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Monday, May 18, 2015

Pastel Artists Canada Paintout

Along Bronte Creek

After my whirlwind trip to the Pacific Northwest,  I pushed to get to Ontario in time for a paintout with Pastel Artists Canada.  Sometimes, the life of a plein air painter can be as hectic as a rock star's.  I only wish I had a big touring coach like Willie Nelson's.

Springtime was in full swing by the time I got to Lowville.   We had a lovely location along Bronte Creek with apple trees blooming and salmon jumping.  For two days, we painted beautiful trees along the creek.  Most amazing were the cedars with their massive, ancient, twisting trunks.  Lowville Park, where the painout was held, was at one time a farm, and I could tell that the land had been well-managed over the years.  The creek itself was, of course, beautiful, with two bridges crossing over its wide rapids.

We had iffy weather the first day of this two-day event, but the second day was absolutely gorgeous.  The weather was good enough that we were able to paint outdoors both days without having to retreat to the studio.  (Always make sure you have a back-up studio in the event of bad weather!)  We enjoyed lunch in the shade of our picnic pavilion, and ended each day with critiques.  I want to thank Pastel Artists Canada and my hosts Rosemary and John for making the visit a successful and pleasant one.

Fallen Cedar 9x12 pastel
by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available!

Cedar Soldier 7x5 pastel
by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available!

Creekside Cedar 12x9 pastel
by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available!

Lowville Pine 12x9 pastel
by Michael Chesley Johnson - Sold

The participants hailed from mostly Ontario, but also from New York.  All were pastel painters, and most had some plein air experience.  It's always fun to work in one medium for an event and to share my approach to plein air painting with those who are new to the sport.

Now are in Vermont visiting family, a welcome respite.  In a couple of days, we will be back on Campobello Island again, where I will have a few weeks before my workshops there begin.  In the meantime, I'll be putting together a new book, the nature of which will soon be revealed.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How I Judge a Show

Northwest Pastel Society International Open Exhibition
at The American Art Company
Before the Reception

While I was in Washington teaching a workshop, I had the pleasure of judging the Northwest Pastel Society's annual international open exhibition. During the workshop, I was asked several times how I go about doing that. I thought I'd share my process with you here.

In addition to being the judge of awards, I was the juror of selection. Prior to the exhibition, I was asked to select anywhere from 70 to 75 pieces from about 200 entries. (I have done this for larger shows, but the process is the same.) These days, this is all done via computer.  No one uses slides anymore.

On-screen, large paintings often look better than small paintings. Large paintings are much reduced, and any minor flaws or eccentricities in mark-making disappear in the reduction. Small paintings aren't reduced as much or, in the case of very small paintings, they may even be enlarged, which makes flaws more obvious.  I try to see past all the inequity, of course, but the images that look best in the first pass have simple designs with strong contrast and an element of rich color.

Once I have my list, I quickly go through the images and divide them into three categories: Yes, No, and Maybe. A "yes" always jumps out as being quality, well-crafted work. Likewise, a "no" jumps out as being amateurish (and sometimes lazy.) A "maybe" is more problematic, since the quality of the painting isn't immediately obvious. Often, paintings in the "maybe" pile deserve further scrutiny.

Next, I tally up the paintings in the "yes" pile to see if I need more for the show. This always seems to be the case because I tend to be overly-critical in the first pass. Then I go through the "maybe" pile, looking closely at design and color usage. Quite often, what I run across are subtle pieces that are quite good, and I add them to the "yes" pile. In this pass, I always end up with many more pieces than I need.

After this, I go through the "no" pile to see if there is anything I may have missed. It does happen sometimes that I am too hasty and have inadvertently discarded a gem.

Finally, I go through the "yes" pile several times to get it down to the number I need for the show. At this time, I look very hard at all the factors that go into a good painting - not just design and color usage but also emotional impact and, if I can zoom in enough, mark-making - to make sure I have truly quality work.

This selection process can take several hours.  The first pass doesn't take that long, but as I get deep into reviewing my choices, each pass takes longer.

Sometimes, as with the NPS exhibition, I am also asked to be the judge of awards. This is always supremely enjoyable, because I get to see the work I selected in person. Because the selected pieces are of high quality, judging may take me a long time. For this show, it took a good two hours to review the 71 paintings.

Here's how I do it. I walk through the gallery with a little pad of "sticky notes." I make several circuits of the gallery, putting a sticky note on any painting that makes me stop. Strong, clear design, engaging color or an air of mystery will do this. In some ways, at this stage, selecting paintings is more about emotional appeal. Emotional appeal is less a factor when you are looking at a small image on-screen; but it becomes huge when you are looking at the actual painting. By now, I've already selected paintings for craftsmanship, so the gallery viewing is more about how the paintings strike me.

After several passes, I have winnowed down the selections to a few more than I need. I go through again, looking at each painting very carefully with respect to craftsmanship and mark-making. Some paintings get pulled; some paintings get added. I want to make sure my final choices truly deserve the award.

Often, it's difficult if not impossible to choose between first, second and third, and I have to go with the "Ah!" factor. The quality of painting of each of the candidates is top-notch, and choices become personal.

I find it very satisfying to attend the awards presentation and to see how the artists and collectors receive my choices. They don't always agree with me, but then, that's the way it is with art. A great painting always contains a mystery that sparks a very personal interpretation and response.  I wouldn't want it any other way.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Workshop in Gig Harbor, Washington, and Judging a Show

Massive Mount Rainier
from Gig Harbor

I was excited when the Northwest Pastel Society invited me to visit Gig Harbor and Tacoma, Washington, to judge its annual international open exhibition and to teach a workshop. Besides the fact that the NPS is a well-respected group and it is an honor to be asked by them, I've always wanted to visit the Pacific Northwest. 

For the workshop, I flew from Albuquerque to SeaTac, where I was picked up and taken to my host's home in Gig Harbor. Donna is a wonderful host and also an excellent painter and teacher of art; she's  been teaching painting privately for over 25 years.  She also has a well-stocked studio in which these workshops are held and a vast library of art books. It was a real joy to stay with someone who appreciates art so much.

I got in a day early, so I was invited to participate in the weekly figure drop-in session.  My schedule doesn't allow me to work from the model very often, so I jumped at the chance.  For four hours, we worked with Caylin, who was a wonderful model.  Here's one of my sketches.

The workshop lasted three days, and although it was sponsored by a pastel society, I was asked to include oil, and also to mix in a little plein air with studio work, weather permitting. They don't grow those hundred-foot Douglas firs in the Pacific Northwest without a lot of rain, so no one was really sure what the weather would be like. About a week before the workshop, the forecast had been rather gloomy. But luckily, only our first day had intermittent showers, which was followed by two days of glorious sunshine. The weather ended up being much better than anyone expected, so we were able to get out and enjoy the sun.

In the Studio

In the Field
Painting among the Rhododendrons

I had a really good group for the workshop. Several were pastelists who were also closet oil painters and "came out" at the workshop. Everyone was eager to learn and had a great time, whether I was demonstrating in pastel or oil or whether we were in the studio or out. Two of the students also stayed with my host, and we enjoyed communal meals and evening "art talk" together.

Here are some demonstration sketches from the workshop:

Quiet Marsh 9x12 pastel

Gig Harbor, Low Tide 12x9 oil - SOLD

Morning Light among the Firs, 9x12 oil/knife

Thursday afternoon I was taken over to The American Art Company to judge the show. Earlier in the spring, I had selected 71 pieces to be in the exhibition, doing so on the computer. Paintings always look different - and, one hopes, better - when seen in person.  (You can apply this rule to the photos of my sketches above.)  When I walked into the gallery, I was very happy to see what a beautiful, cohesive show it was. The gallery owner had done a wonderful job hanging it, and the paintings themselves were beautiful. It took me a long time to go through them all to select thirteen for awards.  Congratulations to the winners and to everyone who made it into the show!  In my next post, I will elaborate on my judging process.

The workshop ended on Friday.  The reception and awards presentation for the exhibit will be Saturday afternoon, after which I fly back to Albuquerque on Sunday so we can resume our trip east.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Onward to Tacoma and Gig Harbor, Washington

Storm over the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico
One reason I love New Mexico:  Clouds!

I've left Santa Fe, and early tomorrow morning, I'll be leaving New Mexico.  I'm flying to Tacoma, where I'll be teaching a three-day oil and pastel studio workshop (with the possibility of plein air, weather permitting) and then giving awards at the Northwest Pastel Society's annual international open exhibition.  I am honored that the society selected me to be both the juror of selection, the judge of awards and also the teacher for this premium event.

It was a difficult task selecting work for the exhibition, as there were so many excellent paintings.  It's going to be a great show, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the works I selected in person.  I'm also looking forward to meeting all the artists and the public at the reception, which will be Saturday, May 9, from 2-4 pm at the American Art Company, 1126 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma.

There are still a couple of spaces left in my workshop.  The workshop is three days, May 6-8 (Wed-Fri), and will be held at the studio of one of the NPS members in Gig Harbor.  For full details on the workshop, the reception and the exhibition, please visit:

I'm really excited about this workshop, as this will be my first time in the Pacific Northwest, and I hear that Gig Harbor is beautiful.

With that, I leave you with another image of New Mexico!  Goodbye, New Mexico - the Pacific Northwest awaits!

A Classic Northern New Mexico Landscape (near Cerrillos)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Santa Fe Painting Retreat, Part 7

Master Painter Albert Handell's Oil Palette

It's hard to believe, but our painting retreat in Santa Fe is now just about over.  Our last full day of painting included a visit to Albert Handell's studio.  What a way to end the week!

But first, after an early breakfast, we headed over to the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary on Upper Canyon Road.  The 135 acres includes trails, gardens and Davey's home. As much as the Center is for the birds, it's also for the artists.  Davey himself was an artist, as is noted on the Center's website:
A vanguard of modern art, Randall Davey was an important part of the Santa Fe Art Colony, and was a skilled painter, printmaker and sculptor. Davey successfully practiced his art here in his studio until his death in 1964. In 1983, the Davey family generously gifted the property to the National Audubon Society to be preserved as a wildlife sanctuary, and used as an educational, cultural and historical center. Davey's works, along with antique furnishings and personal memorabilia are exhibited in house, art studio and administrative offices.

We set up on the grounds around the house and caught the early morning light.  I enjoyed painting a little piece of the house plus some of the distant hills.

Springtime at Randall's House 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Afterward, we had an appointment to visit Albert in his studio.  As I've mentioned many times before, he welcomes visitors if he is available.  We were lucky enough to catch him when he had just come back from the Plein Air Convention & Expo in California and a workshop in Maryland.  As always, he and Jeanine were very cordial and gave us a studio tour.  I always enjoy visiting because his studio, though incredibly well-organized, is packed with things to interest a visiting artist.  Not just paintings, but also taborets, pastel boxes, oil palettes and more.

Pastels by Albert Handell

(By the way, I should mention that we have changed the dates for Albert's mentoring workshop in Sedona next year so it won't conflict with the 2016 Plein Air Convention & Expo, which will be held in Tucson.  The new dates are March 20-26, 2016.  For full details, visit or

For me, the retreat ended after the studio visit.  The others went off to paint the incredible sky we had in the afternoon, but sadly, I needed to get back to our rental house to do laundry and pack up for my flight to Seattle.  I'm judging the Northwest Pastel Society's annual international open exhibition next week and also teaching a workshop in conjunction with it.  I'm looking forward to it very much!

Even though the retreat is just about over, we're already making plans to return to Santa Fe next spring, April 24-30, 2016.  If you're interested, please let me know.  (Preference is given to previous students.)  Between this year and next, I'll be thinking of many exciting new painting locations!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Santa Fe Painting Retreat, Day 6

Springtime at El Delirio 11x14 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Earlier in the week, we discovered a location that seemed extra special and secret.  The School of Advanced Research (SAR) is behind a gate off Garcia Street, and from the road, it doesn't look like much.  What you can't see from there is the several acres of exquisitely-maintained gardens and historic buildings that the SAR occupies.

The grounds were created in the mid-1920s by a pair of wealthy New Yorker sisters, Amelia Elizabeth White and Martha Root White, who were daughters of financier Horace White.  Local artist William Penhallow Henderson created the eclectic estate under their direction.  The estate was called El Delirio ("The Madness") and became a gathering place for Santa Fe's artists, writers, anthropologists and archaeologists.

Today, El Delirio is home to the SAR, a 100-year-old organization devoted to the study of anthropology and related fields.  Elizabeth White donated her estate to the SAR upon her death in 1972.  For us, it proved a rich ground for painting.  We all focused on the main house, which was based by Penhallow on the Laguna Pueblo church.

Ford Dashboard

After lunch, we all took a break.  Some went to the Plaza; Trina and I went to take photographs on Canyon Road and its side streets.  This area of Santa Fe contains many alleys, dead-end streets and quiet neighborhoods where you can still find a bit of old Santa Fe.  I should note, however, that many of the homes aren't owned by "locals" anymore; they are second-, third-, fourth- and even fifth-homes owned by the extraordinarily well-to-do.

Not Your Usual Turquoise Blue Santa Fe Gate Door

Late in the afternoon, as the sun began to tip toward the west and the light became richer, we headed up to Fort Marcy to paint the view of clouds building and virga dragging across the Sangre de Cristos.  I painted a quick one, interested in more the effect of color than anything.