Artistic Evolution

Denise Presnell grew up in a Nebraska town with fewer than 1,000 people. Reflecting on the experience, she acknowledges that a place so small can feel stifling to a young person. “There was really nothing to do there,” she recalls. However, as she shares more about her childhood, something exciting begins to bubble – the origins of her creativity. “Growing up in a tiny town, the only thing we had were our imaginations, and so every day that’s what we’d explore.” Denise and her older sister used drawing as a means of story-telling and entertainment; their early art was intuitive and original and would become the foundation for later creative pursuits. 

Denise went on to attend the University of Nebraska, majoring in printmaking. She then received her MFA in painting at Penn State and teaching positions followed, eventually bringing her to Wisconsin, where she became a professor at Lakeland College. While teaching, Denise continued creating her own art, largely focused on landscapes in paint and pastels. Her style was impressionistic, using texture and color to capture scenes of Wisconsin and beyond. When Denise retired from Lakeland in 2017, it gave her newfound time to evaluate her artistic style, and she was ready to pursue a new interest: abstraction.

“For so long my work had been about looking outward, and now I had this strong desire to go inside again. I love to work from pure imagination.” In many ways, Denise is reconnecting with that creative girl who grew up in Nebraska, completely enthralled with the make-believe world she put on paper.

“Now I work in full abstraction. It offers more cohesion with who I am and what I desire to create.”

Preferred Medium

“For a long time I was working in traditional acrylics and oils, and then I discovered oil and cold wax.”

Denise loves manipulating the medium to create depth and transparency. She uses a reductive process which begins by placing layers and layers of oil and cold wax on canvas, and then putting solvent on top of that which eats away at the tiers and exposes different colors and textures. Now Denise is experimenting with this same process using acrylic inks and pastels on art board.

Artistic Influences

Denise is quick to answer that her older sister remains a huge influence on her life, “As a girl, I wanted to be just like her. She was an incredible oil painter, and she was the one who inspired me to begin.” The poetic abstractions of artist Joan Mitchell are another one of her influences, and Denise adds that she has always found herself drawn to Mark Rothko’s resonant color fields; she appreciates both Mitchell and Rothko for their abilities to connect with the viewer, evoking an emotional response, and that is something she also focuses on in her work. Lastly, Denise says that Leonardo da Vinci’s technique of sfumato has made a lasting impact:

“That’s the kind of effect I’m trying to create today through my own work. That emotional impact, the drama of blending light and dark.”

Current Challenge

Finding more commercial galleries to show her work is what Denise views as her current challenge. “The art market has really changed recently and so much of it is online now. Finding galleries that are a good fit takes time.” To remove this barrier, Denise has decided to apply to one gallery a day in order to build new relationships and find new audiences. Every day she spends time researching submission processes, and sending emails, photos of her work, and price lists.

Current Celebration

“I am so excited about my work right now and the direction it is taking. Currently, I have a solo exhibition online at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Library in Eau Claire, then I will have my work at the Thelma Sadoff Art Center in Fond du Lac. I’m also experiencing competitive exhibition success and that makes me really proud.”

To learn more about Denise’s art, you may follow her on Instagram @denisepresnell and visit her website at

WVA’s new monthly blog feature, Artists Inspiring Artists, is intended to connect our visual arts

community by sharing members’ personal stories of artistic evolution, creative processes, struggles, and celebrations. Each month, blogger Mara Duckens will highlight a different artist. Have you got a story to share? Please reach out to Mara at to be featured.