Nancy Charles Shares a Real Love for Animals

May 29, 2017

Paper is the common denominator between the two Hub artists exhibiting their “Works on Paper” at The Hub on Canal’s Mackay Gallery, June 3-26. One artist, Nancy Charles, is self-taught and uses a layering technique to create colored pencil sketches from her own photographs; the other, Betty Morris Parker, is formally trained and leans toward abstract expressionism through collage.

“I’m not trained in art; I’m trained in animals,” said Charles, during a “Talk Art” event last May that drew a dozen enthusiasts and fellow Hub artists. “That’s my true love and that’s where I come from.” Charles joked she was also not formally trained to be a zookeeper, but a falconer’s license afforded her a lifetime opportunity.

Being an Orangutan Mom

The room erupted into one simultaneous “awww” when Charles flashed the crowd a picture of herself and a baby Orangutan named Enda. From selling Memphis Zoo memberships, to doing outreach with birds of prey, Charles, who as a child dreamed of living in a house with a chimpanzee, “jumped at the chance” to hand raise Enda.

Nancy Charles described the life-changing opportunity of hand-raising an orangutan named Enda.

Finding Inspiration

While most of the animals represented in Charles’ work are from the Memphis Zoo, she always had a love for birds – the great Blue Heron being a favorite subject. The highest compliment to Charles is when fellow zookeepers would recognize in Charles’ art the particular animals they tended to.

For local inspiration, Charles recommends Black Point Wildlife Drive. A seven mile one-way road on Merritt Island, she said the changing water levels create different feeding places for egrets, herons and ducks. “It’s just awesome. Finding that place has been amazing for me. There are all these snowy egrets sitting on the mangroves with these dark really cool colors. It’s really striking.”

Charles is literally branching out and challenging herself by sketching trees and water, and is working toward adding a snowy egret to the June exhibition.

Tools and Technique

About Arches Hot Press Watercolor Paper, Charles says “When I found this paper, my work just took off.” She also uses Prismacolor colored pencils, kneaded erasers to take off top layers if necessary and a #16 X-ACTO blade to pull out highlights and whiskers, and to clean up edges. She’s a “purist” and uses no solvents.

Almost every piece starts with an underdrawing in a 10% warm grey. Backgrounds include many layers and the colors she uses most are warm greys, French greys, blue-greens, and muted lavender. She’s particularly loving a jasmine-colored pencil these days.

“Once I work out my sketch, I never sketch on the actual paper. I get my sketch worked out on vellum then I transfer it with graphite paper.” She drew a lot of laughter telling the group if she were to demo her technique it would be similar to watching grass grow.

The last layer is burnished by hand using extra pressure. She likes the fact that it’s a very flexible medium that can be picked up and put down, and that it’s “pretty indestructible” due to all the layers.

On Failure and Imperfections

“Imperfections makes us who we are and it makes the animals who they are,” said Charles. “I don’t want to change them. I think they are beautiful the way they are. That’s how I work. I draw what I see. I want to draw that creature in all its glory.”

Charles shared an image of an owl she deemed a “failure” which prompted someone to ask, “Do you always have a failure or is it random?”

“It’s real random,” said Charles, “and it happens more and more when you challenge yourself. Before when I had a failure, I would just tear it in half. Now I put it away then get it back out and say, ‘Maybe there’s something I can do with this.’ It’s a learning process; it’s like self-training. If you’re not being taught by someone else to not make mistakes then you have to learn from your own.”

On Being a Non-Joiner and Joining the Hub

“As artists we evolve,” said Charles. “I’m not a big joiner; I’ve always been kind of a loner. I”m much happier hanging out with my animals.”

Charles said joining the Hub has been amazing. “Everyone is so welcoming and nurturing; I feel like I’ve found a second home.”

Nancy demonstrates her sketching technique to a Talk Art attendee.

Written by Tonya West, Hub volunteer