The 10 Things I Can’t Live Without in My Studio

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Messy watercolor palette with many colors

Like many other artists I know, I have an unhealthy obsession with art materials.  I’ve tried just about everything over the years, but not all paints and pencils and paper are created equal.  Here’s a rundown of my top 10 favorite items that I make sure to keep on hand in my studio space.  Many of these items have been recommended by other artists I know, so I hope my suggestions will inspire you to try something new. 

Arches watercolor paper block from Amazon
I can’t function without a pad of Arches 140 pound hot press paper in my desk.  I prefer hot press paper as it scans much smoother than a more textured cold press and details are much easier to get just right on a smoother surface.  I scan all my work to edit and then add elements digitally, so a paper that scans well is an absolute must. 
porcelain paint palette with 7 wells
One of the best tools in my arsenal is a small porcelain palette with seven wells.  I’m the kind of gal that doesn’t like my food to touch and that goes double for my watercolors.  I love that you can add as much water as you need for a wash and there are plenty of wells for a full range of colors.  

daylight combo desk lamp by amazon
For the last two years I’ve been on the hunt for a great desk lamp for my studio.  I’ve tried so many different options and have read hundreds of reviews online trying to find the perfect solution.  It wasn’t until Katie Rodgers posted about her Daylight Combo lamp purchase that I ended my search.  It’s BRIGHT, lights a large work area and offers two light sources so you can customize your light source for the situation.
watercolor scrubber brushes
Watercolor is notoriously unforgiving but it doesn’t have to be.  I have a few tricks that I use to make small corrections to my paintings when small mistakes occur.  Scrubber brushes are one of them!  A delicate scrub with one of these brushes and you can pick color up right off the paper.  

winsor and newton india ink
I love how dark and opaque you can get your blacks with this india ink.  I have a few black watercolor tubes but none come close to the true black of India ink.

daniel smith extra fine watercolors
Daniel Smith is hands down my favorite brand of watercolor.  I love the way each color they produce is so individual.  They have a number of colors that have a separating effect as they dry which is so stunning in a finished painting.  This pack of primaries are the perfect introduction to tube paints and can yield every color when mixed.  

travel watercolor palette
This last year I had my first live travel event and had to lug around all my supplies which was such a struggle.  My paints live in a huge metal palette that is less than convenient for throwing in a tote and keeping everything in place.  I purchased this travel palette that completely folds up and seals for travel.  Highly recommended for any traveling artist. 

Epson Perfection V370 Scanner for watercolor
Those who scan their watercolors know the struggle of getting the scan to look the same as the original.  During my very first watercolor commission, I realized the scanner I was using had been washing out the lightest values, making the end product look unprofessional.  I bought an Epson Perfection and have never had an issue since.  THE scanner for scanning artwork. 

Prismacolor ebony graphite pencil from amazon
My paintings always start with a detailed drawing and I have been using these Ebony graphite pencils from Prismacolor since I was in high school.  You can get such a great range of values from this one pencil, including perfect black.

Tombow Mono Zero eraser for erasing details
This eraser changed my life, however dramatic that sounds.  Erasing with precision is so easy with this guy!

I have compiled a full list of all my favorite supplies that you can find on my Amazon Influencer page as well as the new Toolbox section on my website.  Happy shopping!

Black Orchid: When Women Empower Women

Friday, March 16, 2018

Rihanna illustration for women's day collaboration by Kei Meguro, Alex Saba and Dena Cooper

Over the last few years I’ve had so many amazing opportunities come my way through Instagram.  By far the best has been the community of artists and illustrators I’ve connected with, many of which I’m lucky enough to call my friends.  Alex Saba of Lusid Art is one of those artists who has provided me with endless support, advice, laughs and all around positive vibes over the last year.  This last month she put me in contact with one of my all time biggest girl crushes and creative favorites, Kei Meguro.  Kei turned out to be absolutely lovely and incredibly humble about her amazing talent and gigantic following.  I was shocked and head over heels when Kei asked Alex and I to join her in a collaboration for International Women’s Day.  I couldn’t believe that I’d be working with one of my heroes to create artwork for a cause so close to my heart.

Rihanna illustration for women's day collaboration by Kei Meguro, Alex Saba and Dena Cooper

I had never collaborated with other artists on one piece and was definitely interested in how the process would unfold.  For three artists throwing around ideas, it was an incredibly smooth process.  There was a lot of trust in our collaborative strength that helped each of us shine where we needed to.  To say the experience was seamless would be a serious understatement.  We decided that the best way to move forward with a final piece would be to each illustrate our inspiration image in our different styles and combine them together as one.  

We were all inspired by strong women and quickly settled on Rihanna for her feminine ingenuity and philanthropic spirit.  In our final work her hat is a nod to the pink pussy hat from the 2017 Women’s March and the black orchids imitate the delicate forms of female anatomy.  The light pink background gives the piece a soft feminine touch and ties into the mauve-y purples in the flowers and makeup details.  We wanted Black Orchid to be a reminder of what is possible when women come together to support each other instead of tearing each other down with constant comparison and competition.

Rihanna illustration for women's day collaboration by Kei Meguro, Alex Saba and Dena Cooper

The three of us had such a fantastic experience sharing ideas and coming together as one that we didn’t want the positivity to end there.  We decided to release the artwork as a limited edition print with 100% of the proceeds donated to Womankind, a women’s charity based in New York City.  At the end of April we also hope to donate a print of Black Orchid to a special Denim Day auction supporting women who have been raped or sexually assaulted.  

For the rest of the month of March, 11x14 archival quality prints of Black Orchid will be sold in my shop.  Please join us in supporting women to overcome gender-based violence by purchasing one of our prints and donating to the cause.

A huge thank you to Alex and Kei who are both such talented and driven women that I am proud to call friends.

e.l.f. x Christian Siriano Runway Capsule Collection Event

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Christian Siriano and elf collaboration with Dena Cooper

The first time I heard of Christian Siriano was on Project Runway in 2008.  I had just started a rigorous college curriculum for fashion design and to say that Project Runway was a beacon of light and inspiration for many of the students in my class would be a serious understatement.  It’s hard to know what your life will be like after school, especially as a design student.  There was always a nagging fear in the back on my head that my goals were a little high-reaching and that too much luck was involved for me to make progress in the fashion industry.  Reality shows like Project Runway really helped fuel a fantasy that it could happen for anyone that was hardworking and talented enough.  
christian siriano and elf cosmetics collaboration with Dena Cooper

I was obviously over the moon when I was contacted to collaborate with Christian for his e.l.f. x Christian Siriano capsule collection event.  Christian illustrated a custom face palette for e.l.f. which were printed on large canvases and I was assigned to create beauty looks with pastels based on the capsule collection eyeshadow palette using his drawing as the template.

The event served as a preview for beauty editors and industry professionals.  Makeup artists took time to introduce guests to the new products while tropical smoothies were served at the bar.  The space was decked with gorgeous florals in bright pops of pink and green mimicking the Christian Siriano SS18 collection and pieces from the collection were scattered for guests to admire.

Christian Siriano and elf cosmetics collaboration with Dena Cooper

The main course for the event was a fun creative activity lead by yours truly.  We used pan pastels to explore looks that could be created from the eyeshadow palette and to inspire creativity while exploring different color combinations and techniques with the idea that the face is the ultimate canvas.  The event was a blast and an amazing learning experience for me as I had never used pan pastels before.  

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the collaboration is the shared value of inclusivity and luxury for all that both e.l.f. and Christian Siriano represent.  Last September was a huge turning point in American fashion when several high profile designers casted models of all sizes, age and color, something completely unheard of in the past.  I am overjoyed to see fashion moving in a more body positive light and Christian was definitely at the helm of this movement with his amazing show of inclusivity for his SS18 runway show.   

Christian Siriano and elf cosmetics collaboration with Dena Cooper

Meeting Christian was a powerful reminder for me of how far I’ve come since watching him on Project Runway from my dorm room.  I can’t describe the feeling of meeting someone that serves as such an inspiration during your most uncertain times of self-doubt.  Christian was so much fun to talk to and laugh with and I will forever cherish the experience. 

The product assortment includes an eyeshadow palette, liquid matte lipstick, and tinted lip oil.  The collection will debut at Christian Siriano’s FW18 show and be available for purchase at e.l.f. Cosmetics stores and online on February 10th, at on February 25th and in select Target stores on March 11th.

Behind the Scenes of my Illustrated Silk Scarf

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

floral silk scarf illustrated by Dena Cooper

I love a good scarf.  After my recent fight with Hashimoto’s Disease, I came out the loser weighing several more pounds and tragically had to (temporarily) bid adieu to many of my closet favorites.  HOWEVER, a girl can still accessorize and this might be what’s saved my sanity for the past few years while I’m working through my health issues.  Bags, scarves and shoes are very much still in the mix and it’s through key accessories that I’ve been able to keep my fashion-dignity intact. 

It was one night scrolling for the perfect scarf that I came across the idea to make one of my own using my illustrations as the print.  I thought about what the perfect scarf might look like and the colors I wanted to include and the Noir Scarf was born.  I started with a skull and floral concept inspired by my Grandmother’s flower bushes in her back yard.  She had so many flowers in just the right shades including a rose bush that she was particularly proud of.  I wanted to capture the femininity of her floral palette as well as something to give it a little edge which reminded me of my all time favorite Alexander McQueen scarf that I wear again and again.  

Dena Cooper's grandma and her favorite rose bush

So, I painted every species of flower known to man (almost) and a respectable skull and got to work arranging them in what I thought to be the scarf of a generation.  As soon as my artwork was ready, I set out to find a factory that printed scarves on 100% silk.  I have a lot of experience communicating with factories overseas from my humble beginnings as a womenswear designer, so choosing a factory out of the country was an option I was open to.  I finally landed a contact at a great silk factory in China and started the long laborious project of back-and-forth emails and missed connections with my factory rep.

50 emails and a month later, I received a package with my first prototype and I was pumped to say the least.  After ripping the package into shreds and holding up my prize, I was less than impressed.  The silk was beautiful, the hems expertly sewn but my artwork looked drab and I knew I had to re-design.  There weren’t nearly enough flowers and the artwork was so big that when wearing the scarf, the skull looked like a weird gross mushroom in the middle.  Needless to say that would not do.  

Design before and after for illustrated scarf by Dena Cooper

50 more emails and another month later and I finally had the second package.  I was almost afraid to open it for fear of this project never coming to an end, but this time my vision had finally come to fruition and I was very happy with the finished product.  I placed my order for a big batch and called my photographer, Michi Rezin to do a mini photoshoot of the scarf in action.

Michi might be a genius.  I absolutely love working with her and have never seen a photographer so able to capture a client’s exact thoughts with a camera.  We rented an adorable vintage loft in Manhattan for two hours for our shoot and my friend, Chel, (from Chel Loves Wine) came to model for me.  I wanted the scarf to look like it was floating through the air, which turns out is nearly impossible to do.  With my husband, Zac, and Michi’s assistant both teetering on ladders, and dropping it on the count of three (on three, not after) Michi captured exactly what I was looking for.  

Behind the scenes of scarf photoshoot for Dena Cooper's silk scarf

I had so much fun working on my scarf and seeing one of my dreams come to life through a lot of work and little razzle dazzle.  Today the scarf goes live on my new site!  AND as a gift to all of you who stuck around till the end of this post, below is a free phone wallpaper download with my skull and floral artwork.  All you have to do is click the link, which will take you to Dropbox, click the three dots at the top right, and then download.  I hope you enjoy!

Why I Closed My Etsy Shop

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The reason why I closed my Etsy shop for fashion illustration

Since I was just a kid I’ve always had a very strong entrepreneurial spirit.  I can’t even count on both hands my various schemes to make money before I was of legal age to work: like a true young capitalist I was hungry for my next dollar.  I once made a deal with my parents that I would be paid 5 cents for every cigarette butt I picked up from their construction site (no shame in this game). 

This ambitious character followed me through college and beyond.  I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing in 2011 when I heard about Etsy for the first time - within months my first shop was open for business and I was ready to cash in!  As a fashion design student, my first shop was a way for me to sell the things I was sewing in my free time and make a little cash on the side: win/win.  

Etsy was a different creature in those days - wide eyed and innocent.  Being featured on the front page could send your shop into a viral frenzy: a veritable wealth of Etsy fame and fortune.  There was a sense of community between customer and creator.  Treasuries were a creative way to group your favorite complimentary products for others to explore and it all served as a great way to promote hand-made products within the Etsy community.

As time has passed, Etsy has implemented many changes: new layouts, new algorithms, custom website options, and the latest: “Etsy Payments”.  Many of these changes have served to upset sellers in the Etsy community as with any forced changes on a social platform but in the end, people adapt and become accustomed to a new way of doing things.  That is, until Etsy crossed a line last spring, force closing shops that did not comply with their new “Etsy Payments” interface.

“Etsy Payments” is a way for Etsy to run payments into a stand-alone account controlled by Etsy themselves.  Many sellers prefer Paypal, as money from sales are directly deposited into the seller’s account, avoiding any third party handling their money and any wait time to transfer funds from one account to another.  Many sellers rely on this automatic payment to pay for materials used for any commissioned products.  

Etsy describes “Etsy Payments” as “a simplified way to receive payments" and states that "you can get paid daily, weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Request additional deposits anytime.”  However, my experience with the platform was much different.  My account was automatically suspended when I did not opt into “Etsy Payments” in May.  Once I connected a bank account to my shop, sales began depositing into my "Etsy Payments" account and I was not able to transfer those funds automatically.  Last month, a rather large sale was tied up in that third-party account for two weeks - I was told I needed to add a credit card to my account in order to access those funds.  My question is: WHY?  Call me old fashioned but why does Etsy need every shred of my financial information to deposit money that is already mine?

Etsy’s new payment program will serve to increase their revenue by capitalizing on payment processing fees that Paypal would have charged on those sales. They have stated that they will be phasing out Paypal completely within the next few months.  Apparently I’m not the only one who finds this upsetting.  Etsy reportedly lost tens of thousands of sellers within a few days following this transition, not counting accounts that were suspended from non-compliance.

The most upsetting problem about Etsy taking full control over payments through their site is their lack of customer care - they don’t offer even a fraction of Paypal’s reliability and over-the-phone customer service.   Currently the only way to reach out to Etsy’s customer service is through email which is notorious for going unanswered; a worrisome matter when finances are involved.  

All of these issues (and more) have weighed on my soul for the last few weeks and I have decided to take matters into my own hands.  My work is far too valuable to sit on a site where I have such little influence on how sales are made.  It feels refreshing to have opened a shop on my own site that I have full financial and creative control over.  I am now focusing my attention on my own marketplace where listings are free and no fees are collected based on my sales and earnings.  Free at at last...

Fashion Week Fun Times: Spring 2018

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fashion illustration of New York Fashion Week spring 2018 by Dena Cooper
Going to fashion week is always invigorating at the beginning and exhausting by the end, but it’s a small price to pay for a week packed full of inspiration, networking and (most important) FA-SHUN! I had my first live-sketching event at a show, sketched backstage and met a few of my favorite designers, so the week was a definite success. I share an illustration from each show with the designer and their PR team as a thank you for their invitation. Below are a few of my favorite looks illustrated and combined with some stand-out trends that I saw on the runway.

Fashion illustration for Vivienne Tam at fashion week by Dena Cooper

The central motif of Vivienne Tam’s Spring 2018 show was the Chinese animated film, Monster Hunt. Tiny whimsical characters from the movie were printed, repeated, draped and embroidered into the fabric of the line (literally). Soft pink and baby blue prints were paired with structured khaki and denim outerwear to create conventional layers. Slogan tees, fanny packs and layered patches gave the show a playful vibe. Tam emerged at the end of the show with a giant dancing Wuba, the main character of Monster Hunt, and a huge smile as they made their way up and down the runway.

Fashion illustration for Leanne Marshall at fashion week by Dena Cooper

I always look forward to Leanne Marshall’s shows - she never fails to drop jaws with her gorgeous fluid gowns. Her Spring 2018 show was a veritable wealth of color and silhouette. Short structured pieces accompanied her signature flowing dresses in a color palette that was reminiscent of a Hawaiian sunset. Diamond cutouts and artistic prints with a striped edging detail were some fresh and unexpected details in this season’s show. I ended up sitting front-row next to Miss USA and Miss Universe, who were absolutely stunning in person and so much fun to chat with before the show.

Fashion illustration for Tadashi Shoji at fashion week by Dena Cooper
Tadashi Shoji’s Spring 2018 show had a definite bohemian California edge. Pieces ranged from easy day time frocks embroidered with beautiful pink roses and greenery to elegant gowns that glistened with astrological motifs for night. Cropped tops and off the shoulder dresses gave an easy feel to sophisticated ensembles. Embroidery, stripes and tassels combined in bright hues to grace a multitude of silhouettes, while delicate lace was pleated and layered to create a softer side of the collection.

Fashion illustration for Lela Rose at fashion week by Dena Cooper

This season I had my first-ever live-drawing event with Lela Rose which was a brilliant cocktail of anxiety and triumph. My illustration style is a long drawn out process of pencil drawings and watercolor that takes hours, so when I was invited to illustrate LIVE as part of Lela Rose’s Spring 2018 Presentation, I was over the moon and maybe a little terrified. In true Lela Rose form, the presentation was full of feminine touches: soft florals, lace, and figure flattering separates. Silhouettes were simple yet stunning and the combination of neons and pastels was brilliantly executed. I met and sketched the lovely Julia Engel of Gal Meets Glam and watched the presentation unfold from behind an easel (dream come true).

NYFW Spring 2018 was one for the books - had my first live illustration event, met some exciting new connections (more to come on that soon) and completely immersed myself in inspiration, which is a welcome break from back-to-back commissions. I will definitely be sharing my favorite looks from fashion month soon and talking about some amazing new projects that came from networking at the shows. As always, any questions you have are welcome in the comments section or via email. Stay golden, people!

4 Tips to Make Your Portraits More Realistic

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

fashion portrait of iris apfel by Dena Cooper

Drawing and painting realistic subject matter can feel like a daunting task but no one starts out with perfect technique.  Everyone has a style and process that works best for them but there are some tricks that have helped me considerably in creating work that looks and feels realistic.  Some of these tips may seem obvious but can be harder to actually put into practice.  Whenever I start to struggle with a piece or feel that burning urge to rip my painting in half and start over, I think about these four helpful tips I’ve learned in art school and beyond as a freelancer in the eleventh hour.

1. Draw what you see, not what you know

This one seems like a no brainer but turns out to be the mantra that I have churning in my head ALL. DAY. LONG.  It’s easy to jump into a routine of painting an eye the way you think it should look based on the countless other eyes you’ve painted in the past but it can be quite rewarding to separate yourself from your subject matter and replicate exactly what you’re seeing instead of the shapes you think are there.  A classic trick of the trade when struggling to get something exactly right is turning your whole painting and reference photo upside down so you are less likely to rely on your own imagination and more likely to stick to what’s actually there.  

2. Contrast is key

Contrast is the difference between the darkest darks and the lightest lights in a composition.  It’s no surprise that the correct amount of shading can make or break a portrait.  Many beginner artists that I’ve worked with are afraid of dark shading and often don’t leave white highlights in their portraits which I see as a huge missed opportunity to create drama and add that pop of realism in their work.  A great trick for correctly establishing your lights and darks in a reference photo is squinting.  You can see all of the highest contrasts by squinting at your reference photo and it can also be a great way to compare your work to your reference side by side.

3. Think of your subject in terms of shapes instead of lines

No one pulls a Michelangelo in the first grade.  We learn to draw using lines and are encouraged to draw even humans in a basic “stick-figure” form as children.  So, when taking higher level art classes, the first habit you have to break is thinking of the world as a series of lines.  Thinking about any object in terms of shape and form can help you see where shading needs to go and how the object is interacting with its light source.  Many artists will start a large composition with a light sketch of the shapes that make up larger objects.  Studying the placement of these shapes within the larger picture can really help lay the foundations for a proportionally correct composition.

4. Complementary tones breed neutrals

Probably the most offensive thing I see other artists do (unknowingly) is use color “straight from the tube”.  Mixing the perfect skin tone is something people ask me about a lot and I have to say it’s easier than you may think.  As a general rule, I mix all of my own colors with the exception of black (even using black from the tube is a huge “don’t” according to many artists - oh well).  For skin tone in watercolor, it’s simple:  Use a base tone of red or a terra-cotta and add water to dilute the hue.  Add the complement of your base tone (green) which will neutralize the red and give you a much more dull peachy tone.  I like to add purple or blue to that mixture to create shadows and I always add color with a very soft hand.  You can always add color but it’s harder to take color away.

Creating realistic artwork takes practice, patience and dedication.  Sometimes it’s necessary to paint one piece three times before getting it exactly right.  Persistence and a critical eye will advance the skill of any artist - I’m a firm believer that art can be a learned skill for those who invest their time and effort into bettering their technique.  I would love to answer any questions you may have about creating realistic portraits - shoot me an email or leave me a comment down below.

by mlekoshi