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Sunday, August 31, 2008

September Newsletter

"Salt Marsh Glimmer"
5x7, oil, en plein air

1 September 2008

Welshpool, Campobello Island

Dear Friend:

I chose the above painting for this newsletter because it really evokes the days we've been having lately - cool ocean breezes to waft away the few remaining mosquitoes and a hint of autumn to come. The weather has been ideal for the ripening of blackberries and apples. Our property sports a dozen or so heirloom appletrees, and it's been fun discovering their unique tastes.

I want to remind you about my painting, "Low Tide, Friar's Bay," which will be in the 2008 Oil Painters of America Eastern Regional Exhibition. The show will be at Richland Fine Art ( in Nashville, Tennessee, from October 17-November 15.

I've been working on a product with a friend, Pat LaBrecque of Black Brook Gallery in New Hampshire. The "Art Cocoon" is a novel wet-panel carrier that lets you safely store, display and handle wet paintings. I've had a prototype of it since spring, and I think everybody who's seen it wants one! It should be available for purchase in September. For a preview, please visit

I want to announce an exciting change in one of my workshops. Each year, I teach a weeklong, full-day workshop at Acadia National Park. I've changed the format for this year. The workshop, which runs October 6-10, will now be a MENTORING workshop modelled on my Campobello plan of five HALF-days. Price of the workshop is $300, which covers tuition only. (If you're not familiar with my mentoring workshops, please visit this page.) If you're interested, contact Gail Ribas at 207-460-4119 or

Speaking of workshops, I've got another very short survey I'd like my students (past or future) to take. It'll only take five minutes, and it'll help me fine-tune next year's schedule. Please click here to go to the survey. If you'd like to take a look at how I've currently got the focus workshops set up, please see my workshops page.

Everyone's wondering what's happened to my new book, Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel. Our summer business has been much busier than either Trina or I expected, so it has delayed the book. However, I am deep into the design/layout stage and expect to release it in October or November - certainly in time for Christmas! (My other book, Through a Painter's Brush: A Year on Campobello Island, is also still available. To see a preview and to order it and other books, please visit

By the way, I'm delighted to see that Bob Rohm's book has come out. The Painterly Approach was just released by North Light Books (see this link for more). Bob has been a great friend and teacher over the years, and I'm proud to say that I helped in developing and writing the concept for the book. It is a worthwhile read for any artist at any level. (Visit Bob's site at

Finally, I want to give you a list of some of my upcoming workshops:

September, 2008: Campobello Island, New Brunswick These workshops are almost over. This format of half-days has worked really well over the last few summers, since in the afternoons students can explore the Maritimes with a spouse or friend or, if they're really dedicated, paint more on their own! Pastel or oil.

Here are the remaining weeks:
• Sept 8-12 - Special Mentoring Workshop with Michael/Focus: Painting a Large Format - Intermediate-Advanced Only
• Sept 15-19 - Special Mentoring Workshop with Michael - Intermediate-Advanced Only - full

October 6-10: Acadia National Park, Maine - Mentoring Workshop This will be my fourth time teaching for the Acadia Workshop Center in Southwest Harbor, Maine. In early October, the park glows with beautiful fall foliage. Over the years, I've found lots of great spots to paint here, and I'll gladly share them with you. Pastel or oil. For more, contact Gail Ribas at 207-460-4119, NEW FORMAT! Five half-days. Mentoring workshop. Price: $300 (tuition only)

December 8-12: Sarasota, Florida
We'll be painting in the Myakka River State Park, and the workshop will be based at the Sun'n'Fun resort. There are vacation homes available for rent at the resort; click on "Vacation Rentals" from the menu at the top of the Sun'n'Fun site. Come join us for some fun'n'sun! Take the time to paint some last minute Christmas gifts! Pastel or oil. For more, contact me directly. Price: $350

January-March, 2009: Sedona, Arizona
Join me for weeklong plein air workshops based on the same format as my Campobello Island ones (five half-days.) These will be mentoring workshops and very small in size. Learn and paint half the day and then explore "Red Rock Country" the other half! Pastel or oil. Intermediate-Advanced students only. Contact me directly. Price: $1000 for one, $300 for companion (painter or non-painter) sharing same room. Includes 6 nights lodging plus two meals a day. For more, including a complete schedule, please visit The weeks are filling quickly.

(I'll also be teaching two workshops for the Sedona Art Center during this period. January 31 will be a one-day introduction to pastel in the studio; March 23-27 will be a full week (all day) of plein air pastel. These are different from my mentoring workshops, and are intended for all levels of student. For more, please contact SAC at 1-888-954-4442 or )

January 3-10, 2009: Boca de Tomatlan, Mexico
I'll be teaching at the Casa de los Artistas workshop center at Boca de Tomatlan, a beautiful fishing village nestled between the mountain jungles and the Pacific Ocean and not too far from Puerto Vallarta. It'll be an all-inclusive package, including transport from and to the airport (but not airfare.) $1795 through Oct 31; $1895 after. Pastel or oil. For more, contact Bob Masla at 413-625-8382 (Massachusetts), or visit

June 3-10, 2009. Dordogne Region, France.
I have a past student who is organizing this trip. He and his wife, who speaks fluent French, go to France frequently and would serve as translators and guides. We are still working out details, but the price would most likely be $1500-$2000 and would include lodging, food and the workshop. You'd be responsible for airfare and transportation within France. If you haven't expressed your interest, please let me know and I'll make sure you get updates.

I have many other workshops coming in 2009. For the full list, please see the 2009 workshop page:

That's enough for now. Have a great September!


Michael Chesley Johnson, PSA, MPAC, PSNM

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Simplifying the Garden

The other week, while teaching my workshop in St Andrews-by-the-Sea (NB), we had the opportunity to paint in Kingsbrae Gardens. A garden, jam-packed with floral delights, may be a great place to walk, but it can be a very tough place to paint in! The gardens were quite overwhelming. For this painting of a Japanese maple, I opted to simplify everything - even so far as editing out the surrounding flowers. I focussed on the maple's deep shadows and the warm light shining through the leaves and the cooler sky light bouncing off them.

"Japanese Maple Shadows"
5x7, oil, en plein air

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rock Demonstration

Rocks seem to be an oft-requested topic for my demonstrations. Today, I took the workshop out to the Head Harbour Lightstation. Although most people go there for the lighthouse, I go there for the rocks. At late morning, the rocks sport deep shadows - perfect for a rock demo!

I chose to zoom in to capture a rocky outcrop with some interesting color. Orange lichen dappled the tops, and the shadowed sides of the rocks were full of color.

"Warning - Strong Current"
5x7, oil, en plein air

Here are the steps I take with rocks:
  1. Outline the basic shapes
  2. Draw in the major dark accents (typically, cracks)
  3. Block in the shadowed parts
  4. Block in the mid-values
  5. Block in the lights
  6. Restate the major dark accents
  7. Add light highlights
By the way, this one is called "Warning - Strong Currents" because that's what the sign says on the left. The painting is of the middle island that one would cross on a hike out to the lighthouse. This hike is possible only at low tide. At any other time, a strong - and very cold - current races through the gap.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

It Doesn't Get Any Better

I'm back on Campobello Island now, teaching my weekly workshop. We've had gorgeous weather this week. It's perfect late summer weather - cool, dry air with a little breeze to stir away the few remaining mosquitoes, and intense sun. For painters, it really doesn't get any better - and hence the title of this little painting.

Painters painting other painters painting has been done before, but the strong light on the umbrella caught my attention. Against the dark greens of the spruces, it was just incandescent. Mid-way through the painting, Sheena, the student pictured, decided to change from her black smock to a white one. (As we outdoor painters know, the umbrella is to shade the canvas and palette and not necessarily the painter, and that black smock must have been getting hot!) I chose to stick with the original motif, just as I would if the clouds suddenly rolled in or the tide suddenly went out.

"It Doesn't Get Any Better"
5x7, oil, en plein air

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Painting Boats

Students are often intimidated by the prospect of painting boats. And with good reason! Not only is a boat a complex arrangement of compound curves, it also tends to move - even on a windless day. The boat you were working on so hard suddenly shifts, and all the curves with it.

On the way back from St Andrews yesterday, I had the opportunity to stop awhile on Deer Island and to paint for myself. On Saturday morning, there wasn't much going on at the Stuartown Wharf. I found this one boat, all by itself, which was a perfect model. The calm was so dead that the mosquitoes, without any wind to push them away, were thick down by the beach. Even so, something made the boat move, first this way and then that. Perhaps the mosquitoes were toying with it? At any rate, I was able to sketch in quickly the simple lines and to work with the movement.

"Stuartown Morning"
8x10, oil, en plein air

Friday, August 22, 2008

More from the Road: St Andrews NB

Near the historic St Andrews Blockhouse, there's an outcrop of rocks - the Niger Reef. This outcrop of sedimentary rock was where the HMS Niger ran aground in 1866. I like to bring my students here because it illustrates the problem with tides - how the landscape changes dramatically in two hours thanks to the tides. (In two hours, the water level can rise or drop by as much as 8 feet.) One must work quickly to capture the reef before it "goes under."

Here's my view of the Niger Reef from this week. The lighting was very flat at noontime. You can't tell from the painting how big the reef is. If I were to do a larger painting, I would put in a figure or two for scale. You can walk hundreds of feet out to the very far end.

"Niger Reef, Low Tide"
5x7, oil, en plein air

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Notes from the Road: St Andrews, NB

This is a two-workshop week for me. How is that possible? you may ask. Well, I taught a separate, one-day, "paint-along" workshop on Sunday in advance of my annual weeklong workshop at Sunbury Shores Art & Nature Centre in St Andrews, NB, which is going on now. The Sunday workshop took place on Minister's Island, just outside of town.

Minister's Island is a very special place. At low tide, you may drive across a gravel bar to reach it; at other times, you must go by boat. We drove over in the morning just minutes before the tide swept in and covered the bar. (It's an unsettling feeling to see your escape route vanish!) We had the island nearly all to ourselves after that; very few visitors came over when the boat began making runs two hours later. By late afternoon, when the tide went out again, a horde of cars was lined up at the other end, ready to invade the island. I send my thanks to Mark Clark of the Van Horne Estate of Minister's Island, Inc., who kindly gave us permission to arrive early and allowed us to paint all day undisturbed.

There's no lack of subject matter on Minister's Island. Around 1790, St Andrew's first Anglican priest built a stone cottage there. A hundred years later, in 1891, Sir William Van Horne, the General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, bought some land on it. Over 25 years, he built and enlarged an estate that became a model of late Victorian farming methods. The farm, which raised Dutch Belted cattle and exotic vegetables, was entirely self-sufficient. The estate features a complex of buildings, including greenhouses, a carriage barn and guest house, a huge barn for the Dutch Belteds, a bathhouse shaped like a turret and "Covenhoven," which was Van Horne's home. The grounds make for some great painting scenery. Van Horne, himself a painter, enjoyed painting in the bathhouse, which sports a panoramic view of the Passamaquoddy Bay.

I had the opportunity to do two paintings that day, one of the early morning light raking across the roof of Covenhoven, and the other of a corner of the minister's stone cottage with a view of Chamcook Mountain in the distance.

8x10, oil, en plein air

"Minister's View"
9x12, pastel, en plein air

Painting by the Minister's Cottage

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Fog Colours

Some of you may recall a painting from a few weeks ago similar to the following. Yes, it's the same place -- the tail-end of Lake Glensevern at Herring Cove Provincial Park -- with a slightly different composition. I really enjoy the big, dark masses of spruce that dot the barrier beach by the lake; they make it easy to create an interesting composition. More interesting this time, however, were the rich colors in the foreground grasses. Thanks to a heavy fog and overcast, the colors seemed much more intense.

As we slide from late summer into fall, I'm sure we'll see even more color in those beautiful grasses.

I am off to St Andrews, NB, to teach a workshop next week, but I'll try to post at least once from there.

"Fog Colours"
9x12, oil, en plein air

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lighthouses, Final

It's been a weekend of lighthouses. I went out Saturday to the Head Harbour Lighthouse and did this oil. This time, I wasn't intentionally trying to avoid the cliche; I was just interested in the cool colors and shapes the fog created. All the coolness is relieved by a pale yellow band in the water, and the red-violet "Swiss Cross" of the lighthouse plays opposite the dominating greens and blues.

"Floating World"
9x12, oil, en plein air

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Lighthouses, Revisted

I've addressed before the idea of working beyond the cliche. Cliche-prone subject matter include lighthouses. I know artists who avoid lighthouses as much as others, who shall remain nameless, embrace them. However, I have three lighthouses within five minutes of my studio, and I do embrace lighthouses - but as a challenge to cliche.

How do you avoid a cliche? One way is to consider the subject as an element of composition rather than as the thing it is. A lighthouse becomes just a tall polygon in an abstract design. Edward Hopper cropped off the top of his lighthouses without mercy. Andrew Winter, one of my favorite painters, portrayed lighthouses and their related outbuildings as interesting piles of blocks.

Here's one I did yesterday as part of Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy's "Paint the Lighthouses" weekend. (In conjunction with the Maine-New Brunswick Lighthouse Challenge Weekend.) I humbly offer it as an homage to both Hopper and Winter.

"Red & White: Mulholland Light"
5x7, pastel, en plein air

Friday, August 8, 2008

Starting with Rich Color

My mentor, Ann Templeton, once said: "If you don't start rich, it's hard to get rich." (She was speaking of color, I believe.) If you start with muddy color or neutrals, it's hard to work your way up to intense chroma. I've found this to be true in my own work.

I did this little piece yesterday as an example for students. I went right for the intense color - rich blues and blue-greens for the headland in the distance, and rich yellow-greens for the foreground. The first stage looked more like a background for a Disney cartoon! But it was very easy to adjust the color by layering in greys and complements.

"Over the Roses"
5x7, pastel, en plein air

Monday, August 4, 2008

Four Values

In my outdoor workshops, I teach John F. Carlson's concept of rendering the landscape in four values. Typically, the darkest darks will be uprights, such as trees; the mid-darks will be slanted surfaces, such as hills; the mid-lights will be flat surfaces, such as meadows; and the lightest lights will be in the sky.

I ran into a situation the other day that exemplified this concept almost perfectly. Rather than slanted surfaces as the mid-darks, I had a distant, befogged treeline. The value of the treeline is close to that of the meadow, but still a bit lighter. You can see clearly how I've broken up the landscape into big, simple shapes and have kept my four values well-separated.

"So Quiet"
9x12, oil, en plein air

Friday, August 1, 2008

Companion Piece

I wanted to paint a companion piece to "Foggy Regatta," which I did last week. When I do a piece meant to accompany another, I try to keep a few variables the same:
  • Same dimensions
  • Same medium
  • Same palette
  • Same "feeling"
Dimensions and medium are easy. I stuck with pastel and a sheet of 12x18 paper. Palette is a bit more difficult, especially since I did not put aside the selection of pastels I used for the first painting. However, in this case, the weather was very much the same - fog! Fog is an element that harmonizes a painting naturally, much in the way that sunlight will. A little bit of its color gets into everything. As for "feeling," well, you can't get more moody and atmospheric than fog!

Here is the finished painting:

"Fog, Raccoon Beach"
12x18, pastel, en plein air