Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Road Trip, West to East: Zion Canyon, Part 1

We arrived in Springdale, Utah, on a glorious day filled with air so crisp it was like biting into a good apple.  I imagine it was the kind of day that the first Mormon settlers experienced when they pulled their wagons into Zion Canyon.  They saw it as a place of not only peace and beauty but also as a place of refuge.

The Sentinel, 9x12 oil
(The sun was still out when I painted this one.)

This is, I think, my fourth trip to this land of cloudscraping towers, weeping springs and light-filled canyons.  My first time here, back in the 90s, I hiked Angel's Landing, a 1488-foot climb, after suffering a bout of food poisoning that I acquired in Moab the day before; my next time was in 2011 as an Invited Artist at the Zion National Park plein air painting event; then, shortly after that, I joined a group of artists to spend a week painting here.  (Click here for past posts on Zion.) Now, I'm doing that again.  I'm finding that with each visit I get to know Zion better and better as a painter.

We got to our rental house, which is right in downtown Springdale and close to galleries and restaurants, on Easter Sunday, a day early, which gave me an opportunity to refresh my memory.   Town and the Park were incredibly busy - every lot in the park was filled, and the town's streets were lined with RVs and cars.  Not only was it Easter, it was also a "free weekend" at the National Parks across the country.  Trina talked to one ranger who said that Saturday had been a record, with 27,000 visitors.  To us, Sunday seemed just as busy.

The Watchman, 9x12 oil
(The clouds were beginning to move in.)

But the town and Park have a great shuttle system.  We left the car parked at the house and rode the shuttle, which was filled to capacity, into Zion Canyon and along the North Fork of the Virigin River.  Every stop was a rich painting spot.  You could spend an entire day painting at any of them.  We rode all the way to the end, to the Temple of Sinawa and the Narrows trail, to take the 2.2-mile hike there.  Columbines, Zion Shooting Stars and other flowers clung to the canyon walls, dripping with moisture.

The next day, we prepared for the other artists, buying food at the local grocery store (literally a one-minute walk from the house) and running around making sure we had enough towels.  The first arrival came mid-afternoon, an artist from British Columbia, and while we waited for the others, we did a little sketching in the shade of the house.  Neither of us wanted to get too messy just yet, so he did a pencil sketch and I did a little digital painting.  I continue to play with Sketchbook Pro and find that I'm getting better at quick color-mixing; but even in the shade, on that bright day it was somewhat difficult to see what was happening on-screen.

Digital Zion
The others - a total of nine that included six artists - arrived by dinnertime.  We headed across the street to the Flying Monkey for pizza and then bed.  We were from everywhere, east coast and west coast, and what with the travel and time zone changes, we were beat.  Artists hailed from not just B.C. but also New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Tennessee.

From Tennessee
Tuesday morning we all woke up early, had a light breakfast and then headed out.  A big spring storm to the north with high winds in our area were predicted.  But dawn came surprisingly calm and clear.  We set up, two pastel painters and four oil painters, along the Pa'rus Trail near the Nature Center, with views of the peaks to the west.  I did two paintings, and then the sun disappeared and the wind began.  We headed back to the house for lunch with the idea of everyone taking the shuttle ride in the afternoon to get familiar with the terrain.  Some of us had been here before, others not, but I thought it'd be good for all of us to scope out painting spots for the week.  By the time we reached Big Bend, the wind was howling.  By the time we headed back down the canyon, the air was so full of dust the canyon looked like Peking on a bad day.  We'd made the right decision to not paint in the afternoon.

The cold front moved in quickly, though, and by the time we finished our dinners at the Flying Monkey, the air was clear, the setting sun bright on the cliffs, and we knew the next day would be beautiful.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Road Trip, West to East: Lee's Ferry and Kanab

The Colorado River at Lee's Ferry

As many of you know, we travel cross-country twice a year.  Each May and October, we spend days making lists, carefully packing and cleaning house before we lock the door and say goodbye.  In order to make this trip successfully, we need to be organized and thorough - and even more so, since the trip isn't a vacation but a long drive to teach workshops.  All this preparation comes, of course, with stress, but it is sweetened with eager anticipation.  We really do look forward to seeing some new country along the way.

We left Sedona on Friday, stopping at the car dealership in Flagstaff to have a wheel balance problem addressed.  (Who wants to worry about that for 3200 miles?)  Then, we worked our way up Route 89 to the Vermilion Cliffs and the Arizona Strip.  As you may recall, I'd spent several days painting in that area with my friend M.L. Coleman last fall, and I wanted to pass through again and share some of my discoveries with Trina.  This is a beautiful part of the state.  Lee's Ferry, especially, is such a nice spot that we decided to go camping there next year.  There's also lots of BLM land just outside it where we might camp and explore.

Saba Takes a Dip in the Colorado

From Lee's Ferry, we headed west toward Jacob Lake with the high walls of the Vermilion Clifffs on our right for many miles and then switchbacked up the hill to over 8,000 feet.  Here, among the ponderosa pines, we took a short break for lunch and a walk.  I'd forgotten what it's like to be that high - it was a cool 67, compared to 80 or more at Lee's Ferry, and the air was noticeably thinner.  It was tempting to think about heading over to Grand Canyon's North Rim for a visit, but Route 67 is still closed at this time of year.

It wasn't long before we found ourselves over the state line and in Kanab, Utah.  I'd passed through Kanab several times and considered it just a crossroads.  But we arranged to spend three nights here at Flagstone Studios on the north side of town.  We were pleasantly surprised.  Not only is Kanab the gateway to the most spectacular National Parks - the North Rim of Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef and also Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument - it has an impressive series of town trails that are open to hikers.  Each morning, we've picked a different trail to explore in one canyon or another.

Hiking on the Bunting Trail

Hiking on the Tom's Canyon Trail
Some of these trails are even on private land.  After my encounter with the Red Rock Ranger District in Sedona last week, it's nice to see a sign like this one:

Hopefully, "hiking" includes "painting."  (You can also read Trina's take on the matter here, which I completely agree with.)

That's all for now.  Tomorrow morning, we head west to Springdale.  I'm looking forward to pulling out my painting gear and painting in and around Zion National Park with friends.  I promise to post some plein air paintings soon!

Tom's Canyon

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Driftin' Back: Heading East

"The Three Graces" 16x12, pastel

It's hard to believe, but it's that time of year again.  In a couple of days, we'll be driftin' back east.  I say "driftin'" because we'll be taking a very leisurely pace.  First stop will be Kanab, Utah, for a couple of days to explore, followed by a week near Zion National Park to paint, and then we'll be on to workshops in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.  Normally, we'd head right home from there, but I've agreed (and gladly!) to spend several days in Cincinnati filming a series of three instructional videos with  Only then will we speed home to Campobello Island, with a quick stop in York, Maine, to visit an old friend.

(By the way, we still have some room in those workshops.  For details, see my workshops page.)

I'll post from the road and the workshops when possible.  In the meantime, I leave you with a few recent paintings plus a little music video from Neil Young's new album, Psychedelic Pill.  The song's called, appropriately enough, "Driftin' Back."

"Clouds over the Mesa" 9x12 oil
"Secret Sycamore" 12x9 oil
"Evening in the Desert" 9x12 oil
Neil Young, "Driftin' Back" from Psychedelic Pill

Friday, April 11, 2014

Overselling the National Forest - Bad News for Teachers of Plein Air Painting & Photography

Painting at the Mescal Trailhead in the Red Rock Ranger District
of the Coconino Forest

Last week, I was informed by an enforcement officer of the US Forest Service's Red Rock Ranger District here in Sedona that I can't take my painting workshops onto Forest land without a permit.  Because I charge a fee for my workshops, I am considered a commercial operation and fall under the "outfitter and guide" category, and this means I need a permit or else suffer a $500 fine.

I've been teaching workshops on Forest land here for some time.  I've taken my groups to some high-profile trailheads and have seen plenty of forest rangers - I've even acknowledged their presence and said hello to them - but no one ever told me that I needed a permit.

Before I go deeper into this, I want all my past and future students to know they shouldn't worry.  There is plenty of excellent painting in the Sedona area that isn't on Forest land.

I was taken aback by the news.  As many of my readers know, I take pride in leading very small groups, no more than four at a time.  This is by design, since I want to minimize the impact on the environment.  What's more, we are respectful of the environment.  I make sure we pick up our trash, don't harm vegetation and, as they say, "leave nothing but footprints." As a landscape painter and environmentalist, it's in my nature to want to see the landscape kept beautiful for succeeding generations.  Heck, I even donate my work to raise money for conservation causes.

There's a big difference between my low-impact workshops and the other commercial operations.  If you've hiked the trails in and around Sedona, you can't help but notice the fleets of Pink Jeeps and ATVs grinding through the Forest, along with a plethora of Magical Mystery Tours, hot air balloons and large groups of bicyclists (who, by the way, rarely yield to hikers like they're supposed to.)

Okay, fine, I get that, I thought.  I'll get a permit.  So imagine my surprise when I found out that I can't even apply for one!  The Red Rock Ranger District has stopped taking applications for them because they have, in effect, oversold the permits.

The enforcement officer who cited me said I should contact Jeff Gilmore, the Recreation Special Uses supervisor for the District, regarding a permit.  Here is Mr Gilmore's response:

...A permit is required whenever a good or service is provided on the National Forest for a fee. On the Red Rock Ranger District, new permits for outfitting and guiding are only available when solicited by the Forest Service through a prospectus. This is due to the high level of competitive interest in acquiring this type of permit in the Sedona area combined with the high level of recreation use already occurring, and analysis indicating that we are at or approaching available capacity for recreation use in the core area around Sedona.
We have identified a need for additional permits to provide for hiking, interpretive, and educational services. This category would include the services you have been providing. Unfortunately, I do not have a time line for when a prospectus might be issued for these activities. This is due to a staffing shortfall and competing priorities with other District and Forest level projects. We are maintaining an interested parties list so we will know whom to notify when there is an opportunity to apply for a permit.
So, you need a permit - but you can't get one.

I looked deeper into this, and it turns out that in 2010 the Red Rock Ranger District approved a few dozen long-term permits - for a period of 10 years!  This effectively closes out any competition from other operators until 2020.  Why such a long term?

To give you an idea of the size of some of these operators, Red Rock Western Jeep Tours, a Jeep outfitter similar to Pink Jeep, was authorized for 10,055 trips, each with multiple passengers.  It's unclear from the USFS document whether this number is an annual number or an amount to be distributed over the 10-year period of the permit, but either way, it's a very large number.  My average number of students over each winter has been about 30.  That's right - just 30.

Mr Gilmore says he has no idea when a prospectus will be issued for enterprises such as mine, but I read somewhere that 2016 was the date.  Since the 10-year permits expire in 2020, I'm guessing that 2016 is actually the date they will start a reassessment of permit practices, with the anticipation of having the assessment complete by 2020, so really no prospectus would be available until then.

By 2020, I hope to not be leading workshops but collecting Social Security instead.

My point is, there's no room for the small, low-impact operator, like painting and photography teaches, whose focus is education.  Instead, the Forest has been allocated - or should we say "sold"? - to large, high-impact operators, many of which are out-of-state, who see the Forest more as an opportunity to make money than anything else.  The Red Rock Ranger District should never have permitted so many long-term permits that they can't issue a permit to an operation like mine.

Or maybe I'm just so small that I'm not worth the paperwork.

It's a real shame that the Red Rock Ranger District has chosen to support these operators.  Rather than support the photographers and painters who not only show you the beauty of the landscape but also teach you to love and respect it, it has given it to operators just out to make a buck.

But as I said, don't despair.  I'm already building my list of really great places to paint that don't involve the Forest.

(Painter and teacher Carol Douglas has written about her own experiences on public lands on her blog.)

Below, I have added several plein air paintings I made while on Forest land in some of my favorite spots.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Stress and the Artist

Taking a hike is a great way to reduce stress.

In the bohemian, carefree life of an artist, where's the stress?  Well, the fact is, the life of a professional artist is anything but bohemian and carefree.  These qualities are quickly dismissed by discipline, which I wrote about in an earlier blog post.  This discipline can result in stress.  Many  professional artists are self-employed, and for the self-employed, the burden of stress is not light.

A reader recently commented:  "My 'do list' caused me so much stress, I lost my joy and contentment."

A "do list" can certainly seem overwhelming when it is packed with tasks and deadlines.  Other elements of stress for the self-employed include overwork and the physical, emotional and interpersonal difficulties it can cause; financial worries that come with irregular income; plus, the inability to separate work from a home life.  Stress comes in many flavors, and I'm sure that there are some causes that I've not noted here.

Now, I'm probably one of the last persons to write a prescription for stress.  Here's my story.

When I left my "day job," I left the security of a weekly paycheck, but also a job I didn't really enjoy.  I reasoned that working for myself in a creative endeavor that I do enjoy would make up for the lack of security.  Sure, I knew I'd work harder and longer hours.  But the benefit would be a healthier lifestyle.  I'd be setting my own hours and thus more likely to keep to a beneficial exercise schedule; my eating habits would be healthier because I'd be eating at home rather than at restaurants where food is over-salted and over-sugared; and I'd save money and time on transportation, since I wouldn't be commuting.  Best of all, of course, is that I would be painting.

But self-employment is a tough row to hoe.  More so, maybe, if you really love what you do and tend to put all your energy into it.  Stress is one weed we don't want growing in our garden, but it's so easily cultivated, right along with the good stuff.

So, for me, stress took a firm roothold.  I won't go into how it manifested itself, but I will say that I'm not a drinker or pill-popper.  I didn't  resort to these to mask the stress.  Instead, the following  approaches helped, and I continue to use them.

I prioritize my "do list" better.  Rather than put down everything under the sun I want to accomplish, I add only the things that I feel are important.  Then, I prioritize it further, by rating each item as an "A," "B," or "C."  "A" items absolutely have to be done.  "B"s need to be done, but can be pushed aside so the "A"s can be completed.  The "C" items are important, but if after a few iterations of the "do list" they are still on that list, I scratch them off.  Obviously, they aren't that important!  You need to recognize this to lessen the stress.

I evaluate my goal list in a reasonable way.  Goals need to be easily-defined with deadlines.  Some goals, like finishing my second science fiction novel, just may not happen in this lifetime.  I've accepted that.  Other goals more pertinent to my chosen career as a painter are more realistic, but if they are too long-range or too nebulous, I redefine them or break them up into shorter-range goals.  As with my "do list," the goal list is prioritized.  Some things (like that novel) are "C"s, and if they never get done, so it goes.

I build more exercise into my day.  Having a dog is a great way to motivate you to take walks, but our dog is now 13 (that's 77 in human years, apparently) and she doesn't hike like she used to.  Rather than slow down with her, I give her a short maintenance walk, one we can both enjoy, and then I go off on a more ambitious hike for myself.  I also restarted my yoga program.

I don't work all day long.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have really three jobs:  painting, teaching and writing.  Any one of these would be enough for a full-time job, but I like the variety.  I balance my day.  I work perhaps 10 hours a day, but it's not all one thing or the other.  I may paint four hours today, maybe only an hour tomorrow, but I'll make up the rest with one of my other jobs.  When you're self-employed, it's all too easy to overwork yourself.

I should mention that all three jobs revolve around art.  The teaching is art instruction; the writing is for art magazines.  What that means is everything I do is about art.  That's dangerous.  One tends to get monolithic.  I know I sometimes focus too much on art.  Even my reading and movie-watching tends to be art-related.  I  recognize this and make sure my day has some diversions.   Driving off for a special, day-long expedition (non-painting, of course) with a hike is something I particularly enjoy.

I don't drink much coffee.  Coffee and yes, even tea, make stress just that much worse.  I drink mostly half-regular, half-decaf these days, and even so only a cup or two in the morning.  Sometimes even that's too much.  I listen to my body; it tells me when I need to cut back even more, or when I need to cut back on sugar and other carbs.

I'm sure there are many other "proven methods" for reducing stress, but these have worked for me.  I'm still stressed, but not stressed-out, and I like to think that much of the stress is positive and not negative.

As for that "do list," if your joy suffers, pare it back.  Turn that "do list" into a "joy list."

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Motivation and the Artist

Monet:  Train in the Snow

In my previous post, I wrote about discipline and the professional artist.  If this art business were a train, discipline would be the wheels.  But to get that train moving, you need an engine - motivation.

If demand for your work is low, it might be hard to stay motivated.  Maybe you're just starting out and haven't built up a client base yet.  Or maybe you've been doing art for a long time and your clients don't have any wall space left.  Or maybe your clients are wrestling with an uncertain economy and just aren't buying.  You might feel like giving it all up and going back to your day job.

Another reason why it might be hard to get going could be boredom.  If you've been in the business for years, maybe you're tired of doing the same old thing.  Sometimes, artists get into a rut when they discover a gimmick or style that sells well; it's hard to part with the goose that lays the golden egg.

Or, maybe it's just the grind of going to the studio, day after day, that gets you down.  Any job, over time, will do that to you.  They say that money is a great motivator, but even if sales are great and you're not bored, you can still get weary of it all.

So what's the solution?  I've found three techniques that keep me motivated.

Work toward a meaningful, exciting goal.  Goals are always good motivators, especially if they are truly important to you.  For example, recently I decided to help my sales by engaging in a Kickstarter project that involves a subject I love.  The project, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, is meaningful to me because I love the natural beauty of the Park.  I'm also thankful that its founders had the foresight to create it.   By creating 50 small paintings for the project, I will not only honor the Park and my relationship to it but will also help my sales.  Although I haven't actually started painting the pictures yet, I'll get to Campobello Island soon, and I can't wait to begin!

Try something new to freshen up your day.  When I paint, I use a standard palette.  For oil, it's a split-primary palette with six colors plus white.  For pastel, I expand on that by including split secondaries and also a series of greys.  As much as I like this versatile arrangement, I use it day after day.  Sometimes you just want to try something new.  I like to throw in a "guest color" now and then to see how it works.  Lately, I've fallen in love with the umbers and Gamblin's Warm White.  For pastel, I've expanded my violets with Terry Ludwig's "Most Requested Violets" and my darks with Rembrandt's new "Special Edition Darks."  (Look for my review on these in an upcoming issue of Pastel Journal.)  I don't try new things every day; I like to save them for when I really need to boost my interest.

Break the routine.  I'm blessed with having a routine that is already somewhat broken.  I paint, I teach, I write.  My routine is varied enough by these different jobs - each of which involves deadlines, another powerful motivator - that I rarely have trouble getting started.  But even if you just make art, you don't have to do it every day.  There's business to take care:  updating your financial books or fine-tuning your website.  But even these tasks can get rather routine, especially if you are disciplined and keep to a regular schedule.  To really toss a speedbump in your week, consider something radically different.  Go to a museum and study just one piece of art.  Take a workshop in a completely different medium or technique.  Go camping, but leave your painting gear at home.  These are the professional artist's version of a vacation.

But sometimes none of these tricks will work, and you may find it impossible to get to the studio.

I'm sorry, but that's not an excuse.  You're an artist.  You make art.  Even if you don't feel like it.   Sometimes, if you want to get anywhere, you have to just do it.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Discipline and the Artist

Do List:  You might not be able to read it, but I hope I can!

I've interviewed dozens of professional artists over the years.  Some love oil, others are pastel diehards; some enjoy the landscape, some prefer the figure; some are denizens of the studio, while others are plein air purists.  They're all different, but they do share one common feature:  They are disciplined.

It's discipline that separates the professional from the casual Sunday painter.

Being disciplined doesn't mean you have to live your life according to your inner Marine drill instructor.  But for the professional artist it does mean:

  • Being organized
  • Planning tasks
  • Sticking to a schedule
  • Managing time
  • Following through
  • Working to improve your craft

I consider myself a disciplined artist.  When I get up in the morning, and after I've dealt with coffee, breakfast and walking the dog, I check my e-mail and social media feeds.  I deal right away with those things that need immediate responses; other items I mark for later.  Next, I deal with any other computer housekeeping issues such as database updates, student registrations or financial records.

If I'm not teaching - teaching automatically forces me on a schedule - I may go to the studio and work on studio projects.  This can be working on a painting, gessoing panels, cutting paper or preparing for the next workshop.  Or, depending on my "do list," I may sit at the computer awhile longer to work on a magazine article or book.   Also, because I'm a plein air painter, I may head to the field.  But I plan this in, too.  Painting in the field might include a hike, which makes painting part of my exercise regimen.

I never go off to work without a plan.  I want my time be maximized.  When I walk the dog after breakfast, I'm usually already thumbing through my mental "do list."  I want to go to the studio - or to the field or computer - fired up.

Speaking of "do lists" - I keep mine on a letter-sized yellow pad and update it frequently.  It's right by my computer.  I have it organized by categories:  Art, Writing, Workshops, Miscellaneous.  I prioritize items, marking with an "A" the ones that are important and starring the ones that are even more so.  I'll put dates on ones with deadlines.  I put a check mark next to tasks I've started. (Yes, I've tried the computer versions of task lists, but paper works best for me.  I also use a paper calendar.)  Additionally, I have a separate list of goals that I look at monthly.  Many of the tasks on my "do list" are long-range goals that have been broken down into short-range tasks.  Any workshops or classes I take for improving my craft are scheduled and are part of that list.

After lunch, it's more of the same.  The "do list" rules.

It's easier to stay disciplined, of course, if you can keep motivated.  Next time, I'll write about motivation.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spring Newsletter from Michael Chesley Johnson

A Day in Jerome, 9x12 oil - Available

March, 2014
Sedona, Arizona

I can't believe it's time to make our cross-country trip yet again! As I get older, time seems to pass terrifyingly faster. Months and days compress to weeks and hours. I understand it's a percentage thing. That is, when you are 20, one year is a full 5% of your life; when you are 80, it is a little less than 1% of your life. Thus, a year when you are 80 seems much less significant than when you were younger. (That's why we remember summers - and the school year - being so much longer when we were kids.) I feel like we just got to Arizona yesterday.

In few weeks, Trina, Saba and I will be packed up and heading north and east. Our first stop will be Utah's Zion National Park, where we will be leading a painting retreat for some advanced past students. (We've had a cancellation, so we have a spot left - contact me immediately if interested. One room with two beds available.)  This is our second time doing this at Zion, and we're eager to get there and explore the Virgin River and its canyons with paintbrush in hand. After that, we'll be traveling to workshops in Batavia, Illinois; Valparaiso, Indiana; and Toledo, Ohio. I've taught in Batavia twice now, and Valparaiso, I think, four or five times, and I always enjoy both locations. Toledo will be new for me, but I'm looking forward to that, as well. You can find details on these workshops on my website.) I have openings in all of these workshops, so if you live in the area, I'd be delighted to have you join us.

Before we get home to Campobello Island, we'll be spending almost a week in Cincinnati at the offices of F&W Media, publisher of The Artist's Magazine and Pastel Journal, both of which I write for. There I'll be shooting a series of three instructional videos for Artists Network TV. I'm excited to have a team of professional videographers shooting these - no more holding the camera with one hand while painting with the other for me! Once the videographers and post-production folks have worked their magic, the videos will be available at I'll send out a special press release when they're ready. The videos will feature both oil and pastel and several of my outdoor painting techniques.

Once I'm home, my first task is to start painting my small pieces for my "50 for the 50th" exhibition, which celebrates the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park's fiftieth anniversary, which is this year. Many of you supported me in this Kickstarter project, and I am delighted to say that I am on schedule with the project and will be very busy once I get to the island. For those of you who have not signed up for a painting (or some of the other "rewards"), don't worry - there will still be many paintings for you to choose from. I'll send out a newsletter once the painting is done.

It's going to be a full season this year, as I have not one but four plein air invitationals to attend.  Two are in the east, and two are in the west. I'll be in Montague, Prince Edward Island, at the "Montague - Paint It Beautiful" event, June 24-29. This is a new one for me - and the first time for the event - and having not been to PEI before, I'm really looking forward to it. I've also been invited back to the Castine Plein Air Festival (July 24-26) for a second time. I did well at Castine last year and enjoyed it. After having taken a short sabbatical, I'll also be back at the Grand Canyon "Celebration of Art" (September 13-21) and the Sedona Plein Air Festival (October 18-25). This will be my third time invited to Grand Canyon and my seventh to Sedona. Grand Canyon and Sedona are, of course, dear to my heart, as they are virtually in my back yard and really fun events. If you're in any of these areas, I'd love to see you!

Speaking of the Grand Canyon, you can now find my work in Grand Canyon National Park's Kolb Studio gallery. The gallery asked me to send them some small (6x6) framed paintings for their gallery. They have quite a nice selection of my paintings for sale now. If you visit the Canyon, you'll find the prices very reasonable.

For those of you in Arizona, I have two museum exhibitions. The first, on from now until July 13, is "Architecture in Art" at the prestigious Phippen Museum of Western Art in Prescott. The second runs from June 14 through November 30 at the Phoenix Airport Museum in Terminal 2. The exhibition title is "Verde River," and several of the artists who participated in last year's Verde River Artist Challenge are in it. I am delighted to have two more museum shows on my resume!

I'm sorry for the length of this letter, but I have a few more things to mention. First, I have judged several regional and national shows and in some cases have even taught workshops in conjunction with the judging. If you are part of a group that puts on a show and needs a judge, I'd be happy to talk to you about it. Second, if you have bought a painting from me, I would love to have a photo of the painting in its honored place in your home or office for my scrapbook. I am so gratified to have you all supporting me, and this will be nice to have as a reminder of your support.

Here are some important workshop/retreat updates I'd like you to know about:

-April 8-11, 2014: Paint Sedona Advanced Retreat. For this special retreat, I've arranged lodging for students. Space includes, besides bedrooms, a full kitchen, dining area, plus studio. Students will live together for a true "immersion" experience. Please contact me right away if you're interested, as it is a small workshop with only two spots left.

-April 26-May 1, 2015: Santa Fe Painting Retreat. (Please note, this is in 2015!) In our ongoing series of annual retreats in special places, we will be in Santa Fe. For details, please visit We are still working out arrangements, so please bookmark that site. This retreat is only for advanced painters who have studied with me previously. Let me know if you are interested!

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

I want to remind you of Albert Handell's mentoring workshop in Sedona, Arizona, November 2-7, 2014. We are already getting signups for this special event and registration is limited. You can find details at

Don't forget that, in addition to my usual Paint Campobello workshops, we are offering lodging at our Artists Retreat Studios and Gallery for painters, writers and other creative types. We are already getting signups for the summer. Visit for details or to reserve your own quiet, creative time!

Finally, 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. Have a great summer!  For more workshops, see my website!


Michael Chesley Johnson

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Book for the Painter: Techniques of the Artists of the American West

I'm always looking for information on how the artists I respect and admire made their paintings.   Books on such a specialized topic are hard to find and not that common to start with.  So, imagine my surprise when I found that my local library has one.  For art books, most libraries either have basic "how to paint" books or coffee table books that present the complete ouevre of Rembrandt, Van Gogh or some other blue-chip artist.  It's rare to find something like Techniques of the Artists of the American West.

The book takes one painting by each of the major Western painters and analyzes it regarding materials and painting process.  Featured are the ones you'd expect like Oscar Berninghaus, Albert  Bierstadt, George Catlin and Maynard Dixon but also a few surprises such as N.C. Wyeth, who made a single trip west and painted western illustrations for only a year.   The book has all kinds of interesting observations along with x-rays of canvases, photomicrographs of paint layers and the like.  I didn't know, for example, that Frank Tenney Johnson, who is well-known for his nocturnes, achieved their unique look by starting off each canvas with an imprimatura of viridian and Prussian blue.

Here are some photos of the book.   This hardcover book is available used on Amazon.  (Book by Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Wellfleet Press, 1990.)

I'm curious to know if any of my readers have come across any similar books?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Poll Results: How Do You Find Out About Plein Air Painting Workshops?

The top four ways people find out about workshops, in order: 
Instructor Web Sites, Print Magazine Ads, Instructor Blogs and Recommendations from Friends.

The top way people most often find out about workshops, in order:
Instructor Websites, Print Magazine Ads, Internet Searches, Recommendations from Friends.
(Note that social media such as Facebook lag far behind and, surprisingly, Internet directories such as

As a plein air painting workshop teacher, I always wonder how my students find me.  If I ask, quite often they can't recall, or they will say something like, "I saw your workshop advertised on the Internet - or maybe it was in a magazine."  These aren't particularly helpful responses when one is trying to squeeze the most out of a small advertising budget.

Back in the old days, there weren't many places to put your ad dollars.  You either placed an ad in a magazine or sent out a mailing.  If you were smart, you used ad source codes to help figure out the most effective advertising method.  If you weren't smart, you could still maybe guess.  After all, the students either came from your magazine ad or your mailing, or perhaps from a referral from a previous student, and most people could remember how they found out about you if you asked.

But today, besides magazine ads and mailings, students can learn about your workshops by following your blog, viewing your website, Googling key words, hanging out on Facebook -- well, the list goes on.  Some of these are "free" advertising venues; others, like Google Adwords, cost money.

Because all of these cost in some way -- if not in dollars, then in precious time away from the easel -- I wanted to get a better handle on the possibilities.  Did it make sense to spend time tweeting to the Twitterverse, or to list my workshops with a targeted directory like

I decided to conduct a survey.  Granted, I announced the survey on the Internet, and already that shifted the bias to Internet-friendly folks.  I did try to get the word out to regions beyond my sphere of influence; that is, I placed the request for help in a variety of online forums and other groups where (I think) I am relatively unknown.  I received 76 responses.  That doesn't sound like a very big sample, but maybe it'll be enough for my needs.

Here are my questions:

  • I find out about painting workshops through (check all that apply), and
  • How do you MOST OFTEN find out about painting workshops? (Check only one)

For answers, I included the following options:

  • Print magazine ads
  • Online magazine ads
  • Internet search on Google, Bing, etc.
  • Internet directory listings such as
  • Instructor blogs
  • Instructor websites
  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Online forums such as WetCanvas
  • Recommendations from friends

I also had two follow up questions:

  • If you use an Internet search (via Google, Bing, etc.) to find workshops, what keywords do you use? (An example might be "plein air workshops March" or "painting workshop Maine").
  • Anything you'd like to add that I might have missed?

You can see the graphs at the top of the blog, but here are the raw data:
"I find out about workshops through..."
"I find out about workshops MOST OFTEN through..."

Additionally, I asked what key words people used when searching online.  They were what you would expect, such as the phrase "plein air workshop" or "plein air painting workshop" often combined with a month or season, a geographical region, the type of medium or instructor name.

Finally, I asked if there was any question I'd missed.  I got some good responses here.  Other ad sources included: newsletters from instructors or art schools, articles written by instructors, Youtube videos by the instructor, art supply store bulletin boards or newsletters and instructor's art viewed in a gallery or art school.

So, where am I going to put my time and money?  I think it's pretty clear from the graphs.

(And I want to thank everyone who participated!  I'll leave the survey up while longer, if you haven't voted yet.  It never hurts to have more data.  You can find the link to the survey here.)