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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fog Lifting, Dead Spruce: Plein Air to Studio

Fog Lifting, Dead Spruce - 16x20 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available

One foggy morning, I took my gear to East Quoddy Head, home of the Head Harbour Lighthouse. I wanted to spend some time painting a beautiful dead spruce I'd seen earlier. As I worked on this 16x20 oil, the fog began to lift. Knowing how fast things were changing, I chose to focus on the spruce, leaving the rest of the scene just roughly blocked-in.

Intermediate step in field

What I returned from the field with

A few weeks passed before I had chance to get back to the painting. Because I'd finished the spruce to my satisfaction in the field, I felt that memory and a photo I'd taken would be enough reference material to complete the painting in the studio.

I gave the painting a light coat of retouch varnish and went to work. Here is the finished painting. 


This technique is one of several I demonstrate in my new book, Outdoor Study to Studio: Take Your Plein Air Paintings to the Next Level. The book, which is being well-received, is available through

By the way, I am planning an "Outdoor Study to Studio" week as part of my Paint Sedona program this winter. Dates for the week are February 9-12, 2016. We'll also be learning to paint with a knife that week! For details on this and my many other weeks available, please visit

Thursday, September 17, 2015

About Style

Here's a painting made by Monet around 1864.
("Rue de la Bavole, Honfleur")
Compare its style with what Monet painted in 1894!

Painting by Monet in 1894, 30 years later.
("Rouen Cathedral, Morning Effect")

A student asked me recently, "How do you develop a style?" The short answer is, Don't worry about it. Style will take care of itself.

But let's dive a little deeper and start by defining "style." Style is the "look" of a painting. It's the result of how a painting is made. For example, blending your brush strokes gives you a different look than making short, snappy strokes.

When we speak of an artist's style, we're talking about the general "look" of his body of work. It's how we tell a Monet from a Van Gogh. But style changes over an artist's lifetime and, quite often, without any conscious effort on his part. Examine Monet's work over the later years, and you can see the subtle shift in style. (The changes at the end of his lifetime, long after he had gone down the road of Impressionism, had to do with the onset of blindness.)

In some ways, this shift is akin to the way you develop your penmanship style in grade school. As a child, you printed the same awkward letters like the rest of your classmates. You got better at it, and maybe you gave your letters an extra flair with a little circle over the "i" instead of a dot. Later, you learned cursive writing, and you strove hard to achieve that rhythmic flowing line as demonstrated by your teacher. But over the years, the more you wrote, the more your script began to depart from the classic model. You began to think less about calligraphy and more about what the words represented. Substance became more important than style. Yet today, your style, thanks to every malformed "r" and docktailed "q", remains unique to you.

Although style arrives unbeckoned, it can be forced. Like a forger, you can copy another painter's style, and over time, that style will eventually become your own. Another quicker way is to just change your materials or their application and see what happens. If you like it, stick with it, and it will become your new style.

Sometimes forcing a style is useful in that we learn a little more about our craft. But then we are worrying more about how we are saying something and not so much about what we are saying. We back off from substance, a sublime and more difficult aspect of art, and retreat to the comfort of a merely decorative craft.

Of course, both style and substance are vital in painting; without substance you can't have art, and without style you can't have beauty. Over time, as you paint more and more, you will develop your own beautiful way of saying important things.

By the way, I can help you with this!  Consider my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshops at this fall, winter and spring in Arizona.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Re-creating a Painting

Sunrise at Campobello, 12x24 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available
(Re-creation of en plein air painting)

Recently, I decided to re-create a painting I'd sold a couple of years ago. The painting was a signature piece for my Friar's Bay Studio Gallery in that it featured the Roosevelt Cottage, which is the main jewel of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park. Although I have paintings of the other cottages in my gallery, I was lacking this most important one.  Here is the original 12x24 painted, en plein air, over two days:

Mr Roosevelt's House - 12x24 oil en plein air by Michael Chesley Johnson
(Private Collection)

Not wanting to redraw the whole cottage by hand in a new painting, I needed to figure out a way to use the drawing of the cottage as represented in the original painting. A good photograph of that painting plus Photoshop helped me out.

Using Photoshop, I cropped the photo down so it included just the cottage but maintained the original height of the painting. (The new painting was going to be the same 12x24 as the original, so for proper registration, this crop needed to be 12 inches tall.) Since the cottage had been positioned in the right half of the painting, I cropped out everything to the left of it. Next, I converted the full-color photo to greyscale. Then I applied the "poster edges" filter to make the edges of shapes clearer. This final image I saved as a PDF file.

I printed out the PDF file full-size with the "poster" and "cut marks" options checked in my printer dialog box. This centered the image on four sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 paper. I trimmed along the cut marks, as shown:

I assembled my "poster, and then taped the sheets together:

Then I did my final trim:

Next, I turned the paper over and colored the back solidly with a black pastel:

I then carefully positioned the sheet, pastel side down, over my 12x24 panel (toned with yellow ochre) and taped it in place:

Using a sturdy cardboard tube as a mahl stick, I traced the major features of the cottage with a hard pencil:

When I removed the paper, I had an accurate (though cartoonish-looking) drawing of the cottage on my panel:

After spraying the drawing with fixative, I continued to the painting step. Here is an early stage, followed again by the final version. I call this a "re-creation" of the original because there are intentional differences between the two paintings. I did not simply want to copy the original, which was a plein air piece. Although I maintained the quality of morning light, I made some small changes.

Half-way through the painting stage
Framed on the easel
The final painting (also pictured at top of post)

If you'd like to read more about the process of using plein air references for studio paintings, please read my book, Outdoor Study to Studio: Take Your Plein Air Painting to the Next Level. It is available at

Monday, September 7, 2015

Inexpensive Large Wet Panel Carrier for Oil Painting

Let's face it—dealing with large wet panels in the field is a pain. But I've come up with a system that works for me. I thought I'd share it with you here.

Recently, I decided to paint a few 16x20 panels on-location in oil. Problem was, I didn't have a carrier that would hold them. Yes, I had a variety of systems for large stretched canvases, but nothing for panels. I just couldn't see myself dragging a wet panel home without getting paint everywhere and damaging the delicate paint surface in the process.

My "French Companion" (open)

I thought about turning a 16x20 frame with turn buttons into a carrier, but the frame would be just one more thing to haul. Then it hit me. The paint box I take out for large-format painting, a "French Mistress" (also know as a "French Companion" among polite society) is a little bigger than a 16x20. I figured if I added a few brackets, I could carry the panel right on the box.

Here's what I did:

Four half-inch offset clips (used for mounting stretched canvas into frames),
a set of pliers and screws were all I used

Some of the clips went on without modification

To get the 16x20 to fit exactly, I had to bend a couple of the clips

Here are the four clips on the outside (top) of the closed box

Inserting a 16x20 3/8" panel

Ready to go!

The system works really well. Although it's not adjustable for different-size panels, I tend to paint in just a couple of large sizes, so this is perfect for my needs.  By the way, should those brass clasps on the box fail, the panel will keep the box locked shut.  It's alway nice to get an unexpected benefit like that.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Paint Campobello: The Final Week

Painting at Liberty Point, Campobello Island, NB

It's hard to believe, but another summer has rolled by.  Today marked the last day of my final Paint Campobello plein air painting workshops for the summer.  Next on my plate:  Finishing up a commission, doing some pastel product testing, and getting ready for our cross-country trip.  I'll keep you posted on all this as time goes by.

But back to this week's workshop.  We had absolutely perfect Maritime weather.  Students from Toronto, Winnipeg, and Maine took advantage of these ideal conditions and did some great work.  This was a more advanced workshop - I usually schedule one advanced week at the end of the summer - and it was a real pleasure to work with everyone.

I've included a few photos from the week, along with some of my demonstration paintings, all of which are for sale if so marked.

If any of this has you thinking about coming to Campobello Island or Lubec next summer to paint with me, I am already taking signups!  You can find the full schedule and details at  

Eastern Head View, 12x9 oil - SOLD

Crossing the Bar 9x12 oil - Available

Rockweed and Rocks, Study - 9x12 oil - Available