It’s hard to believe, but he did it in pencil
By JIM LARSEN
South Whidbey Record Editor
July 22, 2012 · Updated 9:47 AM
Everything in John Ursillo’s studio has a purpose, including the rubber chicken that hangs by its neck from the light illuminating his drawing board.
“When I get frustrated I squeeze the thing,” Ursillo said of the dangling chicken. It must be effective, because there’s no sign of stress or frustration in Ursillo’s finished work. His colored pencil drawings look like fine oil paintings, so much so that even art lovers are fooled.
Barbara Mearing, president of the Artists of South Whidbey, which is presenting its annual show at the fairgrounds next week, enjoys watching people examine Ursillo’s art at such places as the Artworks Gallery at the Greenbank Farm.
“They’ll take a really close look to see if the art is really colored pencil. Then they say ‘how the hell did you do that?’,” she said with a laugh.
Ursillo, who works from his Bear Cub Studio in his home on a cliff near Clinton, doesn’t hurry through his work, taking a month to produce a finished product. He’s got a great view of Puget Sound, Everett and the Cascade Mountains out the windows that line his studio, and he listens to books on tape as he works, taking breaks when necessary.
“You can’t do it all at one time or you’d go crazy,” he said of his amazingly detailed work that is done on canvas, like an oil painting.
Mearing, one of his biggest admirers, said that most colored pencil artists have a selection of
60 to 200 pencils, but Ursillo has many hundreds, all neatly categorized by color and shade. There are six shades of canary yellow and literally 50 shades of gray, although he’s never heard of the book. He keeps a thick catalog of each pencil, where it can be found, and a small patch showing exactly what color it is.
All those colors produce a solid work of art, as one might expect in an oil painting. It’s the detail that amazes people. For subject matter, he takes pictures of things that interest him, like an old ship, an aging barn door with rusty hinges, or a doorway leading to a favorite museum in California because of the way the light plays on the entrance.
“I like old metal, I like rusty things,” he said.
He always works from his own photographs. “You’ve got to go get it yourself,” he said. And he playfully makes sure there is some organic matter in all his work, be it a tiny patch of grass, a spider web or two diminutive figures fishing between a pier and a huge ship. The viewer sometimes has to think hard before identifying the organic matter. It turns out the rope hanging from a boat is made of hemp.
Ursillo and his wife Maria moved to Whidbey Island in 2007 after raising their two children. He has no trouble selling what he creates, and finds that “as an artist, I work harder than I did before I retired.” He was a project manager for Parsons Construction in Pasadena.
Ursillo gives workshops to share his knowledge, packing a portion of his pencils in a leather case. “TSA gets a little edgy when they see a case with 120 pencils,” he said of airport security.
One can imagine Ursillo as a cheerful, gregarious teacher of his profession. He gives classes locally to other members of Artists of South Whidbey. “I like the camaraderie of being with other artists,” he said. “It’s a very nurturing organization.”
Right now he’s preparing to display some his work in the Burrier Building at the Island County Fairgrounds, contributing to the Artists of South Whidbey Show that runs July 27, 28 and 29.
Beyond that, he’s looking forward to teaching at a national workshop in Cincinnati from Aug. 2 to 3.
He got his start in colored pencil drawing in the early ’80s “when someone gave me a set.” Until that time, he had been doing oil paintings.
His work may still resemble oil paintings, but colored pencils have some advantages, he said. “There’s no brushes to wash, no paint drying on the pallet and it’s easy to travel,” he said.
One more benefit, perhaps, is that no one stares at an oil painting and asks, “How in the hell did he do that?”
Show boosts arts in school
The Artists of South Whidbey 38th annual show and sale will be held July 27, 28 and 29 at the Island County Fairgrounds. The opening reception will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 27 in the Burrier Building. During the reception a silent auction will benefit the Artists in Residency Program in South Whidbey schools. The show will remain open from 10 a.m. to
7 p.m. Saturday, July 28 and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, July 29. New this year is a special group of “Small Works” donated by the artists. These will be displayed separately and sold Friday evening only through a silent auction. These original pieces of art are 154 square inches or less. Proceeds from “Small Works” will help raise funds for the ASW Art Education Fund which is given to the Island Arts Council for the Whidbey Arts in Education Community Consortium. For details, contact Barbara Mearing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact South Whidbey Record Editor Jim Larsen at email@example.com or 1-360-221-5300.