October 09, 2007


John P. Smolko: 70th Anniversary Competition Grand Prize Winner

by Karen Stanger Johnston

Grand Prize Winner
Homage to Klimt (The Virgin)
2006, colored pencil on museum mat board, 40 x 40. Collection the Sargent-Laessig Museum of Fine Arts, Hinckley, Ohio.
2006, colored pencil on museum mat board, 40 x 32.
Collection the artist.

One of the watershed moments of Ohio artist John P. Smolko’s life, he recalls, occurred when his critique-group colleague, abstract expressionist Tom Lehnert, told him, “John, the most honest kind of line you can make is a scribble.” Up to that point, Smolko had been a traditional Photorealist.

“I’d get into art shows and notice that everything was the same,” he says. “Lehnert’s comment inspired me to explore the expressive line with all its beauty and dynamics. So I experimented and made up my own style of crosshatching. I had always been interested in crosshatching and color theory, but I relied on traditional methods of layering and blending. That worked earlier in my career, but the call of linear expression was an opportunity to grow and mature as an artist of my own time.

“The first few drawings were tight, but the color mixing was beautiful,” Smolko remembers. “So I tried scribbling and I found that it really added something to the composition. I use it in many different ways: to hold the composition together, to create avenues in the drawing, to travel from one side to the other, to travel into and out of it. For me, the scribbling is now the most enjoyable part of the drawing, it gives it more energy. To do it you have to be a bit of a colorist. When the lines cross, you get color fields and interesting color mixtures.”

Ashley (Reclining Figure )
2005, colored pencil on museum mat board, 40 x 32.
Collection the artist.

Smolko has taught art since 1983 at Aurora High School, in Aurora, Ohio. Like many of his pictures, Homage to Klimt (The Virgin) evolved out of his teaching. He routinely introduces his students to the masters, often suggesting they look at these artists and their compositions and figure out how to emulate them in their own work.

Daphne (Reclining Figure)
2006, colored pencil on museum mat board, 40 x 32.
Collection the artist.

“I had been teaching my students about Gustav Klimt and I decided to use one of his compositions to create a painting,” Smolko explains. “They are always eager to model for my pictures, so I set them up in the same format as Klimt’s The Virgin. This was a chance to update and use Klimt’s work in a different context. His was done with nudes. With my students-- in everyday clothes, of course-- it took on a whole different meaning. We really had fun with it. The kids were very involved in the entire process and they were delighted with the results.

“I’m a big proponent of figure drawing,” continues the artist. “What impresses me about Klimt’s composition is the naturalness of the figures. They aren’t stiff; their round bodies and legs are intertwined. I also admire his portraiture. Everyone has two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but in order to really get the likeness of a person, you have to portray the subtleties, and the figures have to look like the body type you’re actually drawing. Klimt catches this essence in his figures. He uses skinny models sometimes, but they have individuality. And he catches the essence of the period—the hair styles and fabric. He took it a step farther with the nudes, but it wasn’t necessary for me to do that. I could still do the same kind of composition and achieve the same kind of effect. I could still show their faces, hands, gestures--their bodies posed in different positions, turning.”

Dave, No. 2 (Friday Night Warrior )
2005, colored pencil on museum mat board, 32 x 40.
Collection the artist.
Homage to Klimt (The Kiss)
2007, colored pencil on museum mat board, 40 x 40. Collection the artist.

After taking up to 30 digital photographs of his subject as reference material to help settle on a composition, Smolko makes a detailed contour-line drawing on museum mat board. He uses Prisamcolor pencils, and Prismacolor Stix for particularly thick lines. He then blocks in the color using his scribbling, textural crosshatching technique over the line drawing. Next, he starts making looser lines with more energy to build up the forms--their roundness and details. Last, he draws the long, expressive lines that tie everything together. “Degas once said, ‘Every line is exactly where I want it,’” quotes Smolko. “I now know exactly what he meant by that because every line I draw is pretty much where I want it to be.”

Smolko earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1973 and a master of fine arts degree in 1979, both from Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. He is a member of the Ohio Colored Pencil Alliance and a signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America. In 2006 his work won awards of excellence from the Midwest Color Exhibition at the Herbert J. Aigner Gallery of the Schaumburg Prairie Center for the Arts, in Schaumburg, Illinois, and from the Colored Pencil Society of America’s 14th International Exhibition, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was a finalist in the experimental category of the 23rd Annual Art Competition of The Artist’s Magazine. Smolko plans to retire from teaching in June to become a full-time artist.

For more information, visit the artist’s website: www.smolkoart.com; or e-mail him at .

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American Artist would like to thank the following sponsors for making our 70th Anniversary Competition a success:

Blick Art Materials
General Pencil
Hartford Fine Art & Framing
Jerry’s Artarama
Legion Paper
Savoir Faire


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