Symbolic Santas

For each of the past six years, Brenda Harris Tustian has combined her love for watercolor, family and children in a series of paintings featuring a figure dear to most of our hearts: Santa. And to create even more symbolic significance, Harris Tustian goes a step further, individualizing the features of each Santa and surrounding him with tiny images, each imbued with special meaning.

Santa’s face is where his personality comes from, says Harris Tustian, so each one must be unique. This is where she starts painting, and usually doesn’t move on until she’s captured the look she wants. “His face has to be kind and gentle, and look like Santa before I continue,” she says. After the face is complete, she adds in the other tiny figures and details with a magnifying glass in one hand and an Isabey round #2 brush in the other. “Because I’m very limited with area in each figure (each painting is only 14 x 10), the value in each color has to be correct with the first application,” she says. “As I plan, I pay close attention to the play of warm against cool and to the balance and unity in the overall design.”

Once the background is complete, Harris Tustian adds washes to develop the robe’s color and texture. Again, she’s careful to make sure the contrast of warm against cool reads with a gentleness.

Harris Tustian researches, takes notes and draws sketches for a full year before starting each new Santa. For Christmas Love, 1998, she reread her notes and surrounded herself with Christmas music, decorations and her previous years’ Santas before picking up a brush. “This style of watercolor painting is a slow and very challenging process, but to see the finished product makes all the effort worthwhile,” Harris Tustian says.

Stephen Quiller lives in Creede, Colorado, with his wife Marta and their two children, Christopher and Allison. He’s a member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society and the Society for Painters in Casein and Acrylic, and is listed in Who’s Who in American Art. Quiller conducts workshops throughout North America, has produced numerous video tapes and has published four books, including A Painter’s Guide to Color (Watson-Guptill). His work is available at the Quiller Gallery in Creede, Colorado and the Mission Gallery in Taos, New Mexico. For recent paintings and information on his upcoming workshops, visit

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