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Monday, May 31, 2010

More Cottages - Roosevelt Cottage

"Mr Roosevelt's House" 12x24, oil

Morning dawned clear and cold, so I knew I'd have good weather for a morning session at the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park. After several days of painting Victorian cottages, I felt I was ready for the ultimate challenge - the cottage that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt lived in during their summers on the island.

The Roosevelt cottage is different from all the others for two reasons. First, it's painted red, not white. Second, the architecture is, in some ways, more barn-like than cottage-like. But it's an impressive structure with some very daunting fenestration. (Visit to read the story of the cottage and to see some photos.) I chose an angle that was a bit different from the one tourists photograph, and I like the way the building is foreshortened and looks less barn-like.

As with the last cottage, I spent most of my session working on the drawing and placement of features. It didn't take long to color in the shapes. At the end, I had enough information on the panel to finish up in the studio.

By the way, for the shadowed reds of the cottage, I did a block-in with mostly Alizarin Crimson and a bit of Phthalo Green and Chromatic Black. At the end, I pulled out my secret weapon - Grumbacher's Thalo Red Rose. I laid this on top of the underpainting right from the tube to enrich the color. I also used a bit of it, mixed with a great deal of white, for the red in the Canadian flag in the back yard.

Finally, don't forget my eBay auction of small sketches. To see them, go to eBay and search on "Michael Chesley Johnson" or follow this link.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Break from the Cottage Series

"Cut Field Colors" 12x12, oil

This is a 12x12 I did last week before I started painting the cottages. I had limited time that afternoon, but my front field was so lovely with color after having it brush-hogged that I wanted to capture it before it turned green again. I spent about 30 minutes on this piece, using a very big brush and letting the paint do its own thing. It's a very loose piece, and I love the brush work.

I was going to paint another cottage today, but the weather was against me. So, what's one of the things a plein air painter does in that case? Why, go through some of his sketches to see where he's been. I pulled out several that I thought some of you might like to have and am putting them up on eBay. Students or other artists often like to get a small piece to see first-hand how a painter works.

These are all oil, and some of them were quick, and others were more studied. There's a good variety of both subject and technique. Trina has helped me put up a few today, and there will be more to come if this works. To see the listings, go to eBay and search on "Michael Chesley Johnson" or follow this link.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

More Cottages - Multi-Sessions

"Prince Cottage" 12x24, oil

These last two days, I've been painting the Prince Cottage at the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park. I went over yesterday and worked for about three hours. With paintings of natural scenery, three hours is about an hour longer than I like to work. But for something as complex as a Victorian cottage, it does take longer. Most of what I did yesterday was simply to get the cottage. At one point, I had the cottage nearly done on an otherwise blank canvas! I wanted to make sure my drawing was accurate and that the cottage reflected all the rich luminosity of a clear spring day. Everything else - the lawns, woods and sky - I merely blocked in at the last minute. I couldn't have worked longer to finish, because the light had changed significantly.

I'd planned to finish the painting entirely on site in a second session, but when I got back to the studio, I saw that I could complete the sky easily without a reference. I had painted in enough information to work from in a convincing way. I spent an hour or so painting it and working it down into the tree shapes. I held off doing anything else, because I really wanted to do the rest from life. I could have made it up - but it possibly would have been recognized as such by the viewer.

This morning, clouds were moving in, so I hustled and got to the cottage especially early, at 7:30. The Park officially opened today, and an Elderhostel group had moved into the cottage overnight. I thought I'd get there before they finished breakfast. It turns out they'd already eaten and had left for a birding event. (This is a special birding weekend in Lubec and on Campobello.) So, I worked in solitude - double-checking my drawing, adding a few finishing touches to the cottage, and then completing the landscape around the cottage.

Above is the finished painting. Below is the intermediate stage plus a shot of the easel in the field.

Intermediate Stage:

In the field at the finish:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Friar's Bay Studio Gallery Opening + More Cottages

"Hubbard Cottage" 12x12, oil

As we approach US Memorial Day Weekend, I want to let folks know on both sides of the border that Friar's Bay Studio Gallery will be open this three-day holiday weekend. I've got some new work hung and, of course, you are always welcome to visit the studio upstairs while you're here. We'll be open afternoons. Then, we'll be open by chance or appointment until July 1, when regular hours resume. For details, please visit

This morning, my computer blue-screened with an NMI parity error. I'll spare you the details, but after opening the patient and taking a look inside, I decided it was time to go paint. I went over to the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park to paint the Hubbard cottage again, this time from a different angle. The early morning light was just beautiful on the grass and the roof, and I had a very relaxing time. The painting is above.

When I returned, the patient was still sedated and waiting. I finished up, and now I'm online again. I wonder for how long?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cottage Series

"Red Maple at the Hubbard Cottage" 12x24, oil

I live about five minutes away from the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park. Some of you may have heard me mention it in the past, since I do paint in the natural areas a great deal. But the centerpiece of the park, and what most tourists come to see, is the Roosevelt Cottage. FDR and his family vacationed on the Island over a period of 56 years. But the Park has other cottages, too, all of them lovely and with interesting architecture. By the way, "cottage" is a bit of a misnomer, since they are all quite large, typical of Victorian-era summer retreats for the moneyed class.

As part of my plan to paint larger pieces, I am embarking on a series of paintings of the park's cottages. I enjoy painting old buildings, and it's a great opportunity to be so close to these beautiful specimens. Today, I posted myself by the Hubbard cottage. (Interestingly, I wasn't the only artist around; Ken Burns' film crew was at the Roosevelt Cottage shooting for an FDR documentary.)

What attracted me to the Hubbard is the huge red maple out front. It really dominates the landscape, and the dark reds in its shadowed boughs are a nice contrast to all the "spring greens." I blocked in the tree mass first, using just Alizarin Crimson and Chromatic Black. I adjusted the colors with a bit of Phthalo Green and Chromatic Black, and then warmed up the greens ever so slightly to make the shadows more complex. Highlights I made with Cadmium Red and white, warmed with a bit of Cadmium Yellow Deep. I'm sure there are other colors in there, too, added for variety.

I have to admit, I took off the wheelchair ramp on the side closest to the viewer. Was that a mistake? At the time, I thought it was a modern addition to the house, but now I think that perhaps FDR might have used it in his day when he went over to the Hubbard's for coffee.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Large Paintings

"Cut Field" 12x24, oil

I've got a month before I teach my first workshop, so my goal in the next four weeks is to paint as many large paintings as I can. Typically with workshops, I do smaller pieces so I can quickly get them to a certain "finish" for the students. (Folks get a bit antsy if you make a habit of doing four-hour demos!) I do have some 18x24 canvases in stock, so I'll be getting to those shortly.

In the meantime, though, I did a 12x24 yesterday. I wanted to paint some views with a larger span, because lately I've been finding the more standard proportions limiting. We just brush-hogged the front field down to our tallest spruce, and it has opened up some good possibilities for the summer. In this painting, I really wanted to give a sense of the breadth of the property, so I included a good swath. It's really a lovely time of year with the apple trees blooming and all those "spring greens."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Acadia Invitational II

As some of you know, I've been in the studio the past few weeks working on some pieces for the upcoming Acadia Invitational II exhibition in Bar Harbor, Maine. Yesterday, Trina and I delivered three pieces to the Argosy Gallery, which is hosting the show.

Argosy invited 30 artists from across the US (and me in Canada) to paint scenes from Mount Desert Island, which is where Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are located. This is not a "wet paint" event; artists were asked to submit finished pieces that were either started during or inspired by a visit to MDI. Each artist was asked for three pieces, and I'm looking forward to seeing them. It's an impressive list of artists, and includes such luminaries as W. Jason Situ, Elizabeth Tolley and T.M. Nicholas.

There is no end of gorgeous scenery to paint on MDI, and each year, I enjoy teaching my workshop there and sharing some of the locations with students. Over the years, I've done a lot of painting and also photography in an effort to capture the variety of moods and the magic of MDI. Yesterday, after dropping off my paintings, I did more photography and tried to capture some of the spring greens that now quilt the hills.

The show opens with a reception on August 7th at the Bar Harbor Inn, which will display the paintings for two days before moving them to the Argosy II location just off the town green. I'll have more information on time, etc., soon.

Below are my three paintings. One of them you've already seen in a previous post, but I thought I'd post it again.

"Ready for the Season (Bernard Harbor)" 9x12, oil

"Clear Day, Bernard Harbor" 12x16, oil

"Clear Evening, Jordan Pond" 11x14, oil

Friday, May 21, 2010

Renovated Web Site

Every couple of years, I try to give my web site a makeover. Sometimes it's not "extreme" so much as just a spritz or two of air freshener. This time, I did a little sweeping and dusting and even gave it a fresh coat of paint. I'd love for you to take a look. Please let me know if I missed a cobweb or two. It's at

These days, what with the more dynamic style of Facebook and blogs, it's easy to forget about that old 20th century bit of technology, the static web site. It takes more effort, to be sure, to update it. But I think it's always good to freshen it up. It can be a good online portfolio for potential galleries and collectors, and if it's not kept current, it might hurt you rather than help you.

By the way, here's a studio painting I did this week. "Clear Day, Bernard Harbor" 12x16, oil. The painting is warmer than it looks in this photo, especially in the foreground, where I used a lot of Transparent Earth Red for the shadows.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Studio Fear

"The Lucy B" 12x16, oil/canvas

For a die-hard plein air painter, I must admit that the prospect of going to the studio to paint dredges up a certain amount of fear.

Outdoors, I feel my success ratio is pretty good. I can make an exciting painting. But in the studio, without a real landscape to respond to, where will the excitement come from? One can rely on coffee and jazzy music only so much. (Lately, I've been listening to Neil Young's "Fork in the Road" album.)

I've been painting from my laptop this week. It's different, though not necessarily better, than painting from a printed photograph. My photographs are 4x6, so I see less detail. Less detail, during the abstract, block-in stage of the painting, is a benefit. I can also hold the photograph in my hand and, if I get paint on it, who cares? With the laptop, I can zoom in on detail - a benefit during the final stages - but I sure don't want to spill Gamsol on the keyboard or get Phthalo Blue on the screen. I also have a good deal of light flooding the studio, and on my older laptop, the screen gets washed out. You always hear that the laptop has a more brilliant image than a photo, and that may be true in a room with less light. For me, the real advantage of the laptop is the ability to adjust color and create a photo-collage from several references. I can also have all my reference photos, and as many as I wish, available at the touch of a button.

Typically, I stop looking at the photo - or laptop screen or, if outdoors, the real landscape - about half-way through the painting process. I reach a point where I begin to respond to the painting, and not to the reference photo. It's a great feeling when I get to this happy place in the studio, because then I know I'll end up with a good painting.

Today, I reached a breakthrough. In the past, I've fretted because my studio paintings don't look like my plein air work. In the studio, I make more tightly-controlled marks, and I do a great deal of scraping and re-painting. I've always fought this in the effort to make the studio work look more like my alla prima outdoor work, which is looser with sometimes wilder color. But why shouldn't they look different? Studio and plein air work are two different species inhabiting two different worlds. Outdoors, I have springtime with the scent of apple trees flowering and the seagulls chattering down by the wharf. In the studio, I have a light source that doesn't move - and coffee and Neil Young.

Above is a studio piece, "The Lucy B." It's 12x16, oil/canvas. I used two reference photos for this, stitching them together.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

May Newsletter from Michael

Demonstrating in Illinois

15 May 2010
Campobello Island in the Canadian Maritimes

Believe it or not, we put 3,433 miles on the car between Sedona and Campobello Island! Along the way, we spent some time in Santa Fe; stopped in Springfield, Illinois, to teach a pastel workshop; stopped again to teach an oil and pastel workshop in Valparaiso, Indiana; and then stopped one last time to teach a pastel workshop in Montpelier, Vermont. (These workshops were full, by the way.) Although we had a great time on the way, it's good to be home. The apple trees are already blooming - about 3 weeks early.

I am busy painting for Acadia Invitational II. Argosy Gallery in Bar Harbor, Maine, has invited 30 artists to participate. This is not a "wet paint" event, so many of us will be doing studio paintings. Some of the other artists participating include Elizabeth Tolley, W. Jason Situ, Simon Winegar, David Tutwiler and Tom Nicholas. The exhibit opens August 7 with a reception at the Bar Harbor Inn. (I will post exact times on my website when I have them.) I am honoured to be invited to this event.

I've agreed to be the Juror of Selection for the 2011 (that's next year!) National Exhibition of the Pastel Society of New Hampshire next August. I'm looking forward to this, as well.

For those of you who missed Master Pastellist Doug Dawson last time, he is returning this summer to teach another mentoring workshop for intermediate-advanced students. Doug is a well-respected teacher and very generous with his time and knowledge, and the artists benefited greatly. The workshop, which runs August 2-6, will be based in Lubec, but we'll be painting on both sides of the border on Passamaquoddy Bay. Cost of the workshop is only US$575 which gives you five full days with him. Although Doug will be working in pastel, oil is also welcome. The workshop is limited to only 8 students. Our suggested lodging is The Wharf in Lubec, an elegantly renovated 100-year-old sardine factory. For more information, please visit or contact me. The workshop is filling quickly, so you'll want to act right away.

I still have room in my own Campobello Island workshops. Please go to my workshop page to learn more about Campobello and other upcoming workshops. For Campobello, if you bring a friend, I'll give you $50 off the $300 tuition fee.

If you haven't bought my book (Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel) or any of my other publications, now's a good time to do so. Lulu is offering free shipping on books this summer. At checkout, use the coupon code FREESHIP to qualify. Visit our store at to buy them.

By the way, Trina and I purchased a commercial property in Sedona before we left for studio and workshop space. Pumphouse Studio Gallery ( is where I'll be holding my Paint Sedona workshops next winter, and it'll also be my working studio. It's located in the Creekside Plaza right across the road from the famous Tlaquepaque plaza and a block from Windrush Gallery, which represents me. Since I'll be at Pumphouse only in the winter months, we have arranged for a summer artist to use the space. Nationally-known Hopi sculptor Gerry Quotskuyva will use it as his studio for crafting katsinas and bronze sculpture. We're very excited to have Gerry. And stop in and visit me next winter!

For those of you interested in learning about new paintings, new workshops and helpful painting tips, I encourage you to visit my blog regularly. The site is I'm also on Facebook, and I've started putting updates there, as well. Visit me there at

Have a great summer, and I hope to see you soon!


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Painting from Photographs, II

"Spirea" 5x7 pastel sketch
from life

In my last blog post, I noted that we've been painting from snapshots for over a hundred years . Of course, many artists have painted and continue to paint from life. But it's appalling how many students paint from photos and nothing else. They're missing the joy of working from life, where all questions are answered truthfully. Photos can answer questions about details, but they prevaricate when it comes to questions about color and value.

What did students do before the photo? In addition to painting from life (and from plaster casts), they copied the works of the Masters. The Masters had asked the questions and received the answers, and their painting are thus largely complete. Paintings by the Masters offered compositions carefully worked out with value and color manipulated to present an idea to its fullest. Copying the Masters taught you composition, color use and concept. Working solely from photos will not teach you any of this. What it will teach you is how to copy a photograph - not to create art.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Painting from Photographs: A Philosophical Moment

"Snowy Valley" 5x7 pastel sketch
made from a snapshot

Trina, Saba and I are finally home and back on Campobello Island. The grass is knee-high and in desperate need of mowing! Surprisingly, the apple trees have already started to bloom - a good three weeks early.

Although we had two days of less-than-ideal weather in the Vermont pastel workshop, we managed to do some good work from photos. As most of you know, I don't paint from photos much. Watching the students turn decent snapshots into good paintings made me wonder: What did we do, before the snapshot was invented? And how have our painting practices changed since then?

Degas was probably one of the first to use photography in his work. His photos, of course, were hardly snapshots, since they were made on glass plates with long exposure times. Vermeer may have used a camera obscura, an ancestor of the camera. But again, there's no "snap" about using one of these! Snapshots didn't really come around until after the Kodak Brownie was invented in 1900.

Painters like Degas composed their photos carefully. A snapshot, of course, should be composed carefully, but Kodak's motto of "You push the button, we do the rest" along with inexpensive film allowed us casual shutterbugs to get a little sloppy. Digital film has exacerbated the problem. You can shoot a few hundred frames in a few minutes and pick the best composition. Careful planning has been supplanted by triage.

Before photography, painters spent a lot of time composing and designing their images. If a tree in the scene ruined the composition, it was eliminated; if a hill needed raising to improve the design, it was lifted; if a cloud pattern seemed meaningless, the artist imposed order upon it. Knowing what worked and what didn't was an important skill the painter practiced every time he went to work. But today with snapshots, many students assume that the photo doesn't just depict but also dictates, and it must be recorded without error. "Well, it was there in the photo" - how many times have I heard that?

Never assume that the photo tells your story in the best possible way. It can't - it tells the camera's story, not yours.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Indiana Workshop - Part 2

"Jan's Meadow" 8x10, oil

I'm in a hotel in Rochester, NY, after a 10-hour drive from Valparaiso, IN. With a good Internet connection, I'm able to post some more images from the Art Barn workshop. We had an excellent three days painting right around the 69 acres. Chickens and burros provided constant entertainment as we worked out our compositions and painted. I've already been asked back for next year, and it looks like the workshop wi'll be in early May again.

Tomorrow, we're off for Vermont and expect to get to Montpelier well before nightfall. I'm looking forward to two days of painting in my old stomping grounds!

The painting above is an 8x10 I did on a new version of the Multimedia Artboard. This one has a linen surface. Below are a couple of candid shots from the workshop.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Valparaiso, Indiana, Workshop

"Dogwood Time" 8x10, oil

Indiana is proving a lovely place. The grounds of the Art Barn are filled with wildflowers this week. For my oil demonstration yesterday, I painted the dogwood in front of the barn. Using Multimedia Artboard, which is a very absorbent surface, I blocked in the painting rapidly with simple colors, making sure to reserve my lightest lights for the dogwood blossoms. We had a few clouds roll in, which "killed" the lights for a bit, but I waited until the sun returned to capture the dogwood in all its glory. This 8x10 demonstration took about 45 minutes. I do like the Artboard, because the beginning layers of paint set up quickly, allowing following strokes to break in a pleasing way.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Springfield, Illinois, Workshop

"Lincoln Home" 9x12, pastel

We just finished up a three-day plein air pastel workshop in Springfield, Illinois. The workshop was full, as are all of my spring workshops this year. Although we had gusty winds the first day at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, we had good weather over all. The Lincoln Home is four city blocks that has been returned to "the way it was" back in Lincoln's day. The sidewalks are wood planks, not concrete! The second day we painted at the Lincoln Memorial Gardens, where some of the spring flowers by the lake are still blooming. Our last day was spent at the Lincoln New Salem Center. Lincoln spent his early days in New Salem before he became a lawyer. It's a rustic village of log cabins and an interpretive site with costumed docents. We had such a great time with this workshop that we're looking forward to the next one.

Above is a sketch I made of the Lincoln Home. Word has it that the little tree in front of the house is dug up and replaced with a new one every few years. There's a famous photo of Lincoln standing in front of this house with a tree that size. I suppose it's done to enhance the feeling that things haven't changed.

Now we are in Valparaiso, Indiana, getting ready to teach a three-day workshop for the Art Barn. Here we have 69 acres with chickens, burros and ducks and lots of farm buildings. There's even a dogwood blooming by the red barn, which will make a nice picture. At the end of the week, we're off to Vermont to teach a two-day weekend workshop for the Vermont Pastel Society.