Watercolor and Philosophy: Joe McHugh

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Langford Resident Advisor Joe McHugh doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t make art — he grew up in Fort Collins, Colo., where his father was (and still is) an art teacher. McHugh was undeclared as a freshman, but last year declared a double major in studio art and Spanish. McHugh mainly works in watercolor and charcoal, but also branches into oil, acrylic and printmaking. He admires the renaissance masters Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as Monet and Van Gogh for their use of light and color. This is McHugh’s third year in Bozeman, and he expects to study abroad somewhere in South America before finishing his undergraduate degrees.

Exponent: What artists influence your own work?

McHugh: My main watercolor influence is John Singer Sargent. When you look at one of his paintings up close, you can tell he busted it out in a matter of seconds, but when you look at it far away it’s perfectly proportioned. The other thing about Sargent is that you can see the pencil underdrawing in all of his watercolors. I believe drawing is the foundation for almost all forms of art — the drawing is the thinking part and the paint is where he creates feeling.

E: Even though you have painted your whole life, do you ever question why you make art?

M: I think about it, I get all philosophical and space out [laughs]. I have a strong faith and I think that our desire to create comes from being made in God’s image, and He created us. Art taps into something eternal. When you listen to beautiful music or look at a beautiful painting there’s something in it that expresses a longing for something beyond this world.

E: How much does a piece develop as you make it?

M: It depends on the type of piece. If I’m doing a watercolor of a landscape or person, which is my favorite because painting from photos is cheating [laughs], I approach whatever it is with an eye for composition. Breaking everything down into lines and lights and darks and colors, I try and get the whole composition out at once. When I get to the paint I don’t think about it. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a part of my mind that removes itself. I don’t want to overthink anything — it’s a matter of translating what I see.