All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Should I Clean my Oil Palette?

I removed about two tubes' worth of dried paint off this palette.


I think it's a point of pride among studio painters to leave thick slabs of dried, leftover paint on the palette. If your palette covers enough acreage, why not preserve these coprolitic remains?  You have worked hard to get where you are today, and these are the trophies to prove it.

But for the plein air painter, not cleaning one's palette thoroughly can cause problems down the road.  First, the mixing area on most palettes is small.  You can run out of room fast if you don't keep things tidy.  Second, dried-up paint adds weight to your gear, and if you like to hike a distance to your painting location, you want to pack like a long-distance hiker, for whom every ounce counts.

I'll admit—I'm a terrible one for keeping a clean palette.  As the above photo shows.  It seems that my mixing area just gets smaller and smaller.  It's the Incredible Shrinking Palette.  But now and then, I'll take out the gloves and the putty knife and scrape off those fossilized piles as best I can.  It's not a pretty process.

Palettes basically come in three flavors, and each requires a different approach when cleaning up at the end of a painting session.

Wood palettes.  These can easily be scraped clean of wet paint with a razor blade.  But you don't scrape it by pushing the business end of the blade forward.  That would just cut into the wood, ruining it.  Instead, you drag the blade across the wood with just a little pressure.  This takes off most of the paint, and a little OMS on a rag will finish the cleaning.  If you forget and let the paint dry, you can apply a putty knife to work off the big hunks and then use a sander to get back down to the wood.  To help with clean up, make sure you prep a new wood palette (or a newly-sanded one) with linseed oil first.

Acrylic palettes.  You don't really want to use a razor blade on these, as you will gouge the surface and make it even harder to clean.  Instead, use a plastic squeegee tool to scrape off the wet paint.  Follow this with a rag dampened with OMS.  If you make the mistake of letting paint dry, you can take a putty knife gently to it—but that's about as far as you can go.  I really don't like acrylic palettes for this reason, but they are much lighter than the next palette.

Glass palettes.  These are the easiest to clean, wet or dry paint.  Dry paint just takes a little more effort with the razor blade.  Unlike with wood, you push the blade forward.  But the glass can be heavy, and it can break.  I love my glass palette for the studio.  But for plein air, I prefer wood.

I should mention one positive to leaving those piles of paint:  They serve as a memory jog for where to put out your different colors.

Honestly, I'm not fastidious about cleaning the palette other than the mixing area.  I do try to keep the mixing area clean enough so I can properly see the color of my mixtures.  But as for the areas where I lay out fresh paint, if there's a pedestal of dried paint, I just put fresh on top of it.  I don't clean these areas until I have trouble closing the lid—or need to worry about weight.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

My Art History: Rembrandt van Rijn

Some Self-Portraits by Rembrandt
(Scientific American, September 1973 issue)


When I think of Rembrandt (1606-1669), I think of his self-portraits.  An artist who suffered periods of impoverishment, he was his cheapest model.  As a young painter, I was intrigued by an article I read in Scientific American that featured a page of his self-portraits.   And of course, I admired his other paintings.  But in the end, what really captured me were his etchings—so much so that in high school I bought a book that had them all and even included large fold-outs.

Although Rembrandt made 31 self-portraits as etchings, his landscape etchings hold the most interest for me.  Masterful in their use of value, design and drawing, they are worth studying.  For example, isn't this a wonderful landscape:

Landscape with a Hay Barn and a Flock of Sheep, 1652
6.8” x 3.2”
Rijksmuseum

and this one:

The Omval, 1645
8.9” x 7.3”
Rijksmuseum


But I also find his allegorical or religious etchings useful for study, too.  Look how the dramatic lighting supports the design in this one: 

The Adoration of the Shepherds: a Night Piece, circa 1652
7.7” x 19.8”
British Museum


Somehow over the years, that book of etchings vanished.  I miss it.  I may have to buy another.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Road Trip: The Turquoise Trail and the Value of Aspens

Cerrillos Heat, 9x12 Oil
Available

Because the Canadian border is still closed, which means I'm not in my summer studio on Campobello Island, I decided to join a few paintouts here in New Mexico.  Plein Air Painters of New Mexico is a very active group and offers a full slate of events, and so for my first summer paintout I picked one in Los Cerrillos.  Los Cerrillos is a tiny village that sits along New Mexico's famous Turquoise Trail, which connects Albuquerque and Santa Fe and provides a calm alternative to the heady rush of Interstate 25.

The paintout took place at Cerrillos Hills State Park, a little pocket park that occupies a small canyon.  Hills studded with juniper and a backdrop of the Ortiz Mountains provide some interesting vistas for the painter.  But I didn't want to take too long settling on a spot—the high temperatures that week had been pushing 100, and I knew it would get hot fast.  I even arrived early, before the appointed meeting time, so I could get started.  (I'm not much of a hot-weather painter, which is why I avoid summertime events like Plein Air Easton.)

For a few weeks at the start of summer, a tiny gnat enjoys waking up right after dawn to annoy early-bird plein air painters.  It gathers in a sort of flash mob that can disturb the most focused of painters.  The gnats especially seem to enjoy entering small orifices, such as one's ear canals and nostrils.  This morning was no different, and I ended up stuffing my ears with bits of paper towels to keep them out.

DEET-free repellent is a smart addition
to the painter's kit.  Also note the bits
of paper towels in my ear.

I didn't paint long.  By 9, it was already too hot.  But I'd gotten a good painting, so I packed up, greeted the other members as they were just coming in, and then Trina and I headed up to Santa Fe for a couple of days.

Santa Fe sits at a higher elevation than Cerrillos—7200 feet as opposed to 5700 feet—so one would expect it to be somewhat cooler.  But it was still too hot with a high of 94.  Fortunately, after a morning of gallery-hopping on Canyon Road, we were able to retire to our AirBnB to escape the intense midday sun and heat.

The next day, we drove up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin where we hoped to hike in cooler circumstances and to paint some aspens.  The ski area rests at over 10,000 feet, guaranteeing a cooler experience.  When we arrived, the temperature was around 68 and never got beyond the low 70s.  After hiking and a picnic, I set up my gear in a shady spot in front of nice clump of aspens.

Aspens, like any white or off-white tree, can be tricky to paint.  To the inexperienced eye, the shadowed bark often appears much lighter than it actually is, and it's easy to misjudge the value relationships of it and the surrounding shapes.  I took my time first working out the values before paying too much attention to getting the color right.  I first painted the main tree, putting down what I thought was the correct value, and then painted in values for the immediately adjacent shapes:  a patch of shadowed grass, a patch of sunlit grass.  I adjusted the values of these three shapes until they related correctly to each other before moving on to other shapes and accurate color.

High Aspens, 6x8 Oil
Available


Now we're home again, and I'm looking forward to a monsoon season that we all hope will come soon to cool things down.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Road Trip: Colorado, Again

Lake Fork of the Gunnison
5x8 gouache

A couple of weeks ago, as summer was starting to heat up, the Southwest burst into flame.  Arizona in particular endured a couple of big wildfires east of Phoenix.  Although I live 150 miles from the nearest fire, the smoke enveloped our little valley in a thick, blue haze.  We were warned to limit our outdoor activities.  Because of the heat—it was hitting the mid-90s—we wanted to do our hiking in the morning, but unfortunately, that was the time of day when the smoke was at its worst.  Our daily hike became a short jaunt out to the dog pen so Raku could take care of business.

A typical smoke map from before we left.
The studio marked by the blue dot.

So, we decided to head to higher, cooler ground.  Our destination:  Lake City, Colorado, at 8660 feet.

Lake City's a beautiful town with many
historic homes and a small downtown. But
get there off-season, as it is ATV-crazy in the summer.

Lake City is in the San Juan Range in the southwestern part of the state.  As you may recall, just a few weeks ago we spent some time on the west side of the range, near Dolores and Cortez.  This time, we settled on the east side.  As with Dolores and Cortez, Lake City is a perfect base camp for hiking and plein air painting.  Nearby are the scenic towns of Pagosa Springs, Creede and Gunnison, plus many miles of roads and trails through forest.

Although the smoke didn't follow us to Lake City, the heat did.  Even at nearly 9000 feet, afternoons pushed the mercury up into the mid- to high 80s.  We hiked in the morning, painted at lunch time, and then hit the shade for the early afternoon.  It wasn't until near sundown that things cooled off again for an evening walk.  We did find a wonderful trail in a canyon that fell into shade early and edged along a cool creek.  We walked that trail every evening.

Because it was a short trip, I only came back with a handful of gouache sketches.  But being somewhere cool and smoke-free was the point of it all.

Below are all 5x8 gouache:






Sunday, June 27, 2021

Don't Try This at Home: Sharpie Underdrawing

"Building the Medicine Wheel"
16x20 Oil
(Learn about medicine wheels here)

I'll try anything once.

A long time ago, I started a 16x20 panel for a plein air event.  I got as far as blocking in color—ending up with something that looked a bit like a tie-dyed t-shirt—and then the light changed.  I never did finish the painting.  It ended up in the studio, buried under a stack of fresh panels.

The other week, I came across it again.  The vivid color struck me as something that would make a great underpainting for a particular scene I had in mind.  I wanted to make a painting of our side yard, where Trina was building a medicine wheel.  Because the sun at this time of year in New Mexico can be quite intense, I planned to paint it from my porch, which fell into shade around noon.  I wanted to be comfortable.  But noontime sun, of course, tends to bleach out color.  However, I figured that the brilliant color underlying the bleached-out noontime color would give “sparkle.”

And that did work.  But it took some unexpected effort.

When I first set the panel up on the easel, I immediately found the field of hallucinogenic color daunting.  How could I get any kind of underdrawing to stand out against it?  The scene was a complicated one and included some architecture.  I wanted the drawing to be accurate.

In my studio is an old coffee cup stuffed with Sharpie markers of different sizes and colors.  A black Sharpie would be perfect!  I pulled out the biggest and boldest of the black markers and drew in a fine composition.

I next spent a couple of hours blocking in the painting.  The bleached-out colors looked really good against the dropped-acid rainbow.

The next morning, I looked at the painting in horror.  Every inch of line I had made with the Sharpie showed through.  It was as if the paint I'd applied had gone completely transparent.

Preliminary Color
You can see the Sharpie lines!

Close-up showing the Sharpie lines

My palette does include some transparent colors—Sap Green, Ultramarine Blue—and a few semi-transparent ones, such as Hansa Yellow.  But I'd mixed in a considerable amount of opaque white (Titanium-Zinc White) and opaque Yellow Ochre.  (It's hard to get bleached-out color without these.) Was the Sharpie bleeding through?  Or was the paint just more transparent than I had thought?

A quick Internet search showed that some painters had had the same experience.  A few, however, had no problems.

Over the next several days, I stood on my shaded porch and brushed color over the lines.  First, thinly, as I usually do, but only to discover next morning that the Sharpie still showed through.  I gradually put on thicker and thicker paint.  Finally, I gave up on the brush and picked up a knife, applying gobs of paint.  After five or six afternoons, I finally managed to cover all the black lines.  (Or at least the most annoying ones.)

I'm very happy with the painting.  Some of the Sharpie shows through here and there, but it adds to the painting rather than detracting from it.  Fortunately, the painting is a private one, not to be sold and only for our home.  But I won't use a Sharpie again.