Catholic Artist Tracy L. Christianson Gives Faces to Holy Lives
By Joseph M. Hanneman
Catholic World Report
Tracy Christianson spends her days and nights with the angels and saints.
The suburban Seattle artist’s time is consumed with lives of virtue, suffering, perseverance and grace. Lives of virgins, martyrs, confessors, mothers, fathers and priests. She commits them to paper with gentle strokes of pigment — applying layers of colors to draw out that which most human eyes have never seen. Her inspiring work puts faces to the names of saints and blesseds. Her rapidly expanding collection of stunning portraits has found its way onto holy cards, bookmarks and framed art.
“I have never had any lessons or taken classes other than high school,” Christianson said.
Take one look at the 432 portraits she has drawn and it’s easy to conclude that her gift is God-given. More than seven years ago, she decided to turn her art work into an apostolate promoting devotion to those raised to the altars, and those whose causes are still advancing. The result became PortraitsofSaints.com, an extensive web-based collection of portraits for sale as plaques, prayer cards, framed prints, triptychs, greeting cards, holy water fonts and more. Tracy ChristiansonPortrait artist Tracy L. Christianson among her creations. She completed 50 new portraits over the past year. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Christianson)
Christianson had a good job as a corporate graphic designer when she was encouraged by her sister and her parish priest to make her avocation into a full-time vocation. What started very small has blossomed into a successful business that employs an entire family. “It seemed pretty obvious to me to produce and sell my sister’s art,” said Dixie Foster, who manages the sales end of Portraits of Saints. “I really had no idea how successful we would be and that it would turn from selling at craft fairs to a full-blown business.”
Christianson’s portraits have a unique look to them that evokes both emotion and devotion. One can almost feel Christ’s pain in her drawing “Ecce Homo,” depicting the wounded Savior after the scourging at the pillar and the crown of thorns. Her 42 depictions of the greatest saint show the many faces of beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her work gives a face and voice to lesser-known figures such as St. Christina the Astonishing, St. Vitus, St. Roch and St. Melangell. And her depictions of popular saints like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio and St. Patrick have familiarity with a new warmth to them. She added 50 new portraits to the catalog over the past year, with new requests coming in all the time.
Catholic World Report spent some time with Christianson in between her work on the seven easels set up in her studio. She shared her perspective on her role as a visual chronicler of such holy lives — and the many requests she receives each week for new portraits.
CWR: When did you first realize you had an affinity for, and interest in, drawing and painting?
TC: As long as I can remember, I enjoyed drawing — most particularly people. I can remember drawing portraits of the U.S. presidents in the first grade. Not knowing what to do with this gift other than enjoy it as a hobby, I pursued a career in graphic design and fashion illustration. I need to note that all my portraits are drawn with colored pencil. I actually do not paint.
CWR: Was your talent encouraged by anyone in particular?
TC: I suppose the final decision to take the step and trust in God to quit my paying job and spend all my time drawing saints was mostly encouraged by my sister, who started Portraits of Saints in order to get my work out there and seen, and my priest, who one day said to me, ‘God wants you to do this (draw saints). This is what you should be doing.’
CWR: How did you nurture and develop your abilities? St. Mary MagdaleneSt. Mary Magdalen stood at the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Virgin Mary on Good Friday and was present after the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Her feast day is July 22. (Photo courtesy PortraitsofSaints.com)
TC: My talent was not learned, it is an obvious gift from God. I have never had any lessons or taken classes other than high school. Drawing people was always something I enjoyed doing. It came very easy for me. Before I started drawing the saints, I would draw my friends and family. Then I started getting commissions from strangers to have their portrait done.
CWR: What is your Catholic background? How has your faith grown through your art work?
TC: I am a cradle Catholic and have always known the Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Our Lord. But I never knew the full beauty of it and all it truly had to offer until seeing it thru the eyes of the saints, who knew and practiced the faith perfectly. What better teachers than these holy souls and Doctors of the Church to learn from? Each has their own story and something to offer each of us in the way of fulfilling God’s plan and His holy will.
CWR: What role have the saints played in your life, and how did this influence your decision to begin creating such an incredible collection of saint portraits?
TC: As far back as I can remember I've had a devotion to Our Lady, the Queen of all Saints, and I longed to draw her. I tried and failed many times, not feeling it was good enough. And then Ignatius Press licensed my image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which started the ball rolling. It made me think if I could draw her, the other saints would be easy. I might note I have drawn over 40 images of her now and every one is still a struggle, because I know I cannot and never will depict her as beautiful as she is.
Certainly drawing people who I admire and long to emulate, all while keeping company with them and calling on their assistance as I draw, is the most rewarding of anything else I could be doing or would desire to do. Although I have always read the lives of the saints and have had my special patrons, I am learning of new ones every day. I am in awe of their lives and what they can teach me. Christianson’s portraits include newer saints and future saints, including Venerable Carlo Acutis (second from right) and Blessed Chiara Luce Badano (second from left). (Photo courtesy PortraitsofSains.com)
CWR: Give me your personal “take” on some of the saints you’ve drawn, including any special challenges or blessings you faced during the project.
TC: St. Veronica is one of my personal favorites. There are many artists renditions of her out there. I wanted her to be looking at the face of Our Lord with sorrow and love. It’s hard to imagine all she felt. I hoped to give her just the right expression. This is a popular portrait not only because of all the Veronicas out there and people who have chosen her as their patron, but also because of the meditations on the Rosary and Stations of the Cross.
I love the expression on the face of Venerable Mary of Agreda. I mean, she’s taking dictation from the Mother of God! If I’m happy with the saint’s expression, then I’m pleased with the portrait, even if the rest isn’t how I had hoped.
Sister Josefa Menendez, who wrote The Way of Divine Love, although probably not my most impressive portrait, was one of the most difficult ones for me to draw. There are a few real photographs of her out there, but none very clear or of good quality. I strive to make the portrait a true image of the saint and as attractive as I can.
I found the portraits of Fr. Emil Kapaun and Fr. Capodanno a bit challenging, in that I knew absolutely nothing about men in the service, war, the different areas of service, etc. Getting their uniforms correct and the facts of where and how they served was an education for me. This was helped by emails from servicemen who wanted to make sure I got my facts straight. Since then, I have become a fan of these great men and the part they played in caring for and sacrificing their life for their men. St. Moses the BlackSt. Moses the Black (the Ethiopian) was a thief along the Nile river before he had a conversion and became a monk. He died defending his monastery during an attack. His feast day is August 28. (Photo courtesy PortraitsofSaints.com)
Our Lady of Kibeho has received the most negative comments from people who complain that I did not make her skin dark enough, and insisted she appeared as a black lady in Rwanda. I could not find anywhere that said she appeared as a black lady. I did find this description of her from the seer, “Her hands were clasped together on her breast, and her fingers pointed to the sky... I could not determine the color of her skin, but she was of incomparable beauty.” I have read so many description of Our Lady given by different seers from around the world and she appears differently in all of them and yes, sometimes with blue eyes. The only thing common to them all is, "she was beautiful!"
I never knew the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42) had a name and was considered a saint until I received requests for her (St. Photina). So much more happened to her after that meeting with Jesus. She converted many to Christianity and even died a martyr’s death.
Learning just how many saints knew and were influenced during their lives by other saints who they knew personally makes it very clear that you should chose your friends wisely. Some of the most famous friendships, St. Louise de Marillac and St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
There are many saints I have drawn that I want to go back and redo because of certain things I later learned about them or was told and I don’t feel I got them quite right. One of my favorite saints is St. Mary Magdalene. I have drawn her three times and am finally happy with the last one I did. The first one sells just as well as the last, so it’s obvious everyone has a vision of how a saint should look.
If I’m ever so blessed to meet these incredible role models someday, I’m sure I’ll be surprised to see how very wrong I was in my depictions of them. But hopefully because of my efforts to make them known and loved I will be forgiven.
CWR: What are the most popular saint images in your library? Why is that?
TC: The Blessed Virgin outsells every saint — no other saint even comes close. As would be expected, the most popular saints are the most well known: St. Joseph, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Clare, St. Padre Pio, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Anthony. I could go on.
Saints whose patronage is popular or especially needed sell well, like St. Dymphna for nervous and emotional problems and St. Monica for difficult marriages and wayward children. St Philomena for impossible and lost causes. St. Gerard Majella for expectant mothers, Mother Teresa for the unborn and Our Lady of Guadalupe for protection against abortion.
Then newly canonized saints and saints who are currently in the news, like (Venerable) Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, St. John Henry Newman, the Fatima children, Blessed Chiara Luca Badano and Venerable Carlo Acutis. We just noticed a big increase in the sales of Our Lady of Akita because of the alleged message that the seer Sr. Agnes just received after 40 years since the original messages.
CWR: Who would you consider to be the least-well-known of the saints you’ve drawn? What did you learn about him or her?
TC: There are many of those. Certainly who I would believe to be the least well known I’m sure others would disagree with me. I have never heard of many of the saints I receive requests for. Christina the Astonishing, who died from a massive seizure and during her funeral rose and levitated to the roof of the church, was then given the choice by Jesus to go to Heaven or do penance for the souls in purgatory. She consented to extreme penances. She, as with so many other saints, made voluntary choices to suffer so much for the love of God and souls. St. VeronicaTracy Christianson’s depiction of St. Veronica. The name Veronica comes from the Latin word vera (true) and the Greek word icon (image), describing the visage of Christ miraculously imprinted on the veil given to him by Veronica to wipe his face on the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday. Her feast day is July 12. (Photo courtesy PortraitsofSaints.com)
St. Vitus, as so many others who were born to pagan parents and became Christians at the risk of being tortured and killed, yet still refused to sacrifice to pagan gods.
St. Afra, who was reputed to have run a brothel, was converted by a fleeing bishop during the Diocletian persecutions. Refusing to renounce the bishop or her faith to the authorities, she was burned to death. Hearing stories of great sinners who became saints is always comforting to me.
CWR: When you are going to create a saint portrait, how do you prepare for the task? Is there a lot of research — and prayer — that goes into it?
TC: I have a very long list of saints that are waiting to be drawn. People email me almost daily with the names of saints they want to see, many of which they just can’t find a picture of or at least a picture they may purchase as a gift. I usually decide who to draw next depending on how many requests I get for a certain saint, or if they have an upcoming feast day, or if it’s a saint that I just personally feel inspired to draw. Once I decide who to draw, I start my research by reading about the saint. I always ask for their intercession. There is a lot of research involved and I sometimes receive help from the person requesting the saint, as they obviously have a devotion to the saint they are requesting and love to share what they know about them — sometimes even what they believe they looked like.
CWR: How would you describe your “style” of portrait, if that is the correct term. Your work has a wonderful look to it. I’m wondering how you achieve that consistency across all of these images?
TC: I would describe the style of my portraits as realistic. They are done in pencil, which allows for much detail. The originals are fairly large, about 18x24. The realism gives the saint a real face people can relate to and not some imaginary person from long ago. The consistency in my work has been appreciated by many churches and schools that purchase several different saints to display and like them all to compliment each other.
CWR: What is your studio setup like? Do you have a particular arrangement of space and art tools to carry out this work?
TC: I have turned an extra bedroom in my home into my studio space. It is a bit crowded with seven easels set up, but it makes it easy when working on several portraits at once to go from one easel to next. Since my only tools are basically pencil and paper, I need very little space. It also helps me keep organized and focused on the projects at hand. The business is run out of my sister’s house. That is where all the printing equipment is and everything is made and shipping takes place. Everything is made in the USA. That is a very large space.
CWR: Walk me through the process of creating the portraits. What are the various steps?
TC: Sometimes I’m fortunate to get real models to pose for me, but most often I pull several pictures from my files of different hands, hair, clothes, etc., and put them together to create my own original rough image. I then use this to pencil in my portrait on paper, adjusting and making changes to the pose, features and expressions as I work. When I am happy with the pencil draft, I then add color and detail and fine tune and finish it.
CWR: How long does it take from concept to finished portrait?
TC: Obviously some take a lot longer than others. When there is a real photograph of the saint available, that makes for a very quick and easy portrait, although I always try to make that image my own by making subtle changes to it, like adjusting their hands and clothes. If there are no photographs to go by, I then rely on any descriptions of them available, the time in which they lived, how they have been depicted thru history, other artists’s work, etc. The research and coming up with the pose, how I will depict them, what they will look like, their clothes and any other recognizing symbols that define them will take a lot longer than the drawing itself. I sometimes work on this for weeks. Once everything is decided and I know how I want the finished portrait to look, the actual drawing goes quickly. I am usually working on several different saint portraits at the same time because I find it helpful to sometimes walk away and look at it with new eyes the next day.
CWR: Give me a sense of where your saint images are displayed or venerated? St. ValentineSt. Valentine of Rome is often pictured with birds because they pair and mate near his February 14 feast day. He was an early bishop and martyr of the Church who cured the blind daughter of a Roman judge. (Photo courtesy PortraitsofSaints.com)
TC: Many individuals purchase portraits for their home and also for family and friends as gifts for Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Christmas and Easter. Also many churches and schools want their patron saint to display and venerate. And since we now offer almost all the saints in poster sizes up to 22 x 28”, we have multiple churches and schools from Oregon to New York who have lined their halls with several different saints. Many priests have called after seeing them displayed somewhere and wanted to do the same.
Some of the churches that have my saints displayed include Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Greenwood S.C.; Holy Family Catholic Church in Deming, N.M.; O’Hara Catholic School in Eugene, Ore.; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Baldwinsville, N.Y.
CWR: Have you considered publishing picture books of the saints, or teaming with a writer to create a coffee table book?
TC: We do get occasional requests for a book that would contain all the saints in one book. This may be something in the future.
CWR: What does the future hold for your apostolate?
TC: We are very excited about the future. With new saints being canonized even today and thousands that I have yet to draw, we see us continuing to grow. Along with offering many new saints, we hope to be able to offer them in a variety of devotional items for personal use. The saints are real people who can offer help and comfort to so many souls in these troubled times. They are just waiting to intercede for anyone who asks. And having their image nearby is a good reminder to ask.
Originally published at Catholic World Report