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.
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.
The historic use of limiting editions of prints was during a time when prints were made from art carved or drawn onto stone, wood or other surfaces that degraded with use. As more impressions were made the surface wore out and the image became less crisp. Limiting the quantity of the printing run helped to control the quality of the print and of course the value.
Digital printing does not suffer from this problem since there is no degradation in resolution, or crispness, from one print to the next. In fact, what can happen as technology evolves and equipment gets better and faster, later prints may be of higher quality then original prints made years earlier in the cycle.
New Technology Offers New Forms of Creativity
So how do I offer my customers a solution to their desire for a unique piece of my Art rather then the Open Edition pieces I generally offer?
Custom Art Work Created Just For You
Custom Editions brings my customers into a collaborative effort in the artistic process of helping me to create a unique Art Work specific for their home or office design ideas.
I was featured in a Newsday Business section article written by Arlene Gross. The excerpt focusing on my background and my life choices is copied below. If you’d like to see the article in it’s entirety you can see it on my website in the Press section.
At midlife, taking lower pay to begin more satisfying careers
By Arlene Gross
Special to Newsday
11:07 AM EST, January 4, 2008
Mary Ahern had (experimented) in art for many years, but had never been able to actually make a career of it. Until four years ago, that is, when she made the switch to full-time artist.
“I had always been a creative artist,” the Northport resident, explained. “Life, however, intervened, and as a single parent, I was never able to create my art on a full-time basis.”
Changing careers at midlife is no small feat, and switching to one with substantially less earning potential is more difficult still. According to Randy Miller, founder and president of ReadyMinds, an online career counseling service, downsizing a career can be a source of great anxiety.
Yet for some people, any fear or hesitation is mitigated by the yearning to follow a dream. Seeking more spiritually uplifting endeavors can be the ultimate challenge, and Miller said any attendant loss of income is often compensated with a renewed sense of purpose and newfound happiness.
“There are a lot of people who go through life and think, ‘What if?'” Miller said. “With a strategic plan, coupled with the new passion and ultimate objective of doing something different, one can more easily achieve their ultimate goals.”
For Ahern, a new husband provided the impetus and financial support to move forward. Income, the couple concluded, was less relevant to the quality of their lives than the legacy they wish to leave behind.
“When we married, Dave urged me to follow my dream,” she recalled. “The hard part at first was trying to find inside myself what that dream actually was. You spend so much time marching forward and doing what you do, you lose the essence of yourself.”
Once their five children — all from previous marriages — were finished with college, Ahern felt it was OK to follow her calling.
“My income from my art doesn’t yet come close to the money I’m used to making in either my career in computer graphics equipment sales or my own graphics design firm,” she said.
One of her greatest sacrifices was a big dip in retirement savings, which now come exclusively from her husband’s salary.
“We have a comfortable nest egg,” she said, “but by coming out of a conventional career, I no longer have the extra cushion to add to my existing portfolio of tax-advantaged savings vehicles.”
Despite her diminished earnings, Ahern says she is happier. “I am living the life I am meant to live,” she said.
Excerpt of Article posted in The Times of Northport
Artist cultivates her livelihood like a garden
By Arlene Gross
June 13, 2007 | 02:39 PM
Northport resident Mary Ahern is a successful artist who practices a unique technique she describes as. “Digital Mixed Media Painting”.
But Ahern, who… (was) among the exhibitors at Arts in the Park in Northport July 8, (2007) was not born an artist. “I didn’t come to paint until I was older,” she said. “I didn’t even know I had a facility for it.”
As a young girl, she focused on music: playing trumpet and saxophone for the high school band and conducting her Fort Hamilton High School graduation in Brooklyn with a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“I’ve been in the bleeding edge of those kinds of issues,” she said. “In those days, girls didn’t conduct.”
A life-changing moment came in her 20s, when a friend gave her a coffee table book of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
“I opened it up and turned the pages and wept,” she recalled. “It was completely transforming. I could only look at 10 pictures a day, it was so overwhelming.”
From that moment, Ahern knew she must study art and, then a resident of Queens, attended Queens College.
Although she was influenced by O’Keeffe and painted similar subjects, such as close-up and sensual florals, Ahern said she did not mimic her idol’s technique. Whereas O’Keeffe painted with direct and rapid strokes, Ahern’s traditional paintings were created in grisaille, or gray scale, and layered with washes of pigment on top, giving the subjects a glow through the optical blending of glazes of pigment.
After divorcing her first husband, Ahern took a job at Barnard College’s career counseling office, where she herself was able to get some career guidance. Through her Barnard position, she attended Columbia University for free by working there while raising sons, Chris and Michael, then ages 10 and 8.
“I knew if I couldn’t stay home and be a mom and paint, I had to make a decision: I’m going to make as much money as possible,” she said.
With profit in mind, Ahern went into technology sales, selling computer graphics and eventually becoming Northeast regional sales manager at Chyron Corporation in Melville (and a National Marketing Manager at The Dynatech Video Group.) Then she started Online Design, a digital graphics company.
For Ahern, feminism was not a word to bandy about but, rather, her day-to-day reality – working as a single mother in a male-dominated industry.
“My single-minded focus on providing a good life for my sons enabled me to ignore the tremendous obstacles, prejudice, emotional assault and loneliness that comes from breaking through social barriers,” she said. “I, like my father, pulled myself up by my bootstraps. As a woman in a male industry however, I, like Ginger Rogers, did everything in high heels and backwards.”
In 1989, Ahern fulfilled her dream of buying a house with a spacious garden in Northport, which she said, “was like a step back in time to a slower and more gracious lifestyle.”
“The center of town with a Main Street embedded with trolley tracks leading to the harbor breezes and music in the gazebo captured my attention and insisted upon my attendance. I needed to move here.”
Eleven years later, she renovated her home, adding an airy, second floor art studio, and now natural light trickles throughout.
The garden, which Ahern designed, encircles the house, with its artfully designated focal points and meandering paths, everything flowing gracefully.
“I practice nonviolent gardening – no rose bushes to stab you – all soft inviting plants,” she said.
Seventeen years after her first marriage ended, Ahern married David Ruedeman, an engineer at Chyron. The couple worked together there but got to know one another only when he became a client of Online Design. This year will mark the couple’s 10th anniversary…
Early on in the second marriage, wishing to reinvent herself, Ahern got a degree in horticulture from SUNY Farmingdale in 2000, with the idea of becoming a landscape designer, which she did for a year. “It was too much for my (aching) body,” she said, of the many hours spent working on bended knees.
From there, it was a two-year course studying botanical illustration at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.
Her (Mixed Media) painting, a culmination of expertise paralleling her life’s progressive journey, combines a passion for the fine arts, gardening, computer graphics and botanical painting.
“To be creative, you need to know your medium,” Ahern said of her computer graphics skills. Through her paintings, she seeks to make people look around them and become more aware of the nature surrounding us.
Dr. Roberta Koepfer, her friend since 1971, said, “She’s like a phoenix. I have seen her rise up from a fair number of devastating experiences. Every time she comes back, she comes back more dynamic, more focused on her art and with an increased zest for life and personal growth.”
When it came time to sell her art, Ahern’s business savvy came in handy; she started in Northport as an exhibitor at the annual Arts in the Park series (in 2004) and now participates in about 15 art shows in New York and Connecticut between May and September, with her husband lending a hand.
Ahern’s work has also been the focus of several gallery exhibitions, including a one-person show at Greenlawn’s Harborfields Library this past February.
Susan Hope, gallery coordinator for the library, noted that Ahern’s exhibit was well timed: her cheerful florals brightened the gloom of winter. “It has an eye catching appeal,” she said. “People really enjoyed it, whether they were art savvy or just seniors on their way to their meetings.”
Today, Ahern is either painting her botanicals, selling them or lecturing on the business of art at libraries or schools, although her business persona has changed radically over the years. “I did trade shows in high heels and silk suits,” she said, “now I’m doing business in Birkenstocks and shorts.”
To anyone seeking career guidance, Ahern advised, “Don’t throw away anything you’ve done because you want to transform yourself. Take the good portions, the positive elements and try to incorporate them into this new self you’re creating. That’s how I’m living my life.”
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.
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
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.
In making the decision as to whether or not to blog I came up with a few Pro and Con positions.
Reason #1. Use the disciple of writing a blog to organize my thoughts. (I discussed this issue in my posting of 2007-12-5 Why Blog?)
Reason #2. Give back some of my knowledge of the world.
During this journey through life I have zigged and zagged through many fields of interest and a variety of careers. Often I’ve been asked to lecture on various subjects or to sit on a discussion panel of one subject or another. Several subjects I’ve spoken on in the past have been:
• Creativity and the Business of Art.
• “Creating, A Life” A presentation showing & discussing the evolution of an Artistic vision and the application of that vision as it applies to Fine Art, Business Development and Life in general.
• Careers for women in electronic publishing.
• Use of the Internet in a comprehensive marketing program designed for businesses in the field of horticulture.
• Use of color measurement and management devices in the development of multi-media design projects for use on the Internet and in print.
• Presentation of my fine arts catalog raisonne with a focus on the evolution of personal style and artistic influences.
• Electronic Paint Systems and Character Generators. Defining their use in creating graphics, illustration and design for television stations and production houses.
• The Shady Garden. Plants I grow and why.
• Garden tools I can’t live without.
• Techniques I use in my creation of my Digital Mixed Media Painting.
• “The Future Through Both Ends of the Looking Glass. Broadcast Computer Graphics. Where Has It Been and Where Is It Going?”
• Oil Painting techniques I’ve learned and use from studying the old master painters.
I could go on but compiling this list helped me to recognize that I have enough subjects and material to justify a blog. What a waste it is it if I keep this knowledge bottled up inside my head. I believe that some of my learned experiences will touch others in new, different and unexpected ways. Isn’t that where innovation and evolution comes from? I’m just part of the process.
There are quite a few reasons to blog or not to blog. I’ve struggled with justifying whether to spend my time writing, considering that I’m primarily a Visual Artist. Here are some of the thoughts I pursued as I worked towards a decision.
To Blog or Not To Blog?
1. Organize my thoughts.
2. Give back some of my knowledge to the world.
3. Open up my rather cloistered existence for greater conversation.
4. Drive people to my website.
5. Sell my Art.
1. I’ve never been naturally drawn to writing articles or letters to people.
2. I’m a bit of a hermit.
3. It will take time away from creating new Artwork.
4. I’m already too busy. (I’ve just added Pilates to my schedule)
5. If I’m going to do it I have to stay committed to it.
Obviously I’ve decided to Blog so here is an elaboration of one of the reasons.
Organize my thoughts.
I have a head full of ideas that it makes my brain spin. I want to write down and categorize the ideas, the priorities and the projects. I’ve always been a goal-oriented person and this is how I’ve always arrived at goals. And yes, I always arrive at my goals if I go about them systematically. So one of the things this blog is going to do is to help me create and organize my steps towards achieving my next goals.