As I mentioned in a previous post, Professor Louis Finkelstein, the Art Department Chairman abruptly walked out on me at my senior thesis show when I mentioned that I was about to be a single mom declaring it to be impossible that I could also be an Artist. He previously had offered to sponsor me to the notable, Robert Pincus-Witten for a Whitney Museum Graduate Fellowship program but suddenly I was anathema. That event took my breath away for quite some time until I began to gather the pieces of me that felt flayed and strewn to the wind.
So what did I do to salvage my heart and soul? Since 4 years of art school didn’t train me for anything remotely connected with making a living, I knew I needed more education. I also found out that if you worked at a college your tuition was free. So I made a list of colleges I wanted to attend & found a job in the career services office at Barnard College. During my lunch hours, I attended computer programming classes at Columbia School of Engineering. Going from such intense right brain to left brain work was so difficult it often physically hurt.
Barnard at the time was a bastion of feminism and my boss, Martha Green guided me and untold numbers of other women into successful and rewarding careers based upon skills which, I for one did not know I had. She recognized in me untapped horizons and restored my confidence.
Mary Ahern demonstrating the Chyron Chameleon electronic paint system 1986 at the Cablevision television studio in Woodbury New York
From the support and direction I received from the women surrounding me at Barnard, I launched my career into sales, because that’s where the money was, and computers, because that’s where the future was. I zig-zagged my career in computers over the years to capitalize on my Fine Arts degree by selling computer graphics equipment to the creative departments in the television broadcast and industries. My art helped me sell those systems.
So here I am, still painting, still an Artist, proud of having supported and raised my sons on my own. Now I work every day in my studio surrounded by the gardens I created that inspire my Art.
I kept my eyes and ears open and when one mentor slammed the door another mentor opened it for me so I could charge through. Success is the sweetest revenge. Thank you Martha!
Pincus-Witten, the art critic, curator, historian, author and individual who in 1971 coined the term, “Postminimalism” has died. It reminded me of a brush with greatness that never happened for me. Let me explain.
During my college years in the 1970’s in the Queens College art department program in New York, I was expressing myself with the same underlying emotional & intellectual content in a variety of mediums. It was a time of the emergence of feminism for me and the search for self. An awakening of the world I lived in, was raised in and thought I understood.
I entered this program as an older student at the age of 27, married with two young children. Needless to say, I didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the much younger student body. Most of my creative work, rather than using the studios on campus, was done at home in my own studio/dining room after I put my sons to bed in the evening. This actually freed me to create more independently than I might otherwise have done.
I followed my own muse. I created sculptures and assemblages using acrylic boxes, clear fishing line, minimalism inspired grids, feminine but painful masses of pink fiberglass insulation. I used distorting mirrors, bindings, weavings of ropes/cords/threads in numerical sequencing. I painted windows where the panes of glass protected or imprisoned using the gridded mullions in defined mathematical ratios. I used graphite, pastel, cut paper & photography to explore my own body landscape and journey of discovery.
All my work at that time explored the balance of male/female, pain/protection, enclosure/exclusion, geometry/biomorphism, math/chaos. One side of me embraced the rigidity, consistency and comfort I found in minimalism but the other part of me was rebelling against those very same norms.
At my senior thesis show, all my work was on display, my sculpture, my drawings, paintings, assemblage, photography and my written papers. Years of independent thought, exploration and interpretation.
Louis Finkelstein was my advisor, a professor I had never met before nor taken a class with but a very prominent and influential person in the NYC art community of which I longed to be a part. He spent a great deal of time viewing my work, reading my papers and asking me questions of motivations & process.
He was impressed by my work. He told me that he said he was going to introduce me to Pincus-Witten and propose me for an independent studio fellowship offered by the Whitney Museum of Art. I was itching all over with the prickles of joy.
And then the ax fell. I mentioned to Prof. Finkelstein that I was in the process of a divorce and just straightening out the details because I had two small children.
Without one further question put to me, without one opportunity for me to elaborate, Finkelstein stood up from his stool (and here is where my memory is a little bit muddy) said either, “A divorced woman can’t be an artist” or “A divorced mother can’t be an artist”. And he walked out of my life taking with him my dreams of ever meeting Robert Pincus-Witten.
Although my stretched store-bought cotton canvas is already prepared with gesso, I add 3 more layers with a light sanding in between each. This makes the canvas less absorbent in my opinion. Everyone has their own recipe and this is mine. I apply the gesso with a roller if the canvas is big or a large brush if it is smaller.
Once the gesso is dry, which is within the hour of the last coating, I use vine charcoal to outline my composition. Because the charcoal is rather dusty, I blow the excess off using either my breath or an aerosol can of dust remover depending on the size of the canvas.
Next, I then use a thin wash of burnt umber paint and a thinner medium to cover the rough charcoal drawing and begin the shading process. This also fixes the drawing to the canvas & prevents the charcoal from blending further. That layer will dry, depending on the medium you choose, in an hour or a day. I then begin another coat of underpainting using either a warm or cool brown or gray base color. This can either be considered an underpainting or if more detailed and finished it would be called a grisaille. Over an underpainting, I would paint using opaque pigments and over a grisaille, I would be using transparent pigments for glazing.
Once this is dry in 1-4 days depending on the mediums used, I then begin painting with color. This is the very classical beginning to an oil painting that I was taught by my professors during my college years in another place and another time. I’ve always been glad that I was able to receive a formal Art education and it has been the basis of all my work over the years.
Choosing bulb replacements for perfect lighting in my studio.
Since I have fluorescent fixtures already installed in my painting studio and didn’t want to replace them it narrowed down the search for the type of bulbs i would be looking for. Learning about LED or halogen lighting options, which I might consider if I was designing an entirely new studio, was off my research list. The installed fixtures are 4’ and had a mixture of cool and warm T8 bulbs bought at the local big box store.
The existing lighting fixtures in my painting studio hold a series of florescent 48″ T8 bulbs.
As soon as I began researching online for the best bulbs for studio lighting I knew the options were very broad and would need more studying. I would need to know what the important specifications would be in selecting the right ambient lighting for working on my paintings and also for proofing digital prints?
I learned about the ratings of Kelvin, CRI and Lumens:
K or Kelvin. The color temperature index of cool light at 5500K and a bit warmer light at 4100K seemed to be my goal. I didn’t want to go too cool while creating the Art since most of my work is hung in either residential or corporate lighting environments. Residential incandescent bulbs are in the 2,500K to 3000K range
CRI or color rendering index. I sounded professional when I went to my specialty lighting store and pronounced it correctly, Cree rather than C.R.I. CRI is a measurement of how the lighting reveals colors across the full spectrum when measured against natural daylight. The highest measure is 100 and a good CRI for a painting studio is 85 and up.
Lumens are the measurement of how much light is coming from a bulb. The more lumens the the brighter the light. This differs from wattage which is a measurement of how much energy is used to create the light.
Over the years, as bulbs have burned out in my painting studio fixtures I went to the big box store & bought a warm and a cool fluorescent for each fixture fully well knowing that a more appropriate solution should be available. Recognizing that over the years my lighting had become inconsistent, I decided to bite the bullet & finally do it right.
I was spurred on to optimize my own painting studio by the announcement that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which I visit regularly to study their paintings, is completely renovating their gallery lighting over the next few years. You can follow the Met’s lighting project here.
I studied the elements of lighting & then went the specialty lighting store that most of the contractors in my area frequent. Initially the gentleman at the counter said that all I needed was an ordinary fluorescent bulb which I could buy at any box store. Once I began to speak about the technical aspects of the bulbs I was considering, he became interested & spoke with me at length about the options for my studio. We discussed the temperature of the current lighting and the problems I would have if I went to a higher K or color temperature.
So what did I choose?
I chose a bulb with a Kelvin of 4100K rather than 5500K which is often called a daylight bulb. As mentioned earlier, I was considering the rooms in which my paintings are usually displayed after they are purchased. I should also mention that I have a large 10’ north facing window in my painting studio which offers a good deal of natural light.
I also selected a higher than usual CRI number of 85 to give me a more robust range of colors which displays the full complexity of my subtle pigments. Lower CRI’s don’t always show the full spectrum of yellows.
For the lumens my choice was to select 3250 which was brighter than many of the bulbs they were replacing although the wattage remained the same at 32W.
One consideration that I was nervous about was the thickness of the actual bulb. The existing T8 bulbs were thicker than the ones I took home from the lighting store. My consultant assured me that they would be fine in my fixtures and he was right. Less glass didn’t mean less light.
The price for each bulb was a modest $2.40. Well worth the investement!
The lighting is perfect! Great color balance, brightness, range. It was worth the time I took to do the research. As an Artist, I research my subjects, paints, pigments, mediums, brushes, canvas, etc., etc., etc… So now I can add studio lighting to the list of professional choices I’ve made towards producing excellent Art.
This is the choice of replacement T8 florescent lighting bulbs for the correct balanced lighting in my studio. I didn’t pick by brand name but by specifications.
I was asked to do an informational interview by Misty Swan who is working on her college Art degree. Here are her questions and my responses. This interview was done via email.
Please state your name, the name of your business, city and state you live in, and your profession.
Name: Mary Ahern
Business names: Mary Ahern Artist, Reimagined Memories, Fine Art for the Garden and ondesign.com, a website design business.
Place: Northport NY.
Profession: Professional Artist
How long have you been pursuing photography and painting?
I began painting & photography in the mid-1970’s.
What excites you the most about photography and painting?
Creating something out of thin air that no one else had ever seen in the same way that I had.
How much training and education have you received in your field?
I graduated with a BA in Fine Arts from Queens College in NY in 1980. During the 70’s, Feminist Art work was on the rise as was Photo-Realism along with many other avant-garde styles. Most of my professors had studios in SOHO, which at the time was the center of the NY art scene. We were encouraged to frequent the galleries, set up interviews with artists and critics and generally be involved in some way with the art scene.
After college, and not wanting to starve, I built a career selling computer graphics platforms to the TV broadcast & production industries. In order to sell this technology I had to learn all the graphics & electronic paint systems . Training was provided on the job but I brought my Art background with me.
Because of my love of gardens and flowers in 2000 I earned an AAS degree in Ornamental Horticulture exactly twenty years after my BA in Fine Art.
To brush up on my drawing skills I returned to school for a 2 year diploma/certification in Botanical Illustration from the New York Botanical Garden graduating in 2004
A week never goes by that I don’t take an online webinar in either painting, software or marketing. I have taken so many webinars & seminars over many, many years that it’s too hard to count. I believe in life-long learning.
In 2015 I took a 1 year mentorship program in portrait painting from an artist like myself who is based in Louisiana. He pushed me out of my comfort zone to paint people. There is always more to learn, to grow, to expand.
How did you choose your field of photography and painting?
I don’t really understand the question. Do you really choose a field of painting style or does it choose you? My work has evolved as I evolved.
How has the field of photography and painting changed since you started?
This question is really answerable in a dissertation, but here is a snippet.
I believe that technology has changed the field of photography the most. With the introduction of digital cameras the access to photography has reached a greater cohort of people. Mobile phone cameras have grown the accumulation of images exponentially but not necessarily artistically. The bar has been lowered to what the general public assumes is Art.
The field of painting has been less affected by the introduction of electronic paint systems since they, up until now at least, are still not in general use. Also, all the same rules of painting apply to digital as to traditional. It is just another medium in which to work.
What are the most important skills to have in order to be successful in this field?
I am a great communicator, a salesperson, a marketing person. If I didn’t have these skills my Art would accumulate in my closets.
What do you dislike about this field?
I dislike that many potential clients undervalue our work since they have the insane belief that we paint for fun and relaxation. Those are the ones that don’t understand the difference between a Professional Artist and a person who paints as a hobby.
What is your most interesting photo shoot or painting?
I am always drawn to my garden for inspiration. The closer I paint the flowers the better. The colors are rich, the forms are voluptuous, the textures challenging.
What are the things that keep you passionate and motivated in your field?
I constantly reach to learn more. A week never goes by that I don’t learn something new or refresh my knowledge base. I read Art books, I take webinars, I read Art blogs, I go to Art Shows & museums. I am always in a learning mode.
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone entering this field of work?
One thing I was never taught in Art school was how to make a living from my Art. I used my own mental creativity to zig and zag myself into a career in the visual arts.
It is very rare for painters and photographers to make a really decent living from just the narrow vision of what they view as their Art. I had to step outside of my comfort zone in order to support my family but because I did it creatively, I was able to maintain a career with a tangential relationship to the Arts & also maintain a working studio.
As Artists we are creative people. Living creatively doesn’t mean that one has to be a starving Artist. In fact by thinking creatively and widely, you can have a profitable & emotionally fulfilled career. Enjoy!
The only way for me to efficiently prepare for any upcoming Lecture or Art Show exhibition is to create a checklist of items I need to complete to make a successful event. These contain Marketing items, preparing to show the Art, inventory items for sale & display and the advance staging & rehearsal.
For my latest upcoming Art Lecture at the Long Island Horticultural Society, I worked from this list if items. I really enjoy drawing lines through each task as I complete it so I can move on to the next.
The list is fluid & with each event I have to make adjustments but this is a fairly good outline to begin with.
Lecture To-Do List
Update my website
Write blog post
Write & send Press Release
Post event to Facebook
Post event to Fine Art America
Post event to HAC
Post event to NAC
Print price lists
Create & print handouts
Create Planting Fields paintings
Get portraits printed
Paint mixed media paintings
Inventory small prints for sale
Inventory matted prints for sale
Inventory note cards for sale
Collect show-&-tell items
Staging & Rehearsal
Update power point presentation
Stage easels with lighting
Stage & test presentation
From the Garden to the Wall- Lecture by the Artist, Mary Ahern
Here is a video which I originally created in July of 2013 of how I prepare prints for display and sale at outdoor art shows .
I took these video clips in my studio as I prepared for the Northport Art in the Park hosted by the Northport Arts Coalition.
I used a Canon Power Shot SD3500 IS Digital ELPH, holding it in one hand and demonstrating with the other. I used the audio from the camera which is muffled at times since I put my finger over the microphone. I originally started with 18 minutes of video clips and brought it down to about 4:15.
I edited in iMovie with the end credits created in Photoshop.
Fun little project which I wish I’d given myself more time to perfect but there are always choices to be made. Time being the one thing I can’t seem to stretch.
Studying Art History seeps into your memory. Countless visits to the many museums and galleries that New York City has to offer has crept into my subconscious. This lifelong study has taken me through so many happy surprises as well as quite a number of dead ends.
Often Artists are asked who their influences have been for their Art style. Trust me, never would I have answered Matisse. I’ve never appreciated his sketchy use of paint, his lack of detail and apparent lack of a “finished” quality to his work.
And then, when I least expected it, I reimagined Matisse’s iconic painting, “The Dance”. Using flowers from my own garden, I picked up the exuberant rhythm that makes his work such a delight. This work is so light, buoyant and a wonderful interpretation of what spring means to me.
As I was creating the composition of Irises I remember somewhere, behind my eyes, trying to make the circular floating connections of the frilly irises that was suspended somewhere in my memory. I have stood so often in front of the Matisse painting at the Museum of Modern Art, loving the composition while not liking the paint quality. I’ve returned so often to view that painting in the original hoping to find what I missed.
I absorbed his painting just by being there and looking. And looking again. And again…
“…man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots,
whose flower and fruitage is the world…” Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of the methods I use to visualize my Art is to take snapshots of my models and modify them on my computer. Since I’m not a photographer I only have a small point and shoot camera that I use to take photos in my garden or in my studio.
I took this snapshot of these orange tulips using natural light in my studio
I import these snapshots onto my computer and using Photoshop I delete the backgrounds, modify the colors and otherwise play around with the image. I print the images from my Epson printers onto matte cardstock papers.
Using Photoshop on my Mac, I play around with colors and composition
Then, using Winsor Newton watercolors, I put down my first layer of paint. Once dry I used my set of Prismacolor colored pencils to draw over the watercolor.
In this Mixed Media Art work I used colored pencil over watercolor
For some reason I find this process to be very relaxing and meditative for me. If I need some calmness in my life, I can go to my studio at any time and pick up right where I left off. No fuss, no muss, no bother.
There are so many ways to create paintings. As an Artist who has been creating for over 35 years I have developed a variety of methods to arrive at my finished work. Sometimes it is interesting to get a peek behind the process, so here is one style I enjoy.
Snapshot of some Orange Tulips I used as the basis of this series of Art works
Since I’m not a photographer, I take snapshot of flowers I either buy or grow. I usually select them for color or just for form. I find myself attracted to large bold shapes rather than the more frilly inflorescences. I then decide what mediums I will work in and whether there will be one finished Art work in one or more mediums or whether the work will be part of a series.
I love creating tonal drawings so I often do a finished piece in graphite before I start a painting just because I like the feel of drawing. It also is a great way to work out values of highlights and shading.
Tonal drawing of a tulip. I use a pair of magnifying lenses which I hook onto my bifocals to help me see the details
If the work is part of a series, I need to imagine the size of each piece and the total overall impression I’m looking for. This ups the level of complexity considerably and actually makes for quite a nice challenge to my visual imagination and my technical consistency.
For a series of work I need to choose the size of each work and the size of the overall series.
I also need to create a composition that stands alone as well as works for the series.
I used my altered snapshots to help me come up with my composition in this series
My work must not only be accomplished to my own standards for each piece but it must be consistent across all the work. This can be tricky if you don’t create all the work during the same or close to the same period of time.