Steve Huston’s body of work is very much an homage to bodies at work.
His predominantly figurative oil paintings that depict boxers, wrestlers or construction workers, quiver with movement, energy, and empathy. His figures are fully immersed in their actions. The themes and subject matter of his works are rooted in his cultivation of a daily focus in the creative act.
Born and raised in Alaska, Huston entered the world of figurative representation through comic books for their graphic qualities and exaggeratedly heroic treatment of the figure. “I chose the artists’ life over 40 years ago,” states Huston carefully. He emphasizes that it was that choice that makes all the difference in how he sees himself and how he goes about what he wants to do.
The now internationally renowned painter and draftsman looks back on an outstanding career as a fine artist and supportive mentor.
Even before graduating with his BFA from the Pasadena College of Art and Design, Huston began illustrating for reputable clients such as Caesars Palace, MGM, Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios, among others.
His charge was to help the animators hone their drawing skills for such projects as Lion King, Iron Giant, and Shrek.
It was at Disney, with access to their vast library, that Huston immersed himself in studying the old masters and developed his exquisite skillset of figure painting and drawing. During years of creating, he manifested his philosophy of making every mark on the canvas meaningful, such as every act in life.
That idea became the slogan of his Amazon bestseller, Figure Drawing For Artists: “Making Every Mark Count”, which is now available in three languages.
Though easy mannered and approachable, Huston is very much like the formidable men that he depicts in his work. He too is a powerhouse in terms of career and artistic mastery – exhibiting his work widely, solicited with private commissions. Huston sees himself as an artist just as much as a teacher and mentor. “The world needs more artists,” he says is the reason why he started teaching at New Masters Academy, where he reaches students all over the world with over 150 hours of his video lessons.
Huston shared his keenly observed and thoughtful ideas about his work, and about creativity, here in an interview for Canvas.
CANVAS: It seems that many kids become interested in art through comics. Explain your transition from comic book artist to fine artist, why and how did you make this shift?
HUSTON: Like a lot of kids, superheroes made me feel safe. It was
CANVAS: Your work seems about power, movement,
HUSTON: Art is to evoke metaphor. Not to supply it, but rather to prompt the viewers to supply it for themselves. To get them to tap into their own baggage. For me, it’s using contradictions – the Baroque light, the comic book melodrama, etc.
An artist needs to be a visual poet. That means using different parameters than our literary cousins. An artwork can, of course, benefit from criticism. But art doesn’t work on the intellectual level; it works on the emotions.
Artwork needs to be open-ended enough to allow the viewer to participate in the meaning of the piece. It needs to invite dialogue rather than ‘announce’ its world view or tell a story with a prescribed ending.
Art needs to be a metaphor. A metaphor is an interesting thing. A metaphor is a lie, but a lie that tells the truth. GOD is a ROCK. That is a metaphor. A lie. But by comparing something we know well to something we don’t know, and possibly even can’t know, we get insight. Not so much intellectually, but in our gut.
The best art I believe does that.
CANVAS: When you talk about the viewer finding their own metaphors, can you explain how they find different truth in the same artwork?
HUSTON: T. S. Eliot is a big influence. TSE had a theory of fragments. The idea is that we come away from each experience, even the seminal ones, with just a fragment of a memory of the entire event. We remember the high points; the rest is tossed aside. And each person will come away with different high points. Our worldview and identity are made up of these fragments of knowledge pieced together to make up the composite we call reality. It’s much closer to a story like a Hollywood biopic is a fictional story peppered with a few real moments and contexts.
CANVAS: What are the metaphors in your workmen and boxers?
HUSTON: The key theme in my workman is identity. I choose to
I am a father, husband, painter, son. I’m political, philosophical, religious, petty, kind, sincere, divisive, etc.
We are so much more than we appear to be. But, in any given situation, society or our good graces may demand we submerge all the things, all the desires, petty or uplifting, to do our job. The father may sacrifice his career to make a better life for his children. A boxer may take a beating for money and so that people he doesn’t know or care about can be entertained. That act of submersion can be an act of real heroism.
Furthermore, I’m an American. We have our own cultural stories and metaphors. The lone hero doing what society can’t to save the day – think Hollywood action films or comic books. We have the idea of picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps; making something of ourselves. This is call auto-genesis, naming ourselves in effect, and others.
The American Comic Book is a huge influence. I design my boxers like big superheroes in an oversized comic panel. The latest series is actors in dress rehearsal, non-famous people inserting themselves into famous roles – submerging themselves. Who is more fragmented in their identity than a character actor whose job it is to be someone else, to say someone else’s thoughts, attempt to feel their emotions? Look me up on Facebook, an actor piece is on there.
CANVAS: The form of the boxers and workmen are painted in dramatic dark and light contrast. Please explain your choice of the light setting.
HUSTON: I like that idea of contradiction, stirring the pot. It’s dramatic, even as I said above, melodramatic. Over the top catches attention, and I happen to practice a very quiet art form in a very loud world.
Contradiction acts like a squeaky wheel that almost forces a response. So put this stereotypical maleness under the same light Giorgione used for martyrs and a stirring happens with a bit more vigor than the subject matter would normally cause.
Creating beautiful light with, in the case of the boxers, anything but beautiful subject matter intrigues. In a way, it’s religious. The roots are, I’m sure. Rembrandt, one of the greatest draftsmen in history, used Gothic aesthetic to, I think, show that it’s not the physical that is beautiful, it’s the transcendent light. Literally enlightening our base matter.
CANVAS: Is an artistic voice the same as style?
HUSTON: I see real style as the natural and necessary expression of a very particular worldview. Sargent saw his patrons as those nouveau royalty. So he painted like one would paint Greek gods. Even little old ladies became Hera, queen of the universe.
How does an artist develop a style, and or point of view?
By cross-pollination. You look at all the things you aren’t, all the disciplines you aren’t master of. You look, as TS Eliot suggested, to collect lots of fragments, and then begin puzzling them together.
CANVAS: How much should an artist consider the viewer when creating art, or at what point?
HUSTON: Well the artist, him or herself, is the first viewer. Your art might be a diary of sorts. It might be a niche; it might be for the world. You always have to consider the audience. If you don’t, it’s a lecture, not a dialogue. And I happen to prefer Socratic dialogues.
Leave things vague, contradictory, and paradoxical. Leave the gaps. That’s life. And finally, everyone needs to figure it out on their own. If you’re told what the meaning of your life is, it’s not going to be your meaning.
CANVAS: Do you have a routine or ritual for work? How do you organize your time or space for maximum productivity?
HUSTON: I don’t. I go in to the studio and waste a lot of time playing. I just make sure I do it everyday with few exceptions. As to the space, I’ve actually redesigned my space using Feng Shui. I like a certain amount of superstition. I think it’s uniquely valuable. And believing is fun, and I would argue, “productive.”