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TOM HUGHES: GRAY DAYS

Tom Hughes is British artist who conquers landscapes, cityscapes and still lifes with every painting http://www.tomhughespainting.co.uk/.  His work really has this melancholy quality that resonates with me.  What’s more, he’s very approachable and authentic.  You’ll see.   

“Bright paintings with highly-saturated colours seem to get way too much attention for my liking. They are like the show-off at a party, shouting a lot. I like to think of my pieces as the quiet thoughtful kid in the corner!”   

MICHAEL: Hey Tom, Your work is very intriguing to me.  To me, it's sort of a gray, somber, contemporary take on old master, still life painting.  It's humble, sedate and realist with a few touches here are there of perhaps Impressionism.  I don't know.  How do you describe your work?  What inspires you?

TOM: Thank you, I’m glad that’s what you see. I’m a representational painter, so my main concern is working out why things look the way they do and then how to mimic those effects with oil paint. I like using a lot of transparent pigments due to their wonderful depth and richness and then play that off against highly opaque areas with very accurate colours to create some dynamics. Paint has so many different physical properties, so I really try and exploit those to my advantage. Dynamics are very important to me. 

I’m inspired by very simple things. I’m not really interested in what the objects are that I am painting, but more how they look; their shapes and texture and so on. When I’m setting up a still life or painting an interior, I’m looking at the scene in a very abstract sense. I want strong shapes and defined areas of tone. I think I see like a photographer really, the initial composition is incredibly important to me. I spend a long time setting up a still life or choosing an angle for an interior as I know the end result will be pretty close if I do it right, so I need to make all the important decisions about where I place bright objects and where the light is falling before I start. I never boost areas later while I’m painting, as it’s all about trying to capture exactly what I’m seeing.

As far as interiors go, I love finding a beautiful composition inside a room. Clutter and mess can help. A pair of brightly coloured socks left on the floor for instance can create a very powerful focal point in an image. They are just socks, who cares about socks? But they could absolutely make the painting. There is beauty everywhere; you just have to look for it.

MICHAEL: What I've seen of your work doesn't strike me as light and cheery.  The tone is serious and somber.  Some works seem melancholy. Does that describe you?

TOM: Absolutely. I need a lot of time by myself to think and just look at things. I like gray days, mist, storm clouds etc, they seem to reflect how I feel most of the time. I don’t see my work as depressing though and hope it isn’t viewed that way, but more as introspective and thoughtful. I’m not a huge fan of summer and bright light, it gives me eye strain and I don’t like the heat, so painting on grey days is far more comfortable for me. I see and feel drama in grays and darks, populated with the odd punch of bright colour or highlight. That’s what really gets me going. If you want a colour or bright tone to really sing, you have to place it in a gray or dark context, I feel. The impact of a colour is highly relative to its context and surroundings. 

It’s very hard for me to describe this, but I’ll try anyway … I almost feel sorry for gray days and de-saturated paintings. They seem unloved to me, like ignored underdogs. But I see such a powerful beauty in them that I want to celebrate them and try and show people how lovely they can be. Bright paintings with highly-saturated colours seem to get way too much attention for my liking. They are like the show-off at a party, shouting a lot. I like to think of my pieces as the quiet thoughtful kid in the corner!  Also, even on a bright day, colours are often not as saturated as many seem to think. Gray is everywhere, all the time.

MICHAEL: Wow.  I love that answer.  Your philosophy has definitely shaped your signature style.   You're clearly not motivated by trends or trendiness. There's a lot of that in the art world.  What do you think about this?

TOM: People paint for different reasons. Some want to make money as fast as possible and go for a commercial style that is currently selling well at art fairs or whatever. I guess the other extreme is people who paint purely out of love of paint and don’t care about selling at all, so their work is potentially more personal. Then you have everyone in-between. I don’t see any approach as more or less valid as they all serve a purpose and talk to  different audiences. There’s nothing wrong with making money from painting nor is there anything wrong with never showing a single piece and painting as a hobby.

Personally, I try to paint from the heart and make marks that satisfy me and choose compositions that excite me. In a way (and this might sound bad) I couldn’t care less about what anyone wants because painting is about me telling my story and expressing how I feel about the world. If I paint what I want and how I want, I will attract buyers who appreciate that vision. I see no point is trying to anticipate what people will want, because people want a lot of different things! You only have to flip through various paintings online to see that. I sold a painting of a roundabout on a motorway recently … you never know what someone will like. So, there is a market for everything and it’s just a matter of how big is your market?  Maybe it’s tiny and you’ll need a part-time job. Maybe it’s huge and you’ll be very rich! What matters is getting your work seen, so you can reach that market, however large or small it may be.

The other aspect of painting is commissions, where it certainly does matter what someone else wants. As long as you talk it through initially, everyone will be clear on what is involved and what is realistically possible. Commissions can open up opportunities that you never would have had if you’d just rigorously adhered to you “personal vision." That’s exciting. Commissions aren’t for everyone and they can go bad. Again, it’s all down to personal choice. Aren’t we as painters lucky to be in control of all these decisions?

MICHAEL: When you're actually in front of the canvas and painting, what's going through your mind?  Is the process more emotional, intellectual and/or spiritual?  Do you watch TV or listen to music while you paint?  What kind of music?

TOM: I get a sort of tunnel vision, everything disappears apart from what’s going into the painting, it’s a very intense mindset. I like listening to music if I’m painting in town as it helps block out the noise. Headphones also act as a “Do Not Disturb” sign which is very handy. Lots of people stop to look and some will engage you in conversation. I don’t mind talking to people, sometimes I welcome it, but you do get the occasional one that talks “at” you for 40 minutes when all you want to do is finish the painting before the light changes! I like to listen to pretty chilled stuff when I’m working, Sigur Ros, Four Tet, Blockhead and Skalpel are my most common playlists.

The process is a combination of emotional and technical. I never set up anywhere or begin a painting unless I’m feeling it, so the emotional connection has to be there or I just can’t get into it. The very complicated scenes with a lot of drawing are very technically demanding. I have to concentrate so hard I haven’t really got room for anything else. The main things on my mind are, “How does it feel to be standing here, looking at this" and then “How do I explain that feeling with what I know about paint?” So yeah, emotional inspiration, technical execution.

MICHAEL: Are you in London?  What's the art scene like there?  Are you part of the art scene or more removed?

TOM: I live in Bristol, which is about two hours west of London. The art scene here is incredibly vibrant, with three, large shared artist’s studios ten minutes walk from my flat. Bristol is known for its creativity, giving birth to artists like Banksy and musicians such as Portishead and Massive Attack. There must be something in the water here. There is always a private view to go to somewhere and Bristol has a fair few galleries, so there is always something new to see and people to meet within the art scene. We’re very lucky here. I have a home studio that I work from when I’m doing still life and of course, I’m always outside when doing landscapes or cityscapes on location. I’m not a big part of the local art scene as I don’t have a space in one of the shared studios, but I know a lot of those people as my girlfriend Serena Curmi, who is also a painter, has a space in one of the bigger places. I’m definitely getting known locally now though as more and more people meet me when I’m out painting on the street. It’s a great form of advertising as you’re basically doing your craft in front of a live audience. I have no plans to move to London at all, I have everything I need right here. The West is the best!

MICHAEL: How would you say your life is different as a result of being in a relationship with another artist - as compared to someone who may be a teacher, nurse, doctor, etc.?

TOM: There are benefits and drawbacks, but I feel the former outweighs the latter. Financial instability is the obvious drawback, as painting can be a pretty precarious way to make a living. I find many artists have a partner with a stable job which really takes the edge off the anxiety. We don’t have that, but what we do have is a mutual respect and understanding for each other’s craft. We can talk about the business side, as well as the creative side of painting and we get where the other is coming from. We’re both in the same boat. Luckily we have very different styles, so we are not directly competing! Neither of us work regular hours/days either. We are both very flexible in this regard, so if we wanted to go on holiday or take a long weekend or say go to the beach on a Tuesday, we can. That part is awesome. Plus, we both get to lie-in together most mornings. Haha!

MICHAEL: Finally Tom, Can you explain this to me?  Why on earth would anyone choose a profession that is so unpredictable and often disrespected, involves making things that many people don't consider essential and is often subject to whim if not complete ignorance?  Why not make things easier on yourself and become something with a future like a stockbroker, attorney or teacher?  Isn't it nearly every parent's nightmare to hear their kid say they want to be an artist?

TOM: Well, it chooses you, doesn’t it? Most painters I know, myself included, would say that they couldn’t be anything else. It’s just a place you arrive at. And, when the money worries start to kick in and you look for other work, the thought of that work compared to the freedom and fulfillment you feel when your painting makes you sick to your stomach, so you keep painting instead. Eventually you realise that you don’t care about money nearly as much as you thought you did and that “stuff” isn’t really that important. It’s cheesy, but you do only get one life, no dress rehearsals, etc, so you might as well spend your time doing something that you care about. I’d like more money, sure, but hopefully that will come as a result of hard work and sticking to my guns.

My parents have always been very supportive and have said they can’t imagine me doing anything else, which is great. They are both very creative, but had “normal” jobs with a stable income, something I was grateful for as a kid. If my children wanted to be painters, I’d support them 100% and would also have the experience, resources and connections to help make it happen a little easier. But kids want to rebel don’t they?  So they’ll probably end up being stockbrokers…

MICHAEL: Thanks Tom.  This has been a very cool chat.  You are truly authentic.  Your words and the spirit of your work are one and the same.

Check out Tom Hughes at http://www.tomhughespainting.co.uk/.



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