During my freshman year in the York College, Fine Arts Program in 1975 I took a class in Two Dimensional Design. First we studied the rudiments of rhythm, and then we abstracted the underlying design elements of images. The third project was an introduction to color. We used acrylic paint to make color charts of both warm and cool gray scales.
2-D Design project exploring color
It took a great deal of trial and error to get even steps from white to black and back down the scale again. As a former musician, I used to play my trumpet scales by the hour, much to the chagrin of my family. Trying to get the color scales right in paint is much the same experience, only quieter.
Another part of this Design project had to do with creating these scales in Color. These color scales were placed against various colored backgrounds to demonstrate how different the same colors appeared when imposed on competing ambient hues. These simple exercises introduced me into the world of luminance, saturation and hue, the basic platform of all painters and colorists.
Having explored rhythm in the first classes in my two dimensional design class in my freshman year in college, we then moved on to visualizing abstraction. I had to find an advertising in a major magazine, select a portion of the image and analyze why the composition worked. Then I had to take a one-inch section of the ad and reproduce it in acrylic paint.
2-D Design painting in abstraction
This first piece was from an ad for scotch, I believe it was a bottle of Pinch. This abstract includes the side of the bottle and the half filled glass with ice behind it. The curves of the glass and bottle worked very well together and the slight color shift of the liquid in the glass unites the scene. I remember painting this with a brush the size of an eyeliner. The finished piece is about 12″ square. I’m very patient with my work.
I remember less about creating this abstracted landscape. I do know that it is a landscape scene from the southwestern United States and includes the long horizon lines and massive skies of this part of the country.
Among the first Art classes I took when I began my college art education at York College, CUNY in Queens NY was the study of two-dimensional design. I began this class in the fall semester, in September 1975. At the time I believed that Art school would teach me how to paint and draw but here I was cutting half inch pieces of cardboard and gluing them onto unlined 3×5 index cards.
Two Dimensional Design class projects in rhythm
I began to see the rhythm in these little squares. These rectangles show the first four assignments in this class. The first design project is asymmetrical, almost jazz like. The second is a symmetrical rhythm of one central oval flanked by two reduced ovals. The third is both a symmetrical and asymmetrical figure 8 and the fourth is the reverse positive and negative space.
These four small exercises opened my eyes to looking for the rhythms in everything around me from leaves, flowers, buildings, clothing and groups of people. I took these assignments very seriously since I felt so privileged to be offered the opportunity to learn the underlying secrets to a profession I so deeply desired. These same design rhythms are the groundwork for all the Art that I’ve created for over thirty years.
Now that I make my living by creating Botanical Fine Art, image my surprise when I stumbled upon my first botanical drawings, dating from 1976. In an effort to document my classical art education I have gone to the attic to retrieve my early drawings and paintings along with the schoolwork I saved from the excellent Art Education curriculums I attended at York College and Queens College, (CUNY), City University of New York during the 1970’s.
Branch with details, an early horticultural drawing
Without any historical background regarding the long tradition of botanical drawing, I documented the branch structure, flower and leaf as well as the knothole of a branch, which I more than likely retrieved from my garden in Queens Village, NY. I was an avid, but highly amateur gardener, tending to a huge cherry tree, a multi-stemmed white birch and three peach bearing trees in my tiny garden.
Drawing of a dead branch
Drawing of a dead branch
The drawing of my houseplant has been badly damaged by mold but it describes nicely a succulent houseplant I nurtured for years without realizing that it would ever flower. When the plant finally graced me with a huge, star shaped hairy flower, the stench it emitted attracted an abundance of houseflies much to my dismay. The flower itself was stunning. Very large in proportion to the plant itself with reflexed petals and patterned markings. I, many years later, found that the common name of my trophy was, the Carrion Plant, and the Latin name is: Stapelia Gigantia, from the Family of Asclepiadaceae.
Considering the amount of flies that I remember finding their way into my home I am not surprised to have discovered that it was known to attract pollinators by emitting the horrendous odor of dead meat. I don’t remember exactly what happened to the plant but I think that it failed to flourish after blooming that year. That may either have been because the effort it took to produce that huge flower weakened the plant or it may be because I was so offended at the smell that I was not longer enamored enough with it to tend it with care.
I actually enjoy drawing the folds in fabric more than drawing the nude figure. The anatomy of bone and muscle structure is so compelling in studying the nude but the intricacies of fabric on the figure adds another dimension of complexity. I love the pull of a belt on a waistline or the cinching of the fabric at the bend of an elbow or knee.
Life drawing with clothed figure in pencil on newsprint paper
I enjoy contemplating the lighting as it casts over and under the folds. Where is the source of lighting? I stare at the shadow type underneath to determine if it is soft and diffused or hard and linear. Now, thirty years later, I still am fascinated by the curves and shadow of figures and lighting though now I don’t draw the figure. I concentrate instead on my favorite subject matter, flowers. These life drawing were the beginning of the process of learning to see.
In most cases in the classes I attended at York College, CUNY, Queens, NY in 1976 when these drawings were created, the lighting was not dramatic or controlled. The classroom lighting was positioned from the surrounding windows and the overhead fluorescents to provide enough light for the students. The emphasis was not to create distinct lighting on the models. These drawings were from my second semester in college so are my first attempts at figures and folds.
Life drawing classes are the traditional method for teaching the drawing of the human figure. Live models are used so that students can study the muscles and anatomy of the figure in order to render the volume and dimensionality of the human body. Using photographs instead of models can often cause students to render the figure in too flat a manner.
Life drawing in pencil
Drawing classes that I attended at York College, CUNY, in Queens NY in the 1970’s, were held in 4-hour segments. Poses were held for short bursts of sketching time such as 5 or 15 minutes in the early part of a class to allow the artists time to warm up their drawing arm and eye. As the class progressed, poses often were held for longer periods and were in fact upon many occasions maintained for the entire remainder of the session. When the model took a break they would then return to their position in the center of the class so the students could continue to work on the drawing of that pose.
Seated figure in pencil on newsprint paper
Life drawing is such an fundamental part of the curriculum of any art school that it is hard to believe that in the not so distant past these classes were taboo for women. Throughout history women were banned from traditional art school under the guise of protecting their delicate sensibilities. In order to pursue their art many women took a separate path towards expressing themselves and gravitated to watercolor paintings of flowers and gardens. These were considered acceptable mediums and subjects for a well-protected and well brought up middle class woman.
Leaning figure seated on stool drawing
And then along came Georgia O’Keeffe and everyone saw flowers in a very different way. She helped to forge an acceptance of woman as artist and the doors of art schools flew open.
Pencil drawing on newsprint paper from life drawing class
Brown Kraft paper bags are a wonderful subject for learning to draw. They don’t move like people do. They don’t wiggle or whine. They don’t go rotten and deteriorate like fruits and vegetables. They’re cheap and easy to find. Not only can you pack lunch into the smaller bags you can bring home your food shopping in the larger ones and as an extra bonus, you can then use them to take out the garbage.
Brown Kraft bags – wash drawing
Need I mention that when I was in school, we cut down the large grocery bags and used them as book covers to protect the textbooks that the public school system in New York City provided to us on loan. So versatile, so useful, so filled with nooks and crannies they make for a great student model.
Brown lunch bag drawing
These 4 drawings of paper bags were done while I was in the second semester of my Freshman year in the Fine Arts Program at York College, CUNY in Queens NY. They were done during a two-week period from 3/21/1976 through 3/4/1976. All the dates of the drawings are noted at the bottom of each piece. I’m very glad that I was prescient enough to not only keep my student works but also to have dated them so that I could, 30 years later, look back on them and study the progression of my classes.
Brown bag wash drawing
At the time of these drawings I had been paying attention to art for only 2 years since I had spent my Junior and Senior High School years immersed in music. I came late to art but at the time of this writing in 2007, I’ve been an active artist for over 30 years.
The mediums I was experimenting with in these drawings are plain pencil, pencil and wash and Conte crayon. I seem to be able to create volume using contrast in these pieces but I haven’t set each of the still lives up with a particular light source that is consistent throughout each piece.
The composition of each work is fairly good in relation to the page and utilizes the scale properly except perhaps the last piece. I believe the drawing would have been better served had the paper been turned horizontally.
Too late to fix the original now but as I would say in this day and age: “I’ll fix it in Photoshop.”
The art of drawing boots and shoes is taught in all college curriculums since it is logical to select subjects readily available to even the most cash strapped students. In fact, the older and more beat up a shoe the more character it has and sometimes that goes for humans as well. These drawing studies were created in the second semester of my Freshman year of York College in Queens NY, 1976.
My son Chris’ denim boots
The first drawing of boots, with the heel cropped on the bottom of the paper, either indicates an advanced notion of composition or the inability to judge the size of the paper. These were denim boots I bought for my son Chris and they made him the coolest kid in elementary school. The drawing is dated 3/7/1976.
This drawing was one of my first attempts at using a stick of Conte crayon. I had moved beyond using just the weight of the stroke to indicate dimension and had begun to include shadows and light source.
My Earth Shoes in a conte crayon drawing (without shoe laces)
Earth shoes were my footgear for most of the ‘70’s since they were comfortable and easy on my back. This conte drawing is lacking the completion the assignment probably called for but I was amused at seeing my shoes again for the first time in 30 years. In fact these shoes might be having a renaissance as I’ve seen them advertised in one of the flood of catalogs that show up at my door. This drawing is dated 3/8/1976, which makes it the day after the denim boots shown above and is probably the reason for their lack of detail.
Frye Boots in a wash drawing
The pen and ink study of Frye boots dated 3/11/1976 was a very early attempt at controlling an ink wash. The composition, in my mind, is more successful than the first two drawings since they utilize the format and dimensions of the paper with a greater sensitivity.
I have no recollection of whether these drawings were done in the classroom or as homework assignments. Given the length of time it would have taken for me to complete each of these drawings I presume most of the work would have been done on my dining room table after my sons went to sleep for the night.
Among the first drawing assignments I learned in the early days of my college education at York College in Queens NY in February and March of 1976, was to create volume using line weight. My first attempt at drawing the extension cord had an even pencil stroke on each of the turns of the coils. This is my second attempt and looking closely you can see that as the object comes forward to the picture plane the line becomes thinner and lighter while thickening and darkening as it recedes. This use of the line supports the 3-dimensionality of each of the objects in a rather subtle fashion.
Line drawing of an extension cord
These 3 drawings were done on cheap sketching paper using an ordinary pencil with an under-sharpened point. The composition of each piece took into consideration the entire page, which is here shown without cropping.
Doing drawings such as these simple objects sharpens the eye for composition and detail. Changing the line weight in one movement of the pencil helps to develop control of your hand and wrist. Selecting simple standard objects removes the complexity of movement, lighting changes, composition of multiple objects and for me allows a somewhat meditative appreciation of the object.
Drawing of a door knob from my home in Queens Village
Looking back on these drawings of pieces of hardware are strangely nostalgic.The doorknob was one of the original knobs in the house I owned in Queens Village at the time of this lesson. The handles were made of clear faceted glass and the bases were brass. They felt good in the hand when you turned them and opened a door.
The vise belonged to my Father who, since he had no need, was not at all handy. I played with it as a child in our basement in Brooklyn, putting small objects in the clamps and tightening the handle gently. I loved the sound of the metal handle as I clanked it from end to end. This green vise has traveled quite a bit in this lifetime and now lives mounted on a workbench in my garage where it is finally being put to real utilitarian use. And now that it is, I no longer notice the sweet sound of the handle and the smoothness of the moving clamps.
Classical art education classes began for me when I was accepted into the Fine Arts program at City University of New York, (CUNY) York College in Queens NY during the mid-70’s. My first drawing class brought me to the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadow Park to study and sketch the plaster casts of the Greek, Roman and Renaissance eras. As I studied Art History I found that this was a method of training Artists with a tradition going back centuries. I feel proud to have been taught in the classical art tradition in which the Masters studied. I am so glad that I had that platform as the basis of my entire Art career.
In my first college level drawing classes we drew from plaster casts of famous sculptures
I remember feeling totally honored at seeing those casts so up close and personal in the hidden rooms of the museum. I felt like I was being introduced into a select world, the world of the Artist. It was the beginning of being a part of a long tradition of people who were looking to learn their craft so they could find ways to describe things and views and images and ideas.
I wasn’t yet thinking of expressing my voice. I was just learning my craft. I had studied music in Junior and Senior High Schools and one of the ways I learned to master my trumpet was to play the scales up and down endlessly. Drawing, in the beginning, was very much like doing the scales. I needed to own the medium before I could begin to be creative with it. You become an Artist when the process takes backstage and your creative vision can flow.
I practiced, practiced and practiced my trumpet but never made it to Carnegie Hall. I did however, by practicing, become a professional Artist.
After my introduction to creating art by Jon Gnagy, I decided to take painting classes. The local YMCA where I lived in Queens, NY offered classes on Wednesdays so I signed up, made my first foray into Jerry’s Artarama art supply store with my shopping list in hand. How dizzying to be exposed to so many wonderful and exciting things and widgets and colors and brushes and paper and canvas. Oh the possibilities!
And that began my addiction to art supplies.
I bought small tubes of Grumbachers, some brushes, canvas boards and mediums. We were instructed to bring some pictures from calendars or cards that we could use to copy. I still remember the feeling of holding those brushes for the first time and how transforming it was for me. The brushes felt like an extension of my arm. Like they were physically a part of me. Life altering is too mild a description of the experience.
My favorite brush was so small it was about the size of an eyeliner brush and I used it to do most of my painting. I loved the tight control it gave me and how it allowed me to do fine details. I guess it allowed me to “stay in the lines” like I’d done for years in my coloring books. It was comforting and familiar.
I still have those early paintings. The second oil painting I ever did I copied from a placemat I borrowed from a neighbor. I so loved the image, not knowing at the time that that particular still life was representative of Dutch still life painting. I had not formal knowledge of art history but, being Dutch, and having spent time in Holland as a child I had been exposed to the art hanging in the homes of my extended family. That still life image moved me.
Still life images still do. I find them serene, calming, introspective, and contemplative.
Over 30 years ago I started my Art education and I’m still working on it. Since through High School my major was in music, (I was a trumpet player, saxophonist and conductor), I didn’t discover until my mid-20’s my talent for art. Having bought a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw set as a birthday present for Stephen, the son of my friend Roberta, a few days before his party I tore off the wrapping paper and began my art career. That night, I found what I’d never found in 10 years of musical training. I felt as if those pieces of chalk, pencils and paper were physically part of me and I was now complete.
After putting my sons to bed each evening, I’d pull out a wooden board and set it on my dining room table and begin my classes again. I remember the serenity I’d feel. It echoed the quiet contemplation I’d get as a child coloring within the lines with my Crayola crayons in my coloring books and later with Venus Paradise colored pencil kits. I remember, as a child, the enjoyment of trying to create volume by shading with darker and lighter values of the same colors. His lessons helped to explain what I’d been searching for.
As a child I believed that you couldn’t be an artist unless you could draw a straight line. Using loose-leaf paper as a guide I tried endlessly to draw straight lines freehand with a pencil and failed miserably. With this fact I knew I couldn’t be an artist and this freed me to just do whatever I did. It wasn’t art, it wasn’t creative, it was just me.
I used rulers.
And yes, I bought another Learn To Draw kit and gave it to Stephen in time for his party. We both ended up as art majors in college.
Mary Ahern- Art Naturally had a Successful First Time Showing at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show
The 2007 CT Flower and Garden Show moved to the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford CT. We never showed at this venue before so this was a new experience for us.
We brought our Traveling Art Festival Gallery to this exciting and very popular event and we’re sure glad we did.
The promised crowd of over 30,000 people showed up and at times, I felt as if I got to speak to each and every one of those winter starved gardeners.
This 4 day event has very long hours. Evenings until 8 each session. Did I mention very long days?
I’m glad that I brought my new bamboo director’s chair even though there were many hours I never got to touch it except to put my coffee in the cup holder.
The new lighting inside our Gallery worked just as we hoped so next time we’ll probably add the same system to the outside wall. The color correct lighting really makes a difference when showing Art.
As you can see, we’ve added new furniture to the Gallery and it makes writing up orders and taking information so much easier. Drawers in the desk really help me stay organized and the wood adds a nice sleek and solid look.
The racks on the outside of the Gallery were less than successful and we’re looking into alternative systems to show the small prints.
Mary Ahern-Art Naturally booth at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, 2007.