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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Discipline and the Artist

Do List:  You might not be able to read it, but I hope I can!

I've interviewed dozens of professional artists over the years.  Some love oil, others are pastel diehards; some enjoy the landscape, some prefer the figure; some are denizens of the studio, while others are plein air purists.  They're all different, but they do share one common feature:  They are disciplined.

It's discipline that separates the professional from the casual Sunday painter.

Being disciplined doesn't mean you have to live your life according to your inner Marine drill instructor.  But for the professional artist it does mean:

  • Being organized
  • Planning tasks
  • Sticking to a schedule
  • Managing time
  • Following through
  • Working to improve your craft

I consider myself a disciplined artist.  When I get up in the morning, and after I've dealt with coffee, breakfast and walking the dog, I check my e-mail and social media feeds.  I deal right away with those things that need immediate responses; other items I mark for later.  Next, I deal with any other computer housekeeping issues such as database updates, student registrations or financial records.

If I'm not teaching - teaching automatically forces me on a schedule - I may go to the studio and work on studio projects.  This can be working on a painting, gessoing panels, cutting paper or preparing for the next workshop.  Or, depending on my "do list," I may sit at the computer awhile longer to work on a magazine article or book.   Also, because I'm a plein air painter, I may head to the field.  But I plan this in, too.  Painting in the field might include a hike, which makes painting part of my exercise regimen.

I never go off to work without a plan.  I want my time be maximized.  When I walk the dog after breakfast, I'm usually already thumbing through my mental "do list."  I want to go to the studio - or to the field or computer - fired up.

Speaking of "do lists" - I keep mine on a letter-sized yellow pad and update it frequently.  It's right by my computer.  I have it organized by categories:  Art, Writing, Workshops, Miscellaneous.  I prioritize items, marking with an "A" the ones that are important and starring the ones that are even more so.  I'll put dates on ones with deadlines.  I put a check mark next to tasks I've started. (Yes, I've tried the computer versions of task lists, but paper works best for me.  I also use a paper calendar.)  Additionally, I have a separate list of goals that I look at monthly.  Many of the tasks on my "do list" are long-range goals that have been broken down into short-range tasks.  Any workshops or classes I take for improving my craft are scheduled and are part of that list.

After lunch, it's more of the same.  The "do list" rules.

It's easier to stay disciplined, of course, if you can keep motivated.  Next time, I'll write about motivation.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spring Newsletter from Michael Chesley Johnson

A Day in Jerome, 9x12 oil - Available

March, 2014
Sedona, Arizona

I can't believe it's time to make our cross-country trip yet again! As I get older, time seems to pass terrifyingly faster. Months and days compress to weeks and hours. I understand it's a percentage thing. That is, when you are 20, one year is a full 5% of your life; when you are 80, it is a little less than 1% of your life. Thus, a year when you are 80 seems much less significant than when you were younger. (That's why we remember summers - and the school year - being so much longer when we were kids.) I feel like we just got to Arizona yesterday.

In few weeks, Trina, Saba and I will be packed up and heading north and east. Our first stop will be Utah's Zion National Park, where we will be leading a painting retreat for some advanced past students. (We've had a cancellation, so we have a spot left - contact me immediately if interested. One room with two beds available.)  This is our second time doing this at Zion, and we're eager to get there and explore the Virgin River and its canyons with paintbrush in hand. After that, we'll be traveling to workshops in Batavia, Illinois; Valparaiso, Indiana; and Toledo, Ohio. I've taught in Batavia twice now, and Valparaiso, I think, four or five times, and I always enjoy both locations. Toledo will be new for me, but I'm looking forward to that, as well. You can find details on these workshops on my website.) I have openings in all of these workshops, so if you live in the area, I'd be delighted to have you join us.

Before we get home to Campobello Island, we'll be spending almost a week in Cincinnati at the offices of F&W Media, publisher of The Artist's Magazine and Pastel Journal, both of which I write for. There I'll be shooting a series of three instructional videos for Artists Network TV. I'm excited to have a team of professional videographers shooting these - no more holding the camera with one hand while painting with the other for me! Once the videographers and post-production folks have worked their magic, the videos will be available at I'll send out a special press release when they're ready. The videos will feature both oil and pastel and several of my outdoor painting techniques.

Once I'm home, my first task is to start painting my small pieces for my "50 for the 50th" exhibition, which celebrates the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park's fiftieth anniversary, which is this year. Many of you supported me in this Kickstarter project, and I am delighted to say that I am on schedule with the project and will be very busy once I get to the island. For those of you who have not signed up for a painting (or some of the other "rewards"), don't worry - there will still be many paintings for you to choose from. I'll send out a newsletter once the painting is done.

It's going to be a full season this year, as I have not one but four plein air invitationals to attend.  Two are in the east, and two are in the west. I'll be in Montague, Prince Edward Island, at the "Montague - Paint It Beautiful" event, June 24-29. This is a new one for me - and the first time for the event - and having not been to PEI before, I'm really looking forward to it. I've also been invited back to the Castine Plein Air Festival (July 24-26) for a second time. I did well at Castine last year and enjoyed it. After having taken a short sabbatical, I'll also be back at the Grand Canyon "Celebration of Art" (September 13-21) and the Sedona Plein Air Festival (October 18-25). This will be my third time invited to Grand Canyon and my seventh to Sedona. Grand Canyon and Sedona are, of course, dear to my heart, as they are virtually in my back yard and really fun events. If you're in any of these areas, I'd love to see you!

Speaking of the Grand Canyon, you can now find my work in Grand Canyon National Park's Kolb Studio gallery. The gallery asked me to send them some small (6x6) framed paintings for their gallery. They have quite a nice selection of my paintings for sale now. If you visit the Canyon, you'll find the prices very reasonable.

For those of you in Arizona, I have two museum exhibitions. The first, on from now until July 13, is "Architecture in Art" at the prestigious Phippen Museum of Western Art in Prescott. The second runs from June 14 through November 30 at the Phoenix Airport Museum in Terminal 2. The exhibition title is "Verde River," and several of the artists who participated in last year's Verde River Artist Challenge are in it. I am delighted to have two more museum shows on my resume!

I'm sorry for the length of this letter, but I have a few more things to mention. First, I have judged several regional and national shows and in some cases have even taught workshops in conjunction with the judging. If you are part of a group that puts on a show and needs a judge, I'd be happy to talk to you about it. Second, if you have bought a painting from me, I would love to have a photo of the painting in its honored place in your home or office for my scrapbook. I am so gratified to have you all supporting me, and this will be nice to have as a reminder of your support.

Here are some important workshop/retreat updates I'd like you to know about:

-April 8-11, 2014: Paint Sedona Advanced Retreat. For this special retreat, I've arranged lodging for students. Space includes, besides bedrooms, a full kitchen, dining area, plus studio. Students will live together for a true "immersion" experience. Please contact me right away if you're interested, as it is a small workshop with only two spots left.

-April 26-May 1, 2015: Santa Fe Painting Retreat. (Please note, this is in 2015!) In our ongoing series of annual retreats in special places, we will be in Santa Fe. For details, please visit We are still working out arrangements, so please bookmark that site. This retreat is only for advanced painters who have studied with me previously. Let me know if you are interested!

I want to remind you of Albert Handell's mentoring workshop in Sedona, Arizona, November 2-7, 2014. We are already getting signups for this special event and registration is limited. You can find details at

Don't forget that, in addition to my usual Paint Campobello workshops, we are offering lodging at our Artists Retreat Studios and Gallery for painters, writers and other creative types. We are already getting signups for the summer. Visit for details or to reserve your own quiet, creative time!

Finally, all of my books are now available at Amazon! You can visit my Amazon author site here to buy the books:

That's all the news. Have a great summer!  For more workshops, see my website!


Michael Chesley Johnson

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Book for the Painter: Techniques of the Artists of the American West

I'm always looking for information on how the artists I respect and admire made their paintings.   Books on such a specialized topic are hard to find and not that common to start with.  So, imagine my surprise when I found that my local library has one.  For art books, most libraries either have basic "how to paint" books or coffee table books that present the complete ouevre of Rembrandt, Van Gogh or some other blue-chip artist.  It's rare to find something like Techniques of the Artists of the American West.

The book takes one painting by each of the major Western painters and analyzes it regarding materials and painting process.  Featured are the ones you'd expect like Oscar Berninghaus, Albert  Bierstadt, George Catlin and Maynard Dixon but also a few surprises such as N.C. Wyeth, who made a single trip west and painted western illustrations for only a year.   The book has all kinds of interesting observations along with x-rays of canvases, photomicrographs of paint layers and the like.  I didn't know, for example, that Frank Tenney Johnson, who is well-known for his nocturnes, achieved their unique look by starting off each canvas with an imprimatura of viridian and Prussian blue.

Here are some photos of the book.   This hardcover book is available used on Amazon.  (Book by Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Wellfleet Press, 1990.)

I'm curious to know if any of my readers have come across any similar books?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Poll Results: How Do You Find Out About Plein Air Painting Workshops?

The top four ways people find out about workshops, in order: 
Instructor Web Sites, Print Magazine Ads, Instructor Blogs and Recommendations from Friends.

The top way people most often find out about workshops, in order:
Instructor Websites, Print Magazine Ads, Internet Searches, Recommendations from Friends.
(Note that social media such as Facebook lag far behind and, surprisingly, Internet directories such as

As a plein air painting workshop teacher, I always wonder how my students find me.  If I ask, quite often they can't recall, or they will say something like, "I saw your workshop advertised on the Internet - or maybe it was in a magazine."  These aren't particularly helpful responses when one is trying to squeeze the most out of a small advertising budget.

Back in the old days, there weren't many places to put your ad dollars.  You either placed an ad in a magazine or sent out a mailing.  If you were smart, you used ad source codes to help figure out the most effective advertising method.  If you weren't smart, you could still maybe guess.  After all, the students either came from your magazine ad or your mailing, or perhaps from a referral from a previous student, and most people could remember how they found out about you if you asked.

But today, besides magazine ads and mailings, students can learn about your workshops by following your blog, viewing your website, Googling key words, hanging out on Facebook -- well, the list goes on.  Some of these are "free" advertising venues; others, like Google Adwords, cost money.

Because all of these cost in some way -- if not in dollars, then in precious time away from the easel -- I wanted to get a better handle on the possibilities.  Did it make sense to spend time tweeting to the Twitterverse, or to list my workshops with a targeted directory like

I decided to conduct a survey.  Granted, I announced the survey on the Internet, and already that shifted the bias to Internet-friendly folks.  I did try to get the word out to regions beyond my sphere of influence; that is, I placed the request for help in a variety of online forums and other groups where (I think) I am relatively unknown.  I received 76 responses.  That doesn't sound like a very big sample, but maybe it'll be enough for my needs.

Here are my questions:

  • I find out about painting workshops through (check all that apply), and
  • How do you MOST OFTEN find out about painting workshops? (Check only one)

For answers, I included the following options:

  • Print magazine ads
  • Online magazine ads
  • Internet search on Google, Bing, etc.
  • Internet directory listings such as
  • Instructor blogs
  • Instructor websites
  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Online forums such as WetCanvas
  • Recommendations from friends

I also had two follow up questions:

  • If you use an Internet search (via Google, Bing, etc.) to find workshops, what keywords do you use? (An example might be "plein air workshops March" or "painting workshop Maine").
  • Anything you'd like to add that I might have missed?

You can see the graphs at the top of the blog, but here are the raw data:
"I find out about workshops through..."
"I find out about workshops MOST OFTEN through..."

Additionally, I asked what key words people used when searching online.  They were what you would expect, such as the phrase "plein air workshop" or "plein air painting workshop" often combined with a month or season, a geographical region, the type of medium or instructor name.

Finally, I asked if there was any question I'd missed.  I got some good responses here.  Other ad sources included: newsletters from instructors or art schools, articles written by instructors, Youtube videos by the instructor, art supply store bulletin boards or newsletters and instructor's art viewed in a gallery or art school.

So, where am I going to put my time and money?  I think it's pretty clear from the graphs.

(And I want to thank everyone who participated!  I'll leave the survey up while longer, if you haven't voted yet.  It never hurts to have more data.  You can find the link to the survey here.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

How Do You Find Out About Plein Air Painting Workshops?

Recent Plein Air Painting Workshop in Sedona, Arizona

I love surveys.  I'm a data monkey.  There's nothing I'd rather do than spend hours sifting through data, collecting, collating, creating tables, noting trends.

Not really.  Surveys can be fun, but only to a point.  The few I create are intended to help me figure out this business of art.  One topic that I'm finding particularly timely these days is - Where do people find out about plein air workshops?

As much as I'm on the Internet, I'm a magazine lover.  Rather than sifting through data, I'd rather spend an hour a night (or more) leafing through my favorite art magazines.  Workshop ads always catch my eye.  Do they catch yours, too?

If you take plein air painting workshops, I'm curious to know how you find out about them.  It'll only take a couple of moments to fill out this three-question survey.  I appreciate your time!  And I promise I'll announce the results in a future post.

By the way, I have a deal.  I will give you $50 off my March18-21 plein air workshop.  It's usually $300, but you'll pay only $250!  To sign up, go to, and when you make your deposit, just write in the "note" field that you want the $50 off deal to remind me.  I only have 3 spots left.  Thank you!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Color Temperature - Starting with the Local Color

Canyon Snows, 9x12 oil/paper
Available at Auction!  Click here for details.

I just finished up a really great three-Saturday "Plein Air Essentials" class for the Sedona Arts Center.  Most of the students were local, but I also had two winter residents from Michigan and Alaska.  All were good painters, so we had the opportunity to fly through some of the basics and move on toward more advanced topics.

One advanced topic is color temperature.  Although the beginner certainly needs to understand that we are talking about the psychological sense of warm and cool in the landscape - warm colors like reds and yellows, cool colors like blues and violets - it's a complex subject.  It goes beyond the basic concept that warm light will create cool shadows, and that cool light will create warm shadows.

For starters, color temperature relationships can be so subtle that the camera can't capture them.  It exaggerates the relationship or just gets it plain wrong.  And you can't invent it in the studio.  You really need to have the experience of observing it first-hand, from life.  Learning to observe this kind of thing is a skill that must be honed.  The more you do of it, the more discerning your eye will become.

There's much more I can say on the subject of color temperature, but for now, let me note that it's useful for putting depth into your landscapes.  Look at the demonstration painting of a Grand Canyon scene, above.  I started it with the understanding that the three vertical planes of rock - looking at the snowed-in, closest one and going all the way into the distance, are composed of the same type of rock.  If you were to get within a foot of each of those cliffs, you would see this, and notice also that they were the same color.  So, I mixed up a batch of this reddish "local color."  Then, knowing that a certain color will appear warmer if it is closer to you and cooler if it is farther away,  I modified this batch.  When I wanted a cooler version for the distant cliffs, I added a cooler red -- alizarin crimson -- and ultramarine blue (plus a little white.)  For the closest cliff, I warmed the "local color" by adding a warmer red -- cadmium red.

By the way, I painted all the cliffs as though they were in shadow and added sunlight at the very end by just warming up (and lightening) each cliff's version of "local color" appropriately.  Another approach would be to create two initial batches of "local color," one batch for shadows and the other for sunlit passages.  Then, you could warm up or cool down each batch accordingly, depending on where you were painting with respect to distance in the painting.  Each sunlit/shadow pair would sit in its proper space in the picture because of your careful tuning of color temperature.