All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Painting Intensive Report: Improving Studio Work with Plein Air Studies

6x8 Oil Cottonwood Study
(all sketches/paintings mine)

This past week, an accomplished studio painter come to me for help.  She wanted to improve her plein air practice with the goal of improving her studio work.  Arriving from Maryland to study with me for a week, she agreed to a plan that we'd both worked on to help her with these goals.  The plan:  

  • Gather field references in the way of color studies and photos
  • Return to the studio to create designs in charcoal based on the color studies (and to avoid resorting to photos unless absolutely necessary)
  • And then to “scale up” the color studies into finished paintings, using the value sketches to plot out our compositions

Although she'd painted en plein air many times before, it wasn't her usual practice, and she often worked just from photos.  Photos, however, give us nothing but shape and detail; value and color are always distorted by the camera.  The eye is the ultimate tool for observing value and color.  So, every day, we went to the field to sketch in color with a particular subject and scene in mind.  (All except for one day, when we experienced an unusual October snow.  We focused on studio work that day.)  Although she brought oil pastels and oil sticks, I gave her oil paint, too.  Ultimately, we decided that her best plein air kit would consist of oil pastel—quick, clean and easily ported to a location.

Mentor and Student

Back in the studio, we worked out a number of design possibilities with charcoal on newsprint.  To avoid getting distracted by the details of a photograph, we used only color studies and pencil sketches as a reference for design.  These references contained enough information for us to come up with successful designs.  Finally, we moved to a studio medium to build the finished paintings  To keep things abstract, she used large oil sticks, employing a brush dipped in Gamsol to help spread the pigment around.

Our first day found us at the nearby lake, where golden cottonwoods, juxtaposed against the red and white cliffs, made for some beautiful fall scenes.  We returned there later in the week, too, as the location offered so much.  Another day had us exploring El Morro National Monument to look at the rock towers with an eye to abstracting them into engaging shapes by stripping away unnecessary detail.  All in all, it was a very successful week, and my student now has the tools and a process for improving her studio work on her own.

If you're interested in a plein air painting intensive such as this, please see my website: 

By the way, I still have space in my November 2-5 Sedona, Arizona, painting retreat.  It's only $300—not including lodging and meals—and I'd love to show you some of my favorite painting spots.

Plein Air Studies

6x8 Gouache Study

9x12 Oil Panel Split into Two
4.5x12 Cliff Study and Cottonwood Study

9x12 Oil Cliff Study

8x10 Oil Cottonwood Study

9x12 Oil Cliff Study

Value Sketches

Studio Paintings

12x12 Oil Cottonwoods

12x12 Oil El Morro

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Plein Air Painting Retreat Report: Taos, New Mexico

Down by the River, 9x12 pastel

From my years living in Vermont, I know that it is hard to pin down precisely the week of peak fall foliage.  Sometimes the peak comes a little early—and sometimes a little late.  It's the same in northern New Mexico.  For our plein air painting retreat in Taos this year, the colors were just beginning.  Down by the Rio Grande, the sumacs were showing their first flush of red; in town, the cottonwoods were polishing up the first few gold coins.  As a painter, I find this subtle color more enticing than the full-out carnival.

This year, we had four participants—a small group by design.  Small groups make for easier parking and less impact on the environment.  Plus, if you're visiting a small village to paint, it's less bothersome for the locals.  And, as luck would have it, one of the museums we visited only permitted groups of 6 or fewer, and so we were all able to take the tour together.  Participants came from Arizona, Colorado and New York, all of them past students.  (I give past students priority for the retreats.).

Although painting day in and day out may sound attractive to hard-core outdoor painters, I like to enrich the retreat experience by arranging other (always optional) activities.  In addition to a bounty of beautiful painting spots, Taos also offers several museums, galleries and celebrities.  On Sunday, the day of our orientation meeting, we visited artist Walt Gonske, who was having an open studio weekend.  I first met Walt many years ago.  I was pleased to see that he, fast closing in on 80, still paints from his famous “paint mobile,” which is now in its fourth and, Walt says, perfected version.

Later in the week, we had an opportunity to visit painter Kevin Macpherson.  Although he was very busy—he'd just wrapped up 10 days of shooting a video in his studio and was now packing for a workshop in Maryland—Kevin took the time out to show us his studio and to talk about his travels.  He also invited us to paint his pond, made famous among plein air painters by his book, Reflections on a Pond: A Visual Journal.  Unfortunately, we'd had threatening weather all day, and just as we started painting, the rain began.  (We did enjoy the protection of a gazebo.)  Toward the end of our time, though, the sun burst out, lighting up the aspens along the water's edge with bright yellow.

We also visited the Plein Air Painters of New Mexico annual exhibit at the Wilder-Nightingale Gallery; the Taos Art Museum at the Nicolai Fechin house; the historic Hacienda de la Martinez; the Mabel Dodge Luhan house; and my favorite, the newly-opened Couse-Sharp Historic Site.  E. Irving Couse and Joseph Sharp, both members of the original Taos Society of Painters, shared the property but had separate studios.  A two-hour tour gave us an in-depth look at the lives of these two painters. (I personally preferred the Couse studio, as it remains virtually untouched since his death; the Sharp studio had been, alas, cleaned up by museum curators and looked more like a show studio than a working studio.)  All of these activities put an educational spin on a week that otherwise was filled with painting in inspiring locations.

If you're interested in next year's plein air painting retreat in Taos, the dates are October 2-7, 2022.  Let me know if you'd like to join us.  You can find out more about my retreats—how they're different from a workshop, for example—at my website: 

Here are some paintings and photos from the week.  All of the sketches are available for sale; contact me if interested.

Rainy Day at Mabel's, 9x12 Oil

River Study, 6x8 Oil

Wonky Adobe in Arroyo Seco, 9x12 Pastel

View of John Dunn Bridge, 5x8 Gouache

Taos Mountain, 5x8 Gouache

Walt Gonske's Gate

Painting by the River

More by the River

Me, Sketching in Gouache

Morning Critiques

Kevin Macpherson's Studio (and Kevin)

Tour of the Couse-Sharp Historic Site

E. Irving Couse's Paintbox

Painting at the Couse-Sharp Site

Gate at Mabel Dodge Luhan House

Rain Coming In!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

My Art History: John Constable

One of Constable's "Six-Footers":
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows
59.7”x74.7”, oil on canvas, 1831
National Gallery, Tate UK
(read its story here)

In the last “My Art History” post, I wrote about the Romantic painter, Turner.  John Constable (1776-1837) was of that same period, but his sensibility was entirely different.  Although I would classify him also as a Romantic, his landscapes, steeped in the pastoral and picturesque, mostly lack any depiction of the sublime, which was a hallmark of Turner's later work.

Constable took landscape painting into a new direction.  He meticulously studied the natural landscape, going on-location to gather reference material.  Unlike some other landscape artists of the time, who went into the field with a similar goal, he was the first to make his plein air sketches in oil.  From these well-observed field notes, he constructed his larger paintings, his “Six-Footers,” often first creating full-size sketches to explore composition before embarking on the finished works.

His working methods inspired many later landscape painters—the Barbizon School painters and the French Impressionists—to observe the landscape with a fresh eye:  "When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.”

Constable was a homebody.  Although he traveled some, he preferred to paint where he lived, in Dedham Vale, on the Essex-Suffolk border, now often called “Constable Country.”   He wrote a friend, “ I should paint my own places best.”

Personally, I dislike this large studio paintings; they seem overly-designed and staged and lack the freshness of his field studies.  They are, however, well-observed, thanks to all his work in the field.  His cloud studies, I think, are some of the best.  Clouds are notoriously difficult to study, as they are mutable and fickle subjects.  I've found that it's often best not to paint clouds right away, but to just watch, to discern a pattern in their movements and shape-shifting, before committing  to paper or canvas.

Here are a few of Constable's cloud studies, followed by a couple of my own.

Cloud Study, Hampstead; Tree at Right / Constable
Royal Academy of Arts, London UK

Cloud Study / Constable
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven CT

Cloud Study / Constable
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne AU

Cloud Study, 1822 / Constable
Tate Britain UK

And now, two of my own:

Cloud study - 6B pencil / Johnson

"Clouds O'er My Valley" / Johnson
6x8 oil/Multimedia Artboard

Sunday, September 26, 2021

ACM Panels for Plein Air Painting?

While looking for a new substrate for my oil paintings, I came across ACM panels.  The initials stand for “aluminum composite material.”  ACM is a rigid, puncture-proof, lightweight product that consists of a polyethelene core sandwiched between two sheets of aluminum.  For artists looking for an archival material, you probably can't get more archival than this!

I ordered three 9”x12” panels from Trekell.  They sell these panels, which are 1/8” thick, with a variety of different added surfaces—oil-primed, gesso-primed, and so on—but I ordered the “raw” panels, so I could apply my own grounds as a test.  One would expect a raw panel to just be bare aluminum, but it comes from the manufacturer pre-painted. This thin layer of paint is very smooth, so I asked Trekell how to prepare it so it would accept an application of acrylic gesso.  They recommended I “scuff” the surface, so I took a sanding block and abraded the surface until it no longer had a sheen and looked quite matte.

I prepared the three panels with acrylic gesso (two coats), BIN (a shellac-based primer, two coats) and Gamblin's oil ground (one coat.)

One worry was absorbency.  I like my panels somewhat absorbent, and a raw ACM panel is about as non-absorbent as can be.  As I expected, the board with acrylic gesso had the most absorbency, and I liked that one best.  Coming in second was the one coated with BIN.  This one also was absorbent, but slightly less so.  The slickest surface was the panel coated with Gamblin's oil ground, and it was my least favorite.  I found it difficult to keep my stiff, hog bristle flats from scraping down through the paint to the white of the ground.  I was constantly trying to apply more paint to cover up the white.  I ended up “dabbing” the paint on with a softer round, and that worked well enough.

Another worry was weight.  ACM is a bit heavier than the hardboard I typically use for my painting panels.  A 1/8” 9x12 hardboard panel with two coats of acrylic gesso weighs 236 grams; the same size ACM panel with two coats, 314 grams.  One other concern is the rigidity of larger panels.  On its website, Trekell notes: “ACM panels over 16x20 do not always lie completely flat. Corners may lift slightly.”  And what about cost?  Good news here. From Trekell, a “raw” 9x12 ACM panel costs the same as a 9x12 hardboard panel primed with acrylic gesso, or $7.26 as of this writing.

You can find the ACM panels here: 

Here are my test paintings (each available for sale at $300):

"Ledge I" 9x12 oil
ACM with 2 coats of acrylic gesso

"Ledge II" 9x12 Oil
ACM with 2 coats of BIN

"Trio" 9x12 Oil
ACM with 1 coat of oil ground

Sunday, September 19, 2021

New Book: Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors

After almost a year of work, I'm happy to announce that you can now pre-order my new book, Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air, from Amazon.  The book hits the streets March 1, 2022, but by ordering it now, you'll make sure to get a copy.  I expect it will sell out fast.

Why?  Because this is the comprehensive guide to painting outdoors.  It gives you everything you need to know about plein air painting, from A to Z.  Fifteen master artists share their knowledge—and their secrets—in this 160-page book that is packed with demonstrations in the major mediums, helpful techniques and many, many, many gorgeous images.  

I've written the book so both beginner and advanced painters will benefit from it.  If you're a beginner, you'll learn everything you need to get started and, better yet, how to have an enjoyable and satisfying experience.  If you're an advanced painter, you'll learn the tricks that the masters learned the hard way, through long experience.  (All you have to do is read the book!)

So who are these master artists?  They are:

Rob Adams / UK / oil
Tony Allain / UK / pastel
Lyn Asselta / US /pastel
Marcia Burtt / US / acrylic
Lorenzo Chavez / US / oil
Nathan Fowkes / US / watercolor
Marc Hanson / US / acrylic 
Michael Chesley Johnson / US / gouache & oil
Margaret Larlham / US / pastel
Calvin Liang / US / oil
Kim Lordier / US / pastel
Mark E. Mehaffey / US / acrylic
Sandra Nunes / Brazil / pastel
Stephen Quiller / US / watercolor
Colley Whisson /Australia / oil

With a lineup like this, I expect the book to become one of the classics. Don't wait!  You can get it here: