Monday, September 1, 2014

September 2014 Newsletter

New Videos Available for Pre-Order!  Read on!

September 2014 Newsletter from Michael Chesley Johnson

Labor Day, September 1, 2014
Friar's Bay, Campobello Island, NB

I can't believe another summer has flown by. It seems just the other day we were watching the apple trees bloom, and now the apples are falling. Crickets are singing, and the goldenrod is already fading. We had our lowest temperature yet over the weekend - 49 degrees. Frost will be on the pumpkin sooner than you think.

Regular hours for our two galleries (Artist's Retreat Studios & Gallery and Friar's Bay Studio Gallery) ended on Saturday. Thank you to everyone who stopped by! Now we are open - for a few weeks - by appointment or by chance. And in a matter of days, I will be off on my annual trip to Grand Canyon, for the Grand Canyon "Celebration of Art" plein air festival.

I am happy to announce my three new DVDs for Artists Network TV are now available for pre-order through As you may recall, I spent a week in Cincinnati filming these back in the spring, and I am very excited to see the final product! Here are links to the three videos (my book, Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, is also available through these links as a download.):

The Secret to Oil Painting Wet-into-Wet with Michael Chesley Johnson
The Secret to Oil Painting with Light & Color with Michael Chesley Johnson
The Secret to Pastel Painting En Plein Air with Michael Chesley Johnson
Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel

Plus, you can get all four plus a bonus e-magazine of my articles for The Artist's Magazine in one bundle. Click here for the Michael Chesley Johnson's Secrets to Oil & Pastel Success Collection.

Now, on to some important events.

This will be my third time as an Invited Artist for this important painting event. Thirty artists from around the US and Canada will converge on the South Rim for a week of intense painting September 13-21. I can't tell you how much I look forward to this. It's a great sales event for me, but what's more important is that I can reconnect with other professional painters. This year, I'll be doing something new. On Tuesday, September 16th at 4 p.m., I will be giving a public demonstration on the lawn of the El Tovar resort. The painting will be auctioned off at the end of the demonstration. As always, 50% of sales goes to funding a new art museum in the Park. Having seen the Park's wonderful collection and the cramped warehouse that currently houses it, I am very happy to support this worthwhile effort. For more details, please visit

After the Grand Canyon event, I'll be flying back east to pack up the summer studio. Trina, Saba and I will head out on our twice-a-year journey across the US. This time, I have two plein air workshops along the way. First, I'll be in Southwest Harbor, Maine (September 29-October 2), for the Acadia Workshop Center, followed by another in Westmoreland, New Hamsphire (October 4-5) for the Monadnock Area Artists Association. Both workshops still have room, so if you're interested, contact either the AWC for Southwest Harbor or MAAA for New Hampshire.

Once these two workshops are complete, we will arrive in Sedona, Arizona, just in time for the Sedona Plein Air Festival. This marks my seventh time as an invited artist. Again, thirty artists will converge in "Red Rock Country" for this fall spectacular October 18-25. Sedona has become "home turf" for me, and it'll be great to be back to do some focussed painting and to reconnect with other artists. For more details, visit

Following this event, I'll launch into teaching my Paint Sedona plein air workshops. These will run throughout the winter and into April 2015. This year, I've added more "all level" weeks. Also, if you and three others can sign up for a week, I can make that a customized workshop. If you want all-pastel, we can do it! But you will need to arrange it soon. For details, visit

By the way, in addition to my plein air workshops, I've scheduled a three-Saturday pastel-only studio-only class for November 15 and 22, and December 13. Cost is $200 for the three afternoons (1-5 pm). If you're interested in this, please let me know.

I should mention that, if you are in the Sedona area and want to see my paintings, you have a couple of great options. You can see several pieces at the Phoenix Airport Museum (Terminal 2) until November 30 as part of its Verde River Exhibition. But you can see much more at my studio gallery, Pumphouse Studio Gallery, about 10 miles south of Sedona near Page Springs. You will need to set up an appointment to visit, but I am happy to do this at any time I'm available. Just give me a call or send me an e-mail.

And don't forget that all of my books are now available at Amazon! You can visit my Amazon author site here to buy the books:

That's all the news. I'll write again once we're in Arizona. Have a great fall!


Prepare for Plein Air: Not sure how to go about painting outside?
Check out my online course! Great for beginners. Visit

2014 Workshops
September 29-October 2: MAINE, Acadia National Park. A very popular workshop, and Michael's 8th summer! Price: $595. Sign up:
October 4-5: NEW HAMPSHIRE, Monadnock Region. Price: $160 members, $185 non-members. Monadnock Area Artists Association. Download registration form here.
October-December: ARIZONA, Sedona. Paint Sedona resumes!

2015 Workshops
January-April: ARIZONA, Sedona. Paint Sedona continues!
May: NEW MEXICO, Santa Fe. Painting Retreat. FULL - WAITING LIST.
May 6-8: WASHINGTON, Gig Harbor. Pastel-only workshop for Northwest Pastel Society in conjunction with judging the National Exhibition. Details to come!
October 6-9: MAINE, Acadia National Park. Price: TBA.

2016 Workshops
June 12-18: Scotland Painting Retreat. Details on this painting trip to the Highlands are available now. Let me know if you are interested in this trip of a lifetime! I already have several people going, so don't delay. Details at

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Plein Air Sketch to Studio: Revisted

"Quiet Cove" 12x16 oil - Sold

For me, painting on-location is very straightforward.  You go out, pick something to paint, and then you paint it.  Simple.  But taking that sketch to the studio and creating Art out of it, well, that is a different matter.  I haven't done a great deal of this, mostly because I just love plein air painting, but  when I do, I often end up scratching my head in puzzlement.  Where do you start?  What's the process?  How do you avoid ending up with just a boring copy of your field sketch?

Recently, I was commissioned to paint the view from a patron's home, perched over a rocky cove.  I felt pretty confident going out and taking reference photos and creating my field sketch.  But when I returned to the studio, I realized that, after all these years, I still didn't have a process for turning that sketch into something bigger and better.  When do you use photos?  When do you refer to the color sketch?  And what about re-designing?  I've always fumbled my way through it.  This time, I decided to figure it out.

So, here's what I found worked for me.  It's rather simple, especially if you aren't doing a lot of  scene editing.  (I did add some rocks and a shadow, but that was easy.)  Here's my process for "Quiet Cove":

  • Using a reference photo, create a design that works.  (I used vine charcoal on sketch paper and worked my way through some "notan" studies.)
  • Transfer the design to the painting surface.  (I used a 3x3 grid and 2B graphite pencil.)
  • Referring back to the photo, refine the design.  (I used the pencil and looked for dynamic lines and rhythms, and then I gave the design a quick spray of workable fixative.  I also added the extra rocks and shadow in the lower left.)
  • Now, put away the photo and take out the color sketch.
  • Referring only to the color sketch, block in the simple shapes with your "best guess" to approximate the colors in the sketch.  (I used a big brush and my split-primary oil palette.)
  • Go back and adjust your "best guess" - and keep adjusting it until is either as close as you can get it to the sketch or you find yourself in a place with a better color scheme and harmony.  Don't be tempted to go the photo!  Don't add detail!
  • Once you're happy with the color, now pull out the photo.
  • Use the photo as a reference for refining the profiles and contours of shapes.  Also use it for establishing any lights and darks that may have gotten away from you.  (I used a smaller brush for all of this.)  If there is an important "detail" that you need - and make sure that you really do need it! -  make a note of it in paint.  (For example, I used it for placement of cracks in the rocks.)
  • Now put away the photo for good.  You're done with it.
  • Referring to your color sketch, revisit your colors and make any color adjustments.  (They should be very minor at this point.)
  • Finally, sharpen or soften edges, add highlights or accents.  As my friend Albert Handell says, "Orchestrate the painting."  Make it sing!

You'll note how little I actually use the photo.  Basically, it's for the initial design, for refining shape contours and adding any important details.  I don't refer to it at all for color.  I found it very useful to understand when to use the photo and when to use the field sketch.

Below are a variety of photos to help explain the process.

9x12 color field sketch

Reference material ready to go

Notan sketch

The setup

Palette close-up
Design transferred to 12x16 surface (toned with Gamblin FastMatte Indian Yellow)

Initial block-in - "best guess"

Continuing the block-in

Adjusting the "best guess" and refining color choices

Finish - Quiet Cove 12x16 oil

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Upcoming Introduction to Pastel Class in November

I don't teach my Introduction to Pastel workshop very often, but I have scheduled a three-Saturday workshop for November 15, November 22, and December 13 in Sedona, Arizona, at Gandolfo Studios.  If you are in the Sedona or Verde Valley area this fall, here's your chance!  We'll be covering pastel basics, starting with materials (paper and pastels) and moving on to a variety of techniques to get the most out of pastels.  In the studio, we'll work initially from photos and move on to the still life.  Weather and time permitting, we  may go out to do a little plein air painting. Cost of the workshop, which runs 1-5 on Saturdays, is $200.  For more information or to register, contact me at

Pastel is the medium that got me back into painting.  When I picked up my first pastel stick, it was like seeing for the first time.  Pastel is an immediate and tactile medium, and each stick is filled with luscious color.  It's a perfect cross-over medium from drawing to painting, so if you've always drawn but have never painted, you'll be a natural!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Choosing the Right Dimensions for your Painting

Some Common Painting Sizes and Their Proportions
(Please excuse the hand-crafted artisanal chart; I realized that neither my Photoshop nor Excel skills are good enough to create the chart through software.  Sometimes the low-tech way is more efficient.)

As a plein air painter with an always-ready-to-go painting kit, I sometimes get locked into a particular size for my paintings.  Usually, I keep my kit packed with 9x12s.    But this isn't necessarily the best dimensions for a landscape.  It's great if I want to get a quick sketch or color reference but often, some other size might make for a stronger design.

For a broad landscape, such as ocean vistas, deserts or canyons, a panoramic format will do a better job of conveying the breadth.  These landscapes are packed with horizontal elements, and so  emphasizing the horizontal will enhance the feeling of "being there."  A double square (12x24) or even a triple square (6x18) can be much more appropriate than the 9x12 or the more squarish 8x10.

If I'm in a landscape that doesn't offer a vista, such as densely-wooded interior Maine where you have to fight the trees for a view, I look for a closer, more intimate scene such as a cluster of dead snags gathered at the edge of a swamp.  In this, verticals and horizontals seem to have equal weight, just as they do in a square.  Choosing a squarish format will help you convey the same sense of intimacy (or perhaps claustrophia.)  But I do think a square is the most difficult format because you are already at a disadvantage at having all the sides boringly equal.   Still, you can get some very exciting results with the square; all the paintings in my "Fifty for the Fiftieth" project are squares, and I enjoyed both the challenge and the results.

Moving beyond the square, there is the vertical.  Just as a more horizontal format conveys breadth, the vertical conveys height.  Anytime I want to show the magnificence of a tree or the depth of a canyon, I aim for the vertical.   Looking down into the landscape - as with a canyon - can be dizzying, though.  Looking up, I feel a little more sure of my footing.

When I have a choice, I will make several thumbnail sketches and try out different possibilities.  Why get trapped in the same old 9x12?  I have cut down both pastel paper (with scissors) and painting panels (with a utility knife) to get the dimensions that best fit my idea.  To be sure, you may end up with a custom framing job, but you are more likely to recoup your expenses, since the best fit will be more attractive to your buyer.

At the top of this post is a chart.  I thought it would be interesting to show the more commonly-used dimensions and their width-to-height ratio in a graph.  This will give you a better idea of where they sit with respect to the square.  I have calculated out the ratio by dividing width by height; that is, a 9x12 is 12/9 or 1.33.

Below are a few of the different dimensions I use.  (All are for sale!  Contact me for details.)

SQUARE: Duck Pond Fog, 6x6 oil/panel

DOUBLE-SQUARE: End of the Road, 12x24 oil/panel

TRIPLE-SQUARE: Head Island, 6x18, oil/canvas

VERTICAL: Water Street, 12x9, oil/panel

Thursday, August 21, 2014

New Exhibition Space for Artists - Google Open Gallery

Recently, I was invited by Google to be a test user of Google Open Gallery.  (Along with probably a million other people!)  Google has taken its Cultural Institute platform, which it's been using to present high-resolution images of museum collections, and tweaked it for individual artists to use.  I  decided to upload the fifty images of my "Fifty Paintings" Kickstarter project.  Here is a link to my site:

I found the interface extremely easy to use, and although the system permits uploading images that are up to 50 megabytes big, I chose to upload much smaller ones.  I don't know anything about the download capabilities of the system - that is, can a Chinese sweatshop download my high-resolution images and then set about mass-producing paintings based on them? - but it would bear investigating if you are concerned about copyright.  I've had a few people look at my site, and they seem to find it a pleasure to use.  You can also really zoom in on the images to see the fine brushwork.

If you would, please take a look.  I'm eager to hear your thoughts.  Here's that link

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Painting in Public Places and the Dangers Thereof

A Quiet Painting Spot
("Kindred Spirits" by Asher Durand, depicting Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant))

A reader writes:  "I am shy about painting outside such as at the public park because of people stopping and asking questions on what I am doing. How do you remain focused when you have an audience?"

When I teach workshops, many of my students are beginners at plein air painting.  They are happiest when we go to some remote, godforsaken yet beautiful corner of the world where no one will find them.  Sensitive to their need to focus, I take them to quiet places where an audience is unlikely.  Sometimes, though, we do get a few visitors.  When this happens, I  intercept them, politely let them know we are having a class, and then, usually, they leave.

When I'm painting alone, though, it's a different matter.   I, too, prefer to paint in a quiet spot, but sometimes I can't, such as at a plein air painting event, where it is expected for artists to be available.  (The idea is both to educate the public and also engage them for the sales event.)  When this happens, I try to keep the chat on-topic.  That is, I talk about my process and what my brush is doing at that moment.  I may stop and hand them a business card - I always carry them - and give an invitation to visit my website and gallery; if it's a painting event, I invite them to the exhibition and sale.  Most folks are polite and will watch a little longer but then wander off.

But sometimes you get the talker.  This person is legendary among plein air painters.  I'll tolerate this for a few minutes, but I have no problem saying, "I'm sorry, but I have to get back to work."  Being blunt is important, since talkers are so narcissistic they don't read body language or understand the subtle hints.

There are times, especially when I am painting for myself, when I don't want an encounter.  In this case, I'll find that remote, godforsaken spot of incredible beauty.   But even though the chance of an encounter is small, it still can happen.  To prevent this, here are a few tips:

  • Paint off the trail where you can't be seen (if you're on public land, make sure off-trail hiking is permitted)
  • Back yourself into a corner so you are difficult to approach
  • Scatter your gear around your easel in such a way as to create an obstacle
  • Take along a non-painting friend who is happy to hang out with you (quietly) and who can intercept visitors

Oh, I could tell you stories - but I'll wait until you have that brush loaded and ready to go.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quoddy Artists Studio Tour 2014

Nine professional artists around the Passamaquoddy Bay area will open their studios to the public Saturday, August 23, from 9-4 local time.  Artists will give demonstrations or informal, educational talks as well as offer the opportunity to purchase works.  For full details including directions to the artists' studios, visit the website

Artist Michael Chesley Johnson, who started the original "Two Countries, One Bay" studio tour, which ran successfully for several years, says he wanted to bring back the tour with a focus on working artists with studios.  "Over time, the tour began to lose the educational focus.  Art is vital to the survival of our culture, and so many people today have lost this understanding.  In this new, revitalized tour, professionals whose focus is art will share their love and knowledge with visitors."

Participating artists are:

  • Fred Hartman, Drawings, Watercolors, Whiting 
  • Bonnie Beard, Painter, Lubec
  • Shanna Wheelock, Potter and Fiber Artist, Lubec
  • Trina Stephenson, Fabric and Digital Designs, Lubec
  • Sheryl Denbo, Assemblages, Multi-Dimensional Structures, Mixed Media, Lubec 
  • Joyce Morrell, Painter, Campobello Island
  • Michael Chesley Johnson, Painter, Campobello Island
  • Roland LaVallee, Woodcarver, Eastport
  • Lisa Marquis Bradbury, Painter, Eastport

Visit the Facebook page ( where updates about the event will be posted.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New Locations for Plein Air Painting in the Paint Sedona Program!

Although it is only mid-August, time is flying.  I'm already looking forward to another season in Sedona and to my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshops.  For the 2014/2015 season, I've located a number of new painting spots.  If you've taken a Sedona workshop with me before, consider coming back - you will most likely see some new scenery!

Additionally, I've scheduled two special workshops for advanced painters:  Exploring the Verde River Valley  (January 13-16, 2015) and Advanced Color (January 20-23, 2015.)  Of course, I also offer the advanced/retreat weeks for advanced painters and the "all level" weeks, which are suitable for beginners to plein air painting.  You can find out details on all these weeks and also register at

Also, I will gladly customize a workshop for you and your friends if you can bring at least three people.  This could be a pastel-only workshop, or an advanced workshop on a particular theme, subject or technique.  Your choice!

If you've not been to Sedona before, it is a wonderful winter getaway.  (Keep in mind that I teach from November into early April, so it's not just winter but also fall and spring.)  We may get a couple of storms in winter that may drop an inch or two, but the snow is gone the next day and just makes the red rocks that much more breathtaking.  When the sun is out, which is most of the winter, it can be quite toasty when we paint. Daytime temperatures are generally in the 50s.

To whet your appetite, here are a few photos from some of my new locations.  We'll have a big variety of subject matter to paint, and I'm eager to get into it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why I'm Not in Many Galleries

Once people learn I'm a painter, the inevitable question is:  "What galleries are you in?"  I often feel that my answer will validate - or invalidate - me as a professional.

To be honest, I'm in only two galleries today, both of them artist-run.  (Green Drake in Milheim, Pennsylvania, and Symbiosis Fine Art in St Andrews, New Brunswick; and if you include my three studio galleries, Pumphouse Studio GalleryFriar's Bay Studio Gallery and Artist's Retreat Studios & Gallery, that's five.)  Oh, I've been in lots of other galleries, even one that was in Santa Fe.  Some folks feel that if you're in a Santa Fe gallery, you've made it.  Well, that gallery closed within a year and didn't sell a single painting of mine.

I have lots of issues with galleries.  First, you're just one artist of many; if a gallery has 30 artists, you will receive at most 1/30th of its efforts.  Unless there's a reason to receive more, such as if you're a personal friend of the owner or a superstar, you might even receive less.  Second, since a gallery is not a democracy, you have no say on how the place is run.  Some galleries have sales staff on the phone all day who ignore walk-in traffic; others have inconsistent hours or bad marketing approaches; still others hang your work behind a door on the second floor and then kick you out because you haven't sold anything.  Finally, thanks to the Internet, many galleries are finding it hard to survive.  Too often, they end up killing themselves:  A constricted cash flow leads to desperate - and often poor - business decisions that, in turn, lead to acccidental self-strangulation.

All that said, if you're a gallery without these problems and think we can forge a successful partnership, I'll be happy to give you a try.

I like artist-run galleries.  The artists who run them are interested in more than just closing a deal; they have more blood in the game than just some investor's money.  Quite often, they sink their soul into the business with the necessary belief that art will be civilization's salvation.  (I believe that, too.)  They will work hard for an honest artist.  I've had my artist-run galleries frame up pieces to help me save on shipping and assist me in organizing local workshops.  They didn't have to, but they did.

So what really validates you as a professional artist?  Having an M.F.A.?  Having seven galleries, one of which is Santa Fe, L.A. or New York City?  Or, like me, simply being able to say that you quit your day job back in 2000 and have been making a living ever since with your art?

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about what validates you as a professional and about your gallery experiences.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Available: Fifty Paintings

Today, August 9th, 2014, is the official celebration day for the 50th anniversary of the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.  Everyone who enjoys the Park should thank those who donated the Roosevelt Cottage and its 2,600 acres of natural beauty to the people of the US and Canada.  I, for one, have certainly enjoyed the Park over the last decade.  I've hiked all the trails time and time again and have painted just about everywhere in it.  There are few public parcels of land on the east coast like it.  Most comparable, perhaps, is Acadia National Park in Maine, but Campobello is far less crowded in the summertime.  (Visit for a full list of events.)

To celebrate the Park in my own way, I recently painted fifty small paintings of scenes either within or from the Park.  These paintings are currently on exhibit at The Fireside, the Park's new restaurant, until August 16.  Most of the paintings have sold, but I wanted to share them with more people.  So, I have created a small book.    Fifty Paintings:  Roosevelt-Campobello International Park - Celebrating the Park's 50th Anniversary contains images of all the paintings plus a personal essay.

On a technical note, all of the paintings were painted with Gamblin Artist's Color's FastMatte line of alkyd paints.  I had limited time to create the series, and I needed the paintings to dry quickly.  Also, I really like the matte, almost-pastel-like finish of the paintings.  It's easy to create "broken color" with this paint.

The book is available through Amazon both as a paperback and in Kindle format.  For details or to purchase, please visit my author page at Amazon: