To kick things off, I’m delighted to introduce you to Christine Swann, whose pastel portraits have won top prizes in China, Italy, France, and across the United States. Beyond the Master Circle, the International Association of Pastel Societies designates her as an Eminent Pastellist.
The interview took place in Christine’s dining room, located directly above her home studio in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” didn’t apply to this blustery late-March morning. It was a gray, miserably cold day, quite the contrast to the artist who exudes warmth and ease―the same vibe as her online teaching videos.
After graduating from Westminster College, you started your career as a graphic designer and illustrator. How does this background influence your work as a portraitist?
When I was a graphic designer and illustrator, I was always working with clients and every job was different. I admire these professionals very much because there’s always a different set of criteria that needs to be met; there’s always an end game. You can’t illustrate the front cover of a book or magazine without meeting the criteria the publishers require―the narrative that needs to be created.
Commissioned portraits are the same thing. I’m still working with clients who have a very specific idea in mind―and it’s always different. Some clients are contemporary, some are traditional. Some clients want you to capture little Johnny’s quirky personality. Others may want something formal, where he’s dressed in a suit and seated near a piano. It’s all about the family dynamic. So, there are always different criteria, different narratives, for every client and commission. I like that a lot.
So, you’ve landed a portrait commission. Where do you begin?
For portraits and paintings alike, the number one rule is setting intention. Everything else is fluff, until you know what you are shooting for―that’s why certain commissions look very different from each other. They have different intentions behind the end results.
What is your process for “setting” intention?
It’s funny―if I’m dealing with show pieces, the idea always comes first. Sometimes, I have no concept of what the end painting will look like, I only have the idea of what I want the narrative to be. For example, I created a painting of my son called Determined because he always looked so determined when he painted beside me. I wanted to capture that idea, that expression. So, I took photo references of him and made various scribbles, but nothing really worked until I photographed him through a piece of clear plexiglass, scribbling right on top of it. Then, I could see that determined face.
The painting wasn’t so much about my son, as it was about someone’s who’s very determined. On the whole, I didn’t know what the pose was going to look like or the color harmonies―that all comes later. In the beginning, I only knew what my intention was and that I wanted to paint his determined little face―and that had a domino effect on other decisions.
I’m sure your “scribbles” are more than scribbles…
Oh, no! My scribbles are nothing more than scribbles. I make pen-and-ink scribbles when I’m cooking dinner or when I’m sitting in my car, waiting for my son. Late at night, I make scribbles in my sketch book―they are not elaborate drawings, but little scribbles like cartoon characters an illustrator might make. They’re just to set the intention, the purpose, of what I want to say. Sometimes, those ideas tap me on the shoulder for a year or two. Sometimes, I’m not sure how to realize the idea, but it will keep coming up and I keep thinking about it. It may take a couple of years to channel that idea into a visual image.
With a commissioned portrait, you don’t have a couple of years to set intention and realize an idea. How does a compressed process work?
Typically, there are three elements of every painting: the creator, the actual work, and the audience. With commissioned portraits, there is a fourth element: the client.
From the beginning, I take extensive notes during client interviews, as well as many photos, and make a lot of sketches. If working with children, I really try to understand the child―often, getting down on the floor and playing with them. Afterwards, I make a lot of scribbles and let my thoughts flow freely; stream of consciousness takes over. At the same time, I’m very conscious of the setting, taking into account the size of the portrait and where it will hang, as well as the colors in the room. Then, I begin to work on composition, where I’m incorporating ideas from notes and photographs, and creating sketches that I share with the client. Sometimes, the intention I have for the portrait deviates from what the client wants or desires. This is where there’s a give-and-take, and I really enjoy the collaboration.
While I move faster when working with clients, it’s the same process when thinking about setting intention. With commissions, the audience matters greatly. Someone can come into the home and say, “That’s little Johnny,” or say, “Oh my gosh, that’s little Johnny!” There’s a difference.
How did the process work during the pandemic? Did your commissions come to a screeching halt?
Like most artists, the pandemic forced me to pivot. I began teaching classes through Zoom, taking on students in South Africa and Finland, in fact, all over the world.
Using the same technology, I took on commissions in different countries. I taught parents in Singapore how to videotape their children and send them to me, which worked very well. Even now, working with clients locally, I’ll video children as they talk, run, play―and use the videos when setting intention.
Once you’ve “set” intention, how is it reflected in a portrait?
Through the composition. I’m not thinking about the things in the painting, I’m thinking about the story the painting will tell; I’m thinking about its narrative. Composition is, in part, about things on the picture plane, like where the foot is going to be, the pillow on the couch, where the dog is going to sit, whatever…. I’m really thinking about the narrative of the composition first.
What other considerations go into a composition?
I know a lot of landscape painters who are very conscious of space, placing trees or mountains that are far away in their paintings. They’re always thinking of atmospheric perspective. The funny thing is, portrait painters tend to get caught up in features, the details of the face, and can forget that we are also working with space. So, when I teach, I always emphasize breaking the two-dimensional picture plane.
While every painting is a two-dimensional flat surface, we are creating a “well-constructed lie” of a three-dimensional head or still life. It’s as though the portrait artist is playing a game, where we create these “good lies” where we’re showing something is more forward or further back, for example, the nose versus the ears. When thinking about creating a three-dimensional little Johnny on a two-dimensional picture plane, I must also think about atmospheric perspective and 3-D rendering on a two-dimensional surface.
Portraitists can get caught up in features, so be leery of the “dinner plate portrait”―artists who paint eyes, nose, and mouth on a flat, two-dimensional round shape. The head is not like that, not at all! A good portrait painter is constantly thinking about space―how deep the ears are from the nose, etc. Good portraitists are always thinking about building those good lies that will help you break the picture plane by defining form and dimension.
Your portraits succeed in capturing pent-up energy, often with swirling movements. How do you accomplish this?
I’ve always studied different compositional concepts that have been used by masters throughout the years. Lately, I’ve become fascinated with the notion of universality: everyone and everything in the universe being connected. The Fibonacci spiral shows up everywhere in nature―flowers, pinecones, the human ear, even constellations. While I’m not the first to use this device, I find that incorporating the Fibonacci spiral is a way to tap into this phenomenon.
I borrow from sculptors, too. Arcs are used by sculptors, who are very aware of three dimensionality. For painters, arcs help create graceful momentum, as an arc leads one area into another. There’s a flowing, lyrical sensibility in paintings that incorporate arcs.
I’ve juried international shows, where I’ve seen one painting that is constructed meticulously and all the details are there―and I’ll see another painting that is, perhaps, similar, but all the elements are controlled, where one line leads to another. Through arcs―if you can move things around enough and achieve fluidity―you can create a composition of a beautiful song, as opposed to a composition of things. That’s the difference between a master artist and a person who can master painting details.
Once intention is set and reflected in the composition, what is the next stage?
Any time when working with pastels for the past 25 years, I’ve incorporated a second stage that I call “find the light.” When I teach and set up any of my paintings, this stage is instrumental. There’s no way you can get a believable break on the picture plane unless you understand light.
When I was in my 20s, I had the good fortune of studying in Montana with an artist named Jack Hines, who taught classes on the Law of Light. It wasn’t until I listened to him for two full weeks in a big old barn doing life drawings morning, noon, and night that I began to truly understand light. Once that clicked in my head, I realized how much I had been missing―and, over the years, how much other artists, even master artists, are missing―I began to appreciate that you can kill your work if you don’t understand how light acts.
It’s pure physics: you can’t break how light acts. Once you understand that, you can understand form. Once you have form that breaks the picture plane, then, you can go on to the fun stuff like color, nuance, and edges―but, underneath all of it, you must understand how light acts. Some artists work stylistically, but when working realistically, this stage is crucial. If an artist doesn’t understand the laws and rules of light, for me, looking at their work is like nails on a chalkboard.
Why do you use yellow pastels to “find the light” in your compositions?
I use saturated canary yellow to find the light because it tells me about the form. The only reason we perceive form and shapes as 3-D in a painting is because we understand the light first.
Early on, I tried using different colors, but yellow felt like the sun, felt like a lamp―it’s as bright as you can get, and as light as you can get, without losing hue. I knew I couldn’t find the light with white because white would start getting into the upper layers and adds a chalkiness. Plus, white doesn’t capture the warmth of light. Use orange or red, and it starts becoming about the hue, rather than capturing how light feels.
So, I started using a very acidic canary yellow pastel underneath the rest of the other colors―and it works regardless of local color, because it’s about light, not the color of a person’s skin or the color of their clothing. For example, if I am painting an apple in a bowl, and the light is captured by canary yellow, I can layer over any color I like―say, purple or blue―and it will still be believable as a three-dimensional apple because the form breaks the picture plane by capturing the light correctly.
So, form is defined during the “find the light stage.” What follows?
Lots of intuitive color―I call it the “rainbow stage,” using lilac blues and purples, mint greens, all shades of pink…every color of the rainbow in a person’s face and bouncing around the entire image.
Once form is revealed by finding the light, I can start playing with color, which becomes fun and is much easier. If the sunlight is warm on a person’s hair, then I can start throwing in oranges and reds―and even crazier colors into their hair and into their face. It doesn’t matter, as long as I am matching the values of the previous light stage. I can push around my colors and over-emphasize things… red in the cheeks, red in the nose… because I know I can always cool things down, tone things down later. But, in the beginning, I really need that jazz of color sitting underneath the real colors. It’s too easy to begin with browns and skin-tone colors in the face that will become flat quickly.
I am confident I can shove in colors, as high-chroma as I want―orange and purple in the hair, mint greens and blues in the face―because I know, later on, I’m going to tone them down. During this rainbow stage, I’m trying to layer and layer colors―similar to glazing in watercolor―to try to get a shimmering stained glass effect. While pastels and oils are considered opaque mediums, I think of them as transparent, and layer and layer them to create subtle passages of colors like stained glass.
What comes after the “rainbow stage”?
I refer to the fourth stage as the “real color” or “money maker” stage because that’s when you start making money, when people get to see what you’re actually going after. Up to this point, it’s a lot of work and a lot of hours, but people can’t envision the end state. During this fourth stage, the portrait becomes realistic and believable, and, because of the previous rainbow stage, it is much richer and nuanced than if I had gone after the final colors alone.
And, voilà! The portrait is complete?
Not quite! The fourth stage emphasizes realism, so, during the fifth and final stage, I want to remind myself and my students that what we’re creating is only a painting. Sometimes, you need to just step back from the work, take a pastel stick, and slam something into the hair, or the side of the face, or the edge of the glasses, and reaffirm that it is simply a two-dimensional painting. I refer to this as the “beauty mark stage”―not because you’re putting a beauty mark on someone’s face and enhancing the realism. Rather, the final stage affirms “this is my mark, this is my signature,” somehow making the painting more beautiful than perfecting every strand of hair.
It’s amazing that I can approach 15 different students and say “let’s make two or three beautiful marks” in the highest impact area of a painting, and every person will choose something different. Our beauty marks are like our signatures, entirely unique. This is a marvelous way to say, “this is mine.” It’s the same reason I can share everything I know and every technique I’ve mastered: You’ll never be me and I’ll never be you. There’s a wonderful beauty in that!
Does working with pastels require a particular paper?
Yes, the papers I use have a grit, almost like sandpaper, which permit the pastel crystals to layer, enabling a shimmering stained glass effect.
Why do you prefer working with pastels over oils?
I work well with various mediums, but pastels summon memories from my childhood.
I grew up in the Carolinas, where I was always playing in the sand and in the dust, not in mud puddles. Playing with pastels reminds me of those times; it’s a tactile thing. While oils and pastels have the same pigments, oils have a particular binding medium; even watercolors have gum arabic. Pastels are the purest form of pigment―compacted tiny crystals that let the light shine through them, permitting a particular luminosity and purity of color.
I always tell my students, “Don’t give your painting the finger,” meaning don’t smudge or blend the pastels, it can muddy the effect.
CONVERSATION WITH A PROFESSIONAL FRAMER: Mark Rengers addresses the technical and aesthetic considerations of framing a pastel painting.
What goes into preserving―framing―a pastel painting?
Unlike oils that can be varnished, a pastel painting must be framed behind protective glass or acrylic to avoid smudging and fading. The painting, however, must never touch the glass or acrylic because pastel particles will stick to it. To avoid ruining the art, an elevated protective surface is built with hidden spacers.
Using UV glass is highly recommended, and there are two types: Conservation and Museum. Conservation Glass filters out 99% of the harmful UV rays that cause light damage and looks like regular glass―clear and shiny. Museum Glass also filters out 99% of UV light but has the added feature of being clear or non-reflective because of a special coating. For oversized pieces of art, Optimum Acrylic offers similar protective and visual advantages as Museum Glass―along with the additional benefits of being lightweight and both scratch- and shatter-resistant. (Beware: Using a less expensive acrylic or plexiglass can create static electricity that will pull the pastels off the paper.)
Are there other technical considerations, unique to pastels?
For a professional framer, understanding the properties of a pastel painting is critical, including the type of paper, the type of pastel, and how the artist builds or layers the pastels on the canvass. For example, pastel types (soft, pan, hard, pencil, oil) have different characteristics―some shed more than others, so knowing if the artist has applied some sort of fixative is important. Fixative preferences vary among pastel artists because they can alter the appearance of the art. Knowing which fixatives are used is essential, as some will oxidize onto the glass―so the glass must be further raised above the painting surface.
If an artist goes light on a fixative, and soft pastels consist of tiny crystals of pigment, how does everything “stay put”?
Over time, pastel paintings can shed, so building a hidden pocket into the frame to collect the pastel flakes is necessary. If not, pastel dust will collect on the mat and puddle at the bottom of the frame. So, in addition to the raised protective glass or acrylic, the mat is also elevated from the painting―and, behind the mat, there’s a hidden pocket.
Christine’s pastel portraits―rich with depth and dimensionality―permit me to incorporate layers of mats and liners with multi-layer hidden pockets behind them, used as design details.
My goal is to have all the functionality of good framing while bringing attention to the painting. Every medium (pastel, watercolor, oil, etc.) brings a unique opportunity to design for optimal attention towards the painting.
What are the particulars for hanging a pastel painting?
Depending on how the pastel painting is hung on the wall―if it tilts too far forward―pastel shedding will occur and fall onto the front of a mat, regardless of built-in pockets. Unlike an oil portrait or watercolor, using a wire or hanging system that ensures the framed pastel painting is held tight against the wall is recommended. In all cases, wires and hanging systems should be firmly attached to the frame itself, not the backing, to avoid potential damage to the artwork.
You’ve often stated that the key to successfully framing a pastel painting―any work of art―is to marry the technical elements with the aesthetic. How is this done?
With Christine’s art, large mats act as a negative area, so that the pastel portrait is the central focus. Using mats as negative space to surround a central figure or composition can enhance the overall aesthetic appeal, making it more arresting. The goal is to not “over frame,” but to “complement frame.” With framing, there’s a fine line between not overwhelming or over-busying and bringing attention to the painting. I abide by the philosophy of famed framer Robert Kulicke: If my work is noticed, I’m not doing my job. If I bring attention to the artist’s work, I am doing my job.
A professional framer thinks like an artist. While the artist brings your attention to the focal point of the painting, the framer brings your attention to the painting itself, which is the focal point. When a professional framer succeeds in not only driving your attention to the painting, but to the artist’s focal point of the painting, it’s a glorious outcome. To View a few of Christine’s works… Click Here
Permission from the Sewickley Gallery and Frame Shop is required to reproduce or use portions of this interview.