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Monday, August 31, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 1

I'm embarking on a set of experiments with different grounds. In the past year or so, I've been using Blick Master Gesso (three coats) on hardboard, but I'm finding it a bit too slick and unabsorbent for my tastes.

So, here's the first test: Winsor & Newton Oil Painting Ground (two coats) on hardboard. It seems pretty right to me - just enough absorbency and roughness. I didn't sand it at all. The downside is, it uses petroleum distillates.

(For the record, I'm painting alla prima, wet-into-wet, using Gamblin paint with a bit of Gamsol to thin and a tad of Galkyd to keep paint creamy.)

"Retreating Fog & Tide"
9x12, oil/panel

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Guerrilla Painter's Notebook by Carl Judson

Carl Judson is the original guerrilla painter. While managing a cattle ranch in Colorado back in the early 80s, he began to paint. He says, "No sooner had I taken up my newfound pastime than it dawned on me that the last thing I wanted was to have one of my cowboys catch me in the act." Over time, he developed a little pochade box so he could paint on the sly. "It worked great - none of the ranch hands found out my secret." The rest is history, of course, and today we have the Guerrilla Painter Box and a whole line of products that make life easier for the plein air painter.

Over the years, Carl has traveled a bit - Bermuda, Central and South America, Maine, California and elsewhere - taking his box with him. I always enjoy hearing about another painter's adventures and discoveries, and also a little bit of technical talk, too. This is exactly what I found in his new book, A Guerrilla Painter's Notebook, which collects fourteen of his essays. It's a pleasant and informative read, and I especially enjoyed his essays on alternative surfaces for oils and lunch hour in Bolivia. While everyone else in town was engaged in a siesta, he was busy - painting. I'm looking forward to the next volume.

A Guerrilla Painter's Notebook by Carl Judson. 30 pages, 83 images. $6 includes shipping and handling. Order from:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Backlit Scenes

Backlit scenes can be challenging. How dark should the shadow be? How light should the light be? It's important to get the degree of separation between the values just right. And for trees, how warm should the light being transmitted through the leaves be? Quite often, the light will make the shadow glow with a richer, warmer light. But, the shadows must still read as shadow and be dark enough.

Here are two pieces I did recently. The first one I painted on a foggy morning. The fog was thin, and bright yellow sunlight poured down through it. I added a bit of Cadmium Yellow Deep to all the sunlit areas, but kept the shadows cooler with Phthalo Blue. The fir tree is largely in shadow with not much backlighting evident, but the light pours down past it onto clump of goldenrod. I hit the goldenrod with pure Cadmium Yellow Deep.

"Fog, Fir & Goldenrod"
5x7, oil/panel

This next one was painted on a clear, bright morning. The sky seemed a reddish, Ultramarine Blue, so I let that be my basic cool color. I worked it into all the shadows. For the warm, shadowed portions of the birch tree, I also added a bit of Cadmium Yellow Deep, keeping the mixture low in value so it would still read as shadow. For the highlights on the birch, I used a bit of Cadmium Yellow Light, which is a cooler yellow, plus a bit of Ultramarine Blue and white. Finally, to let the viewer know that the tree was glowing with transmitted light, I worked some of that same green into the shadow directly below it.

"Join Me in the Sun"
9x12, oil/panel

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Turps, OMS and More

Recently, on an online art forum, a member posted a question regarding whether "Damar Varnish can be made with standard turps or petroleum-based turps instead of the recommended gum turps?" As the Q&A ensued, it became clear that many don't know the difference between the variety of solvents available to today's artist.

For the record, damar varnish can be made only with turpentine. You can't dissolve damar resin in mineral spirits.

Turpentine is made from the resin of certain pine trees. It's known also as spirit of turpentine, oil of turpentine, wood turpentine or gum turpentine. Only artist's quality turpentine should be used for varnish.

Mineral spirits comes from petroleum. It's also known as paint thinner or brush cleaner, and the more purified brands may be called odorless mineral spirits or OMS. Mineral spirits is sold in hardware stores under a variety of names. Artists should only use highly-refined OMS because of the interaction of impurities with pigments in less-refined types. Some brands of OMS for artists include Gamblin's Gamsol and Weber's Turpenoid.

By the way, Turpenoid Natural, which comes in a green can, should not be used for thinning oil paint. It contains a non-drying oil. It's great, however, for rinsing out brushes. Regular Turpenoid, which comes in a blue can, can be used for thinning paint.

Robert Gamblin of Gamblin Colors has some good notes on solvents here:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

End of Summer Grasses

Although it's not quite the end of August, the air has an end-of-summer feel to it. The grasses out by Herring Cove are turning that lovely, tawny color that we see so much of in September.

Just as the fog was lifting today, I had a chance to capture the play of color in the grasses.

"Late Summer Grass"
5x7 oil/panel - SOLD

Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to Paint

How to paint? Wow, that's a tall order for a single blog post! But while I was teaching this past week in St Andrews, NB, I spent one evening (no TV, no wi-fi) thinking how I might condense my procedure into just a few bullet points. Here's what I came up with, and it really does describe what I do:
  1. Loosely sketch in large, simple shapes
  2. Loosely block in average color and value of each shape
  3. Compare and adjust relationships between shapes: value, hue, chroma, shape outline
  4. Note major dark accents and major light highlights
  5. Add color variations (not value, but hue and chroma only) within each shape
  6. Refine shape edges as needed (e.g. sky holes, value shifts at edge to soften, negative space adjustments).
  7. Finish with working in the third dimension and adding surface texture with thicker paint or pastel
When I paint this way, detail just "seems to happen" because the hand is not a machine, and not all strokes are as precise and unerring as we would like. The stroke slides left, slides right, sometimes crossing the centerline - sort of how I drive!

Here are two painting demonstrations, both 9x12 oils, that I did on Minister's Island. For each of these, I consciously thought of the process I outlined during the evening.

"Covenhoven Servant Quarters" 9x12, oil/panel

"Minister's Cottage" 9x12, oil/panel

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fog and Light

Tomorrow, I'm heading out to St Andrews, NB, for my annual August workshop at Sunbury Shores Arts & Nature Centre. This is my fourth summer teaching this outdoor workshop in which we paint the St Andrews landscape. It's a quiet little resort town with a scenic public wharf, historic buildings, famous Minister's Island, Kingsbrae Gardens and more. I look forward to it.

Last night, my exhibit, "Bogs, Beaches & Boats" opened at Sunbury Shores. Trina and I hired a boat with some friends to go from Campobello Island to St Andrews for the reception. We did a trip that takes two hours by car and ferry in just under 30 minutes! We had a glorious sunset on the way home.

I don't know how much posting I'll do in the next week, so I leave you with two pieces I painted last week.

"The Fog Clears" - 9x12, oil/panel

"Salt Marsh Evening" - 6x8, oil/linen panel

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Painting Buildings from a Distance

Quite often, when we paint architecture, we get too close to our subject. Every scrap of peeling paint becomes an enticement to waylay us on the way to creating a successful painting. Finding a vantage point where these little details dissolve can make our journey smoother.

I like to paint the old fish buildings of Lubec, Maine, and they are full of those scraps of peeling paint. But I have my ideal vantage point. From Mulholland Point on Campobello Island, N.B., you get an excellent, but somewhat distant, view of Lubec. The Lubec Channel, a fast-moving strip of tidal water, separates the two by about a thousand feet. Seals like to watch me from the water as I paint.

I made these two pastel sketches today from the Point of the old fish buildings. (Visit for historical information on the complex.)

"Red Roof" 5x7 pastel

"McCurdy Smokehouse Complex" 5x7 pastel

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Painting Fog

On foggy days, what subject is best? Well, you certainly don't want to try painting a broad vista! When we have fog, I look for something colorful, like a boat or building, or a close-up view of the natural landscape. Even on the foggiest days, the world right at your feet often features a great deal of warm, exciting color.

Yesterday, we had persistent fog, so I took the workshop out to Herring Cove, where I knew there'd be some good color in the grasses. I did these two small paintings, playing with the composition but keeping the same palette for each.

"Fog at Herring Cove I" 5x7, pastel

"Fog at Herring Cove II" 5x7, pastel

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Painting in Different Formats

We so often get caught up in painting in the same formats over and over again: 8x10, 9x12, 12x16 and so on. These are all standard sizes, and they do make the framing a bit easier! But by painting to these dimensions, we get perhaps too comfortable with a certain proportion of length to width. We get boxed in. Sometimes, it's nice to spice up the painting day by trying a different format, one we aren't used to or don't paint in that often.

Yesterday, I pulled out a 12x24 Ampersand Gessobord panel and gave it thin coat of burnt sienna. I was thinking of going out early in the morning today and painting - something. I wasn't quite sure what, but I was hankering to do a painting with more of a panorama. When I got up this morning, I saw we had a stiff wind coming off the bay. I knew the only quiet painting spot would be in the middle of the island. Then I remembered my favorite swamp over on the Glensevern Road. Here it is.

"Southern Head at Dawn"
12x24, oil/panel

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Boats and Rigging

A follower asked me how I paint straight rigging on boats. Do I use an aid? No, I paint rigging freehand. Basically, I find using a larger canvas helps. It gives me enough room to put my whole arm into the motion. It also helps to move the umbrella out of the way so my stroke doesn't stop short!

Here's the Simone & Rachel again, this time at dawn. No matter how many times I paint this boat, there's always something different and fascinating. This time it's the light.

"Simone & Rachel at Dawn"
12x16, o/c

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Working in Style

This morning I lugged my French easel and a 12x16 canvas out to the hinterlands of Campobello Island. Lower Duck Pond is about as far as you can go into the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, unless you go all the way to the end, Liberty Point. But I'd hiked around Lower Duck Pond the other evening and thought it'd be a good early morning spot. Low tide, especially, is an attraction for me, and it doesn't get any better than the Duck Ponds.

"Flood Tide at Dawn" 12x16, oil/canvas

This painting ended up having a Hudson River School quality. Not that I'm bragging! The point I want to make is that I wasn't thinking of doing a Hudson River School painting at the time. I was just mixing paint and paying attention to the color harmonies I saw. If you've been following my blog, you'll have seen other styles, even as recently as this week. Sometimes the paintings were painted with modern brushwork and expressionistic color. I bet if you looked over my last 10 years of paintings, you'd see at least a half-dozen painting personalities there. Who am I channelling today? John Frederick Kensett? Rockwell Kent? Emile Gruppe? Edward Hopper? Or possibly even Cezanne?

I don't think there's anything wrong with painting in a variety of styles. Sure, the gallery or the museum will want to see work with a consistent style. Showing a variety of styles in a show can confuse the viewer. There's also something to be said for "brand identity." But when I paint, there are so many things to think about, things that seem to me more important than trying to apply a consistent style over my body of work.

Still, isn't style the summit of craft? If I am so meticulous with design, color usage and brushwork - shouldn't I also be concerned about consistency of style? I have a favorite quotation regarding consistency. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contract myself. I am large; I contain multitudes." (Walt Whitman.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

More Working with Alkyds

Red Shed, 5x7,

Fireweed Field, 5x7

I'm continuing to play with alkyd paints, as you can see from these two small pieces. Over the weekend, I began running out of the white and wondered if I could use a traditional oil white with it. Also, I wondered if I could perhaps use a traditional three-part varnish with it to extend the drying time a bit. (On a hot day, alkyds dry almost too fast!)

I asked the manufacturer these questions. Here are the answers:

Yes, one can use traditional oil white with the alkyds, and it will slow down the drying rate. To incorporate traditional oils into the alkyds, mix them thoroughly with the alkyds. Applying a thin layer of alkyd over a linseed oil-bound color is to be avoided. ... It is not recommended that alkyd colors be mixed with damar-based mediums. These unlike materials may bond poorly over time and the damar will weaken the flexibility of the overall paint film.

After a few experiments, I'm of the opinion that alkyds are a useful tool in the oil painter's toolbox.

By the way, the excellent painter Robert Dance ( has written two good essays on working with alkyds. You can read his essays here:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Working with Alkyds

I'm having a blast playing with alkyds this week. Alkyd oils, for those of you who don't know of them, dry much faster than traditional oils. If you're travelling and painting outdoors, your paintings will be ready to pack up in about a day. Here's a piece I did yesterday. It was already dry and ready for a light coat of retouch varnish this morning.

"Greens at Low Tide" 8x10,

You'll note that there's more of a "dry brush" appearance to this one. It partly has to do with the fact that alkyds start to set within my two-hour painting window. (I believe one can use a traditional, three-part medium - damar varnish, turps and linseed oil - to slow down the drying rate. I'll verify this and post the answer here.) I like this look, which is similar to what you'd get with traditional oils and a very absorbent painting surface.

It was nearly 80 yesterday and very dry - much different from the weather we've been having! If I'd painted on one of our cooler, damper days, the alkyd would not have dried as fast. Just as with traditional oils, alkyds dry by oxidation, which is a chemical reaction. You should remember from high school chemistry that the warmer it is, the faster things react. Thus, the cooler, the slower.

PS You'll be asking what that little thing is in the water in the distance. (Doug Dawson cautions against painting a "whatsit" painting, in which viewers will ask that very question!) It's the Lubec "Sparkplug" lighthouse, in the Lubec Channel between Campobello and Maine.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Painting under Overcast and in Fog

Last weekend, I drove down to Southwest Harbor, Maine, to participate in a fund-raising garden tour to benefit the public library. Eleven artists were invited to set up in one of six gardens and paint away. Trina and I drove down in fog that was the proverbial "pea soup."

My garden was just outside of town in West Tremont by the ocean, and flowers filled the landscape. The visitors were real horticultural enthusiasts and seemed to know a lot. As I painted, I kept hearing remarks like, "I've never seen bee balm like that before!" and "Their potentilla is much bigger than mine!"

Several also commented on the fog, which began to thin around lunchtime, and the overcast. "Too bad you don't have any sun today to paint in," they'd say. "Oh, no," I would reply, "the colors are much more intense this way." And it's true. Sunlight tends to wash out a garden's colors; overcast and fog lets them really shine. Even a little drizzle isn't bad - especially if you're painting in oils, as I was. (And it did rain, but it held out until the end of the day.)

Here are two pieces I did. To get the intense richness of the flowers, I pulled out my secret weapons again - Thalo Red Rose, Dioxazine Purple and Cadmium Barium Orange.

"There Will Come Soft Rain"
11x14, oil/panel

"Be My Love in the Rain"
8x10, oil/panel