Charles H. Sawyer was born on March 24, 1868, probably in Norridgewock, Maine, the third son of Henry K. Sawyer, who ran a hotel and livery stable. He, along with brothers Russell and William, were educated locally and then attended the Eaton School. Here Charles studied art and painting; and it was here he met his future wife, Mary Anderson.
In the 1890s Sawyer began his career as a portrait artist, a painter, and then as a photographer in Providence, Rhode Island. He also worked as a pencil artist for the New-York Tribune and worked with the well-known photo painter Wallace Nutting. Here, Sawyer learned the painting and coloring techniques that would move his black and white photographic art to another level. He also created watercolor, pastel, and crayon portraits on commission. Ultimately, however, his fortune and reputation were built on his dramatic American and Canadian landscapes.