Sunday, November 22, 2020

En Plein Air Pro: Pastel Plein Air System

The En Plein Air Pro Pastel Easel System

It's been a few years since I reviewed En Plein Air Pro's oil and acrylic system.  Now I have a new setup to tell you about:  the En Plein Air Pro pastel system.  If you're a pastel artist who likes to paint on-location, this well-designed package offers everything you need for a successful outing.  Unlike some systems that make you undertake a series of yoga poses when putting everything together, this one sets up easily and quickly.  On my test runs with it, I had everything ready to go in about five minutes.  Here are a few things I'd like to highlight.

First, the pastel palette.  The durable plastic box, divided into six sections, is lined with foam pads to protect up to 108 of your precious pastel sticks.  (Or many more, if you're like me and hang on to those little, well-loved nubs.) What I like best about the box, though, are the two extendable wings, one on each end.  I'm always searching for a place to lay the sticks that I have selected, and the wings solve that problem.  What's more, they have a series of grooves to hold the sticks so they don't roll off into the grass.   By the way, the lid of the box can function as a sunshade.  With the included bungee cord, it attaches to the tripod to keep sun off your pastels, making it easier to judge color value.  The box “hangs” on the tripod legs for comfortable access.

Next, the aluminum panel holder.  The holder attaches to the head of the tripod with a quick release plate, giving great flexibility in your working angle.  Two ABS brackets hold your backboard securely but swing out of the way for compact storage.  The brackets can hold boards anywhere from 6”x8” to  22” tall.  One of my favorite features is the dust ledge.  This metal piece piece screws quickly to the panel holder just below the bottom bracket, and it's wide enough to catch most of the dust that falls.

One of the problems I've run into with some systems is an inadequate tripod.  Pastel painters can put quite a bit of pressure on the work surface, and not all tripods, especially the ones with plastic heads, are up to it.  En Plein Air Pro comes with the Slik U8000 tripod, which is perfect for this setup.  Although it does have a plastic head, in my test sessions it held up under attack.  I was able to paint quickly and with abandon but without having to worry about the board twisting.

Finally, there's the heavy duty backpack.  When you open up the box, it looks like just a nicely-tailored black bag with a couple of carrying handles and lots of straps for securing extras to. (The tripod, by the way, fits neatly inside.)  But concealed inside a zippered pouch are two shoulder straps and a waist strap, should you decide to convert it into a backpack.  So, you can either hike with it on your back, or you can carry it by its handles.

I enjoyed working with this new system, and I recommend it for beginners because of its ease of set-up but also for experienced painters because of its handy features and stability.  The system will be available later this fall at www.enpleinairpro.com 

Pastel palette, showing grooved 
side trays and cover used as sunshade

Panel holder with my backboard in 
place; dust ledge beneath

The pastel palette closed and stored with bungie cord


The bag converts quickly
and easily into a backpack.

The bag

Pack with hidden backpack straps revealed


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Parting with Art

Snow and Rocks II - 9x12 oil - Available
One my favorites I'll have a hard time parting with.

Do you have a hard time parting with the paintings you've made?  I do, especially if they are recent ones.  But many times, I feel the same about the old ones.  As much as I appreciate the money, my heart drops a little when an order comes in.

Each painting contains a bit of the magic that happens when I'm working.  For a plein air painting, it's a distillation of the moment:  the wine cellar fragrance of the ponderosa pines; the solitary call of the canyon wren; the soft carpet of last year's oak leaves beneath my boots.  For a studio painting, it's a crystallization:  the pressure of thought and emotion and memory, working against sometimes intractable material, with the molecules suddenly snapping into alignment, creating a new thing of beauty.

How can I part with one?  The painting may hang on the wall, sit on a shelf or collect dust in a box, but it still possesses the magic.  Even a small piece, squeezed into a plastic file crate with a hundred others and stored in a closet.  When I go hunting for the one that has sold, it's not just that one that sparkles with magic—they all sparkle.

It takes awhile for me to truly be ready to wrap up a painting and ship it off.  I need time with my paintings, even after they are done.  I want to savor them to the fullest.

Don't get me wrong—I am grateful for my collectors.  And I am also grateful that they understand me when I say parting is hard.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

November 2020 Newsletter


"Village Poplars"
8x10 casein on board - Available
I've been playing with painting in casein lately.  More
on that in a future post.


November, 2019 
Ramah, New Mexico 

As the time to write another newsletter approached, I found myself scratching my head and wondering: How should I begin? 

Like many of you, Trina and I have spent the bulk of 2020 dealing with issues that should never trouble a citizen of an enlightened and developed country. Yet, I've decided to emphasize the positive. I'm not putting my head in the sand—believe me, with three close family members working in hospitals and extremely elderly parents, I'm acutely aware of current events. But again, like many of you, I think being positive may do more good. This year, I've had: 
  • More time to spend with family and to create good memories
  • More time to focus on painting for myself and growing as an artist
  • More time to focus on writing projects that help me understand the world and my place in it
  • More time to spend reading books on my wish list and learning
  • And more time to take long walks to refresh my spirit among the pines and oaks

In many ways, it has been a wonderful year—and I'm optimistic that 2021 will be even better. 

My last newsletter was in June. Since then, I've been in two exhibitions (many shows went virtual this year and were only online): In August, the Pastel Society of New Mexico Signature Members' Exhibition; in September, the American Impressionist Society Online Exhibition; and now in November, the Plein Air Painters of New Mexico National Annual Exhibition. I've interviewed several artists for Watercolor Artist, Pastel Journal and The Artists Magazine. I've been working on my series of Pandemic Sketchbooks, which consist of 5x8 gouache sketches, painted en plein air on daily hikes into the canyon behind the studio. Also, Trina and I have been traveling locally in our Pleasureway camper van, giving me a chance to paint in places I normally wouldn't get to. And finally, although I had to cancel all my workshops and retreats for 2020, I've been hosting private, one-on-one critiques and mentoring sessions via Zoom. 

Now that you're all caught up on the news, here are some things coming up. 

50% Holiday Salehttp://www.mchesleyjohnson.com/holidaysale/ 

Through December 31st, I'm offering 50% off of any painting and any number of paintings from my website. To make shipping easier, these will all be unframed (even if the description says they are framed.) I'll include free shipping to the lower 48 states; if you need them shipped elsewhere, I'll bill you for shipping. Also, keep in mind that most of my Maine and Canadian Maritimes paintings are trapped at my Canadian studio; I won't be able to ship those until Canada lets US visitors in again. Southwestern paintings, however, I can ship with no problem. Use the coupon code “Holiday50” on checkout for the discount. 

2021 Calendar 

Every year, I put together a calendar of some of my favorite works from the year. This year, the price on the calendar is only $10.99. You can get yours here: 
https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/michael-chesley-johnson/2021-michael-chesley-johnson-landscape-calendar/paperback/product-8je5pe.html 

New Book! 

Yes, I have a new book to work on! It will be released in 2022 by a major publisher. As excited as I am about this project, which will consume most of the winter, I can't say anything about it yet.   (But it will be a book worth having in your plein air painting library!)

Plein Air Convention & Expo 

I will be at the May 2021 Plein Air Convention and Expo in Denver. If you remember, the 2020 PACE was originally scheduled for May in Denver, but because of the pandemic, it was rescheduled for Santa Fe in August, which didn't fit my schedule. So, the 2021 PACE will be in Denver, and I'll be there (if this one isn't also cancelled!) Details will be announced at www.PleinAirConvention.com

Workshops 

Zoom Critiques. One-on-one, private sessions to help you in your craft. You send me images of two paintings, I run them through my Photoshop mill to make them better, and then we talk about them as I go through them step-by-step. Also mentoring available. $25 for one two paintings and a 40-minute session. Details at http://www.mchesleyjohnson.com/zoom/ 

Sedona, Arizona. All-Level Plein Air Painting Workshop, April 6-9, 2021.  Spring is beautiful in Sedona, and we should catch some spring greens against the red rocks and along Oak Creek. If you're looking for inexpensive lodging, the studio offers two rooms at $75/night. (There's plenty of lodging elsewhere, though.) Only $300. For full details, visit http://www.paintthesouthwest.com/sched_reg.html 

Ramah, New Mexico. Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Program, Spring and Fall 2021. If you are an experienced painter and want to reach the next level in your craft, consider this program. I'll customize it just for you. Only $1400, which includes lodging and meals. (A tuition-only version for $700 is also available.) For full details, visit http://www.paintthesouthwest.com/sched_int.html  

Lubec, Maine. July 27-30 & August 3-6, 2021. All-Level Plein Air Painting Landscape Workshops. Summertime is the time to paint the ocean, and in this workshop, we'll paint bold cliffs, crashing waves, lighthouses, historic harbors—everything Downeast Maine might conjure up in your mind. And, yes, lobster! $300. Details at http://www.pleinairpaintingmaine.com/ 

If you're unable to join me for one of these workshops and would like to fine-tune your plein air painting skills, check out my courses at www.PleinAirEssentials.com. I offer online, self-study, self-paced courses, and at this web site you can get my monthly discount codes for them. 

Painting Retreats 

What's a painting retreat? It's a gathering of like-minded artists who want to spend some serious time painting and enjoying the camaraderie of others. As the organizer, I offer critiques of work painted; invite participants to treat whatever I paint as a demonstration; and serve as location guide and on-site consultant. Trina and I have been doing these for several years now, and we love it. 

Lubec, Maine. August 8-13, 2021. Stay at the beautifully-renovated US Coast Guard campus on West Quoddy Head, very close to the lighthouse, and paint bold cliffs, cobble beaches, tamarack bogs, historic fishing villages and boats. And yes, there is lobster! Download the detail sheet here. 
http://www.mchesleyjohnson.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/retreat_wqs_public_pix.pdf 

Taos, New Mexico. September 26-October 1, 2021. Besides a wealth of stunning scenery including the Rio Grande Gorge and Taos Mountain, the town has a long history with painters. As part of the retreat, we'll also arrange to tour the Nicolai Fechin House, the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, and other historic artist studios. Optional painting at Ghost Ranch before or after the retreat. Meals and lodging not included. $300.   Contact me for this.

Isle of Skye, Scotland. June 11-18, 2022. We did this retreat in 2018 and had a great time, working with a local artist guide to visit some spectacular locations. We’re very excited to do it again! Very limited size. Painters only, due to limitations in facilities. Currently filled, but contact me to be put on “interested” list.

That's all for now!



Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Exhibition


 I'm happy to announce that two of my paintings, "Path to the Shed" and "Near Los Gigantes," are in the annual Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Juried Member's Exhibition.  You can see these two 9x12 oil paintings in the postet above, and also below.

The exhibit runs from November 7 - 29, 2020 at the Wilder Nightingale Fine Art Gallery in Taos, New Mexico.  Although the opening reception has been cancelled due to the pandemic, the awards ceremony will be held via Zoom.  For details, visit www.papnm.org.  TO PURCHASE THE PAINTINGS, visit www.wnightingale.com.

Near Los Gigantes, 9x12 Oil

Path to the Shed, 9x12 Oil



Sunday, November 1, 2020

App: The Notanizer

Thumbnail samples from my sketchbook


I'm standing in front of my painting workshop students, armed with vine charcoal and paper.  I'm about to show how helpful it can be to create a notan sketch prior to painting.  I carefully analyze the scene and begin to explore a variety of designs in charcoal.  “You can group a set of values that are adjacent on the value scale into a single value and—“

About this time, a student interrupts to tell me about a really nifty app on her phone that does all this at a touch.

“Let's see,” I say.  She pulls out her iPhone and demonstrates.  Alas, my phone runs on Android, so I won't be able to install the app.  But yes, I agree, it is nifty.  And then I continue the lecture with my Neolithic tools.

By now, the Japanese concept of the “notan” should be a familiar one to visual artists.  Briefly, imagine looking at the world in black and white—literally. That's what a notan sketch does.  It simplifies the world of a hundred values into just two.  For the artist, it makes the task of wrestling all that complexity into a pleasing design far easier.  Sometimes, the number of values can be expanded to three or four, but keep in mind that the more values, the harder the task.

One of the questions I've always had about any notan app is, Can you control how it groups values?  For example, can you tell it to group everything between 0% and 46% grey as the darkest value?  Or does the app apply a strict rule, grouping only between 0% and 25% as the darkest value?  With my stick of vine charcoal, I have total control over how values are grouped.  

I asked my student this question, but she wasn't sure.  Since then, I haven't had the opportunity to look into it but, alas, my phone is an Android phone....

But recently I learned that the Notanizer app, which once worked only on Apple devices, now works on Android devices.  So, I installed it from the Google Play store.

I was pleased to learn that it does let me control how the values are grouped, doing so through a set of sliders at the bottom of the screen.  Also, it lets me see an image in several ways:  as a traditional two-value (black and white) notan, or as a three-value or four-value notan.  There's also an option to view the image with up to ten values, but frankly, I don't find that as useful for design work. 

All in all, it's a nifty app indeed.  A Notanized image can be a quick reference when you're wrestling with values in your painting.

The only issue is, if I have elements that fall into widely-separated points on the value scale, and I think the design would be better if I made them the same value, I can't do that.  (Think of sunlit areas on a tree that is mostly dark, and you want to make it all one dark value shape.)  The sliders don't give me that ability.  So, for the time being, I'll continue to make my thumbnail sketches by hand.  

But there are two more reasons why I want to do it the old-fashioned way.  First, the creation of a notan manually gets your hand, eye and brain working together to better understand a scene's value structure.  Second, going through the motions with Neolithic tools of your choice is, in a way, a rehearsal for the actual painting, and you can do it as many times as needed to work out issues before setting brush to canvas.  You don't get any of this by tapping a button on an app.

Still, I'll keep playing with Notanizer.  It will certainly be great as a teaching tool—a set of training wheels, if you will—but I'm uncertain about its value for the experienced painter. 

By the way, if you'd like to learn more about notan, read Arthur Wesley Dow's excellent book, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color.

Here are some screenshots of Notanizer:

Image shown in full color

Image shown in black-and-white
with full value range

Simple, two-value notan

Three-level notan with default value
distribution.  I don't like the way the sky is
broken up into two values, so I will move the sliders...

...until the sky is all one value. Better!
Plus, I also adjusted the cast shadows so I can see
the darkest areas more clearly.

Default four-value notan.
Same problem with the sky. So...

...I move the sliders to make the
sky a single value.

Here's the slider for up to 10 values.
Not very useful for the plein air painter,
since we have to be fast! Too many values,
too much time.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

It's That Time of Year Again: 2021 Calendar and 50% Sale!

The 2021 Calendar is Here!

Not long ago, I complained to my mother, who is in her upper 80s, how time seems to fly faster as I get older.  She replied, "Just wait until you're my age!"  

I'm surprised that it's almost November.  The holiday season is, once again, right around the corner.

With that in mind, I have two things to offer you for the holidays: My 2021 calendar and a 50% sale.

2021 Calendar

I've made a collage of the images, which you can see at the top of the post.  I've chosen my favorite paintings from this year.  Since we weren't able to spend the summer on Campobello Island, I ended up making several paintings of Scotland instead, which are included for the summer months.  The calendar is only $10.99, and you can get it from Lulu at this link.

50% Sale

I don't think I've ever offered 50% off my paintings before!  Through December 31st, I'm offering 50% off of any painting and any number of paintings from my website. To make shipping easier, these will all be unframed (even if the description says they are framed.)  I'll include free shipping to the lower 48 states; if you are outside this area, I'll contact you for shipping costs.  Also, keep in mind that most of my Maine and Canadian Maritimes paintings are trapped at my Canadian studio; I won't be able to ship those until Canada lets US visitors in again.  Southwestern paintings, however, I can ship with no problem.  Use the coupon code “Holiday50” on checkout for the discount.  Go here for the details.

Holiday Sale

And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming.




Sunday, October 25, 2020

New Book: Casein Painting with Stephen Quiller


Will casein become the next new “thing”?

As many of you know, I recently fell in love with painting in gouache.  Until then, I'd never been fond of water media.  Watercolor, especially, was my nemesis; for someone who has always painted in more opaque media like pastel and oil, watercolor required me to shift into reverse and drive backwards.  Gouache, on the other hand, let me put the pedal to the metal and accelerate for the wide open spaces.

Casein paint is similar to gouache in that it is water-based, opaque and dries to a matte finish.  However, whereas the binder for gouache is usually gum arabic, for casein paint it is casein, which is made from milk.  What this means for the artist is that, over time, casein becomes insoluble and cannot be re-wetted.  Gouache, on the other hand, remains soluble and can be lifted—or damaged—by water.  Casein becomes much more durable as it ages.

Here's what Stephen Quiller says about casein:

The original formula used by Ramon Shiva included 20% of casein from skim milk, lime, pigments, a little oil and chemicals.  This mix is what gives casein such a beautiful, velvety visual quality.  A pine oil is added to the mix, which gives it an incredibly clean smell.  It has a soft visual quality that is unlike any other medium.  I love to use casein to help create an airiness and earthiness in a landscape; the dryness and the aged quality of architecture and boats; and the raw earthy feel of adobe.  It is truly magnificent and unsurpassed when used in this way.

Quiller, who is known worldwide for his books and videos on water media and also as the inventor of the “Quiller Wheel,” a very useful color aid for painters, has published a new book:  Casein Painting with Stephen Quiller: Casein Secrets Revealed in the Ultimate Definitive Guide.  The author, who will be one of the artists featured in a book I am working on, shared his new one with me.

Quiller, who has been painting in casein for over 50 years, offers his vast knowledge of the medium and includes demonstrations, suggested exercises and many useful tips.  Lifting the volume into the realm of fine art coffee table books are scores of beautiful images, many of them his casein paintings from the last half-century.  (I have included some here.)  The paintings, which show the breadth of casein's capabilities, delighted and inspired me to get my own set of casein and give it a try.

The book presents casein in a logical, easy-to-understand fashion, starting off with the basics of the medium plus detailed sections on its color possibilities.  Continuing with materials and equipment for both plein air and studio painting, the book then launches into creating different moods with the medium and seques into a wonderful section on using it for painting snow; and finally, it addresses the flexibility of casein with other media, and how it can be used to great effect with acrylic, watercolor, charcoal or pastel.  A gallery of richly-colored paintings completes the book.

Casein Painting with Stephen Quiller is available on his website at https://www.quillergallery.com/shop/casein-painting-with-stephen-quiller.html and is $29.95/softcover or $34.95/hardcover.

Here are a few of Stephen Quiller's stunning casein paintings.

"Elongated Shadows"
24x34 casein / Stephen Quiller

"High Mountain Patterns, Late July"
17x11 casein / Stephen Quiller

"Canyon Up Miner's Creek"
36x36 casein / Stephen Quiller

"Early August, Wolf Creek Pass"
36x36 casein / Stephen Quiller


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Our Digital Life as a River

"Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground"
1847, George Caleb Bingham
30"x36", oil/canvas - Collection of The White House


When the land shifts, rivers dry up and disappear.  They leave behind canyons and buttes, painted pink, beige and ochre, all gracefully sculpted by the flow of water.

Our digital life is a river of electrically charged bits, rushing from our laptops and smartphones.  For awhile, it was a pleasant idyll:  floating on our digital rafts, watching the scenery glide by as we steered clear of the occasional sandbar or log. 

But now, mightier than the Mississippi, the river has jumped the levee, flipped our rafts, and is hauling us downstream.  We can barely keep our noses above the torrent.  Or at least, that's what it feels like some days.

In some distant decade, this digital river may dry up and disappear, too.  Most of us today can't imagine that ever happening, but who can predict the future?

And if it does dry up, what will be left? Certainly not our e-mail or blog posts.  Nor our storehouse of millions of images.  The “cloud” will vanish like a puff of steam in a dry wind, taking all of that with it.

We artists, however, can hope.  Canvas can rot, but our museums have paintings on canvas that are a half-millenium old.  Wood panels can break, but we have paintings on panel that are twice that old, and more.  Pottery and sculpture can shatter, but we have examples of these dating from the very dawn of humanity.

Once the digital river is gone, these physical artifacts will remain as our canyons, our buttes.

But then I'm reminded of the poem, "Ozymandias," by Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Paint, Shoot—Or Just Look?


I recently posted the above picture on Facebook.  I took the photo on an afternoon's hike over a lakeside trail.  The foliage had just begun to turn: reds and oranges and yellows were seeping into the oaks, gold coins were dropping from the poplars.  Off in the distance, across the lake, the sandstone cliffs, stained red over the ages, completed the beautiful color harmony of the day.

A friend commented:  “Hard choice of which to paint—the tree or cliff.”  I replied:  “Sometimes, you just want to look.”

How many times on a hike have I regretted not carrying my camera or not lugging along my painting gear?  More times than I can count.  A scene takes my breath away, and I wish, for a moment, that I could shoot a picture or capture it in paint.  But then I remind myself, not everything beautiful is meant to be painted or photographed.  Sometimes, the beautiful is meant to be enjoyed only in that moment, and then savored as a memory.

I'm reminded of that poem by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

The poem invites many interpretations, and I seem to interpret it differently each time I read it.  Right now, as I am reciting it in my mind, it is a moment in time.  It's the moment when you wish you had a camera or your gear, but all you can do it look and savor.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Paintout

"Path to the Lake"
9x12 Oil - Available


Here's a group activity well-suited to these times—a paintout.  There's no problem with close quarters, and fresh air is in abundance.  And for those of us who have been painting alone in our back yards, it's an opportunity to reconnect with our social selves.

Last weekend, I hosted a paintout at a local lake for Plein Air Painters of New Mexico.  Nine of us gathered—so to speak—to spend the day under the intense sunshine of early fall.  Despite a breeze that picked up in the afternoon, we couldn't have asked for a better day.  The chamisa bloomed with a bounty of bright gold, and yellow edged the boughs of the cottonwoods.  The lake waters glowed with a dull green, dabbed with blue here and there by the reflected sky.  I've been longing to paint the chamisa ever since it started blooming, so that was my focus; others painted the lake view.

In New Mexico, the state currently requires masks to be worn when in public, and gatherings are limited to ten.  We followed the rules—a mask does not hinder painting—and even during a lunch break under a bit of shade, we kept our distance.  Now that cooler weather has arrived, I'm hoping to host more of these.

You're right--I'm not wearing a mask in this photo.
That's because everyone else was a few hundred feet away!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Ghost Ranch Revisted—and an Upcoming Retreat

Ghost Ranch Morning
9x12 Oil - Available


Ghost Ranch and Abiqiui, New Mexico—Georgia O'Keeffe's old haunts.  These are my old haunts, too, as I've visited and painted in the area many times over the last 20 years.  This time, I spent three days there, painting in gouache and oil, and in reading Lesley Poling-Kempes' history of the property, Ghost Ranch.  


The cottage O'Keeffe stayed in when
first at Ghost Ranch. I doubt the handicap
assist rails were there in her day.


Base camp was our 1999 PleasureWay van, parked in a side canyon formed by a bent arm of red and grey hills.  We were nestled right in the crook of the arm.  From our post, we could see the blue anvil-head of the Pedernal.  O'Keeffe once said, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”  The mountain overlooks the entirety of the historic Piedra Lumbre Land Grant, a region of colorful hills, deep arroyos, and bright cliffs—“Piedra Lumbre” means “shining rock.”  Ghost Ranch occupies 21,000 acres of this stunning and very paintable landscape.

Once a dude ranch, and before that, the legendary home of the Archuleta brothers, who were notorious cattle rustlers, it now belongs to the Presbyterian Church.  The campus now offers many workshops and retreats, not just in spiritual matters, but also in the arts.  But for painters, Ghost Ranch is best known for its connection to O'Keeffe.  She started spending summers there as a guest in the 1930s.  After her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, died, she bought a piece of the ranch and moved there permanently.  Between her Ghost Ranch home and another house she owned in nearby Abiquiu, she spent the rest of her life—over forty years—painting the hills of the Piedra Lumbre.


The Ranch, with Chimney Rock illuminated
by the morning sun.

While reading Poling-Kempes' history, the characters that lived in this place were ever-present for me as I painted.  I couldn't help but think of them crossing the landscape on foot or on horseback through the sagebrush, or of guests arriving via the Ranch's Lincoln touring car, a behemoth that could hold seven passengers plus luggage and still somehow lumber over the one-lane dirt road, down through arroyos and over rock-strewn hills, that wound for forty miles from the train depot in Española.  And, of course, I imagined Georgia O'Keeffe, painting away at the foot of some particularly colorful hill that was cut by the rare rains into graceful curves.


Our trip wasn't all painting.  We hiked, too.


As some of you know, we had to cancel our Taos, New Mexico, painting retreat for this fall.  But we are planning for next year—and as a bonus, we are going to schedule in some time for painting at Ghost Ranch.   We'll spend a week in Taos, and then follow that with time at Ghost Ranch.  The Taos retreat will start Sunday evening, September 26, 2021, and will run through Friday, October 1.  Ghost Ranch, which won't officially be part of the retreat, will be that weekend.  Let me know if you're interested, and I'll send you details as we get them.  I hope you'll join us!

Here are some of the 5x8 gouache sketches from the trip:


View from the campground


This was the preliminary sketch I did for
"Ghost Ranch Morning".  I sketched this
the day before I did the oil version.




Sunday, September 20, 2020

What's All This About Gouache?

Canyon Wall, 5x8 gouache 
One of my latest sketches from my "Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vol.2"

Gouache—what the French called the medium starting in the 18th century—is trending right now in the US.  Everyone seems to be experimenting with it.

In the graphic below, from Google Trends, you can see a big uptick in searching for the word “gouache” in May of this year.  Although the curve has dipped a bit since then, it's still higher than before.  It's also interesting to look at the map that shows which states search most often for the term.  The west coast and New England seem particularly interested in finding out more about this opaque water medium.

Number of Searches for "Gouache" since 2018

States with the Most Searches for "Gouache"


I first learned about gouache a long time ago while reading up on the history of illustration.  I learned much more about it by following the artist James Gurney in his blog.  Then I started playing with it myself a couple of years ago, when I wanted something more travel-ready than oil or pastels.  My good friend Douglas Runyan steered me to my current kit.  Now, as I check my Instagram feed and browse through the art instruction magazines, paintings in gouache or articles about gouache pop up regularly.

Gouache is basically opaque watercolor.  What gives it its distinctive opacity is the size of the pigment particles, which are larger than that used for watercolor.  Also, sometimes chalk is added to increase the opacity.

But why use gouache instead of watercolor?  Isn't watercolor just as travel-ready?  Well, the benefit of gouache lies in its opacity.  It lets the painter scumble one color over another for a beautiful “broken color” effect.  Also, it's easy to correct mistakes.  Nor does one have to worry about “saving the lights” when painting areas with bright highlights.

Gouache also dries to a matte finish, which is perfect for photography, since you don't have to worry about reflections.  This is why it was—and continues to be—used for illustration and commercial work.  

A Concept Sketch for an Advertisement in Gouache

But there's one problem with gouache, and that is that the darks dry a little light, losing some of their depth.  I often have to revisit the field sketch once I'm back in the studio and hit those darks again.

The Egyptians used gouache.  They combined ground pigment with honey or gum tragacanth—two binders also used in watercolor—to make a paste for decorating walls.  During the Middle Ages, it was used in manuscript illumination.  In the 20th century, before the advent of digital art, it was used in commercial art because it was “quick'n'dirty”—much faster than painting in oil if you just wanted to do a concept sketch.  Plus, as I mentioned, it photographed well.  The only problem with “designer's gouache” or “body color” as it was called then, was that not all of the colors were lightfast.  That has changed today, and most gouache manufacturers use lightfast pigments.

I'm continuing my practice of using it for my daily sketches.  I have a bag, ready to go, with everything I need in it, including a sheet of eggcrate foam to cushion my backside when sitting on a rock.  For me, painting in gouache is stress-free—just the prescription for today's times.

You can see more of my gouache sketches on my Instagram feed.

My Gouache Kit
(You can read more about it here)


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Oversharing?

That oh-so-beautiful Grand Canyon sunset


Scene: The Grand Canyon at sundown.  I'm painting alone, perched on the edge of the Canyon, at a spot where I won't be bothered by tourists.  Sunset here is fleeting, and the soul-stirring palette of colors—all the way from blood-red to cool magenta to deep ultramarine—dissolves quickly as the sun dips below the horizon.  I work fast to capture the moment.  

Then, it's gone.  I step away from my work to enjoy the unbroken arc of sky above, deepening toward the violet, and the nearly-featureless blue of the chasm below.  Suddenly, off in the distance, somewhere near Mather Point, fireworks ensue.  No, not fireworks—it's the thousand tiny pinpricks of flash from cameras and smartphones.

Hundreds of those sunset images will appear within seconds on Instagram and Facebook.  Soon, the whole world will know how beautiful a sunset can be at Grand Canyon National Park.  Parents will mull over their calendars, wondering when they might schedule a trip there with their family.  Twenty-somethings will ask their latest romantic partners when their next vacation is, so they can go camping.  Retirees will call up the bus tour company and see if a Grand Canyon excursion is in the works.

I ask myself, how will this affect the protected lands, the special places?  Parks like Grand Canyon were created with the vision that they should be enjoyed by all.  But “all” has come to encompass a larger and larger number over recent years.  I myself have seen the line at Zion National Park, where people queue up in their cars and RVs for any open spot in the campground at 5:30 in the morning.  And that was during the off-season.

The Parks don't need an advertising budget.  They get more advertising than they need through social media.

As a landscape painter, I consider myself a “steward of the land.”  That is, one of my goals is to depict the beauty of our public lands so that others will recognize the treasures that we have and, hopefully, work to preserve them.  A natural result of my efforts, of course, is that more and more people, encouraged by what they see, will visit.  Can our lands survive being over-loved?

It's a quandary.  How do we share the beauty and, at the same time, save it?  I know our parks are struggling with this very question.

In the recent issue of Outside, writer Lisa Chase discusses the issue with oversharing our beautiful places.  Instagram and other social media have had quite an impact.  She writes:

Without a doubt, social media and smartphones, with their connectivity and excellent cameras, have caused a massive surge in the number of people visiting national parks and other spectacular wildernesses. “Our visitation has increased pretty dramatically over the past five years,” said Vanessa Ceja Cervantes, a Grand Canyon park spokeswoman, when we spoke last fall. (Cervantes has since left the park service.) Tourist numbers there have risen from a steady four or five million annually, through 2014, to 5.5 million in 2015 and 6.4 million in 2018. Cervantes said it’s no coincidence that the uptick was concurrent with the explosion of Instagram. The platform was created in 2010; by 2015, it had 400 million active users. As of 2018, that number was one billion. Visitor totals in the park system as a whole spiked between 2015 and 2016 by 23.7 million.

I encourage you to read the full article here:  https://www.zinio.com/explore/z/z-i464469/z-a31015?_branch_match_id=819237227216593881

Sunday, September 6, 2020

More on Making Copies

Rolling Fog 7x9 Oil - Copy (studio)
Rolling Fog 7x9 - Original (en plein air)


I pity the sweatshop workers at the Chinese painting mills, the ones on the assembly lines who copy Van Gogh's “Starry Night” and other paintings endlessly for people who crave “originals”—but at a very, very low price.  Their goal is to make as close to an exact copy as possible.  Many of these workers, I understand, are highly-trained artists.

But other than a paycheck, where's the satisfaction?  Where's the creativity?  Yes, it's a job, but I can't imagine that these artists don't wish that, just once, they could add their own, personal touch to the Van Gogh.  I imagine the copyist saying to himself:  “Wouldn't it be better if I added a flock of crows flying against the moon?”

Recently, a patron purchased from my website a nice little painting.  But alas!  That painting is currently under lockdown on Campobello Island in Canada, tucked away in my summer studio there.  Because of the pandemic and the fact that I live in the US, there was no way I could get the painting for him.  So, I offered to make a copy, but with the caveat that it would not be exact.

I've made copies of my paintings before.  (Here's an earlier post on that.)  And I do try to be exact.  But despite my best intentions, as I put brush to canvas, a little voice always says:  “Wouldn't it be better if...”

I usually listen to that voice.  If the change doesn't improve the painting, I scrape it out.  But most often, the change stays.

I always send a photo of the completed copy before shipping it.  If my patron doesn't like it, I'll put his money toward the purchase of any other painting.  (Whenever possible, I try not to give refunds—I like to keep a sale.)  If he does like the copy but, upon arrival, the painting doesn't please, I tell him he can exchange the painting.  Or, in the case of my recent patron, if he doesn't like it, I have offered to swap it for the original, if I'm ever allowed back into Canada to retrieve it.

For the copy I just made, I felt that crisper edges and a little more seaweed in the rocks plus some other, more subtle changes would make the painting better.  And they did.  Creativity came into play, making the work much more pleasurable.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Upcoming Exhibitions

 Thanks to the pandemic, I'm finding time to enter my work into a few juried art exhibitions.  Why do I thank the pandemic?  Many of the upcoming exhibitions have switched from being in a real gallery to being online.  That means no shipping costs!  So, I can take the money I would have spent on shipping and apply it to registering for the juried exhibitions.  Some of these have awards, but some do not.

So here are a few I'm in or will be in:

American Impressionist Society Juried Online Exhibition

After the Flood 16x20 Oil (sold)

The exhibit will be up on September 9 at www.AmericanImpressionistSociety.org.  Awards will also be announced that day.

Pastel Society of New Mexico Signature Member's Show (Online)

Autumn  Splendor 20x28 Pastel (Available)

Spring Flood II 12x18 Pastel (Available)

You can see all the images in the Signature Show here, as well as purchase information.  The "exhibit" will be up until September 11.

Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Online Exhibition (November 7-29, 2020)

This one will be in an actual, physical space:  Wilder-Nightingale Gallery, Taos.  I would love to post the images of my two accepted paintings here, but PAPNM has asked we not post them until the judging is done and awards are given, which will be November 7.  So, I'll post them then.