The Q&A: Steven E. Hughes

By Peggy Roalf   Monday March 12, 2018

Q: Originally from [Stow, Ohio] what are some of your favorite things about living and working in [Marquette, MI]?

A: The natural landscape of the Upper Peninsula is endlessly inspiring. I can walk to the beach, or work, from my home in under 10 minutes. Given those choices, some days it’s hard to go to work, but I’m lucky to have landed at a University with a great Art & Design School (Northern Michigan University), and amazing colleagues.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper [or other analog medium] versus in the computer?

A: My sketchbook has only recently become the sort of romantic idea of an artist’s sketchbook. I’ve taken to documenting the Upper Peninsula landscape near my home. Figure drawing also fills up a pile of sketchbooks each year too. For the rest of my work, I use plain computer paper for the composition and ideation process on a project. This helps me keep the preciousness out of the drawings, and just get on with the work. I do use the computer to assemble compositions from drawings and photo reference, but then move back to painting traditionally.


Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

A: Time. With a full-time teaching position and kids, having uninterrupted time is the most valuable requirement to the work that I’m able to get done. Everything else is just a thing that could be replaced.

Q: How do you know when the art is finished?

I think like most illustrators the deadline forces a finish to present itself, whether by design or circumstance. I will certainly repaint things until I’m happy with their realization, but I have never been one to revisit work after the fact. I don’t have a hard time calling a piece finished, but it must communicate the intended message and be of comparable quality to the work I maintain on my website.

Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

A: Every Chris VanAllsburg book in my elementary school library probably had my name on the card a dozen times, but the Wreck of the Zephyr was my favorite. The dramatic lighting and use of color was something that stood out to me. The way Van Allsburg mixed a little fantasy into his stories always made me look an ordinary occurrence in a different way.

Q: What is the best book you’ve recently read?

A: I really appreciated the mixture of American and mythology and in American Godsby Neil Gaiman. Having made my own road trip though the middle of the country this summer seemed to deepen my connection to the characters’ journey.

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A: This is like which medium would I take with me if I was marooned on a deserted island. Since I teach and have to stay practiced in a range of media, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I have to go with pastels. They would allow me to engage with color, and a ‘kind’ of painting, while also being able to act like a drawing instrument to play with lines.


Q: What elements of daily life exert the most influence on your work practice?

A: Being a teacher means I must constantly be researching techniques, artists, and diverse subject matter to stay relevant to the students. I continuously find ideas that were discussed in class have a way of affecting how I develop my own work. Sometimes it can be a simple foundational principle that I make sure to “nail,” so that I practice what I preach in the class. Other times, a student might ask a question that makes me stop and reflect on some of the choices I’m making during a demo, or that another artist might be concerned with in their own work.

Q: What was the [Thunderbolt] painting or drawing or film or otherwise that most affected your approach to art? 

A:There are plenty of paintings that I refer to for inspiration on paint handling, color, anatomy, economy, etc., and I seem to find a new one everyday. However, a couple of pieces from a college lecture made me immediately aware of how attentive you needed to be as an artist to the design decisions that are represented in a final piece.

The first is an Al Parker illustration from a Saturday Evening Post story, “Rebound,” of a man and woman in a raincoat having coffee in a café or diner. It’s an innocuous scene, but Parker keeps the eye moving around with repetition of circles and angles that keep leading back to the woman’s gaze and stoic expression in contrast to the man’s laughing smile. The second piece is a Chris Sheban illustration from I Met a Dinosaur. There is a giant stegosaurus (my favorite as a kid) whose plates circle around the composition, which is great design on its own, but Sheban also repeats the plate shape in the gas station signage. That idea of repetition with variation has stuck with me.


Q: Who was the [Thunderbolt] teacher or mentor or visiting artist who most influenced you early in your training or career?

A: The illustration professors at Kent State University, at the time Jerry Kalback and Douglas Goldsmith, were like two sides of a coin deposited in my creative future. I’m indebted to their support and the many conversations we had about illustration and teaching. I assisted both of their classes as a grad student and learned how to cultivate an atmosphere that would stimulate learning and how to motivate the unmoved. I hope that I am as well regarded by my students in the future, as Doug and Jerry are by me.

Q: What would be your last supper?

Sauerbraten and risotto.


Steven E. Hughesisan illustrator and professor based in Marquette, Michigan. Steve grew up in northeast Ohio, where he studied Visual Communication Design at Kent State University. After earning his MFA in illustration from Kent, he has become Associate Professor of Illustration at Northern Michigan University. While outside of the classroom, Steve operates his illustration and art studio, Primary Hughes. Steve’s workhas been used by The New York Times, American Greetings, Toronto Blue Jays Care Foundation, Light Grey Art Lab, Case Western Reserve University, Ohio Magazine, and been displayed in numerous gallery exhibitions around the US.His work has been recognized by respected illustration and art competitions including the Society of Illustrators, The Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles (SILA), 3x3, Art Renewal Center, Creative Quarterly, and Illustration NOW! 5.


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