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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kickstarter Project Update - Prepping Panels

Batch of hardboard panels, ready to be prepped

(There is still time to give your support to my Kickstarter project. Here is a link to it for details:

As I mentioned in my previous update, I've received an order of panels I'll be using for the project.  This weekend, I worked on preparing the panels, and I wanted to share that process with you.

It would be far easier and less time-consuming if I bought ready-made panels, but I am picky about the surface I'm painting on.  I like to prepare my own.  Some people just slap on a coat of acrylic gesso, but I go a good deal further than that.

First, I buy precut hardboard panels.  The panels need to be accurately cut, and I've never been able to do that well on my own.  (I'm of the "measure once, cut twice" school of carpentry.)  I find the precut ones have no trouble fitting into ready-made frames.  (These are from Dick Blick:

Alcohol rub
Next, I rub each panel with alcohol to remove any surface oil.  Most of what you get for hardboard these days is what they call "tempered," which means a small amount of oil was used in the manufacturing process to improve durability.  I've checked with my supplier, and these days not enough oil is used to cause the product to not be archival.  (Artists should always use archival materials so they will last the ages.)

Sizing the panels
Waiting for the size to dry
Once the panels are dry, I seal each panel with Gamblin's PVA size.  I brush on a very thin coat.  The coat is enough to keep oil from my paint from penetrating down into the board, which could cause the board to deteriorate; it also keeps any bad chemicals from the hardboard from wicking up into the paint layer.  Basically, it isolates the board from the oil paint.

First layer of acrylic gesso
Texture in the gesso
The PVA dries pretty quickly, so I'm able to put on my first layer of acrylic gesso not long after.  I use random strokes to apply the gesso.  Although each layer of gesso is thin, the gesso itself is thick enough so it holds the strokes and creates a bit of surface texture.  It's this texture I like that I don't get with the "store-bought" painting panels.  (By the way, if I am prepping panels 9x12 or larger, I will brush on a thin coat of gesso on the backside to avoid warping.)

After this first layer dries, I follow with a second layer.  I don't sand between layers, and I again apply the gesso with random strokes.  This second layer is the last, since it creates a white ground upon which to paint that isn't blindlingly white but sufficient to do its job.  (If you apply oil paint transparently, the white ground will bounce light back through the paint and make it glow like stained glass.)

Applying the acrylic matte medium
You can really see the texture the matte medium gives
Once this final layer dries, I brush on a layer of acrylic matte medium.  This layer makes the gesso a little less absorbent.  (I like a certain degree of absorbency in my panels, but not so much that the brush drags.)  It also applies even more texture to the panel.

Sanding the panels
After the acrylic matte medium dries, I give each panel a very light sanding with a fine grit sandpaper to knock off any high points.  The final panel will still have a good deal of tooth and texture to it - just perfect for my painting style.
Final drying
Finally, to make sure the whole package dries sufficiently, I assemble the panels in a sort of "house of cards" that will allow good ventilation.  I do this in a room that is warmer than my studio.  These days, my studio seems to be holding around 54 degrees - a little chilly!

The whole process, not including final drying time as a "house of cards", takes about three days.  So, when you ask how long it took to make a painting, make sure you add that into the calculation!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Plein Air Painting History 101: Philip Gilbert Hamerton, Lecture 2

Waxed paper negative, 1855, by Samuel Smith

One of the many questions I get from painting students has to do with photography. Is it a good idea to paint from photos? It depends on whether you consider the photo a destination or a point of departure. That is, are you merely copying it, or are you using it as a reference for a painting? There's a big difference between the two. Copy photographs, and you get better at - you guessed it - copying photos. Use photos as a reference, memory aid or an inspiration, and you get better as an artist. Why? Because you are improving your creative skill by synthesizing a new work from a variety of sources. Copying a photo doesn't create anything new. It makes a copy.

I'm continuing to read Philip Gilbert Hamerton's book, A Painter's Camp. (Here is my earlier post on him.) During one of his many painting trips to the Scottish Highlands, he began to experiment with photography as an aid to painting. Since his trips happened in the late 1850s, he was one of the very earliest painters to drag the equipment out into the field.

He used something called the "waxed-paper process," one of many photographic technologies that evolved but then died when George Eastman invented his modern process in 1884. Here's an article from 1858 that describes how to prepare waxed-paper for photography:

Even at the time Hamerton published his book, in 1866, he was still uncertain about the value of photography to the painter:
Nobody has ever yet answered the often-suggested question how far photography may be useful to the landscape-painter; and whether, under certain limitations, he can wisely practise it himself. Nor can I answer this question yet, in any decisive way. I have hitherto only practised the waxed-paper process, and cannot speak authoritatively of the limitations of the wet collodion. Besides, I perceive that photographs taken for especial purposes, as memoranda, may be useful to a degree which as yet nobody has any idea of, for such photographs are not to be had in the market, where they would be unsalable, except to artists.

He compares photography to two different ways of painting:
Again, with reference to the study of nature, I dare not as yet advance definite opinions, because my object is so new, that the experience of my predecessors is of little assistance, except in merely technical matters. For instance, Turner's way of study, good for an imaginative painter, is not exact enough for a topographic one; just as in literature, the degree of accuracy in historical facts which suffices for the poet or the novelist is quite unsatisfactory to the historian. On the other hand, what is known as the pre-Raphaelite system, of doing all from nature, is obviously inapplicable to transient effects. Between these two some other system will have to be ultimately traced out, and I am making experiments to that end, which include the painting of a good many pictures, so that it is not likely I shall be able for some time to offer any definite conclusions on this subject either.

Finally, he decides:

Subsequent investigation has convinced me that no artist should ever copy a photograph at all, though most artists do, more or less. But as memoranda of isolated natural facts, photographs are invaluable. By seeking only for one fact in each photograph, you may get, in a large collection, a rich encyclopedia of facts of form. In this way the photograph is very useful to all students of nature; not otherwise. It can never replace good drawing, and is valueless for pictorial purposes, on account of its defective scale of light, and its false translation of colour into shade. [Remember that Hamerton only had black-and-white photography available to him.]

Thursday, December 26, 2013

From the Mailbag: Pinning Pastel Paper to a Board

Pastel on paper showing the white margin left after removing artist's tape.
I used an alcohol wash to "fix" the block-in.

A reader writes:   I am fairly new to pastels, having painted with them for a little over a year.  Sometimes I do not use tape to hold my paper to the easel, but use push pins to pin them to cork board.  At my stage, this seems to work, and I'd like your opinion about the flaws of this method.  Also, since some of the paper edges become "dirty" with pastel dust, yesterday I used a black permanent magic marker to create a uniform border around each piece of sanded paper. I believe the look is preferred and very clean. Can using this type of marker do any damage to the picture? Eventually this border would be covered by a mat or frame.

First, permanent Magic Marker or Sharpie isn't permanent.  It's permanent only in the sense that it won't wash off with water; it will, however, fade quickly over time.  (The Sharpie website says 3-4 months if exposed outdoors; a few years if kept indoors.)  You say you will be covering the border with a mat or frame, so it sounds like this isn't an issue for you.  However, the chemicals found in the dye-based ink may not be acid-free and could cause damage to the mat or pastel paper over time.

Rather than using a Magic Marker to darken the messy border, I would suggest using an archival material.  Pastel makes the most sense, since you can blend it in with the edge of the painting more readily than any other material.  You could use another matte medium, such as gouache.  But if the border will be covered by a mat or frame, who cares?  It's only an issue if you "float" the painting.

Likewise with the holes created by pushpins.  The pins should be located within the 1/4" border that will be covered by the mat or frame.  The only issue I've had with pushpins is when I do a water-based wash such as with acrylic, watercolor or diluted alcohol which will make the paper buckle.  The pushpins create stress points that emphasize the buckling.

To solve the problem, I recommend using artist's tape to tape a border all the way around the paper and to fasten it to a backboard.  When you're done, just carefully peel off the tape - and, presto!  A beautifully clean border.  This even works if you do a wash for your block-in.  If you firmly seal the tape at the edges, the liquid won't leak under the tape, or not much.

A little leak at the corner.  If I'd pressed the tape down more firmly,
it wouldn't have leaked.  But, the mat covers it - so who cares?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Plein Air Painting History 101: Philip Gilbert Hamerton

Phillip Gilbert Hamerton

When Philip Gilbert Hamerton published A Painter's Camp in 1863, the collapsible paint tube, which made plein air painting much more convenient, had only been around for about 20 years.  Hamerton, who eventually gave up being a landscape painter for the apparently more profitable career as art critic, wrote the book to document his adventures in plein air painting in England, Scotland and France.  He thought himself a rare breed:

With no more than such ordinary powers of physical strength and endurance as are to be found amongst average English gentlemen, I have worked from nature on the spot seven or eight hours a day, in the wildest situations, and in the most merciless storms of winter. I have carried through the most delicate processes in color, hour after hour, when shepherds refused to wander on the hills and sheep were lost in the drifted snow.

"The River Yonne" (91cmx152cm) by Philip Gilbert Hamerton

Although much of the book is devoted to Thoreauvian rants against civilization, it is full of adventure that displays the author's eccentricities.  At one point, he ends up shooting and burying the hound that traveled with him because it took to chasing sheep.  At another, he is accompanied by a Scottish shepherd lad who helps lug around his gear.  "Thursday," as Hamerton calls him, because that was the day of the week he arrived on the scene, speaks in dialect.  But Hamerton insists he speak good English, and although Thursday tries, he often fails, and so agrees to a daily thrashing by Hamerton to help break him of the habit.  You get the idea.

"Sens from the Vineyards" (91cmx152cm) by Philip Gilbert Hamerton

Of most interest to me was the "hut" that Hamerton invented to carry with him on his month-long painting adventures:
I have been very busily occupied with the invention of a new hut, which is at last finished, and which appears to promise every accommodation I require in a wonderfully small space. ... It consists entirely of panels, of which the largest are two feet six inches square: these panels can be carried separately on pack-horses, or even on men's backs, and then united together by iron bolts into a strong little building. Four of the largest panels serve as windows, being each of them filled with a large pane of excellent plate-glass. When erected, the walls present a perfectly smooth surface outside, and a panelled interior; the floor being formed in exactly the same manner, with the panelled or coffered side turned towards the earth, and the smooth surface uppermost. By this arrangement, all the wall-bolts are inside, and those of the floor underneath it, which protects them not only from the weather, but from theft, an iron bolt being a great temptation to country people on account of its convenience and utility. The walls are bolted to the floor, which gives great strength to the whole structure, and the panels are carefully ordered, like the stones in a well-built wall, so that the joints of the lower course of panels do not fall below those of the upper. The roof is arched, and covered with waterproof canvas. I have been careful to provide a current of fresh air, by placing ventilators at each end of the arch, which insures a current without inconvenience to the occupant.

He also packed along a cook stove that sat in the center of the hut, venting through the canvas roof.  If you'd like to read more about Hamerton and his painting experiences, here is a link to the Google Books version.

By the way, you can still support my Kickstarter project, "50 for the 50th," in celebration of the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park's 50th anniversary.  I'd love to have your support!  For details, please visit my Kickstarter page:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Kickstarter Project: 50 Paintings for the Roosevelt Park's 50th Anniversary

Mr Roosevelt's House
12x24, oil/panel
Painted on-location in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park

I am excited to announce that Kickstarter has approved my painting project for next spring and summer.  From May to July 2014, I will be creating 50 paintings to celebrate the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park's 50th anniversary.

As many of you know, the Park has been very important to me over the last several years.  I began spending significant time on Campobello Island in 2005, which is when Trina and I bought a house there and I established my studio.  I have hiked many miles along the Park's trails, visited some remote spots that few tourists manage to find, and have painted many of the views in hundreds of paintings.  Even though I am in Arizona for the winter, I dream about the green trails of Campobello.

The 50 paintings will be 6"x6" and framed, with the goal of exhibiting them on Campobello.  I am currently negotiating with the Park for an exhibition in August.  After the exhibit, the paintings will be shipped to project backers as one of the rewards.  Additionally, I'll create a book featuring all 50 paintings, a calendar with 12 selected paintings, and a set of notecards - all of which will be rewards for project backers.

Funding for the project has already begun, and the final day for funding is February 15.  It will help me purchase materials plus the time to do the project.  So, time is of the essence!  If you'd like to learn more about this project please visit my project page:

There are several levels of funding, so I hope you will support me in this project.  Thank you!

Monday, December 16, 2013

To Varnish or Not to Varnish

Willard L. Metcalf's Note to Framers and Dealers

I'm doing some research on the varnishing of oil paints right now.  I've known for some time that the French Impressionists were the first to consider varnishing optional.  Part of the reason was aesthetic, in that they liked the look of dried, matte paint.  It gave the painting a more atmospheric feeling.  Also, they felt they had more control over the final effect, since any application of varnish would darken and increase the saturation of some colors.  Finally, it was a revolt against the traditions of the Academy and its Salon.

But what I didn't know is that some artists, such as Degas, preferred the look so much that they went at great lengths to "leach" the oil out of their paints with turpentine prior to painting or spread the paint on newsprint so it would sop up some of the oil, making the paint "short" (having less oil).  Some enhanced the effect by using an absorbent ground to pull the oil away from the visible layer.  All of this dramatically increased the matte look.  In fact, it looked a lot like pastel.*

Interestingly, to protect the surface and to also provide a harmonizing filter through which to view the work, some of the artists framed their oils under glass.  (This practice ended around 1890.)

Unfortunately, not all art dealers understood the artists' intent in not varnishing.  Thinking that brighter colors and more contrast would help sell the paintings, the dealers varnished the paintings anyway.

Toward the end of the Impressionist age, the anti-varnishing movement came west to the US, where some American Impressionists took up the practice.  Willard L. Metcalf wrote on the back of one paintings:  "UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should VARNISH or other mediums be applied to this canvas as they will change certain values and therefore ruin it."

*Readers have asked about the soundness of the approach of leaching oil out of paint.  It's not a good practice, since leaching or thinning the oil too much with solvent will ultimately weaken the paint film and cause flaking or cracking.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Cold Weather Oil Painting - and EBay

Oak Creek Reflections 5x7 oil

We've had a cold snap here in Arizona, as has much of the country.  But if we get a cold start to the day, things always warm up nicely once the sun pops up.  That's what I love about winters in Sedona.

Saturday morning, I was scheduled to paint with the Plein Air Painters of Sedona and the Verde Valley at the Page Springs Fish Hatchery, which lies along Oak Creek. (Check out our website at and, if you're local, feel free to join us!)  It was all of 17 degrees.  As you can see from the photo, I was dressed for it.

Unfortunately, my oil paints weren't.  They were rather chilled, and using them was like trying to apply putty with a brush.  Worse yet, when I decided to add a little medium to loosen up the paint, I discovered that the lid of my medium cup was sealed tight with dried medium.  But I always carry a small painting knife with me, and that was just the tool I needed for painting.  When you have putty, use a knife.  The knife worked well in the cold, as you can see from the images.

The other painters worked in pastel, which is something I can't do when it's cold.  My fingers just don't get limber enough.  Believe me, I've tried!

By the time I started my second painting, it was getting toasty.  I decided to save my brushes and continue with the knife.

If you're thinking of coming out to Sedona for one of my workshops, don't let this post discourage you in the least.  A cold start doesn't mean a cold day.  Unless we have a storm, which is rare in the winter, it'll be warm by the time we get to the field.  Looking at this week's forcast, I see the lows will be below freezing - but the highs will be in the mid-50s.  Just perfect for plein air!

By the way, we have fired up the eBay engine and will be offering a few things there for sale.  Of note this week is an auction for a Paint Sedona workshop week.  Also, I have several truckloads of art magazines that I need to dispose of.  We are bundling these up and selling them, too.  Check out all the auctions and follow them at

Oak Creek Blues 5x7  oil

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fine Art of Pastel - Video Presentation

As you may remember, a couple of weeks ago I gave a short lecture on "The Fine Art of Pastel" for the Sedona Area Guild of Artists in conjunction with a "3 Masters Speak" event for the public.  I posted my slide show from the event shortly thereafter.  Now I'm happy to announce that the video of the lecture is available on my YouTube channel.

For your convenience, here is the lecture.  (For those of you receiving this blog post via e-mail, please go to this link:  It's about 35 minutes long.

The PowerPoint slides in the video are a little hard to read.  I've created a page where you can watch the video and step through the slides yourself at the same time.  Try it!

By the way, we still have space in a few of my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshop weeks.  Please visit for details.  If you're not a painter yourself, you might consider giving a gift to a Paint Sedona workshop to a painter you know.  Let me know if you are interested!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pushing Paint v. Pushing Pixels

Spring Creek Sketch
Medium: Binary Digits, 1280x800px
One reason that I love painting so much is that I worked with computers for many years.  Picking up a brush feels so good after pecking at a keyboard and staring at a screen.  Computer work was like pulling weeds in the vegetable garden; painting is like gamboling through a field with the breeze at my back and the good smell of the earth filling my nose.

So why am I experimenting with plein air sketching on my Kindle Fire HD?

For the longest time, there was an argument among those who run art contests about whether or not digital art should be allowed.  "If your hands don't get dirty, it's not art," was one point.  Another was, how can you possibly compare a painting made with a simple brush to an image created much less directly and with a much more complex tool?  Also, isn't there something unfair about using a collection of circuitry, a stylus and tablet and several hundred dollars' worth of clever software to make art?  And does the end result really qualify as art, since it isn't made by hand?

Well, I'm not going to answer these questions at the risk of causing virtual fistfights among readers.

Regardless, I like to get my hands dirty when I paint.  But I'd seen some sketches that David Hockney had made on his iPhone, plus I've noted that some commercial artists have moved out into the plein air field with their electronics, too.  I wanted to try my hand at pushing pixels in the outdoors.  I liked the idea of taking out a painting kit that is much more portable than any of my "real" plein air gear.

As much as I like my Kindle Fire HD for basic functions like reading books, watching movies, checking e-mail and the like, it contains an eviscerated version of Android.  It can't do everything a "real" tablet can.  But I was able to find an app that would run on it - Autodesk's Sketchbook Pro for Android.  It cost only $4.99.

I played with it in the house first, doing some life sketching.  Black-and-white first to get used to some of the brushes, then a few color studies looking out the window.  I always recommend to students, if they are trying a new medium, that they get comfortable with it in the studio before taking it outdoors.  I'm glad I did, because it saved me a lot of headaches trying to figure out the brush tool and the color mixing.

Saba under the Desk


My worries:
- Not enough brush control
- Not enough color-mixing options
- Battery time
- Screen "washout"

Well, it turns out I didn't have to worry about battery time.  The Kindle Fire HD has a good battery, and even though it wasn't fully charged, I was able to paint a good half-hour or more - and that's with the brightness turned on full to compensate for screen "washout."  I sat on a rock in the shade, and the 8.9" screen was certainly bright enough.  If I'd been in the sun, though, I don't think it would have worked as well.

Brush Tool Options

My concerns about brush control and color-mixing options, however, were realized.  The app doesn't have a simple paint brush.  Oh, it's got every type of pencil you might want (all the way from 4H to 9B), airbrushes, pens, markers and funny little icon brushes, but not a simple paint brush. So, I chose a marker and an airbrush that seemed to make more painterly marks, especially with the soft-edged airbrush.  This, and the half-hour I spent working rapidly, forced me to simplify shapes. That's not a bad thing, as you plein air painters know.

Color Mixing Options

As far as color, working with the app was rather like painting with pastels, especially some of those more garishly-colored sets.  It was difficult to mix neutrals.  My sketches are painted with the color palette of The Jetsons.  If I'd had more time, I might have been able to "finesse" the mixing to get more neutrals.  Changing the opacity of the brush tool - making it more transparent - allowed me to overlay color, rather like scumbling in pastel.  This helped soften some of the intense chroma.  The color selection menu does allow you to reduce and increase intensity, but I found the tiny circle in which you do that to be rather insensitive to my stylus.  Overall, this forced me to simplify colors.  Again, that's not a bad thing.  Now that I'm in the studio, I can return to the sketch - just as I would with a plein air pastel - and refine it at my leisure.

So, what do you expect for $4.99?  I feel I got a good deal, even with the app's drawbacks.

Will I keep using my Kindle Fire HD for plein air sketching?  Probably.  As with any medium, practice will only make you better.  But I won't give it up for "real" paint and pastel - I still like to get my hands dirty.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Talking Too Much to the Paint

Bear Mountain View, 6x12 oil - SOLD
Visit the Sale!

After I've painted a demonstration or a painting for myself - each of which takes a great deal of thought and verbal articulation, either to myself or to my students - I'm usually a little weary.  Especially my head.  But being brain-tired can be a good thing.  Sometimes we talk too much to the paint, and following up with a second painting when you're in this tired state can lead to interesting places.

The painting at the top is one such piece.  After doing a demonstration and making sure my students had what they needed for the next few minutes, I grabbed a knife and went to work.  No preliminary thumbnail sketch, no value or color analysis, no talking to myself.  Just mixed paint and spread it on.  I let intuition and experience take over, giving my brain take a rest.

I was surprised and pleased where this painting took me.  It's different from my usual work:  broad strokes, richer color, more painterly.  I actually felt rather rested when it was all over!

By the way, if you haven't heard it enough, my holiday-studio-clearance-extravaganza continues, and I'm including the piece above.  Click here for the event.

Also, I'm teaching a four-week "Plein Air Essentials" course through Artist's Network University starting December 10.  Click here for details or to register.

Did I mention Paint Sedona?  We have space left in several weeks from now until mid-April.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why I Like Plein Air Festivals

"A Grand Calm" 16x20 oil/panel - SOLD
by Michael Chesley Johnson
Studio Painting for the 2011 Grand Canyon "Celebration of Art"

I'm proud to announce that I just have been invited to participate in the 6th Annual Grand Canyon "Celebration of Art" plein air painting festival. This prestigious invitational, which happens in September of each year, draws patrons from all across the country. It sells well, too, thanks to the group behind it. Organized by the Grand Canyon Association, the event is a fundraiser with the goal of building an art museum on the Canyon's South Rim.* It's a very worthy cause, and I am honored that the GCA thinks that having me and my work will help.

Fundraising for a cause like this is one good reason to participate in a festival, but there are others. Professionally, participating puts more money in my bank account and gives me some great news for my marketing campaign. Plus, I always seem to pick up several new students and patrons, either while painting in the field or at the opening reception of the gallery show. I always come away a winner.

I have personal reasons for participating, too. The festival is an opportunity to reconnect with some old painting friends, to make some new ones and to paint in a beautiful place. What's more, a very positive energy blossoms that really helps the painting. There's nothing like it, really.

"Glorious Evening" 12x24 oil/panel - SOLD
by Michael Chesley Johnson
Studio Painting for the 2012 Grand Canyon "Celebration of Art"

This will be my fourth time invited but only my third time participating. I received an invitation for the 2013 event, but I had already made commitments to do a painting retreat in Nova Scotia, Canada, that same week. As much as I enjoyed the retreat, I felt the "call of the Canyon" the whole time I was following my painting friends on Facebook. I am very glad to be going back.

It's fun to find new events in new areas, too. This past summer, I was invited to the Castine Plein Air Festival in Maine, which was a blast. Next sumer, in June 24-29, 2014, I will be participating in "Paint it Beautiful," the first plein air festival in Montague, Prince Edward Island, Canada. I've not been to PEI before, and I'm really looking forward to it!

*I've had a personal tour of Grand Canyon National Park's art collection, which consists not only of works from important historical artists such as Thomas Moran and Gunnar Widforss but also of donations from artists in the artist-in-residence program. The works are stored on sliding racks in a warehouse. They really need space to breathe, and a museum would allow them to be shown in their full glory.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Paint While the Fire's Hot

Quiet Bend - 992
16x20 oil/canvas

Somewhere recently I read that, after returning to the studio from the field, it's best to make use of those plein air sketches sooner than later.  The enthusiasm you had in the field is, at best, a tender plant, and wilts easily.  Rather than waiting for the stars to align favorably, it's best to get started while the moment is still fresh in your mind.

I've got plenty of sketches sitting in boxes that I've never done anything with.  Recently, I came back from a painting trip to the "Arizona Strip," and in addition to urging from friends, I had a hankering to take the sketches and do something larger.  Last week, I had the opportunity.  At the top of the post is the finished 16x20 oil on canvas, and below are my two 9x12 field sketches.  The painting is of the bend in the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, but I call it "Quiet Bend" - and it was a very quiet day when I stood gazing down upon it.

I enjoyed working on this piece.  For me, who loves being outdoors painting, it's sometimes hard to lock myself in the studio to work.  I have to make things interesting.  This time, I needed the right beverage (lately, Russian Caravan tea), the right music (I rediscovered my Twin Peaks CD), the right incense (Satya "Super Hit" by Shrinivas Sugandhalaya) and, above all, the right approach - the painting knife.  I used a big knife on the studio piece, and that was exciting.

Lees Ferry I, 9x12 oil/panel - 993

Lees Ferry II, 9x12, oil/linen panel - 994
Take a plein air painting workshop with me this winter in Sedona, Arizona!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Presentation: "The Fine Art of Pastel"

Last night, I spoke as one of three Master Signature members of SAGA (Sedona Area Guild of Artists) to a standing-room-only crowd.  The event, one of several scheduled in conjunction with SAGA's fall members' show, was a great success.  We got lots of questions and interest from the public about what it is we do as artists.

Although I have three oil paintings in the show, which continues until December 5, I was asked to speak about pastels.  The pastel medium, as some of you know, was my re-introduction to the world of painting.  I'd left painting for awhile to pursue other interests (like putting food on the table), but a one-day pastel workshop re-ignited my passion.  It got me not only painting again, but opened me up to a medium I'd not used before, one that is wonderfully tactile and immediate.  During the presentation, I educated the audience on how pastel is different from chalk and what a permanent medium it is.  It is worthy of hanging in any gallery or museum, right up there with paintings made in oil.

Encaustic artist John Warren Oakes and sculptor John Soderberg also spoke.  Oakes talked about encaustic fundamentals and the ease with which an encaustic can be made, and he followed up with a demonstration.  Soderberg talked about his sculptures, and about the vision and the ingenuity behind their creation.  Both artists showed beautiful examples of finished works.

I've had a request to make available my PowerPoint slides from the presentation.   Although viewing the slideshow won't give you the full sense of my charming personality, you'll at least get a good idea of the subject.  The slides are, I think, self-explanatory.  Click here for the slides.

The Fine Art of Pastel
Click Here for the Slides

As I  mentioned, the "SAGA: Visions of Fine Art" exhibition continues through December 5 at Old Marketplace Plaza in West Sedona.  For full details, please visit this link to the SAGA event page.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Art of the Critique of Art

Sycamore Shadows 9x12 oil
Available at the Holiday Clearance Extravaganza

A student this week praised me for my mild, helpful criticism of her paintings.  "You're very gentle, and it's nice to have someone who doesn't just tear you down."  She has been to several art schools and has suffered at the hands of many, less gentle teachers.  Her words got us to talking about how teachers go about critiquing work.

My personal method is, praise first where praise is due, and then offer suggestions for improvement or for new directions.  I also gear my praise and suggestions to what the student seems to require; some souls are gentler and are just happy to have created something, but others are thicker-skinned and want more aggressive criticism.  If a student asks for a no-holds-barred critique, I will gladly give it.

Sometimes, when a student seems particularly down on her work, I will say, "Tell me one thing you do like about the painting."  Almost always, she can come up with something!  Then I say, "Now tell me one thing you don't like."  These two points give us something to work with.

Once in a blue moon, I get the sad student who can't even find one good thing.  With that student, I let her know that the fact she actually set brush to canvas is a good thing. It's the first step.  And of course, from that first step, the possibilities are rich.  (You can experience my critiques yourself by taking one of my Paint Sedona plein air workshops this winter.)

While I've got your attention, I want to mention a couple of things.  First, as a reminder, I will be one of three Master Signature artists from SAGA (Sedona Area Guild of Artists) speaking on Sunday, November 24, from 3-5 pm in conjunction with the SAGA: Visions of Fine Art show at the Old Marketplace Plaza in Sedona.  I am buffing up my PowerPoint skills for a nice presentation.  I'll be talking about the tools and trade of the pastel painter.  Fellow artists John Warren Oakes will be speaking on encaustics and John Soderberg, on sculpture.  For all the details, please visit this link.

Also, a visit to the dentist shows I need a crown plus a little periodontal work.  Who has dental insurance these days?  I pay out of pocket, and this work will be a not insignificant percentage of this year's income.  If you'd like to help this successful but still somewhat needy artist, please pay a visit to my Holiday Clearance Extravaganza.  But who really cares about my dental problems?  You'll get good prices and good work.  Treat yourself, or help out Santa.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

3 Masters Speak - and Holiday Clearance Still Going On!

Desert View Tree, 9x12, oil/panel
Painted at the 2012 Grand Canyon Celebration of Art Plein Air Painting Invitational
Available at my Holiday and Studio Clearance!

We had a great turnout last night at the opening reception for the SAGA: Visions of Fine Art exhibition, which features work of 27 artists from the Sedona Area Guild of Artists.  Next Sunday, we'll have another event in the SAGA show schedule - "3 Masters Speak."  I'm part of a panel of three Master Signature members who will be making a presentation on our craft.  The other two artists are John Soderberg, sculptor, and John Warren Oakes, encaustic and acrylic artist.  I'll be speaking specifically on pastel painting.

The discussion runs from 3 to 5 pm, Sunday, November 24th, at the Old Marketplace Plaza at 1370 West SR 89A in Sedona, Arizona.  For details, visit this link.  I hope you'll join us!  I'll answer any and all questions about pastel painting!

I want to remind you that you don't have to drive down to the mall with the other lemmings to get your Christmas gifts.  You can shop at home!  And if you're looking for a piece of fine art, I've several I have pulled out of the studio that I think would might great gifts.  These are priced for today's economy.  I'd be delighted to have one of these pieces in your home - or in the home of a relative or friend!  You can see the paintings here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Upcoming Exhibition: Sedona Area Guild of Artists

I am pleased to be part of the upcoming exhibition, as a Master Signature Member, of the Sedona Area Guild of Artists.  If you're in the area, please join us for the reception and for my presentation!  Details are in the press release below.

Three Master Artists Speak About Their Art, Their Process

Michael Chesley Johnson, an award winning plein air landscape painter noted for his expressive use of color, John Warren Oakes, one of nine Master Signature Artists and a charter member of the Sedona Area Guild of Artists (SAGA) who specializes in encaustic painting, and John M. Soderberg, renowned Sedona bronze sculptor, will be featured at a public event at the SAGA: Visions of Fine Art Show on Sunday, November 24, from 3 – 5 p.m. This event will take place in the show space located in the Old Marketplace at 1370 West SR 89A in Sedona directly behind the Merlin statue, and adjacent to the courtyard. The SAGA: Visions of Fine Art Show which opened on Friday, November 15, will run through Thursday, December 5. Show hours are Tuesday – Thursday, 12 – 5 pm, Friday and Saturday, 12 – 8 pm, and Sunday from 12 – 5 p.m. (Closed Mondays and Thanksgiving Day)

You won’t want to miss this event, where three of SAGA’s Master Signature Artists offer a wealth of knowledge about their art and their process by talking about it and demonstrating how they do their work. Michael Chesley Johnson’s ability to talk about the act of painting in easy-to-understand terms has made him a popular teacher and writer. He gives workshops across the U.S. and in Canada to all levels of students, from beginner to professional. Johnson also serves as Contributing Editor for The Artist’s Magazine, writes regularly for The Pastel Journal, and has authored several books, including one titled, Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel.

John Warren Oakes, Emeritus Professor of Art at Western Kentucky University, and Art Director for Ethereal Publications, also served twenty years as Director of a university art gallery until he retired to Sedona. Oakes taught art at the university level for forty-six years, has his art work in public and private collections in twenty-eight states and eighteen nations, and is the current President of the Sedona Art Museum. Oakes has studied photography and painting, and is a member of many arts organizations, including the International Encaustic Artists, the Encaustic Art Institute, and the Encaustic Artists International.

As a child, John M. Soderberg traveled the world with his family who encouraged him in the fine arts at a very early age. Following his arrival in America as a young adult, and a stint in the Marines, Soderberg felt a drive to work big, and moved to Flagstaff with his wife and two baby daughters, where he worked in a small bronze foundry for four years to learn the art of bronze. Throughout his forty year career as a bronze sculptor, Soderberg has completed monumental bronze commissions for private parties, corporations, churches, and organizations across the country. He has sculpted numerous influential figures including Christ, Steve Biko, Moses, Al Stein, Merlin, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, Mark Honeywell, Bill and Vieve Gore, Robert Schuller, Jim Wilden, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, St. Catherine of Siena, Gil Gillenwater, and others. Soderberg currently lives and works on a small homestead ranch in Camp Verde. His passion is Bronze, and his fascination is the lonely, timeless, and ultimately noble drama of the human experience. He sculpturally explores worthy human themes in a manner which simply and honestly evokes empathy in the viewer.

In addition to this outstanding opportunity to meet and hear three masters tell their story, SAGA will also be holding events for its members and their guests during the SAGA: Visions of Fine Art Show. Jerry Buley, Ph.D., ASU Emeritus Professor from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, and Founding Past President of SAGA, will facilitate a Storytelling Workshop for SAGA members. Master Signature Artist and teacher, Joella Jean Mahoney, will hold a very special salon for members and invited artist friends called, The Art Process, which promises to be a delightful time of learning through group interaction.

For a complete Schedule of Events, see the SAGA website at Click on SAGA Events at the top of the page, or find us on Facebook at For more information about the Sedona Area Guild of Artists, call 928-284-9526, or email

Monday, November 11, 2013

Road Trip: Painting the Arizona Strip

Vermillion Cliffs cast a shadow on Echo Cliffs at sunset

No, we're not talking about comic strips here.  The "Arizona Strip" is that part of Arizona that lies north of the Colorado River and the Utah border.  It's sort of a no-man's land, a stark but beautiful landscape.  I had the opportunity this past week to spend several days painting the Arizona Strip with my friend M.L. Coleman.  We traveled about 500 miles in his 22-foot Lazy Daze RV to visit such places as the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Marble Canyon and Lees Ferry.

Near Lees Ferry

A break in an oil coolant line in the RV and problems with getting replacement parts delayed our departure until Tuesday.  That was just as well, since a small weather front moved through on Monday, dropping snow in the high country.  Tuesday morning dawned cool and clear in Sedona, so we headed up toward Page.  Getting to Page,  however, was out of the question because of the monumental "slump" in the road bed of Route 89.  This happened over a year ago, and it still has engineers scratching their heads over how to fix it.  This was not a problem for us, though, since we weren't trying to get to Page.  To reach the Strip, you head west on 89A a few miles before Page.  I bring up the "slump" to show you how the strange geology in northern Arizona can puzzle even the experts.  This geology is what painters go to the Strip to paint.

After a four-hour drive, we ended up near Lees Ferry, which marks the one place in Arizona where you can easily cross the Colorado river via boat.  Lees Ferry, as a historic site, is administered by the National Park Service.  Here's what the NPS web site has to say:
Lees Ferry is the only place within Glen Canyon where visitors can drive to the Colorado River in over 700 miles of Canyon Country, right up to the first "rapid" in the Grand Canyon. A natural corridor between Utah and Arizona, Lees Ferry figured prominently in the exploration and settlement of Northern Arizona. Lees Ferry is now a meeting of the old and the new.
Lees Ferry sits hunkered down beneath the Vermillion Cliffs.  The Cliffs are about 1500+ feet high and yes, the name is accurate.  Even at high noon, when color is usually washed-out, they glow a stunning vermillion hue.  In the evening, as the sun drops in the west and the shadows grow, they become breathtaking.  We arrived at the campground in time to do a quick painting before sunset.

Camping at Lees Ferry

Surprisingly, the campground was mostly empty.  I imagine it must get busy sometime, since it had not one but two campground hosts.  Save for a couple of generators running - they both stopped by 8:30 - it proved a quiet place to spend the night.  It was the only night we spent in a campground; other nights, we "boondocked," as RVers call it, finding a quiet spot off the road.  The Strip is mostly either National Forest or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, and you can camp anywhere but in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, which is off-limits to internal combustion engines.  If you want a superbly quiet night with plenty of stars but without smokey campfires and noisy generators, this is how to get a great camping experience.

After painting, we had dinner.   All our meals were simple.  M.L.'s wife had roasted a chicken and made some soup that we brought with us; otherwise, M.L. cooked steak (beef and pork) and always made a small salad.  For lunches, I'd brought some bagels and peanut butter; M.L. shared his carrot and celery sticks with me, and always gave me a thumb-sized chunk of Dove chocolate for dessert.  Breakfasts were a scramble of eggs, veggies and some sort of meat.  As a swap for his cooking, I was in charge of washing dishes.  Doing any kind of food prep, dish washing - and also personal bathing - in an RV requires careful monitoring of quantities.  We had about 40 gallons of fresh water in the tank, and I had no idea how capacious the grey water tank was.  But a gauge showing levels of fresh water, grey water, sewage, propane and battery power was very useful in helping us trim our usage of resources.   (I should mention that we returned home with about a third of our fresh water and our propane unused.  M.L. says he can usually go about five days in the RV without dumping grey water or sewage.)

Pulled over for a quick one (no, it's  not a scene from 'Breaking Bad')

That night, the temperature plummeted.  It was our coldest night.  When I woke just before dawn to get the coffee perking, it was 31 degrees inside the RV and, I think, 28 degrees outside.  I'd brought an old Coleman sleeping bag, which was totally inadequate, as well as a down "mummy" bag.  But rather than use the mummy bag, which though warm can be rather confining, I chose the Coleman.  I had a cold "skunk stripe" down my back all night where I had failed to zip up the bag.  For the rest of the adventure, I used an old National Park Service sleeping bag that M.L. had brought.  (He once worked for the Park Service.)  I don't know what the bag is made of, but I stayed toasty warm no matter how cold it got.  (We left the heat off at night, turning it on only when we got up in the morning.)

Wednesday, we headed out of the campground toward the North Rim.  I'd never been to the North Rim and was excited to be heading that way.  But first, we did a quick painting on the road somewhere beneath the Vermillion Cliffs.  After that, our first stop was Jacob Lake to fill up on fuel.

Lodge at the North Rim

Jacob Lake sits at just a hair below 8000 feet.  It was noticeably colder, and the price of gas noticeably higher.  It was another 43 miles from Jacob Lake to the North Rim, and we were averaging 10 miles per gallon.  A big sign flashed, "North Rim Open - No Services."  So, filling up made sense.  And the sign was right - no services were open at the North Rim, but the Park itself was.  But only barely.  We were disappointed to learn that the roads to Point Imperial and Cape Royal were closed.  The only road open was the main one to the lodge.

North Rim view, looking to South Rim

The North Rim sits about a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, and it gets considerably more snow.  Because of this, it closes on October 15th each year, but remains open for day use until snow closes Route 67 from Jacob Lake.  Since the snow from Monday's storm had pretty much vanished, we imagined the park roads that led to interesting painting spots would be open.  Not so.  We talked to a Ranger, and even though the recent US government shutdown had re-opened the park, it was too late to re-staff the Park.  So, since there was no one left to patrol the roads and help visitors who might need assistance, the roads were closed.  Worse yet, the lodge itself was being re-roofed and was cordoned off by yards of yellow tape, which also prevented access to other trails along the rim.

Despite all that, we were able to do a nice hike out to Bright Angel Point and to paint a little.  The North Rim affords different vistas than the South.  Rather than being perched on a sheer cliff looking straight out and down, you are on cliffs and shoulders that project out into the canyon with gentler slopes below.  You're also a lot closer to many of the buttes and features you see from the South Rim; M.L. told me that, at Cape Royal, you could almost reach out and touch Wotan's Throne.

My North Rim painting, in process

Photo by M.L. Coleman

Here's a short video panorama I shot from the rim:

The North Rim campground was, of course, closed, so we headed out to find a spot in the adjacent National Forest where we might camp.  One of the Rangers helpfully told us about a Forest Road that would take us out along the Marble Canyon rim, if we wanted to go that far.  Since the sun was setting fast, we didn't.  Instead, we ended up about four miles up a gravel road that took us to a trailhead for the Arizona Trail, right next to the Saddle Mountain Wilderness.  It was a beautiful, quiet spot, with only one other camper.  (They were from Holland and had spent the last 14 months driving up from Cape Horn, but that's a different blog post.)

View from East Rim, down toward North Canyon

It was another cold night - this time we were lodging at 9000 feet - but Thursday morning dawned clear, and the sun warmed things up nicely.   We painted in the sun along what's called the East Rim, overlooking North Canyon.  We had a fine view of Marble Canyon, the smokestacks of the Page power generating station and Navajo Mountain in the distance.  I even hiked down the Arizona Trail a bit to stretch my legs.

I should mention the difficulty of painting with cold oil paint.  My white, especially, resembled putty more than paint.  The old-time outdoor painters used to add kerosene to the paint to loosen it up in the cold.  I didn't have any kerosene available, so I added a little Archival Lean Medium to it, which helped.  Positioning my palette so the sun hit it helped, too.  If I'd been smart, I would have put my tube of white paint in the drawer over the RV's heater vent.  I already had my toothpaste and sunblock in there so they would be warmed up by the heater.

Afternoon came with a few clouds, and we decided to paint a few aspens in the hazy light.  It's almost as if we were painting according to a checklist of Arizona scenery .  Tall cliffs and shadows, check.  North Rim of the Grand Canyon, check.  Aspens, check.  We would move on to include arroyos (check), chamisa (check) and water (check.)

Evening light on the Vermillion Cliffs

That evening, we drove back through Jacob Lake and then down to a lower elevation of 5000 feet or so to find a place to boondock along Route 89A.  Because of the imminent sunset, we didn't have time to research a location as much as we might have liked, so we ended up about 50 feet off the highway.  Fortunately, 89A traffic petered off after sunset.  The following morning, I took a short walk along a fence line and discovered an official BLM parking lot and trailhead to Soap Creek just a couple of hundred yards from where we had camped.  Even so, we had a beautiful sunset with the the Vermillion Cliffs to the north and the Echo Cliffs to the east all lit up with red fire.  A crescent moon was also beginning to show.

Friday morning we went in search of more cliffs with shadows and arroyos with chamisa.  The arroyos required a little driving back and forth to find suitable pull-offs and arroyo walls that ran north-south to give us good afternoon shadows.   (In the desert southwest, shadows make all the difference between a good painting and a lousy painting with flat lighting.)  I'd always wanted to paint chamisa in raking sunlight in an arroyo.


By the way, for most of my paintings, I stuck with a 9x12 size, mostly because of RV storage space and the lack of a suitable wet canvas carrier for anything larger.  I did bring several 5x7s and used my Art Cocoons to hold those.  M.L., on the other hand, went larger - 12x16 and beyond - and the RV has some built-in cabinets to hold his paintings.  The last couple of days, he dragged out his Take-It-Easel and went even larger - 16x20.   He paints almost exclusively with a couple of large knives, so it doesn't take him much longer to paint one of those than it does me a 9x12.

M.L. Coleman painting Lees Ferry

Saturday, our last full day of painting, we went to Lees Ferry.  From a short hill just before the boat launch, we had a fine view of the bend in the Colorado River by the boat launch.  There were even some golden cottonwoods by the water (check).  The cliff on the far side of the river stayed in shadow a long time, giving me time to paint two pieces.  I borrowed one of M.L.'s knives to paint the first one.

My borrowed knife and Lees Ferry painting, in process

What did we do in the evening?  We had to finish painting by 4:30 in order to get a campsite by dark, and we didn't eat dinner usually until about 8.  We always spent a little time outside at sunset to take photographs and to marvel at the color of a clear November evening in Arizona.  After that, we'd talk about art business and maybe even gossip a little.  After dinner, I went to bed with my Kindle to read, although I didn't last long before sinking into sleep.  I'd brought along a couple of art-related magazines, but there wasn't much time for any of that.

Crescent moon over the desert

After a final night of boondocking, we had breakfast and headed south.  We stopped for one last painting in Cedar Ridge.  This was in Navajo country, on the reservation.  As we were finishing up, we had two sets of visitors.  The first was an elderly Navajo couple who arrived in a recently-washed, white pickup.  They were dressed in their Sunday finest, he with a brightly-polished silver belt buckle.  "That is our house," the woman said, pointing into the scene that M.L. was painting.  They admired our work and said mine looked just like a photograph.  That is, of course, the last thing I want my paintings to look like, but I knew that it was meant as the highest form of praise, so I thanked them.  The second set were from China, puzzled by the fact that they couldn't get to Page and that their smartphone wanted to them to take for a detour the dirt road leading into the Navajo settlement behind us.  We weren't sure how to get to Page, either, so we sent them down to the gas station in Gap for directions.

At the very end, M.L. didn't know what to do with the 12x16 he'd just finished.  He'd run out of storage room.  So, into the oven it went.  Helpful Hint from Heloise:  In a pinch, your RV oven can make a nifty wet canvas carrier!  I hope he remembered to take it out.

This kind of trip with another artist is a rare treat, filled with camaraderie and a lifting of spirit.  I got several good paintings out of it, but I got a lot more than that, too.

Below are a selection of the paintings I did on the trip.  These are all 9x12 (or 12x9, depending on orientation.)  Some are on panel, others on linen.  The ones on linen are from Plein Air Panels; it was my first time using them, and I have to say, they are beautifully made.  I don't usually like working on a cloth surface, but these are made with Claessen's #66 Belgian Linen, and they are superb.   I will probably put these paintings up for sale in the near future when I have photographed them properly and finished them off.  As they say, watch this space for details!  (In the meantime, please check out my continuing holiday sale for some great deals.)

East Rim Aspens, 9x12 oil/panel

Ledge, 9x12, oil/linen

Shoulders, 9x12, oil/linen

From the North Rim, 12x9, oil/linen

Vermillion Cliffs, 9x12, oil/panel

From Lees Ferry, 9x12, oil/panel

Towers, 9x12, oil/linen

From the East Rim, 9x12, oil/panel

Lees Ferry I, 9x12, oil/linen

Lees Ferry, 9x12, oil/panel

At Cedar Ridge, 9x12, oil/linen

Chamisa, 9x12, oil/linen