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Courtesy: Sydney Johnson ('13)
Rower Trades Oar for Pencil in Down Time
Courtesy: Duke Sports Information
Release: 05/24/2013
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Sydney Johnson joined the Duke rowing team as a walk-on during her freshman year. She had never participated in the sport, but after spending a year on the novice squad during the 2009-10 season, she earned a spot on the varsity squad as a sophomore. As a senior, she was a vital member of the Blue Devil second varsity eight.

In her spare time, however, Johnson trades her oar for a pencil and her long, powerful strokes for shorter, more precise ones. Johnson, who majored in religion and graduated from Duke in May, pursues a unique hobby, spending what little free time she has drawing sketches in the discipline of photorealism. She enjoyed drawing when she was younger, but her penchant for art took off when she enrolled in art courses in high school.

“I would draw for fun at home, but it was never anything really professional,” Johnson said. “So I took an art class as an elective in high school, and the drawing portion I really enjoyed. I took a beginning course and a more advanced course where they taught us the right techniques and the right tools to use, and ever since, I’ve really liked it.”

Photorealism challenges the artist to replicate a photograph by hand. Artists in that discipline must demonstrate thorough attention to detail in order to reproduce the finite elements of a photograph. For Johnson’s sketches, she must pay careful attention to lighting, shading and depth and will use nothing more than her pencil to transfer the image from the original photograph to her sketch book.

For Johnson, her process begins by outlining the subject. She then sets about the daunting task of shading to capture the intricacies of each picture. Something such as a person’s hair can take several hours to recreate.

“[Hair] is the most difficult thing to draw because it’s so time-consuming,” she said. “It’s hard to make it look real. Bald people are great; it takes about five minutes.”

Most of Johnson’s drawings have been family members, although she drew a self-portrait of herself in high school and for this story drew a photo of Duke University’s famed Blue Devil mascot. The self-portrait was her first crack at drawing people, which the majority of her drawings now feature.

Johnson’s favorite drawing she has done is one of her brother, Jamie, when he was younger. In the photograph, Jamie is smiling – minus one of his front teeth – while wearing a Nebraska hat and a hooded jacket. His expression, Johnson says, is what makes the picture.

“I don’t know why I like it so much, maybe just because it’s my brother,” she said. “But his expression is really cool. I like fun expressions like that. They’re always fun to draw.”

Johnson admits that since enrolling at Duke four years ago, the time commitments of her academic workload and rowing have not afforded her much time to draw. She hopes that will change now that she has graduated and is training to become an EMT. Her ultimate goal is to attend medical school – to which she will begin applying at the end of the summer – but she has also toyed with the idea of expanding her hobby.

“[Selling drawings] has crossed my mind, but if I were to do it for money, I wouldn’t sell the ones that I’ve done,” she said. “I’d have to ask if someone wanted me to draw something for them and do it that way. But I don’t want it to become a job, I’d rather let it be a hobby that I can do when I want.

“That’s an important part of it. I want to do it when I want, and that lets me enjoy it more.”

Sydney Johnson's ('13) sketch of the Blue Devil.