I first met Pam Gassman a year ago in January 2016. It was her first meeting; it was my first meeting. She confessed that she felt “totally out of my league” at the meeting. I have yet to figure out why. If you take a long look at any of Pam’s recent paintings - the ones of Revolutionary War figures in particular- you will see a refined skill at rendering portraits in colored pencil. If you look closer, you’ll notice along with the skill, a faithful accuracy in costuming and backgrounds for her subjects. In addition to being an extraordinarily talented artist, Pam is a self-described History Nerd.
Her ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War and she is a member in good standing - actually great standing - with the Daughters of the American Revolution. She realized that women are generally forgotten in our nation’s story, so she decided to record the woman’s role in the Revolution through her art. “For our daughters,” she said.
Pam’s initial instruction in art was her mother’s idea. She enrolled Pam into Shirley Smith’s Art Studio at age 11, thinking that getting her daughter busy with art would keep her from getting into trouble. It was the 70s in Montreal and it worked. She started in pastels and oils, and added other media as time went on.
Pam says that her sister was the talented one in the family so art lessons were quite a treat for the “untalented” sister. She took classes in decorative painting - you know, tole painting and rosemaling - at Michaels. And loved it. Then, a neighbor recruited her to teach at the city of Federal Way’s parks and recreation department. “You can’t fail,” her friend assured her. Never one to turn down a challenge, Pam of course said yes. Pam fell in love with art as recreational therapy. She’s been teaching for 26 years, so I guess the neighbor was right!
Pam is a member of the Society of Decorative Painters and is regularly featured as a guest instructor at meetings and conferences. Her home is littered with exquisite examples of her decorative painting expertise. Beautiful boxes and wooden plates - an homage to her Scandinavian heritage.
Pam became interested in colored pencils about 3 years ago when friend was using colored pencils with her acrylic paintings. Pam was intrigued. She’d always considered colored pencils something you used for coloring books, but not a serious medium for art. But, she went on line and played with colored pencils. And liked them. And found Ann Kullberg. She signed up for one of Ann’s Super Workshops because she wanted to learn more about colored pencils and she was determined to learn how to do portraits. At that workshop, “the clouds opened and sunbeams streamed in,” illuminating Pam’s next passion - colored pencils and portraiture. Ann acted as a mentor and led Pam to CPSA and to our local chapter. She’s been a member since January 2016.
Which brings us back to the DAR. Go back and take another look at one of Pam’s portraits. Wonder where she gets all the detail in the costumes? Does she look at books? Does she study other painter’s works? No. Pam sews the costumes her models wear! She has a closet full of dresses and petticoats and shawls and hats - she could probably get work as a costumer for any production featuring clothing from the 18th century.
And she was the untalented sister - yeah, right.
Pam’s process is one of rumination and note taking. She uses creativity journaling for sketches and notes of ideas for paintings. This includes settings, symbolism, costuming. She’s been particularly interested lately in doing portraits of African American women - not slaves, but free women - to highlight the contributions of African American women in the country’s struggles for independence. Her idea was to pose a young black woman reading, dressed in a typical 18th century work dress, mob cap and apron. Pam started looking for a model, someone appropriate to the era. She approaches people, which is sometimes awkward, and explains that she’s an artist and would like to have them pose for her. She gives them her card and promises that they will get the first signed print of the portrait she does.
It works. This past spring, at a band awards ceremony, she spotted the perfect young woman, who agreed to pose. Pam then set up a photo shoot, complete with costuming, props (which may be candles in holders or sewing items) and various poses. From there, she picked out the photo she wanted to use, or a combination of photos, and began the work. She works four to ten hours a day on each piece, depending on what else is going on in her life. Two to four weeks later, Pam has a mostly completed piece.
The one she was working on when I interviewed her was of two girls in a garden, picking flowers. They’re dressed, again, in Pam Gassman Original 18th Century dresses and hats, with era appropriate baskets for cut flowers. The two girls in this particular portrait are Pam’s own daughters. They look appropriately proud to be in one of Mom’s paintings.
As you can see, Pam tries to get backgrounds done first. It gives her a feel for darks and lights in her paintings. It provides a foundation. Her favorite work is the one she’s working on, but if she had to choose, it would probably be the Sea Captain’s Wife, a brooding portrait of a woman looking out to sea, wondering about her husband. It is so evocative with real longing. When she did this portrait, she said she had to slow down and concentrate, particularly with the cast shadows on the face of the woman. You can see for yourself how the painting came out.
Recently the Washington State DAR hired Pam to do a portrait of the President General of the DAR, which she says will be a challenge, since it’s going to be a surprise. So, Pam can’t ask the President General to come sit for a photo session. She’s working from available photos. There’s no doubt in my mind that the portrait will be hugely successful.
Pam’s support for the DAR extends into her art in several ways. Clearly, her portrait series of Revolutionary War paintings reflect her deep admiration of her heritage and our country’s history. Many of her paintings become prints for sale, or note cards - also for sale. Proceeds from these sales help fund a trust to keep the DAR building in repair.
Pam’s pencil inventory includes Pablos and Luminance, but her workhorse is Prismacolor. She stores her pencils in 3-drawer boxes designed for pastels, but perfect for pencils. From this large collection, she selects those colors she will work with for a particular piece, and keeps those out while she’s working. As with most artists, fugitive colors are a concern. Pam keeps a pencil record, noting which colors from which manufacturers are colorfast and which are not.
Because Prismas are more readily available and are affordable, compared to Luminance, for instance, she relies on them for her classes and has a ready stock available for students. Her classes are kind of free-form, with the students choosing what they want to work on each month. One month it’ll be acrylics, the next colored pencils. “I try to make every class a fun learning experience.” Which for Pam isn’t difficult. Her welcoming smile and her depth of knowledge attract students from far and wide.
The day I was there, her studio (one of the bedrooms in her house vacated by a child moving out!) was set up to video tape her instruction for an online class for the Color Pencil Club. It was quite in-depth instruction, with Pam showing her methods of colored pencil painting, along with chatting about art concepts and color theory. The class is up on-line and she’s been getting awesome reviews from students in the USA, Canada, France and England. Far and wide.
Pam loves Stonehenge, but also works on drafting film - Duralar - and other surfaces. Ampersand board and UArt papers and wonderful and make colored pencils look like pastels, but they chew through pencils pretty quickly. She finds that Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. Hot Press Watercolor paper is really good for landscapes.
2016 was an unusually fruitful year for Pam, possibly because she joined CPSA! She completed ten to twelve paintings, continued teaching and was recognized by DAR for her outstanding work. “I earn money from my art, but it’s a balance. I can express myself and make a difference by teaching and sharing what I know. I want my portraits to make a difference somehow, to inspire an interest in history for people.”
You can view Pam's drawings in the Member Galleries section of the website.