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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Painting Knife, Revisited

In a previous post on essential tools for plein air painting, I wrote about a new painting knife I have. The RGM Ideal Line is stamped from a single piece of metal with no welds to break.  The only problem is that the handle is cold and uncushioned bare metal.  I must have a heavy hand because it cuts into my palm.

A reader (thank you, Angela!) suggested a couple of options. Not having any of the materials handy (Plasti-Dip or bicycle handlebar tape), we tried wrapping the handle with "ouchless tape."  (Thank you, Trina!)  I was surprised at how just a couple of layers improved the situation dramatically.  What's more, the tape holds fast through the most vigorous knifing, and it's easy to remove and replace when soiled.

Here's the knife, followed by a photo of the handle wrapped.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Camera

Outdoor painters working before Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented photography in 1827 would argue that the camera is not an essential field tool.  But once cameras became portable enough to lug into the field on the back of a mule, painters realized the benefits.  Albert Bierstadt, among others, used photographs to assist in creating his barn-sized masterpieces.

Even some of today's painters will say that a camera's not essential.  I agree.  (Other than brushes, paint and canvas, what else do you absolutely need?)  But it's very handy.  Here's what you can do with one:

  • The viewfinder can be used to crop an overwhelming vast scene to one more manageable.
  • Most cameras will convert a color image of your scene to greyscale so you can see value relationships better.
  • A photo taken of the scene just before painting can provide a reference or "memory jog" if you need to adjust your painting in the studio, especially with regard to details.
  • If you plan to create a larger, more complicated studio piece, you can take photos of different elements of the scene that can be combined.
  • You can take photos of different stages of your painting; you may find you preferred an earlier stage better, and perhaps you can "undo" some of the later work in the studio.
  • Field photos posted on Instagram and elsewhere may make you a rock star among plein air painters.

I'm sure there are other benefits, and please feel free to add them in the comments.  But I would also offer the following cautionary statements:

  • Cameras don't have the excellent color sensitivity of the human eye and sometimes distort color.  (Yes, even if you properly set the custom white balance.)
  • Values are generally distorted.  If the camera takes its light meter reading off the lights, the shadows will be too dark and dense; if it takes the reading off the darks, the light areas will be blown-out.
  • Perspective is distorted, especially in cameras with small, cheap lenses (e.g. point-and-shoots) and when zooming in or out.

They are, however, great for detail and as a memory aid.  This is what I use my camera for.

Today, you don't need a mule to carry your camera.  Point-and-shoots are small enough to fit in your shirt pocket.  And should you forget your camera, you probably have a cell phone with you that will work in a pinch.

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Red Filter

Having trouble figuring out value relationships in the field?  A red filter lets you see the landscape in shades of red.  It makes it easier for the painter to see what's light and what's dark by removing the issue of color.  You end up comparing light and dark values of reds only, which is much easier than comparing a full gamut of colors.  A red filter (shown here), or my personal favorite, a fashionable pair of red secret decoder glasses, is just the ticket.

See how the world looks through the filter?

Naked eye

Through a red filter

But there's a danger in using a red filter.  Red in a scene will appear much lighter, leading you to make mistakes in your value analysis.  Look what happens when you look at red through the filter:

Naked eye

Red filter

What's worse, red also makes green and blue look darker!  So, use the red filter with a degree of caution.  At best, I consider it a "training wheel" for beginning plein air painters.  Use it if you have to, but then train yourself to analyze values with the unaided eye.

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Sunblock or Sun Gear

If you're part of the average demographic for plein air painters, you probably already have skin damage from sun exposure.  According to PleinAir Magazine's media kit for advertisers, 95% of its  readership is over 40 and 54% over 60.  Who didn't spend all summer vacation as a teen working on a tan?  And each time you go out with your painting buddies, you're most likely getting at least another two hours of sun on your hands and face.

But "melanoma" and "squamous cell carcinoma" don't have to be part of your plein air painting vocabulary.  Using sunblock or wearing clothing that gives UV protection can go a long way to minimizing unsightly wrinkle build-up and visits to the oncologist.

There are two types of sunblock.  One contains a metal product—titanium or zinc oxide—that reflects light, while the other contains an organic chemical—usually oxybenzone—that aborbs the skin-damaging wavelengths of light.  If you do the research (see this Wikipedia article), you'll find that all of these work to some degree, but have pros and cons.  A few years ago, it was learned that one of these organic compounds actually becomes carcinogenic upon exposure to sunlight.

I do use an SPF 50+ sunblock, especially on my hands if not wearing nitrile gloves.  But an option I like better is clothing that blocks sun.  I have a hat from Coolibar that is rated in the UPF 50+ range, and there are protective shirts available, as well.  Here's the Coolibar site:

And don't forget that you can burn on a foggy or overcast day, too.  A good deal of ultraviolet radiation penetrates cloud cover.  You'll still want to wear sunblock (or a sunhat and gloves) on these days.

Okay, now I'll stop playing mother hen.

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Gloves and Finger Cots

Finger cots

For painters, hand and fingers are as important as eyes.  All the magic happens at the end of the arm.

For a long time, I went painting in both oil and pastel without any protection.  One problem I noticed, especially with pastel, is that my fingers and nails began to dry out and crack after only a day or so.  My fingers actually hurt when trying to paint.  I tried using a barrier cream like Gloves in a Bottle, and although it does work, I didn't like the fact that in the field I couldn't thoroughly wash it off at snacktime.  Who wants to peel and eat an orange with that stuff still on?

Long ago, I worked in restaurants.  At one establishment, we had a bartender who wore finger cots during his shift.  He said that squeezing lemons for drinks made his fingers crack otherwise.  In retrospect and after with my experience with pastel, I am completely sympathetic.  I try to make sure I have a little bag of finger cots in my backpack before I head out.

Finger cots come in different sizes and colors.  Most pharmacies have them, and you can also get them online.  If you're careful, you can also reuse them once or twice before they rip.

I paint with gloves, too.  I prefer the nitrile gloves to the latex; latex can cause an allergic reaction in some people.  But gloves do make my hands sweat.  If I'm painting in pastel, I prefer the finger cots; if I'm painting in oil, I use the gloves.  Although oil painting doesn't make my fingers dry out, some of the paints stain and some contain toxic metals that might be absorbed through cuts.

Remembering to wear gloves or finger cots takes discipline, of course.

Nitrile gloves

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Pastels Girault "Michael Chesley Johnson Plein Air Set"

Michael Chesley Johnson Plein Air Set
from Pastels Girault and Pastels Etc.

Over the past few months, I've been working on assembling a set of pastels.  Although I have a Heilman Designs "Backpack" box that holds all the pastels I need when traveling by car in the US and Canada, I needed a smaller sketching kit for overseas trips.  I've always liked Pastels Girault, so with the help of Michele Aplin at Pastels Etc., the exclusive distributor for Girault, I have put together the "Michael Chesley Johnson Plein Air Set."

This set of 50 pastels contains the six color families, and each family has a good value range plus a selection of warms and cools.  I've also added white and a mid-grey, since I think it's important to have these for slight value adjustments.  By the way, one property of Pastels Girault that distinguishes them from most other brands is that, although they are soft pastels, they are hard enough to serve as a blending tool.  If I want to mute a color, I can easily use a Girault pastel of a complementary color to "feather over" and mute colors.

This set is available directly from Michele Aplin at Pastels Etc. for US $200, which includes shipping in the US only.  This special price is only available for a limited time!  Contact Michele at or 310-640-8388.

I am looking forward to my trip to Scotland this summer with them!

The full set of 50 Michael Chesley Johnson Plein Air Set
from Pastels Girault and Pastels Etc.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Pencil, Sketchbook

How many of us skip the "thumbnail" stage?  For many years, I rarely made a thumbnail sketch.  If the scene in front of me had an obvious design, why would I?  The only time I made a thumbnail sketch was if I was unsure of the design.  Confronted with complexity or chaos—a harbor filled with boats or a foreground chock-a-block with little bushes—I might pull out my sketchbook and play with patterns.

One day, I discovered a second, perhaps more valuable use for the thumbnail sketch.  Besides helping to puzzle out design, it also gets the brain thinking about values.  How light is this shape compared to this one?  Shouldn't it be a little darker?

But what's more, the thumbnail sketch is a way of jump-starting the hand, eye and brain to work together in an artful way.  Before even setting brush to canvas, you can experiment with pushing and pulling the values for a more effective statement.

And so we come to my little sketching kit, which I keep in the front pocket of my backpack. Basically, it's a Ziploc bag (after much use, it has lost both zip and lock) containing:  a #6B graphite pencil, a white plastic eraser, a kneaded eraser, a pencil sharpener and a ViewCatcher.  I keep a little sketchbook in the same pocket.

In the 3.5x5 inch sketchbook, I use my ViewCatcher's opening as a template to outline a rectangle that is the same proportion as I intend my finished painting to be.  In this rectangle I make my thumbnail sketch.  It is rather small, but if the design is strong, it will stay strong when scaled up.

I like a #6B pencil because I can "sneak up" on the values with it.  I tend to start with mid-values and then darken the values as necessary by applying more pressure.  You can't do this with a harder #2, which is what most of us have in our stationary drawer at home.  The erasers are good for creating lighter values.  For my lightest value, I just use the white of the paper.

(That's an elastic hairband I use on the sketchbook
to keep pages from rubbing together too much and smearing
the sketches.)

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Plein Air Painting is About Seeing

This winter, I find myself turning inward to mull over some ideas that have been piling up over the years.  One of those ideas is a video I wanted to put together.  I feel that so many plein air painters, especially those just getting started in the craft, miss a concept crucial to it.  With that in mind, I developed the video you can see below.

Not all of my ideas will end up in video, but I can guarantee they will end up in my blog.

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Small Painting Knife

Most novice oil painters resist the painting knife.  After just having learned to manage a brush, a knife can seem as cumbersome as eating udon noodles with chopsticks.  (Can't I just get a fork, please?)  But a small painting knife in the plein air kit is a multi-purpose tool.   You don't just have to paint with it.

I use mine for:
  • Laying in the block-in roughly so I can finish with a brush
  • (Or finishing with the knife after blocking-in with a brush)
  • Scraping clear my palette when I need to make a clean mixture of color
  • Picking up and mixing clean color when my brushes are dirty
  • Paring down a brush stroke that is too wide or that has a bad edge
  • Scratching through the paint to create the fine lines of twigs
  • Making sharp, straight edges in architectural elements
  • Adding a dark accent or light highlight with thick paint
  • Scraping off a mistake
  • Scraping off the whole painting if I think I'd be better off just taking a walk
And of course, I sometimes paint with it exclusively.  Granted, working with a knife is a skill to be learned, just like handling a brush.  But it's a very useful skill, indeed.

Top:  Pro Art knife

The knife I recommend is small with a trowel-shape.  Before the weld broke, I really loved my 1-inch Pro-Art knife.   With it, I painted everything from 4x6 on up to 16x20.   I replaced it with a weld-free, solid-piece knife from the RGM Ideal Line.

RGM Ideal Line knife - model 19 IR

These have no weld to break, but the uncushioned metal grip is very hard on the hands.  I tried wrapping mine with bubblewrap and duct tape to cushion it, but it felt too "squishy" in my fingers, so I've returned it to its uncushioned state for now.  I like to suffer for my art.

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Collapsible Trash Bag

I'm a little bit of a ham.  I love to have my picture taken when I'm out in the field, especially when I've painted a masterpiece.  For years, though, the photos were marred by the ugly trash bag—a plastic WalMart grocery bag—swinging from my easel.  I usually forgot to stow it out of the way before the camera clicked.

But those plastic bags, free and dispensed by the millions, have more than unsightliness working against them.   If they escape, which is likely in a high wind, they become a problem for wildlife, and they have a shelf life longer than a Twinkie's.  (By the way, the longevity of that durable snack seems to be a matter of urban legend; see this NPR article.)  And if you hang them directly from your pochade box, the wind will swing them up and around so they smack right into your oil palette and then right back against your new windbreaker that you didn't want to get paint on.

At one workshop, one of my students had a collapsible, spring-loaded, open-weave "can" hanging from her easel that she used as a trash receptacle.  Admiring it, I asked what it was.  When she said it was a shower caddy for campers, I observed that this re-purposing was a stroke of genius.  A generous person, she gave it to me.

The shower caddy lasted me for years but finally wore out.  Recently, I found a new one in a fashionable "camo" pattern.  Now, I just leave it up hanging when the paparazzi arrive.  You can hardly see it in the photos.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: ViewCatcher


Another essential tool for the plein air painter is the ViewCatcher.  Made by the Color Wheel Company, this handy device has two uses.  First, it lets you crop down your awesome, Bierstadt-esque scene to something more manageable.  It's better than a camera viewfinder because the little slider lets you match proportions exactly to your panel or paper.  Cameras only have common presets such as 16:9, 3:2, 4:3 and 1:1; if you are painting an 11x14, you're out of luck.*

Second, it has a little "isolator" hole in the the slider that lets you judge value, hue and chroma more accurately.  The ViewCatcher is made of a mid-value, neutral grey plastic.  Patches of the landscape seen through this hole are either lighter, darker or the same value as the plastic; right there, this gives you three values to work with.  Because the plastic is netural, a color seen through the hole appears clearly without the confusion of adjoining color masses.  You can tell easily if a shadow is blue or violet, and if it is rich or dull in chroma.

By the way, there's a little hole at one corner where you can attach a lanyard.  If you like to check color or value frequently, or often need to remind yourself where the major masses sit in your frame, you can have the ViewCatcher easily at hand instead of digging through your backpack.  (If the maker would make a round version, it could be worn as a monocle, making it even more convenient.)

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

*If you have a truly odd size that's not indicated on the ViewCatcher, such as 12x20, then there's a trick you can use to match it.  Holding the tool to your eye, adjust the distance from tool to panel so that the apparent width of the paper fills the entire width of the ViewCatcher's window.  Now, making sure that the top of the window seems to sit on the top of the panel, slide the slider up until the top of it seems to touch the bottom of your paper.  This will give you an opening that matches the proportions of your panel.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Leatherman Multi-Tool

Leatherman Multi-Tool: Open

This is the first in a series of posts on what I consider to be essential tools and accessories for the plein air painter.  I'm sure every experienced outdoor painter has his quirky favorites, so feel free to comment and suggest your own.  I'm alway open to something better or to fill a need I didn't know I had.

Without further ado, let me now talk about the Leatherman Multi-Tool.  Here's mine, given to me by a co-worker long ago.  Harry is also a volunteer fireman and hazmat technician, so he knows about what works in the field.

This little gem, which fits easily in my backpack, has opened up stuck paint tubes, tightened (and loosened) wingnuts and other unreliable hardware on French easels, sharpened my pencils, cut pastel paper down to size, measured horizon lines, pared apples during snack time and also removed cactus spines from my leg.  I've had it for over 15 years now.

The Leatherman comes in many different versions.  I'm not sure which one I have, but get one that at least has a set of pliers, a good blade, a Phillips head screwdriver tip, and an inscribed ruler.  By the way, you really don't need one with a corkscrew.

Tool in its handy pouch
You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Small Paintings Available at Pumphouse Studio Gallery Blog

"Autumn's Turn" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available at Pumphouse Studio Gallery Blog

Even for a professional artist who sells his work, inventory builds up.  I've just about filled every corner and closet in my studio with small workshop demonstrations and field sketches.  Some of these I find useful over time as reference material for future studio work, but most often, they sit unhappily in their boxes.  But this isn't some "Island of Misfit Toys."  (You will recognize the allusion to the 1964 NBC special "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer".)  No, many of these paintings are some of my best and have been exhibited.  But, to make room for more good paintings, I find I need to start parting with them.

With that in mind, I am now posting on a regular basis these 9x12 paintings .  At the top of the post is one of them.  But I don't want to clutter up my "plein air painting tips and techniques" blog with them.  Instead, I'm putting them on my Pumphouse Studio Gallery Blog.   One of the best ways to find out about these paintings is to subscribe to the blog feed via e-mail, below.  You can also see them posted in the right-hand column of this blog.  Thank you, and perhaps one of these will find its way happily into your home!

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