Hodges Soileau had a very significant, almost 30-year illustration career. Nationally recognized for his work, he was a prominent member of the Society of Illustrators in New York, created more than 300 book covers for most of the major publishing firms in New York, and has work in the permanent collections of the United States Air Force, US Coast Guard, and “Golf Digest” magazine. As a former illustrator myself, I was well aware and appreciative of his work…even had a file folder containing collected samples of his work.
In 1999 he completed his last illustration and moved into the fine arts. He’s now represented by 12 galleries. Wondering how he pulled that off, he said, “The best scenario is when a good gallery contacts me, however, this is often not the case. The first thing I do is check out galleries that interest me, see the caliber of artists represented, and decide how I might fit in, trying not to overlap others work too much; then it’s a matter of getting my work in front of someone in charge of making a decision. Most galleries have a review procedure of some kind; I then submit my strongest work and let the chips fall where they may!” Looks like that plan has worked pretty well!
Knowing that Hodges lives in Florida, I asked him to talk about how hurricane “Irma” effected him. “Irma blew in here and disrupted many lives to a much greater degree than ours. As unpleasant as it was, we were very lucky! We were without power for five days and a lot of fence damage….but, overall we were lucky. Storms like this make one realize what is most important….family/friends and their safety….everything else comes after that! I’m certainly not looking forward to another storm soon….just need to get back to work and my routine! That’s what works for me! The most difficult thing for me personally was not being able to do anything….I am one who has to be busy and doing something…energy is a blessing….and a curse!”
I’m thankful for Hodges and his willingness to do this interview with me; I know you’ll enjoy it. (Click images to enlarge)
As a professional illustrator for many years, you created many cover illustrations for “The Boxcar Children” book series, tell us about those. I did quite a few of “The Boxcar Children” books, but the “Babysitters Club Series” for Scholastic Publishing was the major series that I was involved in….that was a twelve year gig. I worked for and painted covers for most of the major publishing houses in New York and also Harlequin Romance covers out of Don Mills, Canada! The illustration part of my career was a lot of work, but fun. I was lucky to always be very busy….not much down time!
How did your illustration career prepare you for the fine art world? I feel as though, were it not for all of those years of painting everything that came down the pike in the form of assignments, I would not have learned how to solve problems required to put a picture/image together. It was a great training ground for me, and I‘m sure many illustrators….particularly with the figure. One had to learn to deal with interrupting the figure in a realistic representational manner!
How were you able to successfully transition from illustration to fine art? I started submitting smaller paintings to miniature shows locally in Connecticut. I had some success with these reasonably priced pieces and saw the possibility of something else but illustration. This was about the time that computer images were starting to effect the business as I knew it….traditional oil paintings! I decided then to make the change and did my last illustration in 1999, after an almost thirty-year illustration career!
Other than its commercial use, what distinguishes your paintings of today from those done during your years as an illustrator? I think the basic difference in the appearance is that they are possibly a bit more painterly….I don’t particularly like the word loose. It can suggest sloppy! Painterly is a bit more palatable to me personally!
How has your approach to painting changed since moving into the fine arts? The basic difference is that as a fine artist one is no longer painting other people’s pictures, concepts, and ideas. Now, I paint what interests me with no restrictions or concept sheets to follow. The choices I make are mine….and they are eclectic….but, no one else is to blame for my choices….and, sometimes one’s choices of subject might make it difficult for a gallery to move that subject. I think, however, that artists should still do those paintings.
Why are you an artist? I’m an artist because it is the thing I most like to spend my time and life doing….and, I have been very blessed in my life to have been able to make a living doing what I am most passionate about….next to my family, this is it!
“I hope my work communicates an honesty and evokes some kind of emotional response from the viewer, aside from just technical skill.”
How would you describe your work? I don’t necessarily consider myself an impressionist…probably more of a painterly realist that leans more towards the naturalist and bravura painters!….maybe a contemporary realist!
You paint a variety of subjects, what is your main motivation when choosing a subject? I would absolutely hate to be told that I could only paint one subject. If that were the case, I would probably choose the figure! I think painting varied subjects, for me, keeps me from getting repetitive and keeps things fresh. It might not be discernible to others, but it does help me personally! I would hope that I never become a formula painter that just keeps repeating myself!
How much is your work influenced by photography? Unfortunately, working from life is not always possible! I work from photos and studies….but, as good as the studies are sometimes, I think the information in good photos helps with the studio work. Models are also another thing….it’s not always practical to have a model on hand…so, photos are necessary. One must learn the deficiency of the camera…and, that comes from working from life and seeing that the camera can’t see what the human eye can see…particularly in the shadows!
“Those working from photos should pay attention to the shadows in photographs. They tend to be inky and not as open as seen with the naked eye. Painting from life helps deal with this issue.”
Do you work from photos the same way you work from life? Yes, I try to make that a seamless process. I don’t have a different approach. I think it should be the same, or look the same….as much as possible! I also don’t have a different approach to field studies and studio paintings. The way I deal with painting on location is to do smaller works. My painting approach is no different that my studio method.
Please put these words in order: drawing, color, concept, values, framing, composition, technique. Concept, composition, drawing, values, color, technique, framing.
Please describe your painting process. Although my initial start is not always the same, I always try to paint directly as possible in an Alla Prima method. I don’t necessarily do passes or stages over the canvas. I have no problem finishing, or going for the finish of a section of the composition…particularly if it is the focal point. Although one must be aware of the whole, one can’t paint the whole painting at once…so, it makes sense that your judgments about edges and value should be made with what is adjacent or close to the area being addressed!
What colors are typically on your palette? I have always put out an open palette. I don’t obviously use all of the colors…most of the time it is a relatively limited palette. As a result, I do throw away a lot of paint….old habits die hard. The open palette I use is, Titanium White, Ivory Black, Transparent Oxide Red or Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Cad Yellow Deep, Cad Yellow Light, Cad Red, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue Deep, Cobalt Blue, and Viridian.
Do you have some color principles you always adhere to? I really don’t adhere to any particular color principals. I try to interpret from observation the integrity of the color, rather that spending time trying to match color exactly. I think getting the temperature of color and it’s value correctly is more important….in my opinion! As an illustrator, we worked from large 16″x 20″ B&W glossy prints that had wonderful value; you could paint these any color and they would reproduce great if the value was good. Another lesson from the illustration days!
When you teach, what is the main thing you want your students to take away from the instruction? I teach principals of painting that I think are most important, good shapes/drawing, value, edges, proper color temperature, composition…technique being important only if all of the other principals are addressed. I also warn students against believing that there is only one way to approach a painting. One size does not fit all….so, if someone suggest this, run! Same thing applies to styles and technique…..in my opinion, artists generally choose methods of working because of their temperaments or personalities.
What do you find to be the major area of weakness in the work of amateur artists? It has been my experience in workshops and classes that the most common weakness is generally in the observation skills area. I personally stress the importance of raising one’s observation skills above all! If you can‘t see it properly, how can you interpret it properly….one has to be able to see it, whether it’s shape, value, temperature, etc. Another common thing that I see is the desire to skip ahead and not put in the time…..impatience! There really are no shortcuts….sometimes this is hard for folks who start late and are trying to catch up or make up lost time to accept! Many workshop participants are people who have had other successful careers, but have always wanted to paint!
What’s the most difficult part of painting for you? I paint almost every day, but there are interruptions of daily life that everyone has to deal with; sometimes that can be a momentum breaker. I’ve been doing this long enough so that it is never really a big problem. The other thing is over the years accepting progress levels without getting discouraged….everyone wants to get better! The more one acquires a modicum of skills….the plateaus of progress get smaller in increments! I guess now the most challenging thing for me, as is with most artists, is trying to continually do better work…or work that interests me!
What’s it take to become a successful artist? I think it takes several things to sustain a career as an artist. As we all know this is not easy. Work ethic is crucial, and something I credit my parents for instilling in me. Curiosity is essential, as is the willingness to learn new things…or experiment! Learn how to self promote in a way that is personally acceptable! My wife Marilyn has been in this with me from the start and without her help, I’m not sure I could have done it. She is my rock!
What are your strongest character traits? I would have to put my work ethic at the top of maybe a small list! I think generosity and openness….being accessible to students! I am curious, and a never ending student of my craft! I’m not sure I buy into the notion that artists have God-given talent so much as they are given this crazy passion for something that drives them to achieve!
If you weren’t an artist, what profession would you choose? If I weren’t an artist, I probably would choose wood working/furniture builder. My wife and I have built a few pieces of home furniture over the years and it is something I have always been interested in. I have all the tools, etc. and we recycled wood and made concrete counter tops and stuff like that. The other interest is music. I have a classical guitar that I know about six chords on. Never had the time to pursue further!
Hodges, thank you for a wonderful interview and for sharing your years of experience with our readers. You are much appreciated.
For more of Hodges Soileau’s work: Hodgessoileau.com