils. Her subjects were lively and relevant. So I snuck out of poetry class one day to a third year figure drawing class, the guy sitting next to me shoved me 4 pencils, red, blue, yellow and brown. He said, that is all you need. It is 35 years later and I haven’t looked back. There was a time I felt I should be doing oil paintings. After all, I went to art school. There was a long time that colored pencil work was not accepted as Fine Art. But that is changing and the colored pencil community worldwide is making strides to change that. I love pencils. There is nothing they can’t do. They are pigment in a stick with pencil point precision. They can be referred to as paintings when they are done now. They are accepted in almost all venues now.
Q: Portraits, landscape, still life, you do them all…what is your favorite and why?
A: I did a still life in college and got my only C ever in art. I tried a landscape and my mother said, “Please go back to painting people.” Actually those aren’t the reasons. Faces have just always interested me. Expressions, gestures, they tell so much. I use people to tell my stories. And we can always get good at things we don’t excel at. You know the J.S.Sargent quote about a portrait being a painting of someone with something wrong with the mouth. Well, I vowed not to have a mouth or a hand stump me and I practiced. I was the art-nerd in high school who would draw one eye and have my friends guess whose it was. If they could, I succeeded. I watched Andy Goldsworthy in “Rivers & Tides” building and re-building his cone made of rocks five, six, times, till the tide came in when it was done and covered it. I watched him stay calm, not curse. Just rebuild. I would have been screaming, I would have given up. But that is how an artist works. In my own medium. I have re-started a portrait, yes, seven times! Portraits just happen to be the work I care to do again and again.
Q: Have you always wanted to be an art teacher? Which is your favorite age group and class?
A: I had no idea I wanted to teach until I started teaching. I started with 18 students over 4 classes in my home and moved on to teaching at a Charlotte Mason method school, continuing education for adults, summer camps, home-school co-ops, even co-founding a school of the arts here in Northern Virginia. I teach all ages from 5 through adult but I think my favorite age is the 8-12 year olds. There is an age before the teen years, where the student has begun to develop the ability to see as they will as an adult. And they believe in themselves. They believe they can do anything and are at a highly teachable place in their life. If an impression is made at this time it will likely stick with them through teen years and carry into their adult life.
Q: What’s your favorite piece of work that you have created and why?
A: My favorite piece is always the piece I am working on at the moment. It is the culmination of all the skills I have attained to that point. It holds the promise of perfection. I am always looking for perfection. It is hard for me to stop messing with a piece. I sometimes have to have a deadline, an upcoming show, in order to put it in a frame. I will go back to it again and again making changes and trying to get parts better and better. Sometimes the surface I am working on doesn’t want to take anymore and then I have to stop before I damage the paper. I always say I am not just drawing skin, I am trying to make actual skin. I just brought “The Conversion” home between shows. I looked at it with my daughter and said, “You know that is very impressive.” Sometimes a piece makes me very pleased in that way.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
A: Then there is the next piece. I just finished my ‘Kensington piece’ for the MAA Kensington Labor Day Show which requires a piece about the area to enter. I am finishing two other pieces for upcoming shows. But what I am working on next is a piece that will be broken into a detailed step-by-step article for inclusion in a book being developed by Ann Kullberg, who has a magazine and sells books and teaching materials in the colored pencil field. This book is specifically on colored pencil portraiture and includes a ‘Dream Team’ of featured artists, the best internationally. I am honored to have been chosen to be one of these top featured contributors.