Swan grew up in Madison, SD. After graduation from high school he decided to become an artist. With help from a scholarship, he attended Iowa State University, where he worked with Grant Wood and other artists on Wood's mural "When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow" for the university library. Swan left college to join the Minnesota WPA Federal Art Project as a painter. While on the project he produced several lithographs. With the start of World War II he put away his paints and brushes to join the Air Force Reserve, where he trained pilots, teaching in the morning and practicing aerobatics in the afternoon. After the war he became a captain for Western Airlines, flying DC-3s. He was also a vintner, founding Joseph Swan Winery in California. Crump, Robert L. Minnesota Prints and Printmakers, 1900-1945. (St. Paul, MN, 2009).