When it comes to painting portraits, Gibsonia artist Christine Swann has a certain way with children, analyzing their unique characteristics while imbuing their drawn or painted image with a certain universal innocence.
And she does this not only with the portraits of her own children -- Amber, 11, Corinne, 8, and Braeden, 2 -- to whom her emotional connection is obvious, but also in the many other portraits on display at the Art Loft in Mt. Lebanon. The 20 charcoal and pastel drawings and paintings of children in her solo exhibit represent just a few of the dozens of kids who have inspired her.
'Some of these are other people's children, some are children that come and play with my kids, and some of them are clients that I have done formal work for,' Swann says of her works in this show.
Featuring a wide range of vignettes from childhood, Swann presents moments we can all relate to. 'Practice' depicts Swann's daughter Amber in deep concentration, struggling to learn the violin. In 'Drawing on the Figure,' younger daughter Corinne draws stick figures on her own body in a joyful moment of self-expression. And in 'Study for Naptime,' the effects of bedtime approaching are illustrated with a heartfelt embrace between mother and daughter.
The latter work is an independent study by the artist based on source photographs she took of the subjects. 'Mostly, it's the pose that I wanted to focus on. It's an image of motherhood that I just wanted to capture,' Swann says.
A large-scale oil painting, 'Study for Naptime' is one of the latest in the show and reflects a more recent interest in oil painting. However, for the most part, Swann prefers to work in pastel. It is a medium with which she is particularly adept -- so much so that she is a 'signature member' of the Pastel Society of America, a prestigious honor given only to the group's most esteemed members.
Swann also is a member of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators, and is president of the Pittsburgh Watercolor Society. An award-winning artist on the regional, national and international level, she was featured in International Artist magazine as a Master Portrait Painter. In the January 2005 issue of the magazine, she was published as a top 10 finalist in its international 'People and Figures' competition. She also was published in the book 'How Did They Do That? 100 Ways to Paint People and Figures.'
All of this much-deserved attention gives evidence to her remarkable talent as a portraitist, one who has created works based on a wide range of subjects of various ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. But it was her sensitivity to children that led her to concentrate full-time on commissioned portraits in pastel, watercolor or oils more than a dozen years ago.
Swann, 40, began working full-time as a portrait painter in 1995 after almost six years as a successful freelance graphic designer and illustrator. After completing an art degree at Westminster College in Grove City and the Art Institute here in Pittsburgh, she worked a short stint as a graphic designer for Fisher's Big Wheel, the now-defunct chain of retail stores whose corporate headquarters were located in New Castle.
Today, many of her commissions come from families throughout the region -- mostly by word-of-mouth and from folks who have stopped by the booth she has set up for many years now at the annual Shadyside Arts Festival. Swann says portrait commissions have come from people as far away as California who have seen her work at that art fair.
But even with the busy work schedule that comes with pleasing clients, Swann somehow finds time to work on personal explorations, such as the three small pastel studies of little girls at a tea party. Simple sketches of a girl sipping tea, another powdering her nose and a third strutting in 'big girl' clothes, they concentrate on capturing the essence, not only of the subject but of the moment.
'I like artwork that tells a story.' Hence, she says, 'I like to highlight areas. I start with a basic drawing, but I just bring out what I really want to highlight.'
A perfect example of that is 'Steppin Out,' the latter of the three drawings. 'It's more about the strut than the shoes,' she says.
But still, above all, getting a likeness is paramount, she says.
'My obsession now is faces,' Swann says. 'Subtle nuances that set one child apart from another or wonderful wrinkles in a wise face. ... I now strive to see beyond a likeness into another soul, another outlook on this visual world. I try to re-create the entire union of elements and invite the viewer to step in to see what I have seen.'
Among the works in this show, there are a few that include adults. Most notable is '21st Century Madonna,' which features Swann holding one of her daughters while looking out of a window. It is oddly reminiscent of Mary Cassatt's (1844-1926) 'Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby' (1902), except that in Swann's piece, she is holding a cell phone. 'That's how it is when people call me. I work out of my home, so sometimes a lot is going on.'
Regardless, Swann manages to make the most of her time and talent. And that is all the more evident when seeing so many of her well-executed works in one show.
Image and text by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, USA