My Art Starts In The GardenPosted on by Mary Ahern
Today I painted for four hours on a painting that everyone thought was finished but I hadn’t yet signed. Everyone loved it but me. I really liked the composition, a rounded peony in a square frame. What’s not to love?
But the edges weren’t working for me. Not the edges of the outside of the canvas, the edges where paint meets paint. Where does one color transition to another? Is the edge hard or soft? Does it blend? Does it pick up color from the adjacent color? Does it offer a stark contrast in tone to the color next to it?
Is that color warm or cool that it’s bumping up against? Warm colors advance, cool colors recede. Is one petal in front of the other? Where is the light coming from? Is there a shadow? If the petal of the flower is warm, the shadow would be cool.
In order to work on this, I need to paint in an all over manner since each part relies so heavily on the adjacent section. It’s so hard to know when to stop since the next time will be hard to recreate exactly where I left off. But I can’t paint for too many hours in a row.
My arm gets tired. My hand holding the brush also. I become less precise and begin making small errors that have to be corrected. When the corrections start overcoming the progression I know I’ve reached my tipping point and have to call it a day.
Then I take photos of my progress, clean my brushes, scrap my palette and stare at my work. I spend a lot of time staring and studying the progress of the day. Planning on where to being again tomorrow. Strategizing on where I’ll begin again. I write the notes of my day in the book where I keep, what could be called, a diary of the painting. The date, the length of time, what I worked on and what colors & mediums.
I’m a very procedural artist. I go through a particular set of stages and processes to create my art. What I’m not in control of is what the painting will look like when it is finished. The painting itself determines that. I’m just the vehicle to get there.
My Art Starts In The GardenPosted on by Mary Ahern
Last week we had temperatures in the 30’s every day. The clocks changed and now it’s dark by 4:30 where I live. That may sound pretty grim but for me, it signals the opportunity to go into my studio to paint without the tugging and nagging feeling that I should be out in the garden, planting, weeding, pruning, and planning. Now, guilt-free I’m in my studio creating the paintings of the flowers from summer.
And guess what? Yesterday, today and for the next few days, the temperatures have returned to the 70’s. So the sunshine has seduced me back into the garden. Finally today I finished planting the 100 plus bulbs I bought on some wild spending spree a few weeks ago. The daffodils, the oriental, martagon lilies are in. The bearded iris have been planted in the little nooks and crannies where there is some sunshine. And all the five different kinds of alliums are finally in the ground.
Alliums, you may or may not know are onions, these are ornamental onions. Not the kind I cooked dinner with tonight. I made a new recipe with spanish onions, turkey sausages, grapes, cumin, vinegar, roasted potatoes, and some of the meager crop of tomatoes I grew from seed this year.
As I cut up the onions I thought about all their layer upon layers. Which led me to think about my paintings. I paint in layers. Layer upon layer of thin transparent paint. As the painting comes into existence it reminds me of my darkroom days and watching the photograph begin to arrive in the chemical baths. I tend to work all over the surface so the entire painting emerges pretty much at the same time.
My paintings are very much like me. Like you. Like everyone. We’re all layers upon layers of information, experience, emotion, and intellect. Interest and drive are hidden in there too. Hopes and dreams also come to mind. Many people don’t like to look below the first layer of who they are. I, on the other hand, dug deep into the bone marrow to find the core of what makes me tick. Then I covered it up so the rest of the world wouldn’t find it easily. Keeping that core wrapped in swaddling clothes held closely, is one of the mysteries I keep safe and protected from the seasons of change.
Throughout the year I spend time immersed in my garden in the warm summer sunshine and the deep winter snow. The myriad of colored petals, the exquisite architecture of a flower’s anatomy, the subtle shifts of green inspire me throughout the seasons.
Here’s me in my spring garden with the camellias in bloom that inspired the original painting that is behind me in an aluminum print. The aluminum hangs outdoors all year long whether the camellias are in bloom or not. You can buy them on my website here.
There are seasons I’m with my flowers in the garden and seasons where they enter my studio as inspirations for my paintings and drawings. Each art form is dependent on the other to continue my seasonal shifts of creation.
All winter I paint flowers. The bright happy flowers of my summer garden follow me into my studio and surround me with their joy and inspiration during the short dark days of winter. In my studio, they help me to wind down the hectic whirlwind of gardening in the bright sunshine.
But each year the same joy of being in my studio creating my Art begins to take a turn into claustrophobia when the daffodils spring forth with their joyous yellow heads as they entice me outdoors. It’s the beginning of the push and pull for me to be in my studio or to be in my garden. Both are my creative forces. Both get my creative juices flowing. Without either the other would be that much the poorer.
The balancing of time subsides somewhat in the mid-summer when the heat and humidity drive me back to the cooler breezes in my air-conditioned studio. Another burst of art flows from inside the walls during those hot weeks of August. When the humidity subsides the gardening resumes.
Inevitably when the nights begin to provide good sleeping weather, the transition from new expectations of growth in the garden turns instead to senescence and the decisions of what to preserve commences. Choices of what to overwinter, what must be sacrificed take precedence. Mulching, raking, clearing debris marks the bedding down of my outside work.
Then comes the time in the fall when the garden is put to sleep that the joyful season of painting and drawing begins again within the walls of my studio as I create my winter garden of work surrounded by my summer flowers.
Since the 1970’s I’ve been a collector, an observer and a thinker about round things. Currently, my garden is enhanced by round thing presences. Spheres of all colors and sizes. Sculpture with round themes. Round trellises. Round gateways.
This moon gate entry to my woodland walkways is just one of the pieces throughout my garden which inspires my art. These themes of roundness have threaded throughout my work for decades.
On my deck are round finials on the tops of the banisters. And large round concrete containers spewing forth their colorful floral additions all summer.
I have reflective spheres so as you walk around the circular pathways in my garden you see yourself in a distorted and accentuated way. It’s good to see yourself when you least expect it. Then your mind views you more clearly. It sees how others may see you.
Why round things you ask? They are the feminine. The woman. The beginning. The Eve.
They are the mystery. No beginning and no end. The continuum.
Eve’s apple is the first sphere. It represents to me the essence of woman, the feeding, the nurturing, the sexuality, the sensuousness, the rounded birth belly.
With the apple Eve burst forth from the confinement of the “Garden of Eden”. The place made for her. To protect her but also to isolate her from life. The experiences. The experimentation. The adventure.
She broke free by pushing the boundaries. By saying that the world created for her was not enough. She found her way to burst forth and experience life. The sadness, the pain, the anguish, the tears, the disappointments, dashed dreams, hopes denied, the loss of loved ones, the curse of immortality.
Without which true happiness, peace and contentment could not be embraced.
My art is embedded with these meditations on life.
The OMNI Gallery show featured my round flower inspired oil paintings. This work is embedded with meditations.
In this video, I begin by showing you the photo of a flowering hibiscus from my own garden which was the inspiration for this artwork.
Here I write my thought process behind the stages visualized in the video.
In my initial stage I work out the composition of the final art work and deciding whether it will be a square or a rectangle.
To work out the details of lights and darks that will be in the final painting I like to start with a tonal drawing. Using an HB weight graphite pencil I use my customary swirling strokes to give form to the drawing. Not being partial to outlines I don’t emphasize them but soften the edges by merging them slightly with strokes.
In order to transfer the drawing to the canvas I used a mapped grid system. In this case, I put a transparent sheet of paper over the tonal drawing on which I’ve drawn a grid. After measuring the same grid on the canvas I was able to upsize the drawing onto the canvas. Using pastels I created an underdrawing of a neutral ochre color using the tonal drawing as my model, followed by a layer of neutral ochre oil paint which seals the surface of the gessoed canvas.
In the next stage, I applied thin coats of oil paints in layers recreating the original composition in the base colors allowing the underpainting to peak through. Many, many layers of thin glazes are applied to give dimension and form to the final painting.
Details are added during the later stages, I think of it as putting jewelry on after you get dressed to go to a party. You save the best for last.
Each day after if finish working on a painting in my studio I photograph it for reference and view the images on my computer to see the progress and decide if I want to make any changes along the way.
I prefer to work on thick gallery wrapped canvas and finish the work off with neutral floating frames. I aim for simplicity in form with exuberance and abundance in surface color. This painting has no visible brushstrokes which is also my preferred style of painting.
My Art Starts In The GardenPosted on by Mary Ahern
All of my paintings start with the garden, mine or other gardens. On a trip one spring day in May as I wandered around the peony displays at the New York Botanical Garden, with my phone I took snapshots of many of the unbelievable peonies in their collection in full bloom.
Later that year on a cold winter day in December, sifting through my stash of photos, a particular pink peony image jumped out at me and demanded my attention. I knew we could develop a relationship together. It often takes months to complete a painting so I really have to love my subjects in order to spend that much time with them. We need to love each other.
Once deciding on the size of the canvas I want to use I sketch, using vine charcoal, to give the general outline of the final layout onto canvas prepped with multiple layers of gesso. Then I block in the areas of color, working on my lights and darks. Then I paint using many layers of thin glazing in order to get the vibrancy of color I crave.
Oil paints need a few days of drying times between layers and some of my paintings have 15 to 30 layers of glazing. In order to continue painting every day, I usually work on multiple paintings at a time. Each one a different day. A different palette of colors. A different stage of completion. I like the continuous challenge of picking up where I left off. I keep extensive notes at the end of each day for each painting. A sort of diary of each work.
I paint quite slowly and quite neatly. I don’t like to feel sticky so I’m cleaning brushes and washing my hands constantly. Gloves don’t work for me since I don’t like the barrier they put between my brush and my hand. Rolls of paper towels help with the tidiness of my style of workflow. In fact & have two different brands for two different uses.
I listen to music while I paint. During the duration of this particular painting, I was listening to many CDs of van Morrison music. I don’t know why. I just was. Sometimes I’m in a classic rock groove for weeks on end and other times might be jazz, classical or even new wave relaxation. I don’t plan it. It just happens.
I usually paint with just brushes, fan brushes in fact, but the center of this painting demanded a palette knife. It’s not something I usually turn to but since the painting had a mind of its own I complied. Glad I did since the center of this painting is rich with texture while the petals are completely without texture but rich in nuance.
I named this painting Centering – Pink Peony. The reason is that it represents two different views for me. I can see with my eyes that it’s an interpretation of a pink peony but in my soul I found it centered me. Made me contemplate the meaning of this painting, this flower, this world it had lived in and now lives in again but in a different way. One ephemeral, one eternal.
The flowers I create in my studio with brush and canvas speak to me beyond their intricacy of form, color, ruffles and swirls. LIke everyone else they initially attract me with the way the color changes as the light graces their outer curves and when it delicately enters their inner recesses, their intimacy. The edges of petals dance like ballerina skirts bouncing in the breeze. Their edges are fluted, scalloped, curved and splayed defining their differences and embracing their similarities of purpose.
I love the architecture of flowers, not just how they grow on their stems, their height, their leaves and their unique outward appearance. I concentrate on the inner architecture of their center parts, the configurations of their pistils and stamens, their anthers laden with pollen. Quite frankly, these flowers are built to seduce their pollinators. The birds and the bees but also the billions of bugs who help by rolling in their pollen to feast and to share and to help create the next generation to grace the earth.
Flowers speak to me of our universe. Our purpose. Our endurance. Each flower is an individual with its own color, shape and form. It’s own choices of community, culture and companionship. It’s own needs for climate, food and water for sustenance. But we all share our need to survive, another season, another year, another generation.
Whether I am among the flowers in my garden or the flowers in my studio, I embrace our diversity and our commonalities. All these flowers in soil or on canvas speak beyond themselves, they’re ideas and thoughts beyond just the visual. They speak to the interior of our purpose and our minds. They are us.
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.
My Art Starts In The GardenPosted on by Mary Ahern
Water World – cold, restrictive, uncaring,
Sitting in it’s dark ——– just staring
At the blackness. Blankness.
Walls Without Windows.
Screaming so loud that no one can hear
In the isolation of my still infinity.
Unmovable arms, muscles pounded by waves.
Strength dissipated by the struggle.
Each year another breath of water
Engulfs my being, body and brain.
Dying Alive. Dark Death.
Arms at my sides grabbing for life.
Rocket screaming energy propels me from a watery grave.
Into the Red-Orange Sky.
Personal Writing by Mary Ahern, May 15, 1978
Illustration: Oil painting with digital overlays in Photoshop.
“The Red-Orange Sky” is the first painting I ever made. It was before I went to college to study art. I was taking Wednesday evening art classes at the YMCA near where I was living in Queens Village. Circa 1974.
The Digital additions for illustration purposes were made in Photoshop November 16, 2013.
My Art Starts In The GardenPosted on by Mary Ahern
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.