Voices of Experience - An Interview with Mark Mehaffey

Voices of Experience
Mark Mehaffey

Red Rocks - Morning Light © Mark Mehaffey
Red Rocks - Morning Light      30 x 22"      Watercolor

For Mark Mehaffey,

inspiration came in a flash at an early age.

   "I was ten, in the fourth grade and had gone to see a friend. It was the first time I'd been in my friend's house. As I walked through that first time I noticed his Dad had all this really cool painting stuff laid out on a table—and it was watercolor stuff! There were paintings on the walls, paintings being worked on and sketch books lying open. I was mesmerized, stopped dead with the wonderful sight of it all. I went home and immediately asked for a paint set. My friend’s Dad and I became very close through the years. We both kept painting. He was 96 years old when he came to my last showing and passed away a few weeks after our last visit, but I will be forever grateful to that man."

   Mehaffey's family has always been and continues to be very supportive of his artistic efforts, although he is the only one in the family who has pursued art.

   "I am a bit of the odd one in my family. My mother was a registered nurse with a Masters in Public Health and my father was a dentist and Director of the Dental Department for the State of Michigan for years. My sister followed those footsteps and is a dentist. I still remember my Dad (who was a super athlete and played football for the University of Michigan) saying, 'No matter what you do, always do the very best job you can do.' Great advice. I follow it daily."

   "I began by spending hours upon hours in my room trying to match the colors I saw, the walls, the books, the bedspread—everything. This was difficult without instruction (and with an eight-color Prang set of watercolors), but all those hours of work let me to the simplified palette I now use. The next Christmas I got the sixteen-color set and I thought I had gone to heaven!"

   Mehaffey continues to work in watermedia today—transparent watercolor, gouache (opaque watercolor) and acrylic. He says, "I choose the media based on what I think will produce the best visual statement."

Evening Walk © Mark Mehaffey
Evening Walk                        12 x 16"                       Acrylic on Panel

   He is an outdoor person, spending time fishing, hiking and hunting. Landscape painting is an extension of his love of the outdoors, but is not all that he does in his artwork. He moves between representational landscapes, still life paintings, figurative work and abstract non-objective painting.

Deconstructing a Reflection © Mark Mehaffey
Deconstructing a Reflection         33 x 24"         Mixed Watermedia

   "The elements of design (our tools) and the principles of design (the ways in which we order things) do not change. The emphasis may change but the underlying principles do not. Once I realized this (years ago) I knew that the design of a painting was under my control. The subject became my excuse to show the inside of me and design was my avenue of expression. So when I paint in an abstract manner I am still designing the same way I do when I paint a landscape, a still life or a figurative piece. There are many times in my studio practice that I will have an almost illustrative landscape going on one drafting table and while that painting is drying I'll work on a totally non-objective painting on another table. It is about using design to share the inside of me with the viewer."

   The inspiration of the artist is consistent throughout the different modes of painting.

A Moment Before Now © Mark Mehaffey
A Moment Before Now             20 x 26"             Mixed Watermedia

Visual Layers No. 410 © Mark Mehaffey
Visual Layers No. 410               26 x 20"               Mixed Watermedia

   "If I'm working on a pretty tight representational landscape and if you look closely at the brushstrokes and the paint handling in the landscape, you'll see some of those same brush strokes and marks replicated in my totally abstract work. You can see that the same artist did it but sometimes it takes a discerning eye to see that that's the case."

   Mark Mehaffey finds inspiration in the work of John Singer Sargent, "The immediacy and spontaneity of his brush strokes and those juicy washes. I also noticed early on that Sargent was not afraid to use opaque white pigment. He used whatever he thought would make a good painting—advice I freely give." Anders Zorn is another favorite.

   Mehaffey paints en plein air in acrylic once a week. On Wednesday mornings, he emails a group of artist friends and former students telling them where he will be painting and inviting them to join him. "That practice of having to put something that you view three-dimensionally in the real world quickly onto a two-dimensional surface is a really good practice for studio work. There's a certain spontaneity, a certain freshness, a certain roughness, almost, that plein air work gives you that can carry over into studio work. (It has to be above 27 degrees, though, or my watercolors and acrylics freeze!)"

   "I approach plein air painting the same way I approach all my work. My job is to make the best painting I can make at that time. I do not try to reproduce what I see. I may move the landforms. I may add or remove elements at will—all in the interests of making a good painting. This allows me to not always have to search for that perfect place. I take what I see, emphasize whatever caught my eye and then share it the best way I can—on that day. I see plein air painting as adding to what I do in the studio. I am a studio painter who also paints en plein air."

Into the Morning Sun © Mark Mehaffey
Into the Morning Sun                    40 x 30"                    Acrylic

   Mark Mehaffey dedicates himself to hard work. His daily routine: coffee, Facebook, email and right to working in the studio by 7:30 or 8:00 AM.

   "I firmly believe that inspiration is a direct result of perspiration. Work, work hard, work hard everyday and inspiration will find you. As artists we take in the world, internalize it and then share it back to the world, hopefully with part of our spirit attached. I find inspiration in the natural world, in the lives of friends and family, literally in everything. I strive to be the very best painter I can be—and the best painters can make us gasp at the most simple, everyday subjects. It's not what—it's how."

"There are no short cuts.

You can't substitute anything for 'brush miles'.

You've got to wear out some brushes."

   "There is more than one way to paint. Everything can be pre-planned, well thought-out and then executed using traditional methods OR you can dive in, make decisions on the fly and find your way as you go. Both ways have merit. I see nothing wrong with going back and forth. When I teach I cover both left-brained (verbal, mathematical, analytical) and right-brained (intuitive, experimental, emotional) learners."

   Mehaffey uses a split primary palette, a warm and a cool of each primary color plus a few extras when needed. "I find that a simplified palette lends itself to a unified visual statement." The specific colors he uses are: (for transparent watercolor) Hansa Yellow Light, Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Winsor Red, Thalo Blue, Cobalt Blue and Ultramarine Blue. For acrylic he substitutes opaque versions of those same colors. (For example, Cadmium Yellow Light for Hansa Yellow Light) He also uses black and white whenever he thinks it will result in a better painting. He says, "There are no rules except the ones you CHOOSE to follow."

Ghost Ranch Rocks ©Mark Mehaffey
Ghost Ranch Rocks           30 x 22"          Watercolor  

   "I paint what I want to paint the way I want to paint it, all the time. That makes me happy. Great technique alone does not make a good painting. I use whatever techniques I think will allow me to make a good painting. I do not stick to one way of working. (I drive the marketing folks and some galleries nuts because of this.) I do not worry about a ‘brand”. I just paint. I figure if I love it, someone else will also. What really gets the viewer involved is content (emotion), solid design and technical skill that supports both of those. My hope is to die with a smile on my face and a brush in my hand."

"Being an artist is being a life-long student."

   Mehaffey spent twenty-nine years teaching art to inner city kids and firmly believes in the power of hard work. "Be a sponge, absorb everything, take what has meaning for you and put that knowledge to work."
He believes strongly in the value of art to young people and related this story to us from his years of teaching:

   "When I met José as a ninth-grader, he was a wild, wanna-be gang member from a rough neighborhood. He skipped school most days, was failing all classes and was into every bad thing a kid could be into. He would occasionally show up to my art class and when he did I stuck a paint brush in his hand. You could see the change when he held a brush from an angry, violent, aggressive kid to a thoughtful, contemplative being. José still skipped most of his classes that first year but he did come to art class a bit more often. As a tenth-grader José’ WANTED to come to art class but to come to art class he had to pass his other classes. So he did not skip as often and he came to art class every day. He passed everything his sophomore year (he got an ‘A’ in art) but his grades were not good. By his junior year he was attending all classes everyday—that now included two art classes, painting every day—and his grades that year were all Cs and Bs! His senior year he was getting all As and Bs, never skipped a class and was painting murals all over the high school. José went on to receive his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from Michigan State University AND his Master of Fine Arts Degree from the School of the Boston Art Institute. He has had solo shows in NYC and Asia. Quite a journey….begun with a brush."

   Mark Mehaffey is a nationally recognized artist and a Signature Member of the National Watercolor Society, the American Watercolor Society, the Transparent Watercolor Society of America, a Signature Life Member of Watercolor West, the Rocky Mountain Watermedia Society and the Louisiana Watercolor Society. He has won top awards in major juried exhibitions across the country. His work has appeared in multiple publications.

Mark Mehaffey

Visit Mark Mehaffey's website to see more of his paintings.
All artwork copyright Mark Mehaffey

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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