Pressure helps artist win

By Patricia Ann Speelman -

Editor’s note: Airstream will host a fine art invitational exhibit of landscape art, May 31-June 5, at its headquarters in Jackson Center. This is one a series of stories that will profile the artists whose work will be shown.

SIDNEY — Neal Hughes, of Moorestown, New Jersey, likes to work under pressure.

The painter overextends himself on purpose and enters — and wins — competitions.

He just took the Best Plein Air award in the January/February Plein Air Salon and his website,, lists dozens of other prizes.

“I try to go to a lot of the bigger (competitions),” Hughes said by phone recently.

Plein air is a French term for painting outside.

“Neal is known for his great plein air painterly qualities,” said Monique Foster, director of the Maritime Gallery at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

“Eighty-nine percent of my paintings are done on location. Sometimes I do work in the studio from smaller paintings I’ve done on location. I look for things that inspire me. I go places — Maine, Monhegan Island — you go out the door and look in any direction” and there are things to turn into art, he said.

The pictures take form rapidly.

“I can do a painting in a few hours. Doing competitions, you have to paint fast, so I’ve been learning over the past four or five years,” Hughes said.

Foster saw just how fast Hughes can finish a picture. The gallery has represented his art since 2005, and Foster contracted with him to give a lecture demonstration in its Behind the Canvas series in February.

“He’s a very calm soul,” she said. “He gives a great presentation. It’s amazing that within the course of an hour and a half, he can explain what he’s doing and complete a work in that time.”

His process is always the same: First, he puts a wash over the whole canvas. That is followed by the drawing.

“I’m a stickler for draftsmanship,” Hughes said. “If it’s not drawn correctly, that can — I put a lot of effort into making it look right.”

Once the underpainting is done, Hughes blocks in dark tones, then mid-tones, and lastly, light tones.

“Then I decide if I want to change the composition. Then I put color in and work from foreground to background,” he said.

The artist gets up at 4:40 a.m. every day. He goes to church at 6:30 and is in the studio by 7 a.m. Work continues until 7 p.m.

“I’m there ‘til my wife is hungry,” he laughed. “By then, I’m pretty worn out.”

He began his career as an illustrator and made the transition to fine artist gradually, but he’s been painting full time for 10 years. Foster thinks Hughes’s art benefits from the structure that’s required in illustration.

“He has a wonderful way with form and color,” she said. His subjects are dictated by where he is.

“The only reason I’d do similar subjects is if I’m in an area (for a specific amount of time),” Hughes said. “Sometimes the subject matter can be totally different (from one painting to another) and you’re standing in the same spot. I was in Florida, painting palm trees, sand in the foreground. It started getting dark. As I turned around, I saw a barge with the lights on it. I stayed to do that, too. You look around to see what will make a good painting. Some have a narrative quality. Sometimes it’s just about a fleeting effect of light.”

Much of his time being an artist isn’t spent painting, however. He spends lots of hours ordering frames and putting them together, giving workshops — one of which was at Botkins Local Schools several years ago — and organizing exhibits for the American Society of Marine Artists, of which he is managing fellow.

“We have a big show coming up. I’m the one who has to answer everyone’s questions,” he said.

At heart, however, its the art that matters most.

“Art is a gift. It lifts you up out of the everyday. I (feel I) should use the gift. Plato said, ‘Seeing beauty is a glimpse of the divine.’ My sense of beauty … is very rewarding. I like the beauty of the paint, itself.” Hughes said.

While he wants his work to be of recognizable subjects, “I don’t want it to be a photograph, but I want it to contain the truth of the subject,” he noted. “But as artists, we tend to embellish to say things in a way that is a little more appealing. I want you to look at my work and say, ‘Yeah, that’s reality.’ But it goes beyond that,” he said.

Hughes lives in the town where he was born, one of 11 children of an engineer dad and a full-time mom. He visits his mother several times a week and enjoys his own four children and 13 grandchildren.

“I spend a lot of time with family,” he said. He runs to keep fit and thinks his painterly gift might have come by way of great-great-uncles in Ireland.

“They would paint murals,” he said. “But it could be blarney.”

One of Hughes’s works is in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Art in Connecticut. Some of his paintings are available as prints.

The painting he would most like to own, if he could have anything ever made, would be a portrait of a woman and her daughter by John Singer Sargent.

“I saw it in Pennsylvania. It floored me when I saw it,” he said.

By Patricia Ann Speelman

Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.

Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.