Sunday, May 16, 2021

Painting the Novel


I always wanted to be a novelist.  I did write four or five, but only one of those actually saw print.  As a novelist, I consider myself a failure.  This failure, interestingly, turned me back to painting.

You may ask, how hard is it to write a novel?  When you read one, most times it seems that the writer hardly struggled at all.  Well, that's the trick.  No matter how hard he works, the writer aims to make it look easy.  He wants the reader to enjoy a smooth experience.  One word follows another; reaction follows action; and the plot cruises along like a finely-tuned automobile on new pavement. Sure, you might flip back a few pages to remind yourself who said what, but your progress generally goes from point A to point B.  Barring exceptions in highbrow literary fiction, a novel reads like a straight line.

But that's not the case for the writer.  A novel contains an imaginary world that is multidimensional, consisting of space and time, a world that the writer can move freely in, up and down or left and right in space, or back and forth in time.  This world, while in the messy process of being invented, quickly becomes a tangle of alternate realities.  Plots develop pointless detours.  Characters swap personalities.  Time behaves unexpectedly.  But eventually, the writer cleans things up, paring away the alternate realities until only one remains:  the right one, the one the reader will come to know and love.

Crafting a novel requires that the writer hold this new world, even in its chaotic formative state, entirely in his head.  Sure, you can pin your plot outline and character notes to the wall or keep a 3-ring binder packed with details on your desk, but that's not enough.  (I did all that.) You must be able to visualize this world and all its myriad connections holistically, and to do so instantly.

Well, I couldn't.  I found my mental buffer was way too small.  Before I began to write each day, I had to re-read every page I'd written so it'd be fresh in my mind.  It didn't matter if I'd logged 20 pages or 200 pages.  But even so, my brain just couldn't hold it all.

It took me awhile, but I came to understand that painting is different and, for me, easier.  On the canvas, I can see everything laid out before me clearly.  In a single glance, I can see how a new mark, a new color or a new erasure affects the whole.  In a single glance, I can see the relationship between all the parts.  In a single glance, I can comprehend the painting's complex beauty.

Don't think there's no similar challenge in painting.  As a painter of representational landscapes, I certainly wrestle with time and space.  But I find the task of collapsing all that into the two dimensions of a canvas easier and, ultimately, more rewarding.  Today, I'm content to read novels—not write them.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Tube Tips


Invented over 180 years ago, the collapsible paint tube was a brilliant innovation for painters and colormen alike.  Colormen, no longer having to store paint in pigs' bladders, which had a notoriously short shelf-life, were able to build up large inventories of paint.  Artists, often restricted to the studio when using oil paint because of the inconvenience of storage and transport, were able to take these very durable tubes to the field.  Impressionism and all the other “isms” to follow owe a lot to the humble paint tube.

But the paint tube is not without its problems.  Punctures, leaks, glued-on caps and more pester today's artist.  I thought I'd share some of my tips for handling paint tubes in the accompanying video.  (Can't see it?  Here's the direct link:  https://youtu.be/CG-mYtTEEmM)

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

May Newsletter

Arizona Sycamores, 12x9 Pastel - Available

As I write, snow showers are drifting through our little valley.  Even so, we have enjoyed many warm days lately, and spring continues.  Hummingbirds have returned to our feeders; the cactuses are starting to show signs of bloom; and our native grasses are going to seed.  Plein air painting season is here!

Many of you may remember that I was scheduled to be on the faculty for May's Plein Air Convention in Santa Fe.  Because of the pandemic, it was moved to 2022, but as a replacement, the organizers created a virtual event, Plein Air Live.  For it, I and 40 other artists shared our expertise with over 1300 painters around the globe.  For Beginner's Day, I demonstrated my gouache technique.  For the remaining three days, I watched the demonstrations of other artists, participated in the simultaneous chat rooms, and enjoyed meeting other painters and vendors in the breakout sessions.  The only thing missing was the casual encounter one might have in a hallway or over a buffet table. 

Just before Plein Air Live, I taught a workshop in Sedona, Arizona.  The weather couldn't have been better.  We had warmth and sunshine, and everyone had plenty of opportunity to paint.  Sedona's always been a favorite place of mine for painting, and I'm looking forward to leading a painting retreat there in November.  (See below for details.)

Demonstrating in Sedona

With the warmer weather, Trina and I will hitting the road again with our camper van.  Our first stop will be the San Juan range of southern Colorado.  I plan to take my gouache kit with me, and I'll make sure to share my sketches on my Instagram and Facebook feeds.  After that, we may be home in New Mexico for awhile.  The Canadian border is still an uncertainty at this time, but we are hoping it will open soon, and that we'll be able to head to Campobello Island this summer.  In August, I do have a workshop and a retreat to run in Lubec, Maine, and these will happen even if we can't get into Canada.  I'll keep you posted!

I'd like to let you know about my upcoming workshops and retreats.  As before, these will be held entirely outdoors and follow CDC recommendations on masks and distancing (even if you'd had the vaccine.)  Lodging and meals are not included unless noted otherwise.

  • August 3-6, 2021:  Lubec, Maine.  All-level workshop. $300
  • August 8-13, 2021:  Lubec, Maine. Painting retreat for experienced painters.  $300.
  • September 26-October 1, 2021:  Taos, New Mexico. Painting retreat for experienced painters. $300.
  • November 2-5, 2021:  Sedona, Arizona.  Painting retreat for experienced painters. $300
  • October-November, 2021:  Ramah, New Mexico.  Private Painting Intensive (one-on-one).  $700 tuition-only option. I am no longer offering lodging/meals, but I will gladly recommend places to stay.
For more information on any of these, please see the workshops on my website:  https://www.mchesleyjohnson.com/workshops/  Also, check the website now and then for any additional workshops and retreats I might schedule.  

That's all for now.  Stay well! 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Looking at the Big Picture

How can you evoke the feeling of what it's like to perch on the edge of a canyon?
(By the way, this is not a painting.  This is a photo I took and played with.)

Even before the pandemic, many art museums were busily scanning their collections, creating high-resolution images and making them freely available online.  These images have become a great resource for the painting student who wants to learn more about a painter's process.  For example, if you're interested in how Van Gogh piled on the paint, you can visit the web site of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  Here's a screenshot from one of his self-portraits.  I've zoomed in on that famous ear, the one he later sliced:



Seated at my desk and looking at the image on my computer, I can get closer to the painting than any museum guard would allow.  Look how the paint stroke broke as he applied color over color!

But now let's zoom out to the full painting:


On my laptop screen, this image occupies a mere 7x9 cm of real estate.  In a screen full of similar images, I'd most likely pass right over it to something more exciting.  But the painting is actually 65x50cm—a good deal larger.  In person, the painting would have a powerful effect.

There's nothing like an original.  This thought came to me in a very visceral way while visiting Santa Fe recently.  At the Gerald Peters Gallery, I stood mesmerized by a very large painting of Grand Canyon by Arturo Chavez.  The painting, four feet tall by eight feet wide, spanned my entire visual scope.  I had to swing my head to take it all in.  So intense was the feeling of teetering on the edge of the Grand Canyon that I felt a familiar, warning tingle in my hamstrings—a sensation I've often felt while stepping too close to the edge.  Looking at that same image now on my laptop, I can appreciate the painting's design and color, but it lacks the thrill.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Return to Taos: Upcoming Painting Retreat


The Rio Grande Gorge & the Sangre de Cristos


Taos, New Mexico - Painting Retreat
September 26-October 1, 2021

If you've not been to Taos before, you're in for a treat.  Taos sits between the 800-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge and the aspen-clad peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  Our subject matter will include the Rio Grande, which should be starting to show some autumn color, as well as the mountain streams and aspens near Taos Ski Valley.  We'll also paint the rustic adobe structures in historic Arroyo Seco and, of course, the enchanting village of Taos itself.  I've painted in this area many times and will be happy to share with you my knowledge.

But Taos isn't all about the landscape.  It's also home to the Taos Society of Artists, and you can visit some of their studios, which are now museums.  The Taos Art Museum at the Nicholai Fechin House is a great introduction to these artists, as are the E.I. Couse and Blumenschein studios and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House.  Taos is also home to many excellent restaurants including Doc Martin's, Orlando's Mexican Cafe and Michael's, as well as to many galleries.

This exclusive painting retreat will be limited to only FIVE painters.  Participants must have outdoor painting experience and be comfortable painting without assistance.  Cost for the retreat is $300, not including lodging or meals.  (You can find many excellent and reasonably-priced options for lodging at AirBnB and elsewhere.)  A $150 non-refundable deposit is required to hold your space.  Once I receive your deposit, I'll send a confirmation letter with important details.  Contact me to reserve your space.

Although this is not a formal workshop, I will be giving critiques daily for work we do during the week.  After that, I'll guide you to one of many stunning locations for our morning painting session where we will paint as a group.  You are welcome to watch as I paint and treat it as a demo, and I will gladly narrate as I work.  After lunch, we can continue to paint as a group at a new location, or if you'd like to paint on your own, I will give you suggestions.  We may also choose to visit one of the Taos museums or galleries.

I invite you to join me in this special painting retreat!  Here are some photos to whet your appetite.