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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Image Transfer to Make the Drawing Easier: The Schooner Margaret Todd

The Schooner Margaret Todd
12x16 oil
Will be Available Starting July 1, 2017 at Argosy Gallery

I like to paint boats.  I paint a lot of them at my summer studio in Downeast Maine.  They say "practice makes perfect," but where boats are concerned, practice makes only "pretty good."  I think that, no matter how excellent your drawing skills, you'll always find some part of a boat that needs correcting.  Sailors will be quick to point out the errors in what you thought was a beautifully-proportioned boat.

This past week, I wanted to paint a picture of the schooner Margaret Todd, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, for the upcoming Acadia Invitational III exhibit at Argosy Gallery this summer.  I had reference photos and a plein air sketch of this ship, which is the only four-masted schooner still in operation on the east coast.  Painting a boat properly can be time-consuming, even if you are using photos and not working from life.  To make the job easier, I decided to transfer a photo to my painting surface rather than to draw the schooner by hand.

Contrary to popular belief, we painters don't freehand everything.  Image transfer or tracing is a time-honored method used by both illustrators and "fine artists" to get a quick, accurate drawing in place.  Projection is another method, but for the size of this painting (12x16) and the scale of the boat (somewhat small), I didn't need to project. But I did want the perspective and proportions to be correct.

The scene I chose to paint was very close to what my reference photo contained.  I knew that if I placed my eye level (or horizon) line on the canvas as it was in the photo, the transfer method would work.  It most definitely will not work if you start playing with eye level placement.  Next, I needed to figure out  the scale I needed for the boat in the context of the landscape.  I made some pencil sketches to rough out the design, and then I printed out three cropped images of the schooner, each a different size.

I placed these directly on my painting surface, with the landscape lightly sketched in, to see which size worked best.  After settling on one, I coated the reverse side of the print with compressed charcoal, taking care to cover all the areas that needed to be transferred.  Then I taped the print directly to my painting surface where the boat needed to be.  With a sharp, 2B graphite pencil, I then traced over the important parts of the boat—masts and hull—until I felt like I had enough information transferred that I could successfully finish the boat without this aid.

Here's the finished painting, without the frame.

The Schooner Margaret Todd
12x16 oil
Will be Available Starting July 1, 2017 at Argosy Gallery

We'll be painting boats my Rockland, Maine, workshop for Coastal Maine Art Workshops this July.  I hope you'll join me.  You can find more details here.   If that doesn't work out for you, we'll also be painting boats at my Lubec, Maine, studio.  Visit for details.

By the way, if you take workshops, I have a short survey that I'd like you to take.  It will help guide future seasons of my plein air painting workshops.  You can get to it here:

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Building a New Website, Part 3: How I Did Mine

Condor's Realm 9x12 oil/panel
Available on my new website!

The first thing I needed to was to make sure I had a template that looked good and allowed lots of choices for design.  Another requirement was that it worked with an e-commerce plug-in—and that plug-in itselff had to be easy to work with.  I really didn't want to have to go creating a PayPal button for every single painting I hoped to sell.  After a lot of research, I settled on the Divi theme and the Divi Builder from  Divi had many excellent reviews and, with the Divi Builder, allowed for a lot of options.  What's more, it worked with the WooCommerce plug-in, which also had great reviews.

By the way, you can find good reviews and bad reviews for just about anything.  Besides the mostly positive reviews, I chose Divi because it has a large user base and good technical support via a support forum.  If I have a problem, I hear back within a day and sometimes even within the hour from a tech person.  What's more, Elegant Themes designed their Divi module specifically to work with WooCommerce—so that's two companies working together to support my website.  (Divi is not free; I paid $80 for a year's subscription to it and for updates.  WooCommerce has a both  free and paid version.)

I found Divi to work as advertised.  I also like the "drag-and-drop" WYSIWYG Divi Builder plug-in, which allows you to edit right on the page.  The only problems I encountered with Divi were some formatting issues, but these were easily solved partly by reading the manual or contacting support.  As for WooCommerce, the plug-in is in place, configured and lightly tested.  The best way to test it is for someone to buy a painting.  (You can be the first!)

This is all well and good, but there is a lot happening in the background of my website that I need to share with you.  There are a number of plug-ins I find very useful.  Here they are, and why I use them.

Crucial Plug-ins

  • iThemes Security.  With over 25% of all websites being designed with WordPress, they are large targets for hackers.  There's nothing worse than having your site shut down because your hosting service has discovered malware in your code.  (This actually happened to me in my WordPress blog a couple of years ago.)  This plug-in does it all, from detecting invalid login attempts to checking for malware.  The free version is good, but the paid version has more features.  (As is the case with most reputable plug-ins.)
  • UpdraftPlus.  Never make changes to your site without having a backup—or several.  One small mistake on your part can make your whole site inoperable.  You might even have to install WordPress from scratch and start over!  (Yes, this happened to me, too.)  A good backup can save you an enormous amount of pain.  I configured UpdraftPlus to maintain five backup sets.  Again, the free version is good, but the paid version can do more.
  • W3 Total Cache.  This is important, especially if you are using shared hosting.  Google and other search engines will give you demerits for a slow site.  This plug-in will improve your site's speed.  Again, there are both free and paid versions.
  • Yoast SEO.  This plug-in helps optimize your pages for search engines.  (SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization.)  Keywords, sitemaps, readability—it helps with all of this.  You want people to find your site, don't you?  Free and paid versions.

Good-to-Have Plug-ins

  • Broken Link Checker.  Google will lower your rating if you have lots of broken links.
  • Enhanced Media Library PRO.  This allows bulk editing of image properties and allows custom categories.
  • EWWW Image Optimizer.  Optimizing your images will help with site performance.
  • Monarch Plug-in.  Social media plug-in for social share/social follow buttons.
  • Regenerate Thumbnails.  If you change your thumbnail size in your settings, you will need to regenerate the thumbnails.
  • WP Maintenance Mode.  If you're doing serious work on your site, putting up a custom page announcing "Down for Maintenance" will keep users from getting frustrated and search engines from getting "Page Not Found" errors.

As I mentioned, there are thousand of plug-ins.  But beware!  Plug-ins can be badly-written or have malicious code embedded.  Make sure you get your plug-ins from reputable sources.  The ones used above either came from the maker, such as Elegant Themes or WooCommerce; or were recommended by them.  I'd steer away from anything called "Bob's Pretty Good Darned Amazing Plug-in."

I'm sure some of you WordPress wizards will have other plug-ins to recommend or have your own favorites.  I'd love to hear from you in the comments if you do.

So, for now, this is where I am.  I spent two weeks (part-time) learning WordPress basics and designing my site.  Even as I write, I'm still making tweaks here and there.  But for the most part, the site is where I want it to be.

By the way, I'll be running my old site in parallel with the new one for some time.  I'd like to see how Google and other search engines treat them.

The new site is:  Take it for a spin and let me know what you think!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Building a New Website, Part 2: Do It Yourself—Or Let the Experts Do It?

Leaping 6x8 oil
Another small painting available on my new website!

As I delved into researching the best way to handle an artist's website, I ran into the services that specialized in such.  I won't mention any names—they are readily found through an Internet search—but they did seem attractive.  For a monthly fee (cheaper if paid annually), it seemed you got it all: SEO, SSL, your own domain name, mailing list management, newsletter capability, design customization and so on.  What's not to love?

Yet I needed not just one domain name but several, since I own different domain names for different purposes.  When I looked at pricing, hosting all of these would have cost me much more than I was paying with my old website host.  Also, for the number of names I have in my mailing list—almost 2000 and growing—it would, again, have cost me more.  As for design, many of the template-built sites had a rather generic look to them.  Sure, they would gladly customize my site, but I didn't want to pay what they were asking.  Finally, if the host ever went out of business (and most do over time) or if I became unhappy with the service, I'd have to spend a great deal of money and effort to build the site from scratch elsewhere.  Because these "we do it all" hosts use proprietary means for building your site, there is rarely any convenient and inexpensive way to migrate from one host to another.

That was a lot of negatives.  Short of hiring a web designer to build something that met all my needs—an even more expensive option—there was only one other way.  I had to do it myself.

But this time I'd do it better.

Once I chose this path, I made two important decisions.  First, I wasn't going to use my old version of Dreamweaver, which is based on pre-21st Century code and concepts.  Updating a page was hard.  But worse and more important for an artist, managing images was a nightmare.  (Apparently, the idea of the media library hadn't been invented yet.)  Second, because a new version of Dreamweaver was prohibitively expensive for me, I decided to use WordPress as my platform.  I already had website hosting ( and it offered WordPress for free.

WordPress is usually thought of as blogging software.  In fact, that's how it got started in 2005.  But since then, it's evolved into a powerful way of building a website.  Initially, I was resistant to the idea of using it.  A few years ago, I was given the task of fixing a WordPress site that had been abandoned by its back-alley developer, and the group who owned it was desperate.  I spent a lot of time scratching my head, puzzling it out, but because the developer had customized the templates heavily, the job proved impossible.  From this experience, I thought every WordPress installation would be as difficult.

But the more I looked into WordPress, the more I discovered you didn't have to do any coding.  There were oodles of plug-ins available for just about everything you could possibly want to do.  Basically, WordPress uses templates to give your website a certain look-and-feel.  There are thousands of them.  In addition to this, there are plug-ins—again, thousands—that can modify the way your site looks and operates and also perform important functions such as SEO tuning, e-commerce and backups.

Several things sold me on the idea:

  • I'd have ownership of my WordPress installation, allowing me to migrate it to whatever host I wanted to, should the need arise.
  • Templates, so long as you didn't get into customization and hand-coding, are a snap to use.
  • WordPress has a basic media library, but I could get a plug-in to enhance it.
  • Finally, as I mentioned, WordPress is free and so are many of the plug-ins.

In my next post, I'll go into more detail of the options I chose, problems I ran into and the solutions I found.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Building a New Website, Part 1: Sometimes It's Just Easier to Start Over

Passing Storm 8x16 oil/panel
Available on my new website!

We've all had the feeling.  A house with pipes that drip like a hundred perennial springs; a roof as full of holes as a moth-eaten rug; a foundation so ruinous you could sell chunks of it on the antiquities market.  And all that clutter!  Why fix anything?  You'd be better off burning it to the ground and starting over.

If you've ever built your own website, you may have felt this way after awhile.  I started my website about twenty years ago, back when the Internet was still wearing short pants.  At the time, working as an IT professional, I knew more about IP addressing and coax cable than I did about HTML and web design.  But I was aiming to become a professional artist, so I knew I needed a website.  I was like a guy eager to build his own house but who had zero construction experience.

I learned a great deal over the years, for sure.   I made my errors and applied temporary fixes —which, due to my desire to keep moving, ultimately became permanent ones—and I even rebuilt parts here and there.  Despite all that, I do think the old website, as it stands today, looks good and does the job. (You can see it at

However, a couple of years ago, I began to realize technology had moved on, and the site needed some serious renovation.  Since more and more visitors were viewing it on tablets and smartphones, it needed to be "mobile-friendly."  Since the indexing technology of Google was always changing, it needed to keep up with SEO or Search Engine Optimization.  Since I'd left a lot of hidden clutter behind as I rebuilt sections, it needed much housecleaning.  (As much as I tried to keep clutter tucked behind closet doors, Google kept finding it.)  Finally, since I update the site almost daily, it needed to have an easier way for me to edit pages and to manage images of paintings.

Fixing the old site would have required too many bulldozers, too many plumbers, too many carpenters.  I decided to start all over from scratch.

In my next post, I'll tell you how I started.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

“Secret Sycamore” Juried into American Impressionist Society National Small Works Exhibition

Secret Sycamore
12x9 oil
by Michael Chesley Johnson

I’ve just received word that my painting, “Secret Sycamore” has been juried into the American Impressionist Society Small Works Showcase National Juried Exhibition.   This is a "small works" show, so all the paintings will be 12x16 and under.  As many of you know, this is right up my alley!

Here are details:

AIS Impressions: Small Works Showcase
National Juried Exhibition
March 11-25, 2017
Opening Reception Saturday, March 11th 6 to 9pm
Randy Higbee Gallery, Costa Mesa CA
Judge of Awards: Peggi Kroll-Roberts AISM

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Relative Sizes of Images on Your Website

As I go through the process of designing my new website, I ask a couple of colleagues whose opinion I value for input.  One concern that came up recently has to do with relative image size.  One draft of my new site had painting images "hard-cropped" to a square format.  Such a grid has a clean, contemporary look to it, and I've seen many artist websites displaying their art this way.  However, because the crop is automatic and you have no control over what you crop out, it can dramatically change the painting's design.  What's more, the uniform squares give you no indication of a painting's true proportions.  My colleagues emphatically did not like this approach.  (Of course, you can always click on the thumbnail and get the large, uncropped version.) Here's how it looked:

My second option was a "soft crop," in which the longest dimension of the image is retained.  This way, both a painting's design and proportions are preserved.  Because this gives you a much better idea of how any individual painting looks, I've chosen to use this approach.  Here's how it looks:

But there's still a problem, a rather major one in my opinion, and I haven't seen it discussed in any of the literature.  Because you are reducing an image to fit a pre-defined box that is applied to all images, a painting that is 12" wide will look just as wide as one 24" wide.  This is not a problem if you are making square paintings, but it is a problem if you are trying to view 12x24 paintings next to 9x12s—as you can see in the above image.

Ideally, each image should be sized so it follows the same scale as its neighbor.  A 12x24 should look like it covers more real estate than a 9x12.  In the example below, I've chosen a rule of 12" = 400 pixels.   The 12x24 is 400x800 pixels; the 9x12 is 300x400 pixels.  They look just like they might on your wall (except for the orientation of the second painting.)  Here's an illustration:

Other than hand-tweaking every single image, I know of no way of doing this automatically.  In every image editor I've seen, you can either scale all images as a percentage or to fit a box of pre-defined dimensions (e.g. 400 pixels x 800 pixels.)  What's more, the web design software also has to be able to handle this solution and not impose its own. If anyone has a solution, I'd love to hear it!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Demonstration for Arizona Pastel Artists Association

Photos by Judy Quimby

This past Sunday, I spent an afternoon in Phoenix demonstrating for the Arizona Pastel Artists Association at its monthly meeting.  What a welcoming and eager group!  About 40 members attended, and I got many questions about my materials, process and workshops.  For the demonstration, I was asked to show how I handle Sedona's famous "red rocks" – the best time of day to paint them, tips on plane changes and lighting, and what to do when a drawing goes bad.  I enjoyed sharing my knowledge with them and also meeting all the members.  I look forward to teaching a workshop for them in the future.  (And in the meantime, if you're a member reading this, don't forget I teach in Sedona now until mid-April!)

I want to take this opportunity to plug the Arizona Pastel Artists Association's very first national open exhibition.  Jurors of selection are Lorenzo Chavez and Terri Ford, with the Judge of Awards being Kim Lordier.  This is a top-notch jury, and it'll be exciting to see what they select for the show.  Plus, there are $5000 in awards!  Here are the details plus a link to the prospectus:

Arizona Pastel Artists Association 1st National Show
In Sedona, AZ 
April 13 through 25, 2017
Deadline is March 7, 2017
Jurists: Lorenzo Chavez and Terri Ford
Judge of Awards is Kim Lordier 
$5000 in Awards
Prospectus and Event Registration is on line at

I hope you all apply and help make the APAA's first national open a great success!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Welcome to the New Year! And Some Upcoming Events.

Happy New Year!  May you all live long and prosper!

I'd like your input on my latest project.  I'm in the process of redesigning my website.  I'd love for you to take a look.  The site has a built-in shopping cart and it also is "responsive" -- that is, it adjusts automatically so it will look good on your desktop computer, tablet or smartphone.  (Although why anyone would want to look at art on a phone is beyond me.)  To visit the site, click here.  Let me know what you think!  Please keep in mind it's a work-in-progress, but you'll be able to poke around and get a good idea of where it's going.

There are two events coming next weekend I want to make you aware of.  First, as part of Goldenstein Gallery's Artist-in-Residence program, I'll be painting at the L'Auberge de Sedona resort Saturday, January 7th, from 11-1 or so.  Weather permitting, I'll be down by the creek, right off the deck of the Cress on Oak Creek restaurant.  The food and the view are without peer, so I hope you'll join me.

Second, I'll be giving a demonstration for the Arizona Pastel Artists Association on Sunday, January 8th, from 1-3.  I'll demonstrate my method for painting the red rocks of Sedona in pastel.  What's more, I'll give tips on the best time of day to paint, what to look for with lighting and plane changes, and how to resurrect a drawing gone bad.  Guests are welcome!  Follow the link above for full details.

While we're talking about the APAA, I would like to mention that they are now taking submissions for their very first national open exhibition.  Noted pastel artists Lorenzo Chavez and Terri Ford will be the jurors of entry; judge of awards will be Kim Lordier.   The exhibition will run April 13-25, 2017, and will be held at the Sedona Arts Center in Sedona.  Follow this link for the prospectus.