Saturday, March 16, 2019

Three Versions of Reality—Plus Two Abstracts

Spring Flood III - 12x18 Pastel - Available
The first abstraction.  See below for commentary.

Trina and I went to Santa Fe a few weeks ago so I could judge an art exhibition.  Whenever we go to the New Mexico capital, we like to check in with the galleries to see what's new.  A favorite is Meyer Gallery on Canyon Road, one of the few in the city still handling representational painting.  (So many have gone to what I call "decorator" art, but that's a topic for another blog post.)  William Hook is a painter represented by Meyer, and we always enjoy his landscapes.  But this time, we saw something unexpected—his abstracts.

The gallery manager explained that the artist will paint a typical William Hook landscape and, then, using the same palette, create an abstract version of it.  When you look at his abstracts with this knowledge, you can see clues of what the original might have looked like.  Sometimes, the gallery hangs the original landscape and the derived abstract side-by-side.  (You can see Hook's work here.)

I like his new work.  And as I was seeking a late winter project, I thought it would be fun to try abstracting some of my landscapes.  I had a studio piece I liked, the one that was the basis for my demonstration at the Pastel Society of New Mexico recently.  Since the subject and color choices were still fresh in my mind, I decided to try the approach with this one.

One question you might ask is, If you have an already-beautiful representational painting, why abstract it?  Well, since I do begin any landscape painting by simplifying and abstracting the scene, doing the opposite—a sort of reverse engineering—might give me some additional insight into my usual process.   Second, I enjoy an abstract painting as a playful design; a good one always expresses energy and the unexpected, and it will both excite and surprise me.  I wanted to see if I could improve on Nature and enhance these qualities.  Finally, having never done this exercise before, I thought it would be at least educational, even if it didn't turn out to be a lucrative detour on my journey as a painter.
Is an abstraction removed from reality? It shouldn't be. Instead, an abstraction has had the representational squeezed out of it, but the reality—the truth of the scene—remains. In each of my abstractions, I tried to stay true to my original vision of showing intense sunlight on water.
Below I will show you the original painting, my practice piece for the demonstration, the demonstration painting itself plus the two abstract versions.  You'll note that I didn't take the abstraction anywhere near as far as does Hook.  Where one stops is a personal choice.

But first:  What did I learn?  Abstracting the landscape is hard, really hard—at least for me.  I continually found myself backing off from the asbstract and retreating to the safety of the representational.  I would step away from the work after making a series of marks only to see that I was starting to depict branches and blades of grass and pebbles and ripples in the water.  Whenever this happened, I took my painting knife (ideal for scraping out passages in pastel, if you paint on a durable surface) and scraped down the marks.  The first abstraction actually reached a stage that was too representational not once but three times, and each time I scraped back, I doused the paper with fixative and started over.  The second painting went more smoothly, as I tried to work more mindfully.  Yet, although it is an asbtraction, you can still see the landscape lurking.  I may yet try again to see if I can take it even further.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on abstraction—how you would define it and what your process is.

Keepers of the Creek - 12x18 Pastel - Available
The ORIGINAL studio painting.

Spring Flood - 12x18 Pastel - Available
The "practice" painting for the demonstration.
I liked the original painting, but I wanted to make the tree on
the left less important, plus I wanted to shift the sun for more
obvious rim lighting.  (By the way, I used Blue Earth pastels
on Art Spectrum Colourfix paper for each painting.)

Spring Flood II - 12x18 Pastel - Available
The demonstration painting.
Further reduction of the left tree and enlargement of the
cluster on the right, plus more water movement.

Spring Flood III - 12x18 Pastel - Available
The first abstraction.
Dark and moody, but dramatic contrast evoking the sense of glare on water.
I used the full range of 7 values in my Blue Earth set.  This painting
I scraped down three times to take it back down to abstraction.
I started this one with a block-in of Pan Pastels; at the end, I used
some metallic Pan Pastels to add glitter.
Spring Flood IV - 12x18 Pastel - Available
The second abstraction
Lighter overall (I used only the top 4 values of 7 available in my
Blue Earth set, except for a few darker accents) but the sense of glare remains because
I tried to use complementary colors between light and dark passages.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Pastel Demonstration for Pastel Society of New Mexico

Michael Chesley Johnson "Understanding Value: Painting Light on Water" from Nicholas Tesluk on Vimeo.

This past weekend, the Pastel Society of New Mexico invited me to the Albuquerque Museum to give a painting demonstration.  My theme was "Understanding Value:  Painting Light on Water" with a focus on the effect of what I call "glare."  I had a large and receptive audience, and it was a real pleasure to show them how I create this effect.

The Society likes to have a presentation in the last hour of each monthly meeting.  Although that's not a lot of time to do a full painting, I made sure to practice the demonstration in my own studio a few days before, and I also did a good deal of preparatory work, such as pre-drawing my design on the pastel paper I would use, to make sure things would go smoothly.  For the demonstration, I used Blue Earth Pastels on Art Spectrum Colourfix paper.

(By the way, the scene has become important to me in a series of works.  In my next post, I will talk about the progression of getting from the plein air study, done in oil, to two studio versions done in pastel, plus the demonstration, and then an abstraction.)

The demonstration was also recorded in video by Nicholas Tesluk and is available on the Pastel Society of New Mexico's web site at the "PSNM Resources" tab and on Vimeo.  I've embedded the video above.  (Can't see it? Here is the Vimeo link:

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


Some Clouds, I

A few days ago, in a warm, dry spell between late winter storms, we had some beautiful clouds.  Throughout the day, I kept my eye on them.  They were cumulus clouds, torn ragged by the wind aloft.  By afternoon, they had become backlit by the sun and glowed with a heavenly incandescence.  Their beauty called me to paint them, but I knew I'd never capture their shapes precisely in the slow medium of paint.  So, I dragged out my sketchbook and a 6B pencil, set up a chair in a warm, sunny spot, and got to work.  A bit of smudging with the fingertip to darken the interiors plus a very light line to indicate the luminous nimbus encircling each cloud gave me great satisfaction.  Pencil is fast enough that I could sketch the shapes accurately.

I decided there was nothing more relaxing than sketching clouds while sitting on a sunny porch.

My students, however, often express anxiety when it comes to painting clouds.  To my mind, clouds are the easiest of Nature's shapes to paint.  Clouds do change quickly, but with careful watching and a little memory work, you can paint the "feeling" of those particular clouds.  You can have the "truth" of the cloud without depicting a specific cloud.  One trick in the field is to observe and sketch a variety of cloud shapes in your sketchbook before painting, and then transfer the most interesting shapes to your canvas lightly with pencil.

Some Clouds, II

Some Clouds, III

Here are some other observations about clouds that may help:

  • Cumulus clouds overhead at midday have warm, shadowed bottoms and cool, sunlit tops.
  • But those same clouds, as they go farther into the distance, will develop cool, shadowed bottoms and warm, sunlit tops—a reversal of what you see when they are closer and more overhead.
  • Cumulus clouds often have a flat bottom that is rather like a dinner plate.  This will help with painting these clouds in proper perspective.  Imagine a sky full of dinner plates (or flying saucers, if you prefer.)  With the overhead plates, you will see more bottom than top; with ones farther off, you'll see more top than bottom.
  • Different kinds of clouds—stratus, cirrus and so on—act differently.  A good exercise for painters is just to observe the properties of different kinds of clouds with a pencil.
  • Look for rhythmic lines, not just in individual clouds, but in the patterns clouds make.  These lines will add energy to your painting.

I thought it might be helpful to show some small, color studies of clouds by other painters.

Cloud Study: Stormy Sunset (1821-1822) by John Constable (1776 – 1837.)  Oil on paper on canvas, 8 x 10 3/4 in.  National Gallery of Art.

Landscape Study with Clouds (1829-1831) by Émile Loubon (1809–1863.) Oil on cardboard, 5 7/8 x 9 1/16 in.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Clouds (ca. 1838) by Thomas Cole (1801–1848.)  Oil on paper laid down on canvas, 8 3/4 × 10 7/8 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools

An essential tool for the plein air painter?
I think so! 

In case you've missed them, I've written several posts over the years that have to do with what I consider essential tools for the plein air painters.  You can read the posts here.

Am I missing any?  Let me know, and I'll write about them!

By the way, for most of us in the northern hemisphere, plein air painting season is upon us.  If you've never painted en plein air before or feel that your skills need brushing up, please consider taking one of my online, self-study courses.  I have them here, at, along with discounts for the courses!

Happy painting!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

More Snow Painting

Path to the Shed
9x12 oil - $600 unframed - available

Perhaps I was inspired by my own article on painting snow in the recent (February 2019) issue of PleinAir.  Or maybe it was the fact that the Southwest has had record-breaking moisture this winter, and the snow was piled up a foot deep at times between Christmas and Valentine's Day.  Whatever the cause, I've found myself going out to paint snow this winter.

I've included three of the paintings here, but you can see all of the recent ones, both oil and pastel, here:

While painting these, a few thoughts occurred to me that might be helpful to other painters. (That is, if you're not tired of the snow already!)

  • To help with getting the values right when painting a large expanse of snow, first paint the cast shadows.  Assume that the white of your canvas or paper is the lightest value.  Key everything down from this white or maybe go just a little darker.   Save painting the darks for the end.
  • Paint distant, sunlit snow cooler, such as a tint of red-violet.  Paint closer, sunlit snow warmer, such as a tint of yellow. Save pure white for the lightest highlights, which are often cool.
  • On a clear, sunny day, the nearer cast shadows on snow tend to be blue-violet. These cast shadows get lighter and warmer in distance.  On an overcast day or a day with clouds, the shadows tend to be warmer because light bounces off the clouds and into the shadows.
  • Find variations in the topography of the snow field and use subtle shifts in temperature and value to indicate changes in this topography.  Use cast shadows to help define it further.  Look for edges in snow, both hard, soft and lost.

Looks like spring is almost here, but I bet we're not done with the snow yet.

Snow and Rocks II
9x12 oil - $600 unframed - available

Still Standing
12x6.5 Oil on 2" cradled birch panel
(no frame needed)
$600 - available