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Penney's new book is based on her old "dirty" sketchbooks (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)
Penney’s new book is based on her old “dirty” sketchbooks
(Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Artistic memoir or how-to-book? It would appear that “My Dirty Sketchbooks: Used and abused for the love of art” is a bit of both, according to its author, North Fork artist Jacqueline Penney.

The idea for the book, Ms. Penney said, arose when a friend brought some family members to see her studio and they were fascinated by her old sketchbooks.

“I looked at all of them and thought about when I did this sketch, how I still have the picture of that painting — what a great book!” Ms. Penney said. “As soon as I said that, what went through my mind was my dirty sketchbooks. They’ve been used and abused for the love of art. That was it and I was determined that was going to be the name,” she said.

Ms. Penney is an award-winning artist and writer best known for her pastoral scenes and seascapes. The recipient of a scholarship to the Phoenix School of Design in New York City, she has studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and The Institute of Design in Chicago.

Ms. Penney paints mostly with acrylics, but she’s also worked with watercolors and oils. Besides painting and writing, she has taught various art classes over the years. Now 85, she only takes on the occasional student in her sunny Cutchogue studio.

The author of three books about learning to paint, Ms. Penney has also co-authored a book on meditation and penned the memoir “Me Painting Me.” Her latest,  “My Dirty Sketchbooks,” is a collection of the personal sketches, photographs and paintings she has drawn inspiration from over the years.

“It starts out about my sketchbooks and how they look next to the finished painting,” she said. “Most people don’t realize how a painting is done. If you’re a well-trained artist, this is what you do.”

Penney's original sketch of a New Suffolk house that inspired her painting "New Suffolk Laundry"
Penney’s original sketch of a New Suffolk house that inspired her painting “New Suffolk Laundry”

Ms. Penney has no qualms admitting that she’s publishing the book herself. 

“I did this myself; I’ll never make any money on it,” she said. “The publishers weren’t interested and I can understand why. There’s so much in there.”

“My Dirty Sketchbooks” contains more than old sketches and photos. It’s also a collection of the artist’s thoughts, musings and ideas, demonstrating how a sketch becomes a painting.

Ms. Penney draws and writes about the people, places and things that inspire her. One of those inspirations is New Suffolk.

“I love that road that goes to New Suffolk and then if you take another road, it will take you back to Mattituck and it’s along the water,” she said.

Sometimes the most mundane things attract Ms. Penney’s interest. One sketch in her book depicts a New Suffolk house with laundry hanging outside. Ms. Penney sketched and painted it during a workshop about learning how to see more and be more daring by exploring other styles. 

Penney's finished painting "New Suffolk Laundry"
Penney’s finished painting “New Suffolk Laundry”

Learning how to see is very important to Ms. Penney, who insists it’s an imperative skill for artists. 

“While I’m doing the book, in walks a mother with her child who says, ‘My daughter wants to be an artist,’ ” she said, describing a recent meeting with a potential student. “I said to the daughter, ‘Come with me to the window; what do you see?’ She said she saw a window. ‘No,’ I said, ‘on the other side.’ ‘I see a tree,’ ” the girl said.

When Ms. Penney asked what else the girl saw, she said she didn’t understand.

“So I said, ‘Let me help you. There’s a tree. It has branches, and through the branches, you can see the road. Did you look across the street? There’s green grass and little yellow flowers and beyond that you can see the trees across the street.’ All you have to do is keep looking and learn how to see.”

Ms. Penney is still amazed at the world she sees outside her window.

“I look everywhere,” she said. “I look at people’s faces. I have a lousy memory because I’m 85, but I look at people’s faces and I can almost tell right away if I’m going to like a person.”

Ms. Penney has refused to let age slow her down, discussing how a recent book deal with Michaels craft stores will put one of her painting books into every store. She’s also in talks with a production company about giving them permission to use one of her paintings in an upcoming film. 

“I’ll be anything but normal because that’s who I am. If you can’t shock people into understanding something then you’re not a very good teacher,” she said. “I’m an artist first, but I want people to learn, to learn how to see. The whole thing is about learning and seeing and that’s what this book is about.”

Ms. Penney will sign copies of “My Dirty Sketchbooks” at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library

Jacqueline Penney in her Cutchogue studio (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)
Jacqueline Penney in her Cutchogue studio
(Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

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