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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Workshop Junkies and More Thoughts on Plein Air Painting Workshops

"Lighthouse Rocks" 6x9 pastel - contact Michael

What's the best way to fast-track your painting skills?  Some seem to think that taking lots of workshops is the way.  But no, that only makes you more educated, not more skilled.  Especially if that's the only time you paint.

The best way to improve your skills is to practice outside of a workshop.  A cellist doesn't get better at playing Bach's solo cello suites by reading textbooks and listening to recordings; he gets better by playing.  Sure, the cellist needs feedback, and that's why he works with a cello teacher.  But every cellist knows that the cello lesson isn't the only time you practice!

It's the same with painting.  You can watch all the videos, read all the books and take all the workshops - and get a virtual MFA in the process - but it's not going to make you a better painter unless you practice on your own.

There's a type of student we painting instructors call "workshop junkies."  These are students who take workshop after workshop and build up a formidable warehouse of painting knowledge, but who rarely paint outside a workshop.  They don't have time, because they are busy travelling and taking workshops.  These students have so many different ideas about how to paint that they've picked up from so many different instructors that they don't know which end is up.

Here's what I recommend.  Treat  yourself to one real workshop a year, just one.  Pick a painter whose work you like.  Check around to see if he's a good teacher.  (Some pretty good painters aren't.)  Read through his material - his book, a magazine article he wrote or his teaching philosophy on his website - and see if he's on a path you want to go down.

Then, take the workshop.  Be humble, and listen.  Ask lots of questions.  Take notes.   Listen some more.  During the workshop, try to incorporate what you've learned as you paint.  Finally, don't take another workshop for a year.  Just go out and paint, and remember what the teacher said.   If you found it valuable, use it; if not, discard it - but don't stop painting.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Painting from Photographs: All Surface, No Substance

"Rock, Grass, Rock" 9x12, pastel - contact Michael

I take every opportunity I can to disabuse students of the notion that painting from photographs is a valuable skill. It's not. Creating a painting from a photograph is like staging a theatrical set and then trying to live in it. That impressive shelf full of books is just a trompe l'oeil; the telephone that's supposed to ring in Act II isn't wired to anything; and the roast chicken on the table is literally rubber. A painting made from a photograph is like that. At first glance, it may look right, but as you climb onto the stage and look at the props, you'll see that they're exactly that - just props.

The reason painting photographs doesn't work is that photographs contain a very limited amount of useful information. Your senses will quickly outpace the meagre amount presented. You'll end up inventing things or worse, ruining your eyes trying to decide if a particular pixel represents a flower - or just a flaw - in the photo. On the other hand, if you work from life, you can spend a lifetime looking and still not see everything. But best is this - if you have any question about your subject, the answer is out there.

So what, exactly, are the problems with photos? A lot: Values, color and perspective. Either the light areas will be blown out or the dark areas will be too murky to do you any good. You can't have it both ways, unless you're doing HDR (high dynamic range) photography. The color will be off, even if you're an expert with fine-tuning your white balance. Film (or computer screen LEDs) don't have the range or sensitivity of the human eye for color. And if you're not using the right lens, you'll almost invariably have distortion in perspective. It's not so bad for landscapes, but with architecture, the right lens can be the difference between convincing and laughable.

The only thing a photo is good for is for shape details. If you can't remember how many mullions a window has, the photograph will help you out. But if you need to know what kind of green the ocean was, you're better off looking at a color sketch you made in the field. Even a handwritten note on a pencil sketch saying "bluish-green, a little darker than the sky" is more useful than a photo - which is what the old-timers did before cameras were invented.

The above pastel was painted, of course, not from a photograph.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Have No Fear: The Magic Cropping Tool and Plein Air Painting

"The Miss Fletcher" 9x9, oil - contact Michael

You're out in the field, and the most perfect scene imaginable as been handed to you.  In the excitement of this marvelous opportunity, you launch in with inspired sprezzatura.  Surely, every brush stroke will be masterful.

Thumbnail sketch?  Nah, you skipped it, because the design was so obvious.  But as you paint, you grow increasingly uneasy.  There is something wrong, but you can't quite put your finger on it.

Back in the studio, you put the painting up on the easel.  The cause of your uneasiness still escapes you, so you let it sit there a few days.  One day, as you're walking by, sipping coffee and trying to steal a glance at it - as if the solution, a shy devil, might vanish if you were to look at it directly - and it comes to you.

Out comes the magic cropping tool.  In my workshops, I make a joke about my "magic" cropping tool, but you'd be amazed at how many painting problems can be solved with a couple of pieces of cardboard.  Find your center of interest, and start cropping creatively around it.  Almost always, in a disaster of painting, there are a few salvageable inches, perhaps even a masterpiece.

It is always the part of the scene that won your heart in the first place.  You spent a great deal of love and attention on it, making sure it was just right, but in the meantime you sacrificed everything else.  Your instincts were right - congratulations!

The painting above is a case in point.  It was a 9x12, but it ended up being a 9x9.  I painted on a hardboard panel, fortunately, so it only took a boxcutter for the surgery.  (Stretched canvas is more difficult; pastel paper is even easier.)  Below are the two pieces put side by side.  You'll note that the rock on the left intruded into the part on the right, and I had to paint out the tip of it for the finished painting.  I've also put the detached piece as a separate image; it makes its own little painting.

"Head Harbour Afternoon" 3x9, oil - contact Michael

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Digital Copies: The Lost Generation

"Burke Falls" - 9x12, oil/knife - contact Michael

Back in the bad old days - the days before computers - it was not unusual to see a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. It was barely legible, with letters seen as through a fog. Now that we're in the "good new days," in which the two-millionth digital copy of a document looks just as good as the original, you'd think all this new technology was doing us artists a favor.

Not so fast. Yes, it's true that a digital image can be copied and disseminated ad infinitum without any deterioration. But the bad news is, that original image was flawed to start with.

There are many steps - and many possible missteps - between photographing a painting and getting the image ready for publication, whether in digital or print form. No matter how good a photographer you are, you'll never capture the painting perfectly. For starters, a painting is a three-dimensional product. Whether pastel or oil, it has a discernable surface texture that is impossible to capture effectively in a two-dimensional medium such as a photographic image.

But worse yet, because no camera or scanner is perfect, you will always end up adjusting the image on your computer monitor. You'll try very hard to get the saturation, contrast and color balance right. But every monitor is different. For example, I think my desktop monitor is usually spot on. My new laptop's screen, however, shows the same image cooler and bluer. My wife's monitor shows it with too little contrast. There are calibration kits you can buy that will help you adjust your monitor (and your printer, too), but even if I have calibrated mine, you may not have calibrated yours. And then there's the color gamut difference between Macs and PCs.

Finally, size does make a difference. A large painting reduced and seen on a typical desktop monitor will usually look more impressive than a small painting enlarged. And please, don't even start me on the topic of looking at artwork on the 3.5" screen of an iPhone!

So, every time you look at one of my paintings on-screen - or any other artist's - please keep in mind that the real thing is surely going to be different. And, hopefully, better.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Of Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade

"Pottery Cove Garden" 9x12 - contact Michael

Sometimes two names crop up in workshops: Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade. I think both of these fellows, one deceased and the other very much alive, deserve praise. Many "serious" painters may disagree with me, mostly because Bob Ross created a way of painting that shortcuts and, in the minds of these serious painters, seems to devalue the hard work they had to do to get where they are today; and because Thomas Kinkade figured out that romantic stone cottages with candlelit windows would sell far, far better than more authentic landscapes.

But I praise Ross and Kinkade because they help people work toward their dreams.

Bob Ross made it possible for many to paint who weren't able to get a proper art education or to find the time or money to take expensive painting workshops . He designed a whole system, from brushes to paints to easels, and had a TV series, all of which enables a rank beginner to express herself in a realistic way. To be sure, many of his landscapes were imaginary and contrived, but any beginner who could learn his approach was on the road to becoming a fulfilled painter. Many of these students, and today they are legion, no doubt aspire to be future Monets, and thanks to Bob Ross, they are able to work toward a satisfying means of expression. Those who do get out in the world of art soon realize that Bob Ross is not an end but a means, and these will continue to grow as painters.

Thomas Kinkade, whom people are surprised to hear is an excellent plein air painter, presents in his studio work warm, inviting images that anyone with an inkling to pick up a brush would want to emulate. Kinkade wasn't around when I was growing up and aspiring to be a painter, but other artists who sold similar images to the mass market were. I remember a print, big as a couch, that hung in my parents' living room. It showed a bucolic scene complete with an old covered bridge, stencilled with an advertisement for Red Man Tobacco, and two barefoot kids fishing. (My parents still have the print today.) I loved that image, and I painted my share of dilapidated rural structures because of it. If Kinkade had been around, I'm sure I would have painted stone cottages. What drew me wasn't the painting itself - after all, I was looking at a flat print with no visible "mark making" from a brush - but the sentimental image.

It would be good for students who start with Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade to continue to read about art, to view it constantly, and to look widely at the world of representational painting.  They should thank Bob and Tom for opening the door; but then walk on through to the next garden.

Friday, August 19, 2011

2012 Calendar Now Available - Landscape Paintings of Arizona, Downeast Maine, Canadian Maritimes

My new 2012 calendar is ready!  For $17 plus shipping, you can get 13 landscape paintings and seascapes from the previous year.  Paintings include scenes from the American Southwest (Arizona), the Canadian Maritimes and Downeast Maine.

I know it's a bit early to be thinking about Christmas, but if you're like me, you're already planning for 2012 and need to give yourself (and family and friends!) a good calendar right now.  If you're thinking of a 2012 Michael Chesley Johnson plein air workshop, you'll have a place to make a note of it once you sign up.

Here's the link for a preview and to buy:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Attributes of Color: Terms of Confusion

"Low Tide Rocks" 6x9 pastel - SOLD

Above is a 6x9 pastel demonstration I did today.  In it, I tried to capture the sense of light and shadow by playing warm and cool colors off one another.  In the shadows on the beach, I started with a bright (intense) purple, and then dulled it down with a greyed (muted) green, followed by a dark (low in value) blue.  Why all the parenthetical terms?  Let me explain.

Sometimes when I have a new group of students and we talk about color in the plein air landscape, questions arise. Is "tone" the same thing as "value"? When you say "brighter," do you mean "lighter"? Well, yes, tone is value. No, when I say "brighter," I suppose I should say "more intense."

Part of this has to do with the fact that each attribute of color may have more than one acceptable name to describe it. Another part has to do with an inadequate art education. I can't do much about the first, but I sure do my best to help with the second. So, for the record, here are the attributes and the different things they may be called.

Value. (Synonym: Tone.) How light or how dark a color is. This has nothing to do with the hue of a color. It can apply equally well to a purely neutral grey. A tint is a light version of a color, often with white added; a shade is a darkened version of it, often with black added. There is an absolute dark (black, the absence of all colors) and an absolute light (white, the presence of all colors.)

Temperature. (Synonym: None that I can think of.) How hot or how cold a color is. Sometimes related to color, e.g. blue is "cool" and reds are "warm," but not necessarily, as you can have a cool red and a warm blue. I would argue that temperature is relative in that there is no color that is absolutely cold or hot; temperature of one color depends on the temperature of other colors adjacent to it. Think about it - the color wheel has zones of warmth and coolness, but it has no beginning or end.

Chroma. (Synonyms: Intensity, richness, saturation.) How pure or how greyed the color is. A color may be muted, neutralized, calmed, dulled or greyed by the addition of a complement, white or black. When speaking of pigments, since no pigment is absolutely a single, precise color, the addition of any other pigment, no matter how close on the color wheel, will cause a certain amount of greying. Chroma has nothing to do with value; you can have a light rich color and a light dull color and still have the same hue.

Hue. (Synonym: Color, but it is an unfortunate term because color is really a sum of all the attributes - hue, chroma, temperature and value.) Hue is a particular color's place on the visible light spectrum.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

St Andrews Plein Air Painting Workshop

I'm back from a week in lovely St Andrews-by-the-Sea, a little oceanfront resort town that's located in a quiet  nook of New Brunswick in the Canadian Maritimes.  The weather was typical of the Maritimes - sunny, warm days interspersed with a scattering of moody, wet times - but everyone had a great time and got some good paintings.  This was my sixth summer teaching for Sunbury Shores Arts & Nature Centre, and I'm looking forward to another week in 2012.

Below, I've included a couple of  the pastel demos I did; I'll post some of the oil demos later, once they dry a bit more.

I had a good turnout for my reception at Sunbury Shores.  Comments were very favorable for the new work I've been doing, especially the large pieces.  We even sold some work!  The show is up until September 7.  If you're in the area, please stop by:

Here are some photos from the week, plus the pastel demos.

St Andrews Waterfront 5x7 pastel

Belinda's Birch, 12x6 pastel

Dangers for children and plein air painters, too!

Painting in Centennial Park

One of my classroom illustrations on color temperature

Painting by the Bay

Below, Shots from the Gallery 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

August Newsletter

"View of Grand Manan" 9x12, oil

[Note:  I send out a newsletter via e-mail every couple of months to students, patrons and interested parties.  I try to remember to post it to my blog as well.  Here is the one I sent out yesterday.  Some of it may be old news to my faithful readers - or maybe not! MCJ]

August Newsletter 
Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada

It's hard to believe, but we are now on the downslope of summer, heading toward fall.   Blueberries and raspberries are ripening, and the goldenrod has started to bloom.  Some of the less lucky tourists - teachers or families with students - are already thinking of going home to get ready for school.  But those of us who stay longer are looking forward to the seasonal change.   Cooler weather, apples and colorful maples are a few things fall has in store for us.

Before I forget, I want to remind you of my blog - - to which I post not quite daily but almost so.  It has new paintings for the collector plus helpful tips for the student and the occasional digression for variety.  You can "follow" it in Google Reader, find it on my page in Facebook, or you can sign up to receive it via e-mail.  Also, feel free to tell your friends about it, and you are more than welcome to forward this newsletter to them.

I'm very excited to announce that my painting, "Follow the Canyon," has been juried into the 12th Annual American Impressionist Society Exhibition. The exhibition will be held at Mountainsong Gallery in Carmel-by-the-Sea, October 15-November 15.  The awards judge will be Scott Christensen.  This painting is a different one for me because I painted it with a knife, and I usually use a brush.  (Maybe I should take this as a sign that I should do more knife paintings.  Trina has told me that before, because my knife paintings always sell.)  You can see the painting here

My show at Sunbury Shores Arts & Nature Centre (St Andrews, NB) starts August 12 and runs through September 7.   I'll have many new  paintings, one of which is pictured above.  I've been very busy this summer painting for the show.  If you're in town, I hope to meet you at the opening reception on Friday, August 12, from 5-7 Atlantic Time.

I am currently part of a show at The Old Schoolhouse Gallery in Qualicum Beach, BC.  The show, a pastel invitational, runs through August 14 and includes work by notables such as A.Y. Jackson and Harley Brown.

As always, autumn means plein air events.  This year is a banner year for me.  I've been invited to not one, not two, but three events.  First is the Grand Canyon Celebration of the Arts (September 10-17,, followed by the Sedona Plein Air Festival (October 22-29, and then "In the Footsteps of Thomas Moran" at the Zion National Park (October 31-November 4,  The Grand Canyon event will also show some studio work, as will the Zion event; the Zion show will run from September 20-November 27.  You can visit this blog post to see my two paintings that will be in the Zion show.

I'm still taking names if you're interested in going with me to New Zealand in March 2013.  I've set up a site where I am posting details -  Also, my friend Adele Earnshaw, a native New Zealander who is coordinating the trip, has a blog where she posts details on the places we'll be painting in -

I still have room in my September 20-24 (Tuesday-Saturday) advanced/mentoring workshop here on Campobello Island.  I will be fresh back from my Grand Canyon event and ready to paint ocean scenery again.  Let me know if you're interested.  At the end of this newsletter is a full list of remaining 2011 workshops.

If you've been wondering, yes,  I do paint commissions.  Perhaps you have a particular subject in mind such as your house, or maybe you're thinking of something more general, such as a calm ocean view or a lighthouse.  This is a commission without any commitment on your part to buy it.  I will take no deposit, and if you don't like the painting, you don't have to buy it.  The only requirement is that it must be a scene that I feel I can make into a good painting; otherwise, I will politely decline.  If you have good photos, I can work from those; or I can work on location.   It can be oil or pastel, and any size.  Contact me for pricing.

So, that's all for now.  Have a great rest of the summer!  I will most likely not write again until we are back in Arizona.

Michael & Trina

Michael Chesley Johnson MPAC PSA

Prepare for Plein Air:  Not sure how to go about painting outside?  Check out my online course! Great for beginners.  Visit

Remaining 2011 Workshops
July - September:  CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, New Brunswick, Canada - All media.  Weeklong, half-day plein air workshops for all levels.  Paint half the day, explore the island the rest!  $300/week.  Contact:  Michael Chesley Johnson, 575-267-2450, See website for  list of weeks available - 
August 8-12:  NEW BRUNSWICK, St Andrews.  Oil & Pastel.  Michael's sixth summer teaching at Sunbury Shores Arts & Nature Centre.  Price:  CA$ 335. Contact: Sunbury Shores Art & Nature Centre,, 506-529-3386,
October 1:  VERMONT, Middlebury. Oil Only.  Price: $80.  Contact:  Michael Chesley Johnson, 575-267-2450,
October 3-7: NEW YORK, Old Forge.  Oil Only.   Price:  $450 members / $500 non-members.  Contact: Arts Center/Old Forge, (315) 369-6411, ,
October 14-16:  TEXAS, New Braunfels.  All media.  Texas' "Hill Country."  Price: $345.  Contact: Mary McIntosh,, 830-625-0132
November 2011-April 2012:  ARIZONA, Sedona.  All media.  This will be Michael's fourth winter teaching advanced plein air workshops in Sedona.  $350 for 20 hours instruction.  For full details, see  He'll also be teaching at the  Sedona Arts Center and through the Scottsdale Artist's School during the winter.

Coming in March, 2013 - New Zealand!  If you haven't done so already, please let me know if you're interested.  I will need to get 16-20 for this.  Non-painting spouses are welcome!  Visit for details. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Back in the Field - Plein Air Boats

"Limpid Light" 11x14, oil/alkyd

I went out today to Jackson's Wharf in Wilson's Beach to paint boats.  I wanted to have one more boat painting for my show at Sunbury Shores in St Andrews, which is being hung next week.  I knew that a painting made with traditional oils wouldn't be anywhere near dry by hanging day, so I pulled out the Gamblin FastMatte alkyds again.  Everyone is remarking on how much the paintings I make with the alkyds look like my pastels.  On a dry, sunny day - like today - the paints set quickly, letting me lay down lots of broken brush strokes and broken color.

The painting (above) will be dry by Sunday, when I have to box up all the paintings and head out on the ferry.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Break from Plein Air: Studio Paintings

I've been asked by the Zion Natural History Association to paint a couple of studio pieces for the 2011 "In the Footsteps of Thomas Moran" event.  This is a plein air invitational that runs October 31-November 6, but it has an accompanying exhibit of studio work by the artists that will run from September 20-November 27th.  (For more on the event and exhibitions, see  In between teaching workshops these last couple of weeks, I've been working on mine.  Here they are:

"Snowy Heights" 9x12, oil/alkyd

"Snowy Canyon" 9x12, oil/alkyd

I really had a lot of fun using Gamblin's new FastMatte series of alkyd paints for these.  Not only did the paints dry quickly, which made things go faster, but they also gave the surface texture with a capital T.  Because the paint gets "tacky" pretty fast,  I can lay down broken color quite easily.  The final result resembles my pastels,  in which I use broken color a lot.  Here's a detail of "Snowy Heights" so you can see how the color breaks.  It's delicious!