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Lisa Congdon and ‘The Joy of Swimming’

By Charles Purdy

Fine artist, illustrator, and author Lisa Congdon works in many media, but her distinctive style is recognizable for its joyfulness and sincerity. In her latest book, The Joy of Swimming: A Celebration of Our Love for Getting in the Water, her enthusiasm for her work—and for the book’s subject matter—splashes off the page.

Lisa Congdon is known for winsome, colorful paintings, line drawings, and hand lettering, as well as for her popular books, such as Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist and Whatever You Are, Be a Good One.

Much of her work is inspiring and educational. And just on its own, the story of her creative career is also an inspiration: When she was 30 years old, Congdon was not an artist. That is, she hadn’t gone to art school, and she reckons that she hadn’t drawn or painted since childhood. She was working in public education when, at the age of 31, she took an art class—just for fun.

As a result of taking that class, however, she got hooked on creating art. She explains, “I started doing it all the time. And because I was drawing and painting almost every day, I got better and better at it. And because I got better and better at it, and because I was doing it every day, I eventually found my voice as an artist.”

And that’s how Congdon came to a place where she could turn her passion into what she did for a living.

The cover of Lisa Congdon's book

Lisa Congdon’s latest book features beautiful images, fascinating stories, and fun facts—all about swimming. In the book’s introduction, Congdon writes, “My love for swimming is so profound that I decided to write and illustrate a book about it. Here I share my fondness not just for the sport of competitive swimming, but also for recreational swimming—the playful dunking and splashing we did as kids and the meditative laps we swim to work out life’s stresses. Here I pay homage to swimming’s history and some of its great moments. Here I profile fellow living swimmers as young as nine and as old as 92, regular people for whom the water is a source not only of exercise, but of serenity and healing. Here I honor some of swimming’s great heroes, some famous and some until now hidden from the spotlight. Here I recall the sounds, the smells, and the tactile sensations associated with swimming in pools, in ponds, and in the ocean. Here I pay tribute to the activity that has brought so many of us such tremendous joy.”

PUTTING A TOE IN THE WATER

Of course, this transition didn’t happen overnight. Congdon didn’t feel that she’d found her “groove” as an artist until about 2011, when, she says, her work began to have a unique look and feel—a look and feel that continues to evolve. “When you reach a place of mastery with certain skills, that mastery allows you to experiment with more control, which makes experimenting easier, which in turn leads to constant evolution,” she explains. “And much of that evolution is very subtle. But artists who work every day are always evolving. What’s different now, for me, in addition to the fact that my work has gotten stronger and more distinctive, is that the ease with which I can work is exponentially greater than when I first started out. And that feels good.”

Congdon had been drawing and painting daily for a few years before she even felt ready to start sharing her work. When that time came, the first place she turned was Flickr. “It seems so 1990-whatever now, but at the time it was this place where I met all these other people who were also making things and sharing things. So I joined forces with [them] and started sharing my work. Slowly, people started inquiring about how they could purchase or collaborate with me. That was how it all started: very organically. Eventually, over the course of about six years from the time I started, I developed this very scrappy, sloppy illustration career.”

Rules of Paris swimming pools, illustrated by Lisa Congdon

In The Joy of Swimming, Congdon explores pool culture around the world.

Several books and many major clients later, scrappy may not be how it looks from the outside. Among many other clients, Congdon has worked for the Museum of Modern Art, the United Nations, Harvard University, Martha Stewart Living, and Simon & Schuster. But her most important professional relationship is her long and very fruitful one with San Francisco–based publisher Chronicle Books.

Congdon first showed her portfolio to someone at Chronicle Books in 2006; a couple of years after that, Chronicle released her first line of stationery. Since then, Chronicle has published several of Congdon’s books. “They’ve been a hugely important part of my career,” Congdon says. “[Chronicle Books’] Bridget Watson Payne has been my editor for the last several years. I like to call Bridget the fairy godmother of my career. Her trust in me and my ideas has really transformed my life.”

illustration of a woman in swim cap, by Lisa Congdon
illustration of a woman in swim cap, by Lisa Congdon
illustration of a woman in swim cap, by Lisa Congdon

DIVING IN

The idea for Congdon’s latest book came not long after the publication of her bestselling Whatever You Are, Be a Good One, a book of hand-lettered inspirational quotations. Congdon explains, “Bridget asked me, ‘If you could make a book about whatever you wanted, what would it be about?’” The resulting discussion turned to Payne and Congdon’s shared love of swimming.

Swimming had had a profound effect on Congdon’s life, and she knew that many other people could say the same. This led her to imagine a book that celebrated swimming, in words and pictures and in ways different from what other books on swimming had done.

“I started competitive swimming when I was a kid, at the age of eight, and I continued until the end of high school,” she says. “And then I eventually found my way back into the pool, to Masters swimming, when I was about 27. I swam Masters until I was in my early 40s—until, ironically, my art career began to take off. And then I had to choose; I didn’t have time for both…. I chose the art. I still continue to swim on my own, but I quit competitive swimming. Swimming was, for me, one of the most grounding experiences of my life. It’s a constant comforting thing that’s also really healthy. And even the smell of chlorine evokes so much positive emotion for me, so a book about swimming, about swimmers, felt like something that I really needed to do.”

portrait of Kimberley Chambers, by Lisa Congdon
illustration of a swim parka, by Lisa Congdon

In addition to beautiful illustrations and swimming trivia, The Joy of Swimming features profiles of notable swimmers, such as Kimberley Chambers.

A WORK IN PROGRESS

With several books, other personal projects, and a diverse client list, there’s plenty of variety in Congdon’s portfolio: “I do a lot of different things,” she says. “Everything from abstract paintings to more-realistic representational work—and then everything in between. Even when I’m working representationally, some of my work is more realistic looking, and some is intentionally stylized.”

When it comes to subjects like real people or well-known landmarks, Congdon’s process generally starts with a lot of reference gathering. Next, she begins sketching in pencil. “And that takes a while,” she says. “Even when you’re drawing while looking at reference material, it can take a while to get the eyes right, or the nose right…. I’ll go through lots of pencil sketches until I feel like I’ve got it just right. Then I usually move on to final artwork, using color.”

 

The history of the bikini, illustrated by Lisa Congdon

She continues, “If I’m not painting a portrait or an iconic landmark or whatnot, I typically don’t use reference images. I might look at a photo of something and loosely draw that scene, but I try to add my own style and make it my own. Most of my drawings these days are less realistic and more stylized…. Really it all depends. For example, right now I’m working on this new series of paintings that are based on 1970s graphic design. So I have this entire private Pinterest board filled with graphic design from the 1970s.  I’m always working to be sure that when I take that inspiration to the canvas that I’m using my own sense of scale, composition, and color to make the image completely new and fresh.”

Congdon says that balancing client work with her personal work is always a challenge, and she’s finding that being an author is a nice marriage of the two—allowing her to work on her own ideas with the financial support of a publisher. Her next book will focus on the experiences and careers of older women. It will include essays by women writers, profiles of women who embarked on notable careers later in life (Julia Child and Vera Wang, for instance), and interviews with similar inspiring “late bloomers.”

photo of Lisa Congdon

After many years in the San Francisco Bay Area, Congdon (pictured) and her wife recently moved to Portland, Oregon, where they bought a house with a large garage that Congdon had converted into a studio. For Congdon, having her own workspace (not rented or shared) is new and a real pleasure. “Now all the parts of my business are housed in one location,” she says, “and it’s awesome.”

THE RIGHT TIME TO BLOOM

A common thread in these stories of late bloomers (among whom Congdon includes herself) is that they could not ignore the call to reinvent their lives. If switching to a creative career is truly your calling, Congdon says, you’ll know. “Because you’ll want to work harder at it than anything,” she explains. “In some ways, it has to be a gut feeling that really drives the change.”

And if you do feel that calling, there are benefits to embarking on a creative career later in life: something else Congdon has heard echoed is the notion that with age come patience and a bigger-picture perspective.

“I was super-disciplined and patient, and I think that’s another quality that you see in a lot of these women,” Congdon says. “They understand that they weren’t necessarily going to have overnight success. Especially now, in the age of the Internet, we see successful people and think, ‘Oh, I have as much talent as them, or I could eventually.  And maybe if I just do this thing, or put this thing out to the world, I’ll have their success.’ But what we don’t realize is that all the work that went into making them successful took years and years.”

fish illustration by Lisa Congdon
women in swim caps, illustration by Lisa Congdon
Faulkner quote illustrated by Lisa Congdon

She adds, “I think that older women in general sort of understand the amount of work and discipline required—I mean, it’s probably true for men, too—to sort of make something of themselves, or make something new of themselves.”

In this way, developing a successful creative career is similar to maintaining a daily swimming practice: Both require discipline. Both let you set goals that will keep you motivated. And both require an understanding that you won’t meet your goals overnight. Perhaps this is one reason that The Joy of Swimming is so powerful and pleasurable, for swimmers and non-swimmers alike—it’s not just about the joy of swimming; it’s also about the joy of having a passion, whatever it might be, and turning it into a purpose.

At a recent Adobe-sponsored event at California College of the Arts, Lisa Congdon spoke about the creation of her book The Joy of Swimming. During the presentation, she was joined by one of the book’s subjects, Kimberley Chambers, an avid open-water swimmer who took up swimming in 2009, as part of her rehabilitation after a life-threatening leg injury. A mere five years after that injury, Chambers became the sixth person in history to complete the Oceans Seven challenge. Click on the image to watch short excerpts from the longer presentation.