Occasionally I will return to a familiar subject or location that I happen to like and paint it again. I have actually done this on a number of occasions, and each time I have enjoyed the experience. Why? A good subject is a good subject, and painting on the same location multiple times is usually a thrill, as long as the goal is not to reproduce something that I’ve already done before. The variables in each of these exercises are: vantage point, time of day, weather conditions, season, and emotional reaction to the subject. That’s right, emotional reaction.
That’s what I like about painting landscapes; there is room for interpretation, and a certain amount of artistic license can be taken without offending the model. People, on the other hand, have their own agendas for what your painting should look like. Portraits especially can be a minefield for any artist trying to satisfy the vanity of the sitter. I have found that even landscapes can present similar problems if the scene is iconic in nature or you are doing a commission for a client. Take a subject like the Grand Tetons: “You better not mess with those mountains,” was the message to me a few years back upon entry into a new gallery. The problem was that I painted a subject down on String Lake and cut off the top of the Cathedral group of mountains. The gallery owner assured me that such a transgression made a painting that he would be unsellable no matter how well done it was. I was forced to take the painting and head home with a sense of rejection. Several hours later on my five hour trip back to Salt Lake I got a call from the same gallery owner informing me that a client who walked in the gallery that morning had seen the painting on the floor and came back to purchase it. Rather desperately he asked me if I could ship it back right away! Of course, I said, with a new sense of vindication and a renewed hope for collectors who appreciate aesthetics over mere depiction.
My artistic temperament is such that I don’t know that I could make a faithful copy of another painting without some sort of adverse emotional reaction; copying may involve art but, there is no art in a copy. My preference is an experience where creative energy is channeled through me to the business end of the brush; when that is allowed to happen, real art happens, and I know I am really painting. I learned some time ago that following the dictates of someone else’s vision for a painting doesn’t give me much pleasure. I feel the pressure of needing to render something through the eyes of another human being, and as a result the work gets tight and I wind up doing emotional somersaults. The reason for this eventually became clear to me; the way I paint is as much of an emotional and spiritual event as it is a visual one. As I work on a piece, the painting suggests things and I respond in a sort of visual duel; each time countering with a quick thrust of paint only to be parried in return by another visual impression. Sometimes the pace is fast, and at other times slow and methodical. Some paint strokes serve as finished marks that will be left alone and others are preliminary, setting the stage for others to follow. The process is one of give and take with the demands of the scene and the demands of creativity locked in a battle that can only be won by finding common ground at the elusive point X.
Somewhere along the continuum of creativity and craftsmanship there is a point where the two intersect harmoniously and unpretentiously in a natural rhythm that is difficult to achieve. Point X can’t be forced and yet, can only be reached through a bravado of execution that requires courage to fail as well as to succeed. The pitfalls are real, but the rewards are great for those willing to take risks.
An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.