Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Wake of the Flood

Wake of the Flood, 9x12 oil plein air
by Michael Chesley Johnson

Above is a painting I made yesterday after three days of late winter rains caused Oak Creek to flood. The sun came out, the water receded, and the birds began to sing again.  The air was filled with the good smell of cottonwoods starting to bud.  It doesn't get better than that!

On another note, we just learned that, due to a family emergency, we have lost our tenant for the summer.  Consequently, our Arizona house is available for rent starting in mid-April until mid-October.

This is a great house for one person or a couple (there's just one bedroom), and it comes furnished with utilities, including high-speed internet.  It's a very quiet, gated neighborhood, and folks respect your privacy.  There's even a community swimming pool, sport court and clubhouse.

We love living here because we are at the confluence of Oak and Spring Creeks where we have many trails along the water (I painted the piece above here.)  Also, we're only 10 minutes from Sedona and 2 hours from the Phoenix airport; and there's tons of scenic areas within a half-day's drive.  You can't beat being only two hours from the Grand Canyon!

You can get all the details here:

Below are a few photos of the trails along the creeks:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Post-Workshop: Studio-Only, Pastel-Only, Color Intensive Painting Workshop

Earlier this week, I announced that I had scheduled a studio-only, pastel-only, color intensive painting workshop.  I've always wanted to teach such a workshop, since color really is the impetus for my painting.  As Dylan Thomas wrote:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower /
Drives my green age

and for me, that "force" is color.

I won't go into all the material we covered, but the captions for the photos should give you a clue.

We had four fun-filled days exploring color concepts in pastel, and all agreed the week was a success.  I am looking forward to offering this workshop again next winter here in Sedona.  So, if plein air painting isn't your thing, and you'd prefer not to have to paint with messy oil painters, maybe you'll consider this indoor pastel workshop when I announce the next one.

Extreme Limited Pastel Palette Demonstration - Only 14 Sticks!

Setup for Above with Photo Reference

Demonstration - Using a Pre-determined Palette (Split-Complementary)

Setup for Above with Photo Reference


Perceived Color is Dependent on Surrounding Color
Demonstration:  Creating a Sunny Day on Warm-Toned Paper

Setup for Above with Photo Reference

Demonstration:  Creating an Overcast Day on Cool-Toned Paper

Setup for Above with Photo Reference

Demonstration:  Complementary Color Block-In

Demonstration:  Finished Painting with Complementary Block-In

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Upcoming Workshop: Gig Harbor, Washington - Northwest Pastel Society

In case you haven't heard, I will be both the Juror of Selection and Judge of Awards for the Northwest Pastel Society's 29th Annual International Open Exhibit.  If this exhibit is anything like the previous ones, it'll be filled with beautiful works.  I can't tell you how excited I am to be judging such a major show.  (You can find the prospectus here.)

The exhibit will run from May 9-June 20, 2015.  I will be at the opening reception and awards ceremony on May 9, 2015 from 4-6 pm, and I look forward to meeting all the artists.

Also, in conjunction with the exhibit, I'll be conducting a three-day, studio-only, pastel and oil workshop.  The dates are May 6-8, 2015.  The workshop is filling fast and is limited to only 15 students, so please don't hesitate to sign up.

Cost for the 3-day workshop is $350 for NPS members and $400 for non-members (includes 2015 membership). For details and registration contact: Jo Ann Sullivan at 360-710-2217 or

I hope to see many of you there!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Encounters: Painter and Teacher Ray Hassard

Left: Ray Hassard

My latest newsletter, which went out last week, prompted an e-mail from Cincinatti painter and teacher Ray Hassard.   Ray was visiting a friend nearby and, until my letter arrived in his inbox, had forgotten that I spend my winters in Sedona.  He asked if he might visit my studio and then go painting together.

Ray in the field

If you don't know Ray, he was elected to the Master's Circle by the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) last year, and additionally, he's a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and the Cincinnati Art Club.  He's visited over 75 countries and has made India a special focus; he's taken three painting trips to that distant country with fellow painter Deborah Joyce Dawson, which culminated in a joint exhibition in 2010.  I first met Ray at an IAPS convention several years ago and again most recently at a chance encounter during a painting retreat at Zion National Park, where we painted together for a day.

Me in the field

I never pass up the opportunity to entertain a visiting fellow artist, if I'm available.  Ray came down and we chatted about the art business—galleries, workshops, and so on—but we were both anxious to get painting, as it was late afternoon, and the light was beautiful.  We headed down to Spring Creek with our gear and set up in the warm sun.  I think we both came out with some pretty nice pictures.  Here's mine, below.  I didn't get a picture of Ray's, but it was beautiful.

My painting:  Spring Comes to Arizona, 12x12 oil
$700 unframed + shipping - contact me

Monday, February 23, 2015

New Workshop: Studio-Only, Pastel-Only Color Intensive

Tomorrow, I start teaching a workshop that's new for me.  Rather than taking students out into the field and guiding them through the perils (and pleasures!) of plein air painting, I'll be locking them up in the studio where we'll be masters of our environment.  Just think:  no wind, no pollen, no tourists or other interlopers.  We'll have climate-controlled air and, if I remember, coffee and coffee cake.

The theme?  Color and pastels.  I've always wanted to teach a workshop on just color.  To be sure, value is the foundation for representational painting, but it's color that really gets people excited.  As a landscape painter, I'm particularly fascinated with how color sets a mood.  I'm looking forward to sharing my ideas with everyone in pastel.

Why pastel?  Mixing color in oil and other "wet" media is relatively easy and straightforward; even in kindergarten we learned that blue and yellow make green.  Many pastel painters, howeever, even more experienced ones, feel that you have to buy the exact right color you need in a stick.  But you don't have to.  You can mix a variety of useful colors with a very limited palette.  Also, pastel allows us to layer color and achieve brilliant, broken-color effects that are more difficult to accomplish in oil.

We'll be exploring my "extreme limited pastel palette," mixing color with pastels, how paper color can unify a painting, and a variety of palettes designed to help set different moods.  I've also got a few surprises for everyone.

As the week goes by, I'll try to share some of our demonstrations and paintings here.  In the meantime, here are the photo references I plan to use.

Grand Manan Island, NB - Fish House

Near Telluride, CO

Taos, NM

Chama River, Abiquiu, NM

Burke, VT

Sunday, February 22, 2015

February Newsletter from Michael Chesley Johnson

"December Morning in the Desert"
24x30 oil/canvas
This painting will be at Yavapai College Verde Art Gallery, March 23-April 9,
as part of the "Sedona Saves: Selected Works from Verde Valley Art Collections" Exhibit
A Collaborative Exhibit by the Sedona Art Museum, The Sedona Heritage Museum
and the Sedona Arts Center

February, 2015
Sedona, Arizona

While Downeast Maine and the Canadian Maritimes are suffering a winter of historic blizzards and bitter cold, here in Arizona we are enjoying unseasonably warm and dry weather. I always joke that when it hits 80, we head north; well, we have already hit 80, and that's warmer than I like it. But I won't complain—I've seen the photos of ten-foot snow drifts back home.

I just returned from a delightful week with Albert Handell in Palm Springs, California. Albert honored me by offering an invitation to join his mentoring program there. Although Sedona is delightful this time of year, how could I say no? I was Albert's "point man" for getting people to locations, managing our dinner reservations and generally helping out. We spent all week at the Indian Canyons Park painting palm trees, rocks and water and learning from the master. I don't think I've ever participated in a program where everyone was already an accomplished painter. It was a real treat to see all the wonderful work. At the end of the week, we had a large group celebrating Albert's birthday. If you would like to read a day-by-day journal of the week, you can visit my blog:

I'm happy to announce that I have a new gallery. The Great Southwest is located in the Hillside Plaza in Sedona (671 SR 179, A-CT 2, Sedona, AZ / 928-282-0248 / Specializing in classic and traditional Southwest jewelry, arts and furniture, the gallery is open seven days a week, 10-6. I hope you'll stop in.

I've been invited back to two excellent plein air painting events. The 11th Annual Sedona Plein Air Festival will be held October 17-24, 2015. This year, they are inviting only 15 landscape artists, but while we're out painting in the field, a small group of nationally-known figure painters will be working from the model in the Arts Center. This is an exciting change, and I'm looking forward to my eighth time with this festival. For more details, visit The 3rd Annual Castine Plein Air Festival will be held July 23-25, 2015, in Castine, Maine. Castine has beautiful architecture and boats, and I'm eager to paint more of this for my third time at this festival. For more details, visit

My large painting, "December Morning in the Desert" (see it at the top of this newsletter), will be exhibited at the "Sedona Saves: Selected Works from Verde Valley Art Collections" show at Yavapai College Verde Art Gallery, March 23-April 9, in Clarkdale, Arizona. This is a collaborative exhibit by the Sedona Art Museum, The Sedona Heritage Museum and the Sedona Arts Center. I am proud to be among the other excellent artists in this event. Yavapai College is at 601 Black Hills Dr, Clarkdale, Arizona.

My one-man exhibit, Artist as Steward of the Land, continues at Sedona City Hall in the Vultee Conference Room.  Because the room is used for meetings, you will want to contact Nancy Lattanzi, Arts & Culture Coordinator, for a viewing at 928-203-5078 or  City Hall is at 102 Roadrunner Drive, Sedona, Arizona.

By the way, master artist Doug Dawson will be coming to Lubec, Maine, this summer to teach a mentoring workshop. We'll be painting Lubec, which is an historic fishing village, and the spectacular Downeast Maine landscape. Doug is a very giving instructor and a master in pastel and oil, so don't miss this opportunity! The workshop runs August 24-28, 2015. For more details, please visit

I've got a new book out.  Artist as Steward of the Land is a portfolio of recent work and it's in a handy, small format but with very clear images.  You can order this and other books, plus all my new videos, from  (And I will also mention that I am working on a another new book, which I hope to finish this summer!  Stay tuned.)

Finally, I have a very few openings left in my season here in Sedona, Arizona. You can see the schedule and read all the details at Also, I am now filling up weeks for my season in Lubec and on Campobello Island for this summer. I can't tell you how much I enjoy painting that area, and I'd love for you to join me. For details, please visit

Have a great rest of the winter!

Michael & Trina & Saba

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Albert Handell Mentoring Program: Day 6, The Big Critique

On Friday, we headed back to Indian Canyons where Albert painted a large pastel, again using his transparent watercolor underpainting method. As with the previous day's painting, this was not a demonstration but a painting. "They are two completely different things," he explained. He was silent as he moved his empty hand over the paper, figuring out the design, and perhaps in rehearsal of what he would shortly do with a brush.

Albert at work

As someone who frequently gives demonstrations, I understand how important silence is. This early stage of the painting is critical to what comes after, and being pelted with questions by the audience or verbalizing one's thoughts can divert you from the best path. But as soon as he had laid in his design with Payne's Grey and Hooker's Green and picked up the first pastel, he began to narrate.

The finished painting was a beautiful abstraction of the scene before us. Here is the transparent watercolor underpainting followed by the finished piece:

Albert's transparent watercolor underpainting

The finished painting

While watching Albert from the cool shadows, I was taken with a clump of palm trees I'd painted the first day in pastel. The morning light on it was rich, warm and inviting. After the problems I'd had with oils the day before, I decided to paint the same scene again, this time in oil. I felt confident I could manage it, which is a helpful feeling when faced with a complex subject. I was very happy with the result, and Albert was, too.

Three Palms, 12x9 oil
Michael Chesley Johnson

After lunch, it was time for the Big Critique. For this, Albert wanted us to lay out all our work, good and bad, that we had done during the week. We turned a picnic table into a giant easel and then set up additional easels around it. As each participant's turn came, Albert would take his time looking at the work and moving pieces around. He put the strongest pieces together, which allowed him to see clearly what the artist's strengths were; the remaining paintings allowed him to see the weaknesses.

Pondering student work

Albert shows his work from the week

There wasn't a bad painter among us, but there were differences in craft and vision. For those who clearly knew how to paint, he offered career-building advice; for those who needed to work on their skills, he offered homework assignments to improve them. Although the advice and assignments were tailored to the individual, I think it was instructive for everyone.

The Big Critique takes longer than the daily ones, but we still had some time to paint. Albert wanted us to work on tree trunks - although they look simple, the coloring and texture present difficult problems. But I had some business to conduct, which didn't leave me enough time. So instead, with what was left of the day, I took a hike. It's something I'd wanted to do all week but didn't have the chance.

That evening, we met for dinner at Sherman's Deli to celebrate not only the end of our week under this great master but also Albert's 78th birthday.

Most participants are staying through Saturday to take advantage of a final painting session. Unfortunately, I have a long drive back to Sedona, so I will be leaving early and will miss it.  (Plus, I have my own Paint Sedona workshops to get ready for next week.)

I want to thank you, Albert and Jeanine, for a great week. It means a lot to me to be invited to work with you in one of your favorite locations. But I'll see you again soon!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Albert Handell Mentoring Program: Day 5, Color Flutes

We returned to Indian Canyons on Thursday, where Albert painted a complex cluster of palm trees. As he got into the painting and began to analyze what was happening with light and shadow, he said that even he felt this particular scene was quite challenging - and he wondered if perhaps he should have chosen something simpler. The fine structures of the palm fronds, the fast-changing side-lighting, the unusual coloration of the palm tree "skirts" all contributed to to the challenge. But he did pull it off, and grandly.

Albert's chosen scene

Albert's painting

My experience that morning was quite different. I made three oil paintings before lunch, two of which I scraped down. I'd chosen palm trees, too, but they weren't all that complex. My problem? I was using too thick paint too soon. I was up to my hips in it. I knew better, of course, so I'll just blame the warm air that made the paint so slippery as to be unmanageable. By the time I got to my third attempt, the light had changed too much, so I switched to painting rocks. This one went much better. I was very happy with the result, and Albert was, too.

Rock with Flutes, 9x12 oil

His only suggestion for this painting was to add what he calls "flutes" - tiny spots of color to increase interest to an area, or to connect two jarringly dissimilar ones. He calls them flutes because he likes to think of a painting as a symphony, with each shape being played by a particular part of the orchestra. To liven up the dead brush around the base of my rock, he added specks of pure Hansa yellow deep. In keeping with the analogy, you might consider the dead brush to be a somber passage played by the cellos, and the yellow specks, played by a flute.

Lunchtime critiques

After lunch, we drove to a wash where palm trees stood like chess pieces at the end of the game, scattered across the board. There was no wind, the sun was hot, and although the trees provided shade, one had to clamber over boulders to get to it. That's my excuse, anyway, for another scraper. Albert came by and offered some suggestions, but then I cut my finger with my painting knife. You don't realize how sharp one of those can get from all the scraping, but it does. Scraping is like taking a kitchen knife to a whetstone. Plein air painters, I recommend you keep a first aid kit in the car. I didn't have one, but I'm glad one of the other painters did.

Albert was still recovering from his cold, so he passed on dinner at Sherman's. Still, we talked art. This time, about plein air painting goals and galleries.

Friday is our last day. I will be prepared - after class on Thursday, I picked up a first aid kit at the local pharmacy.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Albert Handell Mentoring Program: Day 4, And More Rocks!

Wednesday morning, we headed once again to Indian Canyons where Albert launched into painting a large pastel piece. He started with a transparent watercolor underpainting this time, using Payne's Grey as a base, modified with a warmer or cooler color as demanded by the scene. He worked with a large mop brush and let the watercolor flow freely.

When the painting was dry, he applied pastel selectively, keeping the shadows deep, intense and simple. In the light areas, he added suggestions of detail with value and color variations. When he was done, much of the underpainting still showed through, especially in the lower areas where he desired to leave a more abstract feeling. The subject was the same "Lion King" rock he'd painted the day before.

After his demonstration, we still had time to paint before lunch, so I went to a rim-lighted scene I had discovered earlier in the week.

Warm, Reflected Light 9x12 pastel
This is the one I worked on later in the day in a different place from where I painted it

I worked in pastel again because I had some mounted paper I wanted to use up. I didn't finish this painting in one session, but ended up doing a little more work on it while at a different location in the afternoon. It was a case of not needing to have the subject in front of me; the painting itself required certain changes to make it work better. (All suggested by Albert during the critique session.)

Albert and his two paintings
At lunchtime, Albert brought out and compared his two paintings of the "Lion King" rock. One was the transparent watercolor underpainting from earlier in the day; the other, the pure pastel piece from the day before. It was fascinating to see these two different interpretations side-by-side. In the mixed-media piece, he was responding to the Payne's Grey underpainting; in the pure pastel one, to the buff tone of the raw paper. Because of the underpainting (or lack thereof), each demanded a different color solution to the scene - even though both were painted at the same time of day under the same lighting conditions.

I asked him which one he liked better. "I like them both!" he said, grinning.

Lunchtime critiques

In the afternoon, we headed up to the Palm Canyon area were we could walk down to a stream. This is a broad area, carpeted with lush, green grass and filled with warm light and pockets of cool shadows. Boulders provide stepping stones across the stream and places to sit. I'd longed to paint in this beautiful oasis since the day Albert took me on our photography hike. Unfortunately, clouds had moved in (along with some wind), and the glittering moments of spectacular lighting were gone. At the end of the day, the pastel I made seemed so dull compared to the light-filled scenes we'd been looking at all week. I am putting it aside for further review before showing it here.

At dinnertime, we missed Albert and Jeanine. Albert had been fighting a cold all week, and he stayed home to rest up for the next day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Albert Handell Mentoring Program: Day 3, Rocks!

In the Canyon

Tuesday morning, we headed back to Indian Canyons. This park has such varied subject matter that we will most likely spend the week there - and gladly.

Albert started us off by painting rocks in what has become his signature style. That is, the drawing is honest and true, the design is intimate and strong, and the colors are "pushed" to harmonize beautifully. Unlike his demonstrations, this was a full painting in pastel, from start to finish. By the way, although I haven't seen the movie, I am told that this particular rock was the setting for Disney's "The Lion King."

Albert's view of the "Lion King" rock

By the way, for the mentoring program, Albert invites participants to set up next to him and paint along. Several of us did so, including me. I kept one ear cocked, though, and listened to his narration as I worked.  Here's my piece:

Lion King Setting 12x18 pastel (on Canson Mi-Teintes "Touch" paper)
I continued to work in pastel today because I was having so much fun drawing!

Albert finished this painting quickly to his satisfaction (and to ours), leaving plenty of time for us to finish up. Afterward, we met for lunch within a circle of palm trees that gave us full shade. Albert critiqued the work we had done thus far, and we also talked about the business of art. I'd given him a copy of my new portfolio, "Artist as Steward of the Land," and he asked me to discuss how I published it. We also talked about photography and other related topics.

Lunchtime critiques
By 2 pm, the light, which is often flat and washed out at noon, was getting good again. We headed over to the West Fork trail head to paint down by the waterfall. Many of the massive boulders in the narrow canyon behind the trading post are coated in dried mud; they looked like a rather bad sprayed stucco job on adobe. Although this indicated a recent flash flood, the waterfall had dwindled to something that might come out of your average garden hose. Still, there was plenty to paint. I managed to find a shaded spot and painted an intimate, somewhat abstract view of the upper reaches of the waterfall. Here's the painting:

West Fork Falls 9x12 pastel on Wallis paper
Can you find the waterfallf?
When Albert came around to visit, he really liked this piece and praised it. His only suggestion was to soften the upper left corner, since the detail I'd put there wasn't important to the painting..

Albert has given me lots of good advice this week. For this workshop, he's telling me I need to add darker darks and lighter lights for more contrast, and to use richer color. I do know this, but sometimes you need a master's eye to tell you just how far to push it. The paintings you see have all been tweaked with this advice in mind.

We met again in the evening at Sherman's Deli for dinner and talk. We have a standing reservation there this week. It's easy to find, there's plenty of parking, and the kitchen and wait staff are quick. Even when packed, the food arrives before you expect it and the bill is soon to follow. They like to turn tables - but yet you won't be rushed if you want to talk.

I should respond to a reader who asked for more detail on Albert's transparent underpainting for oil. Basically, the paint is scrubbed on in a dry fashion with little or no medium and a brush; even opaque paint will have a transparent quality with this approach. The method also "fixes" the paint in place so that thicker paint can be brushed over it successfully without muddying. This and other techniques are explained fully in Albert's early book, Oil Painting Workshop, which you can still find at Amazon.

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