“I am fascinated by the paradox of order and chaos found in nature. This interplay is oftenwhat makes natural scenes so beautiful and awe-inspiring. In my work, a watercolor may look like many abstract shapes when seen up close, but from a distance a peony emerges. A restful image materializes from the chaotic repetition of similar forms, such as water-worn pebbles on a beach.”
Watercolor painter Gayle Mahoney spent the first 30 years of her life in California, exploring just about every inch of the Golden State. Growing up in the West gave her access to wild places on a grand scale, and from childhood on she absorbed and relished the vast diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna that could be found within arm’s reach. Once, while a four-year-old Mahoney was camping in the desert with her family, her grandmother led her away from the campsite into total darkness.
After a few moments she turned on her flashlight and shone it on the dry riverbed, which sparkled with thousands of quartz crystals in the beam of the light. Earlier that same day it had looked like plain dull sand. Experiences like these taught Mahoney that there is great beauty in the ordinary things around us, which can be seen only if the right light is shone upon them. “I strive to capture that feeling in each of my paintings, no matter the subject,” Mahoney says. “Whether I am painting landscapes, flowers, animals or still life, I try to express the magic found in every moment.”
Born into a family of artists and craftsmen, Mahoney learned to express herself in a visual language before she learned to read. Her grandfather, a Polish immigrant whose family trade was making ornate wicker furniture, spent hours teaching her to use her hands to make beautiful things. He taught her the importance of using tools properly, how to select quality materials, and to work patiently, not taking shortcuts. Mahoney’s mother was an interior designer at a prominent firm in Beverly Hills, who also created beautifully detailed drawings of architectural subjects in pen and ink. “My mom would work at the dining room table,” recalls Mahoney, “and I sat on the floor underneath the table creating my own masterpieces.” Her mother taught her color mixing, elements of composition, how to draw in perspective, and basic techniques in a variety of art materials usually reserved for adults. These lessons helped shape the eye of the budding artist.
As a child, Mahoney’s family loved road trips, and the phrase “Let’s go for a ride!” meant an open-ended exploration that taught her to appreciate the concept “the journey is the destination.” She grew up believing there was something to discover anywhere one went, and that each place held treasures worth finding. “These adventures made me very conscious of place and transience,” she says. “It was always fun exploring new areas. I loved the possibility of going anywhere on the map, and I would imagine what it must be like to explore each place.”
Such experiences impacted Mahoney as an artist by teaching her to observe her surroundings and capture the subtleties of the changing light, the seasons and human activities. “This is partly why I am drawn to painting landscapes and flowers,” Mahoney explains. “They are constantly changing, yet the inherent qualities of one moment can be captured in a painting.”
Mahoney began taking her art seriously when she signed up as a teen for private watercolor classes taught by Sacramento-area artist James Estey. He recognized and helped cultivate her skill as a painter and encouraged her to enter juried exhibitions. When Mahoney entered her first juried show at 18, not only was her work accepted, but she also won the coveted Exhibitors Award, selected by her fellow artists. It was a large regional show that attracted artists from all over Northern California, and this success made her feel that she should pursue art as a career. She enrolled at California State University as an art major. After her first year she transferred to San Francisco State University out of a desire for more resources to support her art education.
Living in San Francisco gave Mahoney access to original works of internationally acclaimed artists at such museums as the De Young, the Legion of Honor, the Asian Art Museum and SF Museum of Modern Art. She found the support of other artists and local collectors and soon earned most of her living by selling her watercolors. While in college she took elective classes in graphic design and supplemented her income by working as a freelance graphic designer at magazines and ad agencies.
In 1994, while on vacation, Mahoney met her future spouse on a street corner in New York City, eventually moving cross-country to be with her. They soon ran out of space in their Brooklyn apartment and bought a house in Montclair, New Jersey.
After moving to the East Coast, Mahoney continued her art education by returning to school to complete a bachelor’s degree in Art in Society at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Her studies there included the centrality of art to many native cultures, place theory, and the impact of art as an agent of change in local communities. She supplemented her studio art education by studying at the Yard School of Art at the Montclair Art Museum, the New Jersey Visual Arts Center, and through private instruction.
Mahoney’s studio is currently located in Montclair, just 12 miles west of Midtown Manhattan. The town has been known as an artist colony since the 1830s, when many artists ventured out from Manhattan to paint. The best known of these painters was George Inness, who is often called “the father of American landscape painting.” Artists are still drawn to Montclair because of its proximity to Manhattan’s museums, galleries and art scene, its world-renowned Montclair Art Museum, its diversity, and its lively arts community. Montclair is also home to the Presby Iris Garden, which grows more varieties of iris than any other garden in the world. Living in the Garden State provides many opportunities for Mahoney to study and paint both cultivated and wild plant life.
Mahoney has been active in the Northern New Jersey art scene through her employment with the Montclair Art Museum, the Valley Arts District, Arts Unbound and the Montclair Arts Council. She has also served as a volunteer on the boards of Studio Montclair and the New Jersey Metal Arts Guild.
Considering her love of nature, her experience trekking through the great outdoors, and her passion for capturing transient moments in her work, it is no surprise that she chose watercolor as her medium and the natural world as her subject matter.
Mahoney creates larger works mostly in her studio, using plein air sketches and her own photographs as source material. She paints in a precise, controlled manner, using fine detail, saturated hues and a broad range of contrast to create depth and weight in her watercolors. She works with a limited color palette, using eight or fewer pigments to create the full range of colors found in her work. Many people consider watercolor a very difficult medium, but Mahoney doesn’t agree. “We have all heard the phrases ‘God is in the details’ and ‘The Devil is in the details.’ If you paint in watercolor, you certainly know the truth of both! People tell me all the time that watercolor is so hard. I don’t think it’s hard at all — maybe because it was the first medium I studied. But I don’t think it’s easy, either. It requires equal doses of patience and of letting go. And like anything else, there are tricks to it… once you know the techniques, you have a lot more control. But sometimes, no matter what you do, the painting takes over and you literally must go with the flow or start over.”
For many years Mahoney worked as a freelance creative director in magazines and advertising, alternating her time between projects and artwork, but these days she works full time as an artist and art advisor. Being a professional artist is not easy, and artists experience the joys and struggles all small business owners share. Having the freedom to direct one’s own path is one of the greatest rewards of living a creative life. But Mahoney also feels a responsibility to share her vision as a painter to bring light, beauty and reflection into a world that is not so easy to navigate. For Mahoney, painting is an act of love. One of her favorite quotes is “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
— Pablo Picasso
“Watercolor is the perfect vehicle to share my message: Life is short. We don’t have much time to really see, let alone enjoy, all the beauty that surrounds us. I aim to capture just a moment of that beauty in every painting, to draw viewers in, transporting them to a place of peace and wonder.”