All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Upcoming: Prescott Plein Air Art Festival

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Otherworldly Watson Lake and the Granite Dells in Prescott.
How will I paint this?  Will I even try? Stay tuned!

This week, I'm leading a painting retreat in Taos (more on that in a future post), but right after, I'll be heading off to Arizona.  This is for the Prescott Plein Air Art Festival, October 13-16, 2022.  As most of you know, I lived in the area for many years and participated often as an invited artist for the Sedona plein air event.  Prescott was always over the mountain—I usually took the twisty, windy road through Jerome—so it wasn't somewhere I went often.  But I've always wanted to paint there, as the town in planted among some of the central highland's most beautiful natural landscapes, and the town itself has some scenic historic architecture.

You can visit the web site for full details (, but here is the general schedule:
  • October 13- 15 Plein Air Painting Days
  • October 14- Plein Air Demonstration  Art Education for families at Constellation Trail 9am – 3 pm
  • October 15- Plein Air Demonstration at Sharlot Hall Museum 9am – 3pm
  • October 16- Plein Air Reception at The Finn at Touchmark at the Ranch
Some of my old friends will be there, too, including Betty Carr, Gretchen Lopez and Dawn Sutherland.  I'm looking forward to painting with them again—and to making some new friends!  I hope to see you there.

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Saturday, September 24, 2022

Escalante Roundup

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"Along the Burr Trail" 9x12 Oil
This and other paintings in this post are for sale!  Contact me if interested.

I just finished up a fantastic week of painting and hiking in Escalante, Utah. My premise for coming was the Escalante Canyons Art Festival, which has a plein air competition component. But really, I just wanted to come and explore canyon country. I wasn’t disappointed, as the town sits on the edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument which, along with the Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef parks, provides nearly 3,000 square miles of painting and hiking opportunities.

It’s hard to cover all that in just a week. On my way up from New Mexico, we stopped first at Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest near Panguitch. We’d heard that Bryce Canyon wasn’t very dog-friendly as it allows dogs only on paved areas. But the Bryce website very helpfully suggested Red Canyon as an option for hikers with dogs. Arriving just shortly after dawn, we were pleased at how nice the trails were. (They made Raku happy, too.) After doing a hike there, we headed on up to Bryce to explore a bit and, where possible, to give Raku a break.

Bryce, for a painter, can be overwhelming. All those complicated towers! Although I didn’t paint at either location, I felt that Red Canyon offered more paintable scenes. Even so, Bryce was a fantasy land of red and yellow marzipan spires and spun sugar, cunningly shaped into confusing and surprising shapes–a delight for the eye, if not for the paint brush. We got to Bryce about mid-morning when there was little traffic; our immediate goal was a picnic lunch at the end of the road, at Rainbow Point. We took our time on working our way back out, and I was surprised at how the traffic had increased in just a couple of hours. Our last stop, at Sunset Point, reminded me so much of Grand Canyon with the crowds at Mather Point during high season. (Our parks are just getting busier and busier–perhaps we plein air painters are doing too good a job of promoting them.)

Then it was on to Escalante. We’d rented a historic home for our time there right at the edge of town but just a few blocks from the town park, where most of the festival events would be happening. Once again, Trina had proved herself by selecting a location that gave us the best of everything: not just in-town walks, but walks into the rural ranch land, too. One of our favorite evening walks took us on a quiet road with views of hayfields and white cliffs.

Other than for the Quick Draw, I painted in town only once, making a portrait of our lodging. Mostly, though, I painted out in the GSENM area, looking for interesting washes, cliffs, hills–well, my readers will know the kind of landscapes I like. Mornings were a combination of hiking and painting, and then afternoons were a bit different, with painting and hiking. We had rain, some of it quite heavy, for a day and half, but we did have periods when we could get out. I liked the clouds and drizzle, as it provided a new filter for me to see this landscape through.

Unlike most of plein air events I’ve attended, this one didn’t seem to have many opportunities for artists–or artists and collectors–to get together. I did arrive a day late and missed a meet-and-greet of artists, volunteers and other interested parties, but there wasn’t much else. Everyone was still, however, a little nervous about COVID, so perhaps this was just an unusual year. I saw some pretty good paintings once the competition pieces were hung. I think I saw the most people during the Quick Draw on Friday.

Besides the painting component, the festival hosted arts and craft vendors and musicians for the final two days. I thought the craft fair had a high level of vendors–not something I expected in a small town like Escalante.

Now we are on our way to the east side of the GSENM to hike a bit and spend the night before heading home. (And in a week, we’ll be on our way to Taos for a painting retreat!)

Here are a few photos–mostly of me, painting. (You can do a Google search for photos of the landscape.) Also, images of the paintings, all of which are for sale! Contact me if you’re interested.

Just finished a quick block-in before the thunder began 
and I had to pack up

Painting in a wash along the Burr Trail

"Morning Hike" 12x24 Oil

Painting our lodging, a historic home

Still smiling

A couple of rainy days forced me onto the 
sheltered porch to tweak paintings

"Pioneer Home" 9x12 Oil

"Storms at Dawn" 12x24 Oil

"Get Lost" 9x12 Oil

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

I'm Here at the Escalante Canyons Art Festival

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"Morning Hike" 12x24 Oil
(Escalante Petrified Forest State Park)
This is the one I submitted for the Oil Category.  Awards will be given tomorrow, Thursday.

This week, I’m in Escalante, Utah, at the edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for the Escalante Canyons Art Festival. Until now, all the plein air events I’ve been part of were either invitational or juried. This is my first “open” event.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I’ve found that, in a way, it’s a more egalitarian event. Rather than promoting a few invited (or juried) artists, the event doesn’t promote any one painter over another. In fact, when I asked for a list of participating artists, I was told there wasn’t one. And although there are different competition categories you might enter, you’re only allowed to submit one painting per category. So, rather than a few invited artists crowding the walls with all the paintings made during the week, there are about 70, with each artist submitting his single best piece. The paintings remain unsigned, giving each artist a fairer shot at the awards. (With the juried/invitational events, each artist has his own wall with his name on it in big letters, and even though judges try to be impartial….) 

I’ll have more to say about the event when it’s over, but I wanted to put out the word before the public sale to let everyone know I am here and will have not just my main painting for sale but also others in the “overflow” tent. The public sale is Friday and Saturday, 9-6, in the Town Park. Details on the event are here:

The paintings I show here are ones I’ve done thus far. I’ll have more as the week continues.  (If the images look odd or weak, it's because I'm traveling and editing images with Snapseed on my smartphone.  It's hard to see on those tiny screens....)

"A Fine View" 9x12 Oil
(Napoleon Pioneer Historic Home)

"Threatening Rain" 12x24 Oil
(Smokey Mountain Road...somewhere!)

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Stalking the Wild Aesthetic

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Back in the 60s, when the “back-to-nature” movement was drawing its first breath, a little book came out:  Stalking the Wild Asparagus.  It was written by Euell Gibbons, who long advocated eating wild foods.  (It's unfortunate that he appeared in a Grape-Nuts commercial nibbling on pine needles, making him the butt of many jokes.)  Having foraged all his life to supplement what one gets from the local grocery store, he believed we all could benefit from many plants long forgotten by farmers.  But he also believed partaking of this wild banquet provided a respite, a temporary liberation, from an increasingly-industrialized world where one could buy a complete dinner frozen in an aluminum tray.

While foraging for a topic for my blog, the phrase, “Stalking the Wild Aesthetic,” budded in my mind.  I have no idea where it came from; perhaps it sprouted from a now-buried memory when, as an adolescent and voracious reader, I'd enjoyed Gibbons' books.  The words “wild” and “aesthetic” certainly apply to plein air painting, but I wondered what Euell Gibbons had to do with it?

Consider his quest for a temporary liberation from an overly-industrialized world.  For those of us who paint the natural landscape and not cityscapes, outdoor painting is certainly that.  But it is also a respite from an increasingly-technologized world, a world flooded with easy imagery and drowning in selfies.  Even so, while on the mini-vacation that plein air painting gives us, many painters post pictures of themselves working on-location.  Lately, I've been trying to avoid this practice, as the act violates the delicate shelter of quiet observation I've intently built while painting.  (Sure, leaving my smartphone at home would solve the problem, but I often hike to areas where one might step on a rattlesnake, run into a mountain lion or stumble off a cliff.)

That's good for the “wild” part, you say, but what about “aesthetic?”  Well, how many of us go for the postcard view?  Our choice is often the easy one, fed by an aesthetic we share with other plein air painters, drawing its nutrients from decades of viewing “pretty” pictures.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with this, as there's a reason that kind of image appeals to us.  Sometimes it's nostalgia for an era we'd like to recreate; sometimes it's an aspiration to a classic ideal; sometimes it's the desire to emulate another painter we admire.  Unfortunately, this doesn't help us develop a unique and personal and—perhaps wild—aesthetic.

Over the years, Euell Gibbons was at times a carpenter and cowboy; a boat builder and beachcomber; a Communist and later, a Quaker.  “I became a Quaker,” he said, “because it was the only group I could join without pretending to have beliefs that I didn't have or concealing beliefs that I did have.”  His life was an expression rooted in individuality, qualities that each of us should aspire to.  

Perhaps “Stalking the Wild Aesthetic” isn't such an unreasonable description of what we do when we take our easel outdoors.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Plein Air Convention: A Demonstration

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(Link and video down at the end)

Back in May, I was on the faculty of the Plein Air Convention and Expo in Santa Fe.  I gave a demonstration one evening on “Outdoor Study to Studio.”  Even though I was presenting to a group of hardcore plein air painters, I wanted to share my thoughts on why it's important for us to get back to the studio.  Out in the field, while wrestling with environmental factors and changing light, it's difficult to do our best work; the studio offers a more controlled space, allowing us to address the finer issues of painting and thus to become better painters.  I think everyone enjoyed the session and got something out of it.

Prior to the convention, presenters were told that sessions would be recorded.  This was so attendees could later watch presentations they might have missed; there were several stages running simultaneously, making it impossible to see everything.  Also, the convention had an online version for those unable to attend in person.  Unfortunately, when I arrived at my stage, the AV tech was AWOL.  Finally, just moments before I was to start, he rushed in to hurriedly wire me up and set up a camera, and then he left the room.  I don't remember if he came back.  After all, I was focused on making my presentation and on my audience.  I'll give him the benefit of a doubt, so maybe he did return.

A few weeks after the convention, some of the faculty—including me—were sent an email letting us know that, regretfully, our sessions had not been recorded because of a technical problem.  This saddened me, as I had hoped that more people would be able to see my demonstration.  (There were two other events, not to mention a large cocktail party, happening at the same time as my demo.)  Worse yet, the videos were supposed to be available to view for a full year after the convention, a teaching opportunity that was now lost to me. 

So, I decided to take matters into my own hands and record a video.

To avoid disappointing you, I need to tell you that it doesn't show any actual painting happening.  After having practiced this particular painting intensely prior to the convention, I didn't want to have to recreate it yet again.  (I know this may sound lazy, but I want to move on to other projects.)  However, in it I do go over the complete set of slides I presented, and I also show my reference material, my design and color explorations and also the final painting.  The video contains about 90 minutes of material compressed into 14 minutes.  Enjoy!

Here it is (can't see it? use this link):