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Sunday, March 29, 2015

What's It All About, Ozzy? or, The Future of Our Art

The "Cardboard Bernini" - Before

...and Going, Going, Going...

Most of us, when we embark on our art careers, hope that we will be making art for the ages.  We'd love it if our art would survive us to either enlighten, entertain or inspire future generations.  (Maybe there's a selfish desire for fame in there, too.)  My personal hero when I first dabbled in oil as a youngster was Monet.  Although he'd long been dead, the beauty of his paintings stirred something inside me—enough so that I, too, ached to pick up a paint brush.

But how long will my art last?  I use only archival materials that are acid-free.  I think Monet did, as well.  Still, our materials are wood, linen and linseed oil.  These are all organic things and will decay, however powerful the magic of art conservators.  Will our paintings be around in another 100 years?  1000 years?  10,000 years?  And what's more, will there be anyone around who cares?

Last night, I watched "The Cardboard Bernini," a short film about an art project created by James Grashow.  Grashow is interested in the process of making art.  In the film, he observes that the beginning of a work of art is often well-documented; its deterioration, however, is not.  He believes that the entire life cycle of art is important, and that the demise of a work of art is also worthy of study.  In this film, he decides to re-create Bernini's famous sculpture from 1622, "Poseidon", but not in marble.  He chooses instead highly-perishable cardboard.  The massive sculpture is three years in the making.  Four weeks after going on exhibit outdoors, it literally melts away in the rain.  The destruction, planned by the artist, is meant to raise existential questions about art and artists.

He's not the first artist to intentionally construct perishable works of art.  You may know of Andrew Goldsworthy, who assembles objects found in nature into exceedingly complex constructs, and then lets the forces of nature return them to their earlier, unassembled state.  Amy Adler painted a series of portraits in pastel, which she photographed.  Then she destroyed the original paintings and exhibited photographs of the portraits.  Both Goldsworthy and Adler are worth investigating to see what their purpose was in creating and then destroying, or allowing to be destroyed, their work.

These three artists don't seem to be concerned about "art for the ages."  Should I be, then?  Other than doing my best to choose archival materials, and in hoping that conservators will discover new techniques to make my paintings last, there's nothing more I can do.  I think of the Taliban, and their destruction of statues of the Buddha; of the Islamic State, and their destruction of archaeological sites; and of course, who can forget Shelley's famous poem, "Ozymandias"?
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
So, what's it all about, Ozzy?  For me, making art is a vital, natural function no less than breathing and eating.  It's the making of art that's important to me; the paintings just document the process.  Others may see value in the paintings, but for me, the value is in the experience, and not necessarily in the paintings—although I certainly like to have them hanging on my wall and love it when people buy them!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Master Pastel Artist Doug Dawson Coming to Lubec, Maine

Doug Dawson

Master pastel artist Doug Dawson will be giving a mentoring workshop August 24-28, 2015, in Lubec, Maine.  Doug has been to the area several times before, and each time, he's had something new and wonderful to offer.  If you haven't worked with Doug before, he is a very generous instructor, and it's always a treat to work with him.  For details on the workshop, please visit

Doug is a founding board member for the The Art Students League of Denver and teaches 8 to 10 workshops around the US each year. He has received numerous awards from a number of different art organizations such as The Pastel Society of America, American Watercolor Society, Knickerbocker Artists, The National Academy of Western Art, Southeastern Pastel Society, Pastel Society of West Coast, Audubon Artists, Kansas Pastel Society, Pastel Society of the Southwest and the International Association of Pastel Societies. To honor his achievements, he was given the title of Master Pastelist by the Pastel Society of America and elected to the Master's Circle of the International Association of Pastel Societies. In 2008, he was named a Pastel Society of America Hall of Fame Honoree.

A mentoring workshop is a different experience from a typical painting workshop. There will be no demonstrations or lectures or personal help at your easel. Instead, you will paint along with Doug as a colleague or, if you prefer, watch as Doug paints. As your mentor, Doug will critique work and talk informally about painting. You can expect a very intense, "immersion" experience in some of the world's most scenic locations.

If you are new to Doug's work, below are a few examples.  If you'd like to see more, see his website,  I hope you'll join us!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Embarking on a Big Painting: The Finish

"Waterfall" 36x36 oil/canvas
Final State

In a recent post, I wrote about starting a large studio painting based on a variety of reference material.  The painting is now complete, and it's taken me six days to paint it.

First, I arranged all my reference material, as you see here.  The tablet holder is one of the best pieces of equipment I've bought lately.  It is very stable. By the way, one negative to using a tablet for photo references is that it's all too easy to check e-mail.  On the plus side, it's great for playing my Pandora playlist!

Day 1
Next, after toning my canvas with Gamblin's FastMatte transparent earth red and letting it dry, I blocked in the darks with a soft, three-inch brush, using raw umber thinned with Gamsol.   Where necessary, I "pushed" the raw umber toward the cool with ultramarine blue and toward the warm with cadmium red light.  As to the design of the block-in, I spliced together two different views made at two different times of year.  For the upper half, I used the waterfall pencil sketch I'd made in the winter; for the bottom, the 9x12 plein air sketch I made last spring.  You'll note that the composition is split in half at the waterline.  I did this intentionally because I wanted to give equal importance to what was above and below the surface.

Day 2

After the block-in, I went to work on the waterfall with a painting knife.  To me, this was the primary center of interest, and if I couldn't get it correct right from the start, there'd be no point continuing.  For this, I used only my pencil sketch for form and my 6x8 color sketch for color notes.

This would be a good point to mention the colors I used.  My palette consisted of all Gamblin paints:  ivory black, yellow ochre, raw umber, cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, permanent alizarin, ultramarine blue and titanium-zinc white.  I also used a little Solvent-Free Gel for my  medium when I required a little extra looseness in the paint.

Day 3

Next, I brushed in the hillside to the right of the waterfall.  This is a more distant area in the scene, so I kept the painting more abstract; the contrast, low; and the color, cool.

Day 4

As I continued to paint other areas, I kept in mind how I wanted to lead the eye around.  In a way, I was working backwards from my center of interest along this path for the eye.  The next step was the little area of sunlit rocks and grasses on the left, connected to the waterfall by a warm, green passage; and this was followed by the submerged but warm rocks in the foreground.

Day 5
The area I saved for last was the upper left quadrant.  For much of the time, I honestly didn't know what needed to go there.  What's interesting is that the painting really worked with nothing there but the underpainting, so I knew whatever I added had to be dark with little contrast.  Shadowy trees and bushes were the obvious solution, and I used my photo references for that.  I added a transition between the waterfall and the clump of rocks and weeds on the left with a few highlit branches.

Day 6
After addressing that area, I felt the painting was nearing closure.  But as much as I liked the quiet feeling of the water,  it needed a little more interest.  I added some very soft reflections and ripples.  As a final touch, I added floating bubbles—tiny bits of pure white, applied by a knife just barely touching the surface.  The irregular bumps in the weave were just enough to pull the paint off the knife.

Below are some details shots, followed by the finished painting again.

"Waterfall" 36x36 oil/canvas, finished state

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What is a Landscape Painting?

A painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cezanne.  Is this a landscape painting?

I recently heard from a student who told me about a painting workshop she'd taken from an artist friend of mine.  The workshop topic was the landscape.  At one point, when looking at the student's work, the teacher said, "That's not really a landscape."

Having not seen the painting myself, I can only guess at what the teacher meant.  We usually think of the landscape as having a wide view with a sense of distance.  The student may have painted a more intimate close-up, such as a painting of a single tree—a portrait, if you will.  I'm not commenting on either student or teacher, but the incident makes me wonder:  What is a landscape painting, exactly?

We can start by restating the definition I gave above.  A landscape is a representation of an outdoors scene that evokes a sense of space and depth.  This, I think, is plain and simple enough, but just like any so-called definitive statement, it is open to interpretation.  (In the field of jurisprudence, this is why we have courts of law.)

How much space and depth qualifies?  Would we include Cezanne's flattened, near-abstract paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire?  And what about that term, "outdoors"?  Monet's paintings of the trains in the Gare Sainte-Lazare are interiors of large, covered spaces with plenty of atmosphere.  How about Asher Durand's field sketches of trees and rocks?  Should these be considered portraits or still lifes?

Here's another definition of  landscape painting I'd like to offer.  If the outdoors is the subject, it's a landscape; if the outdoors is only the setting for the subject, then it's probably something else.  Still, we might want to take a broad interpretation rather than a narrow one.  Even though Mont Sainte-Victoire and not the outdoors itself seems to be the subject of Cezanne's painting, isn't it a landscape?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you define it.

One of Asher Durand's field sketches.  Is this a landscape painting?

Oneof Monet's Gare Sainte-Lazare paintings.  Is this a landscape painting?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Embarking on a Big Painting

For me, a big painting is anything over 12x16.  This week, I'm starting one that is 36x36.  Just getting the canvas toned and up on the easel is a project!  I had to use the largest brush I have to tone it.  Then, because I needed the workbench for another task, I had to move the canvas to the carport to get it out of the way.  Finally, when I brought it back in, I had to raise the mast on my H-frame easel to hold it.  I'm a tall painter, so the mast is just tickling the ceiling.

This painting will be created from plein air sketches, photo references and pencil sketches.  Earlier in the year, I hiked out to a waterfall location on Oak Creek that has always fascinated me and took a series of photos and made some pencil sketches.  Here are the sketches:

I had meant to go back the next day and make some color sketches, too, but time got away.  Then we had heavy rain and a significant flood that made the location inaccessible.  Now that the water has receded, I decided yesterday to see if I could hike out there.  The flood had pushed around and piled up a great deal of debris—the usual logs and branches, but also a good deal of charred wood.  Much of the debris had come from up-canyon, north of Sedona, from areas that had been devasted by last summer's Slide Fire.  Because I knew I'd be doing some scrambling, I decided to travel lightly.

I packed up my 6x8 Guerrilla Painter ThumBox with a prepped palette, one brush, two 6x8 panels and a little container of Gamsol.  I also took a bottle of water and my portable stool.  Normally, I don't like working in my lap, but I didn't want to drag a tripod through the debris.  The stool was lighter and less bulky.

I was pleased to find that the hike wasn't as tough as I'd expected, and although the terrain had changed somewhat, my view of my waterfall was still there.  In fact, I think my chosen perch was a little more open than before, and now there was a mound of sand to set up on.

I did two 6x8 studies in an hour:

Top of the Falls, 6x8 oil
(You'll note the waterfall has diminished since I made my pencil sketch)

Below the Falls, 6x8 oil

In addition to these references, I have one more, created last year.  It's a 9x12 painting of the water.  In some ways, I prefer this water view to what I sketched yesterday—it's a little further downstream—and I may use it instead.  Once I make some progress on this painting, I'll post more photos.

Spring Shallows, 9x12 oil

Friday, March 13, 2015

Encounter: Painter, Teacher and Author Sean Dye

Sean Dye at work

Last week, I had a treat.  I spent a few days painting with painter, teacher and author Sean Dye, who had come from Vermont to take a workshop with me.  Sean is an accomplished painter, so for me, it was indeed an honor to have him as a student.  (This is his third time studying with me.)  Sean founded the Vermont Pastel Society, has written the popular book Painting with Water-Soluble Oils and appears in three videos and teaches regularly. We had a great time painting from Sedona to Jerome and points in between.  Recently, he moved his studio to Creative Space Gallery in Vergennes, Vermont.

Here are some of the paintings I did during the week:

High Desert Juniper II, 16x20 oil

Wake of the Flood, 9x12 oil

Morning Shadow 11x14 oil

High Desert Juniper I, 11x14 oil
Cuban Queen of Jerome 9x12 oil
Jerome Foundation Wall 9x12 oil
(This one is very different for me, and I wonder who I was channeling?)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Suggestions for Plein Air Painting Festival Organizers

At the Opening Reception for the 2014 Grand Canyon Celebration of Art

To go along with my post on Etiquette for Artists at Plein Air Painting Festivals, which was directed at the artists, I thought it only fair to offer suggestions to the organizers of these events, too.  This is a more difficult task, considering that every event is different with its own agenda and goals.  However, I have some general suggestions that might be helpful.  Some of you already do these things; but if you don't, please consider them.  Much of it boils down to giving buyers long and plentiful opportunities to purchase paintings for a successful event.

  • First, if you haven't learned to delegate, learn.  This will avoid burn-out during the event.  Some organizers take on too much.
  • Limit the number of participating artists.  More artists means more paintings for sale, which, in a limited market, means fewer sales per artist, and that means unhappy artists.   Thirty may be too many for even a national event; try going with no more than twenty-five.
  • Don't wait to publicize your artists.  As soon as you have your roster, advertise it.  The earlier you can get their names out there, the better.
  • Offer free housing for artists.  For many festivals, artists dig into their own pockets for travel expenses and meals.  Free housing, especially in tourist areas at high season when rates are up and availability, down, will be most welcome.  Also, the interaction between artists and hosts can lead to new collectors.
  • Display artwork in your show space for the entire event, not just during the reception and sale.  This will lengthen the opportunity for sales.  Artists can bring artwork created earlier, and paintings made during the week can add to it or replace it.  This gives a changing and continuous display to create interest during the event.
  • Schedule artist demonstrations during the event to promote it and to educate the public.  They are a great way to build awareness and interest in the event.
  • Have an auction event.  You can really ratchet up prices this way and generate a sense of urgency.  Starting bids should be reasonable, however.  But don't try playing auctioneer yourself; get a professional.  Make sure he is prepared to read a short, written bio of the artist.  Don't let him do it from memory, unless you like the surprises a faulty memory can create.
  • For the exhibit, evaluate the display floor carefully.  If there is any clearly inferior area,  don't display art there.   This will avoid limiting some poor artist's sales opportunity.  As much as possible, artists should have equal access, lighting and display space.  Beware of corners, structural posts that could become barriers, etc.

  • Let artists hang their own work, but with rules and under supervision.  (You may want work hung only so high, or only so many pieces per artist.)  This will eliminate complaints from artists about how paintings are hung.  It will also make it easier on the volunteers, who are always very busy toward the end of the festival.
  • Keep the buffet table and bar far away from the display area to give maximum access to artwork.  You don't want twenty people crowded around the bar, blocking an artist's work.
  • Have plenty of sales people on the floor.  I don't like having to hunt down a sales person because my buyer might change his mind while I'm gone.  Nor do I like having to drag the buyer along with me on the hunt; I want to be available at my paintings for the next buyer.
  • Announce awards at the beginning of the opening reception, not at the end.  This will give people a chance to see the winning paintings and to make purchase decisions early on. 
  • Make sure you have purchase awards to guarantee sales.  I personally would prefer this to having a ribbon to hang next to the unsold painting in my studio.
  • Finally, when it's all over, select and advertise dates for the next event immediately.  Build on the interest you've generated before it fades.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Etiquette for Artists at Plein Air Painting Festivals

2014 Sedona Plein Air Festival

I've participated in many plein air painting festivals over the years.  Now with the plein air painting season nearly upon us, I have some thoughts on these festivals and how artists should behave.  Some of the participants, especially some of the newer ones, might improve their manners.  Please don't think of me as a "Miss Manners," but manners have their place in the world.  Good manners make it a happier and better place for everyone.  And for plein air festivals, good manners may also help sales.  So, with that in mind, here are notes on etiquette for artists at plein air painting festivals.

  • Be a team player.  Go to all the events on the schedule, especially if the attendance of artists is requested.   Sure, we want to spend the whole week painting, but it's important to show face and to support the organizers and other artists.  It may also help sales, since the folks attending the event may get to know you enough to want to buy your paintings.
  • Respect your fellow artists.  If you think someone else's paintings could have been made by a third-grader, keep it to yourself.  They have probably worked just as hard as you to get into the festival, even if they can't paint.
  • If you stay with hosts, be a good guest.  No impromptu parties,  no rudeness, no making life difficult for them.  If your guests invite you to dinner, go.  Yes, we all want to paint a lot, but take the time to know your hosts.   It's just courteous.  I've made some good friends this way.
  • When you go out to paint, if another artist has set up where you'd planned to be, don't just automatically set up an arm's length away.  Ask the artist if it's okay to paint there.  Or, better yet, just go find a new spot.  You should have gotten there earlier.
  • If you don't like the way things are being run, wait until after the event to grouse.  Complaining at the opening reception or sales event is especially rude and hurtful in many ways.  The organizers will, of course, appreciate a well-thought critique after the event.
  • Dress appropriately for the event.  Wear your painting rags in the field, but don't wear them to the opening reception.   Ask the organizers what the guests will be wearing at the reception if you don't know.  Dressing like a professional shows that you're, well, a professional.
  • At the reception, don't grab a plate from the buffet and stand (or worse, sit) in front of someone else's paintings.   Have the courtesy at least to go munch in front of your own paintings.  This actually happened to me.  An artist pulled up a chair and sat down to eat in front of my display, preventing people from seeing my work and me from talking to them about it.  (Yes, the artist did move when I asked.)
  • Don't complain about the lack of sales during the sales event.  And if you are selling well, don't boast.  Complaining looks bad and changes the mood of what should be a very positive event.  Boasting has a similar effect.  Put on your best salesman mask.
  • Don't complain if you didn't get an award.  If you've got any experience with painting competitions, you will understand that awards are highly subjective.  I've seen terrible paintings win awards.  I've also seen great paintings that deserved awards get nothing.  Just keep smiling, and congratulate the winners.
  • Finally, be courteous and helpful in every way.  Our society has gotten increasingly rude, and it's so refreshing to find politeness anywhere you go.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Wake of the Flood

Wake of the Flood, 9x12 oil plein air
by Michael Chesley Johnson

Above is a painting I made yesterday after three days of late winter rains caused Oak Creek to flood. The sun came out, the water receded, and the birds began to sing again.  The air was filled with the good smell of cottonwoods starting to bud.  It doesn't get better than that!

On another note, we just learned that, due to a family emergency, we have lost our tenant for the summer.  Consequently, our Arizona house is available for rent starting in mid-April until mid-October.

This is a great house for one person or a couple (there's just one bedroom), and it comes furnished with utilities, including high-speed internet.  It's a very quiet, gated neighborhood, and folks respect your privacy.  There's even a community swimming pool, sport court and clubhouse.

We love living here because we are at the confluence of Oak and Spring Creeks where we have many trails along the water (I painted the piece above here.)  Also, we're only 10 minutes from Sedona and 2 hours from the Phoenix airport; and there's tons of scenic areas within a half-day's drive.  You can't beat being only two hours from the Grand Canyon!

You can get all the details here:

Below are a few photos of the trails along the creeks:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Post-Workshop: Studio-Only, Pastel-Only, Color Intensive Painting Workshop

Earlier this week, I announced that I had scheduled a studio-only, pastel-only, color intensive painting workshop.  I've always wanted to teach such a workshop, since color really is the impetus for my painting.  As Dylan Thomas wrote:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower /
Drives my green age

and for me, that "force" is color.

I won't go into all the material we covered, but the captions for the photos should give you a clue.

We had four fun-filled days exploring color concepts in pastel, and all agreed the week was a success.  I am looking forward to offering this workshop again next winter here in Sedona.  So, if plein air painting isn't your thing, and you'd prefer not to have to paint with messy oil painters, maybe you'll consider this indoor pastel workshop when I announce the next one.

Extreme Limited Pastel Palette Demonstration - Only 14 Sticks!

Setup for Above with Photo Reference

Demonstration - Using a Pre-determined Palette (Split-Complementary)

Setup for Above with Photo Reference


Perceived Color is Dependent on Surrounding Color
Demonstration:  Creating a Sunny Day on Warm-Toned Paper

Setup for Above with Photo Reference

Demonstration:  Creating an Overcast Day on Cool-Toned Paper

Setup for Above with Photo Reference

Demonstration:  Complementary Color Block-In

Demonstration:  Finished Painting with Complementary Block-In