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Tom Hoffman’s Shift from Portraits to Landscapes Embraces Challenge in the New Year

Tom Hoffman in his studio, courtesy the artist

“I love drawing, it is where I came from,” says University of Utah art professor Tom Hoffman. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Hoffman earned a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989, and an MFA from Northwestern University in 1991. He has worked as a realist in a variety of genres, but is best known for his portrait work. For several years now, he has been working on a series of portraits in graphite. You may have seen some at Site Lines, the U of U faculty show at the UMFA last year.

The series, Hoffman says, began with a portrait of fellow U professor Bob Kleinschmidt. “I always thought Bob had an interesting face. He was in his late 80s at the time and I was fascinated with how life had remapped his face, the folds of this chin and neck, the wrinkles around his eyes. I’m a realist in love with detail. It is the specificity of things that move me. The other thing I did with Bob and the subsequent drawings was work larger scale. (I think my vision was giving me trouble at that time as well as my hand.) I couldn’t do the tight rendering anymore. Over time, the drawings changed from no background, to specific settings that are part of the documentary function of a portrait. These are people I love and admire. They are for the most part lifelong working artists with careers spanning fifty plus years.”

He describes the series as “the best thing that I have ever done. I love the tactile quality of it.” Why, then, shift from these graphite portraits to landscapes in oil?  “There are several reasons and I find myself reluctant to talk about them. Formally it represents a challenge. Color is a challenge. I teach color theory and studied with a color genius (James Valerio). I love color and I try to achieve a balance while choosing chromatic solutions rather than tonal ones.”

He uses photo references, which can be difficult in landscape painting, because there is, as he says, “no there there — there is no sense of atmospheric perspective, temperature variances, or depth. So, for me, landscapes are on the cusp of abstraction and I treat them that way.”

In the landscape work, the drawing is looser than the tight rendering of his portraits — just enough to lay out major structures. “The focus is on color and mark making, brush shaping, paint quality, etc. It’s more the vocabulary of an abstract painter.”

“Certain changes are more difficult than others, this one involves two different mindsets,” Hoffman says of his shift. “There is little that is tactile in the landscape. It is light and air, and as much about the negative space as form. It also is a constant struggle between my need for high resolution and my desire for a more painterly dialogue in the paintings.”

Hoffman’s drawings are in the permanent collections of the Block Museum at Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago. He has exhibited at the Spring Salon at the Springville Museum of Art where “Crush” (2000) is featured in its permanent collection. His work also has been featured in national juried exhibitions, Contemporary Realism ’96, and Contemporary Realism III in Philadelphia. He is represented by ‘A’ Gallery in Salt Lake City.

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2 replies »

  1. Fascinating. I so enjoy these looks ahead (and back) by artists. This one is especially informative by a familiar painter making an enormous shift. Both our loss and our gain.

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