Thursday, June 14, 2018

Reflections on Painting Retreats

Painting at Eilean Donan Castle

As I write, the rain is falling on Loch Portree, just outside my window. The Cuillins, which I can see from here on a clear day, have vanished in the low clouds. I understand that this is typical weather for the Isle of Skye in Scotland, but it is strange to us. We have enjoyed two weeks of record-breaking dry weather for our painting retreat: sun some days, overcast on others, but never a drop of rain.

As wonderful as the dry weather was, I am cheered by the rain. Sometimes I pine for it when I am at my New Mexico studio, where we often have weeks, if not months, of clear skies. Here, the rain is much needed. The Talisker distillery, over in Carbost, uses spring water for their whisky, and the springs are running low. But besides the distillery, the fields and trees need it, too. One of my favorite hikes is in the heath in Sligachan, where the trail wanders uphill along the river and into the Black Cuillins. The trail is completely dry. Yet you can see where the boggy spots would be during a normal season; the earth is black there, and water bars have been built of stone to shunt the flow away from the trail. There is nothing to shunt this season.

Despite all this, the heather is starting to bloom--bouquets of tiny purple flowers, visible if you look closely, but soon to carpet the hills. The ferns and bracken have unfurled and are approaching their deep summer greens, and the moss looks vibrant. Life continues apace. Birds sing and look for mates in the heath, and from across the loch, I can hear a solitary cuckoo, loudly calling.

And what of the midges? They hit their stride in early June, but they have been rare for us. We have sought out breezy spots for painting, and the wind may have driven them off; but even when we take a hike early in the morning and it is calm, the midges are few. I have some red welts on my head and arms, but nothing like I had expected. Perhaps this dry spell has interrupted their development. I, for one, do not miss the midges.

All of this fine weather has contributed to a relaxing and successful ten days for our plein air painting retreat. Ten days sounds like a long time, but each day was filled with sketching--morning and afternoon and sometimes evening sessions--plus exploring, with each day bringing a new location. (We went to one location twice, Sligachan, but that was by popular demand.) At first, we brought lunch, but then we figured out most villages had a cafe, and so that added to the adventure.

So what makes for a successful painting retreat? First, excellent planning. Trina spent a great deal of time hammering out details with lodging and traveling. Second, an excellent local guide. Marion has lived and painted on Skye for ten years, and she knows all the good spots and understands the logistics needed for outdoor painting. Third, an excellent organizer. Not to blow my own horn, but I am good at making sure that all the pieces fit together. Finally, an excellent group of painters. Our group consisted of serious artists, some of whom are professionals, who all worked well together. By the way, having a good group didn’t just “happen”; I invite only previous students or artists whom I know personally and whom I feel will be compatible.

Another key to a successful retreat lies in having a common goal. We understood that the weather might not be perfect (and in fact, expected it not to be!) and that painting might require working in short sessions. With that understanding, we all chose to consider this a sketching trip. That is, we weren’t planning to make finished paintings that we could take back home and sell. Some made sketches in journals, incorporating the written word or even clippings from brochures; others made them on scraps of paper that could easily be reworked in the studio or used as a reference for later paintings. We also stripped down our gear, and to make things as convenient as possible, we worked in watercolor, gouache and pastel. I didn’t even bring a tripod but found plenty of rocks to sit on, which I cushioned with a gardener’s foam knee pad.

This afternoon, as the rain continues to fall, I’m thinking about other painting retreats including a return to the Isle of Skye in 2020. If you’d like to join us on a future retreat, please remember that I give preference to past students. If you haven’t taken a workshop with me yet, now is the time to sign up. You can find a complete list plus details at

Now I’m going to do a little painting of the view from my window.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Scotland Plein Air Painting Retreat - Interim Report 5

Snizort Bridge 5x7 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson

In my workshops, I stress the importance of having a goal when you go out to paint. This holds true for a painting retreat, too, even if that goal is simply to relax. When we did our critiques Sunday morning, I asked each artist as she presented her work two questions: What goal did you have for the retreat? And did you reach your goal?

Two artists, who had a show coming up, came to collect reference material for studio work; one came to learn how to abstract the landscape without losing the identity of a specific place; and another, who had never been outside of North America, came literally to expand her horizon and to keep a detailed journal. My own goal was to explore a new medium (gouache) and to gather references for a series of paintings I have pre-sold. Everyone agreed it has been a good week. (It also helped that we enjoyed a record-breaking dry spell on Skye; they’ve never had 20 days--and counting--of zero precipitation.)

Marion had made lunch reservations for us at the Skeabost Hotel, a historic hotel that started as a hunting lodge in 1871 on the banks of the River Snitzort, so that became our morning painting spot. But before lunch, a couple of us hiked the gravel road that follows the creek through woods of beech and oak to an old stone bridge that leads to tiny St Columba’s Isle. St Columba was the first Christian missionary to Scotland. The island, which sits in the middle of the creek, has two little ruined chapels plus an ancient cemetary that contains two carved effigies from the sixteenth century. Afterward, I headed back to the bridge where I found a good viewpoint for painting, a rocky perch right above the river.

After lunch, we drove off to another cemetary. This hilltop one was much newer, dating from the first world war. Stone walls criss-crossed the treeless hills, and sheep munched on the grass. As much as I liked the long vistas with lowering clouds, I had a hard time settling on something to paint. Maybe I was distracted by the sheep; a lamb accompanied each one, and it was fascinating to watch how the lambs interacted with their mothers. Finally, an old hawthorn tree by a stone wall drew my eye, and that became the subject for an impromptu demo.

A visit to Scotland isn’t complete, I guess, without a visit to a whiskey distillery. The next day, and the last day of our retreat, we headed for the Talisker Distiller in Carbost, where two of our party toured the plant. The rest of us painted on the shore of Loch Harport. Clouds made beautiful formations over the loch, and I found myself compelled to include them.

Next, we headed back home by way of Sligachan. All of us wanted to paint there one more time before the retreat ended. After lunch at the Sligachan Hotel, I hiked to a waterfall I’d discovered last time, but I soon realized there was no way to paint it safely, as I would need pitons and rope to anchor myself at the edge of the deep cataract. Instead, I found a little boggy pond and a grand view of the Black Cuillins. I was quite content on a little ledge, painting away, as the clouds thickened. I think a little rain may have fallen on the highest peaks.

And that was our final day. This morning as I write, two are preparing to drive to Glasgow for their flight. Another couple stay one more night before leaving. Trina and I are here till the weekend, but the record-breaking dry spell is predicted to come to an end soon, so I may not do much more sketching. When we leave Skye, we will head for the Orkney Islands, where I plan to track down my Halcro ancestors.

I enjoyed painting with everyone this week, but the retreat would not have been anywhere near as successful had it not been for Marion Boddy-Evans.  Her knowledge of the island and her cheerful demeanor added so much to our trip.  Thank you, Marion! 

We are already planning another plein air painting retreat on the Isle of Skye for May/June 2020.  If you're interested but haven't taken a workshop with me yet, please know that I give booking preference to past students.  For a full list of my workshops, please visit my website,

Return to Sligachan 5x14 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson
Loch Harport 5x7 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson


This little fellow, and English robin, perched
right on my work surface to say hello.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Scotland Plein Air Painting Retreat - Interim Report 4

Dunvegan Castle View 5x14 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson

A plein air painting retreat of this length needs some down time, and that’s what we had on Friday. Rather than travel, we stayed in Portree. Some of us painted the view just off the deck of our cottage, others hiked to the waterfront with their gear; and we all did it on our own relaxed schedules. I made a couple of little sketches from the beach--a nice breeze kept me cool--and later hiked to the town pier to paint among the tourists. Space was tight in that area, as much of the view was taken up with private pocket gardens associated with the self-catering cottages that lined the waterfront. And as it was lunchtime, the tourists who weren’t staying at these cottages either had to stand to eat their takeaway sandwiches or perch on the edge of the public pier. Now and then, a squadron of seagulls would dive into the crowd to snatch away some treat. (Tourists, don’t feed the gulls; your leftover chips will cause a riot.)

The next day was the day of the Skye Marathon. Ordinarily, if you want to avoid road closures, you get a very early start. But this marathon started oddly late, not until after 10, so we had no trouble avoiding it when we left at our usual time. We headed for the tiny fishing village of Stein, on the Waternish peninsula. The village consists of a cluster of white row houses, one of which is the Stein Inn. It’s the oldest inn on Skye, having been built in 1794.

I painted first down by the beach, capturing a lonely croft house on a bit of land jutting out into the loch, and then moved to the private seating area of the Inn to paint a street view. (As in Portree, the waterfront right in front of the Inn and other buildings consists of private parks, but as we were having lunch there later, we were allowed.) Hans from Holland stopped by as he carried coffee out for him and his wife. “I will have my coffee first, and then I will see what you are doing, all right?” When he returned, he admitted he was a watercolor painter and proceeded to show me his work on a smartphone with a screen the size of a box of matches.

That afternoon, we drove to Dunvegan Castle, home of the chiefs of the MacLeod clan, and painted the view a third of a mile past it, where you see the castle tiny in the distance, topped by a little flag and surrounded by water and islets. It looked like a storybook illustration. Afterward, I left the others painting and hiked back to the castle for a tour. I saw things on the walk that I wouldn’t have seen if I’d driven--giant, mossy trees that must have been two hundred years old, and half-hidden stone buildings, covered in vines liked some yet-undiscovered Mayan ruin.

Portree Pier 5x7 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson

Portree Bay View 5x7 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson

Incoming Tide 5x7 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson
Stein Croft House 5x

Stein Street 5x7 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson

Lunch at the Stein Inn

From within Dunvegan Castle

Dunvegan Castle

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Scotland Plein Air Painting Retreat - Interim Report 3

Eilean Donan Castle 5x14 gouache
by Michael Chesley Johnson

Fantastic landforms--how do you paint them? The Quiraing is what’s called a “landslip,” an area where the land has literally slipped away, leaving a high ridge. Over time, the ridge has eroded into strange shapes. Grass and bracken have knitted an emerald coat over it all. As a painter, the Quiraing poses two problems: representing the convoluted, underlying geology and the incredible variety of greens so that both are believable.

The Quiraing is one of the top five tourist stops in Scotland, and by the time we got there, the wide verge was quite parked up. (There were almost as many tourists as sheep.) We had to walk a little distance to the main trail and from there dispersed to find a view that pleased us. I discovered a little nook that had a breeze--it was warm without one--and worked on resolving the problems of painting this strange land. Fleeting sun alternately turned the greens an incandescent, almost-orangey-green to a cooler, almost-blueish-green and everything in between. I’m glad I had my gouache, as it made varying the greens easier; with a small traveling kit of pastel, I would have been lost.

Quiraing North 5x7 gouache

Quiraing South 5x7 gouache

I had time for two sketches before we needed a break. When everyone was ready, we headed down to Staffin and the Telford House for tea and scones. Cafes and tea houses are not hard to find on Skye; every little village seems to have at least a couple.

Afterward, we headed toward a set of basaltic columns near Duntulm Castle, which is now so much a ruin that it is basically a pile of stones with a view. One of our group had requested a pastel demonstration, so I borrowed her set and demonstrated how I paint rocks. (Using a kit that is not your own is always a challenge.) Then we hiked out to the castle, where I tried to imagine what it was like oh so long ago to stand there before Instagram and Facebook and to enjoy an unpopulated view.

During the evening critique, someone asked why I paint on both sides of each sheet in my journal. “It would be hard to sell individual paintings that way,” she remarked. True, but I hadn’t been thinking of selling these sketches but using them solely as references. I did start the journal by putting one sketch per sheet, but after a day realized I could get many more sketches in this one book if I painted both front and back. So, although the sketches are in chronological order, there are a couple out of sequence since I went back and filled in those first blank pages.

The next day, we wanted to visit the famous Eilean Donan castle, which is not on Skye but just across a loch on the mainland. Although you can get to the castle via the Skye bridge, we opted to do the trip as a loop and take the Kylerhea-Glenelg ferry. We left Portree early to get a spot on the ferry, which is a tiny boat that can hold up to six small cars. The ferry is an unusual one in that it is one of the last remaining turntable ferries; the ferry’s top can be rotated to give the cars a favorable exit and entrance. When the ferry reaches land, it runs alongside the ramp, and then the captain gets out and rotates the turntable by hand so the exit of the ferry sits firmly on the ramp so the cars can leave. (I’ll try to post a video of it.) The ferry trip itself is only a ten-minute ride, and the first mate is a border collie, who provided entertainment.

Eilean Donan sits out on a little nub of rock, which you reach by a beautiful stone bridge. It’s nice having the castle separated from the coffee shop/gift shop/ticket office and car park, since that area can be quite busy with tourists who want to just take pictures and not buy a ticket to cross the bridge to the castle. After a quick lunch at the cafe, most of us walked off to find a quiet spot to paint the view. Although the morning had started with clouds, the clouds soon left and it got hot. I painted until I’d finished the one sketch, and then I returned my gear to the car (backpacks aren’t allowed in the castle) before getting a ticket and crossing the bridge.

The castle was started in the 12th century and, like many castles, over the centuries underwent a variety of additions, subtractions and renovations. In 1719, it was destroyed during a Jacobite rebellion and left in ruin until the early 20th century, when it was rebuilt by Lord Macrae-Gilstrap as a home. Today, the castle is a big tourist attraction and can be rented for weddings and other events. My favorite part of the castle was the view from the towers and ramparts of the hills edging the three lochs that meet there: Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh.

On the way home via the Skye bridge, we stopped at the bridge to see a view of the old lighthouse--you could tell how picturesque it would have been before the building of the bridge--and then in Broadford at a silversmith’s shop. As luck would have it, the silversmith was located right next to a real estate office, where we found a lovely little croft house we liked for only 190,000. Will we end up with a summer studio on Skye? Stay tuned!

Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans

Castle sketches by the group

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Scotland Plein Air Painting Retreat - Interim Report 2

Old Sligachan Bridge 5x14 gouache

After a beautiful day at Uig, our next day we woke to the usual morning mist but a little more wind. The hills around us were truly socked in, so we headed south and west to Sligachan, in the heart of the Cuillins, to paint. On good weather days, a visit to Sligachan gives you beautiful views of both the Red and the Black Cuillins. The iconic scene here is the craggy summit of Sgurr-Nan-Gillean, towering high over the River Sligachan and the old stone bridge. But when we arrived, the peaks were hidden by cloud, and a raw, chill wind was blowing. We sought shelter where we could find it. I ended up hunkered down beneath the “new” bridge, with a fine view of the old bridge, and I was most comfortable there.

At lunchtime, we dined at the Sligachan Hotel (built in 1830). Hot coffee was welcome and ordered immediately, followed by fish and chips. Afterward, we headed out again, but now the weather was clearing, and sunlight shone on the summits. One of our participants asked me to demonstrate for her, which I did, painting Sgurr-Nan-Gillean wreathed in mist. Although painting retreats such as this one have no formal instruction, I am always happy to demonstrate when asked.

The next morning, the weather changed, and the usual morning clouds formed a higher, more solid deck. Although we had talked about heading west to Dunvegan Castle, Marion, our local artist guide, predicted it would be a “midgefest” over there, so we headed north up the Trotternish Peninsula instead, toward Staffin Bay. (It’s vital to have a guide so familiar with Skye’s weather and locations!) But first, we stopped for a visit to Skyeworks Gallery in Portree, where Marion shows her work, and also for some baked goods at the bakery there.

After additional stops at the Old Man of Storr--cars lined the road even though it was still quite early, as that is a popular hike--and at Kilt Rock, we arrived at Staffin where the weather quickly cleared. Sheep and their lambs wandered with abandon across the single-track road, some even napping rather unwisely right on the verge. We had views of croft houses and a pebble beach and a waterfall and islands and...well, it was all quite overwhelming.

After a mid-afternoon break at a cafe in Columba, we returned to Staffin Bay and continued on the single-track road to the end, where there is a pier and stunning views of cliffs. Several of us sat on along the concrete boat ramp to paint the cliffs.

There are few trees on Skye, so we’ve been in full sun most days. Here at 56 degrees north latitude, you wouldn’t think the sun would have much strength, but it does. That and the wind have turned my face quite red, so I will shortly be in search of sunblock.

 The Black Cuillins 5x7 gouache

Cliffs of Staffin Bay 5x7 gouache

Staffin Bay 5x7 gouache