Ask the Expert…Shannon Smith Hughes


What does a typical artist’s day in the studio look like?

Shannon Smith Hughes
Shannon Smith Hughes

If I am not in my “outside studio” in nature painting en plein air, I can be found tucked away in a beautiful room full of windows over the garage in my home studio. It is my sanctuary….a place where the entire creative process becomes self therapeutic for this busy modern day mom and wife. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having my work space separate from my living space to retreat to and lose myself in my world of painting.


Shifting gears from my role as a mother to an artist is a sensory process that fuels my creativity. Walking into my studio, the overwhelming smell of oil paint awakens my senses gets the creative juices flowing. I open my palette and squeeze out fresh paint, and I’m already anxious to feel the buttery flow at the end of my brush.

Blue Ridge Oil Paint, handmade artists' oil paint colors
Blue Ridge Oil Paints, handmade artists’ oil paint colors

Depending on my mood that day, I select my music albeit classical, alternative rock, or country. Now I am beginning to relax and prepare my soul for rejuvenation. Painting is a process I call “getting in the zone.” It is a time when I am solely focused on my work and all of those lists of things to do go away in my head. There is an intensity to being “in the zone” that I would compare to how it feels to lose oneself in a really good book or movie. In order to get to my place of zen, I think about what is my inspiration for my next painting. What am I excited about painting today and why? Now it’s time to get visual. If I am unsure of what I want to paint, I retreat to my library nook in the studio and study my favorite art books and magazines. Some of my top sources of inspiration are Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth, and the American and Russian Impressionists.ss3

I usually have a stack of plein air studies lying around and may choose one to develop into a larger studio piece. My other source of inspiration is the thousands of photographs filed on my mac. I may go through photos for 5 minutes or up to a few hours waiting to see what grabs me. Capturing the light is what excites me most about painting. I am drawn to light and how it interacts with the subject, whether it be a landscape, still life, or figure in an interior. Generally, if you are excited about what you are painting it will show in your work. I am a firm believer in this and therefore only choose to paint what I am moved to paint! I don’t encourage strictly painting from photos, but often it is the only option. Painting from life is the best way to learn and grow. I have noticed that plein air painting actually helps improve my studio painting. I will often use a combination of my photos with my plein air sketches to create a large studio painting.ss4 I merely use photos as a reference, since it is the next best thing to painting from life. I can manipulate my image as much as needed through editing, color correcting, and cropping for the best composition. I can freeze the image to fill the screen on my monitor.


I was recently painting with PAPSE (Plein­Air Painters of the Southeast) Fine Art in Nashville, TN in the Leiper’s Fork area. There was a beautiful big red barn that I was already familiar with since I had painted there before.

Plein Air Study, 10x10
Plein Air Study, 10×10

Here is an example of a plein air piece that I later turned into a larger studio painting.

Studio painting, 24x30
Studio painting, 24×30
Other side of barn, 36×36

I was thrilled to return to a previous source of inspiration and further my studies. Drawn to how the tree shadows played on the sunlit barn and I couldn’t wait to get home to the studio to fill a big canvas with the other side of that big red barn!ss8

ss9I always begin my paintings with a rough sketch of thinned burnt sienna paint. A sketch allows for establishment of design and composition. Without getting too detailed in my drawing I am mostly concerned with placement of large shapes and making sure I have an interesting composition. I also want to identify my far end of the studio to see what I am doing. You really do need distance to see how the painting is pulling together. In fact, I picked up a great tip from a TN artist, Jason Saunders, to place my palette directly in front of my easel so that I am forced to stand a few feet away from the canvas instead of right on top of it.

ss10My work is not detailed but rather suggestions giving the viewer more information…impressionistic and painterly. If you have a successful start of strong composition, broken down to 3-­5 basic shapes, and proper range of values, you will have a visual map to guide you to complete a painting. The “details” are just small shapes on top of the big shapes.

Setting up a still life
Setting up a still life

My approach to painting still life is the same, except I always set up my own subjects and paint them from life. When we were building my studio, I knew I wanted a shelf to line the walls to display my collection of still life objects…i.e. vases, pots, bottles, all in glass, copper, silver, pewter, and pottery. I will spend as much time as I need arranging and rearranging these inorganic vessels with organic objects…i.e., various fruits, vegetables, fish, or flowers. I buy fish from the local seafood market and freeze it in between painting sessions…talk about a sensory experience! It is wonderful to paint from life when possible because you are seeing things in their truest form. Just remember when you are getting started, always make sure you are excited about what you are painting. I promise it will be one of your most successful paintings!


Fresh from the Market, 24×36

Most of my work can be found at my family owned gallery, Anglin Smith Fine Art, in Charleston, SC.


One thought on “Ask the Expert…Shannon Smith Hughes

  1. We’re lucky to have Shannon and her family here in Charleston. Their whole family is creative and they have this “energy” that is palpable. Shannon’s a dedicated painter that deserves all the attention she gets. Great article, Shannon!


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