Emily Christoff Flowers – Find Your Path By Painting What You Love

Sometimes it takes a crisis to allow your unique creative soul to emerge – the part of you that’s ALL you, not someone else’s expectation or belief of who you are. Someone who found their true creative path in this way is Emily Christoff Flowers.

I came across her work not too long ago and featured “Listening to Maynard Ferguson” in my March roundup. I was totally taken with the piece and wanted to see and know more! I’m so happy she accepted my invitation to share her story, process, and work with us.


A Bit About Emily Christoff Flowers

Emily Christoff Flowers graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts degree, with a focus in figurative drawing. After graduation she spent the next 25 years doing commission portrait work for a living. She has been entering local art shows and competitions with her more personal art for the past two years. She resides in Newport News, Virginia. You can read and see more on her website.


Normally I would introduce you to the work of the guest blogger at this point but if you are unfamiliar with Christoff Flowers’s work, I don’t want to spoil the surprise! So without further ado, I hand the blog over to Emily Christoff Flowers




I have been a commissioned portrait artist for around 30 years. I love the challenge of creating drawings to capture the spirit of the client. I have always used pastel, and I draw both animals and humans from life as well as photos.

A few years ago however, I became restless to expand. I started searching for some sort of inspiration to create a series that had some deeper meaning for me, but I kept coming up with blanks. I spent hours reading and studying other artists. I drew every day. I even sent up prayers asking for signs to aim me in the right direction, but all I could do is draw what I thought people wanted to buy since that is all that I have ever done. I was very confused and had rock bottom art-esteem.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Bailey," pastel, charcoal and conte on gray Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 8 x 10 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Bailey,” pastel, charcoal and conte on gray Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 8 x 10 in


Art School

I think my low art-esteem started in art school back in the mid-80s. My drawing skills were above average, but my professors and fellow students often ridiculed me for wanting to draw like a photorealist. Phillip Pearlstein and Chuck Close were two of my major inspirations, but one professor actually teased me for liking these artists and said that I needed to paint like other artists of my day. If felt if I didn’t paint like the instructor I would fail my class. I needed to study and paint like Pollock, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, and of course the great Picasso, if I wanted to be a real “A”rtist, but the non-objective work just didn’t appeal to me.

On my last day of art school, the entire class of drawing majors was told to get a job at a place like a grocery store so we would have creative juice to come home and make great abstract work. I left art school dejected and more confused than ever. I don’t regret having gone because I learned about the importance of color theory and of art history, but my ability to make art actually regressed while in school.


Making a Living

Since according to my professors the “A”rt world gate-keepers obviously didn’t want me, I chose to go to work sketching 5-minute profile portraits in pastel at a large amusement park in Ohio. It paid better than working at a fast food place but not by much. I eventually made it my life career, rising in the ranks of a large company that did this type of souvenir art throughout the nation. For the next 30 years, I made my livelihood and supported my kids by doing these quick sketches, and also taking commission work from photos. I may be a horrible fine “A”rtist since I couldn’t paint like Jackson Pollock, but I was a damn good street artist.


Emily Christoff Flowers: Here I am sketching at a festival a few years ago. My portraits from life in pastel take about 10 minutes per face.
Here I am sketching at a festival a few years ago. My portraits from life in pastel take about 10 minutes per face.


As I aged and the sketching became more painful, I cut back to about 25 faces a day. I filled in the gaps by teaching quick workshops in resorts, teaching tourists how to make simple paintings and how to make coffee filter butterflies.

I knew I could do more than copy photos and play with glitter glue, so I attempted to go back to grad school in my mid-40s. The graduate counselors in two separate art schools told me that I was too old for grad school and that I was just a robot who taught other little robots. Although this was true, it hurt badly. I would not let these jerks keep me from fulfilling my life dream so I became even more bound and determined. So I studied, read, and drew frantically during most waking hours. I went out and bought all the expensive equipment needed to do outdoor art shows. I eventually quit my day job at the resorts determined to devote my life to selling my work at art shows.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Napping," pastel on Velour, 11 x 14 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Napping,” pastel on Velour, 11 x 14 in

My first two seasons I filled my show tent with well-rendered drawings of animals that I thought people might want to buy. It was hard work and I took it very seriously. There was no time for mistakes because I had to make money as an artist. I rarely sold a painting, but people seemed amazed at my technical ability. I just kept plugging away and making something that I thought would please clients. I was determined not to give up.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Turtle Paradise," pastel on velour, 16 x 20 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Turtle Paradise,” pastel on velour, 16 x 20 in

When Things Began To Change

Last February disaster struck my family. I was in the deepest state of grief and didn’t know what to do. When I was a kid I studied music, not art. I used to play the piano and trumpet when life got too intense, which as a teenager, was pretty much all of the time. Eight years of classical music studies and musical performance created a deep love for all music of every genre. When I was unable to play an instrument back then because Dad was napping, I used to put on headphones and automatically draw to the music to ease my pain. I didn’t care about the product, I just needed to stay calm and as a teen, it worked.

So last winter, desperate for any form of relief, I put on headphones, found an old photo of my daughter and just let it go. I was drawing two things that I loved. I was drawing my baby girl, and I was drawing to music almost as if I was performing it. I had absolutely no ambition to please anyone.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to David Bowie," pastel on orange Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 16 x 20 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to David Bowie,” pastel on orange Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 20 x 16 in


Since I have drawn in pastel as a portrait artist for so many years, the technical abilities of working in this medium is buried deep in my brain. So it didn’t require much thought to go through my standard process of drawing the figure. I could dive deep into the music, and the drawing would just float off of my fingers. It was almost as if my hand was guided and I was just watching. I ignored all of the rules of portraiture and just started making patterns that fit the David Bowie music that I was listening to at the time.

Most importantly, I stopped trying so hard. For the first time in decades I was painting only for myself. I didn’t really care how it turned out. I felt better and that’s all that mattered. I made mistakes, including my choice of paper, so I decided to do it again with another subject.

Next I found a photo of my sister I had taken a few years ago. Chopin filled my headphones this time. The painting is not really a portrait of her, although it looks like her, but is a biography of my own grief and about how Chopin calms me. Again, there were many mistakes and technically I was unsatisfied but I felt like I had just spent hours with a good therapist, so I kept going.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to Chopin," pastel on dark gray Strathmore paper, 16 x 20 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to Chopin,” pastel on dark gray Strathmore paper, 20 x 16 in


Around this time, my daughter’s friend Richard stopped by one day wearing his live action roleplay costume. He looked like a character from a video game. I took some photos of him, put on the headphones with video game scores playing, and out popped this really strange drawing. This time was a bit different however because I did a preliminary painting on photoshop to print out as my reference. I found that I could change and combine photos entirely to fit my purpose. This was something I frequently did when working from client photos.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to Nobuo Uematsu," pastel on La Carte, 16 x 20 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to Nobuo Uematsu,” pastel on La Carte, 20  x 16 in


Next I found a rather unflattering photo of my stepson and put on some jazz trumpet music. After creating the preliminary drawing on the computer, I just started drawing. I still didn’t care if anyone liked it or not. I had enough animal paintings of cows and wolves from last year to fill my tent for my spring shows, so I just drew and forgot the trauma at home with my son which was steadily increasing.


Emily Christoff Flowers: Reference photo of stepson James for "Listening to Maynard Ferguson."
Reference photo of stepson James for “Listening to Maynard Ferguson.”
Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to Maynard Ferguson," pastel on La Carte, 16 x 20 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to Maynard Ferguson,” pastel on La Carte, 16 x 20 in


I guess that four paintings are enough to call them a series which I simply named “Listening.” I decided to keep going with the idea of meditating to music and see how it affected my paintings. Around this time I also discovered Kehinde Wiley. He is not the only artist who combines pattern with the human figure, but he was the best that I had ever seen. His show in Richmond was a huge inspiration.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to John Williams," pastel on La Carte, 16 x 20 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to John Williams,” pastel on La Carte, 16 x 20 in


I came home from Kehinde’s show with my ideas verified. Yes, it is okay to work like a photo-realist. It is okay to enjoy drawing when it is your career. I don’t need a minimum wage non-art job. It is okay to make art that the world will most likely hate and not buy because it is not of a traditional theme.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to the Grateful Dead," pastel on tan La Carte, 26 x 18 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to the Grateful Dead,” pastel on tan La Carte, 18 x 26 in


I had to stop caring what the professors and gallery owners of the art world thought and just do what was right for me before my paintings could evolve. My habit of working very technically and correctly was no longer in the forefront, but I did start to pay more attention to the technical aspects of my work. It’s just the way that I enjoy working.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to Mozart," pastel on UArt sanded paper, 8 x 10 in, Award winner at Pastel Society of America exhibition
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to Mozart,” pastel on UArt sanded paper, 8 x 10 in, Award winner at Pastel Society of America exhibition


I soon realized that by combining tight photorealism with pattern, the viewer was brought into a deeper state of reality. I always sort of knew this because of my love of work by Klimpt and Mucha, but now the idea really hit home. I also noticed that contemporary photorealism is very different than the photorealism I grew up with. It is now much more than faithfully copying a photo and must have a narrative. For this reason I decided to keep my narratives rather vague, giving the viewer the opportunity to end my story themselves.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to Ave Maria by Schubert," pastel on yellow Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 11 x 14 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to Ave Maria by Schubert,” pastel on yellow Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 11 x 14 in

My Process

Ok, so enough about how I unblocked my art flow. Here’s a bit about my process.

I pick a song, artist, or genre of music that has meaning for me and listen to it as I trudge through my many stored photos.

I make a digital painting as my reference using photo shop and a digital tablet while listening to the music. Most of my photos are of my family and friends. Most of the pattern is a loosely rendered version of something I find and purchase on Adobe stock.


Emily Christoff Flowers: Original photo, original pattern, Photoshop image
Original photo, original pattern, Photoshop image


I prepare my paper. I cut it to slightly larger than the size I intend to work and tape it down onto foam board as I would a watercolor painting. If I am using UArt sanded paper, I will paint a base color by using rubbing alcohol to wet a layer of pastel. This base color keeps the drawing colors more uniform.

I map out the composition on the paper. I do this rather lightly with a charcoal pencil. I just want to check that everything is proportionally correct. Using a grid and turning the photo upside down usually does the trick for me. Sometimes I will trace my own digital painting. A note about tracing. Don’t let a traced map stop you from using loose gestural marks, or doing some fun exaggerating. If you copy your photo exactly by tracing your map, your drawing will look really stiff. Tracing is a tool and NOT a replacement for drawing. You will lose most of this map anyhow, so you better know how to draw and not rely on tracing. This drawing is the bones of your painting so learn to draw! Ok, sorry about the raving – I teach a lot of beginners!


Emily Christoff Flowers: Map drawn over a wet application of ochre
Map drawn over a wet application of ochre


I create a value under-drawing. I darken the shadows with Nupastel black, lighten the highlights with a General’s white conté pencil, and use a brown or some other medium-toned Nupastel to block in mid-tones. I often spray this layer with a workable fixative or blend it with rubbing alcohol and a brush. A note about using workable fixative. It will melt everything together and you will lose all of your beautiful sparkly layers, so use it only at the beginning of your drawing process. I like Krylon workable fixative. Once you spray it you will lose your layers but you can make new crisp marks on top of your drawing. This is a great way to create a multitude of glazed layers using pastel pencils.


Emily Christoff Flowers: Working up the figure
Working up the figure


I draw the topical colors over the value study. I am not worrying about getting the colors perfect. I just want to get it close to the final color so that I can play with adding weird colors later. Spraying it again will bring out the under-value drawing beneath the topical colors.


Emily Christoff Flowers: Topical colors over the value painting
Topical colors over the value painting


I fully work up the head and body using light glazes done with color pencil. I just work from left to right applying a detailed glaze with color pencils. If it gets too dusty I will spray with workable fixative. I do a majority of my drawing with the photo and the drawing upside down or on its side, and by the end of the drawing I rarely refer to the reference photo.


Emily Christoff Flowers: Layers and glazing - almost done
Layers and glazing – almost done


Once I have all of the details in the drawing I might spray it lightly one last time and then do one final layer on top of everything, including the figure, using mostly pastel pencils. Skin tone is rarely done with just “skin toned” colored pastels. I use a wide variety of greens, blues, yellows and oranges in transparent layers over the figure. I also like the little hatches and scratches of the pastel to show. These marks give my paintings much needed texture.

I don’t know that the drawing is done until I let it sit for a day or two to marinate, then I come back to it and sign it.


Emily Christoff Flowers, "Listening to My Guitar Gently Weeps, by George Harrison," pastel on UArt paper, 20 x 16 in
Emily Christoff Flowers, “Listening to My Guitar Gently Weeps, by George Harrison,” pastel on UArt paper, 20 x 16 in


Ok, that’s about it for the process. My hope is to draw the viewer into my work (pun intended] with technical abilities then make them become immersed in the floating patterns as the figure seems to become lost in the music.

My advice to other artists who suffer from low art-esteem or are having a creative block is to just stop caring what the world thinks, paint what you love, and start having fun with what you are creating.




WOW – was that amazing or what? Spectacular turn around by Emily Christoff Flowers don’t you think? Emily’s story really shows both the power of art (and music) to get you through difficult times, and the change that can happen if you let yourself go and see what happens.

We’d both love to hear your reactions – to Emily’s story and to her artwork – so please leave a comment on the blog. I hope you’ll share this post with friends, especially those going through any sort of anguish be it mental or physical.


31 in 31 is On!

I’ve had a few people want to take up the challenge of 30 paintings in 30 days. Choosing October means 31 days and thus 31 paintings! I think it’s better to get going sooner than later though. So we’ll start 1st October. Who else is on board? Come on over to the HowToPastel Facebook group and confirm your participation! More on this next week…


Thanks, as always, for being here.


Until next time,

~ Gail


PS. If you’re feeling lost in your art or totally frustrated, why not give me a call so we can talk about it. Schedule a call by clicking here.

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30 thoughts on “Emily Christoff Flowers – Find Your Path By Painting What You Love”

    1. Oh my gosh how could I not notice Emily! I’m so glad she has found this new way of expressing her creative spirit. Pretty amazing work. And how wonderful it would be for her to be an IAPS teacher. Hoping to get to IAPS again next year. It’s such an extraordinary experience! ThanksRita for your comment 🙂

  1. Wow, terrific story! I’ve been following Emily’s work for a while and loved all of it, but this recent series is really fantastic and bewitching. Thanks for sharing your history and going into so much detail on your process.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it Elizabeth. I have to say I was surprised when I first saw Emily’s draft. I had no idea of her story and it makes the work that much more poignant. I love that you used the word ‘bewitching’ – it is indeed that!

    1. You are so welcome Cristel! I’m always delighted when I can introduce new artists to readers. It was Emily’s use of pattern as well as strong emotion and technical brilliance that got me the first time I saw Emily’s work.

    1. Thanks Daggi! And isn’t Emily’s story fantastic. I was so moved by the change in her art as a result of her struggle through a life crisis. I had no idea about this when I invited her to guest blog – I just enjoyed her artwork! But her backstory just made her work that much more wonderful.

  2. I’ve found it near impossible to paint what others want or expect, or what the latest trends in images are.
    And being expected to paint like one’s tutors or other artists of the day…definitely a big no-no. Universities often turn out slick clever artists who are here today and gone tomorrow cos the trend circus has moved on. This lady’s work is very much hers, centred in herself and she’s doing her own thing, clearly very talented.
    It’s hard to produce artwork and not care whether others like it or not, but that seems to be the rhinoceros-skin that we have to put around ourselves!

    1. Hi Chris, well said. Though I’m happy to say that I do know there are some art schools now that encourage exploration beyond learning techniques. I am just glad that after many years of painting for someone else that Emily found her way through to her unique voice! And we are the happy recipients of that emergence 🙂

  3. Thank you for this article about Emily Christoff. She is an inspiration. Truly amazing work with so much soul.. I love her work. She tells us to be who we are. She tells us all that it is o.k. to paint more realistic than everyone else. Sometimes, as pastel artists, we are criticised if our pastel work is not loose enough.

    1. You said it beautifully Sandy! And yes, the trick is to find what we ourselves want to say and then keep painting painting. All of Emily’s years of a painting before this series gave her the skills she needed to express herself in this new way. Such a joy and a treat to be witness to this emergence. It’s easy to say, ‘find your own path,’ but as Emily’s story shows, it can be a challenge. Sadly, sometimes we may need a jolt to shake who we really are, what we really want to say out of us.

  4. Emily Christoff Flowers is a true Renaissance woman. I admire her persistence, her strength and her determination to find her unique voice. Loved the reference to Gustave Klimt and Alphonse Mucha. I admired her painting you featured in an earlier post so it was lovely to see more of her work.
    Thanks Gail for another inspiring treat.

  5. I really enjoyed this article. Not only is she incredibly talented but her description of the Art professors attitudes resonated with me completely! I left Art school feeling disillusioned and frustrated, in fact I dumped all of my school created pieces in the trash the last day of class. They were always trying to “change” my style and I dont think it helps to push a student that way. Bravo to her for being able to see through the BS finally and create these amazing and beautiful works of art. I’m now a fan.. thank you

    1. Hi Laura, Thanks for adding your experience with art school. It’s such a pity that this way of teaching seems widespread. I think pushing and challenging is good but there must also be ways to open up avenues to our own unique voices. Glad Emily has another fan 🙂

  6. I absolutely loved this blog post and I had noticed and fell in love with Emily’s painting of the beautiful child in “Listening to Mozart”. I often felt guilty (and a bit sad) about painting realistically as so many artists would tell me I need to paint looser or in ‘my own style’. It sort of made me feel very unclever. I never knew what to do with the backgrounds in my paintings and these patterned backgrounds are spectacular. I am excited to try something similar. How wonderful that Emily has found her ‘place’ in the art world and all those Art school snobs have been put in their place.

    1. Thank you for sharing your own story Sharon, about the insecurity you feel about painting YOUR way! You just “need” to paint the way that feels right for you. So very glad you enjoyed this post of Emily’s work 🙂

  7. Hi, Gail!
    I had never seen Emily Christoff Flowers work before. It’s unique and beautiful! I feel very inspired after reading her story and was reminded about how I would get lost in music when I was younger, but seldom even take the time to listen these days. When I finish this post, I have a small CD player that I’ll move upstairs with a few CD’s that inspire me. Will definitely make my painting a much more enjoyable time, too!

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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