The Mark of the Artist – Mark Mehaffey

Mark wrote an article for the American Watercolor Magazine. He talks clearly about ideas and his process. I thought you might enjoy learning how he thinks and creates paintings. Enjoy!

“This is not a floral painting” by Mark Mehaffey‘This Is Not A Floral Painting’ (transparent watercolor on paper, 34×25 in.): The subject is flowers, yes. The content is the light as it shines through all the wonderful shapes that make up those flowers. I used some of the shapes as I saw them, rearranged some and made some up. The concept behind this work was to not do yet another floral painting. To get that idea across I used the title statement, writing it over and over, as part of the background for the entire painting. Its says a multitude of times: This is not a floral painting.

Content and Craft

I read every publication that has anything to do with my favorite medium: watermedia (that includes transparent watercolor, gouache, and acrylic, which are all mixable with water). Most of what I read centers on the “how-to.” How to stretch paper; how to handle water, drying time, and brushstrokes; how to paint wet-into-wet; how to glaze; and how to paint trees, mountains, or water. You get the idea. The list is endless. There is a wealth of information about how to do what we do.

But let’s assume you know most of that. You’ve figured out how to apply paint. You know how to make things look more or less how you want them to look. Then what?

It’s the “then what?” that I see as as struggle for some painters. Yes, I do appreciate those artists who are highly skilled in the craft of painting. I can tell if someone has a good grasp of how to handle water, paper, brush, and paint. I can tell if someone has studied the elements and principles of design and has made an effort to apply them to their work. A study of design can open pathways to a more concise visual statement. The way we arrange shapes and assign values to those shapes based on importance can lead the eye through a composition and enhance the visual excitement. All of this can make for a stronger painting.

Watercolor painting by Mark Mehaffey‘Waiting #8, Killdeer’ (transparent watercolor on paper, 25×34 in.): This painting is not about eggs. Its about the light, shadow and pattern. I used the Killdeer eggs and the many rock shapes as an excuse to show the viewer my fascination with pattern combined with light and shadow. I got the idea first then found a way to visually express that idea. The IDEA came first, then I found a subject that would embody that concept.

Practicing, acquiring skills, and studying design will all lead to better paintings. But what we really want to do are great paintings. We want to say “wow,” and hear others say “wow.” To achieve that, there has to be more.

That “more” is your connection, your story, your emotion, your content. You have to get personal. Decide what is really important to you. Decide what you really want to say visually. Remember that if you think something is beautiful, other painters do also. What will be different about what you have to say? If you pour your heart out in your paintings, the viewer will feel that. If you have strong ideas (visceral, intellectual, emotional, conceptual, social, political) and you work to include those in your work, then the viewer will share in that experience. Content is key.

Museums are filled with paintings that make the viewer think, feel, laugh, cry, or recoil in disgust. These works involve the viewer. Now, you may not want to live with a painting that makes you feel disturbed, but my guess is that selling the work was not a consideration to the artist who created it. They were making a personal statement.

Watercolor painting by Mark Mehaffey‘Waiting #6’ (transparent watercolor on paper, 25×34 in.): This painting is part of an ongoing series that I seldom show. I do these painting because I want to explore and express the visual concept of ‘ People eat some very weird things’. ‘Waiting’ is this case refers to waiting to be eaten. The shapes are made up of skinned frogs. Not something most artists would think about featuring in a painting. This is a painting that most likely will not sell but that was not my goal. I had this idea and I just had to paint it.

Making art is about having an idea that sparks creativity. Creative ideas marry with creative solutions to the problems that occur during the course of creation, and involve both the maker (you) and the viewer. The most important viewer, however, is YOU. Make sure that you love what you do. Paint for yourself. If you love it, others will, too.

Examine your motivation for painting. Be honest. Do you paint for profit, fame, to change the world, for the love of process? Your answer (or answers) will determine both your method of painting (the how-to) and your content. Do your best to marry the two. Technical prowess without anything to say is just showing off. Having a strong message, but taking no consideration for craft, is self-limiting. Sort of like trying to eat a popsicle without the stick—a bit messy.

Painting by Mark Mehaffey‘Waiting PH’ (transparent watercolor on paper, 25×34 in.): Another in what is now a long series of oversize watercolor paintings based on the unusual food we eat. I thought that the shapes (barbecued pig hocks) would make a wonderful abstract painting filled with interlocking shapes. The dominant warm temperature palette combined with contrasting lights and darks added visual interest. I used the subject, pig hocks, to marry interesting shapes and value contrast to my idea … weird food.

In all four paintings shown here, I first got the IDEA, then married the idea with CONTENT that seemed to fit.

From American Watercolor Magazine.

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