By Martie Thompson

Recently retired Mandarin resident Gary Mahan is happy to now spend days at a time in his art studio, located in the backyard of his home. His parallel career in illustration and architecture has prepared him for this more relaxed phase of his life, painting and drawing with his faithful dog Louie by his side.

Mahan got his start in the Marine Corps at age 17. He spent six years in a map making company for the Corps in support of the reconnaissance company. When he entered civilian life, he worked in surveying and drafting for a civil engineering company in Delaware. A chance phone call by an old high school teacher provided him the opportunity to become a self-taught architect.

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“I started at the bottom and worked my way up, like most architects back in the day,” Mahan said. “And I never stopped studying and learning.”

Mahan and his wife Dianne moved to Florida in 1971. He worked as a technical illustrator for the space program and eventually became a licensed architect who worked for local firms in Jacksonville before retiring from Reynolds, Smith and Hills just last year.

His fascination with painting started a bit earlier, when as a youth he attended a summer art program at the Delaware Art Center.

“I didn’t learn much in the classroom, but I was fascinated by the museum on the top floor of the building that featured works by American master illustrators Harold Pyle and N.C. Wyeth,” Mahan said. “I would study their brushwork and color and composition.”

Today, Mahan’s studio is full of paintings of all subjects, from canyons in the desert, to his wife and dog, to his boat shoes. But mostly there are seascapes: sailboats, beaches and oceans. Either from memory or a photograph, he paints interesting things that catch his eye.

  1. What is your favorite medium?

I would say watercolor, because it is so spontaneous. Painting goes quickly because the work is drying while you are painting and you can do cool things with it — like diffusion of painting clouds when the water dries. I also work with pen and ink and oils, particularly for portraits. For about 35 years I did not work with acrylic because it irritated me — the paint would dry right on the brush. I had to learn the limitations of the mediums and now I work with acrylic frequently.

  1. What is the most challenging thing to paint?

Painting is all about light and trying to capture its essence. Where is the light and what is it bouncing off of?

  1. What is a typical day for you in your studio?

I paint in spurts. I might paint two or three days in a row and then not paint for a week. I have to have an idea in my head about what the finished painting will look like. Sometimes, though, I can take advantage of some great accidents that happen with watercolors and the end result is better than what I had originally planned. Even though I have been painting for more than 60 years, I am still practicing and experimenting.

  1. Is any of your artwork displayed or for sale?

Through March 1, I have three paintings displayed at the Southlight Gallery in the Bank of America building downtown — part of the Architects and Art display. I also do commissions and portraits and some of my work is available in my Etsy shop online.

  1. What else do you enjoy besides painting?

My wife and I enjoy travelling in our Airstream camper. So far we’ve travelled out West and up and down the East Coast. We have a goal to visit all of the Florida State Parks that allow camping and so far have been to about seven of the 70.


Photo by Martie Thompson

Gary Mahan in his art studio.


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