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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Slowing Down Time: A Painter's Perspective

Wild Apples
16x20 oil/canvas, en plein air
Available - Contact Michael

As I grow older, I notice something alarming.  An hour doesn't seem like an hour any more, and a year, not like a year.  Instead, they seem far shorter than they should be.  And the older I get, the shorter they become.  I mentioned this to my 86-year-old mother, and she said, "Just you wait—it gets worse."  No one warned me about this when I was growing up.

Now I envision a future in which a year will seem like a month, a week or, Heaven forbid, a day.  It's like Einstein's description of time dilation; as I approach the speed of light, entire solar systems are born and then die of old age, all during my short lifetime.

I want to slow down time.  I want to slow it down so that a summer seems as long as it did when I was eight years old.  How does one do that?

I think you slow down time by taking time to do the things that are important to you.  For me, it's taking time to enjoy a walk along the ocean with my wife.  It's taking time to paint the apple trees before the blossoms are stripped away by the wind.  It's taking time to relish the moment so I can cherish the memory.

In plein air painting lingo, when you reach my age, Life should no longer be a "quick draw" event.

I'm now taking more time with the painting process outdoors.  I no longer rush through a painting.  If it doesn't get finished in the time I have, so be it.  Instead, I'd rather consider each stroke, and while I'm considering, listen to the bees busying with the apple blossoms.  By the way, did you know that apple blossoms smell faintly of roses?  I discovered that while painting the above piece this week.

I'm still puzzled by this time phenomenon.  I think it has to do with percentages.  When I was six, a single summer—one quarter of a year—represented 1/24th of the amount of time I'd lived at that point.  The summer that is now at my doorstep, however, will represent a much tinier sliver of my life, just 1/240th.  So, summers may seem a tenth as long as they did back then.

By the way, if you don't know about Einstein's time dilation effect, here is a short video that explains it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Doug Dawson Plein Air Workshop in Sedona October 2017

I feel like I toot my own horn sometimes a little too much here.  So, I'll take this opportunity to talk about an upcoming workshop that isn't mine.  I'm proud to announce that Master Artist Doug Dawson will be teaching a plein air painting workshop October 30-November 3, 2017, in Sedona, Arizona.  As the sponsor of this event, I want to get the word out now, because Doug is a popular teacher, and the workshop will fill quickly.  If you're interested, don't delay!

The workshop will be based at the same studio I've used for my PaintSedona workshops, which also offers lodging ($60/night) and is close to many of our painting spots.  The cost of the workshop is $625 (not including lodging).  To register, contact Doug Dawson directly at 303-421-4584 or  For lodging, contact me, and I'll put you in touch with the studio.

I've known Doug for many years, and I've sponsored several workshops with him.  Doug, who was given the title of Master Pastelist by the Pastel Society of America in 1985 and inducted into the Masters' Circle by the International Association of Pastel Societies in 2005, shares so much during a workshop.  Everyone gets a great deal out of the week, and he often has repeat students coming back for more.

You can find out more about Doug at his website, which is  I've included a couple of videos here.  The first (at the top) is an interview with Doug.  The second (below) is a video I put together to advertise a workshop with him in Maine and New Brunswick.  Although it's not Sedona, it'll still give you an idea of the workshop week.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

My Inventory System for Paintings

Lifting Fog at Dawn
11x14 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

A reader asks, "How is it that you track and label all of your works?"  This is a great question, because keeping accurate inventory records is crucial for a professional artist.  What's the exhibition history of a piece?   What gallery was it in?  Who bought that painting? What did it sell for?  If I need to reshoot an image for publication, do I know its current location?  Having this information at your fingertips can make your job a lot easier.

Screenshot of my inventory system record form

I've been using the same inventory system for over 15 years.  I crafted what one might call an "artisanal" database—read "homemade, with many tweaks"—in Microsoft Access.  When Access became too expensive, I migrated my database over to Open Office, which is free.  Although not every painting, sketch or scrawl gets inventoried, anything I think worth keeping or selling does.  If I destroy a piece, I make sure I note that in the database, too.   That will save me time hunting for a painting that no longer exists.

Back of the above painting showing my labeling

Also important is the labeling of the artwork.  On the back of each painting, I make sure to write:

  • Inventory number
  • Date created (this can be as vague as a month and year)
  • "EPA", if the work was created en plein air
  • My signature
  • My name, printed
  • The month and year the piece was varnished plus the brand and type of varnish (this will help conservators down the road who may need to clean the work)

and sometimes, if I am experimenting with grounds or surfaces, I will write down what products I used such as Gamblin PVA size and Golden acrylic gesso.

Screenshot of my Picasa interface

As for images, I make sure to get a high-resolution (300 dpi, and at least 8x10 inches) TIFF file.  The filename contains the title of the piece plus the inventory number.  This gets indexed on my computer by Google's Picasa (a wonderful program, but alas no longer supported by Google.)  Naming the file this way makes it easy to find if I need to create an inventory sheet for a gallery or exhibition.

I know there are other systems, some professionally created—"by artists, for artists"—but the record-keeping doesn't need to be complicated or have lot of bells and whistles.  Simple is best!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

On the Road: New York Plein Air Painting Workshop

Painting along the Wallkill River

Some time ago, when I was looking for new places to teach workshops, I came across the Wallkill River School in Montgomery, New York.  What I liked about it was their mission:

Wallkill River School has been called Orange County’s first homegrown arts movement; mainly because we are the first arts organization with an agricultural component. We identified early on that our fate is intimately tied to our local farms, historic sites, and open spaces. Like our forebears; the Hudson River School, we seek to use our art as a way to raise awareness of and to benefit these important regional treasures. Arts generate tourism, and Wallkill River School generates agricultural tourism, heritage tourism, and brings in new arts audiences. 

This very much parallels my idea that landscape painters are stewards of the land.  So I was very excited when Shawn Dell Joyce, founder and executive director, invited me to teach a two-day workshop there.

My pastel of the Benedict Farm, 9x12

Though cool, the weather couldn't have been any better.  We painted one day at the Benedict Farm Park along the banks of the Wallkill River; the second day, at the Hill-Hold Museum, with its beautiful buildings and landscape.   Each morning, though, we started out at the School's wonderful Patchett House gallery and office, with art talk and critiques.  Shawn provided beverages and snacks each day as well as a bountiful lunch.

(Above photos by Shawn)

 I so much enjoyed the workshop here that I have scheduled another one for this fall, September 26 & 27, 2017.  Speaking of workshops, I want to remind you of my upcoming five-day plein air painting workshop in Rockland, Maine, for Coastal Maine Art Workshops.  Rockland has a beautiful waterfront, offering much for the painter.  If that doesn't work for you, please keep in mind my four-day workshops in Lubec, Maine.  If you bring your passport, I'll be happy to show you my studio on Campobello Island, right across the bridge!

Friday, May 12, 2017

On the Road: Ohio Plein Air Painting Workshop

"Out the Window" oil demonstration
(Photo by Nancy Vance)

It's hard for me to believe, but it's been almost a month since we hit the road on our annual spring trip east.  Right now, we're in Vermont.  After weeks of cloudy, cool weather in the Champlain Valley, the sun returned yesterday.  People now have a chance to smell the lilacs, mow their lawns and gather rhubarb for pies.

This past week, I taught two workshops, one in Columbus, Ohio, and the other in Montgomery, New York.  In this post, I'll write a little about the Ohio workshop.

Springtime is tick time in much of the country.
Here I model my tick gear while showing thumbnail sketches to the group.
I'm wearing pyrethrin pants tucked into my socks,
with Naturpel (picaridin) sprayed on everything below the knees.
(Photo by Nancy Vance)

My friend, Nancy Vance, has joined me in many workshops and painting retreats, both in the US and abroad.  Recently, she offered to sponsor a workshop with her group, Central Ohio Plein Air.  Since Nancy is a wonderful organizer and Columbus was on our route east, I agreed right away.

Spring weather in Ohio can run the gamut from heat waves and tornadoes to rain and even snow.  For our workshop, we had something right in the middle:  pleasantly cool weather.  Drizzle the first day kept us indoors.  However, we were based at the Stratford Ecological Center which, besides being a working farm with barns, cows, pigs, sheep, llamas and bees, offers a large workshop space, so we were comfortable.  I painted two demonstrations for the thirteen painters.  First was a pastel from a photo, followed later in the day by a "looking out the window" oil demo.  The next day, the sun appeared, and we enjoyed painting the landscape from life.  I painted two more demonstrations for everyone, one showing how to start a painting with a monochromatic underpainting and the second showing how to achieve depth in your painting easily.

(All photos above by Nancy)

Nancy wrote a really nice blog post on the workshop:  Thank you to Nancy, and to everyone who came out for the workshop!  I enjoyed the workshop so much we have scheduled a return for October 2018,

Next, I'll write about my workshop in Montgomery, New York, for the Wallkill River School of Art.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

July Plein Air Workshop in Rockland, Maine

Rockland, Maine, is one of my favorite places to visit in Midcoast Maine.  Why?  It's filled with historic buildings and a lighthouse, offers a beautiful waterfront, and it's close to many great plein air painting spots.  What's more, it's home to the Farnsworth Art Museum and its fantastic collection of original works by members of the Wyeth family (N.C., Andrew and Jamie) as well as other well-known American painters.  I always make sure to visit the Farnsworth when I'm in town.

So here's some news.  Usually, I stay put in my little corner of Downeast Maine to teach workshops in the summer.  But July 17-21, 2017, I will be heading to Rockland to teach a workshop for Coastal Maine Workshops.

Unlike my Downeast workshops which run four half-days, the Rockland workshop will be five full days.  This will be an intense painting experience for all concerned!  We'll have plenty of time to cover not just the fundamentals but also to delve into the deeper secrets of outdoor painting.  Each day will start with a studio lecture followed by a demonstration in the field, followed by student work and, time permitting, a second demonstration or illustration.  We'll also enjoy daily critiques and great seafood!

The details:

  • Workshop runs July 17-21, 2017
  • Tuition is $650
  • Suitable for all levels
  • I'll be demonstrating in oil and pastel, but I also welcome acrylic painters
  • Lodging suggestions are on the registration website.

For more details and to sign up, please visit

I hope you'll join me in Rockland.  To whet your appetite, here are some historic postcards of Rockland: