top of page

12 Questions: Denise Presnell

This week’s questions are answered by Denise Presnell. I recently met Denise when she dropped off her work for our annual Art of Water exhibition.


From the time Denise was a child growing up on the plains of Nebraska - Nature was and continues to be her muse. At home in the woods or along a river bank, there is a deep connection that transcends words and a sense of time. Color and texture blur the lines between abstraction and representational imagery as intuition becomes the guide to the completion of a piece, whether it is a painting, pastel, print or a combination of any of the above. 

Denise's formal training began with a BFA in Printmaking and Drawing from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln and carried on through a concentration in Painting & Drawing through the Pennsylvania State University where she received an MFA. The majority of her teaching and art career has been located in Wisconsin where there is an endless bounty of natural inspiration. 

Numinous, oil on polyester, 22” x 28"

1. What are 1-3 books that have influenced your life? 

That's a tough question, because of course there are hundreds of books that have influenced my life. So I thought I'd narrow it down to books by artists that I have found myself going back to over and over again for inspiration. The first one has to be Joan Mitchell, by Judith Bernstock, published by Hudson Hills Press. Joan is one of my art heroines. Her abstract poetry reaches down inside of me with an indescribable magic that I just take in. A second book would be David Park, by Richard Armstrong, published by the Whitney Museum of American Art. I grew up looking at "Canoe", an oil painting in the Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln, NE. The mystical images and expressive paint handling, as well as the palette of Park's work draws me back to this book over and over again. A third book would be Fairfield Porter, by John Ashbury and Ken Moffett. This book is good for eye and the mind. Fairfield was equally competent as an artist and a writer. His knowledge of art and composition is invaluable. For instance, here's one of his famous quotes and one that is typical of his honest approach. This quote is a response to a group of artists discussing whether it was vain to sign your paintings. This was Porter's response: "If you are vain it is vain to sign your pictures and vain not to sign them. If you are not vain it is not vain to sign them and not vain not to sign them." I'm a fan of honesty and authenticity in all of the arts.


2. What are you currently working on?

I have a small pastel in progress right now - but that will soon lead to many more and experimentation with acrylic, oil and oil paint stick pieces on canvas or board. I'm moving in a more intuitive, abstract direction and also getting out of the water and the forest for a while. Those muses have obsessed me for some time and it’s time to take a break. The work could be moving into a completely abstract mode.

3. How has failure set you up for later success? What was your favorite failure?

I think the entire process of making art is one of mistakes and overcoming them. This happens constantly while working on a piece - you use the wrong color and it destroys the message so you have to cover it up, erase it, etc. Eventually you arrive at a sense of completion, but not before a million mistakes. I couldn't really give you one favorite failure - my entire body of work is immersed in that mistake making process.

4. What is your most unusual habit?

Well, probably it would have to be the method of working with soft pastels that you just won't see a lot of in the pastel world. I tend not to 'blend' my pastels as most do. I layer with endless marks. I taught myself how to use pastels - so I didn't know the 'proper method'. I have actually recently been researching all of the proper methods, though and I do a little more blending than I used to.

5. If you could have any painter, living or dead paint your portrait who would it be and why?

I could give you a list - but one that comes quickly to mind would be Pierre Bonnard. I imagine it would be fuzzy, charming and at some odd angle or I would be hiding behind a tree or a pot of tea. I'm not crazy about seeing images of myself in art or photographs, so this portrait would give me some privacy.

6. What is the most indispensable item in your studio/workspace/office?

An eraser - I have to be allowed to change my mind.

7. When you feel overwhelmed or uninspired what do you do? What do you do to get out of a funk? What questions do you ask yourself?

Inspiration is nice - but most of my work is done in spite of being inspired. One of my favorite writers (who is not an artist), Anne Lamott, has an often quoted as advising writers that the most important thing you can do is to show up or get your but in the chair. I get myself to the studio even when I'm clueless and something eventually gets me working. I may not keep the work - but it gets me back into the process and "unstuck". One thing that can get my juices flowing is doing research on the artwork of currently working artists. Once I find an artist I like - I find out who their favorite artists are and just keep chasing these artists down. Seeing a different method of using materials is always inspirational to me.

8. What is the most life-changing thing you have bought for under 100 dollars in the last year?

I started working with oil paint sticks this year - so you could buy about 8 different colors with $100. So one of my favorite colors is "Egyptian Violet" by R & F Pigment Sticks. I just like the name. What I love about using them - is that they allow me to use line similar to the way I use line with soft pastels - only I can use these on canvas, paper, etc.

9. Do you collect anything?

Not really - I have to make room for all of the artwork I keep bringing home.

10. What words of advice would you give to your younger self?

Cherish those true connections you make with other artists - none of us are going to be here forever.

11. In the last five years what new belief, or habit has most improved your life or studio practice?

I quit using my DSLR camera and just use my iPhone for images I may use for paintings, prints or pastels. I also quit using the DSLR to document my work. The new iPhone cameras are as accurate as I could be with the DSLR. I usually only have to take a photo once with the iPhone camera - there is no blurriness and if the color isn't 100% accurate, I can easily fix it with Photoshop. This has save me loads of time and frustration.

12. Share an inspiring image.

My newest pastel painting - it inspires me because it's going in a new direction. "Neighboring Tulips", soft pastel on acrylic and pastel ground on board, 14" x 16".


bottom of page