Painting a different kind of portrait
Apr. 10, 2002
Leah Carlson
Staff Writer

Susan Whitney/The Gazette

Kensington artist Jason Swain, an Australian native, specializes in painting portraits of people's pet.

Local artist focuses on images of pets

Dogs, cats and horses are Jason Swain's specialty.

At the Billabong Art Studio, next to his home in Kensington, he paints portraits for pet lovers across the country.

Swain, a native of Australia, has been recognized at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair for his pet portraits, hunting scenes and landscapes. One painting, which won first place last year, featured a Chihuahua sitting in a red wagon with an American flag.

Swain's art studio and van are bedecked with images of kangaroos, dingoes and Koala bears. One contented kangaroo lounges with a Foster's beer in its hand, clearly a sign of Australian humor.

Inside the studio is a painting in progress, showing a golden retriever and a black Labrador retriever. It will go to a woman in Texas, who has commissioned a painting from Swain before.

Swain said black Labradors are the hardest breed to paint because the light picks up so many colors on a shiny black coat.

At age 9, Swain sold his first painting to his fifth-grade teacher. He started painting seriously about eight years ago. He is mostly a self-taught artist, but he learned some skills from working with another Australian painter, Robert Hagan, in San Diego.

Swain specializes in pet portraits, but also likes to paint Impressionistic landscapes and western scenes. "I try to do everyday scenes, or else I'd go nuts," he joked.

Swain, 34, does not have any pets, but his family did have a dog at their farm in Mooloolaba, Australia, where he grew up.

The town is a short distance from Australia Zoo, home to Steve Irwin of "The Crocodile Hunter."

The area was naturally full of wild animals and snakes, Swain said, and it gave him an appreciation for the outdoors.

At age 19, Swain traveled to the United States with a six-month visa. He didn't expect to stay long, and always planned to go back to Australia.

One year later, in 1987, he met his future wife, Annette, during a trip to Hawaii. The two visited each other back and forth, until Swain moved to the United States permanently in 1992.

Now they travel during the winters, when Swain isn't as busy with artwork and his landscaping business, Aussie Lawn and Garden.

They recently returned from a five-week trip to Hawaii, where Swain enjoyed surfing, a sport he has practiced since childhood.

As for the artwork, he said, "This is sort of a career in the making. I figured out how to paint, and now I have to figure out how to market it, and marketing is 80 percent of it ... There's a lot of artists, and you've got to sort of fight through the fog a bit."

For information and examples of Swain's artwork, visit his Web site at

Editor's note: Our Neighbors is a new, occasional feature of the Kensington Gazette that will highlight the people who make Kensington and Garrett Park a special place to live. Have someone you would like to nominate for the feature? E-mail Leah Carlson at or call her at 301-280-3003.