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Monday, September 30, 2013

Toning the Canvas

Canvas toned a mid-value, warmish grey with oil paint.  The paint
used was leftover paint on my palette, mixed together to get this flavor.
I used a small brush and intentionally left the strokes showing.

A reader asks:  "Please discuss painting on a colored ground, both pastel and oils.  For oils, do you feel comfortable using acrylic as an underpaint for oils?  What colors would you choose and why?"

I'll answer the second question first.  I think acrylics work just fine for toning the canvas - if they are applied thinly and as a wash.  Too thick, and the oil paint you apply next may not adhere well enough to last the ages.  "Too thick" is if you can see an obvious glossy appearance to the acrylic.  If you want to use thicker acrylic, consider using an acrylic gesso (also called "acrylic dispersion ground") that has been toned.  Acrylic gesso has been formulated to provide the right tooth and absorbency to serve as a substrate for oil paint; regular acrylic paint has not.  The safest bet, however, is to tone your canvas with oil paint.  I like to use a paint that dries relatively quickly, such as raw umber.  By the way, for pastel surfaces, acrylic is a great medium to use for toning.

Before answering the other question, I should note that the point of toning the canvas (or paper, in the case of pastel), is threefold.  First, it gives the whole process of painting a jumpstart.  If  you have trouble beginning a painting , throwing some paint on the canvas and scrubbing it in with a paper towel is a great way to get going.  Second, it kills the white and establishes a darker value.  This not only makes the canvas easier on the eyes, but it also gives you a value to judge your mixtures (or pastel choices) against.  It's almost impossible to judge the value of any given color against white; every mixture just looks dark!   Third, your color choice will affect the overall color harmony of the finished painting and will help to unify the piece.

I generally try to choose a color that will enhance the mood I'm shooting for.  As a landscape painter, on a sunny day I may choose a warm color to give the painting an overall warm feeling; on an overcast or foggy day, I may choose a cool color.  Or, I may choose a complementary color to liven up the color scheme.  It's a common trick among plein air painters to start with a red tone to make a scene that is predominantly green more interesting.  If you don't completely cover up and obliterate the initial tone - and you shouldn't - some of the red will pop through the greens, adding sparkle.  Sometimes, I'll start a painting with a mid-value, neutral grey, as pictured at the top of this post.  This is the most helpful in making accurate color and value choices.

Finally, you should have fun with the toning!  You don't have to stick with one color or value.  You can have warm passages mixed in with cool passages, light areas mixed in with darker ones.  Sometimes a "randomized" underpainting will give you fascinating results.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

How to Relax When Painting

Every plein air painter has run into this, and I'm no exception.  It may come in the form, as it did for me most recently, of a pair of smiling, middle-aged, well-meaning tourists, leisurely strolling into the scene I was painting.  "That looks like a lot of fun and very relaxing," they said.

They must not have seen the scowl of concentration on my face, nor that I was holding my breath, trying to lay down an accurate brush stroke.  Or maybe they were just being ironic.

But usually, they're being sincere.  In the mind of the civilian (i.e. non-painter) who has drunk deep from the well of common myth regarding artists, every outdoor painter is on holiday.  They're thinking of Monet, dallying in his boat at Giverny, idly stabbing at a canvas and painting waterlilies while the dragonflies quietly dip and soar; or they're thinking of Edwardian novels with picnics and Sunday painters quietly sketching in the Cotswolds over a bottle of Bordeaux accompanied by lively conversation and a good cheese.

But for most of us, painting is work.  (I know, I'm preaching to the choir.)  It can be exhausting.  Sometimes I feel like I've just finished digging a ditch.*  And it's far from relaxing.

But it's important to relax when you paint.  If you aren't in the wilds with babbling brooks to calm you, music will help.  On my little Sansa MP3 player, lately I've been listening to Sigur Rós' very atmospheric "Valtari" album.  Another trick is to avoid coffee and stimulants.  As much as coffee - and raucous music - can inspire that final, virtuosic stroke of raw bravura, it more often just causes me to rush through the important early stages upon which a masterpiece depends.  Also, pay attention to your breathing.  Breathe.  I often don't.  I catch myself time and again holding my breath.  I try frequently when painting to divert my attention, even if just for a second, to my breathing and try to establish a regular rhythm.  (It'd be nice if the lungs worked like the heart, regularly and autonomously, but they don't.)  Finally, even before you start painting, take a little walk to relax and get your soul around the task before you.

To my two visitors, I smiled and said, "If you only knew!"

*I might ask, Why isn't the comment ever addressed to ditch diggers?  "Hey, that looks relaxing and fun!" would garner a sharp response not suited for mixed company.  I suppose if I sweated like a ditch digger, people would be more sympathetic.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ready for a Fall or Winter Plein Air Painting Getaway? Paint Sedona Workshops are Filling!

(Email recipients of this newsletter won't see the video above; but here is the direct link to it.)

Summer's done, fall is  here, and, as the Starks of Winterfell say in George R. R. Martin's wonderful book, A Game of Thrones: "Winter is coming."  Now is the time to think of escaping to warmer climes before it is too late!

Weeks are filling for my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshops in Sedona.  For the 2013/2014 season, I have many weeks available.  Many of these are for intermediate to advanced painters, but I have a few "all level" weeks as well.  I have added a few special topic weeks, such as Hiking to Paint, Exploring the Verde Valley and Large-Format Painting.  These are always fun and really spice up the season.

If you've not taken one of my Paint Sedona workshops before, you are in for a treat.  Sedona lies at the base of the Mogollon Rim, just 30 miles south of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the middle of Red Rock Country.  Although Sedona gets a fair number of tourists - the enticements are hot air balloon rides, jeep tours, wilderness hiking, vortex-seeking and, of course, fine art - we always seek out quiet, beautiful spots.  Many of our painting locations feature red rock vistas, intimate creek scenes, woods of sycamore and cottonwood and much more.  My workshops are small - typically no more than four students - so there's plenty of time for personal attention.  Because the workshops are only half-days (we stop at 1), you can spend the rest of the day exploring.  Visit some of the fine art galleries, relax in a spa, enjoy a meal at some of the wonderful restaurants - or, if you are so inclined, paint more!

For more information and to sign up, visit  This season, workshops start October 29 and continue through April 11.

Remember:  Winter is coming.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Nova Scotia Painting Retreat, Part 3

Old Post Office, 12x9 oil
Thursday dawned clear and cold with prospects for another gorgeous day in Nova Scotia.  This is welcome weather after a run of fog and rain on Campobello Island; and it is more typical, in my experience, of the Maritimes at this time of year.  Unless you have a hurricane blowing through, autumn is quite lovely with cool, dry, sunny weather.

After a quick breakfast and morning critiques, we headed back into Annapolis Royal to paint some of the historic buildings along St George Street.   Although the old woodframe buildings are nice to look at, one tall brick building caught my eye – the old post office and customs house.  Built around 1890, it replaced the gubernatorial residence of a Colonel Vetch, one of the British officers who took back the town from the French in 1710.  The early morning sun on the brick was a treat for the eye.  While I painted, a group of historical Acadian dancers performed in the square to the accompaniment of a concertina.  Although I was busy watching the building and not the dancers, it was nice to hear the music.

We watched a boat being hauled in for repair
Acadian dwelling replica
Trina and I took the afternoon off and visited the town's Historic Gardens.  This is a beautiful place with cool, shaded walks – just the perfect thing on a warm afternoon.  I enjoyed visiting the Acadian house, which is a replica of a pre-Deportation dwelling that was common up until 1755, the date the Acadians were expelled by the British.  The house had some old glass in the windows, and I discovered that a properly-aged sheet of glass could function as a tool for artists in helping to discern the "big shapes" in a landscape:

Not a painting!  Just looking through some old glass.
That evening, we enjoyed a nice meal at Restaurant Compose, which offered not just the usual seafood but also some Austrian dishes.

Jim painting beneath a big boat.
Friday morning, we headed down to Parkers Cove, where I wanted to try my hand at boats again.  The harbour was a delight – simple lobster boats rather than the complex scallop draggers we saw at Digby, and the tide was just starting to creep in, which gave us time to paint boats that weren't going to move on us.  (Boats are notorious for moving just when you get a painting started.)  I set up in front of the "Hazel G."  Shortly, a lady came over to visit, and she said that the boat had first been her father's and then her brother's and was now her cousin's.  Hazel had been her mother.  It's nice to make that kind of connection when you're out painting a picture of somebody's boat.

The "Hazel G" 9x12 oil
The house we've rented is on a beautiful 60 acres with trails that go down to the "dykelands" and the Annapolis River.  I was feeling guilty that we've been here all week but haven't painted on the property.  So, this afternoon, two of us took the opportunity to do just that.  The goldenrod is beautiful right now, and with the low light of very late summer, the meadow was gorgeous.  My last painting for the retreat was this 9x12 oil:

Tobey's Path, 9x12 oil 
Now it's time to head out.  We have a long drive ahead of us with a stop near Port Elgin, New Brunswick, before getting home on Sunday.  We're sad to leave – it's been a great week for all of us!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Nova Scotia Painting Retreat, Part 2

On Wednesday, after breakfast and sharing our paintings from the day before, we continued our explorations of Nova Scotia's Annapolis Basin by heading down to Digby.  According to its tourism website, Digby is home to "the world's largest inshore scallop fleet along the eastern seaboard."  It sounds like marketing hype, but we were amazed at the scores of scallop boats when we visited the harbour.  I've never taken a good, close look at a scallop dragger, and I was overwhelmed by the complicated array of winches, hydraulics and other gear outfitting each boat.  They look a lot more difficult to operate than lobster boats.

We thought about painting on the wharf, but it was a busy one with pickup trucks coming and going.  Although all the boats seemed to be "in," many were being worked on.  Hulls repaired, innards being welded, and the occasional fisherman taking a break on deck to check text messages.  Wharves with truck traffic don't make for relaxing painting.  So instead, we took a few thousand reference photos and moved on to lunch.  We found a little restaurant near the wharf that offered take-out and ate our meal in the little picnic grounds nearby.

Next, we headed down to the Point Prim lighthouse.  The lighthouse itself isn't much to look at – it's a short, stubby, square thing – but the outgoing tide exposed some very paintable basaltic shelf and cliffs.  (Update: I am told by a reader that this is an "iconic Canadian salt-shaker lighthouse.") It was also a lot more peaceful than the wharf.  The wind was getting up, so we set up to paint on the lee side of the point.  The shadows on the cliffs were perfect, and I enjoyed painting them.  I also had a nice view of the Princess of Acadia, the ferry that runs between Digby and Saint John, New Brunswick, as it returned to port.

Point Prim Cliffs, 9x12 oil
Afterward, Trina and I set out to scope out the next day's painting spots.  We'd heard about Bear River, a little arts community in a river valley not too far from Annapolis Royal, so we checked it out.  It calls itself the "tidal town" because it sits hunkered down over the tidal river and several of the buildings are on stilts to stay above high tide.  It's a possibility for later this week, but we will keep our options open.  Maybe I'll even feel up to painting boats!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Nova Scotia Painting Retreat, Part 1

Spot the Painters!
Once a year, I like to get together with some good painting friends for a plein air painting retreat.  This fall, we are in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, enjoying a part of the Canadian Maritimes that is all new to me.  Having seen photos of other Nova Scotia scenery – Cape Breton's dramatic coastline, Peggy's Cove's rustic fish houses – I thought it might be something like one of those.  But it's not.  Instead, it's an agricultural but yet equally beautiful landscape.

Annapolis Royal was the first permanent European settlement in the New World north of St Augustine, Florida.  (Here's a cosmic coincidence for you – in just a few weeks, I'll be teaching a workshop in that other early settlement.)  Fort Royal, which was the village's first name, was established in 1605.  Since that time, agriculture has been very important.  We are staying out in Granville Ferry, and my morning walk takes me through fields dotted with sprawling apple trees, and my thoughts are punctuated with the occasional moo from a Holstein.  There is fishing in Annapolis Royal too, of course, and boats to paint.

Our first day saw a threat of rain.  We got out to historic St George Street in town and painted some of the wooden scallop draggers that were tied up at the boatyard.  After lunch, the first sprinkles came, so Trina and I went exploring for painting spots for later.  With our all-weather coats in tow, we took a hike on the Delaps Cove Wilderness Trail.  There's some spectacular scenery there, but I decided it'd be too much of a hike with our painting gear.

Nightfall came with gusty winds.  By morning, the temperature had dropped to 46 degrees.  I was glad I'd brought my down vest.  One of our group had to buy a thick jacket at the local outfitters'.  I thought we could find some protection from the wind at Fort Anne – this national historic site sports huge embankments to protect soldiers from gunfire and painters from wind – and so I did.  I had a nice view of what is called the "tidelands".  Two hundred years ago or so, the settlers built dikes along the tidal Annapolis River to protect their lowlying fields from high tides.

The Tidelands, 9x12 oil
In the afternoon, we went out to Port Royal (not to be confused with Fort Royal) at low tide to paint the view from a small lighthouse there.  Low tide revealed some nice boulders decorated with shaggy manes of seaweed.  I always enjoy painting rocks like these with a distant view behind them.

Port  Royal Rocks, 9x12 oil
Tomorrow, the weather is supposed to warm up a bit.  Our current plan is to head down to Digby to see what treasures await us there.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

PanelPak - Help in Carrying Those Wet Panels

Now and then, I like to play with some new products.  Sometimes, a product that I play with has some problems, and it's always nice to hear back from the manufacturer when the problems have been fixed.

Awhile back, I received a 5x7 PanelPak.  The PanelPak is a neat concept for carrying wet panels.  Basically, if you took two wooden picture frames, fastened them front-to-front, and then carved away as much wood as humanly possible but not so much that the unit wouldn't function, that's the PanelPak.  It is very lightweight and compact but sturdy.  (Each joint is secured with glue and a wood spline.)  I can just shove it in my backpack with all my other gear and not worry.

The one I was shipped had two natural rubber bands to hold the panels in place.  They rotted within a year.

The manufacturer heard my complaint, and recently shipped me a 9x12 PanelPak with a new version of the bands.  Here's what the manufacturer says:

"As a result of your post and feedback from others, I began investigating alternatives to the natural rubber bands we where shipping at that time. After 6 months of testing we began shipping PanelPaks with synthetic rubber bands in July. These bands are TOUGH! I have yet to have one break or decay like the old ones did."

The new bands do seem tough!  I tried out my new PanelPak this week, and I'm very happy with it.  It'll travel with me to Arizona this winter.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

2014 Calendar Now Available

2014 Calendar Now Available! - $21 + shipping

Every  year about this time, I put together a calendar with images of paintings created during the previous twelve months.  It's a labor of love.  Since I use a print-on-demand publisher (, the cost is already high, so I make very little money off of it.  Instead, I am pleased to offer the calendar to collectors, students and others interested in my work who want something beautiful to look at every month of the year.

I also create it as a way to mark what is, for me, the end of the year.  I am finished with summer workshops and after a trip to Nova Scotia for a painting retreat next week, we very shortly will be making our annual migration west.  We'll be traveling nearly a month - and then the plein air painting workshops start up again in Sedona.

The calendar, which includes seasonal oil and pastel paintings of the American Southwest, Downeast Maine and the Canadian Maritimes, is $21 plus shipping.  You can order it here and also see a preview.  I  know it's still 108 days to Christmas, but you early shoppers will want to start now!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

How to Learn to Play the Violin

I love my students, I really do.  Each week, it is a joy to help each one reach that "a-ha!" moment, when all I've been trying to teach suddenly clicks for that person.  And, of course, it's always sad when the week ends and we have to go back to our routines.  For my students, it may be the 9-5 grind, or a house full of kids, or a busy retirement with volunteer work, or for some, even another workshop.

The one thing I stress when the workshop ends is:  Keep painting.   Not just once a year when you take a workshop.  I mean, keep painting every day or at least on a regular,  frequent schedule.  If you're serious about becoming a better painter,  you have to practice as much as possible.

I like to compare it to learning to play the violin.  No one expects to get good at playing the violin - even halfway good - by pulling the violin out of its case just once a year.  You'll sound like Jack Benny at his worst.  (Above is a wonderful clip of Jack Benny and the great Isaac Stern performing a Bach piece.) How can painting students expect to get any good if they pull out the brushes only when they take a workshop?  You'll hit all the wrong notes, time and time again.

To get good at the violin, you need regular, disciplined practice.  Not just practice with your violin teacher, but practice on your own.  It's the same with painting.  You must practice not just in workshops, but on your own time, and on a schedule.

I know that's easier said than done.  In a future post, I'll give you some suggestions for improving your discpline.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Open Studio Day - and a Pennsylvania Workshop

Once again, summer seems to have flown by all too quickly.  The paths are covered with fallen apples and edged with goldenrod and white aster.  Although we are still having warm days, the nights are noticeably cooler.  The summer's steady stream of tourists has dwindled to a trickle, and that spells the end of our gallery season.

Every year at this time, we open the studio to the public.  This year, we'll be opening both studios - not just the one on Campobello Island, but also the one in Lubec.  With that in mind, here are the details.

Friar's Bay Studio Gallery

Artists Retreat Studios & Gallery

Two-Stop Studio Tour
Saturday, September 7
1- 6 Atlantic Time (12-5 Eastern)
Friar's Bay Studio Gallery, 822 Rte 774, Welshpool, Campobello Island, NB
Artists Retreat Studios and Gallery, 45 Washington Street, Lubec, ME

I will be manning the studio on Campobello Island, and Trina will be manning the one in Lubec.  I hope we see you, here and there!  Otherwise, both galleries are now closed for the season.

Also, I want to mention my upcoming workshop in scenic Millheim, Pennsylvania.  My other workshops in Maryland, Florida and Georgia are nearly full, but I still have space in my Pennsylvania workshop.  I taught this workshop last fall, and we had a great time painting in Amish country.  Think barns, silos, rolling hills plus nice natural scenery in the way of rivers and woods.   Last year there was a little fair in next-door Aaronsburg, and we enjoyed some really good pie.

Teaching in Millheim, Pennsylvania
The workshop runs October 8-10 and is coordinated by The Green Drake Gallery.  For details and to register, please visit

Beauty of the Penns Valley in Millheim

9x12 oil demonstration I did for last year's Pennsylvania workshop