Steven 'Primary' Hughes is a freelance illustrator and Associate Professor of Illustration at Northern Michigan University. Hughes' commercial clients include The New York Times, Creative Quarterly, American Greetings, while his fine art work has been exhibited at galleries and museums across the USA. We asked a few questions about his upcoming Modern Eden Gallery exhibition: Emergent.
Interview by Waiton Farrell
WF: Emergent opens July 11 at the gallery. Can you tell us a little bit about this series and how it came to fruition?
PH: The new work has roots back to my grad school fascination with layering of content and design motifs in my early illustrations. However, a small piece that I created, the eponymous Emergence, for the Flower Child show at Modern Eden a few years ago is the real genesis of the series. Otherwise, I would be remiss in not mentioning the support of my wife and family, as well as a sabbatical from teaching (Northern Michigan University) that allowed time for this to fully develop into a body of work.
WF: Many of your figure concepts present swirling prismatic experiences that engage the viewer through layered images. Where does your creative process begin to create these immersive paintings?
PH: It’s a process of curation and editing that is hard to completely predict in advance. There are countless stages that each piece goes through before I’m satisfied with the feeling that it evokes. Working with a model to create reference material, I come back and sort through all the images looking for a pose or gesture that has a story to it. Then, layering of curvilinear designs and obvious floral motifs disrupts the natural representation. I’m looking to find meaning in the rhythm or harmony of color interaction, shape and/or structural relationships between the elements.
WF: As a teacher in addition to a successful painter, how does your critical eye and critique of your students’ works contribute to your own mastery of the canvas?
PH: I have a hard time imagining where my work would be without my experiences as a professor. The daily reminders given to students on the importance of fundamentals and, yes, the critical eye and discussions about choices that are being made to further a piece are never far from my thoughts.
WF: Your plein air compositions compared to your vibrant and animated figure paintings are fascinating in the distinction between them. How do you bring such a varied approach to your paintings, depending on their subject?
PH: In truth, the experience painting plein air landscapes has brought me more confidence in paint handling and sensitivity to the color variations in the ‘Emergent’ series than you might realize. Some of my favorite moments of texture or swirls of paint in the series would not have happened without the forays into oil painting on location. There isn’t time to obsess about details like you might in the studio. There’s a freedom in setting up an easel somewhere out in nature and trying your hardest to capture the ephemeral.
WF: Who were some of the artists that most inspired you? What was it about their respective techniques which helped you develop your own style?
PH: The impressionists were an early influence with their use of color and light, while the golden age illustrators like NC Wyeth have taught me pictorial design and storytelling principles. Wyeth’s work conveys those unwritten moments between the lines in a story so well. The quieter moments such as determination, reflection, and preparation have such emotional potential. Meanwhile, I can trace some inspiration for my attention to detail and color back to Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s books like Jumanji and The Wreck of the Zephyr. Finally, Sterling Hundley is incredibly influential to how I think about my work conceptually, as well as formally, through some of the visual layering.
WF: How has your creative process shifted in this era of social media and instant-gratification? Has it allowed you to engage with your collectors and fans in a different way, as they can peek at your works-in-progress, or do you prefer to keep your process private until your pieces are ready for the gallery wall?
PH: Social media has certainly made it possible to reach people with my work that would never have seen it before. Typically, I share something online when I feel it has value. The pressure of daily postings is at odds with work that takes longer to develop. So, for this series I held it all pretty close to me. Very few people had a glimpse at the work before we got closer to the opening.
WF: Expanding on the idea of your life as a teacher, how do you use your experience to prepare your students for a career as an artist, if that is their aim? Are there any specific business tips you like to impart to them as they grow in their career?
PH: As a professor, my aim is to instruct and guide students, but also stay out of their way. It’s a badge of honor that I don’t produce lookalikes. Everyone has their own voice, but it can take a while to recognize it within ourselves. I fought against my own natural tendencies for a long time because I was chasing what others were doing or what I thought they wanted. If I can help my students embrace what makes them unique, and make that realization earlier than I did—it’s a win. As for business tips—find your audience. Who connects with the work you’re doing? If there’s a market you want to break into, who’s doing it well and where are they working. Can you approach the same problem in a way that’s unique to you? Seek out your path, because it won’t be the same as anyone else’s.
WF: How does color come into play in how you evoke specific emotions in the viewer of your paintings?
PH: The warmer colors that glow within some of the figures certainly speak to internal fire and strength, but other decisions are more intuitive and reflect the deeply personal associations that colors can provoke in us. On the whole, I feel the emotion developing, not from some historical meaning behind color, but from the rhythm and colorful tapestry of shapes woven across each painting.
WF: I particularly love the way the figures in your Emergent collection gaze at the viewer, as if wishing to whisper a secret from the canvas. Who were your muses for these pieces, and what can we learn from them?
PH: The gaze is really important to draw the viewer into the story that is emerging. Rather than being reflective of a particular person, the paintings capture something inside and make it manifest. They offer a beginning to unravel, a story for the viewer to finish as their experience with the work develops over time.
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