Strokes of Genius: The Top 3 Drawings of 2021


The top award-winners in the Strokes of Genius 13 art competition captured their subjects in unique and unexpected ways.

It’s impossible to share this winning artwork without acknowledging the complex societal changes affecting our world in 2021. From the global pandemic to the push for social justice reform to the urgent climate crisis and uptick of catastrophic weather events, the way we live is profoundly changing. As we undergo this collective reshaping of daily life, it inspires—even spills into—the art we create.

The theme of resiliency threads through this stunning collection of artwork and reveals to us how the creative spirit has endured. For many, the mere act of creating has provided a space to process pain and loss, embrace the uncertainty of the future, and also connect with each other and the natural world.

As you engage with this showcase of images spanning a variety of media and subjects, we hope you find not only useful techniques and artistic inspiration but also gratitude for the beauty that stirs us, even in times of hardship.

First Place Winner: Joshua Knight

A honed method and meticulous attention to detail work together to create a prize-winning portrait.

By Rebecca Dvorak

Mfa strokes of genius
11 Weeks (charcoal on paper, 48×32)

Joshua Knight’s award-winning drawing 11 Weeks was inspired by a long-awaited pregnancy. After trying for three years to conceive, the artist and his wife welcomed a baby boy into the world on July 5th, 2021. “11 Weeks explores fertility, strength, and protection through the use of dramatic light, shadow, and symbolism,” says Knight.

The artist used the principle of the golden spiral to pull the viewer’s eye up towards the figure and then on to the pomegranate in her right hand at the front of her stomach. He intentionally cut the pomegranate, revealing the fertile seeds and indicating the passing of time. He elaborates further saying, “The model, my wife, rests three full fingers on top of her stomach to represent the number of years we tried to conceive,” Knight explains. “She’s also displaying a look of disbelief on her face with her head slightly tilted back as if to say ‘No way, are we really pregnant?’” The dogs surrounding the model also symbolize fertility, protection, and strength. “As with most of my work, I tried to keep things subtle and open to interpretation by the viewer, using symbolism to talk about the narrative at play,” he says.

These details are what drew Strokes of Genius juror of awards Cuong Nguyen to the winning piece. “This composition is so interesting, with the dogs in the front and the main character in the back,” says Nguyen. “The woman is sitting on the sofa, tiredly looking at the viewer. She’s loved and protected by the dogs surrounding her. Technically, the artist uses light and shadow to create a drawing that looks like a black-and-white painting. The details are stunning—especially the dogs’ fur and heads. Their eyes are also quite lively. There are lots of objects in this drawing, but it’s not busy at all. The artist knows how to play with composition, so all the attention is on the female figure. She’s telling us her own story here. I love this drawing and admire the artist’s artistic point of view and talent.”

Artistic Process

Knight first explored the idea for 11 Weeks by completing a series of small sketches before shooting his own reference photos. He started by blocking in the composition with vine charcoal to establish proportions, darks, lights, and the overall tone and emotion of the piece. “Tone is high on my list of ‘to dos’ when starting a drawing,” Knight says. “I like to try to establish a certain emotion during the block-in stage. If I can establish the overall tone early, then it gives me high hopes for the outcome of the piece.”

After the initial composition was established, he did a wipe out of the drawing to tone the paper and leave a faint structural drawing from which to work. For 11 Weeks, the artist tried a new technique after observing Annie Murphy’s work on Instagram. “I’m not very experienced with this technique,” he says, “but you essentially draw with sandpaper. It’s similar to using a blending stump or paper towel, yet on a whole different level.”

After the block-in and wipe down, Knight started rendering the head with compressed charcoal. He placed the eyes, nose, and mouth in relationship to one another and the surrounding structure. He used the sight-size method of measurement to confirm the placement felt correct and then began working on the eyes, moving outward from there. He held out on any real details until he had the majority rendered to the same level. This allowed him to make sure the focal points remained dominant and the support characters didn’t take over. Throughout the process, he focused on the subtle changes of light and edges that fascinate him. Nguyen commented on this aspect specifically, calling it “an outstanding drawing with a beautiful ‘chiaroscuro’ technique. It reminds me of Caravaggio’s technique of using light and shadow.”

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That moment between the block-in and the details is Knight’s favorite part of the process. “It’s that ah-ha moment when things start to come together—before the overthinking and doubt creeps in,” he says.

Creative Journey

Knight has always been drawn to portraits and figurative work. “My subject matter typically evolves around my everyday life,” he says. “I’m fascinated by relationships and the idea of everything being connected—from the artist to the sitter, and from sitter to viewer.” The connection of the lights to the darks, the subtle edges, atmosphere, emotion, composition, and placement are what hold the artist’s attention.

Mfa strokes of genius
Left: But a Dream (charcoal on paper, 14×11); right: Rodrigo (charcoal and chalk on toned paper, 13×9)

Knight began truly investing in his portrait work in high school when he and his art teacher organized a business doing com-missions for faculty in order to buy materials for the art department. The venture really boosted his confidence. “Knowing that people wanted my work and were willing to pay for it—just the idea that I could get paid to do something I have a real passion for—gave me the drive to pursue art at a higher level,” he says.

Mfa strokes of genius
Left: Isabella (charcoal and chalk on toned paper, 13×9); right: Still (charcoal on paper, 14×11)

Since then, Knight has honed his method and process. He keeps the creeping doubts at bay with hard work and attention to detail. “I’ve noticed that the more time I devote to just creating—no matter what it is, big or small—I feel a tremendous growth in skill and inspiration,” he says. The artist finds that he also benefits from working in a variety of disciplines—drawing, painting, and even sculpture. “As I jump from medium to medium, depending on the subject, I notice how one medium informs and improves another.”

About the Artist

Mfa strokes of genius

Joshua Knight is a teaching associate in the Department of Visual Arts at Coastal Carolina University, and Benedict College, in South Carolina. He earned his M.F.A. from the University of South Carolina in 2018 and his B.A. from Coastal Carolina University in 2014. In his personal artistic expression, the Cherokee artist turns to portraiture and figural subjects as a means to explore and share his personal life and experiences. He works in a wide range of media, both two- and three-dimensional, with concentrations in drawing, painting, ceramics, and sculpture.

Rebecca Dvorak, of New York City, works in publishing and is a contributing writer to Artists Magazine.

Second Place Winner: Bly Pope

An artist turns portraits of loved ones into masterpieces of familial affection.

By Jenn Rein

Mfa strokes of genius
My Father, Tom Pope (pencil on paper, 37×25)

“Regarding technique,” says juror of awards Cuong Nguyen, “it’s clear that the artist has good drawing skills, and his knowledge about value is excellent,” but Bly Pope’s second-place-winning drawing My Father, Tom Pope, grabbed Nguyen’s attention on a deeper level as well. “I love the way the artist portrays his father, with the eyes staring straight at the viewer,” he says. “When I look at this piece, I can’t help but feel curious about what was on the subject’s mind. I admire the beautiful details as well as the patience the artist had to have to create them. Most of all, the emotion of this drawing wins my heart, and that’s why I chose it as one of the top three.”

Pope’s intent behind the photorealistic portrait was anchored in the intelligence behind his father’s eyes. “He’s a professor who just retired,” Pope says. “He taught Shakespeare and film, and great directors like Hitchcock and Kubrick. He was actually a screenwriter for more than 25 years in Hollywood before he became a teacher. He’s very sharp and observant, and I wanted the drawing to convey this through his lively, bright eyes.”

The artist finds himself hard at work trying to document those people in his life who are close to his heart. “I’m in this ‘masterpiece’ mindset,” he says. “When I’m not doing commissions, I want to spend a year or two (or more) on creating lasting mementos of the people I love.” This latest piece depicting his father’s intense, wise eyes is part of a family of works that include portraits of Pope’s mother and grandmother. “When I’m creating,” he says, “I’m remembering these moments in my life. That contributes to the quality of the piece—it’s almost a meditative process.”

As a finalist in the Smithsonian’s triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, in 2013, with his grandmother’s portrait, Maryanna, Pope’s contribution to photorealism within the parameters of these works is nothing but personal.

Mfa strokes of genius
Maryanna (graphite and ink on illustration board, 38×31)

Tailoring Technique

Pope uses a single reference photo to create his photorealistic pieces and does so with a grid system that has been tailored to his own unique perception and ability to “see” the finished drawing throughout the creation process. “I print off the image in the actual size I want the drawing to be, then cut it up into rectangles,” he says. To create My Father, Tom Pope, for example, the artist carved out 20 rectangles. He then layers sections of the photo on top of the drawing, flipping up a section of photo as he works on the drawing beneath. (To see a video of this process, visit Minneapolis Institute of Art’s YouTube channel.)

Pope adapts to the manner in which his brain processes data by modifying the traditional grid technique, as used by photorealists such as Chuck Close. “I’m envisioning the after-image in my mind as I’m drawing on the paper,” he says. “That allows me to translate the photographic information as accurately and truthfully as I can. I want to be faithful to the photo.” Pope takes hundreds of photographs of his subject, selecting the image that he feels most authentically reflects the person’s spirit.

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The artist’s tools include mechanical pencils, mechanical eraser sticks, micron pens, and Q-tips. “It sounds like a weird choice, but a Q-tip really serves to soften the marks that create the scaffolding that’s the underlayer,” he says. Pope’s use of value, which was clearly admired by the juror, starts with addressing the darkest darks and the lightest of lights. He describes the direction to which the values led him in this particular drawing, “From the top left of his forehead down to the bottom right of his chin,” says the artist.

Structure vs. Fluidity

Pope is drawn to photorealism because he loves the approach—in all its structured methodology, but he also believes that artists shouldn’t limit themselves to a single genre. “I taught myself how to use oils because a client wanted a series of sea-birds,” Pope says. “I think, as an artist, you have to continue to adapt—and a broader skillset simply makes you more adaptable.”

Mfa strokes of genius
Freya Manfred (graphite on illustration board, 8×31)

When viewing the work he has accomplished in oil, one can easily see Pope’s ability to depict nature with a deep sense of accuracy in light and shadow. But there’s also an open, gestural style to his oil paintings that seems to contradict the structure that’s needed for the work he accomplishes in pencil. “I like the meticulous detail of the pencil drawings,” Pope says, “but that work is far less loose and expressive than the kind of work I was doing back in college. The oil brings out that expressiveness.”

Mfa strokes of genius
Farm Field (graphite on paper, 10×8)

In his role as an art instructor, Pope finds that the energy and enthusiasm his students impart feeds his own sense of discovery. It will be something to see the evolution of his work as he continues to explore oil while at the same time pursuing his explorations of photorealism. “It’s important for your own mindset to know how to grow while creating,” he says. “The world doesn’t live in black and white; it’s all color. You have to know how to create that world, too. Every piece of art teaches you something.”

Mfa strokes of genius
Amos (graphite on paper, 14×11)

About the Artist

Mfa strokes of genius

Bly Pope graduated from Stanford University and received his M.F.A. at the University of Minnesota, where he has been an adjunct professor for more than ten years. He’s also been an adjunct professor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design for the last seven years. The artist’s work has appeared in numerous exhibitions and received several awards. His drawing, Maryanna, was selected to be a part of the National Portrait Competition Exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery from 2013–2014 and was purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Art for their permanent collection in 2017. His work has been a part of exhibitions at the Heuser Art Gallery, in Peoria, Illinois; Larson Gallery, in St. Paul, Minnesota; and the People’s Gallery, the American Swedish Institute, and Katherine Nash Gallery, all in Minneapolis. Pope’s artwork is also part of public collections at The Cafesjian Museum of Fine Art, in Armenia, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in Minneapolis.

Jenn Rein is a writer and digital content producer living in Northern Colorado.

Third Place Winner: Denise Howard

An artist uses realism as a tool to bring metaphorical meaning to her work.

By Ruth Rodgers

Mfa strokes of genius
Tree of Witness (colored pencil on paper, 20×15)

Denise Howard loves going fast. She used to race motorcycles competitively on her days off from her job as a software engineer. When it comes to her art, however, she slows right down to savor every detail. Her third-place prizewinning drawing, Tree of Witness, is one in her ongoing series of detailed portraits of trees—and Howard doesn’t expect to run out of subjects any time soon. It was the gnarled intricacy of the ancient Osage Orange in New York City’s Central Park that caught her eye. “Trees embody their life experiences in their shape, bark, knots, holes, and branches,” Howard says. “Imagine a lifetime of standing in silent witness to the full spectrum of human behavior—from delightful to monstrous. What would it do to a human? What would it do to a tree?”

Howard’s goals as an artist stem from her rural upbringing in Missouri. “There are a couple of recurring themes in my work,” she says. “One is to give voice to nature; to connect people emotionally and inspire an interest in caring about the environment. The other is the discovery of visual metaphors for the relationship between humans and nature. There’s often a crossover between these two themes.” The artist’s tree portraits are examples of both messages. In their searching roots, stretching limbs, and shedding bark, we can see ourselves striving for stability, achievement, renewal, and, perhaps, be reassured by the persistence of trees in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

Establishing a Roadmap

Tree of Witness was created with a competition in mind. “I needed to create something that was technically challenging and had something to say,” says Howard, “and this tree has a lot to say.” Immediately, however, she ran into a roadblock. “Normally, I complete the background of a drawing first because it establishes the environment,” she says. “I didn’t like the background in any of my reference photos and I had no ideas for a worthy replacement, but I needed to get started.” So start she did, drawing the tree on her favorite sturdy Stonehenge paper and beginning to render its intricate detail.

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“I established very basic outlines, then placed the darkest dark areas,” says Howard. “They became landmarks to prevent me from getting lost. I lightly blocked in the overall base tree colors with Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle watercolor pencils and water to reduce the appearance of speckles of paper peeking through later. I used value finders (small holes punched in cards) to ensure I was on target. It was divide and conquer, one section at a time.” As the work progressed, Howard altered her perspective, developing the bottom and right side of the work first, then flipping the drawing and reference photo upside-down to develop the top and left. This way, there was no risk of smudging the paper. “You might think that flipping everything would make it harder,” she says, “but drawing is all about seeing shapes, colors, and textures rather than relying on the shorthand symbols your brain creates for familiar objects.”

Staying the Course

After about 60 hours of work, Howard finally tackled that problematic background. As often happens with artists, the solution presented itself in her sleep. In the morning, the choice was clear: a sky that evokes a past or pending turmoil as well as some hope, yet doesn’t speak louder than the tree.

The background took nearly as long to complete as the tree, due to the need for many smooth layers of color. “It’s funny,” Howard muses, “there are certain colors in any set that, when you first look at them, you think, ‘When would I ever use this odd color?’ Then one day you discover that odd color is just perfect for one area, and then another, and another … and you end up using it more than any of the more basic colors.”

For this project, those colors turned out to be violet gray and olive earth. Violet gray was important in both the tree and the sky areas. Olive earth was important in the tree and the grass areas. Altogether, Howard used 34 colors in Tree of Witness. About 20 of those colors were used for the tree alone. “I used only Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast pencils,” she says, “because they’re both professional-quality lightfast pencils, and I wanted to see how well they worked together. The answer to that is: great!”

Juror of awards Cuong Nguyen praised Howard’s choices. “I love how the artist plays with color here. Warm colors interact with cool colors, and a diversity of colored strokes merge together to create a beautiful work of art. I love the trees in the foreground with their texture and detail, and the softness of the background seems to push the trees closer to the viewer. The 3D effect works very well here. This is one of the most spectacular colored pencil drawings I’ve seen in quite some time.”

Mfa strokes of genius
California Poppy Quartet (colored pencil on paper, 18×9)

Intersecting Careers

This artist speaks of as having two careers at once: software engineer and fine artist. She encourages aspiring artists to see their artistic work as another career on the side rather than a hobby, emphasizing that you can do more than one career simultaneously. Howard sees her two fields as requiring some of the same characteristics, but as fundamentally different in their goals. “Both software engineering and art-making require problem-solving, improvising, testing, redoing, and long hours of solitary concentration,” she says. “They both require self-motivation and discipline, but software engineering is entirely logical and rational and aims to produce something to help others in some way, while art is personal and emotional—a drive from within that seeks only to satisfy its creator.”

Mfa strokes of genius
Tree of Kintsugi (colored pencil on paper, 20×15)

Some are surprised that this computer specialist doesn’t explore digital art, but Howard is indifferent to it. “I already spend too many hours sitting at a computer screen,” she says. “I love the tactile nature of traditional art materials and the satisfaction of making something that will outlive me.

Almost all software is obsolete within five years, but art lives indefinitely.”

Mfa strokes of genius
The Persistence of Paint (colored pencil on paper, 12×16)

About the Artist

Mfa strokes of genius

Denise Howard grew up on a farm in Missouri surrounded by animals and nature. As soon as she could hold a pencil she started drawing everything, and her world revolved around her art until she finished college and focused on a career in software engineering and computer graphics. She worked for several Silicon Valley companies, was one of the developers of iPhoto at Apple, and earned movie credits on Antz and Shrek at PDI/Dreamworks.

After more than 25 years, the urge to return to her art became too strong to ignore. Howard began committing the time to pursue it as a second career and quickly began receiving local and international recognition for her work. She’s a Signature Member of the Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) and the UK Colored Pencil Society and has Master Pencil Artist Status with the Pencil Art Society. Howard is also the National Marketing Director of the CPSA.

She lives in Santa Clara, California, with her husband, an Abyssinian cat, and a garden full of native plants and hummingbirds.

Mfa strokes of genius
The Last Monarch (colored pencil on Pastelmat, 16×12)

Ruth Rodgers paints in oil and pastel and enjoys writing about art and artists from her home in British Columbia, Canada.

Mfa strokes of genius

Check out The Best of Drawing, our special issue devoted to the 112 outstanding works of art from the 13th Strokes of Genius drawing competition, sponsored by Savoir-Faire.



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