Saturday, October 20, 2018

Wee Scotland Paintings, Workshops at Grand Canyon and .. Sedona!

(See larger versions below)

It's hard to believe, but we've only been home less than two weeks -- yet we've dived into a number of projects, both household and artistic, that have kept us incredibly busy.  One of my artistic projects is to finish a series of 6x8 oil paintings of Scotland.  As you may recall, I pre-sold these so I could extend my trip.  Yes, they are small, but I'm having a lot of fun painting them.  Every day I surround myself with photo references and gouache field sketches, crank up a play list on Pandora, and have at it.  I should be done with the painting part in a few days, and then I'll take a break to let them dry.  Following this will be framing and shipping, hopefully all by Thanksgiving.

The collectors who pre-bought the paintings get first pick, but when they are done, I will have some left over.  Once I know what is left, I will make them available for sale to the general public.  I'll post some photos of what I have now so you can see what these will look like.  (Future photos will be better.) Stay tuned!

On another note, this week I will be heading to Grand Canyon -- yes, again! -- to teach a plein air painting workshop.  I'm really looking forward to this, as the workshop is sponsored by the Grand Canyon Association's Field Institute and the National Park Service.  I'll be taking students to some of my favorite spots.  The weather forecast looks good for our time there, so I'll make sure to have lots of photos to share when I get back.

Also, I still have room in my Sedona (Arizona) plein air painting workshop.  This runs four half-days (9 am to 1 pm) November 13-16.  This is one of my favorite times there, as the cottonwoods and aspens will have started changing, and we should have some good color.  If you'd like to join me, let me know right away, or visit

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Home Again

Winners of the OPAS Annual Member's Exhibition

As you read in my recent newletter, Trina and I just completed our journey from Campobello Island to New Mexico.  Along the way, I judged the Ohio Plein Air Society's annual members' competition in Cincinnati, taught a workshop for the same group, and then taught a second workshop for the Central Ohio Plein Air Society in Columbus.  The OPAS competition really tested the mettle of the painters, as Ohio was in the middle of a period of record-breaking temperatures.  It felt more like August, what with the humidity and heat.  I applaud the painters for their endurance and for turning out so many wonderful paintings.  There were so many good paintings, in fact, that my job as judge proved particularly difficult—yet immensely enjoyable.

Pre-Judging Potluck for OPAS

OPAS paintings ready to be judged

The heat didn't let up, but continued through both workshops.  Fortunately, the locations offered air-conditioned studios to retreat to.   The theme for the OPAS workshop was "Outdoor Study to Studio," so after gathering reference material in the mornings, we headed for the studio (at the Woman's Art Club of Cincinnati in Mariemont) to assemble our material and create finished paintings.  Thank you to Ray Hassard and Robin Roberts for organizing both the competition and the workshop.  The COPAS workshop was an all-level all-outdoors workshop, but the studio (at the Stratford Ecological Center in Delaware) served as a welcome place for talking about art matters and critiques.  Thank you to Nancy Vance for organizing this one.  In both cases, it was a treat meeting the students and helping them toward a better, more satisfying practice.

By the way, I am looking to schedule a workshop for my annual travel west for the fall of 2019.  If you are a member of a plein air painting group between New Mexico and Maine (our fall travel route) and would like me to hold a workshop in late September or early October, please contact me. 

Reference material set up for OPAS "Outdoor Study to Studio" workshop
with finished painting on right

Gathering more reference material for OPAS workshop

Painting in Mariemont

Sunflowers were a big hit at the COPAS workshop in Columbus...

...and so were the llamas!

My 12x9 tree demonstration in oil for COPAS (sold)

Seeking relief from the heat in Columbus

Monday, October 8, 2018

October News from Michael

To the East
9x12 Oil 
Grand Canyon Celebration of Art

October 2018
Ramah, New Mexico

Good news! Trina and I finally arrived at our winter home in New Mexico. We had an easy trip, what with teaching two workshops in Ohio plus judging the annual Plein Air Competition for the Ohio Plein Air Painters Society and driving over 2600 miles. Now that we're home, I have a chance to catch you up on a few things.

Grand Canyon Celebration of Art

Just before leaving Campobello Island, I flew out to Arizona for the 10th annual Grand Canyon Celebration of Art as one of 25 invited artists. The COA event is my favorite – this was my 5th time attending – and most successful. This year, I focused more on painting for myself rather than for collectors and explored color and contrast. I must have done something right, since sales have been good for me so far. The exhibit, which is at the Kolb Studio in Grand Canyon National Park on the South Rim, continues through the end of January. If you visit (and I hope you do!) please know that not everything is hung; there are a good many backup paintings that are in another space, but the staff there will be more than happy to share these with you if you ask. You can see all my paintings at

These will also be available for sale on the Grand Canyon Association's web site soon. Once they are there, I will make a general announcement on my blog, Instagram and Facebook pages.

Paint the Southwest Workshops

Now that I'm back in New Mexico, I'm eager to get started on my "Painting Intensive" workshops, in which I work one-on-one with each participant in a program tailored to the student. This is a rare opportunity for experienced painters to work side-by-side with a pro. We'll be working in the beautiful light of New Mexico's high desert. Lodging and meals are included in the price (a tuition-only version is also available.) For full details on the program, go to

I've also scheduled two all-level plein air painting workshops this year in Sedona, Arizona—my old stomping grounds. Workshops are based in West Sedona and lodging is available at the studio at a price you won't find anywhere else in town. We'll be painting Sedona's famous Red Rock country. Remember, this is for anybody who knows the basics of painting—you don't have to be a plein air painter, since I'll show you how to become one. Of course, the workshop is great for experienced outdoor painters, too! For details, visit Workshops are November 13-16, 2018, and April 2-5, 2019.
By the way, I've just had a spot open up in my October 24-27 2018 Grand Canyon workshop due to a medical cancellation. If you're interested, please let me know right away. Details at

Special Painting Retreat in Lubec, Maine, Next Summer

Because this past August's Special Painting Retreat in Lubec filled so quickly, I want to give you plenty of warning on the next one. We've scheduled it for August 11-16, 2019. This will be based at the historic and beautifully-restored US Coast Guard Station campus out by the West Quoddy Lighthouse. For full details, click here

I have many other workshops scheduled for 2019, and for some, details are being worked out. Locations include Tubac, AZ (for Tubac Center of the Arts); Mount Vernon, WA (for Dakota Art Workshops); Nashville, TN (for the Chestnut Group); and since my October 2018 Grand Canyon workshop filled so quickly, another workshop there in October 2019. Please see the end of this newsletter for details.

Other News

Pastel Journal Articles. I've been asked to write a series of articles on color for the pastel painter. For those of you who followed my recent series on color for the oil painter for The Artist's Magazine, this will be similar—but different! I'm looking forward to exploring this topic for Pastel Journal. Look for them in 2019.

That's all for now. Happy trails!


Friday, September 21, 2018

Heading West - Again

Atop El Morro National Monument

I've just barely returned to Campobello Island from Grand Canyon, but guess what?  I am heading out again!  This time, it's for our annual migration west.  Along the way, I'll teach two workshops as well as judge a show.  For the Ohio Plein Air Society, I'll serve as Judge of Awards for the 15th Annual Ohio Plein Air Competition on September 30.  This will be followed immediately by a workshop for the group, October 1-3, the theme being "outdoor study to studio."  Right after that, October 5-6, I'll teach a workshop for the Central Ohio Plein Air Society.  It will be a fun week in Ohio!

Then it won't be long before we arrive at our winter studio in New Mexico.  I'm eager to start up my "Painting Intensive" program again. If you haven't heard of this, it's my one-on-one plein air painting program for experienced painters, and it's completely customized to the participant.  What's more, the price includes lodging and all meals.  (I also offer a tuition-only option.)  Last year, I very much enjoyed working one-on-one, and every participant had good things to say about the program.  For this new season, I still have a few weeks available; you can find full details at

In addition to my "Painting Intensive" program, I will be teaching two all-level plein air painting workshops this fall and spring in Sedona, Arizona.  Sedona is a wonderful place to paint with gorgeous Southwest scenery.  Dates this season are November 13-16, 2018, and April 2-5, 2019.  If you're worried about lodging costs in a tourist area, please know that the studio offers limited lodging for only $80/night.  I have space available in both weeks.  Full details are at

I'll post again once I'm on the road.  In the meantime, here are a few photos from the last season of the "Painting Intensive."

Monday, September 17, 2018

Grand Canyon Celebration of Art: Wrap-Up

River Trip 9x12 Oil
One of my favorites from the event

This marks the tenth anniversary of the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art plein air painting event and my fifth time as an invited artist. I always enjoy painting at the canyon, and this was no exception. This year, we had a week of rather warm weather -- it was in the 80s each day -- and an abundance of sunshine and a scarcity of clouds. Without the clouds, most of my paintings have horizons that I placed high in the composition to minimize or even eliminate the empty sky. You will see, though, that one of my paintings features a few; that was the one day with enough to cast interesting shadows over the canyon.

Me at the Quick Draw
I normally don't sit to paint, but the week
had been rough on my back!

As much as I love the views from Yaki Point, this year I seemed to be drawn more toward the section of rim west of that, between Mather Point and the Yavapai Geology Museum. This part of the trail seems to be little-traveled by walkers, and I found a great deal of peace and quiet there. I think I spent as much time just gazing down into the canyon, enjoying the infinity of features and details, as I did actually painting it. Often my eyes would get stuck on some feature, and I’d wonder if any human -- Anglo, Spanish, Havasupai or other -- had ever set foot there.

Quick Draw auction about to begin

Artistically, I found the event rewarding. I believe I pushed my painting in a new direction with color and contrast, avoiding the tendency to mimic the rather dull colors one finds in nature. This is something I hope to work more with in the future. I also enjoyed meeting the new painters and renewing my acquaintance with old ones. But I’m a bit of a loner, so I also enjoyed my solo hikes. Very early one morning, when most of the hikers were still prepping for their journey to the river, I hiked down the Bright Angel trail a ways. It was so quiet I could hear birdsong echoing off the canyon walls. On my way back up, though, I encountered dozens of hikers making their descent. I grew a little tired of saying “good morning.”

Sunrise over Battleship (photo, not a painting!)

You can see all the paintings at this link:
Some are sold, but some are still available.  In a few days, the paintings will be up on the Grand Canyon Association's website and available for sale there, as well as at the Kolb Studio on the canyon's South Rim.  The exhibit and sale continue now until the end of January. For details, visit

The Grand Canyon Association staff and volunteers did a fantastic job of organizing the event and supporting the artists, and the National Park Service welcomed us as fellow stewards of the land, giving us special access to the park. Finally, I thank my lodging hosts, who made sure I got enough sleep and food and didn’t mind me waking up at 4 each morning to make coffee.

Now I am on my way home to Campobello Island, where next week Trina and I will pack up the car and head west. My next big event will be to judge the annual show for the Ohio Plein Air Society and to teach a workshop for the group. By the way, I still have room in that workshop, which runs October 1-3. If you’d like to join us, please see the registration flyer here

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Grand Canyon Interim Report

There are many places in the world more remote than Grand Canyon, but sometimes Grand Canyon seems very remote indeed.  Normally, I would be posting to my blog almost daily with entertaining and enlightening reports on this painting business, but I am hobbled somewhat by telecommunications issues.  Be that as it may, I am here now, happy to report midway through the Tenth Annual Grand Canyon Celebration of Art.

As I write, it is Tuesday.  The event started Friday with an evening orientation and canvas-stamping, and painting began Saturday.  I went right in, full-throttle, painting four pieces on Saturday and again on Sunday. This, despite the heat.  Temperatures have been in the 80s, and if you’re in the sun, you bake. I am glad I had a change of heart about bringing my umbrella; I think I have used it for every painting session.  I’ve hoped for clouds, hoped to find a pinon or cedar tall enough to give me shade, but it’s the umbrella that has been a lifesaver. This is my fifth time as an invited artist, and I can’t remember a hotter week.

The organizers requested that some of the artists provide painting demonstrations.  I agreed to do one on Monday at 10 a.m. at the far east end of the park, at the Desert View Watch Tower.  (This is a historic structure in the form of a faux Native American building--a fantasy, really, since no Native American culture ever built such a thing--designed by architect Mary Colter in the 1930s.)  I wanted to be fresh for the demo, so I decided to take a hike rather than paint. I’ve been heading out before dawn each morning, so I did the same on Monday, and hiked from Mather Point to Yaki Point and back.  The demo went well, and although I thought about painting on the route back to Grand Canyon Village, which is where I am lodging, I didn’t. Later I went out to the Hermit Road on the west side of the park, which is where I’ve been painting most of the week, along with sessions at Yaki Point.

My raven overseer

My companions this week:  the ravens. I love to have them tumbling in the air overhead, playing with and talking to one another.  I feel a mystical connection with the raven. I’ve never felt this with any other animal. When I stand on the brink of the canyon, I can feel what it would be like to spread my wings and ride the thermals.  I see through their eyes.

By the way, my mantra this week is “Color and Contrast.”  For color, I’ve added a couple of new pigments to my standard palette.  These are quinacridone red and manganese violet, all Gamblin colors. These are perfect, I find, for the shadowed rocks walls.  So, my complete palette is as follows: hansa yellow light, hansa yellow deep, naphthol red, quinacridone red, permanent alizarin crimnson, manganese violet, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue hue and phthalo emerald, plus titanium-zinc white.  Also a little solvent-free gel. As for contrast, I start each painting with the idea that shadowed areas are to be painted in cool pigments; sunlit areas, in the warm pigments. The fact that I’m starting with color “right from the tube" makes for a very cartoonish start, but then I adjust this in later stages.  I’m starting each painting with a brush but doing most of the finish work with a knife. The color stays richer that way.

I’m afraid I haven’t photographed any of my paintings yet.  I want to take proper photos of them rather than sharing poorly-lit field shots.  I do think my work is good this week. So instead, I will leave you with some photos of some of my locations.  By the way, rather than posting regularly to the blog, I am posting regularly to my Instagram feed. Visit for the latest.

My next report will most likely be after the event.  Wish me luck! The exhibition opens on Saturday night with a ticketed collector’s opening.  It opens to the public on Sunday. For full details, visit


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Grand Canyon-Bound

After the Rains 16x24 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
For the Celebration of Art invitational, artists will display a studio  painting at the
exhibition.  This is mine, and you can see (and buy!) it at the beginning of the week
at the Kolb Studio.

Ever since Colonel John Wesley Powell rode the wild horse rapids of Grand Canyon's Colorado River in 1869, artists have struggled to depict the canyon's transcendent grandeur.  The struggle doesn't always show up in the finished painting—and most of us artists are happiest when it does not—but as someone who has made the attempt, I can say that the struggle is always there.  But personally, I find the effort to be immensely satisfying, whatever the outcome.

And that is why I'm heading out to the Grand Canyon this week.  This will make my fifth time attending the Celebration of Art, which also marks its 10th anniversary this year.  I'm looking forward to seeing old friends, making some new ones, and to enjoy whatever the canyon throws at me.  Over the years, I've seen everything from incandescent sunsets to fogged-in dawns and daily monsoonal storms hurling lightning while I paint at my favorite spots.  Whatever comes, it will be beautiful and memorable.

Painting Grand Canyon in 2016

Here's a summary of the events:

  • Artist Demonstrations and Plein Air Painting - September 8-13, 2018
  • Welcome Gathering - Friday, September 14, 5:30 p.m.
  • Quick Draw - September 15, 8:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m.
  • Quick Draw Auction - September 15, 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.
  • Exhibition Grand Opening - September 16, 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
  • Art Exhibition and Sale - September 16, 2018 - January 21, 2019, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.

There's much more scheduled, including a demonstration by me (Monday, September 10th, at 10 a.m. at Desert View Watchtower), but you can see the full schedule here:

Dawn at Grand Canyon

Like the other 23 invited artists, as I paint during the event, I'll be letting the Grand Canyon Association know my location via text.  If you want to find me, check in with the GCA at any of their shops along the South Rim, and they'll tell you where I am.  I tend to get started early, break in the middle of the day, and then paint again in the late afternoon.  The lighting is best for painting at these times.

If you can't come to Grand Canyon personally, you can follow me here on my blog, on Instagram, or on my Facebook studio page.  I'll try to engage in social media as much as possible—but of course, I'd rather be painting!

I hope to see you there!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Throwing Away Opportunity

Who would not have wanted to study with a master like Edgar Degas?
Self-portrait, 1895.  Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the public domain.

I know of aspiring artists who only take workshops with true masters.  But they don’t follow up.  Yes, they do the painting required in the workshop, but they don’t paint again until the next workshop with another master.  I consider this an opportunity thrown away.

The opportunity is this:  To take what is taught and practice it, thereby improving your craft.  Or, if what is taught doesn’t help you, to understand why through the trial of practice.  The trial will clarify the authority of your personal process for making art.  (After this, no one will be able to tell you that you don’t have a valid reason for making art the way you do.)

Study with a master artist is expensive.  Besides the cost of the workshop, it often involves travel, hotels, meals out and time away from family and work.  But what the master gives you in return is a very valuable thing.  However, it does have a certain shelf life.  No matter how many notes you scribble down, no matter how many photos you take of the demonstrations, the knowledge will go stale quickly unless it is used soon.

Painting is a physical process.  You can’t just think about it and become a better painter.  You actually have to move paint around with a brush.  After that workshop with a master, make sure you take time to paint and try out what you’ve been taught.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Changing Your Attitude

You can even make the best of a downpour.
Painting in pastel with one hand while holding an umbrella in the other.

If you are a “the glass is half-empty” kind of person, here are some things you can try that will help you see the glass as half-full.  As I mentioned in my  previous post, having a positive attitude will yield a positive experience.

Usually, things start going into the ditch at a workshop when:

  • You discover you didn’t bring the right materials
  • You decided to bring some new, untried gear or tool
  • You have trouble finding a subject that engages you, or
  • You simply got out of the wrong side of the bed.

(By the way, these things have all happened to me, too.)

Here are a few thoughts to help you steer you back onto the road:

  • Wrong materials? So long as you have something to paint with and something to paint on, you can make it work.  I forgot my mineral spirits once, which made painting with brushes difficult if not impossible, so I picked up my painting knife for the first time and learned to use it.  The worst situation, of course, is having nothing to paint with or on.  In this case, perhaps you can borrow the materials from another student.  Or, you can go around with your camera and gather references for possible studio paintings.
  • New gear or tool? If it’s not working for you, perhaps you can return to something with which you are more comfortable.  Or maybe you can push through the newness.  I like to field-test new equipment and take it as a challenge.  I had a new pochade box once, the concept being that one wore it around the torso with a strap while standing, and painted with it that way, without a tripod.  After a struggle, I found the box worked best resting on my knees as I sat.
  • Not finding a subject?  In a workshop, focus on the process and not the thing being painted.  If the instructor demonstrated painting trees and would like you to paint one, pick a tree, any tree.    It doesn’t have to be a particularly enchanting tree.  So long as you can apply the process to it, you will do just fine.  When I’m in this situation, I treat it as an exercise. 
  • Having a rotten day in general?  It’s okay if you don’t feel like painting.  When this happens to me, I take a walk and just enjoy the birds and the sunshine.  The day always gets better!

Monday, August 27, 2018


It's hard not to have a good attitude in a place like this:  Zion National Park, Utah

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students lament:

  • “I didn’t bring the right materials.”
  • “I don’t like this new brush.”
  • “I can’t find anything to paint.”
  • “It’s just not happening for me.”

On the other hand, I’ve heard statements like these many times, too:

  • “I didn’t bring the right materials, but I think I can make what I did bring work.”
  • “I don’t like this new brush, but maybe I’ll learn how to use it.” 
  • “I can’t find anything to paint, but I’ll just pick something, and maybe it’ll engage me.”
  • “I’m loving it!”

What’s the difference?  Attitude.  I find that students who put a positive spin on a negative situation tend to have a positive experience.

We all have bad days.  But the wrong materials can become the right ones with a positive attitude.  You can paint with a stick if you have to.  You may not get the outcome you and the teacher were hoping for, but you can still have a meaningful experience and learn something--and maybe even create something beautiful.

In my next post, I’ll give you some tips for changing your attitude.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Mount Desert Island Plein Air Painting Workshop Wrap-up

Sunrise in Bernard, Maine

I just returned from a fabulous week of painting on Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park.  I've taught a workshop for Acadia Workshop Center in Bernard, Maine, almost every year since 2005, so I have many favorite places to take students.  Our plein air painting workshop this week saw us on the "quiet side" of MDI, away from the August tourists.  I thought I'd share some photos and paintings from the week.

By the way, I have just one more week of teaching in Lubec.  (If you're interested in signing up for the August 28th plein air painting workshop, which is for advanced painters, let me know right away!  Details at  After that, I head off to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona for the Celebration of Art, an invitational event.  I'm always excited about that event -- I have many old friends to see again, many new friends to make, and many, many spectacular vistas to paint.  Stay tuned for my blog report!

Beach Rocks 5x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available - $200

Beach Trees 5x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available - $200

Crescent Beach 5x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available - $200

Late  August in Maine 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available - $300

Rising Tide 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available - $300

The Wharf that Was 9x12 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available - $200