By Kathy Johnson
The view from artist Malcolm Hughes’ living room window in North Garden—rolling fields, blooming trees and nearby rippling ridgelines—is an inspiration to paint.
“I grew up in Texas,” said Hughes, “the land of the big skies, West Texas in particular–Amarillo. I think that developed an appreciation for the luxuriant landscapes, and I think because of the sparseness, in terms of trees and that kind of thing, I developed an appreciation for landscapes with trees–big trees and ornamental things in my imagination,” he said.
“I lived in West Texas for 30 years plus, then we moved to northern New Mexico, the community of Taos. It’s very artistic, very much an art town both in terms of production and galleries and that kind of thing.
“We lived in New Mexico for 12 years and I plied my trade as a painter, a landscape painter. That’s been my first love. I’m really taken with light, color, value changes in the landscape, shadowing, reflected light, all those kind of impressionist ways of seeing the landscape, as well as beautiful shapes and colors.
“I kind of wanted to live wherever that happens, which tends to be around mountains or where there’s hills or interesting trees and seasonal changes. My wife and I had honeymooned in this area in 1979 and I’d always remembered Charlottesville after we drove through here and saw Monticello. I remember thinking how beautiful the landscape was with the added difference being that the atmosphere was very thick, and it had a diffusing effect on the colors and a bluish effect on distances. The trees were what stuck in my imagination. So years later when we thought about moving from New Mexico to a little better place for our kids we thought of Charlottesville and also the church situation here, the many educational opportunities, the many amenities that we thought would work. We moved here in ’98, built this house and I continued my work as a landscape painter. I made a lot of day trips and area trips, or I would just set up my easel right outside my door.”
Hughes does take commissioned subjects. “I am happy to do those. I don’t know if I’ve actually ever turned down a commission,” he said. “There’s probably been a time or two, but generally it works for me if it captures my imagination and I feel like I can honestly make an interesting painting out of whatever it is. Since I’ve been here I’ve had commissions every year, landscape pieces, or special homes or barns or farms or that kind of thing.
“I find that it’s a real enjoyable challenge to take something that might be kind of ordinary but is beloved by a certain person and then find something, an angle on it, that is extraordinary, or a time of year or a time of day when the light is doing interesting things, and make something extraordinary out of it.
“Art is very much a correspondence between the viewer or the one that enjoys the art and the one that produces it. I am very communal in my sense of how art ought to happen, so that I am very happy for people to suggest things that I paint or request paintings or whatever and for that to be part of the creative process of how I actually produce a given painting.
“I just recently did one this past year down in Rockingham County. I had never been to Rockingham. The view I painted was on the westward slope of that area and is quite beautiful. I was really struck by the view of a whole different part of the state. The longer I live here the more I find that I would like to paint.”
“Sometimes I find a farm or vista and I will think of three or four ways to paint it. During the day the atmosphere changes and so it is just a kaleidoscope of possibilities.”
Of course light plays a huge part in Hughes’ paintings. Bright sun, soft shadows, shaded areas with different textures and depth combine to bring a sense of moment to the paintings. A viewer can almost sense the heat of the day, or the buzz of bees among the flowers or the soft touch of sunlight.
“I like to say that I am somewhat self-guided. Or maybe a more accurate way to say it is that I am sort of ‘hunger-guided,’ meaning that I wanted to do something on canvas that was only possible, it seemed to me, if I chased certain painters to emulate or to study their work and to try to draw on the well that they were producing from.”
His father and grandparents were art dealers after World War II. Back in his hometown of Amarillo, they had a gallery Hughes described as “kind of a furniture gallery with some pretty good paintings.”
“I would take these paintings home and copy them, matching colors and matching textures, because that was one way to learn,” he explained. “That was in my early teens. Then I started doing watercolors based on imagination and on what I was seeing, and painting and doing some photography in conjunction with that.” After high school he delved into photography and went to a graphic arts school. “That was the extent of my ‘formal’ training in art,” he said.
“Then I studied with various painters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and hung out with painters, and, probably the most helpful thing, I went to museums and sometimes copied paintings. But mostly I just painted. The greatest teacher is to take your easel and your pallet outdoors and trying to capture what is in front of your eyes. That’s the whole idea of ‘plein air’ painting.” He mentioned French Impressionist painters who took collapsible easels outside to paint in the open air. “The same basic design for the easel is still used today. Nobody can come up with anything better.”
Hughes said he spends a lot of time outdoors developing color ideas. He also drives around at different times of day and year to see what he might find. “It’s sort of like going fishing,” he said. “A lot of men like to fish. I actually don’t fish because it is so much like painting. You’re quiet and you’re also sort of casting. You’re putting your opportunity out there and if something beautiful comes your way you try to catch it.
“I might go out on a given day with what you might call my ‘oil sport’ and I might do three or four different paintings and two or three of them may be really great opportunities but I don’t know that at the time. There’s just too much sensory data coming into your brain when you are outdoors, but when I get back in the studio and hang the stuff up and look at it, I often think, ‘Wow, this has got possibilities.’”
Hughes’ work was recently on display as the artist of the month at the Shenandoah Valley Art Center in Waynesboro. His pieces can be seen now at l’etoile restaurant at 817 West Main Street in Charlottesville or online at www.mhughesart.com.