Monday, February 22, 2010

Interview With Grace Swanson

Grace Swanson's photorealistic work is inspired by the formal approach of the 17th Century Dutch Masters made vibrant with a modern outlook.

watercolor 18 x 30"
Grace Swanson

Why do you make art?

Because I can. It’s something I enjoy doing. I think of my work as a craft. Some people think you need a special talent for art. Of course, there can be physical limitations. One can’t become a good singer if you can’t keep a tune. Certain persons may have good eye/hand coordination which gives them an edge. But I think of art as an acquired and practiced craft, as musicians must practice their craft or as a furniture maker masters his craft. I don’t want to reduce my work to arts and crafts, but I do believe that the more you practice, the more skilled you become, the better you see, the better you anticipate.

When did you first realize you were an artist (and/or have the courage to identify yourself as one)?

I think it was when I was about 10 years old. We had a Shetland Sheepdog and it was my chore to brush the dog. One day, I decided to make a pillow out of the dog’s hair. I wrapped it in Saran Wrap and stapled the ends. I remember thinking it was the greatest thing I could have created. I recall the feeling of pride, having come up with an original idea that was kind of silly but something brand new. I think that was my first real understanding of creativity. I greatly admire the artist that can be really inventive because it’s something that does not come easy to me. Out of 100 ideas only two or three may be new and innovative. I admire it in all the arts: film, writing, music.

I grew up as I think a lot of people did being told by their parents that art may be your passion and how great to have the ability to be an artist, but it would be better to do it as a leisure activity. That it’s not a practical career choice. I didn’t personally know any professional artists and I knew it was hard to make a living out of art unless you wanted to teach.

Did you go to an art school, and if so, are you satisfied with the experience?

I got my Studio Arts degree at Loyola Marymount University and what I really appreciated was the fact that I was forced to take classes in the fundamentals, such as drawing, design, etc., learning the formal aspects of art, studying how master artists have worked throughout history. It now allows me the freedom to experiment. I can take my work to new places with a deliberate direction, and I think I’m able to do that because I have a foundation to work with. I graduated from Loyola in 1996 – it was a wonderful experience to go back as an older student. You absorb everything because you really want it. I liked studying the Old Masters so much that I also pursued an Art History degree.

My art is inspired by the 17th century Dutch Masters who emphasized the contrast of dark and light. I use complementary colors in my work – I like the push-pull, say of red and green. These are the formal aspects of painting that I find myself intuiting now after having studied it for so long. I like to think I approach watercolor in a modern way even though my influences are historic. I work deliberately with high contrast with really dark darks and very rich colors. I like to glaze both my watercolors and acrylics with several washes so that you can see the actual pigment sit on the surface.

You work in two medias: watercolor and acrylic - how do the two influence each other and what are the limitations of each?

I think my style remains the same in both media, primarily photorealism, and my compositions are similar, my brushstrokes similar. I just really love watercolors and my heart belongs with watercolor, but working in acrylic recently has been an interesting change.

It’s like practicing two languages. I had a hard time transitioning back into the acrylics. I was using too much water because I’m so used to the brush flowing with the paint, as opposed to the paint being the primary touch on the canvas. The fluidity of water is what I think is primary to watercolor.

I originally began working in watercolor because it was a convenient medium for me. I could take my paints with me if I traveled. They were easy to haul around. Watercolors didn’t occupy a lot of space in my home, having the limitation of a small room to work in. I didn’t have to store a lot of canvasses so I started for practical reasons. With oils there were environmental concerns. How do I deal with the turpentine issue and old paint? Acrylic made more sense but again I felt I had to cope with a lot of equipment and materials so I went forward with watercolors.

I'm Not Sure
acrylic on canvas 30 x 24"
Grace Swanson

How often do you start a new work?

When I’m working towards a show, it usually takes me two to three weeks to finish a piece, otherwise my work takes one to two months. I probably average about 100 hours of painting a month.

Who are some artists producing work that you like?

I’m a big fan of Joseph Raffael and the late Carolyn Brady. Both are watercolorists. Both concentrate on still lifes. Raffael does a lot of florals and he’s a colorist, as was Brady. They are able to infuse their watercolors with a lot of color, richly saturated. They maintain detail and also stress composing their work. Brady did many traditional still lifes using objects, and you can see the thinking behind her choices. For example, she’d choose a special tablecloth which matched a particular piece of china or the vase and flower had to be at just the right angle. These deliberate compositions are what I aspire to do as well: to think before I paint.

Grace Swanson in the studio.

Grace Swanson's next exhibit at TAG Gallery opens March 2, 2010.


  1. Wonderful interview! Grace is one of my very favorite artists!

  2. Thank you Sherry - and thanks for coming by!