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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - Final Report

Big Bend I 9x6 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Some readers have been curious about what colors I used for my painting retreat at Zion National Park this week.  Well, in addition to my usual split-primary palette, I added a few "convenience" colors; these are colors that I could, if I wanted to, mix with my split-primary palette, but which I decided to include to save time.  The colors are raw umber, transparent earth red and yellow ochre, all Gamblin colors.

Raw umber greys down ultramarine blue nicely.  Transparent earth red (TER) is a great base color for the shadowed parts of Zion's cliffs.  Yellow ochre, for the warmer, sunlit areas.

I started each painting by first blocking in the rock shadow masses with transparent earth red.  Although this is a very rich, warm red, it is easily greyed down as needed with yellow ochre, raw umber and ultramarine blue (plus white.)  Some of this rich underpainting always remains, adding a little spice to the landscape.  Sunny rock areas I block in with yellow ochre.  Together, these colors give good value and temperature contrast.  Later, I use many other colors to modulate them to get the correct local color and atmospheric effect.

Our week ended with a painting session at Big Bend, near the end of the shuttle line and below stupendous, vertical cliffs that are favored by rock climbers.  I've always loved Big Bend, especially in the morning, since the rising sun lights the cottonwoods along the banks of the Virgin River from behind, giving them a beautiful halo.  I've painted here several times before, once for the Zion Plein Air Festival in the fall, when the cottonwoods were decked out in their autumn beauty.  This time, I made two small color studies, which I hope to turn into larger studio paintings later.

Big Bend II 6x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
To paint the two studies, I simply divided my panel in half with a
piece of masking tape.  Later, I'll use a utility knife to cut them apart.

It's always sad, parting at the end of these retreats, but there'll be another one at Zion in a few years.  Now, Trina and I are on our way to the east, but first – a stop at Capitol Reef National Park.

Backlit springtime cottonwood

Goodbye to the Virgin River!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - Another Midterm Report

The Watchman 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Two things you can't get from a photograph are depth and color.  To get a real sense of the depth of the landscape, you need to be looking at it with two eyes.  Stepping back and forth in front of your subject enhances the effect, allowing you see clearly what's in front of what, and how shapes are modelled.  As for color, cameras have improved greatly since George Eastman's day, but nothing yet beats the sensitivity of the eye.  Working from life, en plein air, in the field, outdoors, is the only way to truly capture the moment.

Here in Zion National Park, there's plenty of opportunity to experience depth and color.  When you're in the canyon, along the river, you are right up against the rocks.  When you're higher up, like at Kolob Canyons, you have more of a vista.  In both cases, depth and color play key parts in the experience.

I find color especially fascinating here.  From the blood-red stains on the West Temple to the ivory white of the Great White Throne to the subtle blues and purples in the canyon shadows, the Park offers a wealth of color.  When I go out to paint, the first question I ask myself is:  Should I paint the color literally?  Or should I "push" the color to enhance the sense of the moment?

I don't have an answer for this.  Sometimes I'm accurate with the color, and the paintings fill with the beautiful muted tones of the realistic landscape.  At other times, it seems right to saturate the color a little more.

Since Kolob Canyons on Tuesday, we've painted at Court of the Patriarchs, Canyon Junction along the Virgin River and the Nature Center, as well as at a little pull-off I found up near the tunnel that has a view of West Temple.  It's been a surprisingly tempestuous week with the weather.  I'm used to the usual breeze that comes down the canyon without fail each dawn, but afternoons have suffered clouds and high winds.  Still, we've found spots hidden from the wind, making for a very successful week thus far.  It's hard to believe we have only a couple of days left!

Shadow of a Patriarch 12x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

The Sentinel 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Penstemons!  It pays to look at more than just the vistas in the landscape.

View of West Temple

Kayakers passing by our painting spot at Canyon Junction

A quiet respite along the river

Location shot for my painting of The Sentinel

Home-cooked gourmet meals!  Courtesy of our participants.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - First Midterm Report

Court of the Patriarchs

The best thing about Zion National Park—and also its most challenging—is its bountiful offering of both beautiful vistas and more intimate scenes.  Every turn in the road gives you endless possibilities.  The question I always ask myself is, Should I paint a postcard?  Or something perhaps   more "artful" and less cliché?

When the artist travels to a famous place that is new to him, it's tempting to paint something that resembles the postcards he sees in the tourist shops.  Postcards do a good job of capturing the awesomeness of a vista or the character of a landmark.  The idea behind a postcard, of course, is to give the folks at home a glimpse that may entice them to visit, or, for the visitor, to provide a memory of the place visited.  Here at Zion, you'll find postcards of Angel's Landing, a soaring rock tower, with the Virgin River lazily snaking far below it.  You won't, however, find postcards depicting close-ups of a sandstone boulder basking in the sun at the water's edge.

Angel's Landing

For me, it's always a struggle deciding what to paint when I visit a famous place packed with beauty.  Angel's Landing occupies postcards for a reason—it is indeed beautiful and awe-inspiring.  And there's a spot where you can stand and paint that iconic scene.  But the painting will most likely turn out as trite as the postcard.  What if I choose a different location?  A different time of day?  Decide to do more of a close-up of the base, omitting the tower's top?  Use an "edgier," more contemporary style?  If I think "outside the postcard," maybe I can come up with something more interesting but still convey a sense of place.

It's always good to have a plan when you go outdoors to paint.  (I talk about this at length in my plein air painting workshops.)  For painting in famous places, here are some possible goals:

  • Paint the postcard view (easy but not very satisfying creatively)
  • Paint the iconic landmark from a vantage point that is purposely different from how it is usually depicted
  • Forget the icons, and go for conveying a sense of place by focusing on typical subject matter
  • Or go for conveying a sense of place by focusing on color and light rather than subject
  • Or treat the scene is an edgier, more contemporary way

Another question I ask myself is:  Is it more satisfying to paint a study or a "picture"?  Creating a "picture" (a finished painting ready for the frame) is much more demanding because it requires all of your skills to be in top form.  Creating a study can be more relaxing because you may exercise only a few skills.

Over the last couple of days, we've been blessed with good weather, though the mornings have started off hazy.  Our first day, we went all the way up the canyon on the shuttle buses to the Temple of Sinawava; the second day, to the Kolob Canyons area, at the western end of the park; our third day, at the Court of the Patriarchs, one of my favorite spots to paint.  In some of my paintings here, you'll see the overcast start to the day and the lack of strong light; in others, you'll see stronger contrasts, indicative of more sun.  I don't think I've painted any postcards yet, but the week is still early.

Three painters, seen from Taylor Creek trail at Kolob Canyons

Painting at Kolob Canyons

Painting at the Temple of Sinawava
Yes, the vegetation was that lush and green!

Kolob Canyons - Painting Shuntavi Butte on a hazy-light day

Painting at Court of the Patriarchs, sunny but clouds moving in

Into the Narrows 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
A 45-minute sketch after the haze cleared at Temple of Sinwava
I'll probably go out later this week to refine it or save it for a studio reference.

Overcast, Kolob Canyons 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
A postcard view?  No, the postcard would have full sun!

Hazy Light, Shuntavi Butte, 12x9 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Again, not a postcard, thanks to the hazy light.

View to the South, 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Another hazy day painting.

West Temple, Late Afternoon, 6x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
An unusual angle of West Temple, with close cropping, so it doesn't qualify as a postcard, either.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - Day 0

Dawn in Zion Canyon - Angel's Landing

Trina and I are now on our way back to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, for our summer season.  But first, we have a few stops along the way.  Right now, we are in Springdale, Utah, for a painting retreat.

It's been three years since our last retreat in Springdale, the "gateway" to Zion National Park.  Zion is one of my favorite places to paint.  Every bend in the road offers enough material for a full day of painting.  And, thanks to the combined efforts of the Park's shuttles and Springdale's, it's one of the most accessible parks.  This year, we've rented the same house we always rent, which is just a short walk to a shuttle stop.  With only a backpack and a Park pass, we can get to all the best spots.

In previous years, we've had as many as ten on this retreat; this year, for a number of reasons, we have only five, including Trina and me.  It'll be a small group, but that only means more intimate gatherings and the possibility of reaching more out-of-the-way spots.

The retreats are intense.  Everyone stays under the same roof, which helps with communications and builds a certain camaraderie.  We have early breakfasts, followed by a show-and-tell of the previous day's work.  Right after making bag lunches, we hit the Park.  Quite often, we take a break after lunch at a scenic spot, but the concept of bag lunches gives us the flexibility to travel to another location for afternoon painting if we wish.  Sometimes, we head back to the house for lunch and a rest.  Afternoons, some folks paint, others sightsee.  Evening meals are communal or "dining out," followed by art talk and planning for the next day's outing.  By the end of the week, the body is tired but the spirit is refreshed, and everyone goes home with a clutch of paintings to remind them of their time here.

I doubt I'll post every day, but I do hope to share a few moments, photos and paintings with everyone this week.  Stay tuned!

Friday, April 14, 2017

April Newsletter from Michael

Plein air painting season is here!  If you are new to plein air painting
or just need a refresher, check out

April 2017
Sedona, Arizona

Spring has hit northern Arizona with a vengeance. Wildflowers on the hilltop behind our house have popped out—desert marigold, purple filaree, blackfoot daisy, Indian paintbrush, feather dalea—and the cactuses can't be far behind. Nor can summer! High temperatures here have been pushing the mid-80s.

What else does spring bring? Our annual trip east, of course. Next week, we will be on our way, with stops for retreats and workshop in Utah, Ohio and New York. We'll arrive on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, in the middle of May, where I'll begin working on some very exciting projects, the nature of which will be revealed this summer.


Rockland, Maine, July 17-21. This workshop needs special mention. Unlike my usual summer fare, which consists of a schedule of four half-day workshops in Lubec, this one will be an intense five full days. You can expect a wealth of useful information and get lots of painting done besides. Rockland is home to a historic waterfront and village, so plan on boats, interesting architecture and more. (While you're there, you'll want to check out the Farnsworth Museum, which boasts a stunning art collection with three generations of Wyeths.) Downeast Magazine recently rated Rockland as the best place to live in Maine. (Read the article here.) Price: $650. Details and registration: Coastal Maine Art Workshops, 207-594-4813,

Montgomery, New York, May 9-10. Sponsored by the Wallkill River School of Art, this two-day workshop will take us to some of the local farms and historic sites. I like the school's mission statement: "The Wallkill River School is a non-profit artists’ cooperative that runs an art school and fine art gallery as well as a plein air art workshop series on local farms and open spaces. Our mission is to preserve open space through art and art activism." As a "steward of the land," I am very much in tune with this philosophy. Price: $240 Details and registration: (845) 457-ARTS,,

Lubec, Maine, July-August. Sign-ups have already started for my Downeast Maine workshops in the historic working waterfront village of Lubec. I'm expecting a full and busy season, so don't delay in registering! And remember, we offer a package that includes lodging at Artists Retreat Studios & Gallery, where the workshop meets each morning, for only $800. We still have lodging available in the much-coveted first two weeks of August. Full details can be found at

Scotland and Italy in 2018. Don't forget my two 2018 painting retreats in Scotland and Italy. We'll be in Scotland, June 3-13, 2018, visiting the Isle of Skye. We are at this moment fine-tuning details. Then, we'll be in Italy, June 16-23, 2018, near Florence with excursions to Siena, La Meridiana, San Gimignano and Barberino. I have full details now on the Italy trip and can send those right away.

A complete list of upcoming workshops is available at my website,

New Paintings

Starting July 29th, I'll be part of Acadia Invitational III, a year-long exhibit hosted by Argosy Gallery in Bar Harbor, Maine. For this exhibit, I was asked to paint three pieces featuring the landscapes of Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park. A total of thirty nationally-recognized artists will be participating in this exhibit and sale, which will run from July 29th, 2017, through October 2018. Other artists include T.M. Nicholas, Kathleen Dunphy, John Cogan and Joe Anna Arnett. I am delighted to be invited to display my work at this prestigious gallery and in such good company.

By the way, I am posting new work at my new web site, which is Please check back frequently for updates.

That's all! Please make sure you sign up for my blog and visit my new website. My next letter will be from Campobello Island!

Michael & Trina

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Goodbye to our Dearest Friend

Saba 2000-2017
(Saba at Age 6)

On Monday, on the first full moon of spring and the first day of Passover, we said goodbye to Saba.  She'd been part of our family for nearly seventeen years.  Since we have no children, you can imagine what she means to us.

Saba in Burke, Vermont, age 2

Saba joined us in New Mexico in late winter of 2001, rescued from hunting scraps at a trading post on the Navajo Reservation.  Our vet thought she was about six months old, which would put her birth year in 2000.  From there, she traveled with us to new homes in Vermont, again in New Mexico, then Campobello Island and finally Arizona.  Her favorite places had snow and cool weather and grassy trails.  She did the cross-country trip from the East to the Southwest and back again with us every time we made the trip, which was almost every year.  She also met my students in all my plein air painting workshops, making many, many friends along the way.

Saba, Age 11

This morning, we took a memorial walk.  Spring flowers are plentiful this year on the mesa behind our house:  desert marigold, feather dalea, globe mallow, purple filaree, blackfoot daisy and Indian paintbrush.  Down by the creek, a pair of ducks had staked out their territory.  Surprisingly, they didn't seem to mind and even approached us.  The night before, we'd taken a walk, and they were there then, too, sleeping on a rock in their part of the creek, waking only to look at us.  This may sound strange and New Agey, but we suspect they may have a message for us.

Now we are in a land between numbness and grief.  We will journey out of this place some day, but we will always remember Saba.  We gave her the best life a dog could possibly have, and she gave us much love in return.

Saba at Age 16, Almost 17
April 9, 2017

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Dynamic Duo Plein Air Painting Workshop - Update

This past week, I taught a six-day workshop jointly with another artist.  Together, we led ten students through the pitfalls and pleasures of plein air painting.  When we first started batting around the idea, I wondered how well "tag team teaching" would work.  We have different styles and different approaches; would we end up just confusing the students rather than helping them?

The other instructor demonstrated in pastel, and I in oil, for a total of  ten demonstrations.  Our students painted in pastel, oil, acrylic and watercolor. When it came time to help students at their easels, sometimes we went separately, and sometimes we went together.  When I traveled solo to offer help, a student or two would say that the other teacher had given different advice.  I'm sure he heard the same about me.  Overall, though, students seemed to think that together we dispensed consistent words of wisdom, and they enjoyed having twice as much attention as they would get with just one instructor.

I may do this again, as it was a positive experience for the students.  If you're an experienced plein air instructor and might be interested in joining me in a "tag team" workshop, please let me know!

Here are some photos from the week:

"Wildland Passage" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

"Splendor Mountain" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

"Light on the Mountain" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson