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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Subject or Object?

Slide Rock Apple Barn - 12x16 oil/canvas by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - $800 - Contact Michael

In my plein air painting workshops, I often get students who make the mistake of confusing object with subject. I can hear you asking, "But aren't these the same thing?"

Maybe in common art workshop parlance, but for the moment, let's change the definitions a bit. (As in mathematics, I'm treating these two words as variables, which means I can define them in any way I wish. I'm doing this now to help clarify an issue. After the blog post, you can reset these variables to their usual meanings.)

"Object" is the thing being painted. It might be a person, a tree or a vase.

"Subject" is what the painting's about. It might be the way the lights and darks create a certain attractive pattern.

Learning how to paint outdoors is all about the subject. In most cases, the subject is the light.

For example, the subject might be how the warm light falling on a barn is intensified thanks to the contrast with the cool shadows under the eaves. The subject is the feeling that this contrast stirs up in us. It's the frisson of delight that we might experience as we walk past the barn on a beautiful autumn day.

But the painting isn't about the barn. The barn is the object in the painting. It's not the subject of the painting. The subject of the painting is the contrast of light temperature.

You will have better success at creating a sense of realism if you paint the subject and not the object. Painting the object, especially for beginning painters, leads to distracting detail, inconsistent lighting and a loss of the moment. Painting the subject instead solves all these things: The detail is sufficient, the lighting is consistent, and the moment is captured for eternity.

So when I make my rounds at the workshop and ask what you are painting, don't tell me you're painting a stump.  Tell me about the light.

(I will teach you how to not paint the stump in my plein air painting workshops.  This winter, I am giving workshops in Sedona, Arizona.  For details:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

10th Anniversary for the Blog - and About Paint Sedona Plein Air Painting Workshops

Today my Plein Air Painter's Blog celebrates its tenth anniversary!  It was ten years ago today that I started my blog, on October 27th, 2005.  That's a lot of posts over the years - 1175, including this one.  Over the years, I've shared my discoveries on my journey as a painter, including lots of tips and techniques.  I've also shown many of my paintings along the way.  If you're new to my blog, take a look at the "Blog Post Categories" list in the right hand column, and browse around a bit.  You might find something helpful!  You might even find a painting to buy.

Delighted Paint Sedona Participants (and Instructor)

Throughout my blog, I talk a good deal about my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshops.  If you're looking for a winter getaway and some good painting locations, you might consider taking one of my workshops.  Workshop are small - no more than four students.  Also, we work from 9 to 1, which leaves you afternoons free for painting on your own or for enjoying Sedona's galleries, restaurants and fine hikes.  Here's a short video that shows you some of the places I've taken participants to in the past.  If you'd like to learn more, please visit

By the way, we are happy to have visitors at our studio to view the paintings in person. In Fall/Winter/Spring that is Pumphouse Studio Gallery ( and during the late Spring/Summer and Early Fall months that is Friar's Bay Studio Gallery ( Hours by appointment!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sedona Plein Air Festival – Final Update

Dawn on the Falls - 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available - $500

Friday was our last official painting day for the Sedona Plein Air Festival.  Morning dawned clear and cool with just a few puffy clouds.  I didn't have a lot of time before turning in my final paintings, but I wanted to get in one last effort.  I headed down to another secret spot on Spring Creek where there is a set of falls that is just gorgeous early in the day.  I set up before the sun hit the falls, blocked in my painting, and when the sun came in most spectacularly, I brought the painting to a finish.  Although this was a very quick piece because of the fast-moving light, it is one of my very favorites.  It's at the top of this post.

After framing it up, I loaded the car with it and my other choices for the show and headed to town.  At noon, I joined the thirteen other painters with hammers and nails to hang our work.  Talk about noise!  Passerbys probably thought it was a construction site.  Here are my two "walls":

My "wall" of work painted this week on-location en plein air

My "wall" of back-up work created prior to this week

Afterward, I headed home to clean up and then drove back in for the evening festivities.  It was a good night of visiting with collectors, interested folks and other artists.

Saturday was the last sale day for the event.  I got in a little early for breakfast and coffee.  We plein air painters spend a lot of time on our feet at these events, not just in painting, but also in the receptions and other meet'n'greet opportunities.  Fresh coffee and fresh shoes kept me going.

(By the way, if you'd like to purchase some of this work, some of it is still available, and you can view it on my Facebook studio page, here.  Just let me know if you're interested!)

Now that the event is over, I'm going to put my feet up for a bit.  But then I'm going to dive right into my next project—writing up my interviews with the winners of the Pastel Journal's annual Pastel 100 event.  I have the pleasure of working with the winners in the landscape category.  After that, well, there's a lot coming down the pike.  I'll post again very soon!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sedona Plein Air Festival - Update 3

My secret spot on Oak Creek in Page Springs!

The theme for the Sedona Plein Air Festival this year is "Water in the Desert." I've done my share of red rock paintings* so I was excited to be given a different focus. There are surprisingly many water-painting opportunities in the area if you explore a little. Wednesday, I decided to avoid the crowds in Oak Creek Canyon north of Sedona and instead headed downstream to Page Springs. After last year's festival, the theme of which was wine**, I discovered a beautiful bend in Oak Creek just behind Page Springs Cellars.

I headed out early to make the most of the morning and got there around 8. I scrambled down to the water on travertine rocks, slippery with seeping moisture and the night's rain. At that time of day, there's not much happening on the creek. A couple of ducks entertained me, and a big heron stood sentinel on a rock in the middle of the stream. He stayed there most of the time I was painting, a very patient fellow, indeed. Or maybe he was just waiting to see if the fishing was any better where I was.

Morning on the Creek, 12x16 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available

I spent most of the morning on this piece. At the end, though, I had a small accident with my pochade box. I was using an older version of Alla Prima's "Bitterroot Lite" box; this one has a spring assembly to hold the panel in place. As I was detaching my panel, that little sucker shot off to my left -- and into the deepest part of the creek. There was no retrieving it. Fortunately, Ben Haggett of Alla Prima Pochade was able to come through with a replacement part. "I haven't used those in 8 years," he said, "but I found a spare covered with dust in the workshop." Thank you, Ben!

Bird's-eye view of the public sale at L'Auberge de Sedona

My painting is in the beautiful gold frame on the right.

Thursday was our Quick Draw event at L'Auberge de Sedona along Oak Creek in uptown. The Festival hasn't held an event there in several years, so it was great to be back. There are always a dozen or so ducks on the premises, and one year, an artist fed them crackers so they would be still long enough to paint them, but no one painted ducks this time.

Water in the Desert - 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - Available

I chose to focus on rocks and water, something that I've learned a painting knife does well with. A knife creates some great blending effects to simulate rushing water, a task that is difficult with a brush. I enjoy the way it can weave together rich but complementary colors without muddying.

Tomorrow (Friday) is the last painting day of the Festival. Artists get to hang their work around noontime, and then there is a private (ticketed) reception at 4 at the Sedona Arts Center at 15 Art Barn Road followed by a public sale from 5 to 7.  I hope to see some of you there!

* If you'd like to purchase some of my red rock paintings, please contact me. I'll be happy to have you out to the studio.
** To merge these two popular festival themes, "Water Into Wine" will be the theme for next year.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Sedona Plein Air Festival – Update 2

Storms loom over Jerome

In one way, the event this year reminds me of the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art a few years ago.  The monsoon season went late, and every day saw a dangerous lightning storm that cropped up around midday.  Getting a painting done required one to get out early, to work fast and to be ready to scramble off the rim at the first crack of thunder.   We haven't had any storms quite like that, but we have had rain somewhere each day.  Also, the danger is chiefly the threat of getting wet, which is merely inconvenient and not life-threatening.

Since I am still trying to catch up with life after our long drive from the Canadian Maritimes, I chose to stay close to home on Sunday and to paint in a favorite location that I know well.  Doing so eliminated much of the walking around and looking for something to paint.  You lose a lot of energy, not to mention time, in that.  Since the theme this year is "Water in the Desert," I chose a location along Spring Creek:

"Above the Confluence" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

I had another reason for conserving energy—I wanted to paint at least one large (for me, anyway) oil painting this week.  Monday I took out my large-format gear and drove up the canyon just after dawn to Slide Rock State Park.  The clouds again seemed to be building, but by the time I got to the park, the sun began to peek out.

Slide Rock State Park

I haven't painted in that park in a few years, and I'd forgotten that it's a hike just to get to the creek.  If you're carrying nothing more than a water bottle, that's not so bad, but I was burdened with a gear-laden backpack, a big Gloucester easel slung over one shoulder, and a large paintbox and two 16x20 canvases.  What's more, I decided that the spot I wanted to paint in was at the very farthest point on the trail.  Fortunately, it takes time to set everything up, and for me, that is a relaxing and meditative process.  Plus, once I got to my spot, I dumped the gear and took a short walk, not just to verify that I did indeed have a good position, but also to loosen up and catch my breath.

Set up by the creek

The light was changeable and the format large, so I blocked this one in quickly with a brush before picking up my painting knife.  For my oil paintings this week, I am trying to work just with the knife.  For  me, the knife gives richer color, thicker paint and a more engaging surface.  Plus, it's just fun to use.

"Slide Rock Fault" 16x20 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

As I worked, a few tourists began to trickle down to my end of the park.  I'd arrived the minute the park opened, so I was the first one in and had the place all to myself.  (Having this kind of peace is important in the early stages of a large painting.)  Octobers are crowded in Sedona, and Slide Rock gets very busy by mid-morning.  Over the course of my painting, I had perhaps a dozen people walk by to see what I was up to, even though I'd set up on what I thought was a rather inaccessible rock ledge.  By the time I left the park, which was around noon, the park was full, and cars were circling, waiting for someone to vacate a parking spot.

Tuesday was our traditional "Paint Jerome Day."  The festival organizers, along with the Jerome Chamber of Commerce, set up a big tent and feed the working artists bagels, donuts and coffee.  Plus, artists are invited to a free lunch in town.  We artists always look forward to this one.  Well, the day started with a magnificent thunderstorm around 3:30 in the morning, and it rumbled on till dawn.  While packing my car at 8, the rain was still coming down in drips and drabs.  By the time I got up to Jerome, it was still spitting rain.  I saw no tent.  Fortunately, one of the festival folks spotted me and directed me to our new, indoor location.  While enjoying a donut, I spoke with one of the volunteers.  Donna happened to own Gallery 527 down the street, and offered me the gallery's covered upper balcony for a painting spot.  With rain imminent, I jumped at the opportunity and painted a little blue house down the street.  The sun came out about halfway through the painting, but I stuck with my original concept.

"Blue House" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
I still had some time left in Jerome, so I drove down to a pull-off near the Jerome State Park with a nice view.  I worked out of the back of the car with a few raindrops starting to come down.  It wasn't long before I heard thunder.  The sky looked particularly dark to the west, so I worked quickly.  By the time I packed this up and started down the hill, the rain fell in earnest.  From Jerome's high elevation, I could see bright jags of lightning across the valley.  Streets were swimming in water by the time I got down to Cottonwood.  I wonder how the other painters fared?

"Hilltop House" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

For the rest of the week's events, please see

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sedona Plein Air Festival – Update 1

My winning painting:  Incoming Weather, 9x12 oil - SOLD

What better way to start a plein air festival than to win an award?  Yesterday, on the first day of painting at the Sedona Plein Air Festival, I won the Gamblin Main Street Paint-Out Award.  But let me back up a bit.

When I drove to the Sedona Arts Center in the morning for orientation, I could see it was already raining along the Mogollon Rim, just north of town.  This didn't bode well, as we had to lug in canvases for stamping and paintings to hang for the start of the show—not to mention the Main Street outdoor painting event!  The prediction was for 70% rain, most of which was due in the afternoon.  It didn't rain in the morning, and by the time the paint-out started, the sky looked reasonably clear, save for a few puffy clouds.

While painting, I rarely pay attention to anything but what is directly in front of me.   The sunlight may come and go, but I roll with the punches and stick with my original concept.  So, except for a few people stopping me to chat about the Festival, I was unaware of my surroundings.  Imagine my surprise when the first drops fell.  This was followed immediately by a downpour.

Fortunately, I was putting the finishing strokes on the painting, and I had my umbrella up.  I slid all my gear under the (rather slim) rain shadow cast by the umbrella.  In five minutes, the rain ended, but it left my backpack and paper towel rolls soaked.  Winning the award made up for all of this.

I'll be posting more as the week rolls by.  You can see the full schedule of events for the Sedona Plein Air Festival at, and you can follow each day on the Facebook page,  In the meantime, here are some photos from yesterday.

My "wall."  This is work done previously that we are allowed to hang until we start to create new plein air paintings.
The bit of blue tape to the right demarcates my six-foot swath of wall.  

Morning hanging of work.

My good friend, Betty Carr.  There are 14 landscape artists participating this year.

Paintings painting, tourists chatting.

At the Main Street Paintout awards ceremony and sale.

Opening reception.  This is just the landscape portion of the event.  In the room to the right behind the black curtain are the figure painteres and their reception.  They are having a "Speakeasy Salon" theme through Wednesday.

It's not Sedona unless you have a pretty sunset view of Camelback (and Snoopy, cropped off at the right.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Encounter: Gilcrease Museum

The home of Thomas Gilcrease

Living in rural areas as I do, I don't get to museums very often.  When I do, I want to make sure it's an exceptional one.  The Gilcrease Museum was on my punch list, so on our cross-country trip to Arizona, we decided to stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for an extra day to see its fine collection.

Tulsa is a town we've passed through many times on the Interstate.  It's always been a blur as we zip by, and we've always thought of it as just another oil town with all the compounded grittiness that accompanies the cycle of boom and bust.  But we discovered a pleasant little cottage to stay in among several blocks of quaint Craftsman-era houses, and we see now that there's a lot to this town.

The Gilcrease is a gem.  Founded by Thomas Gilcrease early in the last century after making his own millions in oil, it houses his vast collection of paintings, sculpture, rare books and maps.  Now managed by the City of Tulsa and the University of Tulsa in a partnership, the museum has expanded to include an excellent restaurant, outdoors gardens and more. Today, the museum is noted for its strong collection of Western art.

I took a few photos (by permission, of course) of some of my favorites at the museum.  There was much more, and many pieces weren't available for photography, but here are a few I can offer to you with a few notes. I don't remember the titles of all the pieces, but that's probably not important, anyway.

Portrait of Thomas Moran by William Merritt Chase
Moran and Chase have always been two of my favorites painters,
and it's nice to see Chase's vision of Moran

A view of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico by Thomas Moran
I lived not too far from here at one time
A Shinnecook scene by Chase

In this detail shot, you can see how Chase added the figures after painting the beach
A nocturne by Whistler

Detail of above. Whistler's brush work in the water is oh-so-subtle
Nocturne by Frederic Remington
There were several nocturnes at the museum, and it was interesting to see how
different artists handled night scenes with respect to color choices

Another nocturne, not by Remington.  I can't remember this artist.  His color is
really just daytime color that has been darkened.  It's not as effective as the Remington above,
in which the artist shifts the light to a cool blue-green.

Another nocturne by Remington, using a similar color-shifted palette.
As I said, there were many beautiful paintings here, and this is just a sampling.

If you haven't heard, the Sedona Plein Air Festival begins this weekend, and I am one of 14 invited landscape artists to participate.  I hope you'll stop by during the event.  Details are at  And if you're a painter, please don't forget that I am offering plein air painting workshops in Sedona this winter and spring!  Details for that are at

Friday, October 9, 2015

Acadia National Park Workshop Update

We've had a great week on Mount Desert Island at the Acadia Workshop Center.  Except for the last day, when we had afternoon rain, the weather was perfect—cool, sunny and just enough clouds to pretty up the sky for painting.  Morning critiques and lectures were followed by expeditions to some of my favorite spots, plus our annual group lunch at Thurston's Lobster Pound in Bernard.

I never get tired of teaching and painting in and around Acadia National Park, and I shared this enthusiasm with my students.  What with the changes of tide, weather and the seasons, the variety here is never-ending, and the opportunities for painting are endless.  I'm very much looking forward to next year's workshop, which will be September 26-29, 2016.  I hope you'll consider joining us next year.  (For details and to register:

Below are some of the demonstrations from this week.  (Please remember that the photos were shot while on the road, and the paintings always look better in person.) And yes, they are for sale.  If you're interested, please let me know at this link.

Now we are bidding farewell to Maine and the northeast.  My next post will be from Sedona, Arizona, and the Sedona Plein Air Festival!  I hope to see some of you all there or at one of my workshops at this winter.

Changing Season 12x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Color of Water 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - SOLD

Crescent Beach 9x12 oil oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Low Tide, Bernard 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Seawall Waves 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Sun Diamonds 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Plein Air Painting Workshop in Acadia National Park

We're now on Mount Desert Island, home to Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park and countless lobsters.  My plein air painting workshop, based at Acadia Workshop Center in Bernard, Maine, started yesterday.   The weather has been wonderful, and it looks like it'll stay that way for most of the week.  Clear skies, highs in the sixties, a gentle breeze—it doesn't get much better than that.

I'll post more on the workshop later this week, but for now, I offer a few random photos from the last few days.

I've been taking a lot of photos.  We got here a few days early so I could continue to gather reference material for a series of` paintings I'll be making to celebrate Acadia National Park's 100th birthday.  Coincidentally, next year is also the 100th birthday of the National Park Service.  The parks have had a huge influence on my development as a painter, so I will be pleased to take part in celebrating these two birthdays in 2016.  I will announce later this year what form my project will take, so make sure you look for posts on that in my blog.