Thursday, July 18, 2019

Master Class: How to Determine the Color of a Light Source

I can't really tell what the color of the light source is here, but
I can definitely see a bluish cast to the shadows within the folds.
So, I'm going to assume the light is the complement, or yellow.
Of course, blue skylight bouncing down into the shadow also
colors the shadow.

"First, determine the color of your light source."  This piece of advice often is shared with painters when they are striving to paint correctly the color relationships of light and shadow areas of an object.  Knowing the color of the light source helps you decide how warm or cool to paint illuminated areas, and consequently, how to paint the shadowed areas.

So how do you determine the light source color?  I must credit Doug Dawson, my friend, fellow painter and art instructor, with this idea.  Take a sheet of white paper, crumple it up, and toss it into the light.  But rather than look at the lit areas of the paper for clues, look into the pockets of shadow.  It's easier to determine the color of shadow than of light.  Once you've determined the shadow color, you can assume that the light will be its complement.

For example, if you see the shadow as a pure blue-violet—often the case on a sunny day with clear air—you can assume the light will be a yellow-orange.  On a cloudy day, the shadow will be lighter and warmer because of the diffused light, which makes the shadow color somewhat harder to gauge.  I sometimes read this as a grey with a slight red bias, which would indicate that the light has a greenish quality.

Finally—and this is my own advice to students—if you can't determine the color of the light, just make a decision.  If you waffle, your light/shadow relationships are likely to be confused, and this will also confuse your viewer.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Time and Tide

After the Tide
16x20 Oil
Available - Email me if interested

"Time and tide wait for no man," the saying goes.  Here on the Bay of Fundy, the tides are tremendous.  They're the highest tides in the world.  Of course, that depends on where you are, exactly, in the Bay.  Here on Campobello Island, the tidal change averages around 28 feet.  So, if you're painting outdoors and typically paint for about two hours (as I do), there's a 10-foot change during that time.   This is significant, and the contour of the shore shifts drastically.

This week I went out to one of my favorite spots on the island to paint a particular rock outcrop that, at high tide, is isolated from the "mainland."  I wanted to paint from a low angle and looking up at the rock, which meant I had to do it from the beach.  I also wanted to make sure I had some water in the scene, which meant I had to do it as high tide approached.   And if I timed it wrong, I might get my feet wet.

But I'm very familiar with the way the tide behaves around this outcrop, so I set up near the wrack-line, which indicates the point the last high tide reached.  I wasn't in any danger.  Plus, I only spent a little over an hour on this 16x20.  Just so you can see the tidal change during that 80-minute period, here is a before and after shot of the scene:

8:38 AM

9:55 AM

By the way, it's gotten to be fashionable for plein air painters to shoot a photo of a painting in the field so it seems to merge with the background painted.  Here's my attempt at that.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Grey and the Colorblind Painter

Seven Miles Out
12x9 Oil - Available Here
The rocks in ths painting exhibit a variety of greys in the sunlight.
After reading my post on greys, can you see how I painted the sunny passages?

Hello, my name is Michael, and I'm a colorblind painter.

Well, not completely colorblind.  As I wrote in an earlier blog post, I suffer from a degree of protanopia, or red-green colorblindness.  About 8% of all men and 0.5% of all women suffer from it.  But for me, I don't consider it a handicap.  If my eyes tell me I'm seeing grey, I don't paint it just plain old grey—I can't trust my ability to mix a true neutral—but I push it into some color family.  As a result, my greys are more interesting, perhaps, than those mixed by a painter with normal vision.

A reader asked how I decide which way to push a grey if my less-than-perfect eyes can't discern its color family.  To help me avoid odd juxtapositions of color, I need my greys, however subtle, to display a color bias that I can actually see.  Here's how I handle that.

If the grey is in sunshine, I first determine the color of the light source; anything touched by it will show a bit of that color.  (I'll tell you how I determine the color of a light source in a future post.)  Let's assume the light is yellow.  Next, I mix a more-or-less neutral grey, often just ultramarine blue and burnt sienna plus white, which makes a warmish grey.  I then add yellow to push it toward the color of the light.  I may tweak this as needed with other colors, but I aim to maintain the influence of the light source.

Whatever the resulting color, this sunlit grey has to look, well, grey.  One trick to making a grey look even greyer is to surround it it with more intense colors.  By the way, white is a useful modifier for light greys.  It will not only cool down a grey that has become too warm but will also help grey it down even more.

On the other hand, if the grey is in shadow, I assume it will be influenced by the complement of the light source—I am thinking here of simultaneous contrast—or of the sky color spilling down into it.  Again, let's assume the light is yellow, so the complement is violet.  I'll take that same warmish grey mixture (ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, but with little or no white) and add violet.  If I can determine that the shadow color is a little more influenced by the sky color, which is usually a blue, I will add some of that, as well.

To get even more interesting greys, I use broken color as I apply paint to canvas.  One of my favorite recipes for painting fog is to scumble pale tints of cool red (cadmium red plus white) and cool green (phthalo green plus white) over each other.   For painting a broad area, I lay down large patches of these two colors, alternating them as I go.  Then I go back and very lightly drag a loaded brush of the complement over each color.  For grey rocks along the coast, I may paint the rocks pink to start, then add greens and blue-greens to grey down the pink.

When I'm working in pastel, I take the same basic approach.  I do have a small set of greys (warm and cool) to scumble over passages I want to grey down, but I rarely start with a grey if I am painting a grey shape.  Instead, I usually first layer complements or near-complements to get a grey, and then use my grey pastels, if necessary, to grey down the passage more.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

New Summer Studio

My New Barn Studio

A proper artist needs a proper studio--even a plein air painter.  There's always stuff to store and paintings that are better adjusted indoors than out.  But as much as I've enjoyed my small studios over the years, I've always had a hankering for a barn studio.  It's not so much that I have a need for more space for stuff as it is a need for just more, well, space.  Room to swing a brush in.  Room for the light to play in.  Room to breathe in.

If you've seen photos of the studios of historic painters, the studios are usually quite large.  Mostly, that's because the painters made big paintings, and they needed a ceiling high enough for their tall easels and room for storing all those big paintings.  And, it seems, they needed space for a day bed for a nap after wielding a big brush all day long.

Here's Jackson Pollack in his studio.  I don't think I'll be painting on the floor, nor will I be painting canvases quite that big.  But I do have my barn studio now, and the electricians have just finished wiring up new lights.  I'm very excited to have it and eager to show it to visitors.  It's also a gallery, filled with my maritime paintings.  I'm calling it "Michael Chesley Johnson Studio at Friar's Bay," and it's open by appointment seasonally.  If you're in the area, email me or give me a call.

Here are some more pictures of the new studio, plus a short video showing it.  (Can't see the video? Here's the link: )

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Why I Paint: Communion

Shadows in the Cove
9x12 Oil
Available Here
I didn't paint the otter into this painting, but he is there, nonetheless.

I'm painting at a secret pond I discovered on one of my hikes.  It lies behind a barrier beach, piled high by the tides with cobble stones.  A small break in the barrier lets the tide come and go into this cove.  The cove's waters are brackish, dyed a deep red by the tannins leached from the peaty soils at its edge.  Spruces and firs, tamaracks and the occasional birch grow so thickly around the pond that they create a land of midnight outside this spot so brightly illuminated in the June sun.

As I get deeper into painting, the nouns and adjectives and verbs cease.  I am looking without talking to myself, as I sometimes do.  Instead, the brush does the speaking, translating what my eyes see into strokes of paint.

If this pond could speak, what it would say is being said in paint.

This moment, where I am one with the pond, becomes inscrutable, ineffable.  Even though words are one tool that I use to explore the world—another being paint—the moment is difficult to examine, even upon reflection, as well as difficult to understand.

"Communion" is the only word that seems to fit.

Communion is most often a religious term, and it means the joining of your spirit with something else, usually a higher power.  For Christians, it's about the union of your soul with Christ or God, or about the union of your soul with other Christians in Heaven and on Earth.  For me as a landscape painter, it is also the moment I spend connecting with the natural world when I paint.  Some might think of this as a secular use of the term, but as I paint the pond I sense a spirit in Nature.  Whatever, there is something sacred about the moment.

Breaking the moment, an otter splashes to get my attention.  As I paint, he continues to paddle back and forth, his small head lifted ever so slightly above the surface, watching, pulling a long wake across the glassy water.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

More New Paintings

One day I went out to paint on a trail that I hadn't  painted on before.
Hard to believe, considering I've spent more than 15 years painting on the island!

Although this has been one of the wetter springs and starts to the summer I can recall on Campobello Island, I've had enough sunny days to get out and paint.  I thought I'd share with you some of this new recent work.  All of them are available for sale at

One thing I've done with these new paintings is to use a large (for me) brush.  This is an #8 synthetic flat from Silver Brush.  I've not used synthetic brushes before because I've always liked the feeling of natural bristle.  But my natural bristles wear down so fast during the block-in!  So, I decided to buy a couple of synthetic ones for blocking in.  I like the feeling of them so much I did the whole painting with them.

You'll note that the scenes are a little different from what I usually paint here.  I've grown a little tired of the compositions that have an arc of beach terminating in some point of land that juts out into the ocean.  So, I've been consciously looking for different motifs.

Outreach 9x12 Oil
I've painted this point plenty of times, but never this loosely.
Available here.

Seven Miles Out 12x9 Oil
Capturing a sense of sunlight on these grey rocks,
which you can see toward the bottom of this cliff,
is always challenging.  By the way, "seven miles
out" refers to the distance from this point to
Grand Manan, which you can see on the horizon.
Available here

Shadows in the Cove 9x12 Oil
A secret  place that I'm not sharing even with students!
The whole time I painted this, an otter swam back and forth,
keeping an eye on me.
Available Here

Shady Barn 6x8 Oil
My new summer studio is in this barn.
Available here

Shady Pond 9x12 Oil
Another favorite spot, at the head of Glensevern Lake.
Available here

Stand Alone 12x9 Oil
Maybe this one should be titled, "What? Still there?" since
every year I come back to Campobello expecting this tree
to have fallen to winter storms.  It's lost many limbs but still stands.
Available here
That's it for now.  I'll have more as the summer continues.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Why I Paint: Meditation

Alan Watts and the Chinese logogram for "Tao"

You can make any human activity into meditation simply by being completely with it and doing it just to do it. 
Alan Watts

Back when I was in high school, I started reading about meditation.  I tuned in especially to Alan Watts; his books, such as The Way of Zen, spoke to me in such a personal way that he felt like a close friend.  (His books seemed so full of life that I was very surprised when I learned that he'd died in 1973—long before I discovered him.)  Inspired by Watts, I practiced meditation and continued to do so through college and into graduate school.

Why?  Well, it was part of the milieu of the times.  Many of us my age back then sought some meaning in the suburban lives our parents had handed to us.  The counterculture was alive and well, and some of us were finding what we needed in the popularized versions of Eastern religions.

I haven't meditated—not in a formal way—in years, but every time I paint en plein air, the act of painting feels so much like meditation.  Especially if the painting is going well and I am "in the zone," any anxiety vanishes like a morning mist, a quiet joy bubbles to the surface, and the self becomes as transparent and not-there as the water of a clear, freshwater pond.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Why I Paint: Understanding the World

Shady Pond
9x12 Oil

In a previous post, I wrote that painting is the way I "digest the world."  To clarify, painting helps me observe and also sometimes understand the physical world.  There's more than a little bit of the scientist in me, and through painting I may learn something about botany, ornithology, geology, meteorology and a few other -ologies.  For example, while painting a spruce along the edge of a bog, I may note that one branch goes off in an odd direction, and so I deduce it's because it had to grow around another branch that is now missing.  This and other observations provide clues to the tree's life story.

But interestingly, the things I observe and learn about may not be the things I paint.

Painting is a holistic enterprise, so while making my study of a spruce, I am also paying peripheral attention to everything else.  I follow the buzz of an insect, and I find it drowning in the "pitcher" of a pitcher plant.  A chickadee sings in my spruce—will it miss this one insect?  No, because I spy wrigglers—mosquito larvae—in the red, tannin-rich water of the bog, and soon there will be plenty of mosquitoes for it to harvest.  And in fact, a rainbow-colored sundog, pinned to a ceiling of high, wispy clouds, foretells of rain and even more mosquitoes.

Painting also helps me understand the metaphysical world.  More about that later.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Finding Your Way as a Painter

This sketch by John Singer Sargent shows things as they are, although I suspect he removed a twig or two.
Forest, Ramsau, Germany. 1871.
National Gallery of Art

Lots of us start out painting by just trying to make something look like what it is.  You try to sharpen and then hone to a fine edge the skills necessary for representational painting.  After awhile, you reach the point of successfully capturing the exact portrait of a particular tree, right down to every twig, and that's certainly an accomplishment.  After awhile longer, though, you realize that not every twig is important, and you start to leave out some.  Suddenly, even though the portrait is no longer exact, somehow it "feels" more like the tree than the exact copy.  This is a great accomplishment.

Cezanne here arrives at a sense of "treeness" without being totally factual.
Montagne Sainte-Victoire et viaduc du côté de Valcros. 1897-1900.
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
Piet Mondrian takes the idea of "treeness" a bit farther.
Grey Tree. 1911.
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

More time passes, more practice is put in, and you start to push color.  Maybe you increase the temperature contrast between warm, sunny clumps of foliage and the cool, shadowy undersides. Maybe you even make the color a bit richer to further enhance the sunny effect.  Once more, the sketch begins to feel even more like the tree.  Although you have departed from the facts that make up the tree, you have arrived at the truth of the tree.

This is a greater accomplishment yet.  You finally have learned to outpaint nature when it comes to trees.

But after many years of feeling highly satisfied by a long run of painting trees successfully, you become aware of an uncomfortable hollowness.  It dawns on you that you are making sketches and not pictures.  Shouldn't there be something more than just painting the truth?

Frederic Edwin Church, in this painting, uplifts and inspires us.  The trees are integrated into the whole.
El Rio de Luz. 1877.
National Gallery of Art.
In this one, Winslow Homer makes the tree an important part of a story.
Sharpshooter. 1863.
Portland Museum of Art.

Some might say painting the truth is sufficient.  Others might say that a painting should also inspire and uplift.  More than a few might say that a painting should also tell a story.

But which is path is the right one?  I don't have an answer for that, and most likely, the answer varies from artist to artist.  I have to find my own way and you, yours.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Why I Paint: Instant Feedback

"Rolling Fog"
7x9 Oil
Available Here

Once upon a time, I wanted to write novels.  And I did write a few, one of which I finally ended up self-publishing.  But I found that I had a problem with the novel-writing process—feedback on chapters given to friends for review took a long time coming.  This slowed down the writing, which, for a novel, was already considerably slow.  I was raised on a diet rich in impatience.

Craving faster feedback, I turned to short stories. They were quicker to write, but feedback didn't come any faster.  And the time it took for a story submitted to a magazine either to be rejected or accepted was, well, daunting.  I tried poetry, too, short little things.*

It occured to me that the problem with writing is that it is linear.  Letters are strung into words; words, into sentences; sentences into chapters; chapters into the proverbial weighty tome.  (Or "tomb," if all that work doesn't pay off.)  My reader had to follow this miles-long, tangled string I had reeled out in the labyrinth of my writing.   Was there any quicker way to get feedback?

Yes, I discovered, in painting.  A painting isn't made up of one string but of many layers of strings, all interwoven, all visible.  Because you can see all of it in a single moment of study, it provokes an immediate response—sometimes visceral and dramatic, othertimes cautious and tentative, but there's always something.  This initial response is often followed by a more considered one; a painting can contain a world of complexity in that two-dimensional surface, a complexity as involved as any novel's plot, a complexity that requires time and effort to understand.  But it is that initial response, that quick kick, that the painter wants and gets.

And that's one reason why I'm a painter.

But these days, as I age, the quick reponse is losing its savor.  I'm more sure of myself and don't crave—or even really need—the instant response.  What's more, I'm now chewing my food more slowly and with more thought.  Painting has become a more-considered effort, not so much a sandwich slapped together but a fine meal with many courses.  And I in the drawer I do have a couple of half-written novels.  I've a mind to start thinking about them again.

But in the meantime, I will keep on painting—right now, it's the way I digest the world.

*Curious about what I've published?  Besides poetry here and there, I've had science fiction and fantasy published in small magazines.  My claim to fame is a story, "The Stone Wives," that Marion Zimmer Bradley took for the last volume of an anthology series that she personally edited before her death, Sword & Sorceress XVIII.  I've also self-published my novel, Dream Sector, under my pen name, Mac Braxton, which you can get from Amazon.  Here's the cover:

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Is Anyone Listening?

"Rising Tide"
9x12 Oil
Available Here

"Too warm—cooler!"
"Too blue—greener!"
"Not dark enough—lighter!"

The casual passerby might hear me mutter phrases like these as I paint.   Talking to myself might be a sign of dementia, but not in this case.   It's a habit of constant narration that I've developed as a teacher; students find it useful because it gives them my thought process behind the painting.  But I find it useful when I paint alone, too.  It's all part of what I call "mindful painting," which I discussed in an earlier post.  Analyzing my choices out loud keeps me focussed on the task at hand.  Each statement serves as an evaluation of the brush stroke I just laid down, keeping me on track.

The muttering also seems to serve another purpose—curious folks keep their distance.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Should You Donate Art to an Auction?

Where I have my summer studio, paintings of lighthouses are popular auction items.  Here's one that is not going to an auction.  But, you can buy it at a reasonable price!  Here are details.

I've been asked to participate in many local art auctions over the years.  At first, I felt honored to be asked and also glad I could help.  Usually, the groups sponsoring these auctions tout a good cause for which I have an affinity, such as historic preservation or the preservation of wildlands.  But I eventually stopped participating.  Why?  Because they always wanted to put a very low starting bid on the work—one that was much lower than I could sell the art for outside the auction.

And almost always the art sold for much less than retail.

In my mind, this approach cuts two ways.  First, it devalues my work.  Second, the sponsoring group realizes much less.  The group would make more money if it started the bidding at or near the retail price.

Of course, in some places, there is no real art market, and art just doesn't sell for much, auction or not.  In these cases, fine art should not be included in the auction.  Instead, less expensive items should be offered.  On the other hand, in an area where there is a real art market, an auction that sells items for below market isn't doing anyone any favors—especially if the auction is a fundraiser for a worthy cause.

Have you been asked to donate your work to an auction?  Let me know of your experience.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Hey, It's Exposure

"Acadian Prince" 18x24 oil/canvas

Do I really want this $2800 painting hung over the buffet and subject to splashes of gravy?

"We'd love to hang your art in our restaurant."
"We'd love to hang your art in our corporate office."
"We'd love to hang your art in our hospital lobby."

Usually, these statements are followed by another:  "Of course, we can't pay you, but you'll get plenty of exposure."

What's the value of exposure?  Certainly, someone may see your artwork in one of these venues, but quite often, purchasing art is the last thing on that person's mind.  Seated in a restaurant, I'm more interested in the menu and my fellow guests.  If  I'm a worker in a corporate office, I'm usually looking at my computer screen or headed to the coffee machine.  If I'm waiting to see a doctor, I am focused on what ails me.  In each of these situations, I may see the decor and may even enjoy it, but I'm probably not buying it.

As a painter, of course, I have a professional interest.  If the painting looks interesting, I'll walk over to it, examine it more closely and maybe even check the signature and price, if there is a price tag.  (There should be, and with your contact information, if you want to sell it.)

If I'm asked by a business to hang my work for free, I would first ask if they have a decorating budget.  I'd make them a deal if they buy the work.  Failing that, I'd ask if they would be interested in renting the work.  Failing that, I would say "no."

Yes, sometimes hanging your painting for free in such a venue may sell it or entice a buyer to look at your other work.  But I think it's very rare.  I'd love to have you share your experiences in the comments section below.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Some New Small Plein Air Paintings for Sale

Collage of the New Small Paintings

My new summer studio occupies part of the main floor of a three-story barn.  I'll post pictures of it later, once I get it completely set up, but I want to share with you some of the paintings from my last season here on Campobello Island in the Canadian Maritimes.  These are paintings I painted in the last weeks of the summer of 2018 but didn't have a chance to varnish.  I did that yesterday:

I used Gamblin's Gamvar to varnish.  One thin coat does the trick, and it dries quickly.

I'll be posting these paintings individually through Instagram and Facebook, but you can see them (and buy them!) all right now on my web site:  Shipping to the lower 48 in the US is included; paintings are unframed.

By the way, you can sign up to get notifications when I post new small paintings here:

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Painting Retreat Opening - Lubec, Maine, August 11-16, 2019

"Ebb Tide" 8x10 Pastel
Plein air view of Lubec, Maine

Sometimes it happens.  People cancel out of workshops and retreats.  When someone expresses interest in a workshop or retreat that is filled, I always ask if they'd like to be on the waiting list.  I encourage them to answer "yes."   After all, you never know -- sometimes a health issue crops up, or there's a death in the family, or some other unexpected detour appears.

And it's happened now for my painting retreat for experienced painters in Lubec, Maine, August 11-16.  I do have someone interested in this open spot, and I will know for sure in 24 hours.  But even if she takes the spot, it's possible another will open.  If you have any interest, please contact me.  I will let you know as soon as the opening is confirmed and keep you on the list in case there is another.

Details on the retreat are here (dates are for 2020, but the information is basically the same for this year) on my web site.

I've written about Lubec, Maine, and neighboring Campobello Island, New Brunswick, a great deal over the years.  But if you are new to my blog, let me tell you that you won't find anywhere more special for ocean scenery.  You'll discover bold cliffs, historic fishing villages, boats and lighthouses, and beaches that are mostly empty even at the height of the summer season.  If that doesn't tempt you, perhaps the prospect of FRESH LOBSTSER will!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Plein Air Police

Recently, there was a heated and lengthy discussion on a friend's Facebook page about artists cheating at plein air painting competitions.  It was fascinating to watch the discussion shift and morph.  But the uptake of it was, yes, there have been artists cheating, and the honest painters aren't happy with them.

Cheating? you ask.  What does that mean?

Most plein air painting events have a competition aspect.  That is, artists are not just there to paint beautiful scenery but also to vie for cash prizes and awards.  Usually, the sponsoring organization sets ground rules, such as all paintings submitted for awards must be painted 100% en plein air, outdoors and on-the-spot.  This is to level the playing field so everyone has an even shot at the awards.  It's only fair.  Cheating in a plein air competition is just as bad as doping in althetic competitions.

Cheating, which should yield a better painting, also should yield better sales for that artist.  (Of course, all this depends on the skill level of the artist.)  Other than the prizes and awards, selling is the primary goal for the artists.  It's also the primary goal for the organizers, who usually want to raise money.   One wonders if the organizers shouldn't just look the other way when it comes to cheating.

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment.  To keep the playing field level, perhaps all the painters should be allowed to cheat.  Why not, for an athletic event, let all the athletes inject their steroid of choice?  Maybe it would raise expectations and even sell more tickets.  The result would certainly be a different type of event.

For painters, the result would be a traditional painting competition, in which it doesn't matter if the painting was done outdoors, in the studio, or with one hand tied behind the back  But it wouldn't be a "plein air painting" event and would require a new name.

So, yes, painters participating should abide by whatever rules are set by the sponsor.  Painters who do their best work in the studio should reconsider whether to participate.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Finger Cots

When I paint in pastel, I wear finger cots on the fingers that hold the pastel stick.  Why?  Two reasons.  First, to make clean up easier.  Second and, in my mind, more important, to keep my skin and nails from drying out.  Painting in pastel has the same effect on your skin as digging in dirt.  The pastel sucks both moisture and oil out of the skin.  Skin will crack and bleed; nails will split.

For some artists, nitrile or latex gloves are the answer.  I do use these when painting in oil in the studio, but they seem to get in the way when I paint in pastel.  Outdoors, I sweat too much for gloves.  A finger cot covers just the tip of your finger, down to the first or second joint.

For other artists, barrier creams work well.  I find a cream messier than finger cots.  Besides, it's an unnecessary bottle of liquid to take out when plein air painting, and I prefer the convenience of just keeping a Ziploc bag of finger cots in my pack.

I can also do finger-blending with finger cots, and this avoids the darkening that comes from getting skin oil into the pastel from the unprotected fingertip.

You can find finger cots in a local pharmacy or order them on-line.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: A Painting Knife for Pastel

Use a painting knife to scrape off excess pastel

Wait—aren't you confusing the medium?  No, I'm not.  Most people think a knife is used only for oil or acrylic painting, but I also use one when I'm working in pastel.  For me, it's just another tool, like an eraser or blender.

In fact, I use it for both purposes.  I use it to:

  • Scrape off pastel that is too thick (with the edge or tip)
  • Blend pastel (with the flat side)
  • Push pastel into the surface so it sticks better (with the flat side)
  • Add textural marks (with the edge or tip)

Painting knives come in many forms—long, short, fat, wide, tapered, straight.  I prefer a small, trowel-shaped one.  You might find a different shape suited to your style.

Use a painting knife to push pastel into the surface

Use a painting knife to add textural marks

Use a painting knife to blend pastel

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Importance of Practice and How to Do It

Now that winter has ended for most of us, are you out painting yet?

"It's a beautiful day, just perfect for plein air painting!  I think I'll grab my easel and—oh, I think I forgot to scrape the palette last time.  And I didn't clean my brushes, either, so I'll have to do that first, too.  And I really did mean to change the turps...."

Excuses like these for not painting are plentiful.  It's so easy to accept the difficulties in getting started and instead to search for old friends on Facebook.

I have the occasional student who claims the only time she finds time to paint is at workshops—which she takes only once a year.  This is like picking up the tennis racket once a year and hoping to play a good game. 

Maybe your goal isn't to become a master painter or even a professional.  But if you would like to improve your hobby so that it becomes more satisfying, then you must practice.  Practice doesn't always make perfect, but it will make "better."   And the more you practice, the better you become.  (Especially if you go about it mindfully.)

Practice become easier if you prepare for it, remove obstacles or make it more enjoyable.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Have your gear ready to go at all times.  I keep my tripod and pochade box, brushes and paints, turps can and panels, plus a backpack with accessories, ready to go, all piled up in one spot.  I can be out the door in 60 seconds.
  • Clean your gear after your last painting session.  Fill your turps can with clean turps (or odorless mineral spirits).  Clean and dry your brushes.  Scrape the palette and clean it.  This clean-up should be part of your regular routine—painting isn't just about the painting, but also about the cleaning up.
  • Set a regular day or time for outdoor painting. Yes, this is difficult to do in some parts of the world where the weather is mercurial, but if you set a schedule, it becomes easier.  If you really don't feel like painting on your scheduled day, at least go out with pencil and sketchbook.  Most painters don't draw enough. Drawing will improve your observational and painting skills like you wouldn't believe.
  • Even on bad weather days, try to stick to your schedule.  Go to the studio.  Look over old plein air paintings and see if one might inspire a studio painting.
  • Follow your painting session with a relaxing walk or hike.  This can serve as a healthy reward after you paint, and I personally find that a walk feels good after standing in one spot for two hours.
  • Join a plein air painting group that meets regularly.  Sometimes it's helpful to have another person handy to provide the motivation.
  • Introduce something new into your painting so you'll get out and experiment.  Everyone loves to learn something new, and newness can be a powerful motivator.  Maybe add a new color to your palette.  Try out a new box of pastels.  If you paint with only a brush, try painting with only a knife.  
  • Paint with a project in mind.  Perhaps you might gather reference material for a larger, more finished studio painting.  Or maybe you'd like to document some historic buildings in your county.  Give your project a definite scope and a deadline—and stick to it.

Even if painting is just a hobby for you, you probably would like to get better at it—wouldn't you?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Music Indoors, Music Outdoors

Many of us painters use music as a way to help get the brush moving.  We may not play an instrument—although I know several of my painting friends do—but just about all of us listen to music to help the creative process.  The tempo of the music drives the tempo of the brush.   Something fast and upbeat will encourage the intuitive, bravura stroke; something serene and atmospheric, the well-considered stroke; something jazzy, perhaps a stroke that is more improvisational. 

My tastes in music run to the eclectic.  Drop by my studio, and you're likely to hear anything:  the Black Keys, Bach, Heavy D, Mazzy Star, Led Zeppelin, Cowboy Junkies, Ella Fitzgerald, Peter Tosh, Satie, Sigur Rós—well, the list goes on.  I've found the online music service Pandora to be useful, as well as Amazon Music Unlimited.  I still have a stash of CDs from the past.  Sadly, the LPs were all sold some years ago, but much of that music I can now find on the Internet.

But as for painting outdoors?  I never listen to music.  I find it to be more a distraction than a help.  I'm too focused on observing.  Plus, I find Nature's own soundtrack never distracts.  The birds, the wind in the grasses, the water whispering over rocks—these sounds create a sonic space around me that I find conducive to observation (which is, for me, a form of communion.)  Plus, I never have to interrupt the moment in order to skip a track I don't like, as there never is one.

What do you listen to, and when?

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Taos Mentoring Workshop with Albert Handell October 2019

Taos, New Mexico - Painter's Paradise

I am pleased to be joining my mentor and good friend, Albert Handell, at his Taos Mentoring Workshop, October 6-12, 2019.   I've worked with Albert many times in the past, both as student and assistant, and I'm looking forward to working with him again.

If you haven't worked with him before, let me share with you a little about his mentoring workshops.  In these, he covers topics that aren't addressed in the all-level workshops, and he also covers the business of art.  What's more, he offers extensive critiques of participants' work.  I highly recommend this workshop to any painter who is serious about both craft and career.  This master painter, who recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 Plein Air Convention, has a great deal to offer the student.

Here is a description from his website on the workshop:
Join Albert Handell in this exciting 6-day indoor/outdoor mentoring/painting workshop. In the demonstration series you will see and learn what to select and emphasize and what to play down or even take out of your paintings in order to make a strong design statement, and work sensibly towards finish. It will be an opportunity to see how a Master Artist works in a studio setting and on location.
This is the 14th annual Taos Paint-A-Long mentoring program, Albert has painted there often and knows Taos and its area intimately.
The area has wonderful subject matter to paint, varying from the picturesque adobes; the farm/ranch museum at the Hacienda De Los Martinez; the thrilling road leading to the John Dunn Bridge at the base of the Rio Grande; beautiful, easy-to-get-to mountain streams; and the fantastic Rio Grande Gorge -- to list just some of the extensive subject matter available.
This will be an intense experience for everyone!  For full details on the Taos workshop, please visit

I've personally visited and painted Taos, New Mexico, several times, and it's always a treat, no matter the season.  (You can read about my previous adventures in Taos at this link.)  This workshop, in early October, should give us some good color.  If you've not been there before, I've included a few photos I've taken over the years. I hope to see you there!

The Rio Grande

Entry Gate to Mabel Dodge Luhan House

Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande near Pilar

Rio Grande Gorge

Taos Mountain

Mabel Dodge Luhan House

La Morada de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Taos Morada)

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church