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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Product Review: Gamvar Matte Varnish

Oil painting with regular (glossy) Gamvar Varnish.
Note the glare.  It's not too distracting, because this painting has mostly light or midtone values.

Oil painting with Gamvar Matte Varnish.
This is a dark painting, and if I'd used glossy varnish on it, it would have a very distracting glare.  The matte varnish is a perfect varnishing solution for dark paintings.

Varnishing an oil painting does two things.  First, it protects the painting from grime.  Remember that hamburger you fried up for lunch yesterday?  Some of the grease became airborne and most likely ended up on the painting.  Second, varnishing brings colors back to their original saturation and values.  Paint, especially the earth colors, lightens and dulls as it dries.  Without varnish, the painting looks as stale as yesterday's leftovers.

Most painters prefer a glossy varnish, which imparts a delicious glisten to the surface.  The painting seems fresh, "off-the-easel" wet.

But sometimes a matte varnish is a better choice.  This is the case with paintings that have large, dark passages.  Some portraits, still lifes and nearly all nocturnes, fall into this category.  If you apply a glossy varnish to these, you'll more than likely get a distracting glare under certain kinds of lighting.  Gamvar Matte Varnish is what I use in this case.

One applies Gamvar Matte Varnish the same way you do the regular Gamvar.  Just brush it on, without thinning.  The matte version is a little more viscous than the regular, but brushing it on thinly is still the rule.  It can be used when the thickest areas of the painting are dry to the touch; no need to wait six months to varnish, as is the case with most picture varnishes.

Gamvar also comes in satin finish, which has a gloss level somewhere between glossy and matte.  For more information on Gamblin varnishes, see

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Walk in the Woods: Texture Too Beautiful to Paint

Lately, I've been walking in the woods.  Does this sound strange for someone who lives on the "bold coast" of Maine?  This picturesque place, with its high cliffs towering over crashing waves and offering vistas of faraway islands and the occasional whale, is dear to tourists, who often travel long distances from uninspiring places.  But for me, my eye sometimes need a break from all the majesty.  A walk in the woods where the faraway is replaced by the nearby is just the thing.

For a painter, the beauty of the deep woods—so deep that a ray of sunlight is as rare as an off-season whale—can be puzzling.  How would one paint something like that?  In my experience, a successful painting hinges on two things:  contrast and simple, big shapes.  Neither of these are to be found in the deep woods.  Instead, its beauty relies on just the opposite:  subtle or no contrast, and complex, tiny shapes.   It's all about visual texture.

I've included some photos to show you the textures I saw on yesterday's walk.  Moss, lichen, tree bark, asters, toadstools and, if you step back a bit, the larger picture that seems just as complex and textural.  Even zoomed out, the subtle contrasts and complexity, now composed of trail and trunk, are still there, much as would be the case were you to zoom out on a fractal.

I don't know how to paint this overabundance of texture.  Not with my loose, somewhat Impressionistic brush work.  I would have to draw it instead, with pen and ink or pencil, and with more time that I'm willing to give.  So instead, a walk just to experience it, and perhaps a camera to capture a small bit of it, is enough for me.  My whole being hums and buzzes after a walk in the woods.  It's like a spiritual massage.

I'm also including an image of an oil painting by Asher Durand, the well-known Hudson River School painter.  In my mind, he was a master of painting this kind of texture.  The painting, titled (probably not by Durand) as "Oil Study of Wood Interior," is rather large for a study.  At 24x16 inches, it's more likely a studio painting based on smaller sketches and studies.  I love this piece because it so well describes some of the texture I see on my woodland walks.

"Study of a Wood Interior"  24x16 oil, canvas mounted on panel
Asher Durand, c. 1855
Collection:  Addison Gallery of Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Plein Air Painting Workshop Wrap-Up: All Levels in Downeast Maine

Quoddy Head Fog 9x12 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

This past week, I concluded my series of all-level plein air painting workshops here in Downeast Maine.  It's been a great summer with cool, dry weather and just enough fog and drizzle to spice things up now and then.  I thought I'd share the demonstrations from this week.  Each is available for sale; USD $100 + $20 shipping to the continental US or Canada.

Brining Shed 9x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Tide's Out 5x9 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Islands 6x8 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

I have one final workshop in Lubec, Maine, for intermediate to advanced painters only.  A spot just opened up, so if you're interested in joining the three other students (I teach small groups), please let me know.  We could use one more good painter.

After that, I have some trips coming up, plus our annual trip to the Southwest.  More on all that later!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Etiquette for Plein Air Painting Groups

How many painters can you find?

Overcrowding at National Parks?  Aren't some of them, well, vast?  Lately, there's been a lot of buzz about this topic.  Zion National Park recently made it into the headlines as considering the idea of requiring reservations for entry into the park.  (You can read an article on this here.)  The headlines had me wondering what part plein air painters, especially groups of them, play in this. As Boomers now catapult into retirement, many are picking up both paintbrush and backpack and heading into the field.  Eric Rhoads, editor of Plein Air Magazine, writes in a recent editorial:  "No one knows the numbers for sure...[but] I believe the movement could include a couple of hundred thousand people."

But it's not just National Parks.  It's any recreation area, whether it be lands administered by the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, state lands and city or town parks.  When I visit these areas, most times I'm either a hiker or a painter, and I'm usually alone or with just a few friends.  We always try to minimize our impact on the land and to be considerate of those around us or those who may follow us.  But sometimes I hear of large groups going out to paint.  I have to wonder if the organizer understands the impact such a group will almost certainly make.

With that in mind, I offer the following suggestions to organizers of plein air paint-outs, workshops and "flash" events:

1.  First, don't do it.  The best way to minimize impact is to not take out a large group in the first place.

2.  If you insist on organizing a large group, get permission.  Many recreation areas limit the number of participants in a hiking group to 10 or fewer, and this would apply to painters as well.  More than that, and you might need a permit.  To protect a sensitive natural or archaeological site, or to preserve a popular spot, permits are often limited to a certain number per year.  Getting a permit helps the recreation area manage resources.

3.  Make sure you have plenty of parking.  Some locations have small parking lots.  Filling up the lot (or standing in spaces to reserve spots for the group) is unfair to the visitors who are unlucky enough to come the day you decided to have your event.

4.  Make sure you have adequate toilet facilities.  If you plan to paint for three or four hours, you will almost certainly need them.  In remote areas of low visitation, it may be all right to go in the bushes, but in more popular spots, it's not only impolite but unsanitary.   Imagine a couple of hundred thousand painters over time using those same bushes.

5.  Stay off the trail.  But also, stay on the trail.  Does this sound contradictory?  Maybe, but you have to find a way to do both.  Don't block the trail to other recreationists.  And don't get so much off the trail that you trample the vegetation.  Out west, much of the vegetation is so slow-growing it can take decades for damage to disappear.

All this boils down to consideration—consideration for both the environment and your fellow humans.  Paint big—but act small.

(I've written other posts on etiquette for painters, which you can read here:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Plein Air Painting Products: PanelPak and PalettePak

Like most professional plein air painters, over the years I've gathered a variety of wet panel carriers for oil painting.  I like each of them for different reasons.  PanelPak is one I use most often these days because it fits in my backpack with all my painting gear.  Basically, the PanelPak is a sturdy frame that will hold two 1/8" panels, front to front with a gap between them, and the panels are secured in the frame by two big elastic bands.  This package is so rugged I just throw it into my backpack and don't worry about it.  And the elastic bands seem to last for years.  I've been very happy with the PanelPak.  Here's a photo of my 9x12 one, so you can see how much it's been used:

Today, I got two more of them.  One is 6x8 and the other, 12x16.  The 12x16 also incorporates a new product:  the PalettePak.  This is a PanelPak with a mid-value, neutral grey plastic panel that serves as a palette.  Lay out your paints, then paint; and when you're done, put the palette back in the PalettePak and head home.  Once you're home, stuff the whole thing in a Ziploc bag and put it into your freezer.  The paint will stay fresh for a long, long time.  The palette also comes in different sizes for different-size PanelPaks.

Here's a picture of these latest items.  I put a 6x8 oil sketch of some cows in the smaller one, so you can see how the PanelPak is used.  To complete the package, imagine another panel inserted in the frame.  By the way, PanelPak is great for pastel boards, too, so pastel painters, take notice!

PanelPak is available at

Monday, August 7, 2017

Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy - Paintout Report

"Antediluvian" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - click for details
Painted at Quoddy Head State Park, Lubec, Maine

Location Shot for "Antediluvian"

Each year, Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy has its annual paintout.  This year, we had a two-day event.  On Saturday, we painted on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.  On Sunday, we painted at Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, Maine, right across the Canadian border from Campobello Island.  Both days started off with thick fog, which broke around mid-morning, leading to beautiful, sunny skies.

"Fox Farm" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - click for details
Painted at Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, Campobello Island, New Brunswick

We had a small turn-out.  It seems that this year everyone had busy plans for early August.  But it's important, I think, to keep the annual paintout going so that the group continues.  Next year, we'll have a much larger event, plus an exhibition at Sunbury Shores Art & Nature Centre in St Andrews-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick.  I'll have details on that as we get closer.

In the meantime, here are a couple of my paintings plus some photos from this year's event.

Friday, August 4, 2017

What Makes You Happy?

"What Makes Me Happy" - 9x12 pastel - Available
This is only a sketch, but painting it made me happy.
I really got into the drawing of the rocks.

The other day, I went for a walk in the woods.  Usually, I speed along to get my heart rate up—fast enough to scare every bird, squirrel and Sasquatch.  This time, I slowed down.  A downy woodpecker chopped away at a limb two feet from my head, scattering wood chips onto the mossy ground.  A red squirrel sat on a stump, chewing through spruce cones like a teenager at a pie eating contest.  Sasquatch—well, I never saw him, but I saw plenty of other things.  And I experienced them, too, with all my senses.  I never knew you could actually taste the flavor of spruce in the air.  I was truly "in the moment."

Once I disentangled myself from that moment, I realized that I had been supremely happy in the midst of these little things.

As I grow older and time becomes more precious, I want to re-focus my life on what makes me happy.  I'd heard that if I can find one, true thing that always gives me joy, and then make that, as much as possible, the center of everything I do, the time left to me will be rich and full and satisfying.

So I've been slowing down.  Paying attention to those moments when I feel happy.  Trying to figure out what it is that is most often responsible, some common thread connecting these moments.

Not surprisingly, it's painting.  But what is it about painting?  Is there a way I can understand the connection?  How, exactly, does it buoy my soul?

I did some analysis and came up with the following.  Please note that this is extremely personal; your experience will be different and unique.

  • I love solitude.  As much as people find me friendly and easy to get along with, I love being alone best.  
  • In those periods of solitude, I also love to be in the midst of Nature, with a capital "N," the way Ralph Waldo Emerson spelled it.  Although I certainly appreciate architecture and beautiful buildings and the well-painted cityscape, my architecture is maples and spruces and alders.   
  • When I'm in Nature, I love to simply observe, listen, experience.  Painting helps me do this.  I can trace the form of rock and tree, all the while learning a great deal about the history of each.  At the same time, I'm aware of literally everything:  From the color of sunlight on birch bark to the chitter of a bald eagle overhead, from the smell of alders getting ready for autumn to the taste of my own blood when I bite my tongue too firmly as I concentrate.  
  • Not to be too literary, but all this input becomes Dylan Thomas' "force that through the green fuse drives the flower."  I'm not just experiencing the moment and recording it in paint; I am also responding to the moment and its energy.  I certainly couldn't paint the tree the same way in the studio.  In the field, on location, in Nature with a capital "N," I am painting the tree in a completely different and very pleasing way.

And this makes me happy.  It's not the final product, the painting, that does that; the painting itself is simply an artifact of that happy moment.  It's the process of observing, responding and being in the moment.

Sure, there are other things that make me happy.  Reading a good book.  Taking a walk with my spouse.  Writing a satisfactory essay.  Getting a good night's sleep.  A piece of Ghirardelli Intense Dark 86% cacao.  But for me, the most consistent thing is painting.

Knowing this, I can focus on making more painting time for myself and be happier.  I can also build in more of those other happiness-inducing things.  But it is the painting that will be the focus.

What makes you happy?