Authentically Human! Not Written by AI!
All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Winter Fire

One great thing about my second-floor studio is that I have several windows with interesting views of different subjects. For an artist who paints primarily outdoors, winter weather can be an obstacle, and having windows offers a way to paint without having to be in the wind. (After last night's snow and with today's wind, the windchill is 14 degrees.)

"Winter Fire" (8x10, oil/panel) is just one of my views, and I painted it today. It's the old horse chestnut, standing toe-deep in snow beside a hedge of fireweed. In summer, the fireweed bursts with colourful spikes of red-violet. Now that we've moved into winter, the fireweed bursts with colour again -- deep maroon and russset in the shadows, but flaming orange and yellow in the low, late afternoon sunshine. It's a festive view for New Year's Eve. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 22, 2006

What IS Plein Air Painting?

Winter Beret
8x10, oil/panel
click thumb for big pic
What constitutes plein air painting? I think most painters would consider this to be painting outdoors.* However, back before it became Fine Art Connoisseur, Plein Air Magazine enlarged the definition to include "painting from life." This included the still life, portraits and figures. Great controversy erupted over this new definition.

But the magazine was, in a sense, right. With the right circumstances, a studio experience can very much be like a plein air experience. For example, in my studio, I recently painted a self-portrait that was made 1) from life, 2) in natural light, and 3) by a huge window that makes you feel like you're sitting outdoors. This was done in the winter, and if it weren't for the electric heat and the lack of wind, I might as well have been painting outside.

Who's to say it's not a plein air painting?

Let's try an experiment. Let's paint in our car. Is this plein air?

Sure. Some very well-known plein air painters paint from inside their automobiles or specially-designed "paintmobiles." Clearly, a sheet of glass is not in itself enough to disqualify a painting from being a plein air piece.

Let's take it a step further. Stick a model in the car. Is this plein air?

It depends. The painting is made from life, under natural light and with both artist and model in the landscape. But are you painting just the model, the model in the car, or the model with the landscape behind him? The painting will undoubtedly be classified "plein air" if the landscape occupies sufficient real estate behind the model, as would any "landscape with figure" piece done from life. However, if you make the landscape insignificant or don't include it at all, then what? Let's say it's just the door and the car seat with the model. Is this plein air? Now we're getting into uncertain territory.

Based on this experiment, I'd say that the phrases "plein air" and "landscape" are so linked that you can't separate them. A still life, even if it's a pile of burgers on a picnic table, is not a plein air piece unless that picnic table has a generous portion of landscape around it and is subjugated to the landscape. The same with a portrait and a figure. Unless the landscape is first, it's not plein air.

Of course, to eliminate any disagreement, perhaps we should just call plein air painting what it really is, which is simply "outdoor painting."

Even though we've evaluated my self-portrait and have decided it is not a "plein air" piece, I've posted it here for your amusement.

*Plein air does not necessarily mean alla prima. Alla prima can be done either outdoors or in. The phrase simply means a technique of painting in which the artist completes a painting in one session. Plein air can certainly be done this way. However, there are some plein air artists -- Monet was a notorious one -- who work on a single painting over several days, returning to the same outdoor location to do so.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Why I Paint Small

I remember reading one of Emile Gruppé's incredible books recently, and in it, he recommended that the beginning painter paint no smaller than 16x20. This bit of advice blew me away. I was painting 8x10s, 9x12s and, very occasionally, an 11x14. Even a 9x12 was a stretch for me.

His point was that a large canvas gives the artist room to swing his arm in. Your strokes become more rhythmic, and they have more of a feeling of continuity and smoothness. Small canvases restrict the arm, and strokes become choppy, and if you're painting a tree, you're apt to stop short of the edge of the canvas and break the rhythm that makes a tree.

Good points.

However, there's a certain economy that comes with painting small. You use smaller -- and thus, cheaper -- brushes and a heck of a lot less paint. When a 8x10 goes for only a few hundred bucks (with an expensive frame on it), you're already squeezing your profit margin so tight it squeaks. But there's more to it. I can paint an 8x10 in one hour and a 9x12 in two hours. A 9x12 wipes me out, and I have barely enough energy left to pack up the tripod and drive home. Anything bigger, and I'd have to call a cab. (Good luck, where I paint!)

But you know, if old Emile could do it, then so could I. Bigger brushes, more paint -- got 'em. Raise my prices if I have to. Take a Thermos of coffee and half a chocolate cake to keep me going.

I lugged my French easel out with a 12x16 with my #12 flats and extra paint and thinner. And I made a painting.

Here's an interesting observation. Time compresses when you are "in the zone," as we say. You can paint for one hour, two hours -- even three hours, which is what that 12x16 took me -- and for the painter, the time seems the same. Maybe thirty minutes. Of course, you're beat more at the end of three hours than at the end of two, so there is some sort of objective measure of the energy spent. But while you're painting, it sure seems effortless, and especially if you've got big brushes, a big palette and lots of paint laid out.

Here's one more observation. After doing a few of these larger canvases (which still aren't as large as old Emile wanted me to paint), doing the 8x10s and 9x12s again took about as much effort as putting on your shoes. They came so naturally to me, and I really was painting better thanks to the exercise of painting large.

So, I still paint small. But now and then I'll make a big one, just to keep the muscles stretched.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Plein Air - Not for Everybody

I taught a lot of workshops last summer, and I ran into all kinds of students. Some had purchased their first paints -- ever -- just for my workshop. They didn't even know what colors to buy, and they were glad to have me help choose. Others, Sunday painters who find time to paint only when the family is out shopping, came to me so they could get better, fast. Others had been painting professionally for years and wanted a break from what they usually do and stretch their horizons.

Among all these groups were many who knew little or nothing about painting outdoors, but who wanted to learn.

What possesses a person to fancy himself an outdoor painter? I always thought of myself as a camper, but after a few years of flooded-out tents, mosquitoes trapped in my sleeping bag and camp stoves that failed me a hundred miles away from the nearest restaurant, I learned something about myself. I'm not a camper. (I don't care much for hotels, either, but that's another story.)

In a similar way, some artists aren't outdoor painters. It's not just the paint that gets smeared on the driver's seat of the car, or the mosquitoes and the blackflies, or the wind and intermittent drizzle. Sure, these things contribute, but I've always found that once I'm "in the zone," as we painters like to say, they are inconsequential. More important is your approach to painting.

It all has to do with time and focus. An experienced outdoor painter learns quickly to eliminate the 359 degrees of the panoramic landscape and focus on the 1 degree in front of him. He learns to establish color and value quickly. If he's no good at judging color accurately, then he makes a choice about what colors to use and sticks with it, no matter what.

I like to think of my painting as a "performance piece." I do my best to exercise my skill, but like a concert pianist, I have no opportunity for revision. Time, and the accompanying shifting of light and shadow, of weather and tide, does not permit it.

Some artists aren't performers. Making judgments rapidly and sticking by them makes them uncomfortable to the point of frustration. On the other hand, there's nothing more pleasurable to them than the more contemplative practice of laying down a stroke, considering it, and if it doesn't fit, wiping it out. They are more like the studio musician who enjoys the freedom to try different chords, different tempos, to see what's best before recording.

There's nothing wrong at all with one temperament or the other.

I encourage my students who discover that they don't have the temperament for painting outdoors to consider the week with me all part of Continuing Education. I want them to go back to their studios, enriched from the experience but also satisfied in the knowledge that how they do things is just another way of making perfectly good art.

Monday, December 11, 2006

First Snow

Our first real snow came to the Canadian Maritimes a few days ago. It wasn't much, but still, it was a couple of inches. I've been waiting for just such a snow to paint in. The snow brings out the deep reds in the brush and the greens in the bark of the maple trees. So today, I bundled up and trudged out with the easel. Here is "The Flagg House in Winter," 9x12, oil/panel:

The temperature today was 37 degrees. I wore all the winter clothes I had, including my big Sorel snowboots. Although most of me stayed quite warm, my feet became uncomfortably chilled by the end of the session. I attribute this to the cold ground and the fact that I was wearing cotton socks, which are notorious for holding moisture. Tomorrow, I'm buying a set of those insulated overalls you see construction workers wearing in the winter as well as some wool socks. I'm also buying a bunch of those little heat packets I can drop in my boots. (These are the chemical packets that generate heat when exposed to air.) I've used these when cross-country skiing, and they're a life-saver!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Barn & Springhouse

"Barn & Springhouse," 9x12, oil/panel, en plein air.
The leaves between our house and the in-laws' have all fallen, and from almost anywhere on our properties, you get interesting views of this large complex of old buildings. Barns, springhouses, expanded Capes -- you name it. These buildings are sided in the traditional narrow clapboard and painted white. (And, to be honest, many of these buildings are in sore need of scraping and painting! Winter ocean storms do a number on them.)

When it's overcast, the yellowed and greyed buildings provide a soft backdrop for the deep maroons, russets and tawny bushes. However, when the evening sun breaks out upon these white buildings, the light is dramatic, and the white glows incandescently. And, if you look at the detail, you'll see that white isn't necessarily white! There's very little pure white in this painting.

You can see details on my website in the Maritimes section.

Friday, November 24, 2006

In the Shadow of the Big House

My in-laws recently bought the old 1860's Cape next to us here on the island. One of its interesting points is this little structure.

Campobello Island had some grand hotels on it at the start of the last century, but they didn't last long, and when they were torn down, bits and pieces of them were distributed across the island and incorporated into many of the homes. Some of the houses here have doors -- still with the room number on them -- from the hotel.

Anyway, one of the hotels had a pair of these little structures. Our house has one, and it has fallen into ruin and is covered with lichen and moss. My in-laws' house, however, has this beautiful one. It's still in good shape probably because it, unlike ours, which is deep in the firs and brush, sits in the open.

I love the evening light as it plays across this scene. "In the Shadow of the Big House," 8x10, oil, en plein air.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Sedona - Final Thoughts

After the Sedona event, I drove over to New Mexico to see my mentor, Ann Templeton ( to visit and show her a few of the paintings. Ann was weary from two back-to-back trips -- a trip to California, and then to North Carolina, where she taught a workshop. Despite her weariness, Ann looked over my work and gave them largely unqualified praise. It feels great to get that kind of praise from a mentor.

(Above is a photo of me at the Quick Draw event, courtesy of Stephen Sanfilippo at

Now that Sedona is over, what would I do differently?

First, I would have done even MORE paintings that very first day. Even though I did three on the second day, I just did one on the first. At least two on the first day really would have gotten the motor started. (Not that 11 "done" paintings is a paltry number, by any means!)

Second, I would have done a few larger paintings. Although ultimately it would have meant perhaps FEWER paintings, a couple of larger ones would have allowed me to capture more of the panorama that is unique to Sedona. It also would have given my work more visual impact on the day of the final show.

Third, rather than run helter-skelter to almost a dozen different locations within a 20-mile radius of Sedona, I would have settled on simply a couple of places. For example, Red Rock State Park had a wealth of painting spots, but I spent just a day there. The pace would have been a tad more relaxed.

Other than these differences, I wouldn't have changed anything else. And I certainly wouldn't have changed much about the event itself -- it was very well-organized with a great support staff and wonderful sponsors! Would I do it again next year? You bet!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sedona - Day Seven and the End

Last night's Patrons' Gala showed 120 pieces -- 3 from each artist plus the artist's "quick draw" -- and the level of the work was superb. This was the first time many of us had had the chance to see everyone's work. If only I had a budget to buy some of these pieces! To the left is a photo of the pre-event calm.
I took photos of my four pieces. Frames do so much to give the work a really "pro" appearance. (Don't skimp on your framing, folks!) Below are two pieces I've posted before, but also two you haven't seen. First is a sycamore. This was done at Red Rock Crossing. I was looking for that cliched view everyone paints and photographs, the one with Cathedral Rock in the distance and the creek in the foreground. It was hot, so I retreated to the shade of this beautiful tree. The painting is an homage and thanks to the tree for giving me shelter from the sun.

The second image is "Into the Blue," my "quick draw" piece. There's some wonderful, early-morning shadow colour in it that doesn't show up in the photo. Finally are the two you've already seen.
Today, Sunday, is the final day of the event. It's a six-hour public art sale. I'll be there with my bio sheet, business cards and plenty of chat about what I do. Stop by!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Sedona - Day Six

Well, the week of painting is over -- except for today's "Quick Draw" event. The Quick Draws starts at 10 am, and artists have until noon to paint, and then this final, special painting must be delivered framed between noon and 1 pm. After talking with the other artists last night, I realize everyone is in the same state -- exhausted, and beyond worry. It is understood that there will be no time to "tweak" the painting. In a couple of senses, it will be a performance piece, with no opportunity for revision and with the public watching.

I will be painting by the creek at L'Auberge de Sedona, the luxury resort. ("Romantic French country inn in the heart of Red Rock Country with award winning gourmet restaurant," as it describes itself.) The reception for artists and their patrons took place there last night. Wonderful food, all the way from tuna sushi with wasabi to pumpkin soup served in little butternut squash.

Yesterday (Friday) was a busy day. I had time to do one last painting. I went to Red Rock Crossing and painted a gorgeous sycamore tree by the water. (Sorry, no image of this yet! I did take a photo, but then I tweaked the painting later and failed to re-photograph it. I will try to take some photos of everything hung at the gallery later today.) Then, I had to go about framing 8 pieces. Screw eyes, hanging wire, paperwork -- what a project! If you've never been to a plein air event, you may think we spend our days just painting and our evenings snacking at receptions. Well, there's a bit of paperwork and administrative tasks to do, too! it's on with the day.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Sedona - Day Five

Colder weather has slipped in, and I found myself painting in the frost this morning. You'd think I'd know better than to seek a higher altitude and a canyon that's in shadow all but four hours of the day! I drove up Oak Creek Canyon and arrived at the West Fork trailhead around 8. I found a pleasant little spot that seemed like it might receive some sunshine before long -- but I was wrong! I stood in the shade for nearly two hours. I'm really glad I stopped at Wal-mart's hunting department a few weeks ago and bought a pair of those fingerless gloves hunters use, the ones that let you operate important tools such as shotguns and oil painting brushes.

I chose a little ruin of a building to paint. This stone building, nestled in thicket of old apple trees, was, like me, in shade the entire time, too. The only sun was what was creeping down the canyon wall behind it. Not too long after I started painting, hikers began to appear. Several of them joked that if they knew I was going to be there, they would have brought coffee. It's odd, but when your focused on painting, you don't really notice bodily discomfort. But when you are done painting, you really feel it!

One part of the plein air event people may not think about is the time spent dealing with administrative tasks, such as preparing frames. I spent nearly two hours today unwrapping frames, putting in screw eyes and attaching hanging wire. (I brought 8 frames.) Tomorrow, my administrative tasks will include actually framing pieces and filling out paperwork with titles, sizes, prices and so on. Well, I've done 10 paintings so far, so I suppose I can handle a little paperwork!

After dealing with the frames, I went back to SAC (Sedona Art Center) and painted out in the parking lot. I did this for the benefit of tourists, some of whom had heard about the event and were looking for painters. I actually had a few come by as I painted the beautiful, late afternoon view.
Finally, we topped off the evening with a reception at William Scott Jennings' house. What a studio! Big north windows and a big mirror to view work in. (On his easel -- an 8-foot painting of the Grand Canyon.) One curious thing, though. The studio was carpeted with an off-white carpet, and it was curiously clean. When guests commented on Scott's apparent fastidiousness, he pointed out that the carpet has speckles in it, and whatever paint he drops simply blends in. We all decided this is just his "show" studio, and he must have a second, real, working studio elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Sedona - Day Four

Day Number Three, and we're hitting our stride. I was willing today to drive further for a painting, so I went all the way down to the Turkey Creek access, past the village of Oak Creek. But wouldn't you know it? I wasn't happy with anything I found there. The views were too distant. So, I headed back toward Sedona and stopped at the Cathedral Rock trail. I liked the rock I found, and it was cool and still too early for tourists. Just as I was finishing up, though, a bus load of Japanese tourists (30? 40? 10,000?) appeared out of nowhere in the distance. I thought they were going to come by me and disrupt my clean-up, but instead they took the steep trail UP Cathedral Rock! They looked like ants crawling up a wall from where I stood. (These photos are off a bit; there's a glare reflecting on the wet paint. I'll try to take better photos later in the week and repost.)
Still full of energy after that painting, I went to Bell Rock and one of the pull-offs there. Hurricane Paul's clouds were still around -- the hills closer to Sedona were still swathed in morning fog -- and now I was in the mood to paint a distant view that I wasn't in the mood for earlier. This one captures the atmosphere quite nicely.
I had dinner with the artists at Rene's at the Tlaquepaque, another event sponsor. Sorry, no photos of this one! But I do wish I had my camera with me, since a storm was rolling up as I went out. The colors were astounding -- rocks bright orange in the sunset against the bruised-purple clouds....

Sedona - Day Three

The second full day of painting arrived overcast and with a few sprinkles coming down. To the south, the threat of rain looked less, so I headed for Red Rock State Park. Still overcast, but at least it wasn't raining -- yet! I set up my easel with a view of a rich, red rock wall with a line of yellow cottonwoods below it.

What's even harder than painting these red rocks in sunshine is painting them on an overcast day. The colour is even richer, and it is tough to render without making it look gaudy. I think this one turned out pretty well, though.
After a lunch at Bella Terra (another event sponsor) with painters of the caliber of William Scott Jennings, OPAM, I headed out to do my second painting of the day. Hurricane Paul, a Pacific bluster heading up through the Southwest, was supposed to be blowing through later -- and sure enough, just after I set up my gear below the Coffeepot formation near Soldier's Pass, a big cloud rumbled up. I knew my time was very limited on this one, so I let my instinct fly. Not bad!
It was interesting to hear what people had to say at lunch. On Sunday, at our orientation, everyone was in high spirits and rarin' to go. On Tuesday, however, people were starting to look a little tired, and some were just downright unhappy with what they had done so far. PAPA member Raleigh Kinney said that the first two days are always the worst.

I'm still full of energy and happy with what I'm doing. Three more days!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sedona - Day Two

Monday was a "free" day at the event. Artists had no scheduled activities -- meaning that we had the entire day to ourselves to paint. The rest of the week, we will have assorted lunches, dinners and other get-togethers hosted by the Festival's sponsors. They want to make sure we are well-fed so we can paint our best!

I think the artists pushed themselves to get as much done yesterday as possible. Rain showers are predicted for today (Tuesday), and although one can paint in the rain, I personally am better off working with paint and panel free of raindrops. A few clouds will be nice, though, as they will add interest to the sky.

I, too, pushed myself yesterday. I did three paintings (9x12s, which is the size I will work in all week). You can see the paintings below. The first and last were painted from the Schnebly Hill vista area, and the second was done off of Dry Creek Road. This one was really fun to do. I found a pleasant little arroyo filled with Arizona sycamores at peak colour. But even though I set up my easel in the shade, it was quite warm. It must have been 90 or above, and with no breeze!

(Please forgive the quality of the photos, if they look "off." These are photos taken in the field, and I am using a low-resolution, handheld digital camera and a laptop to tweak the images on.)

Today, we have a luncheon scheduled -- "Artists Only." It'll be nice to spend some time with the others. We artists tend to be solitary creatures, and when the race began, we dashed off in separate directions.

And so now, here are yesterday's paintings:

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sedona - Day One

Today was Orientation and Canvas Stamping Day. Panels are stamped so that people can verify that the paintings in the end-of-week auction were actually painted during the time they were supposed to be painted. (No fair sneaking in pieces you did on your leisure time a month ago!) I had 15 stamped. Either this means I am optimistic about my energy level for the week or I am pessimistic about my good-to-bad ratio. I prefer the "glass is half-full" option.

There are many excellent artists in the event. All of them are nice people, and I'm sure we'll have some good, productive times together. The event coordinators have made sure to put lots of social activities on our calendar. These will take whatever energy we have left after doing two or more paintings a day. One participant said, "I thought I was coming here for a painting vacation!" But, meet-and-greet is important for networking. (Above is the first get-together of artists, hosts, patrons and other supporters at Red Rock State park. What a gorgeous sunset!)

After our Orientation, I went out and did my first painting. I'm quite pleased with it. Here it is:

Friday, October 20, 2006

Headin' West -- And Packin' the Oils

This week, I'm heading to Sedona for the Sedona Plein Air Festival. I'm one of 30 artists lucky enough to be invited to this prestigious event. (Check out I'm looking forward to painting the red rocks and the yellow cottonwoods, which are spectacular this time of year.

When I agreed to do this event, which culminates in a Patron's Gala and art auction, I lived in New Mexico -- just a day's drive away. Now I live in the Canadian Maritimes, and from there it's hard to get to Sedona even in one day by plane.

Strange as it may sound for a travelling, professional artist and workshop instructor, I have not yet -- until now -- had the experience of flying my art materials. Typically, my wife and I drive to events and workshops, no matter how far away, since we usually work them into one of our annual cross-country trips. The one time I did fly, I ordered new materials and had them drop-shipped to my destination, and then I shipped them back on the return.

So, with the new, tighter TSA flying regulations, you can understand I was a little nervous about this trip, especially with oil paints. I made sure to stick a sheet of paper with the phrase "Artist's Colours, Made with Vegetable Oils" in the box I packed the oil paints in, along with a sample MSDS (Manufacturer's Safety Data Sheet) and a copy of Robert Gamblin's newsletter on travelling with these items. (See I checked EVERYTHING -- "artist's oil colours," brushes, pochade box and tripod.

I was also worried about luggage loss. So, I made a detailed list of the items I took along with their value, and then I took photos of the contents of the suitcase. Here are the photos:

The good news, the luggage did not get lost. I flew from Portland, ME, yesterday to El Paso*, TX, and now it's now in my hands, and ready to drive with me to Sedona.

I'll post more as events unfold in Sedona.


*(Why did I fly to El Paso? It has nothing to do with the Rolling Stones, who are giving a concert in town tonight. But wouldn't it be nice to get tickets?)

Friday, September 8, 2006

Lower Duck Pond, Lowering Sky

"Once in a while, you do a painting that is five years ahead of you," says my friend and mentor, Ann Templeton. This little plein air oil (8x10) seems to me to be in that class, but then, I won't truly know for another five years, will I? Others may also disagree with me. But I liked this painting and its expressionistic colour instantly. I'm not sure if the day looked exactly like this, but it's what came out of the end of my arm, green sky and all.

The scan doesn't show it, but the sky and the water to the left were painted with very thick paint, which conveys the feeling of a heavy, "lowering" kind of day where it'll probably rain in the next hour or so. Other paint is applied a little less thickly, but I still wouldn't call it thin. Toward the end of the session, three hikers came through, and they gave just the sense of scale I wanted for this broad expanse of beach and the long swatch of red, dried-up rockweed along it.

"Lower Duck Pond, Lowering Sky", 8x10, oil, e.p.a.
(as always, click to enlarge!)

Sunday, September 3, 2006


A still life painter uses a box to contain his oranges, apples and pears as he paints. This box gives him more control over lighting. But it also serves another purpose. It separates the arrangement from distracting backgrounds and the clutter of the studio.

The plein air painter has no such box. Whatever his subject, it sits in a world that writhes with distractions. Another interesting tree-shape, a building with a curious door, a colorful swath of meadow -- all things he didn't see at first, and all of them just outside his chosen frame -- compete for a place in the painting.

If we plein air painters had such a box, fewer of our paintings would go astray. If we could carry out to the field, say, a duck blind on wheels, and paint inside that looking out, we might have better luck. But since "portable" is our motto, we must seek a better option. That option is the very portable one that consists of sheer will power. It's the ability to give up what else we would like to include and to stick with our first choice.

Where I live, which is by the broad ocean with breathtaking vistas of sea cliffs, I am often tempted to take in an extended range worthy of Albert Bierstadt. But when I set up my pochade box and my usual 8x10 panel, experience tells me to settle for less. If my first choice was a stunted, storm-blasted tree jutting up out of a field of wild roses, that is what I paint. I forgo the scenic piles of driftwood just outside my chosen view, and the scallop boats trawling the bay, and the waves crashing on the most distant cliffs, and -- but you get the point.

I tell myself that life is long, and I will eventually paint all those other scenes. This is not true, of course, but it does take the pressure off.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Lately, I've been drawn to rocks. It seems that many of the paintings are of interesting formations that stir up some antediluvian fantasy. Here's one. It's a rock over by Liberty Point. I call it "Finback" because it does look like a fin, and we do have finback whales here.

The challenge was the shadowed side of the rock. There was so much light bouncing around that the shadow had to be quite light, but still function as shadow. Keeping the shadows on the "cool" side and the light on the "warm" side worked well. I was able to push the value of the shadows high, but have them still read as shadow by keeping the temperature consistent.

"Finback", 9x12, oil/panel, en plein air (PLUS detail shots!)

Friday, August 18, 2006

An Old Tradition Renewed

I write the occasional piece for the web-based ECVA* newsletter, and in the August 2006 issue, they've published "Plein Air Painting: An Old Tradition Renewed." If you're interested in reading this, please click on this link.
For your viewing pleasure: "Upper Duck Pond, Sky and Water", 8x10, oil/panel, en plein air
*ECVA stands for Episcopal Church & the Visual Arts. Web site address is

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Ragged Point

This is one of those paintings that painted itself. (Seems like I'm starting to say that more and more lately!) Part of the reason is that I was working on linen that had a couple extra coats of acrylic gesso laid on it to "kill" the linen texture. I don't like the woven pattern of canvas and linen, and when I run across a panel prepared with it, I always lay on more gesso. In this case, just enough texture was left so that my brushstrokes for the water and distant light on Ragged Point "broke" -- thus suggesting detail in a way that would have taken me many, many hours to create with a fine brush. You can see the effect in the detail.
"Ragged Point," 8x10, oil/panel, en plein air

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

French Easel Woes

I have some larger frames I need to use up. I typically paint plein air oil around 8x10 or 9x12, but I've got a few 11x14 and 12x16 frames sitting around. So, this weekend I decided to try painting bigger outdoors -- 11x14. (Not big by some painters' standards, but big enough for me!)

One problem with my painting large is equipment -- the 9x12 pochade box I use can accomodate bigger panels, but I don't have the adapter. So, I had to fall back on my French easel. I paint on the French easel all the time in the studio, but I've never taken it outdoors for oil.

Although I have a wet panel carrier for 11x14s, I decided to forgo lugging yet another box, so I fixed my panel to the French easel in the two brackets on the lid and went out. I gave myself my usual hour to do a study. Things went well until I was ready to pack up. Folding up a French easel with a wet panel on it is not easy! And then, because of the way I had to keep the lower bracket raised up high to hold the wet panel tight, pressure was released on the palette inside the box...

...and so when I picked up the neatly-folded easel by the carrying handle, the palette actually SLID OUT through the gap at the bottom near the drawer! What a mess.

I have since fixed this problem by making a little turnbuckle that fits near the drawer. The palette won't slide out again.

At any rate, here is the one-hour 11x14 sketch: "Con Robinson's Point Weir"

Friday, June 30, 2006

Living and Painting in a Fog

The rain and fog just ain't going away this summer. I went out to Con Robinson's Point where the fog was ebbing (somewhat), set up my tripod on a rock outcrop in the low tide zone, and painted the fog.
"Con Robinson's Point in the Fog"
9x12, oil/panel, en plein air

I used a heck of a lot of white in this painting, but I managed to keep the grays full of color. How'd I do this? I use a good amount of my palette scrapings from the previous painting. Every time I finish a painting, I take all the "used" paint on my palette, scrape it into a pile and mix it thoroughly. This "soup" is inevitably gray, but it is harmonized with my limited palette the because it contains a little bit of everything I use. This soup becomes a significant portion of my next painting -- I will use it everywhere. I can push this gray to be warmer or cooler or into a different color family by adding tiny bits of pure color. I can get some really nice grays with this method. (Grays should never be blah and truly neutral; they should always belong to some color family.)

By the time I finished, all my brushes were literally dripping with water from the fog. A weird experience, seeing the water running down into my brush holder.

(PS - Due to popular demand, I am turning "on" comments for my blogs. New entries will allow comments, so be nice!)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Spanning the Channel

Sometimes, you encounter a day where the light is so pure and the colors so clean that you just can't wait to paint! This was a day like that, and you don't get many of them in the Canadian Maritimes this time of year.

This was a fun painting to do. I could have focussed on the bridge or the many old wharf buildings, but I chose to do a big view -- sky, clouds and water -- with the bridge and buildings only suggested. Even though there was a certain amount of gray in the clouds, I kept my paint colors pure and and clean.

This is the Lubec Channel, with the tide going out and some weather moving in. (Click on the picture for a bigger version.)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Liberty Point, Fog

The rain had come and gone, the fog had risen up, and now the sun was burning the fog away. The intense yellow light on the fog made for an amazing moment I just had to capture! The tide was out, too, so the green rockweed, dark against the illuminated water and fog, made for an interesting study.

This was done on Campobello Island in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park at Liberty Point. Liberty Point juts out into the Grand Manan Channel where there is often fog and a chill wind blowing. We have big tides here -- 20-foot-plus -- and that's why you can see so much rockweed on these rugged outcrops.

"Liberty Point Fog," 8x10, oil/panel, en plein air

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Cadillac Mountain - Late May

My cross-country trip included a week at Bar Harbor, Maine, on Mount Desert Island and in Acadia National Park. Although we had rain, we had some sunny days, too -- some quite spectacular, especially since spring was just getting started. One day was unusually calm, and I headed up to the top of Cadillac Mountain. Cadillac is famous for being the first place in the continental US that sees sunrise. (Although Lubec, Maine, will contest this, and certainly did when the new century kicked in!) It's also notorious for being windy. However, even my little umbrella was happy this day.

Here I am on the top. You can see the Porcupine Islands in the distance.
And here is the painting from that session.
"The Porcupines," oil/panel, 8x10.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Marshes & Dunes

We've been a month on the road, traveling from New Mexico to New Brunswick, Canada. Now that we have reached our home on Campobello Island and somewhat unpacked, I've had time to scan in some of the plein air pieces I painted while traveling. Every painting has a story behind it. One of my favorite stories concerns "Cape Cod: Marsh & Dunes". I just plain forgot to take turps with me, so this one was painted -- with great reluctance -- with paint right out of the tube and no thinner. But the painting turned out all right, as you can see. Lack of turps forced me to work with a brush loaded with thick paint. A real learning experience!

"Marshes & Dunes", 8x10, oil/panel
I will post other paintings as I have time. Gosh, it's good to get settled again!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Uncompahgre River: Full Tilt Spring

I hadn't expected to have the opportunity to post any new paintings while en route to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, but it's a new world out there with wi-fi. Here's a small en plein air oil I did while stopping for a few days in Ouray, colorado. In Ouray, the aspens are greening up and the snowmelt is quickening rivers such as the Uncompahgre. Here is one spot that caught my eye along the river -- I never thought I'd see such gorgeous colors in the springtime!

"Uncompahgre River: Full Tilt Spring" (8x10, oil/panel, en plein air)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ponderosa Tall

This isn't your typical plein air painting -- it's more of a study or sketch than a full-fledged effort at Art (with a capital "a"!) I was intrigued by the silhouette of the ponderosa pine's trunk against the distant hills. For some reason, I kept seeing these as blocks of pure color rather than as tree and hill. And this is the way I painted it.

I also wanted to make sure I was capturing the value relationships of the different shapes. Color and value -- these are what I was working on here.

"Ponderosa Tall," 10x8, oil/panel, en plein air

By the way, I will be taking a sabbatical from the "weekly paintings" for a month or so. We have sold the New Mexico house and will shortly be on our way to our home in the Canadian Maritimes. You can look forward to more weekly paintings after June 1!

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Not Yet Spring

I went out with a student yesterday to Carissa Springs, which can be quite lovely in the spring when the cottonwoods and willows leaf out. We were a tad disappointed, as it is already early April and the trees had barely started!

Fortunately, I found myself a little stand of gambel oak nestled against a hillside. The sunlight came filtering down through their empty branches and set aglow last year's leaves on the forest floor. The shadows were very cool and the light very warm. I am very happy with the bold strokes and even bolder color.

"Not Yet Spring," 11x14, oil, en plein air [SOLD]

Friday, March 31, 2006

An Unexpected Spring Snow

It was a bleary, snowy day. In fact, it was the first real snowfall we'd had all season in the mountains of southern New Mexico -- and we'd just crossed the threshold into spring! But even though such a heavy, late snow can be a tad depressing when all you really want to see are daffodils pushing up, I wanted to go out and paint. So I went to my studio to prepare my gear...

...And then I looked out my studio window. The old juniper caught my eye. The new-fallen snow and the glint of the sun, which was just starting to come out, just HAD to be painted! I got to work.

It was easy. This one really painted itself.

"An Unexpected Spring Snow" 8x10, oil/panel, en plein air.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Traditional Gesso

In the ongoing search for a new panel, I tried making my own panels -- 1/8" hardboard from Guerrilla Painters and "traditional gesso" from Gamblin. Traditional gesso is rabbit hide glue, gypsum and titanium dioxide, and Gamblin has added marble dust for texture. The drawback of this product is the rabbit hide glue -- you have to heat the mixture in a double-boiler and apply it hot. As you work with it, you have to periodically re-heat the mixture, otherwise it gets too thick to apply.

A perhaps bigger drawback is that the foundation you apply the gesso to must be rigid. Even the 1/8" hardboard may not be rigid enough to keep the gesso from cracking if the board should flex. When I painted the below painting, even though it was on an 8x10 panel, which shouldn't flex much, I detected cracks. Oddly, I couldn't see the cracks when the panel was dry, but when I applied my initial underpainting, I could see cracks quite clearly.

I sanded the surface lightly with fine steel wool prior to painting. The sanding didn't remove the marble dust texture, which is a good thing.

The solution to these two headaches is, of course, acrylic gesso. You don't have to heat it and it won't crack because the acrylic forms a somewhat flexible film.

Again, as with the Gessobord, this surface is very absorbent. A coat of medium prior to painting would be ideal.

(And still, not a bad painting!)

Gessobord Test

Recently, the fellow who made my oil painting panels went out of business. I've been investigating other painting surfaces to find one similar. My first test was with Gessobord -- basically, it's a Masonite (or similar hardboard) panel with several coats of acrylic gesso on it. The surface is like a fine eggshell. Below is the test painting.

I found the Gessobord more absorbent than I like -- the brush drags. The solution, of course, would be to rub a good coat of medium onto the surface before painting. But I don't use medium, so that would be one more thing to carry out into the field.

Still, it's not a bad painting!

Saturday, February 11, 2006


No, PSA doesn't necessarily mean "Public Service Announcement" -- though perhaps you might call this entry one.

PSA means "Pastel Society of America," and if you are awarded Signature Membership, you are permitted to add these three letters at the end of your name when you sign paintings. It's a prestigious thing.

I am proud to say that I have just been awarded Signature Membership. This was a goal for 2006. (Hey, it's only February!)

To see some of the latest pastels, please visit my Southwest section on my web site. (Sorry, no new plein air work this week! I've been painting studio oils.)

Michael Chesley Johnson, PSA

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Back from Tubac

I'm fresh back from teaching a pastel plein air workshop in Tubac, Arizona. The weather was cool, intermittently sunny, windy and cloudy, so we had to pick our times to paint. Still, some excellent work was done by students and teacher both. Below are some examples of my work from the week. For more images and details, please see the pastel section of my Southwest web site gallery.

Paintings are 9x12, except for St Anne's church, which is 9x9.5. (And do I need to mention that these pastels are for sale? Some are available directly through me, and others are available from Los Reyes Gallery in Tubac. Contact me for details.