A Pastel Portrait Artist Searches for Meaning

Philosopher and pastel portrait artist Claudia Biçen uses her art to explore the power of living a meaningful life. Recently featured in Pastel Journal, learn what’s behind Biçen’s compelling portraiture as she strives to capture the essence of a person with every mark she makes .

Finding the Path

For as long as she can remember, Claudia Biçen has been fixated on answering the question, “How should I live my life?” As a child in England, she was blessed with an inherent ability to draw. Her family encouraged her interest in art but her intense search to ferret out life’s meaning led her to pursue answers in academia.

Self-Portrait (15×23)

She earned a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and psychology from the University of Oxford and a master’s of science degree in social anthropology from University College London. However, it was in going back to art as an adult living in San Francisco—recalling the early childhood pleasure, and the skill she had, in drawing—that she found a path to weave the knowledge of the great philosophers together with her real-life experiences. Through her art, Biçen explores themes of transience, self-knowing and empathy for others in a profound way.

A Meditation on Human Beings

In 2012 she began a series of penetrating pastel portraits which resulted in her series “Human Beings”. Knowing that Biçen is self-taught makes the technical proficiency of the portraits even more impressive. “Realism always serves as a jumping-off point for me in portraiture,” Biçen says. “Copying reality doesn’t move me. Getting the essence of that person is what drives me.”

Raga (23×17)

One of her most widely exhibited works, Raga (above), won the Herman Margulies Award for Excellence in the Pastel Society of America’s exhibition in New York City. Raga is a blaze of color. A bright red-orange-haired woman is dressed in a wildly exotic turban-like headdress and flower-patterned shawl. She is striking against a flat, acidic-lime green background. Her head, held at a three-quarters view, rests on her hand. Her hazel eyes look at us askance, as though she has caught us in the act of doing something. The effect is electric.

People on Paper

Biçen does all of her work in her small San Francisco apartment therefore, to some extent, this dictates the size of her work. As a result most of her paintings on paper are no larger than 20×16 inches. “I love paper, and I love choosing brightly colored pieces of paper,” she says. “I’ve used all kinds of papers—from pastel papers such as Canson to handmade Japanese papers. It’s really all about the colors and the energy of the person that dictates my paper selection.”

Monique (20×16)

While many of Biçen’s subjects are her friends, some, like Raga and Monique (above), are people she encounters in a public place and requests permission to create their portrait. After that she photographs them and works from the reference photos. She determines the primary areas of light, mid-tone and dark values, filling in the base layers using Rembrandt soft pastels. There are no cast shadows to indicate a discernible light source; Biçen renders most of the surface detail using Stabilo pastel pencils.

Karla (16×20)

Constructing a Sense of Self

Karla is another redhead whose untamed windblown locks and sidelong glance communicate an impish quality. We see her full lips slightly curved upward in a sly smile. The silver filigree earring echoes the profusion of loose curls surrounding it. The details in the portrait pique our curiosity. We want to know this person. Biçen is aware of how people construct their sense of self and that how we dress communicates part of the story of who we are and how we want to be perceived.

Qing Ming, pastel on wood veneer, 18×12

The portrait of Qing Ming makes use of a cherry wood-grain patterned veneer as its background. Delicate butterflies and moths alight on the surface of the young woman’s skin. She has her eyes closed as if she’s meditating, looking inward.

Pastel is just dust, and after death, so are we. Biçen uses the medium in creative ways to achieve striking results, causing us to question, “How real is real?”

Thoughts in Passing

Perhaps Biçen’s most widely publicized portrait work is her “Thoughts in Passing” series. Over a period of two years, she developed relationships with several men and women in hospice care in northern California. The project resulted in nine life-sized graphite pencil portraits—four women and five men. We see each subject from about mid-waist up, sitting in a relaxed manner, sometimes leaning on a table, as though caught in mid-conversation with the viewer.

Harlan (graphite on paper, 30×22)

Biçen’s positioning of the hands is as important in communicating the state of mind of these individuals as is the gaze. She usually includes both hands, except in the case of Harlan (above), whose left arm was consumed by tumors—the suspected result of years as a truck driver and hanging that arm out the window in the California sun.

Biçen recorded more than 40 hours of interviews from which she transcribed and wove handwritten text in and out of the folds of her subjects’ clothing. Similarly, she created three-minute audiofiles of each conversation to accompany its portrait.

Jenny (graphite on paper, 30×22)

One of the portraits, Jenny (above), toured in an exhibition with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The full series received wide coverage in many national publications, including The Washington Post and Huffington Post. Five of the nine portraits are now on permanent exhibition at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, in San Francisco. As of this writing, eight of the nine subjects in “Thoughts in Passing” have died.

Combining Art and Purpose

Biçen is grateful to all of her subjects for teaching her something about how to live a meaningful life. She shares Jenny’s perspective, expressed in their conversation that “the source of meaning-making is creation.”

Biçen now applies her experience and creative talents to helping others discover meaning in their lives through Project Wayfinder, for which she serves as creative director and lead designer. Project Wayfinder is an international educational program that provides a toolkit specifically designed to help adolescents build purposeful lives. For many, like Biçen, that sense of purpose is found through art.

To get the full article on Claudia Biçen and see more of her work check out the Pastel Journal December 2019 issue.

About the Artist

Claudia Biçen is a visual artist and designer whose work explores the nature of mind and the construction of meaning. Her work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, in Washington D.C., the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, in London, and the National Arts Club, in New York City. Her projects have been featured in The Washington PostHuffington Post and San Francisco Chronicle and have been shared in hospitals, universities and high schools across the U.S. and the U.K. She’s the creative director of Project Wayfinder and an adjunct lecturer at Stanford University.

Article written by Cynthia Close of Burlington, Vt. She earned an MFA from Boston University and has worked in various art-related roles before becoming a writer and editor.

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