Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chris Tassin: The Artist that Drew Karen Carpenter

Almost every diehard fan of Carpenters/Karen Carpenter has seen Chris Tassin’s artwork. You may not have realized that it’s Chris’ work but certainly at one time or another you’ve seen one of his works floating around the internet.

Chris is a wonderfully accomplished artist who has been drawing since a very young age. His portraits are finely detailed and are realistically lifelike. It is with his portraits of Karen Carpenter that Chris has come to worldwide acclaim.

I have the honor of sharing this interview with Chris with you the fans of Carpenters and Karen Carpenter. This is the first in my interview series of Carpenters Superfans.
- Rick Henry

 RH = Rick Henry, CT = Chris Tassin

RH: When did you first start drawing? What were your first ever works of art? How old were you?

CT: There were some drawings that my mother showed me recently from when I was 4 years old.  They were mostly nativity scenes, which I suppose was not much of a surprise, considering how much I loved the Christmas season. I enjoyed drawing throughout in my childhood and started putting larger amounts of time into art projects in my early teens.

RH: What or who inspired you to become an artist?

CT: My mother used to paint when I was very young. Her vision and love for her projects was wonderful to be around. She inspired me, particularly when she used to design and paint elaborate Christmas displays for outside our house. She and my dad made my early holidays visually memorable.

RH:Who are your favorite artists? Do you favor a certain type of art/painting/drawing?

CT: There are so many types of art I love, but portraits have always fascinated me. It's almost as if there is some type of energy or extra something inside a painting or drawing of a person. At the very least, it usually makes me reflect. It's a nice way to pay tribute and honor someone as well. Some of my favorite artists, particularly known for their portraits, include Richard Amsel and John Singer Sargent. Modern and abstract art are some of my favorites as well.  Pure, vibrant colors have always appealed to me. The entire spectrum of colors is one of the most beautiful things in this existence.  When one color is positioned or seen next to another, it makes it stand out all the more. We can appreciate its uniqueness.

RH: How did you learn to draw/paint? Did you take any art classes?

CT: Enjoying it and drawing the things I loved, helped me learn. Drawing is like most things in that the more you do it, the more you develop and progress.  I learned mostly through practice and being inspired by other artists.  I had a couple of art classes in high school and then two years of commercial art school. Since I saw my mother drawing and painting when I was young, I would ask her things like, "How do you draw an eye?".  She would give some guidance, but I realized later it was through my own practicing that I would come closer to what I was trying to achieve.

RH: Your mother sounds like a wonderful person.

CT: She's a very warmhearted person and cared about making things beautiful for everyone. I'm grateful for her always.

RH: How long does a portrait generally take you to complete? When working on a portrait is it all consuming or do you work on it a little bit at a time with breaks in between?

CT: The time spent on a portrait varies, but I usually complete them within a few weeks to several months for the larger or more involved ones. Most of them were done in colored pencil which is a medium can take large amounts of time. Once I'm into the process it can consume me, but I do take breaks that vary in length.

RH: Do you have a particular method of drawing/painting? Such as do you have a special room or a special set-up.

CT: For a long time I had no set-up. It's not something I had ever taken the time to prepare for whatever reason, but I should have. About ten years ago I finally got a drawing table which is very helpful.  Before that it was table tops, the floor, and walls.  When doing a portrait, after getting the general outline done, I always do the eyes first and work from there.

RH: Tell me a little about your first (or first few) Carpenters/Karen Carpenter drawings? When did you first draw a portrait of Karen? What inspired you to draw Karen Carpenter?

CT: Being a young child in the 70's, hearing all the great sounds on pop radio, the Carpenters music stood out to me the most.  I remember hearing "Yesterday Once More" often and being so captivated by it. I had no idea who the lady singing was, but her story about listening to the radio waiting for her favorite songs and how today seemed "rather sad", affected me.  Hearing the Carpenters sound and her voice saturate the airwaves over the years, I realized how special they were.  Up to the point of Karen's death, even though I loved their music, I was what you would consider more of a casual fan. I only owned a Greatest Hits album set that I treasured, and the Christmas album. I was in my junior year of high school on February 4, 1983, the day that Karen passed.  I'll never forget hearing the news after classes that day. I realized in that moment what a great loss it was and I was filled with thoughts of her.  I immediately felt compelled to draw her portrait and began on it the day after. Discovering more of who Karen was and becoming more in awe of her one-of-a-kind voice, warm and funny personality, and her genuine quality, touched me deeply. It continued to inspire me to render her lovely image through the years.  I consider her an angelic friend as I know she continues to be a friend to all who love her and the gifts she brought with her brother Richard Carpenter.  

RH: Do you have a particular favorite drawing of Karen? What makes it your favorite?

CT: The colored pencil portrait of Karen that I remember working on the most, was in 1993, when I did one of the solo poses of her curled up in the big violet chair. While it's not a very original piece at all, because it's almost exactly as it is in the wonderful original photograph, it was a favorite and the one that challenged me the most. The artwork is a large piece, measuring 30" x 30".  I went through so many violet colored pencils.  But it was that subtle, gentle smile on her face that was difficult to render.  Since it's a favorite pose of many fans, most are familiar with that closed mouth, relaxed soft smile she has in that shot.  Even with the control of a pencil, it was much harder to get it to look natural than I thought it would be. At one point I erased the entire mouth.  The waxy texture of a Prismacolor colored pencil is difficult, if not impossible to erase.  It tore away some of the surface of the illustration board.  This really disappointed me as I thought the piece was ruined and I'd spent so much time on it.  The rest of her face was all done and her eyes were especially pleasing.  I put it away out of frustration and left it alone in fear I'd make it worse.  About a year later when I was relaxed and ready to attempt the mouth again, I carefully took the time to gently lay in the colors again and it turned out fairly well.  It was a nice surprise to see that I could salvage it.
Another favorite of mine would be the more recent black and white pencil drawing I did in 2009 for the biography, "Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter".  It's a piece that I was asked by Randy Schmidt to create and it's one of my more original drawings of Karen, inspired by her 1975 look.

RH: Before we continue with this video I'd like to share a few other drawings Chris has done, outside of his Karen Carpenter/Carpenters work.

 Trumpeter, Al Hirt

RH: You did such an outstanding job on the "If I Had You" video. What inspired you to create this?

CT: Thank you.  That video was fun to put together.  It's a great song and one of my favorites. I felt it would work well with that sort of quick cut, fast moving visual treatment.  Karen's solo work, particularly on "If I Had You", had such a sophisticated, modern sound. It's sad that she never got to make any promo videos for her album. I felt that in putting the video together, it would be my tribute to her, along with helping expose this great recording to more people.

RH:  It worked. Your video has near 443,000, which is an amazing feat. The HD version has an additional 32,000 views. You must be proud.

CT: I'm happy it's been well received and enjoyed! It's especially fun to read comments from those hearing the song for the first time. They are impressed by this edgier side of Karen and love her performance. It was a thrill and a surprise when Larry Herbstritt, one of the writers of the song, commented, "As I sit here fighting back the tears, I feel such appreciation for this lovely video. I miss Karen and wish we all could have her back again."

RH: I did an interview with Larry. He’s a nice guy and extremely talented.

RH: What type of software or editing tools did you use for the video?

CT: Photoshop was used for editing the images and then iMovie to put the video together.

RH: aha, you’ll have to teach me how to use iMovie.

RH: How many images of Karen were involved? Did you have to draw multiple images of the same pose in order to create the somewhat moving image of Karen toward the end?

CT: I'm not sure how many images were used.  As far as Karen moving toward the end, I just took frames of her from “Music, Music, Music” and edited the background.

RH: How long did it take you to create the video?

CT: It took a month or two to complete, working on it a few hours here and there most days.

RH: What was your biggest challenge in completing it?

CT: The biggest challenge was having it timed correctly. I wanted to keep most of the images changing on the beat during the chorus, and following the words on screen during certain portions.  The program used for building the video gave a little trouble near completion. It wouldn't export it to a movie file, but after shifting around some of the images, it worked out.

RH: Will you do another Karen Carpenter music video? I'd like to see one for "Guess I Just Lost My Head".

CT: There have been a few ideas in my mind for videos of other songs. "Guess I Just Lost My Head" would be a good one. There have been a few things delaying me in doing so. Finding the time is one.  Another is that the ideas I have envisioned will take more learning on my part and different computer programs.  Finally, there is the fact that I've already used most of the Karen solo images available to us on the first video.  I suppose if they were used in a different treatment and style, some could be used again and still seem fresh.

RH: Now on to your views about the music...

RH: When did you first hear Karen's voice? What was your response?

CT: My earliest memory of taking notice of Karen's singing was hearing "Yesterday Once More" on the radio when I was seven years old.  She sang in a way that I believed every word. I thought she was telling her own personal story. The song haunted me. No other singer grabbed my attention like she did. 

RH: I like how you say that you felt as though Karen was telling her own personal story. I agree, she really had a way of making each song feel like it was her life story. I feel that most when I hear the song “Road Ode”.

RH: What was the first Carpenters record you purchased?

CT: The first ones I ever purchased were singles of "Yesterday Once More" and "Sing".  Later on I found the double LP compilation set of "The Carpenters Collection" in a nearby record store in the late 70's. I was so happy. Not only did it contain the hits, but it was the first time I heard certain album cuts that were included. The cover had one of those beautiful photos of Karen and Richard from the 1977 photo sessions. Karen was so pretty with those big, brown eyes and lovely, bright smile.

RH: Do you have a favorite Carpenters song? Favorite album?

CT: As anyone who loves the Carpenters knows, it's really hard to pick a favorite song! I guess my all time favorite classic still has to be, "Yesterday Once More".  I'm still in awe of it in every way.. her performance, the poignant lyrics, the harmonies, that gorgeous bittersweet melody.  Richard Carpenter, John Bettis, and Karen's talents combined to create a classic full of longing and memories.  It was the perfect recording for the airwaves. It was about radio, the songs we love, and our reaction to them. Its style and sound was a tribute to classic pop.
My favorite album is a tie between "Horizon" and "Christmas Portrait".  I feel the way so many do about "Horizon".  It's the Carpenters at their finest. There are so many incredible performances on that record.  Karen is at her most divine on "Solitaire", the incredible "Only Yesterday", and the exquisite "I Can Dream Can't I".  The Christmas album is my other great love.  No one can sing a Christmas song like Karen.  Her voice is the very sound of the season and all it brings. It is the voice of an angel.

RH: Boy, do I ever agree with you on that Karen is the true “Voice of an Angel”.

                                          Carpenters - Horizon (1975)

                                         Carpenters - Christmas Portrait (1978)

RH: Where were you when you heard of Karen's passing? What were your feelings?

CT: My sister had picked me up from high school that day.  Not long after I got into her car, she started out with, "Chris, Karen Carpenter of the Carpenters..."  Before she was able to complete the sentence, I knew somehow what she was about to say.  I remember immediately acknowledging to myself that she had died. Then my sister continued, "..she died today. The news on the radio says she had a heart attack." My heart sank. My response was, "She was my favorite."  My sister said, "I thought Olivia was your favorite."  "No", I said, "Karen was." I was deeply saddened by the news.  I didn't know much about Karen at that time other than having loved her voice on the radio since I was a boy, and playing the couple of Carpenters albums I owned. I had only seen very few photos of her up to that point. For some odd reason, I'd even managed to miss all of the Carpenters TV appearances while I was growing up. I just knew that something significant had happened in the loss of Karen. I remember having thoughts like, "She was too good to be true."  She had such a rare quality, not only in the sound of her voice, but in the feelings that came through her voice. She was just like a beautiful breeze that touches you and then it's gone.

RH: Wow, Chris that was beautifully worded. You really have a way with words.

RH: What was your reaction when you first heard Karen's solo album?

CT: First hearing Karen's solo album was both an exciting and bittersweet experience. I loved most of it and was surprised by some of it because it was so different from her previous work. I remember being particularly impressed by "Guess I Just Lost My Head", "All Because Of You", and her great take on, "Still Crazy After All These Years".  I was so glad when it was finally released on CD in 1996. The cover image, while one of my favorite photos of Karen ever, is not very pleasing in terms of its treatment. It's too bad they didn't go with the originally planned color stylings of her photographs. I'm guessing that the thinking was to do a different look on the cover photo in '96 because it was being released so many years after the fact. The face looks washed out. I realize it was a design choice, but I just wish more care would have been given to it. She was so beautiful in that solo shoot.  She deserved better. Well, at least the folks at A&M were consistent. They gave her a lackluster treatment till the very end.

RH: You are so right. It’s too bad that A&M did not put more care into Karen’s (and Richard’s) image. Even more they should have given Karen more opportunity to voice who she was and what she wanted to record.

RH: Do you have a favorite song from her album?

CT: As much as I adore both "If I Had You" and "If We Try", my favorite has to be her solo version of "Make Believe It's Your First Time". When I first heard it, I was in awe. I had always thought the Carpenters' version was nice, but it was not a favorite of mine. For the first time, I found myself loving the song. The solo version is so intimate and her performance is heartbreakingly beautiful.  I feel that the arrangement is better overall and the soft solo piano that begins and ends the song is gorgeous. I miss the bridge that was later added to the Carpenters version, but other than that, the solo recording of it is perfection.

RH: I’m with you on “Make Believe It’s Your First Time”. I was never much for the Carpenters version, which showed up on “Voice of the Heart”, but Karen’s solo version is pure magic. It’s one of several songs from her solo album, which I feel had hit potential.

RH: What are your views on the shelving of her album?

CT: Karen's album should have been released at the time. We'll never know if it would have changed the ending of her story, but at the very least it would have been a celebrated event and a highlight in her career. She and her legacy deserved that. Karen was far too huge a talent not to have put out solo records. Had it been released in 1980, I feel that the solo album would be even more treasured by her fans than it is now.  While not everything on the album was top-notch, the rest of it was far too good to keep it under wraps. They had the greatest female voice in the world in their hands.  If there were certain tracks they were less than pleased with, they should have paid *her* to record more songs instead of the other way around. It's simply criminal and very sad that she was not supported.

RH: Do you think any of the songs on her solo album could have been a hit in 1980? Which one song do you think would have been best for a single release?

CT: It's hard to say for sure, but "Making Love In the Afternoon" sounds like a hit to me. Another strong one is, "If I Had You".  When it was released as a single in 1989, it was encouraging to see it go to number 18 on the Adult Contemporary chart. I heard it often on light rock radio stations, which was exciting. One time after it was played, I remember hearing a DJ say, "That was the late, great Karen Carpenter with 'If I Had You'.. that is HOT!!"

RH: And that’s it Chris, Karen Carpenter was just simply sizzling HOT! And your portraits of her capture that essence completely.

RH: I thank you Chris for your time and I have really enjoyed sharing this time with you and coming to learn a little more about. I wish the very best for you in all your endeavors. I hope to one day see that video for “Guess I Just Lost My Head”, that in my mind is one HOT song!

Chris Tassin with one of his masterpieces

A few more drawings by Chris Tassin: 


  1. Fabulous article and interview, Rick.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, the video,
    and the gorgeous drawings made by Chris.
    This made my Sunday.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Irene! Thank you. I really enjoyed doing this interview with Chris. He was more than gracious in spending the time to do this interview. It's quite evident that he is very passionate in everything he does. He is a true talent.

  2. His artistic talent is on par with her talent as a musician/singer. I am floored by his ability to capture such lifelike appearance with pencils and paper. Amazing artwork of a treasured singer!!

  3. Great interview Rick. I also LOVE the If I Had You clip that Chris made. Awesome.

    1. Thank you Ness. I agree Chris' video for "If I Had You" is outstanding.

  4. Chris, like I said, you capture Karen's spirit like her recordings do. I so loved the video of "If I Had You", a friend put it on DVD for me. Too bad they didn't have your video when "Lovelines" was released. Karen would have had a huge hit!

  5. Beautiful - elegant, simplistic and you're re-created her so lovingly. That voice - just timeless. Thank you for giving the world your work. Steve, UK.

  6. Chris. GREAT drawings GREAT videos. Is there any way your drawings could be put in a book? There are many Karen fans all over the world that would buy this book. Thank you for doing such BEAUTIFUL work.GJK