Beginning at the age of 15 during the Great Depression, for 38 years Vivien Oswell of Harwich retouched black and white negatives of high school students for a professional photographer.
“All those years, I was studying faces,” she says.
Crossed eyes, acne and scars—she fixed all of these blemishes with a needle-point pencil that she sharpened on sandpaper.
“I worked on thousands of faces—it helped me to bring out their individuality,” she said during an interview in her home studio. By design, the room catches the northern light— Oswell and her husband Tom built they house when they retired. And here, Oswell’s easel waits with a stool positioned in front of it.
At the same time that she was fixing negatives of faces, she discovered that she had the ability to paint. So it is probably no surprise that she turned to commissioned portraiture. In the 1970s, when Oswell’s commissions paid more than her work in the photography studio, she took up painting full time.
Oswell, who is now 95, grew up in Springfield until the age of nine. At that point she moved to Brockton where she lived until her marriage to Tom Oswell in 1942. When Tom returned from his stint of four-and-one-half years in the U.S Marine Corps during World War II, they became the parents of a daughter and a son. Tom died in 1999. Oswell now has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The couple moved to Harwich in 1953 and soon thereafter Oswell spotted a painting of Nauset Light in the window of a hardware store in Harwich Port. “I wish I had done that,” she says, laughing. “That inspired it.”
When she took up painting, she found it was a “natural gift to me.” She was not trained, unlike her sister and her sister’s husband, who studied at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her sister later became a pianist.
Through the years, Oswell has executed many commissioned portraits, including those of officers at the Barnstable County Courthouse.
Are her subjects vain? Do they expect her to make them look better than they do?
“I can only paint it as I see it,” she says. “Sometimes people say they don’t see it that way.”
She contemplates the question for a moment. “People want to look as they feel they look,” she adds. “When you look in the mirror you’re looking at yourself in reverse.”
Yet she says she usually catches a likeness.
Oswell works most comfortably in acrylics. But she also loves a finished portrait in oils. “It brings out the texture of the skin,” she says. She enjoys working in watercolors, but “I don’t excel at it.” She dislikes pastels.
She often works from photographs. She created a commissioned oil portrait of five children playing in the sand from a handful of photographs of the various children. The grandparents kept Oswell’s original painting and had prints made for the children.
She was hired to paint a life-size portrait of a Wisconsin man sitting at his desk and all she had to work from was one four-by-five snapshot. “I said, ‘I can’t possibly do a life-size portrait from the snapshot,’” she recalls. In the photo, the man’s face was the size of her thumb. She was unable to see the color of his eyes. Her friend advised her to “pray about it and do it. I think I just prayed my way through it.” It took her two months and she was paid $7,500—a 50 percent increase over her usual commission.
In another commissioned portrait, a great-grandfather is playing the harmonica for a toddler. Something in the expression of the pair and in the composition reminds one of a Norman Rockwell painting. Many of Oswell’s children have a winsome look.
For a local monsignor she painted Jesus walking on water with Peter getting out of his boat to greet Jesus. That painting took her about a year. She used her husband’s hand as a model for Peter’s hand, and a church organist’s hand for Jesus’s hand. A portrait of Mary served as the basis for Jesus’s face once she “bearded it.”
“The purity was there in his face,” she says.
Oswell often works on location outdoors, but she also takes photos so she can catch the all-important light. She never works outdoors for more than two hours as by then the light has changed too radically. She will return the following day for the same light.
Among the varied scenes in Oswell’s art are her seascapes with her highly-skilled waves. The water looks wet. “Water is always different,” she says. “You never find it the same.” The light from the sky affects the color of the water, as does the fact that the Cape’s sand is not white—it’s umber.
She paints gorgeous landscapes, seascapes and still lifes. Paintings of Wychmere Harbor always sell, she says. To one harbor scene she added hot air balloons in the sky. And why not?
Oswell’s work is at 820 Main St. Gallery and at the Art Gallery of the Guild of Harwich Artists, 551 Main St. Both galleries are in Harwich Port.