Tom Hughes Is More Than a Plein-Air Pro

Tom Hughes Is More Than a Plein-Air Pro


The Alameda artist excels at drawing and painting outdoors and indoors.

For self-taught Alameda painter Tom Hughes, the evolution of his life as an artist was a slow percolation leading to an epiphany. Hughes says the beginnings are obscure but were likely psychological adaptations to home life.

He was born in Massachusetts in 1965. His father, who was a painter, ran away when Hughes was a little boy. Hughes was an obsessive “drawer,” as he was called growing up, always trying to make things look “right.”

But it wasn’t until much later that it became something more serious and dedicated for him. “I had no pretensions to fine artwork until I was in my early 20s and the command to paint simply came to me, whereupon I did my best to comply,” Hughes said.

Hughes was on a much different path as a young man. “My mother told me, not without reason, that I couldn’t make a living as an artist, and I swallowed that notion whole,” he said.

He studied physics, an ambition hatched at age 12, at both Northeastern University and M.I.T. but left in 1986 to work at the Christian Science Monitor daily newspaper. Starting as a copy clerk with an occasional illustration assignment, Hughes proposed the idea of becoming a full-time illustrator to the art director one day. “I showed her my portfolio of posters I had done for frat parties, no joke,” Hughes laughed. She said he could start the next week and he quit school altogether to go all in.

After three years, he left and pursued work as a freelance illustrator while teaching himself to paint. “When I was 23, it came very suddenly to me that ‘I Had To Paint’ in a serious way, and I went with it and haven’t looked back,” Hughes said.

In 1993 at age 27, he left all other work behind for a full-time focus as a professional artist. Coincidentally, Winslow Homer — one of Hughes’ biggest influences as an artist — had a similar trajectory. After achieving success as a painter, Homer left his day job as a magazine illustrator to become a full-time artist in his late 30s.

Hughes lived in and around Boston until moving to New Hampshire in the 1990s. “My wife and I moved to the Lake Tahoe area in 1999, really just to go somewhere else and because I was represented by a gallery there which was doing pretty well,” he said.

After four years, they moved to the Bay Area, beginning with Berkeley and settling in Alameda in 2007. Working out of his Livingston Street studio in Oakland’s Embarcadero district, Hughes said his favorite motifs and subject matter include natural landscape, urban landscape, and portraiture, working in various media including oil, acrylic, watercolor, and alkyd. Being self-taught, Hughes has no formal mentors to speak of but counts among his influences, along with Winslow Homer, artists J. S. Sargent, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Vuillard.

“I learned to paint by adapting what I could, in the matter of technical procedure and subject matter from artists whose work I admired,” Hughes explained. The inner prompt, aside from a continuing desire to keep working creatively, is usually a response to the work that has come before, both his own and other contemporary artists, Hughes added.

In the studio, Hughes usually has several or more paintings in progress, one of which will take precedence because it is interesting to him or because he needs to get specific paintings out to a show or a gallery. For reference, he uses other paintings, drawings, or photographs or a combination thereof. He occasionally has someone sit for a portrait, but a significant part of what he does is painted from direct observation, usually outdoors.

“I have several portable easel setups for oil and watercolor which I bring whether I’m painting in Oakland or the East Coast or Europe,” he said.

For these works, referred to as plein-air paintings, much of what he begins outdoors is finished there, especially the watercolors. Larger oils begun outside are usually finished in the studio. In May, he was featured as a signature member in an exhibition by the Plein Air Painters of America at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, Montana. Hughes teaches annual drawing and plein-air workshops in France, Italy, and Spain. And, this year, Hughes won the PleinAir Salon Art Competition Grand Prize from PleinAir magazine.

Hughes works in watercolor on paper and oil on panels certainly do capture a place in time and reveal the sometimes overlooked beauty, in the manner of masters like Winslow Homer. Familiar locations around the Bay Area connect the viewer with a tangible moment in our life of contrasts here, from stunning natural beauty to prosaic stoplights near an overpass. Hughes said he hopes viewers of his work experience something like the strange enrichment and ongoing engagement that he feels when he looks at work that moves him.

“I find that a decent artwork is much more gripping to ‘watch’ than TV,” he added.

Hughes exhibits his work on both coasts and was recently featured in group shows in Maine, New Hampshire, Montana, and California. His work has been featured in American Artist Watercolor magazine and Fine Art Connoisseur. His skill as a watercolorist is highlighted in the book, Watercolor Painting by Tom Hoffmann, published in 2012. Hughes is currently working on a large portrait and a small painting of pack mules in the High Sierra, the latter heading to a gallery in Santa Barbara. For more information on exhibitions and workshops, visit his website