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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Scotland Painting Retreat Wrap-Up: Visit to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

On the way back from Scotland and after flying into Halifax, I had a chance to explore Lunenburg and Nova Scotia's South Shore. This area has always been touted as a painter's paradise, so I was eager to see what the fuss was all about. I spent the night in a little B&B just off the main drag in Lunenburg and walked around the waterfront. The next morning, I made the short drive over to the community of Blue Rocks. Both showed incredible promise for painting—so much so that I've decided to hold a painting retreat in Lunenburg in September 2017. I don't have the exact dates yet, but if you're interested, please let me know at I'll also be posting updates on my website.

To whet your appetite, here are a few photos of the area, below.

Well, that's a wrap. I'm putting Scotland behind me (until 2018) and jumping into teaching a series of plein air painting workshops in Lubec, Maine. Lubec is a fabulous place to paint! Think historic fishing villages, bold sea cliffs and lighthouses. If this interest you, I still have space left this summer. You can find full details at I hope you'll join us.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Scotland Painting Retreat Wrap-Up: Part 5

Footpath near Comrie
Everyone enjoyed the trip to Scotland so much that I am planning another retreat for 2018.  This one will be held instead in two locations:  first, the seaside villages of East Neuk and Fife, followed by the Isle of Skye.  Margaret Evans gave me a preview look at East Neuk, which I describe below, and I think it'll be a big hit.  Isle of Skye, of course, already has an international reputation.  This retreat will be June 3-13, 2018.  If you are interested, please send me a note at, and I will update you once we are ready to start taking reservations.  I'll also be posting details as I get them at

The Road to Hobbiton
(Well, actually to Comrie.  But it feels like you're going to Hobbiton, doesn't it?)
After dropping everyone off at the Glasgow airport Sunday morning, I drove with Malcolm to his and Margaret's house near Comrie.  Their house is a beautiful old stone one, butted up against hayfields and hills.  I was pleased to find a footpath—so common in the area—that would take me just about anywhere I pleased.  The footpath and the other paths that diverged from it are edged with stone walls and old, mossy trees.  It did feel like I'd been sent back in time a hundred years.  I hiked the paths several times and never met a person.

On Monday, Margaret and I went on a tour to the seaside villages of East Neuk.  This is a part of the Scottish coast on the River Forth, just across from Edinburgh.  These villages are everything a painter could want:  old stone houses, rustic breakwaters, wooden boats and more.  We started our tour at Lundin Links and continued to the villages of Elie, St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther, Crail and finally, St Andrews.  You can spend a lifetime painting this part of Scotland.




St Monans

St Monans

St Monans

St Monans






St Andrews

Tuesday, I headed back to Glasgow.  Paisley, actually, where the airport is located.  In Paisley, I spent the evening exploring town.  I especially loved the old abbey.  Still a working church, it has an amazing amount of history.  I was a little sad that I arrived just before they closed at 3:30, but I had time for a few pictures.

Paisley Abbey

Next time, I'll write about my return to Nova Scotia and a visit to Lunenburg.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Scotland Painting Retreat Wrap-Up: Part 4

Did I mention haggis?  Or black pudding?  I was a little surprised at the prevalence of these two dishes, especially the haggis.  In my part of Canada, poutine (a type of gelatinous gravy served over fries) is more joked about than seen.  I thought it was the same with haggis.  But it's not.  Haggis is on most menus, and it was served daily for breakfast at the resort, along with black pudding.  Those of us who tried it said it's not bad.  I preferred the roasted tomatoes, scrambled eggs and link sausage.

Wade's Bridge

Chocolate Shop en-route!

St Ninian's Garden, Dunkeld

Friday came with more rain.  Still, we packed up our painting gear and ventured to two nearby villages, Aberfeldy and Dunkeld.   Aberfeldy offered us a stone bridge, Wade's Bridge, which was built in 1753 and crosses the River Tay.  Just as scenic at the Stirling Bridge, it is a good deal newer.  Nearby Dunkeld, our next stop, has a cathedral that was built partly in the 14th century.  Half of it is in ruins, but the other half is still used as a church.  It has a small museum, and there we saw the sarcophagus of the Wolf of Badenoch; I took a picture of the card displayed next to it which will tell you the story.  I was most impressed by the old, magnificent rhododendrons on the grounds.  This area is called Big Tree Country because of the old trees.  I missed it, but apparently there is a 250-year-old "parent larch" planted in 1738 and from which all other Scottish larches descend from.  (Across the River Tay from here is the famous Birnam Wood from Macbeth.)

Dunkeld Cathedral

The Wolf of Badenoch lies here

Rhododendrons at Dunkeld Cathedral

None of us painted because of the weather, so instead we enjoyed tea and later, lunch, in Aberfeldy. (Rumor has it that J.K. Rowling lives in this town.)  Saturday, on the other hand, was predicted to be superbly sunny.

As promised, Saturday dawned dry and sunny.  Malcolm had said that we would go to Glencoe, up in the western Highlands, on the best day.  It was a two-hour drive but with impressive mountain scenery.  A few, who felt they could get more painting done if they didn't travel, stayed behind at the resort to paint.  The rest of us merrily piled into the van and headed out.

The scenery got less treed and more mountainous as we headed north from Loch Earn.  We soon found ourselves at a ski resort, only it being summer, the lifts were filled with parawing pilots instead of skiers.  Looking higher up past the hilltops, some of which still showed a scrap of snow or two, I could see the sky was filled with a dozen parawings, riding the thermals like buzzards.

Heading to Glencoe
A little white cottage stood in front of a beautiful valley that stretched out treeless and grand below us.  Oohs and ahs prompted us all to set up in a line in front of the cottage to paint it.  Malcolm told us this was Black Rock Cottage, run by a women's hiking group.  It was conveniently located on the West Highland Trail, which ran past it for miles.  By lunchtime, the sun was actually getting hot and we were stripping off layers.

West Highland Trail

Trail of Painters

Black Rock Cottage 9x12 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

 After a quick meal at the ski lodge, we continued north on the road toward another white cottage.  It sat on the trail on the other side of a stream that was forded by narrow bridge.  I loved the shadows on the mountain behind the cottage and spent some time working out the sense of depth.

On the West Highland Path 9x12 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
Although we were only at an elevation of maybe 1200 feet, the scenery reminded very much of parts of the Rocky Mountains above treeline, where the glaciers have scooped out rounded valleys.  The only difference was that these mountains are covered with a coat of green rather than being bare rock.

Our trip to Glencoe was a perfect note on which to end the retreat.  We couldn't have asked for better weather and scenery.  The next morning, Sunday, the van arrived before breakfast to carry us to the Glasgow airport.  We'd had a wonderful week, taking the mist, mizzle and drizzle in stride.  Everyone went home with lots of photographs to supplement the paintings.  I expect some good work to come out of this retreat, once everyone has had a chance to ponder the lessons learned by painting in Scotland.

By the way, I stayed on a few days extra with Malcolm and Margaret to explore a bit more.  I'll write about my trip to the seaside villages of East Neuk in the next post.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Scotland Painting Retreat Wrap-Up: Part 3

Many kinds of green

I should probably mention greens.  Scotland is, if anything, green.  Although I'm told color changes with the seasons, in summer green dominates.  Although it's spiced here and there with the magenta of rhododendrons and foxgloves, and the orangey yellows of gorse and broom, the land speaks green.  But not just one green; there are many.  Just as it took me a few days to start hearing the different accents of the locals, it was the same with observing the varieties of green.  The more you look, the more you see.

My pastel choices for the trip.
(A reader asked, "Why the full sticks?"  She would have taken half-sticks so she could fit in more colors.  My response: "Yes, that's the way I usually do it, but I wanted to have the full sticks. One reason, I wanted to make sure I didn't run out of a favorite color. Second, I like the longer stick for "feathering," which is something I do a lot of. Having more colors isn't always a good thing. I'm pretty good at mixing color with pastel. You might check out my post on the 14-stick Extreme Limited Pastel Palette, if you haven't already seen it. You can do wonders with just 14 sticks!")
One painter following me on daily postings on Facebook suggested I take all the tubed greens off my palette and just use blue, yellow and red to mix my greens.  I had just one green, phthalo green, and I found it too cool and harsh for most of the landscape; instead, I used just a touch and relied more on the warmer colors to modify it.  As for pastel, I used my new set from Pastels Girault (the Michael Chesley Johnson Plein Air Set) and supplemented it with a few greyed greens from Unison and NuPastel.  When I painted in pastel, I tried to start with a base of warmth—reds, oranges and browns—and then worked the greens over this.  My experience of painting in Vermont, Maine and the Canadian Maritimes helped considerably.  But the greens do seem different and much more varied in Scotland.  (Look at some of Margaret Evan's beautiful pastels, and you'll see what I mean.)  Pure greens, right from the tube or stick, don't cut it.

At dawn, I could see that Wednesday would not only be green but very wet.  On my morning walk, the clouds were thick and low.  By the time breakfast ended, intermittent showers were passing through.  I offered to do a pastel demonstration at the little sheep farm across the road.  I wanted to make another stab at greens.  Midway through the painting, it began to pour.  I got comfortable very quickly with holding the umbrella in one hand and painting with the other.

Photo by Judith Schutzman

Rainy Day with Sheep 9x12 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
The rain seemed like it would continue for the day, so after lunch a few of us headed for the studio to rework some earlier paintings.  Someone proposed the excellent idea of visiting a local single malt whisky distillery, Tullabardine.  I've done tours of wineries in America, but I've never done a distillery tour.  I learned that production of whisky (in Scotland, it's not called Scotch but simply whisky, and without the "e") starts with a beer, but quickly moves to the distillation process.  At a certain point, the whisky goes into oak barrels.  Two kinds of barrels are used at Tullabardine; one is a single-use barrel from the American bourbon industry, and the other is from France and was used to age pinot noir.  We got to sample both whiskies, and we all agreed that the pinot noir barrels gave a smoother, fruitier taste.  The one aged in the bourbon barrel tasted harsher, almost medicinal.

Tullabardine Tasting

The "Flavour Wheel"

One interesting thing we saw was a  poster of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute's Flavour Wheel.  When we spied it in the tasting room, we all thought:  "Color wheel!"  Similar, but not the same.

As Thursday dawned, the sky promised more rain.  It didn't turn out as drenching as Wednesday's.  With umbrella, and either preceded or followed by a pot of tea, one could paint in comfort.  This was our day at the famous Stirling Castle, and I was excited to make at least one painting of it.

I could write volumes on the castle.  It's history is long and fascinating.  Although this impregnable hilltop has been occupied for probably two thousand years, the current castle dates from the late 14th century.  Various Kings James built different parts, and recently, the Great Palace built by James V in the mid-16th century was restored to its original appearance.  One of my favorite spots in the castle, though, is the old North Gate, which was the first gate built in the castle wall.  When I saw it, I felt like I'd stepped back in time—or perhaps into the movie set of "The Lord of the Rings."  I expected Gandalf to arrive any moment on his white steed to prepare the troops for an invasion from the Dark Tower.

From a painter's viewpoint, the castle, after several hundred years of building and re-building, provides a myriad of interesting compositions.  My little sketch, which I made in the rain holding my umbrella in one hand, doesn't do it justice.  I did have fun rebuilding one wall so it would fit the design better.  By the way, I made sure to tour the castle first to get that out of my system.  I didn't take the official guided tour—too many tourists and it was hard to hear the guide—so I wandered on my own, armed with map and camera and an inquisitive painter's eye.  It was important for me to explore before settling down to paint.  Otherwise, I'd have been itching to walk around and take photographs.

Find the painter! A participant spied from the top of the castle wall.  Imagine if I'd
had a crossbow rather than a camera.

Castle Walls 9x12 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

After lunch deep within the castle walls at the Unicorn Cafe, we drove off to Stirling Bridge, a beautiful expanse of stone crossing the River Forth.  This was the site of William Wallace's 1297 victory over the English.  From the bridge, you can see the Wallace Monument, perched on a hill two miles away.  Some of us painted, but the rain was falling harder, so I walked around and took photos.  The photos would, I thought, yield many more pantings than a single painting done on the spot.

Wallace Monument and a feature of the Stirling Bridge in foreground

Stirling Bridge
The next day, we would see another old bridge and an ancient cathedral.