Petaluma Painter Roberta Ahrens: The Wall is Her Canvas

Photography by Rebecca Chotkowski.

Whether Roberta Ahrens creates a panoramic mural or an 8-by-8-foot painted canvas, her work is never diminutive. Nature speaks to her in a loud voice, and she translates that inspiration into paintings that are lifelike yet unique. She paints cherubs on ceilings, and lilies, poppies and peonies on cracked linen, bringing vibrancy and boldness to the walls and canvases that meet her brush stroke.

Ahrens expertly transforms a painted wall into one that appears to be old wood or adobe. She can turn a ceiling into a wispy, cloud-filled sky. She created a 9-by-12-foot canvas full of flowers and covered it with a protective varnish so it could be used as a carpet under a dining room table. And when a client lamented the view of a drab utility building outside her kitchen window, Ahrens created the trompe l’oeil of a chicken coop complete with realistically rendered hens and a rooster.

While she has transformed many private homes with her decorative painting, Ahrens’ work can also be seen in public spaces, including Ferrari-Carano winery in Healdsburg and Sunflower Caffé in Sonoma. At Ferrari-Carano, she was commissioned by Rhonda Carano to paint a high-domed ceiling in the corporate villa, and murals of rolling hills

Wand rows of Italian cypress trees in the private tasting room.

“It’s tough to paint murals when you’re high up on scaffolding, because you can’t see what it is going to look like,” Ahrens said. So she uses a trick she learned early in her career: view the painting through the back end of binoculars, achieving a sense of distance.

At Sunflower Caffé, she painted six massive panels of sunflowers that cover the entire wall behind the long counter. They are hung like tapestries, not glued to the wall, so they can someday be taken down and hung elsewhere. Sunflower owner James Hahn profusely praises Ahrens’ work.

“You can express your vision to her and not only does she grasp your idea, she adds her creative expertise and gives you exactly what you wanted,” he said. “She is an amazing artist but also a savvy business professional. We’re opening another restaurant, and Roberta will definitely be on the design team.” Her work will be displayed on Sunflower’s walls during January and February, the second time she has been represented in the cafe’s ongoing, revolving art shows.

“I am a master finisher in my profession, but it has taken a while for me to think of myself as an emerging artist,” Ahrens said.

She invented her own signature painting surface, troweling several layers of white plaster onto linen canvas, letting it dry and then rolling it, causing it to crack.

“I’ve really gotten it down to perfection now,” Ahrens said of the technique. The resulting canvas is “tough and slightly thirsty.”

She works in both acrylics and watercolors. After applying the paint to the cracked canvas, she often manipulates it, using sanding and carving techniques. She then glues the canvas to a box frame or backs it with silk or other fabrics so it can be hung tapestry-style. Sometimes her work is glued directly onto the wall.

Ahrens’ paintings have been sold at several galleries and are currently shown at Bluebird Gallery in Laguna Beach and Living Green in San Francisco. She participates twice a year in art fairs at Glasshoff Sculpture Ranch in Fairfield, which she describes as a “very hush-hush event” that nevertheless draws about 3,000 art enthusiasts. She sold eight large pieces to collectors there in the past year. “It’s a new audience for me that’s turning into true success,” she said.

Another first for Ahrens was painting on a nearly 6-foot-tall fiberglass rabbit for the “We Know Jack” fundraiser for the Vacaville Museum. She painted it black and covered it with California poppies. The winning bidder was Assemblyman Jim Frazier, who placed it in his Sacramento office.

A three-series set of amaryllis and poppies can be found on, her one allowance for mass production of her work.

“It’s not a big moneymaker for me, but to know my work is hanging nationally, or maybe globally, … makes me happy,” she said of the exposure that comes from online sales.

Ahrens describes the majority of her work as “large-scale botanicals.” She tries to capture the “architecture of nature” in her work, and her canvas itself is part of her work’s allure. Not surprisingly, real sunflowers tower in the front and back gardens of her Petaluma home, where the carefully tended blooms, strawberries and tomatoes of summer fuel her artistic soul all year long.

Although she has no formal art training, Ahrens said she was always the kid at school who could be found in the art room. She was raised in Oregon and followed her older sister, Shelley Masters, to San Francisco. An established master finisher, Masters took on her sister as an apprentice, and paved the way for her entrée to decorative painting.

Ahrens perfected her skills on the job with Evans & Brown, a San Francisco mural and wall-covering firm. She traveled nationwide, applying decorative techniques in shopping malls, hotels and corporate entryways before setting off on her own. Her work appears at the Wynn and Encore hotels in Las Vegas, the Palm Resort in Dubai, and the Four Seasons Maui.

To help market her home-decorative painting niche, Ahrens has a permanent installation of 4-foot sample boards hanging in Peterson’s Paints store in Petaluma, displaying an array of faux finishes; a binder at the counter gives details on each technique and the colors used. While decorative painting is her mainstay, Ahrens said she is thrilled to be part of the team working on the decor of The Petaluman, a boutique hotel scheduled to open in downtown Petaluma this year. And her commissioned work continues to lead her in new directions. An architect hired her to do paintings on cracked linen, a finish his clients admire, but because they love simplicity, there were no flowers this time — just one massive piece in textured white and a second that is entirely black.

“With no imagery, you can really see the cracks,” Ahrens said. “I definitely want to dive in and explore this minimalist idea more.”

Sunflower Caffé, 421 First St. W., Sonoma, 707-996-6645,

Peterson’s Paints, 800 Lindberg Lane, Suite 140, Petaluma, 707-763-1901,