Sunday, November 26, 2017

My Favorite Books

As a voracious reader with eclectic tastes, I believe that a varied diet is best.  It  ensures that you get all the nutrients crucial to making good art.  Books that teach, books that inspire, books that lead you down an unexpected path--each of these pushes us to a higher level.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few that are in my library.  You probably have some favorites, too, and I’d love to hear about them.

Books that Teach

Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John Carlson

You plein air painters will recognize this title.  Painting instructors like me tout this book as the “bible” for outdoor painters.  And it is!  Observations from many years of painting from life fill this book.  In my workshops, I often talk about Carlson’s Theory of Angles--how light behaves in the landscape--but it contains so much more.  It’s a rather dense book, though, printed in a tiny font and with old school black-and-white illustrations.  It can be a tough read for those born into a world where information is spoonfed to us in easy-to-digest animated snippets.  Still, the book is worth the effort, and if you have to read one book about outdoor painting, this is it.

Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne

Not as well-known as Carlson’s book, this, too, I consider essential reading.  If you’re having trouble with creating pleasing compositions for your paintings, Payne offers page after page of useful templates that you can apply to almost any scene.  Templates are just a crutch, of course; over time, the intelligent artist will become more intuitive in design.  But Payne also shares design basics for those of us who prefer to learn concepts rather than to memorize templates.  Like the Carlson book, there’s a lot more to this one than I’ve described here.

Books That Inspire

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

I’d call Henri’s book a bridge between teaching and inspiration.  Compiled after Henri’s death by a student from class notes, the book contains many good rules for the painter, but what’s more, it offers inspirational nuggets about art and life.  It’s more like a book of quotes than a book written according to a meticulous outline.  “A great painter will know a great deal about how he did it, but still he will say, ‘How did I do it?’ The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself.”  You can read this one with a yellow highlighter in one hand.

Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, Edited by Irving Stone

The movie industry and museums have elevated Vincent Van Gogh to legendary status.  And, as with so many legends, truth is sometimes either distorted or invented.  This volume of Vincent’s letters to his brother was compiled after their deaths by Johanna, Vincent’s sister-in-law and wife to Theo.  Giving us an almost-daily look at Vincent’s life, the letters show us a painter who, possessed by a variety of demons both internal and external, swings from despair to ecstasy but who mostly walks a straight, sane line.  There is much here for the reader to sympathize with and learn from.

Books That Lead Down a Different Path

Not every book I own can be tied directly to painting; some are on other topics that, in some way, influence me as a painter.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard’s a writer, not a painter.  But this, her first book, is filled with the quiet, patient observations of nature by someone who easily could have been a plein air painter:  “Were the earth smooth, our brains would be smooth as well; we would wake, blink, walk two steps to get the whole picture, and lapse into a dreamless sleep.”  But the earth is not smooth, and Dillard luxuriates in the world’s complex beauty.   This book will help you become a better painter by teaching you to see more thoughtfully.

Basin and Range by John McPhee

John McPhee gets into a topic and then digs down as deep as he can.  Basin and Range is about vast time and the geological landscape.  As a painter who specializes in the landscape, I’m always fascinated by the story behind the scenes I paint.  But McPhee gives me more than that, taking the tale into the cosmic:  “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”  I’ve been a fan of McPhee for a long time, but this book is one of his best.

These are just a few of the books I enjoy.  I’d love to hear about yours.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thoughtful Gift: New Workshop Program!

Painting made just a few minutes from my home and studio in
New Mexico's High Desert.  We'll paint this as part of the program!

The gift-giving holidays are right around the corner.  So here's a gift idea for that special someone -- who might just be you!

If you're a painter with some plein air experience and feel that you've hit a plateau in your work, then this is for you.  And only for you -- you'll have exclusive access to me in this one-on-one, private study program.  The program is meant to help painters like you to hone their craft, learn more about responding to the landscape and develop a personal vision.

You'll do all that in some of the Southwest's most beautiful country.  Near the Zuni Pueblo and El Morro National Monument and on the shoulders of the Zuni Mountains, our home and studio occupy a point in the universe where the air is clear; the sky, blue; and the sun, intense unlike anywhere else. There's lots to explore and paint, from lava fields to sandstone bluffs, from ponderosa-clad hills to blue lakes.

So give yourself the opportunity to come out to the high desert of New Mexico and spend a week with us.  You'll get six nights' lodging, three simple but nourishing meals a day, plus the opportunity to work side-by-side with me.

By the way, you don't have to be a professional or advanced painter.  So long as you are serious about your craft, and are familiar with your medium and have some outdoor painting experience, you'll do well.  You can find more about this exciting program under "Private Painting Intensive Study" at

If you'd prefer an all-level workshop in the company of other students, don't despair.  I have scheduled just such a workshop for March 27-30, 2018, in Sedona, Arizona.  You can find full details about this workshop also at

Here are a few more pictures of New Mexico's High Desert:

Another painting made close to the studio.

One final painting!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Workshop Report: Sedona and Tucson

River Study, 9x12 pastel (studio) by Michael Chesley Johnson
Bobcat!  A visitor at the Tucson workshop. (Photo by Trina)

It's been a busy fall so far—and with no end in sight!  Following the Doug Dawson workshop in Sedona and a weekend trip to Chiricahua National Monument, last week I drove all the way back to Sedona to teach my own workshop, and then I went south to teach another for the Tucson Pastel Society.  Now I have a few days to catch up on paperwork (and the blog) before flying off to visit family back east for Thanksgiving.  December, thankfully, looks to be a little slower.

The Sedona workshop was so successful that I've scheduled another for next spring, March 27-30, 2018.  Like my previous workshops there, this one will run Tuesday through Friday with plenty of painting opportunities.  Late March is always a pleasant time to visit Sedona.  The trees will be just putting out their spring foliage, and the chill of winter will be replaced by a sunny warmth.  If you haven't taken one of my Sedona plein air painting workshops before, here's your opportunity.  And if you have already done so, I encourage you to join me again, since I have new thoughts and techniques to share with you.  Sometimes students think, “Well, I've already taken a workshop with that particular artist,” not understanding that all of us—even we teachers—constantly learn new things and always have something new to give.  You can find details on the program at

Red Rock Study, 6x8 oil (plein air) by Michael Chesley Johnson

Verde River Study, 9x12 oil (plein air) by Michael Chesley Johnson

The Tucson workshop was a one-day affair sponsored by the Tucson Pastel Society.  It was a free workshop for members—a nice perk that the society offers twice a year.  I counted at least 20 attendees, which sounds like a lot, but because the workshop took place indoors, I had plenty of time to go from easel to easel.  The second day, we had an optional outdoor painting session, which was held among the palms and cattails at a nearby wetlands.  Mallards, coots, egrets and even a bobcat joined us for the morning.  I had a great time with this group, and several students told me how much they enjoyed the program, which concerned limited palettes and “making your best guess” with regards to color choices.

Shadowed Rock Study, 9x12 pastel (studio) by Michael Chesley Johnson
For this piece I used only 14 sticks of pastel, as seen below.

That's my 14-stick limited pastel palette in the little box

Tucson Light 9x12 pastel (plein air) by Michael Chesley Johnson

I've included with the post some of the demonstration paintings plus a few snapshots.  If you're interested in any of these studies or paintings, please let me know.  Have a great Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Road Trip: Chiricahua National Monument

Hoodoos, columns, pinnacles and more

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to travel with Trina on a Sedona Camera Club outing to Chiricahua National Monument.   We both needed a break between setting up our winter home studio and teaching workshops, so this was the perfect adventure.  I went as "key grip" to help with camera equipment, but I packed along my new Travel Painter Art Box as well.


Waning moon over the rocks

We arrived Friday afternoon in Willcox, Arizona, and then hurried off to the park to shoot the sunset, followed by a little astrophotography.  Saturday morning, we met at 4:45 am -- no hotel breakfast for us! -- and went off to shoot the sunrise.  Next we worked the cramps out of our legs by taking a long hike, followed by daytime photography and then a second sunset shoot to round out the day.  Sunday, we had to forego the sunrise shoot to head back to New Mexico to pack for a workshop I'm teaching in Sedona this week and then one for the Tucson Pastel Society next weekend.  Whew!

The Travel Painter Art Box in action

I was happy to see how well the new paint box worked, and how handy it was to carry on the trails.  I only had time for a couple of quick sketches, but it was worth it.  The first sketch I made in a wash in the noontime shade of alligator junipers; the second, toward sunset up on Masai Point.  These sketches will become reference material for a future studio painting.

Six Years After the Fire 6x8 oil sketch

Hoodoo 6x8 oil sketch
(Palette for both of these was yellow ochre,
transparent earth red and Prussian blue, all Gamblin paints)

By the way, this was our second trip to Chiricahua.  Our first trip was about 15 years ago, and I remember being very impressed with the green lushness of the park.  But in 2011, a major fire swept through, charring much of the landscape.  Now, six years later, the grasses have returned, but so many of the hills and canyon sides are filled with broken, charred stumps.  This explains the title of my first sketch.  The amazingly strange rocks, of course, are untouched and just as weird as ever.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Product Review: Travel Painter Art Box

The Travel Painter Art Box

I always enjoy reviewing new products for the outdoor painter.  It's an opportunity to try something new, perhaps help the maker improve the product—and get out in the field to paint!  This time around, I'm reviewing a new paint box from Russia.

Good hardware all around!

Finely crafted box interior

Palette is slid out, showing contents of box interior. 
I've removed the two dividers that would partition the interior into three sections.

The Travel Painter Art Box is advertised as a tripod-free paintbox.  It's a slim, lightweight pochade box beautifully constructed that can be used either on the lap or while standing.  To stand, a comfortable cloth belt attaches to the box so it hangs from your neck and is steadied by your chest or belly.   For left-handed painters, the maker has a clever way of changing how the strap attaches.  Three adjustable compartments inside the box allow for several paint tubes, short-handled brushes and short turps jar.  The lid can hold two 6x8 or 8x8 panels.  Two wingnuts on the lid allow for easy angle adjustments of the lid for painting.  All in all, it's a very simple but well-crafted box and a good value at $89 US.

I took it out on a couple of trial runs to see how it works.  Overall, I was very pleased with the lightness and ease of use.  I hiked in over a mile and back with it on a woodland trail, and I didn't feel the weight more than I would a DSLR camera.  It took just a moment for me to open it up and start painting.  It's a box I'll carry on my next road trip, which will involve hiking to painting spots—and certainly overseas to Scotland and Italy next year!

Here you can see how the strap is positioned for a right-handed artist.

Here are some observations:
Panel Size.  The maker notes that the box is made for panels that are 20 cm wide.  He recommends using boards cut to the metric standard rather than to an avoirdupois standard; 8 inches is a little larger than 20 cm, and sometimes a 6x8 board is a little smaller or bigger than what's advertised.   Fortunately, I found that a 6x8-inch Ampersand Gessobord fits exactly with just enough room to slide the panel in and out easily.  But I also learned that a no-name brand of 6x8 panel I also use is too big; I had to trim off a fraction with a utility knife for it to fit. 
Brushes.  I use mostly Grand Prix flats from Silver Brush.  These are too long to fit diagonally in the box.  I took three and trimmed off about a half-inch so they would fit.  Other brands or models may require no trimming or more.  But I wanted to fit everything in this box, as I didn't like carrying an extra bag.  Also,  I didn't want to deal with a brush holder.  When  painting, I just slid the palette open a bit so I could shove the handles into the box to secure them. 
OMS container.  Again, I wanted everything to fit inside this box.  I'd lost my tiny Guerrilla Painter turps jar, but I had found a small metal screw-cap medium cup.  It doesn't hold much in the way of OMS.  Then I remembered that Gamblin's Solvent-Free Gel can be used as both a medium and a brush cleaner!  I packed in a tube of this instead.  Perfect solution to the messy, welded-on-lid problem with medium cups. 
Paper Towels.  I use paper towels when painting.  I figured that for two 6x8 paintings, I wouldn't need very many.  So I ripped a few sheets off the roll, cut them into squares, and used a bulldog clip to hold them together.  This packet fit neatly in the box.  When I painted, I just clipped it to the lid for easy access.  As the paper towels got soiled and unusable, I just stuffed them back into the box for disposal later. 
Palette.  The palette is 20x20 cm, just like the box lid that hold the panels.  I always like to have my palette at least as big as my painting surface.  This is polyurethaned plywood, the same as the rest of the box, and nicely finished.  It slides easily in its groove—a little too easily, actually.  While painting, I was worried that the palette might slide out entirely.  This didn't happen, but I recommend that the maker add some sort of “stop” or lock for the palette to avoid this.  (When closed, the hinges of the box lock the palette in place.) 
Comfort.  As I mentioned earlier, you can either paint with the box standing or sitting.  I chose to stand during my first session.  I was a little puzzled at first with how to position the box against my tummy and to get comfortable with the strap.  (The photos show you how it's done.  You'll note that I have the strap positioned a little differently from the way it is on the website for the box; I found what worked for me.)  But once I was over that minor hurdle, using the box was a piece of cake.  With my left hand I steadied the box and hold a paper towel, and I then painted with my right.  In my second session, I sat with the box in my lap.  This was, of course, even easier.
I highly recommend this box for anyone who needs to travel super-light.  It's the kind of thing you might throw over your shoulder and take on a daily hike or bike ride just in case you run across something that needs painting.  It's also great for study-to-studio work and gathering reference sketches. And it's definitely what you'd take on a trip where weight and space are at a premium.

You can find out more about the Travel Painter Art Box and purchase it at for $89 US.  By the way, it didn't take it very long to get from Russia to New Mexico, only two weeks.  You can probably get one in time for Christmas!

Here are the two paintings I made with the Travel Painter Art Box:

Lake Study I - 6x8 Oil - Available

Lake Study 2 - 6x8 Oil - Available