Mark Tougias is a self-taught artist who has been busy painting since childhood. His earliest surviving drawings and paintings date back to when he was eight years old. From an early age he learned by studying the masters and at age sixteen he began exhibiting. Mark has exhibited in over forty galleries and has had over thirty-five one man shows. Among his numerous awards are the first Alden Bryan Gold Medal for best in show awarded in 2007 by the Bryan Memorial Gallery.
For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe your art?
Thatʼs a big question! I like to think, and hope, that thereʼs a spiritual quality in my work. Something that goes beyond the non-literal. It may look like a pretty picture on first look but I want there to be more to it. For me the landscape is the vehicle for all kinds of human expression, emotion and spirituality. That could be still-lifes for somebody else, or it could be figures, for me right now itʼs the landscape. Iʼve always been an outdoors person.
Itʼs interesting that you bring up the spirituality of your work. In your biography you mention influences from: the Barbizon painters, American Tonalists, the Cape Ann School of Painters, and others, and its clear seeing a lot of those influences in your work. Some of those schools of painting, it sounds like they are trying to achieve the same thing as you through the landscape.
I think so, I think a good painter will try to achieve that either consciously or unconsciously. For me itʼs probably a little bit more conscious. It depends on the painting too. It might be a little more conscious that other painters, only because Iʼm not just concerned with a “pretty picture”. I donʼt know if my work reflects that. Iʼm not really free to judge, but I hope it transcends the scene. I have never been strictly a literal painter. For me there are a lot of other elements that come into play. Itʼs not an easy thing to talk about either because – how can you put these things into words? Although I do representational work Iʼm not a literal painter. Most of my paintings are not exact representations. Some are, and thatʼs OK. Others are changed around quite a bit to get the results that I want. Some are completely made up to get the results that I want. So Iʼm very wary of not just going out there and putting down what I see exactly all the time.
When you make changes, when you make those choices, whatʼs behind that? Are you trying to evoke a mood, or is it something else?
Yes, I want a successful painting. Successful on many different levels. It depends too on the painting, and Iʼm speaking in very general terms, over the course of my career, it may not be evident in individual paintings. Yes itʼs a mood, itʼs a transcending of the scene into something poetic, or something beyond just the scene.
I realize that most people when they see my work might only respond to the scene. “Oh, well we donʼt like snow scenes” or “Oh thatʼs a place that we know, weʼll buy that painting”. On that level itʼs just not what Iʼm painting for. The scene itself is most often secondary to the other elements in the work. Somebody may be liking your work or buying your work for all difference reasons than you would want them to buy it for, and thatʼs ok I suppose. I just have to realize that I canʼt expect people to see a painting through my eyes. I canʼt even imagine what they are seeing when they look at it. I know what I see, but I donʼt know what they see based on their experience with artwork. You just donʼt know what they are looking at. Why they like it or donʼt like it.
For me, if I donʼt like winter (lets say) and thereʼs a fantastic snow scene thatʼs so well painted, I donʼt care if I donʼt like winter or not. That painting, is a great thing unto itself. It becomes not so much about “winter” than about something else.
I do see a lot of influences in your work. So I am wondering if, when you set out to capture a scene, do you adapt how you approach it stylistically based on the subject matter? Or do you set out with a certain style in mind and then adapt the subject to that.
In other words, does the subject matter change how you approach it, or do you adapt the subject to how you want to paint it?
Most of the time the subject dictates how I am responding, and what that vision is in my head of the way I am going to paint it. So I would say yes, the subject matter does most of the dictating of how I perceive it. That definitely plays into it, but I may go into the studio and say “Iʼm in a tonal mood and I want to do something dark and moody” and Iʼll just do it. Iʼll do it either out of my head, or Iʼll take an earlier painting that I did and say “I really like this, what if I change this part of it.” So there is that whole exploration.
I want to follow up by asking, how do you choose your subjects? It sounds like sometimes you choose your subjects based on a desire to paint a certain mood, or do you come across subjects and say, “I need to paint that”, or do you seek something out?
All of the above. The answers to these questions are not simple, because the process of how one paints and how one comes to paint is not simple. For me anyway, I canʼt speak for other artists.
I almost canʼt put it into words, but when I go out to paint, I am definitely looking for a pattern. Not only a good composition, but a pattern of light and shade that is going to make a good painting. Some beginners go out and they might say “Oh well thereʼs a beautiful scene, Iʼll paint that”. Yes, it may be beautiful but itʼs not paintable. Itʼs not going to make a good painting at your level of experience. So you have to look for what is going to make a good painting. Does it have strong elements of light and shade, of composition, of form, of color and of interest? Thatʼs what I look for. Itʼs pretty specific at times. On a cloudy day you have to shift your thinking a little bit. A sunny day I definitely look for a pattern of light and shade, because one of my goals is to create light in that painting. If I am painting sunlight then my goal is to capture this beautiful light thatʼs out there on that day. I have to look for a situation thatʼs going to say that to its highest level. So you have to be smart about what you are looking for and what you are seeing. And if you donʼt find it, if youʼre mature enough, you can change whatʼs in front of you by using the information around you, and through experience you can also just or subtract little things to emphasize what you want to say in that painting..
Do you prefer to paint en-plein-air?
It depends. Some people just go outdoors and put down whatʼs in front of them and thatʼs it, and thatʼs all they think about. For me its a little bit more complicated because I started off as a studio painter as a kid, then I started to do plein air in my mid-twenties, and now I enjoy doing both. I think both are important. I would not exclude one, or recommend excluding one, for any painter. Some painters say “I only paint outdoors”, but I donʼt think thatʼs good, nor do I believe it. Iʼm very upfront, Iʼm a plein air painter and Iʼm a studio painter. And that leads to another point that the value of a painting is not dictated by whether you did it outdoors, or indoors, or how long it took you. Those are great misconceptions that some people are promoting out there. Itʼs the wrong way to think about it. It doesnʼt matter. The result is what matters. Do you have a good painting. Do you have a painting thatʼs evocative? Do you have a painting thatʼs poetic? Do you have a painting thatʼs strong, thatʼs attractive? It doesnʼt matter where you did it. If it works for you that you can only get those results outdoors, fine. If it works for you that you can only get those results in the studio, fine. For me its both.
To explore that a little bit further, when you work plein air, do you look to complete something or do you look to do studies or capture ideas and light that will then influence what you will do in the studio?
Another question not easy to answer since there are so many levels to that question. I like to do a painting in one sitting. I donʼt like to work it to death. I donʼt want to keep going back to it. Its an experience, and its a statement, especially if its plein air. I rarely go back and touch them at all in the studio. And vice-versa if itʼs in the studio, I like to do it in one sitting as well. I like to finish the experience. That canʼt always be true, because some paintings are more complicated or larger than others so they might take more time, or sometimes you really do need to go back to it to make it better. Thatʼs OK and I do it from time to time, but not often. However, doing a painting half indoors and half indoors, or starting a painting one day, and then finishing it another day is not how I usually work. I donʼt like to do that. Iʼm certainly not against it though. For me, it is just that I might lose interest.
What I often do, however, is use my own paintings as catalysts for other paintings. That way the experience is fresh again and Iʼm excited. If I like something that I did in one painting I may use it in another. For example if I like a certain sky tone I achieved in a painting I might adapt it or try it in a completely different work and see how it goes and that might lead to another discovery. In that way it is exciting, especially in the studio because you are more free to think about those things rather than just putting down what is in front of you outdoors. Anyway, thatʼs how my brain works. I love the exploration and discoveries. So, in short, the paintings grow from one another. They are all linked.
I do like to vary my style a little bit as well. I like the variety within my work. There is a link in all my work, there is a common style, but within that style there are sub-styles. I like that because it keeps me fresh, from getting bored, or from becoming boring. Itʼs experimental. That is exciting to me, to change a little bit, or to limit my colors or really be bold in my colors. To change the brushwork a little bit. Experimentation and the challenge of seeing what you can achieve as a painter keeps me going. Thatʼs all part of one package of who I am as a painter. I really donʼt know anybody else that paints like that.
I look at your work and there is a variety that is very engaging and pleasing. Probably as much for me as an observer as it is for you to do.
I would hope so; I would hope my variety would be engaging to a viewer. But I canʼt really worry about that. I want to live to the fullest. Here is a very key point for me. I do not want to limit myself, or my possibilities in painting. Even at the risk of people saying I am inconsistent, or thinking this is an earlier painting and this is a later painting. No. Usually those are done simultaneously because I am going back and forth. I enjoy doing something different. It has to be stimulating for me, and I canʼt worry about what other people think. But I hope that they see what you see in my variety and that itʼs an interesting feature in my overall work.
Itʼs refreshing to hear your perspective. You read all the time, “You have to come up with a definitive style, youʼve got to be unique and get known for that particular one thing”. I want to try different styles and I want to try different things, I donʼt want to have to get locked in that everything I paint has to be “like this”.
Exactly. And you donʼt have to listen to them. Especially at a beginning stage, do everything your heart desires. And explore. The whole idea of art is that you are finding your voice. Youʼre seeking out an expression from within. Youʼve got to explore. And that is as true for beginners as it is for masters. Look at how Monet and Picasso evolved over the years just to name a few. If you have the desire to paint something, or to try a different style, by all means do it. What truly amazes me is that more artists donʼt do it. How can you not want to try different styles? You should see some of the things I have here, you would never guess I did them!
Now career-wise, some of those people might be right. Yeah you canʼt be showing this that and the other thing, or people are not going to make sense of it. There is some truth to that. But then again you have to weigh “am I in this for sales or am I in this for exploring my art and my capabilities?” So thereʼs a balance you have to find. The variety I am talking about for me is within the context of my landscape painting so there is a thread. You could probably tell my work even though there might be variety in it. Thatʼs OK more so than if I was doing a huge variety and trying to show it all on the same wall. That would be a little bit difficult for the public.
Lets talk a little bit about showing your work. You were the first winner of the Alden Bryan Golden Medal, you won Best In Show for that first Land & Light & Water & Air show. Iʼm curious how you choose what to submit. Lets take this year as an example, how did you choose what to show.
Itʼs the hardest thing in the world because I do have a lot of paintings to choose from so itʼs actually the worst part of the job. I canʼt choose! Ultimately you have to choose something that you didnʼt show in that venue before. So that helps. And then you want to choose your best.
Youʼve shown extensively. Youʼve had more than 35 solo exhibits, and youʼve been in 40+ galleries. How do you approach galleries?
Well if a gallery owner wonʼt take certain paintings thereʼs nothing you can do but otherwise I bring a selection that I think is a good selection in variety and size and price. At some point in my career they just started coming to me so I didnʼt have to market myself. One thing can lead to another. You may get a call from another gallery or show. Like a couple months ago I got a call from a gallery saying we want you to be part of a three man show, and I said “OK, great!” So I didnʼt even have to solicit them in any way.
I think the better your work is the more hits your going to get as far as galleries interested in your work.
Youʼve been painting all your life. Youʼve been painting full-time for 25 years or so. There must be times when you get painters block, get stuck. Is there a process you turn to when that happens to work through that?
I donʼt feel Iʼve ever had painterʼs block. Thereʼs too much to do. Thereʼs too much love to give. Thereʼs to many inspirations. If I want to get away from the landscape Iʼll do still-lifes. If I want to get away from winter painting Iʼll do a summer painting. If I tire of Vermont painting I could go down to Gloucester or something like that. I could do abstract work.
This kind of goes back to an earlier question about the body of work that you see, and if you came to the house youʼd see far more variety, things that I donʼt show. There are pieces that would blow your mind that you wouldnʼt think that I had done. So there is never painterʼs block for me. However, the biggest problem is finding time to paint. I have to really fight for time to get time to paint. It sounds strange but Iʼm a one-man show so Iʼve got to do everything and I have other interests as well.
The biggest problem is you get on a roll and youʼre producing and something, inevitably, usually two to two-and-a-half weeks into that roll, something is going to derail you. Whatever it is. It throws you off and you donʼt get back into painting for another two weeks. That part of being an artist, for me anyway, its a very mental thing. I have to be in the right mind-space to paint. Itʼs not painterʼs block. Itʼs not a lack of desire to paint or a lack of ideas. No, never. It is that I find it difficult to paint when there are too many other things going on in my life that are distracting me.
But there is a good side to that in that when you do get back to painting youʼre ready. Youʼre ready to roll and youʼre excited about it. Personally I think its good to get away from your work. Itʼs good to take a trip, or put the brush down for a few days or even a few weeks, a few months. Itʼs refreshing to not look at your work or be concerned with your work for a while. You then have time to think about it and reflect on it and think about what youʼre doing and see your paintings in a fresh way. If youʼre painting every day how can you see the forest through the trees? Youʼve got to get away from it. Thatʼs just my personal opinion. And who has the luxury to paint every day, I donʼt.
You give presentations on various aspects of art. Itʼs quite a range of things. Iʼm curious what lead you to do this, and how, if at all, it influences the work that you do?
The real motivation is to educate people, and to educate them with enthusiasm. Few people are really out there talking about art. If youʼre not at a university where are you going to get to hear this? Anything that I can do to educate people in my lifetime, is a benefits for everyone, artists and the public alike. You may develop or inspire future collectors or art lovers or potential artists. You may even change how a person sees or looks at something. Simply how to look at a painting, Iʼd like to give a lecture on that!
If you could paint for one day with any artist, past or present, anywhere in the world, who would that be and why?
Off the top of my head I would have to say Sorolla. Not only because heʼs a great master, and master of light, but also just to be in that context and to see him working en-plein-air on the beach. It would be incredible for me to see that. I wouldnʼt want to paint with him. Iʼd be too humiliated! I would want to just watch him.
Can we expect to see more of the same from you in the future or are you thinking about exploring any new directions.
Iʼm always thinking about new directions. Whether they come forth or not is a matter of time, and there is never enough time. But I have always thought that at some point in my work I may go back to figurative work, which is where I really started off as a kid. Up until I was about 25 I never thought Iʼd be a landscape painter. I only started landscapes in my mid or late twenties.
So I was never going in that direction. There are many, many, things Iʼd like to explore. Whether I get the time to do them, and whether you will ever see them ….
What piece of advice do you wish you were given when you first started out? Is there anything you look back on and think I wish someone had told me this when I started out?
That question may come down to something so technical as what two colors make this color! How do you clean your bushes? Basic stuff like that I never learned, because I never went to school. I did take art lessons when I was 8 or 9 years old for a couple months and that was all, but there were basic things, nuts and bolts things that I just had to learn on my own the hard way. Had I gone to school I might have learned them in a few minutes. Sometimes I think if I had had a little instruction in the early years, where could I be today.
On the other hand art school might have ruined me too.
Lets turn that around. Now you have all this experience, youʼve tried a lot of things, some have worked, some havenʼt. Lets finish up with one tip or piece of advice you would share with any artist out there that you feel any artist could benefit from?
First and foremost is that you have to love what you do. That is a prerequisite. If you donʼt youʼre not going to have good work. In addition, youʼll never survive. Good painting is the hardest thing in the world. Itʼs never easy. You have to love it, and you have to love it in spite of rejection, in spite of misunderstanding, in spite of lack of money and all these things. So you have to really be passionate about painting and paintings and art. Thatʼs the number one thing.
And you have to have faith in yourself. If you believe that youʼve really got something and you believe in yourself, you have to stand firm. Donʼt let anybody talk you out of it.
And I want to say this too, this is important. Sales, whether you have an abundance of sales or total lack of sales, is not the ultimate indicator of whether your work is good or not. People could be buying your paintings and thatʼs great, people could be not buying your paintings. But you could be a really lousy artist and make a lot of sales because maybe your good at promotion, or maybe your prices are low, or maybe your colors happen to match the latest décor. That is not the litmus test of your achievement as an artist. And you can be a great painter and have no sales. We are all familiar with that. Thatʼs why it comes back to love and faith in what you do and believing that youʼve got something to say in your work and nobodyʼs quite saying it the same way. So have love, faith, persevere and work your tail off.