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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Adjusting a Photo for Painting

"Why They Paint Doors Blue"
12x16 oil/panel by Michael Chesley Johnson
For Sale - $1200, includes shipping and frame

As many of you know, Trina and I just recently returned to the summer studio for the season.  There's always tons to do when we get here:  firing up the well pump and checking for leaks, vacuuming up dead flies, ordering and restocking art materials, seeing if I can get the lawn mower started—well, I could go on.  Honestly, I don't get any painting done in the first few weeks.  But I had cause to make a small studio painting, and for that, I wanted to return to a scene I'd painted several years ago.

That first painting was based on a photo, and I wanted to repaint it to see if I could do a few things differently.  Here's the photo.  It's a shot of a historic part of Santa Fe in New Mexico in the fall, a time of year when stately cottonwoods cast a golden light on warm adobe walls.

First reference photo

There are a couple of problems in the photo.  First, it shows a paved road, and I rather prefer a dirt one edged with grasses to evoke an older time.  But more importantly, the gate door isn't blue.  Doors and sometimes windows in Santa Fe adobe houses are often painted a bright blue.  Some say that the Puebloans and early Spanish settlers painted entry ways this color to keep out evil spirts.  Others say that blue represents the sky and adobe walls the earth, which is fitting since the high desert of New Mexico is all about sky and earth.  This all sounds right to me, but I also like a blue door because blue is a complement to the muted orangey colors of adobe, and together they visually enhance each other.

Second reference photo

I could have just made it up, but I wanted to have a reference to work with.  Using Photoshop, I took the original photo and painted the door with a blue that looked similar to what I remember the doors being in Santa Fe.  But I couldn't just apply an opaque blue to the door; that would have wiped out the shadows and texture of the door.  Instead, I applied it with 50% opacity to preserve some of these elements.  Although they didn't make it into the final painting, you can see some of the shadows in the adjusted photo.

For the road and grass, I found another photo from which to copy-and-paste these.  This one also shows a "coyote fence," and I decided to add this element as well.  This required a little more work, as I didn't want the fence to obscure other parts of my main photo.  I also used a few tricks to better integrate these new elements.  Finally, I cropped the photo and increased the saturation.  (I'm by no means a Jedi Master with Photoshop, but I can wield a light saber well enough.)

Here's the final adjusted photo:

Final combined photo

After painting this piece, I found a rustic barnwood frame that enhances the feeling of a time gone by.  Not many of my paintings like a rustic frame, but this one seems perfect.  Here it is in the frame, along with a few detail shots.  (I'm offering this painting for sale; let me know if you are interested via e-mail.)

"Why They Paint Doors Blue" - Framed

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Product Review: Multimedia Artboard, New Colors for Oil Painters – And Home to Campobello Island

For those of you following our travels, you'll be happy to know that we reached our summer studio on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, on Monday.  Trina and I got home on a raw, rainy, windy day to discover that the power company had not turned on our electricity (or "hydro," as they call it here) on schedule.  An on-call worker arrived several hours later – remember, this is an island, and the ferry doesn't start running again until mid- or late-June, so he had to come from mainland Canada via two border crossings and the States – to turn things on.  All systems came up nicely.  The delay wasn't a bad thing, though, as it gave us time to get a lot of unpacking done without the distraction of electricity.  It would have been nice, though, to have had a cup of hot tea during the unpacking.  I don't think it got above 45 degrees all day.

While crossing the US from Arizona to Campobello, I had in my possession a special treat:  a pack of new boards from Multimedia Artboard.  Not long ago, I wrote about some of MA's other new products, which you can read about here.  This is one I didn't receive until just before I left Arizona, so I was hoping to find time to play with it while on the road.  The perfect moment came while teaching at the Art Barn in Valparaiso, Indiana, where I shared them with students.

Each panel is silkscreened by hand on the smooth side.  MA worked with Hylla Evans of Evans Encaustics to develop some modern ground colors with her Holy Grail gesso in a base specially formulated for oils and acrylics.  I spoke with Hylla about the colors, and she said she had plein air painters in mind when choosing them.  One of the issues with outdoor painting is that landscapes are typically filled with muted colors, peppered only occasionally with a spot of rich color.  She thought, and rightly so, that a brilliantly-toned surface would enliven these dull landscapes. How many of us don't tone a canvas a bright red to spice up a green world or a rich yellow to warm up a cool day?

The students and I enjoyed testing out these samples.  As I've seen with my other tests of Multimedia Artboard, the surface is very absorbent, so if this is not to your liking, you will want to apply a coat of clear gesso first.  I found that adding a little Gamblin Solvent-Free Gel helped the paint flow just fine without treating the surface first.  And the cheerful colors really added a boost to the painting!

Top to bottom:  Periwinkle, Sunshine, California Poppy, Peony

The colors are:  Peony, Sunshine, Periwinkle, Azure and California Poppy.  I can best describe these  as magenta, lemon yellow, ultramarine blue, manganese blue and permanent orange.  (I don't know what pigments were actually used, but this is what they look like to me.)  In this photo, I don't show the Azure; it escaped before I had a chance to photograph it.

Here are the 8x10 plein air sketches I made.  They were done on an overcast, dull morning.  One was painted on Peony; the other, on California Poppy.

Unter der Linden - 8x10 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
On Peony Multimedia Artboard

Springtime in Indiana - 8x10 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
On California Poppy Multimedia Artboard
Overall, I enjoyed working with these colors, and I'm sure I'll use them again.

#multimediaartboard #encaustics #evansencaustics #gamblincolors

Monday, May 16, 2016

Creating a Sense of Light on a Lackluster Day

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 September 24, 2011.

Someone recently asked how one can create a sense of light when the day lacks brilliance.  When the sun has gone behind the clouds or the fog has rolled in, contrast lessens and edges soften.  You'll find that this more diffuse light will creep into shadows, weakening them. Things can began to look downright gloomy.  When this happens, it's so easy to paint the world as if it's caught in some spectral dimension halfway between the living and the dead.

But don't despair!  The light is there, and you can capture it.

A sense of light is created partly by value contrast.  Strong light and strong darks signify intense illumination.  But a sense of light is also created by temperature contrast.  The Impressionists discovered that even if you have little value contrast - as on a dull  day - temperature contrast can be used to create a sense of light.  You probably already know that warm light creates cool shadows.   This kind of contrast happens on dull days, too.  If the light is cool, the shadows will be warm.  By pushing the difference in temperature, even with little value contrast, you can increase the brilliance of the light.

In the painting below, the cool, pinkish light from the sky intensifies the warm, brown shadows beneath the dock, creating a brilliance that wouldn't be there if I hadn't "pushed" the temperature contrast.  This piece also has strong value contrast, which helps the illusion.

"Waiting" 9x12, oil

By the way, my Downeast Maine workshops will be starting soon! Check out or for details.

(First posted September 24, 2011)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Painting from Photographs: All Surface, No Substance

"Rock, Grass, Rock" 9x12, pastel - SOLD

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 August 26, 2011.

I take every opportunity I can to disabuse students of the notion that painting from photographs is a valuable skill. It's not. Creating a painting from a photograph is like staging a theatrical set and then trying to live in it. That impressive shelf full of books is just a trompe l'oeil; the telephone that's supposed to ring in Act II isn't wired to anything; and the roast chicken on the table is literally rubber. A painting made from a photograph is like that. At first glance, it may look right, but as you climb onto the stage and look at the props, you'll see that they're exactly that - just props.

The reason painting photographs doesn't work is that photographs contain a very limited amount of useful information. Your senses will quickly outpace the meagre amount presented. You'll end up inventing things or worse, ruining your eyes trying to decide if a particular pixel represents a flower - or just a flaw - in the photo. On the other hand, if you work from life, you can spend a lifetime looking and still not see everything. But best is this - if you have any question about your subject, the answer is out there.

So what, exactly, are the problems with photos? A lot: Values, color and perspective. Either the light areas will be blown out or the dark areas will be too murky to do you any good. You can't have it both ways, unless you're doing HDR (high dynamic range) photography. The color will be off, even if you're an expert with fine-tuning your white balance. Film (or computer screen LEDs) don't have the range or sensitivity of the human eye for color. And if you're not using the right lens, you'll almost invariably have distortion in perspective. It's not so bad for landscapes, but with architecture, the right lens can be the difference between convincing and laughable.

The only thing a photo is good for is for shape details. If you can't remember how many mullions a window has, the photograph will help you out. But if you need to know what kind of green the ocean was, you're better off looking at a color sketch you made in the field. Even a handwritten note on a pencil sketch saying "bluish-green, a little darker than the sky" is more useful than a photo - which is what the old-timers did before cameras were invented.

The above pastel was painted, of course, not from a photograph.

(First posted August 26, 2011)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Workshop Report: Valparaiso, Indiana

Jan Sullivan with her beloved chickens

I've been coming to the Art Barn in Valparaiso ("Valpo," the locals call it) for several years now.  My introduction to it was Ann Templeton, one of my early mentors, who also taught here many times.  She suggested I contact the Art Barn and look into teaching a workshop.  I'm glad she did, because she helped me discover a wonderful retreat for my students.  At the Art Barn, we can focus on our craft and enjoy the quiet and beauty of this northern Indiana landscape.

Mentors are vital to artists and art.  I mention this because the Art Barn's founder, Jan Sullivan, was a mentor, too.  She introduced abused, homeless women to the arts; invited school groups to the Art Barn; scheduled nationally-known artists to teach; and ran an arts camp for children in the summertime.  

In the 1960s, when Jan retired from her position as an art supervisor in the Chicago school system, she and her husband purchased 69 acres of farmland with a pond, pasturage and woodland.  In the 1970s, she started teaching art classes in the barn, which at the time had neither water nor electricity.  Since then, the Art Barn acquired both plumbing and power.  Not too long ago, Jan donated the Barn and acreage to the Art Barn School of Art, now a non-profit organization.

I had the pleasure of having Jan in my workshop every time I taught.  She was in her late 80s by the time I met her.  Each morning, she arrived from her house next door in a golf cart, which she also used to tour her property.  When we went off to paint, she would drive merrily to a favorite painting spot and then return with some amazing piece full of color and vigor.

I was very sad to learn of her passing at the age of 94 just a few weeks before our arrival this year.

After class, I like to take walks in the woods here to see the spring flowers:  white trillium, wake robin, jack-in-the-pulpit, may flower and violets.   Jan would have said this is a fantastic spring.

Here's an article from 2005 about Jan and the Art Barn:

This season, our first two days at the Art Barn saw drizzle and cool weather.  We stayed in to paint, but the Barn has large windows, allowing us to paint en plein air the views of the fields and trees.

Our third and last day we started off with fog, but that quickly turned to filtered sunshine.  We were able to get out and paint the dogwood tree and other subjects around the property.

I did demonstrations in oil, pastel and - surprise! - watercolor.  Here are a few of the demonstrations plus a short video of an alla prima painting started as a monochromatic underpainting with Gamblin Portland Greys.  (For those of you who can't see the video, here is a link to it.)

Some Enchanted Afternoon 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - SOLD

Two Watercolors by Michael Chesley Johnson - SOLD
Overcast Study 8x10 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Now, the workshops are done.  We are off to Vermont to visit family, to Bar Harbor for an oil change, and then on to Lubec and Campobello.  I'll post again once we are comfortably in our home and all systems are working.  (Will the well pump come on?  Will we have sprung a leak over the winter?  Stay tuned!)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Have No Fear: The Magic Cropping Tool and Plein Air Painting

"The Miss Fletcher" 9x9, oil
Private Collection

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 August 25, 2011.

You're out in the field, and the most perfect scene imaginable as been handed to you.  In the excitement of this marvelous opportunity, you launch in with inspired sprezzatura.  Surely, every brush stroke will be masterful.

Thumbnail sketch?  Nah, you skipped it, because the design was so obvious.  But as you paint, you grow increasingly uneasy.  There is something wrong, but you can't quite put your finger on it.

Back in the studio, you put the painting up on the easel.  The cause of your uneasiness still escapes you, so you let it sit there a few days.  One day, as you're walking by, sipping coffee and trying to steal a glance at it - as if the solution, a shy devil, might vanish if you were to look at it directly - and it comes to you.

Out comes the magic cropping tool.  In my workshops, I make a joke about my "magic" cropping tool, but you'd be amazed at how many painting problems can be solved with a couple of pieces of cardboard.  Find your center of interest, and start cropping creatively around it.  Almost always, in a disaster of painting, there are a few salvageable inches, perhaps even a masterpiece.

It is always the part of the scene that won your heart in the first place.  You spent a great deal of love and attention on it, making sure it was just right, but in the meantime you sacrificed everything else.  Your instincts were right - congratulations!

The painting above is a case in point.  It was a 9x12, but it ended up being a 9x9.  I painted on a hardboard panel, fortunately, so it only took a boxcutter for the surgery.  (Stretched canvas is more difficult; pastel paper is even easier.)  Below are the two pieces put side by side.  You'll note that the rock on the left intruded into the part on the right, and I had to paint out the tip of it for the finished painting.  I've also put the detached piece as a separate image; it makes its own little painting.

"Head Harbour Afternoon" 3x9, oil

(First posted August 25, 2011)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Workshop Report: Batavia, Illinois

Down by the Fox River

On our way east this spring, we stopped in Batavia, Illinois, where I taught a workshop for Water Street Studios.  You wouldn't think there'd be a small town like Batavia just a few minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Chicago, but there is.   Batavia, founded in 1833, became one of the biggest manufacturers of Conestoga wagons ("prairie schooners") and windmills.  Today, still surrounded by farm fields and straddling the Fox River, the town offers several beautiful parks and maintains a quiet, small-town feeling.

Batavia also has a thriving art scene.  Water Street Studios, which sponsored my workshop, has a gallery, two classrooms and 26 studios.  It takes its workshop program seriously, which is why I teach there regularly.

Fox River Dam
9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Although this was only a two-day workshop, we were fortunate with the weather, and hit a dry slot between storms.  It was warm the first day and cool the second, but both days were pleasant.  Our first day found us down by the Fabyan West Forest Preserve along the river where we had beautiful trees and a Japanese garden to paint.  Although I didn't see them, a pair of nesting great horned owls kept photographers busy with massive telephoto lenses. The second day, we went to the Batavia Riverwalk Park, which juts out on a peninsula that gives views of some of the old industrial areas across the river.  None of these industrial areas are big, but lovers of rusty corrugated tin and brick smokestacks will find them very paintable.  Both days, we had flocks of Canada geese honking and hooting.

Now we are at the Art Barn in Valparaiso, Indiana, where a three-day workshop begins tomorrow.  The dogwood tree is blooming, which guarantees some good painting!  I still have space in this workshop, so visit for details.

Here's a taste of what's to come this week at Art Barn:  the dogwood tree.

The Attributes of Color: Terms of Confusion

"Low Tide Rocks" 6x9 pastel
Private Collection

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 August 17, 2011.

Above is a 6x9 pastel demonstration I did today.  In it, I tried to capture the sense of light and shadow by playing warm and cool colors off one another.  In the shadows on the beach, I started with a bright (intense) purple, and then dulled it down with a greyed (muted) green, followed by a dark (low in value) blue.  Why all the parenthetical terms?  Let me explain.

Sometimes when I have a new group of students and we talk about color in the plein air landscape, questions arise. Is "tone" the same thing as "value"? When you say "brighter," do you mean "lighter"? Well, yes, tone is value. No, when I say "brighter," I suppose I should say "more intense."

Part of this has to do with the fact that each attribute of color may have more than one acceptable name to describe it. Another part has to do with an inadequate art education. I can't do much about the first, but I sure do my best to help with the second. So, for the record, here are the attributes and the different things they may be called.

Value. (Synonym: Tone.) How light or how dark a color is. This has nothing to do with the hue of a color. It can apply equally well to a purely neutral grey. A tint is a light version of a color, often with white added; a shade is a darkened version of it, often with black added. There is an absolute dark (black, the absence of all colors) and an absolute light (white, the presence of all colors.)

Temperature. (Synonym: None that I can think of.) How hot or how cold a color is. Sometimes related to color, e.g. blue is "cool" and reds are "warm," but not necessarily, as you can have a cool red and a warm blue. I would argue that temperature is relative in that there is no color that is absolutely cold or hot; temperature of one color depends on the temperature of other colors adjacent to it. Think about it - the color wheel has zones of warmth and coolness, but it has no beginning or end.

Chroma. (Synonyms: Intensity, richness, saturation.) How pure or how greyed the color is. A color may be muted, neutralized, calmed, dulled or greyed by the addition of a complement, white or black. When speaking of pigments, since no pigment is absolutely a single, precise color, the addition of any other pigment, no matter how close on the color wheel, will cause a certain amount of greying. Chroma has nothing to do with value; you can have a light rich color and a light dull color and still have the same hue.

Hue. (Synonym: Color, but it is an unfortunate term because color is really a sum of all the attributes - hue, chroma, temperature and value.) Hue is a particular color's place on the visible light spectrum.

(First posted August 17, 2011)

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Achieving Harmonious Color

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 July 13, 2011.

Today, I took the workshop out to one of my favorite spots on Campobello Island to paint.  It's quiet, remote and very few tourists find it.  The only sound was the surf and the ringing of cobble on cobble as the waves came and went.  You can see the view above.

I started a 16x20 oil of beach roses, pictured below.  I wanted primarily to get a sense of strong sunlight and then have the rose blossoms as accent colors.  I had just started putting in a few roses to see how they'd look when the clouds rolled in, changing the lighting.  I know better than to fight with the clouds, so I packed it up.  (It was lunchtime, anyway.)  I'll go back to this same spot the next sunny day and tighten up the piece.

"Beachside Roses"  16x20, oil
Private Collection

One question we had today was, How do you keep from using too many colors?  For those of you who like a lot of color, you need to know that too many colors can give a carnival-like look to your paintings.  If you are, in fact, painting a carnival, that's fine; but if it's a quiet little oceanside scene filled with green and blue, you don't want your painting to end up looking like a gaudy sideshow.

It's easy with oil - just don't take out very many tubes!  Six colors is plenty, and I know some very successful painters who use just three.  (I also know one who takes out forty, but he knows what he's doing.)  Pastels are more troublesome, since you can't paint a proper pastel unless you have 200 or more sticks to choose from.  The trick is to pick out a few to start, and then keep using them until you just can't make them work anymore - and then pick out one more, and use that until you can't use that one anymore, either.  Pretend that every choice from your pastel box will cost you $20, and you'll keep your choices down to just a few.  I sometimes paint an entire piece with only 20 or so sticks.

(First posted July 13, 2011)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Encounters: Doug Dawson, Albert Handell

Trina and I are well on our way east now.  Since we left Arizona, we stopped at some property we own in New Mexico, and on a walk we discovered some potsherds.  This exciting find validated our choice in buying there, since we now know that the Ancients strolled the land long before us.  These fragments are about 700 years old -- well before the Spanish conquistadors wandered through.

Corrugated pottery fragments with a piece of Red-on-Black pre-Zuni.

Our next stop was Santa Fe, where we spent a relaxing week visiting galleries and taking photos of the beautiful, Pueblo Revival-style buildings.  We also had a chance to have dinner with artists Albert and Jeanine Handell.  We've become good friends with them over the years.  Many of my readers already know about Albert, but if you don't, you can read about my adventures with him here.  (His website is

Here is a photo of where we stayed in Santa Fe, plus another photo of a scene on Canyon Road.

Our lodging in Santa Fe

Street artists:  Keep track of your paper towels!  (Notice the one blowing down the street.)

After Santa Fe, we headed up to Denver to visit Doug and Sue Dawson.  If you don't know Doug, like Albert Handell, he's a master painter in oil and pastel.  I've known the Dawsons for several years now, and they, too, have become good friends.  It was a special treat to finally visit them at their home and studio in Colorado.  (Read my previous posts on Doug here and visit his website at

Doug is well-known for his wonderful night scenes and his magic touch for evoking the mystery of dusk and dawn. But for many years, he taught figure painting and portraiture, and it was a pleasure to see some of these other works first-hand.

Doug teaches regularly at the Art Students League of Denver, so he invited me along for a morning.  It was a plein air class, and I enjoyed hanging out with the students and watching Doug's demo.

Art Students League of Denver

Doug demonstrating outside ASLD

 Now we are on our way to Batavia, Illinois, where I will teach a workshop for Water Street Studios.  Right after that, I'll be off to the Art Barn in Valparaiso, Indiana, to teach another.  By the way, I still have room in both of these plein air workshops, so if they interest you, please follow the links.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Making Successful Greys

"Morning at Raccoon Beach" 5x7, oil

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 June 15, 2011.

Greys are both easy and difficult to conjure up.  Easy, because there's nothing like a dirty brush to work its black magic in creating rather ugly greys.  Difficult, because a pretty grey takes a certain amount of apprenticeship in mixing color.

First, let's make sure we've got reasonably clean brushes.  That will keep you from summoning grey without meaning to.  Now, let's think about how greys are made.

They say you can make a grey by mixing a color with its complement.  This is true, but it can be a very muddy grey.  A prettier grey can be made by mixing a color with its near-complement instead.  This is because the grey is closer in character to the color being greyed.  Try it.  Use a color wheel to help you identify the near-complement.    If you want to grey down a green, don't use red - instead, use red-violet or red-orange.

Let's take this a step farther.  Look at the color you want to grey and decide if it is a cool or warm version of its base color.  To grey it, add the same temperature of its complement.  If it's a cool red, use a cool green.  If you use a warm green with a cool red, this will make mud.  Using a cool with a cool will make a more beautiful grey.  As an example, I paint a lot of fog, and many times I'll start off with a light pink - that's cadmium red light with lots of white, and very cool - and then scumble on a light cool green, such as viridian with lots of white.  This combination gives me a mudless fog.

In the little 5x7 sketch above, I use this approach, but for a sunny scene.  The scene had a lot of grey in it.  I painted all the major shapes with the complement of the correct value and correct color temperature, and then overlaid them with the local color.

(First posted June 15, 2011)