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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Home Again

75 mph View of Thoreau, New Mexio from I-40

Trina and I finally arrived in Sedona, Arizona, this past weekend.  It took us over three weeks and over 4500 miles with stops in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Texas and New Mexico.  I taught four plein air painting workshops during that time, judged and gave awards at one national exhibition, conducted magazine interviews via e-mail, and even had time to do laundry.

But it's not time to rest.  This afternoon I finished up one magazine article (on the winners in Pastel Journal's Pastel 100 competition, landscape category) and am starting a second one.  This morning I began teaching my first Paint Sedona plein air painting workshop with many more to come.  Do you really want to see my task list?  It's not pretty.

However, I do want to put out a newsletter soon and also have another Fall One-Time-Only Holiday Studio Sale.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I offer you several photos from the trip for your entertainment.  If you need to know, the pig car is located at Col. Poole's Barbecue in East Elijay, Georgia.

Col. Poole's

Santa Rosa, New Mexico

St Augustine, Florida

Vergennes, Vermont

Coburn, Pennsylvania

Baltimore, Maryland

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

St Augustine, Florida, Plein Air Sketch to Studio Workshop Report

Vilano Beach's Bluebird of Happiness

My last teaching stop on the way to Arizona was in historic St Augustine, Florida, for the First Coast Pastel Society.   Florida weather can be iffy this time of year, but we were fortunate in having the seventh quietest hurricane season in 70 years, according to NOAA.  Still, we had unsettled weather, which manifested itself as surprisingly torrential rain during the first two mornings.   Despite that, everyone kept smiles on their faces and trooped right along admirably.

"Break in the Weather" 12x9 pastel

On the first day, I lectured inside a covered pavilion at the Mission of Nombre de Dios while rain poured down outside.  From the pavilion, I had a good view of a statue of St Francis with the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in the background and made that my subject for a demonstration.  Miraculously, before I'd taken the sketch irretrievably down a grey and gloomy road, the clouds broke, and I was able to take it to a sunnier place.  Students were then able to get out and gather reference material without fear of rain.  Afterward, we all returned to our studio for lunch and an afternoon of creating finished paintings.  That evening, my lodging host and workshop coordiantor (IAPS Master Circle member, Lyn Asselta) had students over for lasagna.

Escaping the Rain

The second day, we headed out to Vilano Beach, which is a bit of old Florida.  Complete with funky old hotels painted pink and turquoise plus the famed "Bluebird of Happiness," it was a great place for painting structures.  But about 30 minutes after we set up our easels to collect reference material, the rain began to pour down, and we all retreated to a large pavilion that provided some good views.  Just before we had to pack up to head for the studio, the sun came out again.  Everyone stayed in good spirits, though, and after lunch we were ready to pursue our projects.  I lectured on notan and design to get us started.

How to Secure Your Pastel Box when the Walkway is Too Narrow for a Tripod

On our third day, we went out to one of St Augustine's city beach parks where we had a nice walkway that went through some woods, over a marsh and dunes and out to the beach.   The grasses presented some beautiful pink hues against the green of seagrape and other vegetation.  For this final day, the weather could not have been more perfect, so we spent all morning and even part of the afternoon gathering reference material before finally heading back to the studio.  It's always nice to end the workshop on such a positive note!

"Behind the Dunes," 6x9 pastel color study

I want to thank Lyn and all the others for making this workshop such a wonderful one.  St Augustine has much to offer the painter, and I appreciate Lyn's efforts as a location scout.

Now we start our final push for Arizona.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Purpose-Driven Plein Air

Photo by Trina Stephenson

I've been thinking about plein air painting and its reason for being.   Emerson wrote:
... if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being.
One of the pleasures of painting in the Great Outdoors is, indeed, the opportunity to see beauty, and that may seem reward enough.  But for the professional painter, or for the painter looking to improve his craft, a greater reason is required.

Why would anyone seek to paint outdoors beyond enjoying the occasional aesthetic experience?

In my plein air painting workshops, I talk about having a goal when one goes out to paint.  I mention four possibilities:

  • To explore a new landscape, with the goal of expanding one's skill set with, say, an unfamiliar geology or species of tree;
  • To gather reference material, with the goal of having enough for creating a studio painting;
  • To improve one's knowledge of the landscape by direct observation in the field, where one might, for example, study the temperature relationship of light and shadow; or
  • To create a finished painting (a difficult task!)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, sometimes one embarks on such a purpose-driven approach at the expense of the aesthetic experience.  But by keeping the joy of life at the forefront, as one might carry a lamp in the dark, the experience won't be lost.  Together, these two moments - the aesthetic and the utilitarian - might be joined together into a greater whole, making for a richer experience for both painter and viewer.  Success helps the plein air painter evolve beyond mere craftsman to a true artist.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Plein Air Sketch to Studio Workshop Report

Outside the Arts Center

Last week, our travels took us to the quiet mountain town of Blue Ridge, Georgia.  Blue Ridge is about 90 minutes north of Atlanta.   You wouldn't think it was so close, what with the bucolic nature of it.  Farms, apple orchards, meandering creeks, plus a historic depot that hosts the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, which is an authentic steam engine that hauls vintage passenger cars (and tourists, some of which also qualify as vintage) along the scenic Toccoa River.

End of the day, reference material and more

I had two reasons for coming.  First, I was to serve as the award judge for the Southern Appalachian Artist Guild's (SAAG) annual national exhibition.  Second, in conjunction with the exhibition, I was to teach a "plein air sketch to studio" painting workshop.

The moment I arrived in town, I was whisked off to the Blue Ridge Mountains Art Center to judge the show.  Earlier in the summer, I'd served as the juror of selection, and it was a real pleasure to now see the pieces in person.  (I had selected them from digital images.)

Inside the exhibition hall

At the Center, I spent about two hours examining the works, which included paintings, photography and three-dimensional works such as sculpture and assemblages.  I must have walked a hundred miles, wearing down the carpet.  It was a difficult show to judge because of the variety of media.  In addition to Best of Show, I was allowed to give three prizes to the 2D works and another three to the 3D works, as well as six Honorable Mention ribbons.  Prizes were substantial - Best of Show was $1500 with First Prize, $1000 - and so I took my job very, very seriously.  (I feel another blog post coming on regarding the judging of shows.  Stay tuned for "View from the Bench!")  That evening, SAAG had a monthly meeting at which I spent an hour touring members around the exhibition, saying a few words about each piece and explaining how I judge.


The next day, I led a large group of students on an adventure - gathering reference material outdoors in the form of color studies, annotated pencil drawings and photographs so we could return to the studio to create finished works based on the material.  We had a little cloudy, cool weather the first day, and even some rain the second.  The village of Blue Ridge offered a great variety of subject matter and motifs, which gave us a lot to work with.

The final day of the workshop, I attended the opening reception for the SAAG exhibition.  I was asked to say a few words on the judging process, and I noted how difficult it had been but what a pleasure, too.  Then, I got to have my picture taken with the award-winners.  It was a great evening all the way around, and many people (not just the award-winners) complimented me on my selections.

I want to thank our gracious hosts for their hospitality at their wonderful cabin in the North Georgia mountains.  I also want to praise SAAG and the Blue Ridge Mountains Arts Center for the great work they did in coordinating my workshop and hanging the show.  Everyone did a wonderful job!

Now, it's off to St Augustine, Florida, for a three-day workshop sponsored by the First Coast Pastel Society.   More to come!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Snapshot

Photography in Stonington, Maine

One temptation in traveling with one's paint kit is to take "painting snapshots" along the way.  We think that, because we paint for two hours before our subject, we absorb more of a sense of place than someone with a palm-size digital camera who captures thousands of snapshots on a single card.    But are we really paying attention to what's around us as we paint?

When I paint, I'm focused on technical matters - how light and warm this shape is compared to that shape and so on.  I do like to think that I'm hearing the buzz of crickets, smelling the fragrance of wild apples and really getting into Nature in an Emersonian way with a capital "N".  But how much of that, which is extraneous to the actual painting process, sticks?  Were I to undergo hypnosis afterward, would I be able to dredge up this multi-dimensional moment accurately?

Sometimes I wonder if I am only a camera using agonizingly slow film that captures just the visual phenomenon before me and nothing else. Maybe I'd be better off with a point-and-shoot camera and forgoing the technical agony.

This thought doesn't often come to me, but when it does, I try to take my time.  Not with the painting, but with the setting up and breaking down, with the hike in and the hike out.  I listen to the crickets, smell the wild apples, feel the sunlight on my skin.

Otherwise, the whole effort isn't spiritually worthwhile.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Government Shutdown Couldn't Shut Down This Plein Air Painting Workshop

Despite the ongoing U.S. government shutdown that has closed the national parks, my Baltimore plein air painting workshop went ahead as planned.  Well, not exactly as planned.  When we began organizing this two-day workshop a year ago, who would have thought that our chosen site, the Hampton National Historic Site, would be taken away from us?  The shutdown, which happened just a week before the workshop, created headaches for everyone but most importantly for our organizer, who really had to scramble to come up with a "Plan B."

Demonstrating outside the barn
(Photo by Felicia Barnes)

Fortunately, Cromwell Valley Park opened up one of their barns for us.  It turned out to be a clean, well-lit place for us to retreat to in the event of rain, which did happen a few times during the weekend, and it offered sweeping views of pasture, farm buildings and the gardens around the Sherwood House.  We had twelve students, and I think everyone enjoyed the location and the variety of subject matter.  I certainly enjoyed its pastoral nature and the majestic oaks and willows that presented many opportunities for design.

Demonstrating in the Barn
(Photo by Felicia Barnes)

The workshop, by the way, was hosted by the Towson Arts Collective.  It's a great group with a really special exhibition and workshop space in downtown Towson.  They have great plans for the future, and I look forward to following them.

Now I have a short break with family before heading to Blue Ridge, Georgia, for the next workshop.  While I'm there, I'll be handing out awards at the Southern Appalachian Artists Guild's Annual Juried Show.  I'm eager to see the exhibition, for which I was also the juror of selection, and to meeting the creators of all that wonderful artwork.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Millheim, Pennsylvania, Plein Air Painting Workshop Report

As part of our annual migration to Arizona, I teach plein air painting workshops along the way.  This fall, I'm teaching in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia and Florida.  (Interested in having me teach a workshop for your group?  Let's talk.)  I just finished up a wonderful three-day workshop in the historic Penns Valley area of Pennsylvania.

Each morning, we met in Millheim at the Green Drake Gallery, which sponsored the workshop, to talk about plein air basics.  (Landscape Artists International artist and founder Karl Leitzel coordinated.)  Armed with all the information students needed to get started, we headed out to the day's chosen location.  Spots included a local park with a pastoral view of barns  and silos; an abandoned railroad trestle spanning Elk Creek that offered us good fall color; and Chickory Lane Farm, a project designed to rejuvenate old farmland through intelligent stewardship of the land, where we enjoyed rolling hills dotted with purple asters and more fall foliage.

We hit a good stretch of fine fall weather for the workshop; rain held off until the very end of the last day, when we retreated to the studio for a wrap-up and final critiques.  Now, as I write this morning in our little cabin in the woods, the rain pelts down outside - and inside as well, since the upstairs bedroom has developed a few leaks.  We take this as a sign that's it's time to move on to our next destination!

The next plein air painting workshop, sponsored by the Towson Arts Collective and the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association, is in Towson, Maryland.  We had planned to paint at a national historic site, but as it is part of the National Park Service, the ongoing government shutdown is affecting us, too - the site is closed to us, forcing the organizer to seek an alternate venue.   (Thank you for your hard work, Diane!)  I wonder how many other plein air painters have been affected by the shutdown?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Get Drawing Help through Photography

"Clearing (Acadian Prince)" 18x24 oil/canvas

Lately, I've been working on a studio painting of boats.  Boats, as anyone knows who has drawn or painted them, are tricky.  They're made up of compound curves that can be confusing to the eye.  I consider my drawing skills sufficient for my purposes, but boats always require more care and double-checking of angle and proportion measurements.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of using a mirror to look at a painting-in-progress in reverse to check design.  This can also help with drawing, but I accidentally came across another method that seems to work better.

When painting large pieces that require several days or steps, I like to take photos of the work in progress.   For this piece, while back at my computer viewing the photos, I happened to look at the original reference photo beside the latest photo - and immediately saw I was in trouble.  I was able mentally to flip back-and-forth between these two images to see where the drawing needed correction.

Below is the reference photo plus that in-process shot.  Look at the areas highlighted by red circles. You can see that, on the boat on the right, the gunwale needed to be raised, and the gunwale on the left-hand boat also needed adjusting, among other things.  These were clear to me right away.

At the top of this post is the finished painting.

One has to keep in mind, of course, the distortion that comes with a snapshot.  The reference photo itself has some perspective issues which I believe I was able to correct in the painting based on experience and some pencil sketches I made.  Of course, the in-process shots will also be distorted, depending on the lens size and how much zoom you are using.  I try to check for distortion in the viewfinder and adjust the zoom to remove as much as possible.  Fortunately, the canvas consists of four right angles and four straight sides, so it's easy to judge.  I find that using the zoom lens somewhere in the middle of the zoom seems to have the least distortion.

Although this method may not help with minute errors, it certainly helped me find some of the larger, more obvious ones.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Special Topic Plein Air Painting Workshops in Sedona

Each season for my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshops, I include a few "special topic" weeks.  These weeks are for the advanced painter who's comfortable with their gear and with working outdoors; some have other requirements, such as the ability to hike a short distance with gear.  I look forward to these weeks, as they are fun for everyone and we get to see something a little different.  If you're up for an adventure, I encourage you to join us for one of these weeks!

Here are this season's special topics.  (For full details, visit

Yavapai Vista
Hiking to Paint
Hiking to Paint (December 17-20, 2013): You'll need to be prepared to hike, in some cases, up to a half-mile to our painting spot. Good footwear with ankle support is essential. I also recommend at least a one-liter water bottle. Small size panels (9x12 or smaller) will be best, and make sure you gear is portable (backpack) and, above all, tested and reliable!

"GMC Diesel" 12x16 oil
Exploring the Historic Verde Valley

Exploring the Historic Verde Valley (January 7-10, 2014): Although we may go to Sedona one day, we will focus more on the Verde Valley south of town. We will focus on Jerome, Cottonwood and Clarkdale have some beautiful old buildings or old vehicles to paint. No special requirements for this other than the expectation that we won't necessarily be in Sedona!

Large Format Painting

Large Format (February 4-7, 2014): We'll be painting 16x20 or larger and returning to the same spot repeatedly to work on a piece over two or three sessions. If painting in oil, you'll need a wet panel carrier or some method to accommodate larger canvases, as well as a way to get them home. (Consider shipping them home.) A large format easel is recommended, such as the Take-It-Easel ( or full-size French easel. Plan on maybe four large paintings over the four days. You might also bring some small panels or paper (5x7) for quick color sketches for studies. Although in some workshops you can count on getting a ride with other students, that may not work out with the large format painting unless you make your own arrangements before arrival. Otherwise, you will need your own car to travel to and from the painting location.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Common Pigments in Tube Oil Colors

Part of my paint stash

In my plein air painting workshops, both all-level and advanced, the question of "hues" comes up.  A student will show up with a tube of cerulean blue hue or the like and will wonder how it compares to real cerulean blue.  The common thinking is that a hue, because it isn't the real thing, is inferior.  We all know, for instance, that margarine doesn't taste anywhere near as good as real butter.

Well, that's not necessarily the case with oil paint.  Hues were created because either the pigment became too expensive to mine (manganese blue), too scarce to find (indian yellow, which also had animal cruelty issues*), or extremely toxic (lead or flake white.)  Today, we have manganese blue hue; a replacement indian yellow which is called, simply, indian yellow; and replacement flake white.  In the case of manganese blue hue, Robert Gamblin of Gamblin Colors tells me that he feels the hue is actually superior to the real manganese blue hue.

Hues should not be confused with "student grade" paints, which are without doubt inferior.

Another question that comes up is, What is that odd-named paint made of?  King's Blue, for example.  King's Blue is, in many cases, simply ultramarine blue and white with perhaps a touch of phthalo blue.  Most manufacturers list the pigments on the back of the tube (and certainly on the website).

In all of these cases, I find it handy to have memorized the pigment color index (CI) numbers of my basic palette.  It saves me the trouble of having to go to a reference book when I want to see what's in a paint.  Here are my colors and their components (all Gamblin).  You'll note I use a couple of hues:

  • Cadmium yellow light - PY35
  • Cadmium yellow deep - PY37
  • Cadmium red light - PR108
  • Permanent alizarin crimson – PR177 + PG36 (real alizarin crimson is PR83 and fugitive)
  • Ultramarine Blue - PB29
  • Cerulean blue hue – PW4 + PB15 (real cerulean blue is PB35 and expensive)
  • Phthalo green - PG7
  • Burnt Umber - PBr7
  • Titanium-Zinc White – PW6 + PW4

* Real indian yellow was created by feeding cows a diet of nothing but mango leaves, and the resulting urine was processed into the pigment.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Looking for Suggestions for Guest Artist Instructors

Doug Dawson
Over the past several years, I have invited a master artist every other summer to teach a week during my Paint Campobello plein air workshop season. I am currently seeking a master artist for a week in August, 2014 and others for future years.  (I may also extend this to my Paint Sedona workshop season.) To help with this search, I invite you to take a short survey.  It'll just take a few minutes.  You can go to the survey by clicking this link.

In the past, both Doug Dawson and Albert Handell have come to teach plein air painting workshops.  These are two great instructors who are truly masters.  Doug has taught three times for me in the format of a mentoring or "paint-along" workshop.  He'll be returning to Lubec in August 2015 for another one.  (Visit for details.)  Albert taught a more traditional plein air workshop this past August.  He'll be coming to Sedona as a guest of my Paint Sedona workshop series in November 2014 and will be teaching a mentoring or "paint-along" workshop.  (Visit for details.)

Albert Handell
If you'd like to see how these programs have worked in the past. you can see past blog posts on Doug's workshops here and on Albert's workshop here.

If you'd like to see how my own Paint Sedona and Paint Campobello programs work, please click on the links.

Thank you!