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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Santa Fe Painting Retreat, Day 5

Pecos National Historical Park

We had a special field trip ahead of us today, so we were up early for breakfast and critiques.   Our destination:  the Pecos National Historical Park and the wild Pecos River itself.

The jewel of the Pecos National Historical Park is the the adobe church, set high on a hill with views of the Pecos pueblo ruins and the valleys of the Galisteo Creek and the Pecos River.  The church, which was built in 1717 on the ruins of an older and much larger church that was destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, is just a shell; it has mostly melted away with centuries of monsoonal rains and winter snows.  Still, it is an imposing edifice on the hilltop, and with the snow-capped Sangre de Cristos behind it, it makes a beautiful picture.

Pecos Church 9x12 by Michael Chesley Johnson
We set up on the trail with a fine view of the church and the mountains.  This park seems to be little-visited this time of year, as only a few tourists came by.  By lunchtime, a group of kindergartners had arrived, but they were polite and sat at their own picnic table.  The wind suddenly picked up and whipped off the baseball cap of one youngster; the cap seemed to come alive and ran in dizzying circles, nearly escaping its owner.

We took this as a sign of increasing wind for the afternoon.  New Mexico can be a windy state in the springtime.  So, we decided to head to the Pecos River, where we would be sheltered by its canyon.

The Wild and Wooly Pecos River

I'd scoped out a great spot last week along the river, about six miles up the road from the village of Pecos.  We had it mostly to ourselves, save for a couple of anglers around the bend.  The Pecos has been designated a Wild and Scenic River, but today it was clear, quiet -- and cold.  I went to wash my hands in it, and I was surprised at how cold it was.

What I liked most about the spot was how it offered stimulus for all the senses.  The air was filled with the fragrance of ponderosa pine and the rush of water; and the water itself was filled with a rainbow of colors from milky blue-green to shadowy orange to bright blue.   My back had gotten a little tired from standing all week, but I found a sizable log in the shade to sit on.  Troops of ants ran up and down the log, but they didn't seem interested in me.  I finished my painting before the others, so I found a rock to sit on, perched over the rapids, and I just let my mind free.

On the Pecos 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

By the way,  yesterday I took a new approach to viewing the landscape while painting.  Many of the scenes I want to paint force me to have sun directly on my canvas.  I've always disliked this situation, since it is very hard on the eyes, and unless you're aware of how such bright light can affect your vision, it can lead to dark and dull paintings.  The solution could be an umbrella, but often it's too windy or the umbrella is inconvenient.  When painting the "Ranch of the Swallows," I found myself in this situation, so I decided to paint with sunglasses on.  I did the same today with my painting of the Pecos church.  I'm very pleased with the results.

We've always been told not to paint with sunglasses on because they can distort color and value.  I didn't find this to be the case at all.  My sunglasses are a neutral grey with polarizing lenses.  The only negative effect would be that, because of the polarization, skies have a little more contrast and water has a little less glare.  If these are a problem (which they aren't always), it's easy to lift up the glasses and make adjustments.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Santa Fe Painting Retreat, Day 4

Painting El Cuarto de Familia (Reception Room) at El Rancho de las Golondrinas

As predicted, morning came cold and clear.  When I stepped out to walk the dog and listen to the birds, I was surprised to see a thin, grey layer of frost decorating the cars.  But the air's sharpness felt good - and there wasn't a scrap of cloud to be seen.  I knew it was going to be a great day.

After a breakfast of eggs and potatoes, we looked at our work from the day before.  We patted ourselves on the back for doing such good work on a challenging day of fickle weather.  Even though we were eager to get started on our first truly sunny day, we took the time to give each painting its due respect.  But as soon as we were done, we hustled to the cars.

The Torreon

I had arranged for our group to spend the day at El Rancho de las Golondrinas or "Ranch of the Swallows."  This 200-acre ranch dates from the early 1700s and was a popular stop on the historic Camino Real, the "Royal Road," which ran from Mexico City to Sante Fe.  Today, it is a living history museum.  For painters, it is a gold mind:  adobe buildings, including a capilla (chapel) and even sheep!

Adobe walls really show their best when illuminated by the full New Mexican sun on a clear day with a hard blue sky.  On this day, the stars aligned just right, and we got our sun, we got our adobes, and we got our paintings.

Adam Sandler Is Here - Well, Not Just Yet
Just to show that we know how to pick a  site, consider this.  Adam Sandler is shooting his new film, "Ridiculous 6," here, as well.  Yellow signs saying things like "SLOW DOWN," "CATERING," and "SET" with arrows pointing different directions steered a variety of motorized, wheeled vehicles to their destinations.  There were even trucks carrying loads of juniper limbs, no doubt to serve as set dressing.  Fortunately, the set was at the far end of the ranch, and we had no intention of dragging our gear so far.  But it was entertaining to guess which shiny black Cadillac Escalade was carrying Mr Sandler.  (We learned later that he wouldn't arrive on the set until Thursday.  So it goes.)

As attractive as the landscape was with winding dirt roads, towering cottonwoods and distant vistas, I felt that I needed to paint things made of adobe.  When in Santa Fe, paint what the city is famous for.  So I did two:

La Capilla 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Hacienda Afternoon 11x14 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Photo by Trina Stephenson

At the end of the day, a wrong turn on the way home landed us in the parking lot of Artisan Santa Fe, probably one of the best art supply stores I've ever seen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Santa Fe Painting Retreat, Part 3

In Lamy, New Mexico

The storm system that affected our first day parked itself over west Texas and continued to spin clouds our way.  Although it wasn't raining or snowing, it was heavily overcast.  The tops of the Sangre de Cristo mountains were hidden in clouds.  Keeping in mind that, with weather, time is one's friend, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, followed by a group critique of the prior day's paintings.

These critiques are always valuable.  Although I, as the leader of the retreat, initiate the critiques, everyone is welcome to join in, and we always end up having a productive discussion.  I'm not always right, nor do I pretend to be, and sometimes you just have to talk things through to reach the truth.  I think I get as much out of these critiques as participants do!

After the critique, we geared up and headed down to Galisteo.  This tiny town (population something short of 300) was founded about the time of Santa Fe (c. 1612) and features many old adobe homes and ranch structures.  I like it because it is incredibly scenic and has wide side streets with plenty of room for a painter to set up in.   It also has a popular studio tour each fall.

We located ourselves on what appeared to be one of the more important side streets, but the whole time we were there, maybe four vehicles and two women walking a puppy passed us.  I positioned myself by a rock wall topped with barbed wire before a scene that featured a pasture with poplars, cottonwoods and a small adobe building that had a cross out front.  It reminded me of a morada, which is a small chapel used by the Pentitentes.  The damp air conjured up a host of fragrances from the land:  lilac, honeysuckle, and earth.

Galisteo Cottonwood 9x12 oil
by Michael Chesley Johnson

Above is the painting I did.  For this one, I was trying to be very literal with the paint.  That is, I reined in my expressionistic tendencies and tried to paint the scene exactly as I saw it.  It'll be a useful reference for the studio, where I'll be free to push the color and improve the composition.  When you're painting en plein air, you can either be literal or not.  If my goal is to create sketches that will be useful in creating a larger, finished piece, I try to make accurate color notes and save the creativity for the studio.

End of the Line, Lamy

As we finished up, a few raindrops began to come down, so we packed up and headed for nearby Lamy.  Lamy has restrooms in the Amtrak station and picnic tables for lunch.  The depot is actually very historic.  Lamy was made the terminus for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) when engineers discovered that it was impractical to run the line to Santa Fe because of the hills.  Fred Harvey build his "luxurious" El Ortiz Hotel there in 1896.  Today, Amtrak runs to the depot and a shuttle offers service to Santa Fe.

As scenic as the town is, we could see our future in the sky:  Rain squalls over the mountains were heading our way.  After a quick bite, we packed up and made the short trip back to Santa Fe after stopping for groceries in Eldorado.  We spent the afternoon dodging squalls and scoping out painting spots.  We also visited the Gerald Peters and Nedra Matteuci Galleries.  Nedra Matteuci has swapped out the work that I saw back in January; there are several paintings by Curt Walters and Walt Gonske, two of my favorite painters, that I haven't seen before.

The day ended with a homecooked meal and, of course, more art talk.  We checked the forecast for the next day, and things looked much more promising.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Santa Fe Painting Retreat - Part 2

Dog with a View on Delgado Street

One of the things I love about New Mexico, especially in the spring, is the unpredictable weather.  Who would have thought, with the lilacs and wisteria blooming, that we would have had snow our first morning?

We all noticed when we rose the heavy clouds hanging over the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  After a hearty breakfast, I checked the radar on Wunderground, and I could see rain spinning our way and snow already falling at higher elevations.  But it seemed spotty enough, so we geared up and walked from the house to a little dirt lane I'd discovered that led to several beautiful historic adobe homes.  It was only a five-minute walk to the location, so I knew we could scurry back, so long as we didn't get an all-out downpour.

We set up quickly.  It being early Sunday morning - about 8 a.m. - we took care to do so quietly to avoid annoying the residents.  There were a few cars parked here and there (I set up near a sporty Mercedes), and some orange cones marked someone's currently-empty parking spot.  We  had a great view of a massive lilac bush, beautiful in the moody light, and that became our focus.

Moody Lilacs 9x12 oil
by Michael Chesley Johnson

Within the hour, it began to spit rain.  I managed to get my painting to a finish and to pack up before it really started to come down.  We used our plein air umbrellas to ward off the rain, which quickly turned to sleet.  By the time we returned to the house,  it had changed over to snow.

It wasn't long before the a good coat of fluffy snow covered everything.  Wanting to make the most of the day, we decided to head over to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, where the current exhibition was ending this week.   We got there in time for a docent-led tour.  Usually, I find docent-led tours to be "beginner level," but this docent really knew her stuff and answered advanced questions from us painters.  We also got a good look at the work of some of Georgia's Modernist contemporaries:  Robert Henri, Edward Hopper (who didn't care for Santa Fe), Andrew Dasburg, John Marin, John Sloan, Alfred Steiglitz and others.

Mock-up of Georgia's Studio

Georgia's Paintbox
We returned to the house for lunch, but the weather wasn't improving significantly.  The others decided to go gallery-hopping, which is an excellent bad-weather day activity in Santa Fe, but since I'd already been here a week and had done the galleries, I decided to stay in and do a little paperwork.  But being a good host, I gave them my list of personal favorites on Canyon Road, most of which feature contemporary realist painters.   (Since you asked:  Ventana Fine Art, Sage Creek Gallery, Greenberg Fine Art, McLarry Fine Art, Meyer Gallery, Gerald Peters, Nedra Matteucci, among others.)

The others returned in the mid-afternoon, and the weather looked to be improving.  Still, a little rain was spitting down, so we all retreated to a variety of indoor or covered spaces.  Both garage and second-story porches were used to paint some of the views from the house.  I gave some advice, toned some panels for the next day, and encouraged everyone that the weather will certainly improve!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Santa Fe Painting Retreat - Part 1

Springtime in Paris Santa Fe

Every year, I lead a weeklong painting retreat for advanced painters.  I try to make it a true immersion experience in which the only language spoken is Art.  We paint, and when we're not painting, we talk about art, or we visit museums, galleries or the studios of other artists, and we critique each other's work.  I limit participation to just a few painters who have studied with me to ensure a compatible, cohesive group.  Everyone tells me they grow a lot during these retreats.  And they're popular, too;  it's not unusual for them to fill just days after I announce them.

This year, we're in Santa Fe.  The "City Different" is, in my opinion, at its most beautiful in April.  Yesterday, as I walked down Canyon Road, famous for its many galleries, all my senses jumped into high gear.  Lilac and wisteria put out a heady scent; cottonwoods displayed their lacey, spring-green foliage; birds courted with song in the apple trees.  I could almost taste this bountiful spring on my tongue.

Our house is only a few blocks from Canyon Road.  This is a real treat, because many of Santa Fe's galleries are within an easy walk.  Museum Hill, which hosts many of the city's museums, is only two minutes away by car.  And restaurants?  You could eat at a different one for every meal for a month and probably not eat at the same one twice.

But I personally like our location because we are near many of the city's historic adobe homes.  These old structures are beautiful because, if they're done right, they are full of organic curves and seem to be part of the landscape.  They don't seem to be "built" at all, but grown.  Often, they're constructed to accommodate some of the huge cottonwoods and may have walls that bend around trunks or are even attached to them.  Finally, if the light is right, these homes glow with golden light that is a painter's dream.

Our first day, Saturday, was Arrival Day.  Participants came from far distances (Maryland and Massachusetts), so everyone was pretty beat.  Still, in the evening, we had time to walk around, look at painting possibilities, and also drive out to the Santa Fe ski area.  We're all looking forward to an exciting week!

Snowy Sangre de Cristos

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Fluency in Painting

Thomas Mann, author of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain)
and winner of the Nobel prize for Literature, 1929.
I've never read his famous book in the original German.

Learning to paint is a lot like learning a language.  After a great deal of practice, one becomes fluent.  Fluency means you don't have to translate in your head.  Listening and responding doesn't require the intermediate step of translation.

I have to admit, I'm terrible at learning languages.  I had two years of German in college.  During my last year, we had to speak German exclusively while in class.  I always had to translate the professor's question in my head and then translate my response before finally answering.  You can imagine the awkward delay and how foolish I felt.  I really admired the students who could respond instantly.  They had acquired a fluency I could only dream of.

Fluency in painting is, as in languages, a goal worth shooting for.

For example, in order to capture a thought quickly in paint and to put it down without the result looking clumsy or overworked, you need to be able to mix color almost intuitively.  For this, you need to possess a good "vocabulary of color" that includes colors and mixtures.  To take the analogy back to languages:  There is a world of difference between knowing a word and searching for it, and not knowing a word and searching for it.

It's the same with line, composition, mark-making and all the other elements that go into the grammar of painting.

The more you paint, the more fluent you become.  It's important, too, to practice regularly.  Even the best translators get rusty if they don't practice.

After my experience with German—and believe me, I really tried to learn—I will say that I believe  acquiring native-speaker level fluency requires not just skill but also a certain amount of talent.  My brain is wired differently from someone who can speak like a native, and even in an immersion setting, I don't believe I could ever attain the fluency of, say, Thomas Mann.

Is it the same with painting?  Is it true that one can become a competent painter with only skill, but to magically take thoughts and feelings and turn them into a masterpiece requires talent?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sizzling Reds in The Artist's Magazine

My article on reds for the oil painter, "Sizzling Reds," is in the latest issue of The Artist's Magazine.  I had a lot of fun writing this article and creating the demonstration paintings.  What I am most proud of, however, are the test swatches!  I sampled fifteen different reds with regard to masstone, undertone and tints and learned a lot about how each of these reds work.  (All the paints were courtesy of Gamblin Artists Colors.)

Get the June 2015 issue and look for "Brushing Up:  Sizzling Reds."  If it's not out just yet, it will  be, soon!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Looking Forward: Downeast Maine & Canadian Maritimes

Now that my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshop season has ended, I'm eager to get to my summer studio for my Paint Campobello workshops.  Campobello Island, New Brunswick, and Lubec, Maine, offer so much for the plein air painter.   Think lighthouses perched on rocky points, cobble beaches and bold cliffs, broad meadows and apple trees, working harbours and boats - and, of course, lobster! For me, there's nothing I enjoy more than painting on a bluff that overlooks one of the quiet bays.  Quite often, my only companions are a bald eagle overhead and maybe a whale breeching offshore.

This year, I am offering only nine (9) sessions.  Two sessions are already filled.  And keep in mind that I only take four (4) students at a time.  So, if you're interested, please don't wait to sign up.  For more details and to register, please visit

I hope you'll join me!  In the meantime, here are some photos from last summer:

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Look Back at this Past Season in Sedona: Plein Air Painting Workshops & More

Our time here in Sedona is just about up.  I have one more plein air painting workshop to teach before we pack up the house and head back to Campobello Island.  I thought I'd share with you some images from this past season in Sedona.  (By the way, I'm already taking signups for the October 2015-April 2016 Paint Sedona season.)  Enjoy!

The season started off with the Sedona Plein Air Festival...
(photo courtesy Kelli Klymenko)

...where I sold my big painting of the Alcantara Vineyard right off the easel.
The Handells (Albert and Jeanine) came to town...

...and Albert Handell taught a fantastic workshop.
I went on a couple of overnight painting trips with my friend, M.L. Coleman.
My plein air painting group had at least one paint-out a month in beautiful spot.
I had a one-man show in Sedona City Hall...

...and Her Honor, the Mayor, got to enjoy a few pieces in her office.
I sold another large piece to a happy collector.
I taught a four-day pastel-only, studio-only workshop that went so well I'm doing it again next year.
And, of course, I taught many outdoor workshops.  

I got to meet a lot of new people and make a lot of new friends!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Art Business: Name Change, Game Change - Update

The butterfly "chop" of The Artist Formerly Known as Whistler

I've had so much feedback on my question about changing my professional name that I felt I needed to write a followup post.  I don't have time to reply to each one.  But believe me, I do appreciate your response!

About half the comments were in favor of the change with the remainder dissenting.  Opinions were strong, whatever the stance.   Those in favor were mostly in alignment with my reasons for changing; for the others, the top issue was that I might confuse collectors and followers and hurt my continuing success as an artist.  Many came from women who have dealt with a name change because of marriage or divorce.

Several also gave suggestions.  Here are a few:

"Is this an April Fool's joke?"  Uh, no.  I posted the original blog post on April 3.

"I do think your existing name is very nice, though.  How about M. Chelsey Johnson?"  In this case, the reader misspelled my middle name—exactly what I am trying to avoid.  I'll add that this wasn't the only commentor who misspelled it.  Point proven.

"Have you thought about using a chop?" A chop is a seal that is used to stamp a painting, often used in place of a signature.  You'll see it on Asian artwork as pictographs or logograms.  Whistler used a butterfly.  But just putting my chop on a painting won't work.  A glyph can't be used in marketing when everyone else is using the Roman alphabet to create a pronounceable name.  The musical artist Prince found that changing his stage name to a symbol didn't work very well; so now we call him The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

"The three-name-thing worked for John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase."  Yes, but today we have Twitter and the necessity of fitting one's name into a space the length of which is dictated by a software programmer raised in the era of MTV and ADD.  My Twitter handle is @mchesleyjohnson.  I'd prefer my whole brand, @michaelchesleyjohnson—but sorry, says Twitter, that's too long.

There are other many excellent comments, which you can find at the end of my previous post or on my Facebook studio page:

I do like my name.  It's a family name and has a great deal of personal meaning for me.  But as I wrote in my previous blog post, it has caused a number of problems professionally.  I do agree that it is hard to build a brand from scratch.  But I have a plan!