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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Four Palettes, Four Paintings

While I'm traveling for the next few weeks, I'm re-posting some of my older blog posts.  Here is my next re-post, from June 1, 2011.

In the current (July/August 2011) issue of The Artist's Magazine, I have an article on exploring different oil palettes for plein air painting.  For the article, I made four paintings to demonstrate each of the palettes.

The paintings are of Southern Head on Grand Manan Island in the Canadian Maritimes, just off the coast of New Brunswick. Grand Manan is known for its tall cliffs and as a source of the edible seaweed, dulse. The novelist Willa Cather summered there, and Audubon painted birds on its coast. I like it because it always seems remote, and you can find some great landscape painting there. On one of my trips, I painted Southern Head, and it was that painting that I used as a basis for paintings I made for the article. It's interesting to see how the color shifts from piece to piece, even though I did try to match the colors of the original plein air sketch.

The palettes are:
  • Original plein air sketch: split-primary palette (cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red light, permanent alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, phthalo green, titanium-zinc white)
  • Limited earth color (yellow ochre, burnt sienna, ivory black, t-z white)
  • Limited primary palette (ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, t-z white)
  • Limited primary palette with Naples yellow replacing the t-z white
  • Split-primary palette with four values of grey (split-primary as described above plus Portland Grey light, medium, dark and chromatic black)
(All paints are from Gamblin.)

Original Plein Air Sketch: Split-Primary Palette (no grey or black), 9x12:

Southern Head 9x12 oil/panel

Earth Palette, 8x10:

Limited Primary Palette, 8x10:

Limited Primary Palette plus Naples Yellow, 8x10:

Split-Primary Palette with Greys, 8x10:

(From June 1, 2011)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Two Objectives

While I'm traveling for the next few weeks, I'm re-posting some of my older blog posts.  Here is my next re-post, from May 25, 2008.

Going out to paint yesterday, I had two objectives. I wanted to demonstrate a "disciplined palette," where I keep my mixtures organized by light and cool, and also dark and warm. Second, I wanted to show how one could do several quick sketches from a single spot if it is rich in material. I picked a comfortable location by my father-in-law's vegetable garden, which overlooks a forsythia hedge to Friar's Bay.

I took an 8x10 panel and divided it in half with a 1/2"-wide strip of artist's tape, which gave me two 4.75"x8" rectangles. I limited myself to 30 minutes for each sketch. In the first one, the sun shone in all its glory. But 30 minutes later, when I started the second, clouds swept in and it began to sprinkle. You can really see the difference in the quality of light in these two pieces.

"Thirty Minutes"
8x10 diptych, oil, en plein air
by Michael Chesley Johnson

Here's the actual setup:

Guerrilla Painter 9x12 Pochade Box

I took a shot of my palette after I finished the first one. It shows how I managed to keep my mixtures organized. In the heat of the moment, it's easy to forget that staying organized will give you cleaner mixtures and make it possible to compare one with the next.

(First posted May 25, 2008)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Goodbye, Sedona - Until the Fall

Trina and I are now on our way, heading for eastern parts.  Just before we left, we hit one of our favorite trails in West Sedona.  Trina took a picture of me, which gives you an idea of the scenery we've been enjoying this year.

We'll be back in the fall, just in time for the Sedona Plein Air Festival.

I would here like to give my thanks to Goldenstein Gallery and all the great people that work there.  I just started showing with the gallery, and they've already sold a painting of mine.  If you're in Sedona and would like to see my work in person, please visit them at 70 Dry Creek Road.  Above is a panorama of the gallery with a beautiful view of Thunder Mountain behind it.

While we're on the road, I'll be re-posting some old (but valuable!) blog posts as well as updates on our travels.  It won't be long, though, before we arrive on Campobello Island, where I'll be teaching plein air painting workshops in Maine.  Happy trails to us!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Avoiding Slipped Values

While I'm traveling for the next few weeks, I am re-posting some of my older blog posts.  With that in mind, here is my next re-post, from May 30, 2008.

Sometimes I like to premix my values. I do this especially if I find a scene that might give me some trouble with slipping values. Such a scene is one where trees cast large areas of dense shadow surrounded by strong sun. The shadows usually show bits of sunlight breaking through. Also, a great deal of light bounces into these shadows from nearby sunlit objects. You may get a good fix on the value relationships initially, but as the sun moves, the bits of sunlight come and go, and the bounced light can get brighter or dimmer. Unconsciously, you perceive these shifts, and you will try to capture the change without realizing you are doing so. This can make for a painting full of slipped values.

Here's a demonstration I did yesterday. First, my premixed values. I don't usually use a paper palette, but I wanted to create a grid for my darks, mid-darks, mid-lights and lights. (You can click on any image for a bigger version.)

Next, here's the first layer of paint applied with a knife.

Finally, the finished painting. I ended up never getting to the brushes and did it entirely with a knife. Thanks to my premixed values, I was able to keep the values from shifting, and the painting represents the original values closely.

"Yellow Morning"
8x10, oil, en plein air
by Michael Chesley Johnson
(First posted May 30, 2008)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


While I'm traveling for the next few weeks, I thought you might enjoy reading some of my older blog posts.  Not everyone's aware of the over 1200 posts I've written over the years, many of which contain good information on both plein air and studio painting.  With that in mind, here is my first re-post, from September 3, 2006.

A still life painter uses a box to contain his oranges, apples and pears as he paints. This box gives him more control over lighting. But it also serves another purpose. It separates the arrangement from distracting backgrounds and the clutter of the studio.

Lobster Pound, Mulholland Light
8x10 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Private Collection

The plein air painter has no such box. Whatever his subject, it sits in a world that writhes with distractions. Another interesting tree-shape, a building with a curious door, a colorful swath of meadow -- all things he didn't see at first, and all of them just outside his chosen frame -- compete for a place in the painting.

If we plein air painters had such a box, fewer of our paintings would go astray. If we could carry out to the field, say, a duck blind on wheels, and paint inside that looking out, we might have better luck. But since "portable" is our motto, we must seek a better option. That option is the very portable one that consists of sheer will power. It's the ability to give up what else we would like to include and to stick with our first choice.

Where I live, which is by the broad ocean with breathtaking vistas of sea cliffs, I am often tempted to take in an extended range worthy of Albert Bierstadt. But when I set up my pochade box and my usual 8x10 panel, experience tells me to settle for less. If my first choice was a stunted, storm-blasted tree jutting up out of a field of wild roses, that is what I paint. I forgo the scenic piles of driftwood just outside my chosen view, and the scallop boats trawling the bay, and the waves crashing on the most distant cliffs, and -- but you get the point.

I tell myself that life is long, and I will eventually paint all those other scenes. This is not true, of course, but it does take the pressure off.  (First posted September 3, 2006)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Sedona Workshop 2016 Season Wrap-Up

Crabapples blooming at the Sedona Heritage Museum!

My final Paint Sedona workshop just finished up today.  It's always a bittersweet feeling on that last day—I'm ready to move on to new adventures, but not quite ready to stop sharing this amazing place with students.  This is especially true this year since we have stayed a little later than usual and spring is now in full stride.

Every workshop week includes a visit to my studio.

Painting out at Goldenstein Gallery.

I thought I'd share a few images from the season with you.  I teach in Sedona and the Verde Valley from late October until mid-April each winter, so you'll see a variety of weather as the season progresses.  If you'd like to join me next time, I already have my schedule up for the 2016/2017 Paint Sedona season, and you can register on-line, all at

(If you'd like to see  some of my paintings from the year, please visit my Facebook Studio page.)

Painting water is always a popular subject.

Next in our life is the annual migration back to the East Coast.  This time, we'll be idling a few days in Santa Fe to visit the galleries, followed by a brief visit to Salida and Buena Vista, Colorado; then a couple of nights in Denver to visit Doug and Sue Dawson, who have become good friends over the years; followed by two workshops in Illinois and Indiana before we finally arrive on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, for the summer.

Painting rocks is also popular, too!

By the way, I still have room in my two Midwest workshops.  In Illinois, I'll be teaching for two days (May 6-7) in Batavia, just outside of Chicago, at Water Street Studios.  In Indiana, I'll be teaching for three days (May 9-11) at the Art Barn in Valparaiso.  I've taught in both of these locations before, and I promise there is some excellent scenery at both.  I hope you'll consider joining me at one or the other.

We also usually enjoy a trip to Jerome a few times in the season.

Saba enjoys Jerome, especially if there's a little snow left

Although we'll get to Campobello Island in mid-May, my workshops there won't start until the end of June.  They will run until the end of August.  This summer, I'll be teaching exclusively in Lubec, Maine.  So, if you are from the States and don't have a passport, you won't have to worry about a border crossing.  (I still recommend that students bring passports if they have them because Campobello is such a beautiful island to visit.)  Space is already starting to fill for these workshops, so if you are interested, please visit or

That's all for now.  My next blog post will most likely be from on the road!

#pleinairpaintingworkshops #pleinairpainting #sedona #campobelloisland #pace16 #pace2016

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Observer Effect and Plein Air Painting

Secret Shadow Creek
9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Plein Air Painting Workshop Demonstration

I enjoy teaching and sharing.  Part of my teaching involves painting demonstrations.   I get a lot of painting done that way.  But as tempting as it is to take the easy way out and just paint for demonstrations, I still seek time to paint by myself, for myself.  Most instructors admit that it's difficult to grow as a painter when painting only for students, although that well-trod path does sometime present pleasant detours where even the instructor learns something.  However, I believe you grow more quickly as a painter when bushwhacking on your own.

But what about when not teaching but painting in groups, or with a friend or someone who just wants to tag along?  Can you reach new places when not painting alone?

In physics, there is something called the "observer effect."  The usual example is that of measuring pressure in a tire.  You can't use a tire gauge without losing a little air; thus, you can't get a true reading because the measured pressure will always be less than what it was before applying the gauge.  For me as a painter, the observer effect seems to hold true.  Just having another person present changes the game.  You may be as quiet as a mouse, but I know you're there.  I have no proof, but I sense that I paint differently then.  Not necessarily worse or better, just differently.

(This is not to say my demonstrations aren't good.  It would be immodest of me to state that they are good.  But my students say they not only learn a lot from them, but that they are good paintings, too.)

Let me break down the different painting situations I run into:

Paint-alongs.  Here, students paint along beside me.  Usually, they're beginners who want to follow step-by-step.  Since I'm not painting for myself but for them, I choose a simple, easy subject that they can handle.  In paint-alongs, there is no "flow," as the process is interrupted repeatedly by waiting for students to catch up.  This can be a good thing, though, since it forces me to slow down and to consider my next step more carefully.

Demonstrations.  Again, I am painting for the students.  My goal isn't to create a masterpiece but to illustrate a painting concept and, depending on the skill level of the group, this concept may be something more or less difficult. Things generally flow well in this situation, since I am narrating as I go and without much interruption.  The subject and time of day, however, are dictated by curriculum.  Still, because I'm trying to demonstrate live and in the field, I have to roll with whatever nature sends me, and I almost always learn something.

Plein air group.  In this case, the group has determined where and when we are going to paint, which of course limits subject matter and time of day.  Also, since I'm a recognized instructor, I sometimes get a few questions in the field.  Most times, participants honor the painting time and get personal chat and technical questions out of the way once the brushes get moving.  Still, I'm always aware someone may come over to take a peek at my work, and I feel a need to be accessible.  After all, I have my reputation as a generous teacher—and good painter—to maintain.

Buddy painting.  I only have a couple of buddies I paint with.  Usually it's a road trip to a place we both really want to paint.  We paint all day, quietly, and then in the evenings we share what we painted (both failures and successes) and talk about art.  These times are incredibly valuable to both of us because we get feedback from someone we respect for insight and honesty.  Of course, when painting, we're aware of each other but it's more like a pair of lions hunting together—each is focused on the hunt.  Still, if my friend wants to point the RV to some special place he knows, I'll go with him and trust for the best.

Painting alone.  When I'm painting alone, I don't have to turn out a demonstration that is both beautiful and educational.  I can make mistakes.  I can scrape down the canvas as many times as I need to get a particular stroke right.  If I fail, I've probably learned something, anyway.  I can experiment, work on a difficulty I'm having, or push a project further ahead—all with the goal of becoming a better painter.

I'd love for you to share some of your thoughts on painting by yourself and with others.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Product Review: En Plein Air Pro Professional Series Oil Easel

Setup from the Rear
Setup from the Front
(NOTE:  This review has been recently updated.)

Like most professional painters, I've collected enough easels and pochade boxes that I could make a good living on eBay.  However, I'm not ready to part with any of them just yet.  Each has some quality that makes it better for some situations than other boxes.

One new easel I've added recently is the En Plein Air Pro "Professional Series" Oil Easel.  Right off the bat, I discovered three things that I like.  It can handle a panel or stretched canvas up to 22" tall.  For these larger sizes, it offers a large mixing area that is 9"x18.5"—that's over 166 square inches.  But better yet, I can set it up in under two minutes.  I can't do this with my French easel.  If I want to go out and paint an 18"x24" and not have to fuss with gear, this is the easel I'll take.

For testing, I took this setup out a dozen times with a variety of different size surfaces, both panel and stretched canvas, and in windy conditions.  Overall, I was very pleased with the system.  See the video below for a quick overview:

Palette Box

The heart of the system is the palette box.  As I mentioned earlier, it offers just over 166 square inches of mixing space, and it's made of lightweight ABS plastic and PVC reinforced with aluminum.  The lid pops up and attaches with a tiny magnet to the tripod so it shades the palette from the sun; this is a very nice feature.  Two shelves slide out on either side of the box and have pre-drilled holes that you can stick your brush handles in.  The right shelf also has a hole into which you can insert the turps jar.  Both shelves have enough room for other items like painting knives and paper towels.

The palette itself has a mixing area made of a clear PETG panel.  (Unlike acrylic, PETG is resistant to solvents.)  Beneath this palette is a value scale.  For the beginning painter, this is handy, but even advanced painters will find it helpful to have something to test values of paint mixtures against.  Although the PETG is advertised as scratch-resistant, be careful if you use a painting knife.  Mine, which has become literally razor-sharp over the years, dug into the plastic slightly when mixing.  (I get a little careless in the heat of the moment.)  The surface can easily be replaced, though, for a couple of dollars.  For cleaning, the maker recommends scraping the surface gently with a palette knife, followed by wiping with turps.

The whole box attaches to the two front legs of the tripod and is secured by gravity, making for a sturdy paint mixing unit.

Panel Holder

The panel holder, a lightweight aluminum bar fitted with ABS brackets that attaches to the quick release mount, can hold anything from a 6"x8" panel to a 22" stretched canvas.  Cleverly, it also functions as a wet panel carrier that you can tote in your hand.  The brackets that hold the panel sometimes get a little tight, making it hard to making minute adjustments without unscrewing the bracket and re-seating it.  This isn't a big deal, but it'd be nice if the brackets slid up and down more easily without having to loosen them so much.  (Update:  The maker tells me this has been corrected.) Mounted on the tripod, the panel holder can be adjusted to a variety of positions quickly.  It's nice to have the panel holder separate from the palette, since you can keep the palette flat and level but still change the angle of the panel.

Panel Holder
Panel holder used as wet canvas carrier

Turps Jar

This 4-ounce jar, made of the same PETG plastic as the palette, fits neatly into the right shelf of the palette box.  Although the directions say to not leave OMS or other solvents in it for very long, I've left OMS in it for a couple of days without any problems.  The butyl gasket on the jar doesn't leak, even though it turned over in my backpack a few times.


A couple of years ago, I reviewed the En Plein Air Pro "Advanced Series" easel for Pastel Journal and discovered that the included tripod was rather flimsy.  Good news!  The "Professional Series" offers a better, medium-duty tripod, the SLIK U800.  It has a plastic head, which I usually don't care for.  Plastic heads tend to flex no matter how hard you tighten them, but this wasn't the case here.  It performed well on my largest test canvas, a 12"x16," on which I painted aggressively with both brush and knife.  The only problem I had was with the tripod head tilt mechanism.  If I pressed hard at the top of the canvas, maximizing my leverage on the mechanism, it would slip a little.  I wasn't able to tighten it sufficiently to stop this.  On the other hand, the tripod set up and adjusted quickly for field work.  On one day, when gusts were hitting 50 mph, I fastened my backpack to it for weight, and it held up just fine.

Showing how the palette box attaches to the tripod


The Everest backpack, which comes with the system, is large and spacious.  I had no trouble fitting in everything I needed for my painting sessions.  I was even able to shove in the tripod, though I found that strapping it outside the backpack made for a tighter, more compact package.  It has plenty of pockets for all those miscellaneous things a painter needs to carry.  Over all, the package is a little heavier than I like, but then when you want to deal with a bigger canvas and larger mixing area, it's hard to avoid this.

Backpack, with tripod strapped to outside

The En Plein Air Pro "Professional Series" Oil Easel is a well-thought-out system.  If you're looking for an easel that offers a large mixing area, can set up in a snap and handle formats large to small, this is it.  It's priced reasonably at $325.  For all that you get, it's a good deal.   For full details, visit