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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Grand Canyon Celebration of Art

Right after my two-day workshop in the White Mountains of New Hampshire next week, I'll be flying off to Arizona for something very exciting:  the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art.  This will mark the eighth year for this prestigious plein air festival and my fourth time as an invited artist.  It is an honor to be invited back again to paint alongside artists like P.A. Nisbet, Mitch Baird, John D. Cogan and others.

The dates are Friday, September 9, through Sunday, September 18, 2016.  That sounds like a long time, but the Grand Canyon Association keeps us busy!  Orientation is that first Friday, at which time we get our canvases stamped, and then we are off painting.  Some of us will be giving demonstrations, but all of us will be roaming the Canyon looking for that perfect painting.  There are other events, too, some of which are private for artists and sponsors, and others that are public, such as a lecture by Curt Walters, who is perhaps one of the best known painters of the Grand Canyon.

For a full schedule, visit

This event always gets me pumped.  A truly fantastic landscape, great artists, and an organization that works hard to make a successful event—what more can I ask for?  And each time it's different.  Some years we have incredible monsoons with dramatic (and dangerous) lightning, and one year we even woke to find the Canyon filled with fog.  Whatever happens, it's a unforgettable experience.  I'll be blogging about this, daily if possible, when I arrive in Arizona next week.

In the meantime, I thought you might like to see some photos from previous years.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Remington, Russell and ... Reaugh?

For lovers of Western art, Remington and Russell are like family.  In his scant 48 years, Frederic Remington (1861-1909) cranked out enough illustrations, easel paintings and sculptures that today almost any museum can boast a Remington.   Charles Russell (1864-1926) is only a little less famous.  Also widely collected by museums, he created over 2,000 works of art.  Both artists staged stories in their works, choosing for their stars cowboys and Native Americans while casting horse and cattle as minor players.  The landscape was always just a painted backdrop.

But there's a third "R" in the history of Western art, and that is Frank Reaugh.  Reaugh (1860-1945) was a contemporary of the other two.  The "Dean of Texas Painters," as he is called, is little known outside the state except to aficionados who make a study of these things.  A new full-length biography, however, aims to change all that.

Rounded Up in Glory:  Frank Reaugh, Texas Renaissance Man (University of North Texas Press) by Michael Grauer is a meticulously-researched biography.  Grauer is well-positioned to write this book.  He is the Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Art of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, which houses the largest public collection of the artist's works.  In this comprehensive book, the author elevates Reaugh to his rightful place in Western art history.

Reaugh (pronounced "Ray") was a different artist from Remington and Russell.  Unlike them, he painted mostly cattle and landscapes; men were often incidental to the pictures, mere drivers of the massive herd.  Most often, the cattle drive, now a thing of legend, was the subject.   Reaugh said:  "Remington in the '90s painted the Indian and his pony.  He knew little about cows, and was principally interested in the cowboy as a wild man.  Russell painted the cowboys of the Northwest."  Grauer expounds further:  "Reaugh recognized the monopoly he had on such an important history of the American West.  He endeavored to become a history painter of a rapidly vanishing way of life in much the same way as George Catlin had hoped to become the 'history painter of the American aborigine' fifty years before."

Reaugh spent much of his early life on cattle drives, sketching when he could.  As a mature artist, he frequently led sketching trips across the Texas panhandle and into bordering states along those very same routes.  But he did more than that.  A man with a broad vision who had attended the Académie Julian in Paris, shown at two World's Fairs (Chicago and St. Louis), and created over 7,000 works in his lifetime, he was a prime mover in art education, guiding many young artists to careers.  A resident of Dallas, Reaugh founded the Dallas Association of Art, which eventually became the Dallas Museum of Art.  Many artists saw benefit from this organization under his leadership.

Toward the end of his life, Reaugh badly wanted to create a foundation that would house his body of work and also include classroom and studio space, thus perpetuating his legacy as a painter and teacher.  Unfortunately, this was not to be.  In Dallas in the 1940s, the administrators who controlled funding for the arts took up the flag of Modernism and abandoned traditional painters like Reaugh.  At his death, he ended up giving his collection to the University of Texas in Austin.  Most of his paintings finally found their way to the museum in Canyon where Grauer is curator.  Today, Reaugh's status is rising.  In 2015, a world auction record was set for the artist when a 20x40 pastel sold for $435,000.

I found much of the book resonated with me as an outdoor painter and pastelist.  I learned that Reaugh worked mostly with pastel outdoors for the same reason that many of us do; it is an immediate, tactile and uncomplicated medium.  Reaugh even went so far as to concoct a recipe, now lost, for his own line of pastels, which he made and sold.  An inventor, he also created a folding field easel, which he patented, along with a half-dozen various devices for internal combustion engines.  (Click here to see the patent application for his easel.)  This speaks to another love of his—automobiles—which also manifested itself in the cars that he outfitted for his sketching trips to make them more suitable for carrying painters and their gear.  The sketching trips were also a joy to read, as they are written up in detail and drawn from the journals of the participants.

I travel through Texas once a year, on my way west to Arizona where I spend winters.  I've passed through the small town of Canyon, where the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is located, but only on my way to Palo Duro Canyon, one of Reaugh's favorite painting locations.  (Grauer:  "Reaugh probably painted Palo Duro Canyon more than any artist before 1945.")  Thanks to this new book, I am planning to stop at the museum on a future trip to be awed by his work in person.

Rounded Up in Glory:  Frank Reaugh, Texas Renaissance Man by Michael Grauer (University of North Texas Press, $39.95 cloth, $31.96 e-book.)  480 pages with 20 color and 20 black-and-white illustrations.  To order:

Friday, August 19, 2016

About Painting Commissions

Treat Island View 12x24 oil/panel by Michael Chesly Johnson
Commissioned Painting

Many artists paint commissions.  Some relish the challenge, while others would rather be painting something else.  But however you feel about them, for the working artist it's often a simple matter of financial necessity.  I'll paint just about anything you want—but I will set ground rules.

Ground rules are important to avoid any misunderstanding.  Well, here are mine:

1.  I won't paint from your photo.   Even if you're a great photographer, the photo won't mean much to me emotionally.  Plus, I'll have no personal memory of the location.  Both emotion and memory are vital references, and without that, the painting will have no substance.

2.  I need to have access to the location to gather my own reference material.  Also, if I decide I can't make a good painting based on what I see, I will turn down the commission.

3.   If you have suggestions for the painting, I will take those under advisement—but I reserve the right to do something different if it will make a better painting.

4.  If I feel I need guidance, I will ask for it.  I may show you design or color sketches to get your reaction.  (I usually do this, anyway, just to see if you and I are on the same page so that I may proceed confidently.)

5.  I will give you a price before I start the actual painting, if we haven't already discussed it.

6.  I'll give you an approximate timeframe for finishing the painting.  I'll also work with you to get it done when you need it.

7.  Because I want to paint the painting as I envision it, I won't require a deposit, nor do you have any obligation to purchase it when complete.  Paradoxically, not having a deposit takes off some of the pressure of "having to make a good painting," and I feel I do a better job as a result.  Also, having no obligation to buy relieves you of the pressure of having to pay for a painting you don't want.

7.  Finally, if the painting doesn't satisfy you, I am free to sell it to someone else.

That's my take on commissions.  If you're a painter who does commissions, I would like to hear your guidelines.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Going for the Grand View

"Passamaquoddy Sunset" 12x24 oil on panel by Michael Chesley Johnson.
Commissioned studio painting created from field references.

Here's something I've learned over the years:  A big landscape requires a big canvas.

I'm sure it sounds obvious.  But I bet many outdoor painters, like me, have tried to cram an awe-inspiring vista into a 9x12 panel only to discover it just doesn't work.  The scale is wrong for creating the impression of depth and distance.  Plus, so many objects are included within the frame that they fight for both space and attention.   Looking at a painting like this makes me claustrophobic, and I just want to flee, seeking air.

This error in painting, I believe, happens for a couple of reasons.

A student going to a plein air painting workshop may travel a long distance, so he may bring only small canvases to lighten the load.  Also, workshops tend to be held in beautiful spots.  I take my students to grand vistas all the time, but my demonstrations typically focus on just some small part of it.  However, the student, deeply moved by the beauty, aims to record all of Grand Canyon on an 8x10 panel.

Also, with the ready availability of images on the Internet and the proliferation of small computer screens, we have gotten too used to viewing big artwork on tiny screens.  Seeing Fredric Church's "Heart of the Andes," which is nearly six feet by ten, on an iPhone presents a much different experience when seen in person.  But seeing artwork in a much-reduced format has gotten us used to painting in a small format, and we forget to step back.  If we stepped back, we'd realize instantly that the small format is inappropriate.

Here's my advice.  If you must paint the whole view and it's a wide vista, work on a 12x24 panel (or even a 12x36.)  If the scene requires a squarer format, where foreground and perhaps sky are as important as the view, work on an 18x24 or 24x30.  Otherwise, small panels (8x10, 9x12) require you to crop the scene severely.  You are better off doing small studies of parts of the grand view, and then taking them back to the studio to be used as references for a larger piece that can properly portray the moment.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

What Level of Painter Are You?

From Here to There
12x9 plein air oil by Michael Chesley Johnson (SOLD)
(NOTE: I wrote the following post for painters who consider themselves not in the "professional" category.  It's for hobby painters, amateur painters, and painters who want to go pro but haven't gotten there yet.  Professional painters take workshops, too, for many reasons, and I welcome them as colleagues.  I am honored that they think I have something to teach them.)

Like many art instructors, I grade my workshops as suitable for beginning, intermediate or advanced painters.  And again, like many art instructors, I don't define these grades—a real failing.  It would be very helpful for us to do so.  Many painters, especially those new to the craft, wonder how to know if they are "ready" for an advanced workshop.  That's a question I often get.

So, I thought I'd create a quick checklist that a student painter could use to determine his grade.  But first, it's important to remember that painting doesn't require just one skill but many.  And these skills don't always mature at the same level.  For example, a painter may be good at drawing but not so good at color mixing.  Whether someone is an intermediate painter is particularly difficult to judge, since "intermediate" covers a broad area between "beginner" and "advanced."  An intermediate painter is, in my mind, good at some things but not good at all things.  Because of this uneven maturation, no quick checklist can give an absolute grade.  I suppose one might itemize all the skills and devise a point system, but I'll leave that to someone with more time on his hands.

Finally, keep in mind that I teach plein air painting workshops.  One of my prerequisites (not always followed by the student, alas) is that the student be comfortable with painting in the studio.  This is because outdoor painting requires a set of skills in addition to the ones acquired in the studio, and it is that additional set that I focus on.   My goal is to teach the student to see, not to handle a brush.  But since in reality it doesn't always work out that way, I present a somewhat mixed checklist based on what I have experienced my workshops.

If you answer "yes" to the following questions, you are a beginning plein air painter:
  • Does it take you two trips (or more) to carry your gear from the car?
  • Do you have trouble setting up your easel?
  • Do you set up your  palette a different way each time?
  • Do you make a detailed drawing when trying to make a thumbnail value sketch?
  • Do you confuse hue with value when trying to match color seen in the landscape?
If you answered "no" to the above but "yes" to the following, you are an intermediate plein air painter:
  • Do you have difficulty "massing" dark shapes in the landscape?
  • Do you often "run out of" values when painting a scene?  (I.e. you can't make a shadow dark enough or a light area light enough.)
  • Do you have trouble seeing the temperature difference between light and shadow?
  • Does foreground design defy you so that you just "put something in" to finish filling the canvas?
  • Do you have trouble separating planes of space and getting a sense of depth in your painting?
If you answered "no" to all the above, you are an advanced plein air painter.

Beyond advanced, of course, we have the master painter.  An advanced painter is good at all things, but a master has truly practiced his craft to the point that it is as natural and easy as breathing and walking.  (Note the operative word, "practiced."  Practice is fundamental to progress.)

I'm sure there are other qualifications I have not considered, but as I said, these are the most common points I've seen in my own workshops.  I address them in each workshop, giving students personal attention where it is needed.  We always make good progress!

I am now taking registration for my 2016/2017 season of plein air painting workshops in Sedona.  Although many of the weeks are for intermediate and advanced students, I also have some "all level" weeks as well.  For details (and don't forget to look at the tuition+lodging package):

(And also don't forget that I've reserved my last workshop in Lubec, Maine, August 30th-September 2nd for intermediate and advanced painters.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A World of Suffering: The Painter's Moral Dilemma, Part 1

Ready to Sail 12x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Paint, or feed the hungry?
Paint, or clothe the poor?
Paint, or shelter the homeless?
Paint, or nurse the sick?
Paint, or fight a war?

Lately, I've been asking myself, how can I paint in this world of suffering? Painting seems a selfish occupation when one is hammered with new tales of suffering each day. Thousands killed by floods and earthquakes. Hundreds of thousands escaping a dictator. Millions more beaten down by disease and famine.

But in the island of my studio, I can turn on some pleasant music and paint, oblivious to the suffering.

If I am not suffering, either directly or vicariously, or if I am not painting to raise awareness of the suffering, is this practice wrong? If I'm painting a landscape that pleases me, far removed from the suffering, is that selfish?

I can ameliorate the guilt, perhaps, by convincing myself that art has value in a world of suffering. A serene vista, painted on canvas, may give the burdened a safe place to rest the soul. A beautiful scene may give encouragement, something to aspire to. But this good is real only if the painting can be seen by the troubled. This is unlikely for those isolated by disaster or dictatorships. Here in America, my paintings are seen mostly by people with lesser troubles. However, they, too, may find value in them as a haven from their troubles, however small.

There are no easy answers for a person who has taken to painting—what some consider a business trucking in luxury items—for both a livelihood and as a means to creative self-fulfillment.   I like to think that, not only does my painting add joy and beauty to my life, but it does to the lives of others, as well.  The question becomes:  Is it enough?

I have a friend, Tim, who paints maritime scenes at his summer studio and diner scenes at his winter one. An artist all his life, he volunteers one day a week at a homeless shelter. Probably like me, he also has wrestled with the painter's moral dilemma, and this is his answer.

If you have your own answer to the dilemma, I would be happy for you to share it in my next blog post or in the comments.