Enjoy an exclusive Q&A with plein air painter Mark Fehlman on his composition checklist, the most important tool artists have, and more.
Cherie Dawn Haas: What’s one of the most common questions artists ask you?
Mark Fehlman: It’s “How can I paint a better painting?” I tell artists to try thinking of it differently. I am an architect and have a certain way of thinking. I believe that to “paint better,” or to create a powerful painting, you need to plan well, and create a strong foundation and structure. Many think of it as “painting a scene,” but powerful paintings are based on a strong compositional diagram, great value relationships, and well-designed shapes. These all go together to become a puzzle, skillfully created, to become a visual delight for the viewer.
Cherie: What are some of the things on your painting composition checklist?
Mark: There are several questions I ask myself:
1. Is there any important line or object in the center of the canvas?
A well-designed composition is based on tension and value relationships. Anything important in the center tends to create balance and does not create a good path of travel for the eye. Balance is the enemy. Try dividing your canvas into thirds. Place important lines and objects on the “thirds lines.”
2. Are any shapes repeating and equally spaced?
Even if you are painting in a field where there is a line of trees that are the same size and equally spaced, your painting will be more natural and interesting if you vary the size and spacing.
3. Are any shapes tangent to each other?
Overlapping shapes is a great tool for creating visual depth in a painting. Try overlapping tree shapes, maybe a tree overlapping a house, or a mountain overlapping the moon in the distance.
Little adjustments like these create a dramatic difference in a painting’s composition.
Cherie: Can you tell us about a recent painting you’ve created?
Mark: I was at the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitation and wanted to create my biggest and most powerful painting. One of the things that I have learned from photographers is that picking the perfect time of day to paint a painting is paramount. Four hours earlier or later is just a scene. I climbed way out on the rocks at low tide to catch the sunset glow on the cliffs. From this spot I was on the back side of the breaking waves. This was a unique perspective and allowed the darkest of the water, in shade, to enhance the bright glow on the cliffs. All of these factors created a unique and powerful image.
Cherie: What’s your favorite story to share from your plein air painting sessions?
Mark: I love to go out and paint with artist friends. When I paint with others, I will tend to go the “extra mile” to find interesting views to paint. I was painting with a friend at the top of a slope overlooking a stream, and his easel blew over and way down the slope. Paint tubes, brushes, canvases were strewn everywhere. We both went down to retrieve the mess and found that the view from the bottom of the slope was incredible. My friend assembled the parts to his equipment and I hiked up to get mine. That place turned out to be our favorite spot of the trip.
Cherie: Anything else you’d like to share?
Mark: One of the most powerful tools that an artist has is their sketchpad. When you are in the field, if you don’t use it, you are apt to just paint a scene. Quick sketches allow you to compose, explore, and design. You can choose what you want the painting to be about —
is it about the big sky and clouds, or the meandering path in the field? You can enhance the beauty of the scene by editing, cropping, and moving major elements around. So sketch to develop ideas, to configure the elements, and to understand what you are looking at.
More About Mark Fehlman:
Upcoming Events: Maui Plein Air Painting Invitational February 15–23, 2020
Listen to Mark Fehlman on the PleinAir Podcast with Eric Rhoads:
Upcoming travel and art events with Streamline Publishing:
- May 2-6, 2020: The 9th Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo
- June 7-14, 2020:Publisher’s Invitational: Paint Adirondacks
- October 12-19, 2020: Publisher’s Invitational: Fall Color Week in New Hampshire’s White Mountains