Michigan-based artist Primary Hughes is probably best known for his colourful acrylic portraits, having shown in numerous galleries in California and New York. But there's also a side to his work that focuses on nature; he can often be found exploring the natural landscape along the coast of Lake Superior, painting Plein air watercolours as he goes.
Now he's brought his two loves together in a new series, Emergent, where we see female portraits blend with natural elements and interesting shapes and patterns that force us to look closely at each of his paintings, although it's difficult to focus on any one feature. That's deliberate as the blurred layers add mystery and depth – perhaps acting as a visual metaphor for the soul.
What was the inspiration? It apparently goes back to Primary's time at grad school: "I was fascinated with the layering of content and design motifs in my early illustrations," he tells Creative Boom. And what kicked off the theme was a small piece entitled Emergence, which now forms the centrepiece of the series.
"It's a process of curation and editing that is hard to completely predict in advance," he explains. "There are countless stages that each piece goes through before I'm satisfied with the feeling that it evokes. Working with a model to create reference material, I come back and sort through all the images looking for a pose or gesture that has a story to it. Then, the layering of curvilinear designs and obvious floral motifs disrupts the natural representation. I’m looking to find meaning in the rhythm or harmony of colour interaction, shape and/or structural relationships between the elements."
As he mentions, his subjects are models, but they become "something new through the painting," as Primary puts it. "The gaze is really important to draw the viewer into the story that is emerging. Rather than being reflective of a particular person, the paintings capture something inside and make it manifest. They offer a beginning to unravel, a story for the viewer to finish as their experience with the work develops over time."
Primary is currently a professor in Illustration at Northern Michigan University, so doesn't always have time to paint as much as he'd like. But the global pandemic gave him a little more time in 2020 and his series, Emergent, is the result of that. What would his characters say if they could talk? "I really view them as a moment or breath between statements. They're in the middle of something to be sure, but that ending is yet to be determined."