Friday, March 23, 2018

It's Still Not Too Late! Take a Plein Air Painting Workshop with Me in Maine this Summer

This summer, while the rest of the country is sweltering in what will no doubt be record-breaking heat, you can be enjoying a cool time at the Maine coast at one of my workshops.  And unlike other cool places in the summer, it won't be packed with tourists.  You will have the bold cliffs and gentle sea breezes all to yourself—or just about.

Bold Cliffs

Boats in Lubec's Harbor

I still have a few openings left in two plein air painting workshops in Lubec, Maine:  July 3-6, 2018 (all levels) and August 28-31, 2018 (experienced painters.)  The workshop goes from 8 until noon, leaving you the afternoons to either paint on your own or to explore the area with family or friends.  Besides painting some of the best scenery on the Maine coast, you can also enjoy boiled lobster, taking a whale watch or just hiking the cliffs and beaches.  If you do decide to paint more, I'll gladly give you suggestions for locations and then critique whatever you paint.  Also, if you bring your passport, you'll be able to visit the Canadian island of Campobello and visit my studio.

Painting the view toward Campobello

If this interests you, I have lots more information on the workshop and the area, including lodging suggestions, at my website:

Bernard, Maine

Lobster Floats!

By the way, I am also teaching a workshop August 21-24, 2018, just up the coast from Lubec.  This four-day, all-day workshop will be based in Bernard, Maine.  Bernard is a quiet fishing village on the “quiet side” of Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park.  I've taught here for many years, and it's always a special week for me. We paint boats and harbor scenes, quiet marshes and crashing waves on the seawall.  Plus, one of the highlights is lunch or dinner at famous Thurston's Lobster Pound.  I can't wait to go again this year.  For details and to register, please visit the Acadia Workshop Center site here:

I hope to see you on the Maine coast this summer!

Thurston's Lobster Pound

Wave at Seawall

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pastel-to-Oil: Moving to Your Second Medium

Outcrop 8x10 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Finished Studio Painting Based on Pastel Reference (Below)

First of all, happy First Day of Spring!  For all of us in the northern hemisphere, today marks the shift to days being longer than nights.  Despite the one inch of snow we had this weekend, our crocuses and tulips are pushing up with gusto.  On my hikes, I enjoy listening to the recently-returned songbirds among the groves of juniper and ponderosa.  Life is good.

Like many artists, I work in more than one medium.  Oil and pastel are my anchors in this business.  Also like many artists, I go through periods of using one or the other.  This past week, as I mentioned in my earlier post on my Private Plein Air Painting Intensive program, I worked solely in pastel.  However, my student was curious to see an oil demonstration.  I decided to base my oil demonstration on a pastel study I'd made of a rocky outcrop earlier that week.

Study for "Outcrop" 9x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Photo of the Scene

Wrestling with the Dark Grey Stain

Often when I use field sketches as a reference for a studio painting, I'll switch mediums.  This forces me to make different color choices and keeps things fresh.  Anyway, it's impossible to exactly carry the color of a pastel done in the field into an oil painting.  And why would I want to do so?  I never “copy” my field sketches in the studio, as that would get boring very quickly.  (I discuss this at length, with lots of demonstrations, in my book Outdoor Study to Studio, which is available at Amazon.)

The field sketch had two problems.  One, there was a dark grey stain on the rock that, although it was in full sun, just didn't look sunny.  Two, the shape of the left-hand part of the rock was just plain awkward.  (My student compared it to the front end of a smashed Buick.)  I tried to correct these two problems in the oil painting.  First, I made the dark grey stain a warmer green to indicate sunshine falling on it.  Second, I reshaped the rock and made the values of it closer to the values of the area just behind it to make it “dissolve” so it didn't catch the eye as much.  I stopped short of exercising that rule of thumb:  “If you can't get it right, put a bush in front of it.”  The job would have been easier had I recognized the problem in the field and changed my viewpoint.

Side-by-Side:  Field Sketch on Left, Studio Painting on Right

If you work in just pastel, I encourage you to work in another medium such as oil or acrylic.  Likewise, if you work in just oil, I encourage you to give pastel a try!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Mentoring: Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Study Program Report

Beautiful clouds during the week

And beautiful sunshine, too!

You may have noticed that I took a short break from blogging last week.  What was I up to?  Instead of blogging, I dedicated my time to the first Paint the Southwest Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Study week.  My mentee was Sue, an experienced painter from the north who stopped on her way to a residency in southern Arizona to study with me.  Although she paints in both oil and pastel, she decided to do just pastel, so I followed suit.  (I will paint in either medium or even both, depending on the participant.)  It was an intense but delightful week for both of us.

Although I offer a tuition-only version of the program, the student is welcome to stay with us; in this case, Trina and I provide three meals a day plus a private room and bath.  (The room is right next to the studio, which is convenient for working on projects throughout the day.)  Sue arrived Sunday evening after a long drive, so we gave her a nice dinner and toured her around the property.  Since both of us were excited about the program, we took some time to go through the studio as well, going over the gear and materials that I commonly use.

Sketching at El Morro
Painting on the studio property

Virga Over the Valley - 12x9 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

After an early breakfast on Monday, we got started.  (The program is completely customized to the participant's needs, so if you're thinking about joining us in the future, your week probably will be a little different.)  After consulting with Sue prior to her week via email, I decided she would benefit from working on foreground and design issues as well as practice in abstracting the landscape.  With that in mind, we headed over to El Morro National Monument with cameras and sketchbooks.  The weather was a little chilly, so walking and stopping for brief sketches to explore design was more comfortable than standing and painting.  After returning to the studio for lunch, we stayed on the studio property to paint the view, paying special attention to foreground handling.  In the evening, we relaxed with another nice dinner.  I introduced Susan to my art book collection; she spent her spare time during the week reading Edgar Payne's Composition of Outdoor Painting.  Being outdoors so much is both invigorating and tiring; I think we all retired early each night.

Painting at Ramah Lake

My painting, nearly done

Hiking back from the lake

Silent Watcher - 9x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

On Tuesday, we went to Ramah Lake to paint the “layer cake” cliffs of red and white sandstone.  Ducks, coots and geese made their welcome, springtime music while we worked.  Here again, foreground was a special focus; we positioned ourselves atop the earthen dam, which gave us a fine view with a complicated foreground of red willow and a variety of grasses, all much the same value.  Thumbnail sketches helped us with that.  That afternoon, we stayed on our property again to paint some of the sandstone rock outcrops, looking at abstracting the shapes and working more intuitively at design.

Among the rocks

You can really see my palette from this angle

9x12 Pastel Study for "Outcrop" by Michael Chesley Johnson

Outcrop - 8x10 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Wednesday was another gorgeous day, and since Thursday's weather forecast was iffy, we decided to take advantage of the fine weather and went on a field trip with a picnic.  We drove around the large cuesta that dominates Ramah to the east and headed for the north end of the lake.  From here, we painted the layer-cake cliffs from a different angle, and again, spent a good deal of time on design.  By lunchtime, the wind began to get up—foretelling a change in the weather—but we had a fine picnic by a historic ranch house with a broad view of the lake.  Afterward, we began to make our way back but first stopped on some acreage we own to paint the view.

On the north end of the lake

Lakeside Peace - 9x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Where We Might Live - 6x8 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Thursday dawned, surprisingly, with sun and fast-moving clouds.  The predicted rain and snow had not yet arrived.  Taking advantage of the weather, we drove off to hike a trail that would give us yet another view of the lake cliffs so we could do some pencil sketching.   The wind couldn't touch us on the trail, but the trip back to the car was another story.  Rain squalls and snow squalls followed us back to the studio where, after lunch, we talked about and made adjustments to work we'd done earlier in the week.  But more importantly, we also spent a good deal of time pre-planning our trip back to El Morro.

Field sketch from the morning hike

Field sketch from Monday - with notes and cropping explorations

Design sketches from the studio with notes

Monitor and cropping tool for helping with design

We pulled out our photos and pencil sketches from Monday morning and explored design options.  We looked at double- and triple-squares as well as other less-standard formats.  We used charcoal to sketch out foregrounds, then wiped them out, and tried variations.  Finally, once we'd decided on the format (1:2) and the design, we copied the design onto paper we would use the next day for painting, and blocked in the shadow values with a dark color.  This preparatory work would give us a jumpstart on painting in the field.

I also did a demonstration in oil.  (See above for the oil.) Although Sue had chosen for us to work in pastel, she asked if I would do a short demonstration in her other medium.  Taking the idea of outdoor study-to-studio, I decided to use a rock study I had made in pastel the day before and use it as the basis for an oil painting.  I will often switch mediums for outdoor study-to-studio; it makes things fresher and forces different color choices.

Hike atop Inscription Rock
You'll note that my area is bounded by the Zuni and Navajo reservations.
The highway that passes through Ramah is called the "Ancient Way," and
is so-called because of the native cultures (Ancestral Puebloans) that included
the Anasazi and the ancestors of the Zuni and Acoma, as well as the Spanish explorers,
that traveled through here.  You can read more on the Ancient Way here.
Ready to paint

Paso Por Aqui - 8x16 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

On Friday, we drove back to El Morro.  The weather wasn't quite the same as it had been on Monday, when we gathered our reference material there.  More clouds cast more shadow on Inscription Rock, and the actual shadows cast by features on the rock weren't quite yet where they should be.  If we waited a little longer, we thought, the clouds would thin and the cast shadows would move to where we needed them.   A quick hike up and over Inscription Rock, which was about 2.5 miles round trip, was just the ticket.

Despite the wind, which began to blow when we reached the summit, we set up our easels down at our viewpoint and got to work.  Our decision to get the basic design and shadow values laid in prior to going out had been smart; it made the process of fine-tuning shape profiles and colors much faster, and it gave us more time to finish the paintings on-location.  Can this be called plein air?  I think so.  The only thing we didn't do outdoors was a bit of planning.

The Studio

Sue and our work from the week

That afternoon, we tweaked our week's work a little more, and then I sat down to write up for Sue a review of the week plus an action plan.  The review and action plan comprise an important part of the Private Painting Intensive Study week; they reinforce what we learned and provide a path for future growth.  I sat down with her that evening to go over the week and to present the plan, and I believe it was well-received and very helpful.

Saturday morning, we all enjoyed a special breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes before saying our goodbyes.   For all of us, it was a productive week, both personally and professionally.  I very much enjoyed working with Sue and look forward to reviewing her new work over the next few weeks.  In addition to the week we spend together, I also offer reviews and critiques for three months after.

If you are an experienced artist looking for this kind of one-on-one, intense experience, please take a look at my Paint the Southwest website.  I am already taking registrations for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019.  I have a lot to offer, and I would like to help you reach the next level in your painting.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Late Winter

Late Winter
12x16 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available, Price Includes Frame and Shipping to Continental US - Click for More 

Winter's not over yet here in the high desert of New Mexico.  This evening, the National Weather Service has issued a winter weather advisory for most of the northern part of the state.  But it looks to be not much and, here, possibly mostly rain.  We sure need precipitation in some form.

This past week, though, you'd hardly know winter was still around.  We saw warm days, plenty of sunshine, and the return of flocks of songbirds.   I even saw a heron down at the lake.

The lake, and its surrounding layer-cake cliffs, continue to draw me.  I can't seem to get enough of this particular view.  An earthen dam provides a good place to stand.  From its height, I can look across the marshy area to the water and cliffs beyond.

When I painted this piece, the honeybees came out.  Several landed -- briefly -- in my palette, before taking off to seek more sensible food sources.

A few cottonwoods and elms are starting to thicken at the tips, and it won't be long before we start seeing green.  A little bit of winter this weekend won't bother them.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Getting the Color Right: Can You?

How would you paint this?

To start with, you would need a moment to analyze what's going on with the color.  Both the red and green look intense—and especially so, considering they are two complements juxtaposed.  It's hard to look at this jarring image without getting a headache.

But is each color really as intense as it seems?  I've pulled samples of each color and put them against a white background.  Apart, they seem a little more neutral.

Most of my readers are already familiar with the idea of simultaneous contrast.  (If you aren't, check out this article:  Adjacent colors affect each other, and in the case of complements, the contrast can be quite striking.

Now, let's imagine you're out in the field, painting a scene that has red rocks and green bushes among those red rocks.  (This is exactly what we paint in Sedona in my Paint The Southwest workshops there.)  Can you paint the scene as you see it?

Maybe, maybe not.  You lay in the color of the red rocks.  Next, you lay in the green of the bushes.  But something's not quite right...the green looks a little too intense.  Yet you're pretty sure you painted the green bushes as you saw them.  Hm.  The red looks too intense, too.  You were sure you had it right.

What went wrong?  You were looking at the scene overall, and it was a puzzle of little red shapes and little green shapes.  The reds affected the way you saw the greens; and vice versa.  You saw both reds and greens--when looked at individually and surrounded by their complements--as being more intense than they actually are.

This is where a “color isolator” comes in handy.  The View Catcher, which I described in an earlier post, has one.  Just as I used Photoshop to sample the colors in my illustration and to isolate them, you can do the same with the View Catcher.  This will help you see the true color.  Next, you will find a “color checker” handy.  After mixing your paint, you can put a dab of the mixture on your color checker, hold it against the part of the scene you are trying to paint, and compare the color.  The blade of your painting knife makes a good color checker, if you can hold it without getting a glare on the shiny blade.

This is all well and good, but in my mind, it's unnecessary work.  It's good training for you if you are having trouble discerning color relationships (keeping in mind that color is actually a composite of value, temperature, chroma and hue), but it's good to get past it.   You can teach yourself to look at the overall scene and to make your “best guess” at these relationships.  In your initial block-in, get the value right, get the color close—and then spend the next stage of the painting adjusting the colors until they look like what you see.  It's a more relaxing way—and a speedier way to paint—than picking out little color spots and trying to mix them exactly.  With practice, you get better at the “best guess” method.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Two Approaches to Plein Air Painting

Towering Cottonwood
12x9 Oil on paper by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available Here
In this study, I was trying to observe the scene carefully.  There's not much
detail in it, as I was focusing more on shapes of value and color.  Is it art?

What's your goal when you go out to paint?  Do you try to paint things just as you see them, or do you exercise your artistic license, rearranging the scene and pushing the color?

There are two ways to paint en plein air—either you paint things as they are, or you don't.  The first is great for honing your observational skills, and the second, for refining your experience or the expression of that experience.  Some might say the first is nothing more than an exercise; the second, a way of creating authentic art.

I would contend that both ways can create art.

One of the goals in my plein air painting workshops is to help students see the world accurately.  Many of them have spent a lifetime working from photos, but they lack the valuable skill of observing from life.  We spend our time examining the color relationships of light and shadow; we ask how do value, temperature, chroma and hue differ?  Periodically, I go through these exercises myself.  There's nothing more satisfying than spending a couple of hours observing and then translating, as accurately as possible, into paint or pastel what I see before me.  It's almost like a meditation.

But sometimes, I might call the result of these exercises “art.”

To start with, let's agree that a work of art is unique.  The uniqueness comes from the fact that we are all individuals.  My color vision and visual acuity differ from yours.  I am slightly red-green color-blind and very myopic, the latter of which is corrected with progressive lenses.  I would even say that my brain interprets differently what my eyes register, thanks to genetic, environmental and cultural factors.  Also, I have a bias as to what interests me.  Whereas I am fascinated by dominant dark patterns, you may focus instead on texture.  Finally, I'm right-handed and may hold the brush a certain way.  Were we to set up side-by-side, our paintings would be very different.

All these things together might achieve nothing more than a well-observed exercise—but they do not yet constitute art.  They will, of course, contribute to a unique style, yet style is not art.

But more can happen.

An artist can become such a finely-tuned instrument that the mere act of observing the world and then translating it into paint can make art.  This is not a conscious effort but an automatic one.  When an observation takes an instant, immediately followed by the mixing and application of paint, there is no time for thinking about how to make art.  But the mature artist has already thought about it—and has been thinking about it all his working life—and so his response becomes intuitive.  Through that intuition, he is making unconscious choices that, as I noted above, refine the experience or the expression of the  experience.  In another person's hands, the result may be merely a carefully-observed study; but in his, it becomes something filled with power and beauty.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

How Artists Use Social Media: Poll Results

Image by Jason Howie [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I've been doing research for a magazine article on the use of social media by artists.  As part of the research, I conducted a poll.  The most surprising revelation is how one's use and expectations of social media don't necessarily fit the results.

The most popular use for social media was to market and sell work, yet the artists polled felt social media was least successful at this.

Here's how the breakdown went.  Going from most to least, artists used social media to:

#1 - Market/sell work
#2 - Join a virtual community of like-minded artists for learning and support
#3 - Communicate with galleries/buyers

And how successful were they with these goals?  Going in the same order as before:

1# - Market/sell work - Average was 36% successful
2# - Learning and support - Average was 68% successful
3# - Communicate with galleries/buyers - Average was 41% successful

How expectations can be adjusted to match results—or perhaps better, how results can be adjusted to match expectations—will be the subject of another blog post.

Before I give you the rest of the results, I offer a couple of warnings.  First, I posted my poll to various artist groups only on Facebook, so obviously this created a bias.  Second, I had a total of only 76 responses.  This is a small sample for a poll, but I do think it's representative of the larger picture.

92% of the artists use social media regularly as part of their art life
Facebook, Instagram and blogs were the top three platforms used