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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Plein Air Painting Challenges #43: The Changeable Landscape

"Sugarloaf Rock, High Tide" 16x20, oil

In my plein air workshops, I talk on the first day about some of the challenges of plein air painting.  Some are obvious - shadows move and the weather can shift, both of which will change the scene considerably.   Others are obvious only to people who've painted the Bay of Fundy - the tide goes up and down, which will change the scene, too.  But there are some challenges you just wouldn't expect.   Who'd have thought someone would cut the shrubbery?

I started the painting above a couple of days ago.  It was high tide, and I knew that when I got back to the scene, the tide would be different.  Sure enough, when I went out today, the tide had almost bottomed-out.  No problem, I thought, because I'd captured the water on the first day.  But as I began to paint, I noticed that the bush in the bottom left corner, a significant compositional element, was missing!   The Roosevelt-Campobello International Park has been working on the trails lately, and I guess someone decided this bush had to go.

And that's why we take reference photographs.  It's hard to anticipate every change to the scene.

The painting is one of several larger pieces I've been working on for my show in St Andrews.  As a reminder, the show is at Sunbury Shore Arts and Nature Centre in St Andrews, New Brunswick, and it runs from August 12 through September 7.  There's a reception on Friday evening, August 12, from 5-7 pm Atlantic Time.  I'll be there with photographer David Ogilvie, who will be sharing the exhibit space.  (For more on Sunbury Shores, visit the website,

Monday, July 25, 2011

Painting for a Show

"From the Bluff" 12x24, oil

I remember visiting Albert Handell in his Santa Fe studio a few years ago.  He was telling me how he gets ready for an exhibition.  This prolific painter has a vast selection to pull from.   He goes through it carefully, choosing the pieces that will work together best.   A great deal of thought goes into making a show that is cohesive and unified.

That's one approach.  Another approach is to paint "to" the show.  It's riskier, because you never know how a work-in-progress will turn out.  This is what I'm doing now, for a show at Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Centre in St Andrews, New Brunswick.  (The show opens August 12 and runs until September 7; I'm sharing the show space with Canadian photographer David Ogilvie.)   Normally, I have a good deal of inventory on hand, though maybe not as much as Albert, but this summer I have many pieces over in Lubec at the Laughing Raven Gallery.  So I have to paint.  And I'm enjoying it, as I have a very definite deadline for some larger pieces, and this makes for a fun challenge.

So, how am I painting "to" the show?  I have a quartet of large paintings of apple trees - what I consider the centerpiece of the show - that I painted back in June.  These apple trees, as I've mentioned in another blog post, are feral.  Once they were pruned each winter, but now they have returned to the wild.  They are a good example of how Man's influence on nature is still visible after he is long gone.  Even with Campobello Island's superb natural scenery, there is scarcely any painting spot that doesn't show the hand of Man.  Things once pruned and tamed have broken free, gone wild - but if you look closely, you'll still see the evidence.  I can't guarantee that all of my paintings will address this theme, but I'm working toward it!

The painting above shows a subtle intrusion - a fence.  Raccoon Beach, part of the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, occupies a bluff overlooking the sea.  The bluff is being continually eaten away by strong winter storms, and the fence is there to keep you from toppling over the edge.  It's not much of a fence, so be careful!

By the way, I still have room in my St Andrews, New Brunswick, plein air painting workshop.  The workshop runs August 8-12.  The price is CA$ 335 for five full days.   If you're interested, contact Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Center:  506-529-3386 or

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Three Fall Plein Air Painting Workshops

"Rainbow Harbour" oil/alkyd, 12x24

Above is a studio piece I completed this week.  I started with a bistre underpainting (detailed monochrome underpainting in browns) and added perhaps ten layers of transparent glazes.  I used alkyd paints for this.  If I'd used traditional oils, it would have taken ten weeks!  Alkyds dry much faster.

Even though summer has just barely hit its stride, I'm already thinking about the fall.  This fall, as I make my cross-country trip from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, to Sedona, Arizona, I'll teach three plein air painting workshops along the way.  I thought I'd mention them, as we are taking sign-ups even now.  They are:

October 1, Saturday:  Vermont, Middlebury.  A one-day oil-only workshop in historic Middlebury, home to Middlebury College.  I lived in or around Middlebury for nearly 30 years and have lots of great painting spots in mind.  Possible subject matter includes farms and fields, the falls at Otter Creek, or even some of the beautiful old homes in Middlebury.  Workshop will be held at Middlebury Studio School, beneath Edgewater Gallery in Frog Hollow (old Frog Hollow Art Center building.)  Workshop runs 9-4; bring a bag lunch.
Price:  $80, $40 deposit.
Contact me directly at

October 3-7:  New York, Old Forge.  A five-day oil-only workshop in the western Adirondacks of New York State.  The Old Forge Arts Center has a brand-new facility, which is where we'll meet in the mornings for a talk before heading to our location each day.  I'm sure we'll get some good fall foliage.
Price:  $450 for members for the Old Forge Arts Center, $500 non-members.
Contact:  (315) 369-6411, ,

October 14-16:  Texas, New Braunfels.  A three-day workshop in Texas Hill Country.  I'll be demonstrating in both oil and pastel.  Hill Country is a lovely place with lots of live oaks and rolling hills.  The workshop will be based at the 1863 Farmers Road Bed & Breakfast.  There is limited room at the B&B, so don't wait too long to sign up!
Price:  $375
Contact:  Mary McIntosh,, 830-625-0132

I hope to see you on the road!

Michael Chesley Johnson PSA MPAC

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Problem of Tides

"Beachside Roses" 16x20, oil

I went back out to finish the 16x20 oil painting of beach roses I started on Wednesday.  As you recall, I had to stop working on it because the clouds rolled in, changing the light.  But I was determined to head out again on the first cloudless morning, and that was today.  Above is the finished piece.  If you compare it with what I posted on Wednesday, you can see the adjustments I made.

Trina took a picture of me while I was working this morning.  Look closely at the painting on the easel and note the water level.  Now look at the water level in the distance behind me.  They are very different.   That's because the tide shifts about 50 minutes each day.  If high tide is at 10 am one day, it's not going to be at 10 am the next day.  If you're working on a piece over multiple sessions, and you're going out the same time each day to capture the same lighting effects, the tide won't be there for you.  You'll have to wait about two weeks for things to get back to where they were.

But the problem of tides gets worse.  Here in the  Bay of Fundy, the tides are significant.  In Welshpool, they average 24 feet.  That is, they go from one extreme to the other - a 24-foot rise or drop - in about 6 hours.  If you do the math, that's almost an inch a minute!  How bad can that be over a typical plein air painting session?  Well, if you're out there for two hours, the tide will move about 8 feet.   The contour of the shore will be radically different in two hours.  And if you're painting boats, they'll be either 8 feet higher or 8 feet lower, which will play havoc with your perspective.

If you go up to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the tides are even bigger - 53 feet.  I think I'll stay home.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Advice for the Sorcerer's Apprentice: Making Successful Greys

"Morning at Raccoon Beach" 5x7, oil - $60 - contact Michael

Greys are both easy and difficult to conjure up.  Easy, because there's nothing like a dirty brush to work its magic in creating rather ugly greys.  Difficult, because a pretty grey takes a certain amount of apprenticeship in mixing color.

First, let's make sure we've got reasonably clean brushes.  That will keep you from summoning grey without meaning to.  Now, let's think about how greys are made.

They say you can make a grey by mixing a color with its complement.  This is true, but it can be a very muddy grey.  A prettier grey can be made by mixing a color with its near-complement instead.  This is because the grey is closer in character to the color being greyed.  Try it.  Use a color wheel to help you identify the near-complement.    If you want to grey down a green, don't use red - instead, use red-violet or red-orange.

Let's take this a step farther.  Look at the color you want to grey and decide if it is a cool or warm version of its base color.  To grey it, add the same temperature of its complement.  If it's a cool red, use a cool green.  If you use a warm green with a cool red, this will make mud.  Using a cool with a cool will make a more beautiful grey.  As an example, I paint a lot of fog, and many times I'll start off with a light pink - that's cadmium red light with lots of white, and very cool - and then scumble on a light cool green, such as viridian with lots of white.  This combination gives me a mudless fog.

In the little 5x7 sketch above, I use this approach, but for a sunny scene.  The scene had a lot of grey in it.  I painted all the major shapes with the complement of the correct value and correct color temperature, and then overlaid them with the local color.

By the way, here's a picture (12x24) I'm working on.  This is not plein air.  I'm showing it to you because I'm having fun in the studio with it.  I am painting indirectly, with a bistre underpainting followed by a series of glazes.  I think I'm about half way done.  I'll write a blog on it when it's finished.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Achieving Harmonious Color

Today, I took the workshop out to one of my favorite spots on Campobello Island to paint.  It's quiet, remote and very few tourists find it.  The only sound was the surf and the ringing of cobble on cobble as the waves came and went.  You can see the view above.

I started a 16x20 oil of beach roses, pictured below.  I wanted primarily to get a sense of strong sunlight and then have the rose blossoms as accent colors.  I had just started putting in a few roses to see how they'd look when the clouds rolled in, changing the lighting.  I know better than to fight with the clouds, so I packed it up.  (It was lunchtime, anyway.)  I'll go back to this same spot the next sunny day and tighten up the piece.

One question we had today was, How do you keep from using too many colors?  For those of you who like a lot of color, you need to know that too many colors can give a carnival-like look to your paintings.  If you are, in fact, painting a carnival, that's fine; but if it's a quiet little oceanside scene filled with green and blue, you don't want your painting to end up looking like a gaudy sideshow.

It's easy with oil - just don't take out very many tubes!  Six colors is plenty, and I know some very successful painters who use just three.  (I also know one who takes out forty, but he knows what he's doing.)  Pastels are more troublesome, since you can't paint a proper pastel unless you have 200 or more sticks to choose from.  The trick is to pick out a few to start, and then keep using them until you just can't make them work anymore - and then pick out one more, and use that until you can't use that one anymore, either.  Pretend that every choice from your pastel box will cost you $20, and you'll keep your choices down to just a few.  I sometimes paint an entire piece with only 20 or so sticks.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

New Video Oil Painting Demonstration - Color Mixing for the Plein Air Painter

I have a new mini-video oil demonstration that you can purchase and download.  In it, I cover the concept behind my split-primary palette.  This palette makes it really easy to shift temperature in your color mixtures.  This is especially handy if you are trying to create a sense of sunlight and shadow.

You can buy the oil painting demonstration video by following this link.

The video is 6 minutes long and sells for $1.49.  For those of you who have purchased my other mini-videos, this is a different format.  It plays in Adobe Acrobat Reader.  You'll probably need the latest version of the Reader, which is version 10.  If you don't have it, you can get Acrobat Reader 10 here.  It's free.

You can see my entire list of plein air painting books and videos by going to

Let me know what you think!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Opening in Advanced/Mentoring Plein Air Painting Workshop

"Quiet Stretch" 9x12, oil

I have an opening in my August 29-September 2 advanced/mentoring workshop here on Campobello Island.  It's only $300 for five half-days.  We paint some pretty amazing scenery.  If you've been following the blog, you've seen some of it.  (The painting above is one from yesterday.)  Campobello is one-third park with plenty of nature to enjoy.  We also can paint boats and architecture, if you wish.

The workshop size is limited to four students, so there's lots of opportunity for personal attention.

For more on the workshop, visit  If you're interested, please let me know as soon as possible.

Mentoring weeks are for painters comfortable with working outdoors and in their chosen medium. In the mentoring workshop, you'll have the chance to learn the finer elements of painting, information that usually isn't handled in a regular workshop. But it's not just about advanced instruction. It's an opportunity for the serious painter to address issues that are bigger than mere craft. You might:
  • Give your art a mid-course correction
  • Create an action plan for the future
  • Define where your career is headed
Or, if you just want to paint with a "guide" without reevaluating your life, you can do that, too! You can consider it a painting holiday or artist retreat, or just a time to paint without instruction and to meet other artists.

We have a good group that week, so I hope you'll join us!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

More Art Business: Building a Brand

"Sally's Birdhouse" 9x12, oil

I have to remind myself that I don't want people to just buy my paintings - I want them to buy me.  "Me" is a brand known as Michael Chesley Johnson.

People like to buy the personality, not just the product.  If there's a personal story behind the painting, that can help the sale.  It helps the possible buyer "relate" to the painting.  Imagine you're a buyer.  Here's a pretty piece that would go over the couch, but you're uncertain about purchasing it.  Would you be more likely to buy it if you met the artist and he told you a humorous story about how he was so focused on painting that he didn't realize the tide was rising and got swamped?  (I haven't gotten swamped...yet.)

People like to befriend the artist, too.  I know one person who collects a lot of folk art - but she usually buys only if she can go to the artisan's shop and spend some time with him, learning what makes him tick.  Of course, you can't spend time with every patron, but you can certainly make your online presence, and any other marketing you do, too, as accessible and friendly as possible.  You'd like your buyer to think:   I'd love to meet this artist in person some time.

Consistency in your marketing and your back story is important, too.  If you were born in a log cabin and that is important to your brand and to selling your paintings, it's important to keep that out there.  Brand consistency is critical to public recognition.

By the way, sometimes art centers and other organizations, because of space limitations, want to shorten my name to "Michael C. Johnson" or "M.C. Johnson."  When they do so, they do me - and them - a disservice.  The brand is "Michael Chesley Johnson," and that's what people are looking for.   They won't be looking for those other variants.  If you are trying to get your name out there, make sure that anyone marketing your paintings spells it right!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Campobello Island Plein Air Painting Workshops Begin

"Sentinel Tree, Independence Day" 9x12, oil

It's Independence Day in the U.S..  As I write this on my little island retreat in Canada, one mile across the bay from Eastport, Maine, I can hear the parade happening on Eastport's waterfront.  Blaring horns, marching bands, the beat of drums.  Tonight, they'll have a spectacular fireworks display - all the more spectacular, because I'll be able to watch it across the water without getting a neck cramp.  (Those of you used to watching fireworks from Ground Zero will understand.)  The fireworks begin at dusk, which is 9:17 U.S. time - but 10:17 Campobello Island time!  If I can't stay awake that long, I'm sure the first !!BOOM!! will roust me so I can see the show.

Today began the plein air painting workshops here on Campobello.  We started off with fog, and so my demonstration includes a good deal of it.  This is what we call our "sentinel tree," which stands watch in our front field.  You can just barely make out Eastport in the distance.

I still have room left in a few weeks.  If you're interested in these small-size workshops, visit

Sunday, July 3, 2011

More Art Business for the Plein Air Painter

I don't know if you fall into the same category, but I'm the kind of painter who:

- Likes to make paintings, and
- Likes to have sold those paintings.

Now, there's a step in between those two that I don't care for as much - the actual selling of paintings.  There are some painters who very much like the selling part.  They tend to be social and outgoing, and they find selling to be not just challenging but energizing as well.  For me, selling is akin to the wearisome, fanny-numbing, 3500-mile drive I make each year from my summer studio to my winter studio.  I love spending time in both places - in fact, I need to, to make a living - but if I could click my heels thrice and travel in an instant, you bet I would.

Yet, there's a part to selling that I do like.  Some of  you know that I am mentally ambidextrous, and that my right brain is just as well-exercised as my left brain.  I am comfortable digging into the HTML code behind web sites, and I recently enjoyed learning about h.264 encoding for MP4 files and also what the heck a QR code is.  (At the top of this post is the QR code for my website URL.  You've seen these before, in magazine ads.)   There is a pleasurable, technical side to selling, too.  Lately, I'm enjoying expanding my knowledge about  social media, search engines and cutting-edge Internet technologies.

Today, let me talk about social media.  For many, Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with family and friends, and Twitter is handy for catching the latest on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's travels in Canada.  But of course, the marketeers, as they always do, have figured out how to exploit this new way of communicating.  Painters are figuring it out, too.  In my research, I've seen many painters struggling to get their names out by tweeting, "liking" and commenting.  Sometimes the activity is excessive, and I sense desperation or a lack of good manners.

I'm trying to find the middle path.  I don't want to be a gadfly, but then, I don't want to vanish from the face of the earth.  But how effective is social media, really, and is it an effective marketing tool for painters?  Is it worth the effort, or is it just another time sink?  Am I better off watching nine year's worth of "Roseanne" episodes on my computer or trolling the social media sea?

I don't have an answer yet.  But maybe you do.  I'd love to hear what you think and how you use social media.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy Show Opens

Last night was the opening reception for our fifth annual Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy Exhibition at the Next Door Gallery in Eastport, Maine.  We had a great turnout, and everyone enjoyed the refreshments and music.  (I took a few pictures, but stopped too soon to capture the musicians and the busloads of folks who came in near the end.)  I extend my thanks to the artists who participated and also to Lisa Marquis-Bradbury, who owns the gallery and is one of the artists.  Thank you, Lisa!

I was happy to see that our paintings were nicely hung and that we had plenty of them.  Ten artists are represented, and I think we have about 35 paintings, including oils, pastels, watercolors and acrylics.  (For a full list of participating artists, see   The paintings are, of course, all for sale.

I have five paintings in the show.  Here are shots of them, in situ:

"Blue Tug" 12x12, oil

"Raccoon Point" 9x12, oil

"Golden Fields" 9x12, oil

"Paint Me" 8x10, oil

"Sunny Day Lupines" 9x12, oil

The show, which alternates between the US and Canada each year, will run through July 14th.  The Next Door Gallery is at 8 Boynton Street and is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10-4 ET and also Sunday from 12-3 ET.  (It's closed Mondays.)  I hope you'll visit.

Also, a quick note about my own Friar's Bay Studio Gallery.  We have opened for the season.  I have many new paintings this season, including my large apple tree paintings.  Our hours are Monday-Saturday, 1-6 pm Atlantic Time.  For directions, visit  If you'd like to see the studio, you are also welcome to visit that.