Friday, December 9, 2016

What Makes a Good Reference for Studio Landscape Painting?

You, a plein air painter, have decided that it's now cold enough outdoors to retreat to the studio.  You'd like to work on something big, but you're not sure what.  You start pawing through boxes of old plein air sketches, scrolling on-screen through thousands of digital, but that's tiring work!  Maybe you'll spend the morning watching YouTube videos instead.

Well, here's a video for you.  If you're looking to take your plein air painting to the next level by doing some studio work, you need to know what constitutes good reference material.  In this video, I describe what makes good reference material and how to gather it so your studio time will be more successful. Pencil sketches, color studies and photographs all have their place in your work, whether your medium is oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel or something else.

So sit back with a cup of coffee, and enjoy.  It's only six minutes long, the perfect length for a coffee break.  Afterward, I expect you to get back to the studio.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Skill and Confidence: Is My Work Any Good?

Is my work any good?

This question is a thorn throughout one's entire art career, but it seems more painful when just starting out.  You have little or no confidence at this point, and for a reason – you don't know anything yet, so of course your work isn't very good.  However, as you practice and learn more about your craft, you can't help but improve, and so your confidence level rises.

Early on, it's easy to get over-confident and to think you are really something.  My late mentor, Ann Templeton, once told me:  "When you're just starting out, you get better fast.  But then you get to where it's hard work to get better, and it also takes more time."  For awhile, you may not see any improvement at all.  When this happens, your confidence can nose-dive.

But then you make a little jump in your craft – maybe you discover a different way of applying paint that brings your work to a new level – and your confidence follows.

There's a dance that happens between your level of confidence and your skill level.  My conversations with other artists tell me this is very much a shared experience.  But if you're just starting out in your career and are in a hole, take heart.  It does get better!

I've created this short video to explain how it works.  If you've been in this dance, too, I'd love to hear about your experiences.  (Don't see the video?  Here's the direct link: )

By the way, don't forget that my 2017 calendar is available.  You can see a preview and get it here:

Also, my $50 rebate for workshops is available until December 25.  For details, please see my previous blog post:  Bring a friend!  I hope you'll join us this winter.

Also, please don’t forget my books (available at and my videos (available at North Light Shop) and my workshops (on my web site)!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Bring a Friend to the Workshop, Get $50

If you're thinking of taking one of my Paint Sedona workshops this winter, I want to give you something to encourage you.  If you sign up by December 25th, I will give you $50 for each friend you bring.  Here's how it works.  The workshop is regularly just $300 – still inexpensive by most standards! – but if  you bring a friend, it's only $250.  If you bring two friends, just $200.  Three, and you pay only $150.  This is my Christmas gift to you.

As a reminder, the deadline to sign up for this deal is December 25th.  You must bring at least one friend who will take the workshop  The gift will be applied to your workshop balance after paying your initial deposit of $150.  To register and pay your deposit, please visit

But wait, there's more!  Sedona can be an expensive place to stay for a week.  I am offering a package deal of five nights' lodging at the studio plus the workshop for just $600 per person.  That's only $60/night per person for lodging!  There are four very comfortable bedrooms with a shared kitchen at the studio, and you and your friends can stay there, space permitting.

If you've not been to Sedona before, the video above will give you an idea of what you will experience.  (If you're receiving this blog post by e-mail, you won't see the video, but here is the link: I hope you'll join us this winter!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

New Painting: Autumn's Turn

Autumn's Turn
24x36 oil/canvas
Available through Goldenstein Gallery, Sedona, Arizona

This winter, I'm spending more time in the studio, working on larger projects.  I want to share with you the result of my latest project.

One of my very favorite spots on the planet is Red Rock Crossing in Sedona, Arizona.   The clear, cool snowmelt and spring water from the mountains and forests of northern Arizona descend through Oak Creek Canyon to this special place.  Here, the rushing waters widen and rest, lapping gently at shelves of red rock edged with graceful sycamore trees and gnarled cottonwood, all beneath the eternal gaze of Cathedral Rock.

For many years I've wanted to make a painting of what, to me, makes this place so special.  Although I love Cathedral Rock, for this piece I've chosen to keep its magnificence in the background and instead to give the creek center stage.  I've presented Red Rock Crossing as it appears in autumn, when the cottonwoods and willows are at their best color, and when the red rocks beneath the surface glow with a sympathetic light.  "Autumn's Turn" offers a window onto this restful place and time.

I chose to present this moment in a way that shows the full breadth of the creek without being impeded by a frame.  Although you could frame this 24 by 36 original oil painting, I have painted the edges of the canvas to create the illusion that the scene continues beyond its bounds.

"Autumn's Turn" is available only through Goldenstein Gallery in Sedona, as noted above.  This is a one-of-a-kind vision of Red Rock Crossing.  No reproductions of it will be made, so you will be guaranteed to have the one and only original.

Here is a video of the painting (can't see it? here's the link: )

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thoughts on Artist Web Sites

I'd rather be doing this than building web sites.  Wouldn't you?

The title of this blog post may have you thinking that I am offering my thoughts on web sites for artists.  But actually, I'm asking for your input.  My own web site ( has been up and running for about 15 years.  I'm proud to say I built it with my own two hands.  Well, it's not the Victorian Age anymore.  This steampunk site needs to be rebuilt for the 21st Century.

My fingers aren't as nimble as they used to be, so I am thinking of using a web host that's artist-friendly with templates and the like.  I want this to be simple.

I have a list of features I'd like to have available.  These are:

  • SSL (https).  Google apparently is going to start giving demerits for sites that don't use SSL certificates for security.
  • Mobile/tablet friendly.  Although Google Analytics tells me the majority of my visitors still use desktop computers, the percentage of mobile and tablet users will surely rise.  
  • Easy-to-use and customize templates.  I really don't want to be writing HTML or JavaScript code anymore.  (And I don't want to be learning Drupal.)  Also, I want my site to look different from yours, so I'd like to be able to customize the template easily.
  • Clean, uncluttered and easy-to-use image presentation.  For an artist, it's all about being able to present the images.
  • Social media integration.  Specifically, I want to make it easy to pull in feeds from Facebook, Instagram and my blog.
  • Multiple domain hosting, management and integration.  I have many domain names, and I'd like to manage them all in one spot.  Some have to do with the art, others to do with workshops, and others with my writing.
  • Good tech support.  I'm pretty handy with Internet technology, but when I need tech support, I want it now, and I want to reach someone who knows something.  I'd like to bypass the first tier of support.  By the time I call, I've already tried rebooting my computer and don't need to be asked that.
  • A host that stays on top of the technology.  When IEEE 802.99 comes around (I imagine that it will be a telepathic global network), I want my host to be ready for it.
  • Finally, I need to be able to manage the whole thing under Windows and my Chrome browser.  I don't want to switch to Apple.  If Windows and Chrome go away, I'll deal with it at that time.
  • Oh, and a shopping cart.  I'm not sure I'll ever use this, but it'd be nice to know it's there should the bricks-and-mortar galleries wither away.

So, my questions to you are:
  • What hosting service would you recommend, and why?
  • What is missing from my wish list, and why would I want it?

I appreciate your input very much!  I'm hoping to get this all started very soon.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Paint Sedona Adding Studio Workshops

I don't know about you, but it seems like everyone's painting en plein air these days.  And now there are plein air conventions, plein air magazines, plein air festivals and plein air competitions.  This might be a good thing, but many of us who paint en plein air exclusively are forgetting that the studio is where creative synthesis happens.  In the field, we observe how the elements of light, volume and depth operate; in the studio, freed from the distractions of outdoor painting, we can incorporate these field observations into more meaningful works.  In the studio, we can also resuscitate the inspiration we had in the field and give it new life.

With that in mind, I've decided to give all you plein air painters the opportunity to return to the studio to develop your art more fully.  I am adding studio-only weeks to my Paint Sedona calendar.  We'll paint from any plein air references brought by students, which could include color sketches or even "finished" pieces.  For students willing and who have the equipment, I will suggest optional outdoor painting assignments for outside the workshop day.  (If you've already signed up for a workshop with me and are expecting plein air, not to worry; those weeks will still take place outdoors.)  In the studio, I'll be teaching value and design, color mixing and color use, and adding depth to your landscapes to create that perfect illusion.  We might even give reality a little push here and there.

For those of you who were really looking forward to a plein air workshop with me, don't despair!  There are several scheduled in Sedona this spring.  Also, I will conduct a plein-air-only workshop if you can bring at least two friends, plus I will schedule more plein air weeks in the future.  Finally, my Downeast Maine workshops will continue to be exclusively plein air.  Check out

I look forward to seeing you in the studio!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

2016 Holiday Sale!

Every year about this time, I go through my studio inventory and try to pick out a few, select paintings that I want to offer at a special price for my loyal followers.  This year, I have both oil and pastel paintings, going anywhere from $120 up to $200.  These paintings are all unframed but with free shipping to the USA! *  Scenes range from Arizona to Maine and points in between.

I hope you'll consider one of them for yourself or a loved one for the upcoming holiday season.

Above is a collage showing some of the paintings.  To see the full page, please go to  I'm accepting payment via Paypal.

*I will also ship to Canada and elsewhere for extra.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Albert Handell Mentoring Workshop Wrap-Up

High Desert Juniper 12x18 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

"I've always dreamed of coming to Sedona's Red Rock Country and working under a master painter like Albert Handell," one participant said.  For six days, she and 15 other participants enjoyed a rigorous but extremely satisfying schedule of demonstrations, painting time and evening critiques.

For me personally, this has been my fourth time serving as host and coordinator for Albert, and I think it was the best week yet.  Each of his demonstrations was masterful and narrated fully, interspersed with helpful tips and tricks; painting times were long and in beautiful locations among creeks, red rocks and sycamore and cottonwood trees; critiques were right on-point, with Albert seeing immediately what needed to be addressed.  And because this was a mentoring workshop, he generously shared his knowledge of career-building with everyone.   Even though I live in Red Rock Country and have studied with Albert before, I found the week valuable and enjoyable.

Reach for the Sky 18x14 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Participants came from Oregon, California, Illinois, Florida, New Mexico and Arizona.   Many of them were eager to "go pro" and found the career-building talks very helpful.   Also helpful was that this was an "immersion" program filled with activities.  Here's how the week went:

We started with an orientation meeting on Sunday evening followed by dinner at a local restaurant.  Then, each morning started with a studio demonstration in oil or pastel at 9:30 that lasted till noon, followed by a short break and then an afternoon of painting time on-location with Albert going from easel-to-easel.  After a dinner break, we all met again in the studio at 7 for critiques and career-building.  One day, we went directly to the field where Albert demonstrated in pastel in "paint-along" fashion, and the rest of us continued to paint for the rest of the day until crit time.  Friday night was the final critique night, which started at 6 and lasted until we'd reviewed each participant's work from the week plus other, earlier work he or she brought in.  Afterward, Albert gave each person an action plan for further improvement.  Finally, on Saturday morning, he gave one last demonstration, and then we all bid each other farewell.  I've included a few photos from the week, including two of my paintings.

Albert has scheduled another mentoring program week for March 12-18, 2017, so I encourage you to sign up now, as this last one filled quickly.  Also, lodging at the studio is available at a very reasonable cost.  With other students staying there, it can become a true immersion experience.  For details on this next mentoring program, please visit

If you weren't able to take this last workshop with Albert and can't take the next one, please remember that I teach plein air painting workshops in the Sedona area.  For details, schedule and to sign up, visit

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Secret Mountain Wilderness 12x36 oil/canvas

Secret Mountain Wilderness 12x36 oil/canvas
by Michael Chesley Johnson
(Final state)

Recently, I've embarked on painting larger pictures.  As much as I like being outdoors, I am creating these pieces in my studio.  The studio affords more time, coffee and a little music*, all conducive to working out problems that can't be dealt with in the field.  With that in mind, I offer you a look at my latest:

I based this on two plein air studies, one recent and one from a few years ago.  The location depicted is one of my very favorite spots, and I love the name of the area:  Secret Mountain Wilderness.  You can imagine yourself wandering between the two mountains and on into the mysterious distance, perhaps on a long, unexpected journey involving trolls and dragons.

Here are the two studies:

Almost There 8x16 oil/panel by Michael Chesley Johnson (study)

Clouds over the Mesa 9x12 oil/pane by Michael Chesley Johnson (study)

In an earlier state of the painting, I included a small juniper bush in the bottom left corner.  My idea was that it would present a bit of foreground that was clearly much closer, thus pushing the mountains farther into the distance, increasing the sense of depth.  I struggled with this bush for some time.  No matter what I did, it kept drawing attention to itself.  I really didn't want that.  I wanted the eye to touch briefly on the foreground and then continue on its way.  Here's the early version:

Secret Mountain Wilderness (early state)

I woke in the middle of the night realizing that I didn't need that bush.  The point of the painting was everything beyond it.  The first thing I did after breakfast was to scrape it out.  Then I repainted the area so it was more in keeping with the middle ground to the right.  I also redesigned the mountain on the left so it more closely resembled the actual thing as depicted in my plein air reference.   Now the painting has exactly the feeling I want to convey.

By the way, I used no photographs for this painting.  It is based entirely on the two plein air references, memory and good judgment.  Here are a few detail shots for you of the finished piece:

This week, my good friend Albert Handell will be in town.  I'm honored to be the host and coordinator for the mentoring workshop he's conducting.  It'll be a very full week, but a very satisfying one, I'm sure.  I'll try to write a post or two about it as it goes.

*While working on "Secret Mountain Wilderness," I listened non-stop to the soundtracks for the three Lord of the Rings movies.  I think this helped me realize the mystery of my chosen view.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Master Class: Depth

Plateau Point View
6x8 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
How far can you see?

One of the biggest failings I see in landscape paintings is a lack of depth.  Many instructors teach you to abstract (or flatten) the landscape as an aid for transferring your subject to the two-dimensional surface of your canvas.  This works well in that early stage of painting when you are trying to get a grip on large, simple shapes and the relationships between them.  However, you need to remember that this two-dimensional representation needs to have the third dimension added back in at some point.

It’s like deflating an air mattress for storage.  When you want to use it again, it really helps to put the air back in.  It’s the same with painting.  Without air -- or atmospheric perspective -- the painting will appear flat and less real.

But painting the effect of air exactly as you see it isn’t enough.

When standing in front of your subject, you are looking at it with two eyes. Binocular vision gives you certain clues that help you see the distance between objects.  The viewer of your two-dimensional representation, on the other hand, doesn’t have the benefit of stereopsis.  It’s as if he’s looking at the scene with just one eye.

What you must do is exaggerate the effect for the benefit of your visually-handicapped viewer.  We’ve all been painting enough to know what air does to the landscape.  It makes the color of distant objects cooler and greyer; and it softens edges and lightens darks.  But to make the depth more understandable, you need to make objects even cooler and greyer than you see them, and the edges even softer and  the darks even lighter.

If you’re an advanced painter, do you have a Master Class topic you’d like to see discussed?  Let me know!

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