The Top Award-Winning Drawings of 2020

Take a look at the exquisite work of the three winning artists of the 12th Strokes of Genius drawing competition.

Our special issue, The Best of Drawing, is a showcase of the 117 outstanding works of art — executed in a drawing medium or in a wet medium using a drawerly approach — that were selected for publication from all the entries into the 12th Strokes of Genius drawing competition. This year, we asked artist Juliette Aristides to select three drawings from among these finalists for First, Second, and Third Place Awards, along with 10 Honorable Mentions. Learn more about the top prizewinners and their award-winning drawings below; see the Honorable Mention winners in The Best of Drawing print or digital issue.

It’s worth mentioning that this drawing competition was taking place last spring, just as the COVID-19 pandemic descended into our lives. As you might expect, many artists submitted works that reflect on this experience. In some cases, artists recognize that the alterations due to the pandemic afforded them the opportunity to work with a focus they might not have otherwise had. In such times, we are reminded of the important part that art has to play in telling our stories — whether beautiful or challenging.

It’s also true that art offers a healthy means of creative escape — and that’s exactly what we hope you’ll experience as you read on.

1st Place Winner: Kumiko S. McKee

The emotional quality captured in this powerful portrait caught the attention of the juror and earned this artist our top award.

By Rebecca Dvorak

Isaiah (graphite on paper 40×30) by Kumiko S. McKee

The award-winning drawing, Isaiah, is a portrait of Kumiko S. McKee’s nephew, whom she describes as quite shy and hesitant to speak up. “I drew this piece when he was 17 years old as a way to wish him the courage to realize his potential,” she says. “I’m happy that he has now grown into a confident young man.” McKee hopes the viewer senses in the drawing her nephew’s inner sensitivity and creative spirit.

Juror Juliette Aristides clearly responded to the poignant qualities of the piece. “The vulnerability of childhood is captured in the face of the young man,” she says. “The piece stands out because it conveys emotion in addition to being technically strong. Isaiah embodies the trepidation of a generation of children facing a quickly changing world. The drawing has as much heart as it has skill.”

McKee aspires to capture more than a likeness in her portraits; she wants her work to express a person’s emotional interior — the “real person.” She attributes her ability to do this to the fact that most of her subjects are family members. “I know them personally. And I’m thinking about them while I’m working on the portrait.” she says. “I’m able to empathize with their feelings.”

Kumiko S. McKee

An Early Start

McKee’s American Family series, which includes her prizewinning drawing, presents each member of her multi-cultural family. The artist started drawing at a young age while living in her native Japan; she was raised there by her grandmother after her parents divorced when she was a baby. McKee drew girls’ faces to help her feel less lonely. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a manga artist. But her focus shifted away from those Japanese comics when her junior high school art teacher noticed her talent and suggested that she focus on fine art in high school.

It was during that training that she discovered Rembrandt. She found inspiration in his use of dramatic atmosphere and chiaroscuro techniques. “The drawing classroom was my favorite place to be during my high school years,” she says. “I would go there after school and draw the plaster-cast busts. I loved the sound of a charcoal stick rubbing against smooth drawing paper in the quiet drawing room. It was like meditation for me. This is how and where I learned my drawing techniques — and it’s why I love drawing.”

Initially, McKee saw drawing as a learning tool to develop her skills for other kinds of art. “Since then,” she says, “I’ve discovered that drawing isn’t only a tool but also a great medium by itself for expressing and representing my ideas.”

Liza (graphite on paper 40×30) by Kumiko S. McKee

A Sense of Unity

After high school, McKee moved to the United States to attend college at the University of Wyoming, where she received her BFA degree. She met her husband in the States and married into a family that was full of other cross-cultural relationships. “My new family is tightly bound,” she says. “There’s a sense of unity despite the variety of backgrounds. This is a different experience from my own Japanese upbringing.”

It’s this new family that inspired McKee to create the American Family series, a body of work that she hopes not only highlights the unique character of each of her family members, but also furthers an appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity in general.

Savion (graphite on paper 40×30) by Kumiko S. McKee

The Portrait Process

McKee begins the process of a portrait by taking 50 to 100 photographs of her subject. Since her family members don’t have any modeling experience, they’re all typically nervous on the first day. But by the second day, they’re more relaxed and she’s usually able to get a workable image.

Once she has chosen the reference photo, instead of using a print of it, she views the image on her computer, which she sets next to her easel. “It’s easier to see the detail working directly from the screen rather than from a printed image,” she says. “I can enlarge it as needed to get to the small details.”

She begins with an underdrawing. “I use a traditional measurement method to get accurate proportions of the model and to make sure all the proportions are correct before I start shading,” she says. “Fixing proportion problems is hard once I’ve started the shading.”

McKee hatches in parallel lines and uses her thumb for blending the dark areas, cotton for the medium tones, and tissue paper for the lightest areas. She doesn’t use white pencils for highlighting, as the areas left unshaded will naturally be lighter. She does sometimes use a soft kneaded eraser to remove shaded areas and to create highlights that will give the image a three-dimensional effect.

Next, she begins the detailing using her graphite mechanical pencils, particularly HB and B2, to draw delicate lines and details. “I’m right-handed,” McKee says, “so I work from top to bottom, and left to right, to avoid smudging and to keep a clean surface.” It requires a lot of discipline to keep her surface — Strathmore’s Bristol Vellum 500 series paper — pristine.

Chibi II (graphite on paper 24×18) by Kumiko S. McKee

The Heart of the Subject

While McKee pays close attention to her reference photo, she also stays focused on the spirit of her subject. “Some artists amazingly paint or draw an exact replica of a photo, but my style is a bit different,” she says. “I don’t draw everything I see in the reference photo. I try to draw everything that I think is needed to represent and to bring out the character of my model. The completed portrait isn’t an exact copy. My hope is to add something beyond the factual parts.” In other words, the heart.

2nd Place Winner: Marcos Rey

A sense of austerity and a mysterious gaze — combined with an artist’s sensitive handling of materials — created a captivating drawing.

By Christine Proskow

Ariane and the World (charcoal, graphite and ink on canvas 391⁄3×243⁄4) by Marcos Rey

In his prizewinning entry, Ariane and the World, Spanish-born artist Marcos Rey, who’s based in Arequipa, Peru, used composition, contrast, and metaphor to explore a powerful theme. Placed in the center of the picture plane is the subject, Ariane. Drawn to the young woman’s soft features, we’re met by her inexplicably austere gaze. The effect is further heightened by her self-restrained pose; the careful positioning of her inert hands; and her dark-hued, Victorian-style dress. Charged with an underlying tension, the drawing both captures our interest and raises questions. Who is she? And what’s the meaning behind her remote gaze?

According to Rey, “Ariane is a Peruvian teenage girl who’s about to discover the world, but she lives in a country where full freedom for women doesn’t exist, either because of an ingrained cultural ideal or a highly patriarchal society. This is a reality that’s experienced by most of the girls and women in Peru.”

Marcos Rey

Representing Repression

Rey’s idea for the piece stemmed from his firsthand observations of the cultural norms prevalent in Peru. The artist came to the country from Spain, where he had observed a greater degree of gender equality. “When I came to Peru, it felt as if I’d stepped back in time,” he says. “In particular, I found a machismo culture that’s as prevalent as the air; you can almost breathe it in. In this drawing, I wanted to represent the idea of the sexual repression of women, which is symbolized in the figure’s black dress that covers her entire figure except for her hands.”

With its exceptionally strong focus and commanding use of contrasting elements, Rey’s drawing attracted the eye of juror Juliette Aristides and earned the second place award. “The drawing pulls from both contemporary and historical references,” Aristides says. “It has the austerity of a daguerreotype [an early form of photography], and the sensitivity and impassive expression of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 1875 oil painting, La Communiante. The broad, textured abstraction of the background and dress set the details of the hands and face in sharp relief. It’s a strong representation of a young woman who can hold her own in the world.”

Woman in Coat (graphite on paper 363⁄5×20) by Marcos Rey

Inspiration and Imperfection

Rey is a self-taught artist who dedicated himself to drawing and painting full-time in his mid-20s. Ariane and the World, like his other work, involves a process of transforming his original concept into his own language. While the artist is thoughtfully attentive to that unique expression and its evolution, his work also draws influence from Old Masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, as well as contemporary artists such as Michaël Borremans (Belgian, 1963–), Nicola Samorì (Italian, 1977–) and Vincent Desiderio (American, 1955–). “My apprenticeship is constant,” Rey says. “I continually study their works and am nurtured by their inspiration.”

Of course, finding a suitable model is essential to a drawing’s success. Ariane, like all of Rey’s models thus far, is a friend. Because the artist works from photos exclusively, he takes plenty of reference shots — about 70 in the photo shoot with Ariane, for instance. “I focus on achieving a balance between technique and the idea that I want to transmit,” Rey says. “Ultimately, the photo is just one more tool that I go by and then eventually set aside to do what the drawing itself asks for.”

Rey also employs Photoshop to work out compositional decisions. In this case, he used the program to recompose Ariane’s hands and individual fingers until he got the image he wanted. A closer look reveals a surprising shortage of digits. This curious choice, however, falls in line with the artist’s avid belief in allowing for imperfection. “Despite how important a good technique is,” Rey says, “imperfection is also very important so that the artwork remains believable and relatable.”

Seated Man (charcoal and graphite on canvas 331⁄3×301⁄2) by Marcos Rey

Tools, Techniques, and Textures

To create Ariane and the World, Rey used charcoal, graphite, and black ink on primed canvas. His technique involves both building up and deconstructing these applications to generate rich, textural effects. Inspired by Spanish artist Antonio López García (b. 1936), Rey first experimented with the approach in a drawing of his wife, Pam; that work now hangs at the Museu Europeu d’Art Modern, in Barcelona. “At the time, I didn’t use ink; only graphite and charcoal,” Rey says. “Now I will ‘mistreat’ the media regularly, whenever I draw on canvas, to add texture and detail.”

Once Rey has drawn his basic composition, he begins to establish areas with ink, charcoal, and graphite. For this piece, he used graphite for the finer details of the face and hands, ink for the shadowy folds of the dress, and charcoal for the dress and background. “First, I applied a soft layer of fixative spray. Then I brushed a water-and-synthetic glue mixture onto the surface, causing big chunks of the charcoal to break off,” Rey explains. “The fixative adhered some of the charcoal, which otherwise began to shift and create texture for the background. This raw image became the base for the next stage.”

Rey repeated this process five times, introducing a diluted ink mixture in the last two layers to create even further textural effects. It’s a process the artist describes as a “layered dance.” He also uses sandpaper or a knife edge to scratch the surface to reveal some of the whites. The last step is to set the drawing aside for a few weeks, applying any final touches later as needed.

Bonito (graphite and ink on canvas 31⁄2×331⁄3) by Marcos Rey

Drawing Acclaim

After more than 10 years practicing and perfecting his artistic skills, Rey’s work has started to receive international attention. By bringing his thought-provoking imagery to life with technical virtuosity, the artist encourages deep engagement. Rey strives to provide viewers with a compelling vision — an image to contemplate and not simply observe.

3rd Place Winner: Carol Peebles

An artist’s depiction of a life-drawing session not only celebrates the experience but also seems to extend an invitation.

By Ruth Rodgers

Blue Easel Club Drawing Atelier (pastel on toned paper 26×22) by Carol Peebles

“The curtain is pulled back on a day in the life of an atelier student,” says juror Juliette Aristides, commenting on Carol Peebles’ pastel, Blue Easel Club Drawing Atelier, her selection to win the third place prize. “The model poses as the students focus in quiet concentration. The drawing captures the sanctity of the relationship between artist and model, and celebrates the role of the nude in art. This drawing is not photographic; it highlights the efforts of contemporary artists to work directly from life. The depiction of this experience became all the more poignant as the pandemic shut down life-drawing classes across the country.”

Aristides’ remarks captured the truth even more than she knew, for Peebles has dedicated her life and career to the creation and sustenance of an artistic community that goes far beyond teaching people to draw. The artist, a native of New Orleans, studied art at the University of New Orleans, where she earned a B.A., and Penn State, where she earned her MFA, and at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. She followed her formal education by traveling throughout Europe, studying the great masters intently and developing a dedication to the classical realist tradition.

In 2009, Peebles opened her own atelier, the Blue Easel Club. The club is named for the blue metal easels that fill the studio space. Here, she teaches students of all skill levels and experience how to draw from life in charcoal. But the lessons go beyond basic techniques.

Carol Peebles

Feeling the Art Spirit

In his famous 1923 book, The Art Spirit, Robert Henri (1865–1929) declared, “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” In that spirit, Peebles’ classes might include models from the arts and entertainment scene, guest speakers, readings of poetry or historic material, music-making and, often, gatherings around a table to share food, drink, and art philosophy. Peebles seeks to shift the act of making art away from the sociopolitical. She aims to return it to its classical roots. “Together, as a family, we can bring to the art world what it desperately needs: a reverence for nature, camaraderie above competition, and a love of life.” Rather than promoting the creation of angst-ridden commentary, the artist aspires instead to see “happy people sketching the beauty in the world around them.”

For this drawing demo, Peebles worked with charcoal on Strathmore Series 400 paper
Students draw models from life at Carol Peebles’ atelier, the Blue Easel Club

Getting Philosophical

Peebles’ award-winning piece exemplifies her philosophy. As viewers, we’re privileged to see beyond the brilliant red curtain and are drawn into a private world. In her image, only the model seems alive. Her flesh glows with warm color and her form is sculpted by the softly glowing light. Beyond her, students are depicted as monochromatic, anonymous, sketchy figures. The subject (Nature) rules, and the artists are merely conduits for its expression. Peebles speaks about this as “servitude to the subject,” but she doesn’t consider it a burden, so much as a benefit to the artist. Explaining the studio approach she feels works best, she says, “Just have fun and study whatever is in front of you. You’ll slowly feel its warming effect on your spirit, and I guarantee it will bring you happiness.”

For Peebles, the atelier experience is a passion that influences her own work. In the backgrounds of most of her drawings of nudes, she includes the figures of her atelier friends at their easels as if she’s almost unwilling to separate the subject from the context of this environment (See Alice, Blue Easel Club).

Alice, Blue Easel Club (pastel on toned paper 27×22) by Carol Peebles

Drawing in Pastel

For her full-color works in pastel, Peebles typically works on Colourfix pastel paper. Is fine-grained surface holds the pastel well without too much distracting texture. She uses mainly Nupastel pastel sticks for the initial drawing and placement. But she switches to softer Richeson pastels to apply the thicker layers of brighter color and texture; you can see this in the red drapery in her award-winning piece.

Peebles’ work and approach to the artistic life brim with individuality, but this isn’t her concern. “An artist needn’t worry about originality,” she says. “It surfaces like oil on water, without intention.”

Her best advice for those who hope to advance their skills is to draw often and fast — and from life. “Don’t only labor on long works that are precious to you,” she says. “Imagine a man shoveling snow; he does it every day and works hard. That’s the kind of effort in art that brings progress, epiphanies and artistic enlightenment.”

Congratulations to all of our featured artists, and thank you for sharing your “strokes of genius” with us!

Check out The Best of Drawing, our special issue devoted to the 117 outstanding works of art from the 12th Strokes of Genius drawing competition, sponsored by Blick!

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