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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Three-Color Palette

In my previous post, I mentioned my three-color palette.  I'm really in love with these three colors—yellow ochre, burnt sienna and Prussian blue.  Together, they can mix a good range of muted colors, with the blue intense enough to punch things up a bit.  I thought I'd share a color wheel made from these colors and also a second painting made with them.  (I used Gamblin colors for this.)

It's hard to get into trouble with this palette.  Yellow ochre and burnt sienna harmonize so well.  And Prussian blue, when mixed with them, yields everything from an olivey green to an almost-neutral grey.  But better yet, if things start seeming too sleepy, you can let the Prussian blue sing a little louder.

Prussian blue, by the way, is a wonderful color for Southwestern skies.  Here's a Grand Canyon painting, done in the late afternoon as thunderstorms rolled in from the North Rim.   Reds, oranges and yellows dominate; and the little patches of blue add a welcome note.

Rain Over the River
14x18 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
A Grand Canyon Painting
Available at a Special Price for a Short Time

Monday, February 26, 2018

Fleeting Snow

Bloomfield Street
14x18 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - Special Pricing for a Short Time!
(Includes frame and shipping to continental US)

You'd think snow this deep would last weeks, but that's not the case here in my part of New Mexico.  Four inches of heavy, wet snow lasts maybe a day or two in the intense sun of late winter.  Because of the generally low humidity, however, it will persist in shaded spots--sometimes for a month!  Right now, the snow depicted in the painting above is mostly gone, except for a scrap here and there, tucked into the shadows.

All that is an explanation of why this painting was made from a photograph.  Trina and I were driving through our town, came to a stop sign, and there it was:  my favorite stone house, surrounded by Lombardy poplars.  The shadows on the snow were a lovely blue; the house, built a long time ago of the local sandstone, shone yellow; and the underbelly of the tree tops glowed with a subtle warmth.  So, I snapped a photo, knowing it wasn't possible to paint this scene en plein air.  I knew the snow would soon melt, and I felt comfortable painting this scene from a photo because I've painted many, many snow paintings over the years.

Back in the studio, I got to work.    For those of you curious about color palettes,  it felt right to go with mostly earth colors.  I used only burnt sienna, yellow ochre and Prussian blue, plus a little naphthol red to intensify the bounced light in the trees.  (These are all Gamblin colors.)

You can see a much larger version of this painting here.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Exhibition at the Phippen Museum

"Autumns' Turn" by Michael Chesley Johnson
24x36 Oil
On Loan from Goldenstein Gallery

I'm proud to announce that two of my large paintings will be on exhibit at the Phippen Museum in
Prescott, Arizona, starting March 3, 2018.  The exhibit, "Cool, Cool Water," will display landscape paintings that feature water in the Southwest, and will run until July 22nd.

Water is, of course, essential for life.  In the desert, where there is so little of it, it is highly sought for -- and also highly fought over.  I've been blessed to have lived in places that, for now, have plenty of water.  There's always some creek or lake nearby, and the wells don't seem to run dry.  I hope these places stay that way, but unfortunately, the odds are against it.

"Slide Rock Fault" by Michael Chesley Johnson
16x20 Oil
On Loan from Goldenstein Gallery

"Autumn's Turn" (24x36 oil) shows Oak Creek at Red Rock Crossing.  The creek is full in the autumn after the thirst-quenching summer rains.  The cottonwoods and willows, now turning yellow and orange, have enjoyed a good summer.

"Slide Rock Fault" (16x20 oil) shows Oak Creek at Slide Rock State Park, in Oak Creek Canyon just north of Sedona.  Here, much less water is flowing, but you can tell from the bare slick rock that awesome floods course through here regularly.  The Canyon occupies a geological fault that allows the creek to run from Flagstaff down to Sedona and finally to the Verde River in Cottonwood.

I love painting water, and I am honored to have been asked to send these paintings to the Phippen Museum.

Phippen Museum
4701 Highway 89 North (online map)
Prescott, Arizona 86301 | (928) 778-1385 |

Friday, February 23, 2018

Plein Air Painting Essentials

I know it's only mid-February, but the first day of spring is only a month away -- and with that, the start of plein air painting season.  If you're new to plein air painting, want to learn how to do it properly, or have been painting outdoors for awhile and feel you need to brush up on your skills, I invite you to check out

Plein Air Painting Essentials is a set of very inexpensive online, self-paced, self-study courses for you.  Through videos and short, easy-to-digest handouts, I give you everything you need to head out on your own to paint.  From materials and gear, to setting up and getting started, and right through to the finish, I cover it all.  Besides the Plein Air Basics course, I also have supplementary courses for oil and pastel.

If you go to, you can get free previews as well as discounts that will save you 20-25%.

I hope you'll take a look.  It could give you a real jumpstart to the plein air painting season.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Michigan Plein Air Painting Workshop May 7-9, 2018

What could be more enjoyable than taking a plein air painting workshop on a 230-acre farm in the springtime? I'll be teaching at just such a place this spring, and I hope you'll join me.

The Franciscan Life Process Center, located in rural Lowell, Michigan, is hosting the workshop.  On-site lodging is available, which means you can maximize your time learning and painting in this beautiful location.   We'll have all day to learn or refresh our understanding of outdoor painting fundamentals; to be enlightened by demonstrations and critiques; and to join in some fine companionship.

My goal in this workshop is to show you how to "capture the moment" without sacrificing mood and magic.  Demonstrating in oil and/or pastel, I'll show you what I call my Best Guess approach.  Rather than worrying about getting color and value right with the first brush stroke, you can make your best guess, knowing that in the next step you can adjust it easily.  Believe me, this takes off a lot of the pressure one feels when painting outdoors!

All levels and all media are welcome at this workshop, which runs from May 7-9, 2018.  You can find out more details and sign up here:

I've included a few photos from the farm to whet your appetite. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Fearless Cropping

Mitten Ridge View 12x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

A pair of scissors might just be the ultimate painting tool.  When all else fails, cut.

Recently, I found tucked in the back of my storage area a frame that I'd forgotten about.  It's square, which is a format I don't often paint in.  (And that's probably why I had hidden it away.)  Also, the frame held a sheet of glass.  Here, I thought, was an opportunity to dig through my big plastic box of pastel sketches and to frame something nice.

But like I said, I rarely paint in a square format.  And sure enough, search as I did, I found no square pastel paintings.  Was there anything I might crop to a square?

Fresh out of the storage box - the 12x16 version.
This was a plein air painting, and sometimes outdoors, we get
careless with composition.

Ah.  I pulled out a 12x16 that featured one of Sedona's better-known rock formations.  It was a plein air piece, and I'd kept it because I liked the color handling—but I'd never framed it because the composition needed work.

Yes, it's better cropped

Once I'd put it on the easel, I found that cropping it down to a 12x12 did wonders for the design.  To make it even better, I even reworked the foreground a little.   One of the nice things about pastel is it is so easy to crop and so easy to rework, even years later.

Foreground reworked
The final painting
Mitten Ridge View 12x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reusing Old Panels

Good bye, old paintings!

Every painter at some point asks himself:  What do I do with paintings I don't want anymore?  This question seems to surface as the painter acquires more experience and a sense of what's good and what's not.  Old paintings that no longer meet the new standard must be dealt with.

It's most important, for legacy's sake, that these paintings not be released into the wild.  I know of more than one painter who has found his early work on eBay, much to the embarrassment of his ego and his bank account.  And look at some of the immature work of famous artists, now gone, that has been uncovered.  In many cases, the work should have been left in a drawer, lost forever.  So, what to do?

You can burn it, but that's toxic.  You can scar it with a knife and toss it, but it may be rescued and repaired.   Or you can paint over it.

For many years, I thought painting over old oil paintings was risky, especially if you didn't understand the physics of paint.  But there's a safe way to do it.  First, make sure you are using only oil paint.  Don't paint over dried oil paintings with acrylic; the acrylic is likely to delaminate over time.  Second, don't try this with stretched canvas.  Paint only over a painting on panel, not one on stretched canvas.  Your new layers of paint will be, for quite some time, more flexible than the dry, more brittle paint below it, and this can cause structural problems with the paint film on a substrate that is prone to shrinking, expanding and flexing.  Painting on panel may also help if you've used more “fat” (oil or medium) in those earlier layers.  Finally, I would never paint over an old piece for what was going to become a Seriously Important Work.  For that, I'd use nothing but new materials.

To cover old paintings, I've experimented with using both the alcohol-based version of Zinsser BIN, which contains shellac, and also the oil-based version of Kilz.  (Don't use the latex, e.g. acrylic, versions.)  Both of these have worked, but I always feel a little uneasy using non-artist-grade materials.  So, here's my new process, which I feel more comfortable with.

I had several old 5x7s that I wanted to reuse for sketching.  I also had on-hand a quantity of Gamblin Artist's Colors Torrit Grey that I'd been stockpiling over the years.  (You can read the interesting story about Torrit Grey here.)  My process was simple:

  1. I removed any varnish with Gamsol
  2. Any panels with too much texture I sanded lightly
  3. I mixed Torrit Grey with Titanium-Zinc White to make a more-or-less neutral, mid-value grey
  4. I mixed in about 50% more of Galkyd Lite to make it dry quickly
  5. I covered each panel with a thin brushing of the mixture

This layer, I believe, should adhere well to the underlying paint film.  We'll know for sure in a hundred years or so—unless, of course, at some point I deem these sketches substandard and end up burying them.

I'm curious to hear how you handle old paintings.

Torrit Grey, Galkyd Lite and Titanium Zinc White

I mix all of this on a large sheet of palette paper

I add Galkyd Lite to taste (about 1:2 of medium to paint)

Paintings are now only a faint memory

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Road Trip: El Morro National Monument & Ramah Lake, New Mexico

Winter Garden 12x16 Oil - $450 Unframed
(Paintings on this page are available at a special price for a short time, unframed and with shipping to the continental US included.)

To finish off our road trip to Canyon de Chelly and back, M.L. Coleman and I circled back to my home in New Mexico.  Our first stop was El Morro National Monument along Highway 53 (the “Ancient Way”) with a final stop at Ramah Lake.

Inscription Rock / El Morro National Monument

M.L. Coleman
(photo by Trina Stephenson)

Me, with clothes more fitting for Red Rock Country of Sedona
(photo by Trina Stephenson)

If you haven't been to El Morro before, it's a beautiful oasis in the high desert.  Travelers for hundreds of years, including the ancestors of the Zuni and Acoma tribes, as well as Spanish explorers and American pioneers, have stopped there to enjoy the cool water beneath the cliffs of Inscription Rock.  Many of them carved into the soft sandstone to leave their mark.  The most famous of these is the inscription:

Pasó por aqui, el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate del
descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605

Passed by here, the adelantado Don Juan de Oñate
from the discovery of the sea of the south the 16th of April of 1605

(Photo by Edward Curtis 1927)

I've hiked Inscription Rock many times over the years, from the wall of carvings to the 13th-century A'ti'sina pueblo on top.  I've enjoyed it in all kinds of weather:  monsoon season, with thunderclouds boiling overhead; late summer, when sunflowers carpet the high desert at its feet; and winter, when snow and ice can make the north trail treacherous.  But oddly, I haven't painted there very much.   So I was eager to share this place with M.L. and to paint there.

The 22-foot Lazy Daze
(photo by Trina Stephenson)

We enjoyed a good view of Inscription Rock from a pull-off on the Monument's access road.  At one point, the Chief Ranger stopped by to admire our work, and he expressed an interest in oil painting.

Later, we drove west to Ramah to paint the candy-striped mesas around the lake.  Founded by Mormons in 1876 as a missionary settlement to convert the Zuni and Navajo tribes, the town has beautiful stone houses, old Lombardy poplars and, of course, the lake.  The lake itself is a reservoir the Mormons created by damming up the non-perennial Cebolla Creek for the purpose of irrigation.  Today, the lake is still used to water hay fields.  Coots and ducks enjoy the lake during the warmer months.

Ramah Lake and Cliffs
(photo by Trina Stephenson)

Ramah Lake
(photo by Trina Stephenson)

We haven't had much cold weather this winter, and although the lake has frozen over a few times, on the day we painted it was free of any ice.  A lone Canada goose watched me warily as I set up along the water's edge and below the dam.  The wind had gone up a few notches since morning, and I wanted to be on the lee side. 

It was a good day of painting, and a great end to the week of travel.  I'm looking forward to my next trip, which will be to Santa Fe in April.  Not for the Plein Air Convention, but for my own, small painting retreat with a few students.   The wisteria on Canyon Road should be blooming then.

Winter Colors 6x8 Oil - $250

These are some of the places I may take participants to in my series of one-on-one painting intensives for experienced painters this spring.  If you'd like more information on this program, please visit And don't forget that I also teach all-level workshops in Sedona.  I do have one March 27-30, which you can read about here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Canyon de Chelly Sketches

Eastward Blues  9x12 Oil - $250 unframed
(Junction Overlook)
Purchase Here

As I promised in my recent post on my adventure to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, here are some sketches from that trip.  For a short while, I am making these available at special low prices.  The price is for unframed work and includes shipping to the continental US.  If you are interested in purchasing a piece, please click on the link below the image for a larger image and details.

Also, if you'd like to help me out on these plein air painting expeditions, you have the chance to sponsor an extension to my Scotland trip and receive a painting in exchange.  Please check out my post "Send a Painter to Bonnie Scotland" to learn how.  I am grateful to those who have already contributed to this project and others.  Honestly, I wouldn't be able to make my paintings without the generous support of my collectors.  Thank you, everyone.

For those of you interested in the technical side of painting, my favorite new color from Gamblin is Brown Pink--and there's a lot of it in each of these sketches!  It's an intense, transparent earth red that works well with the desert and canyon landscape.  I found it great for greying down blues and, in a light tint, it is a quick shortcut to depicting sunlit rock.

Down Below 9x12 Oil - $250 Unframed
(Sliding House Overlook)
Purchase Here

Golden Light 12x9 Oil - $250 Unframed
(Mummy Cave Overlook)
Purchase Here

Morning Light 9x12 Oil - $250 Unframed
(Massacre Cave Overlook)
Purchase Here

Quiet Crescent 9x12 Oil - $250 Unframed
(Junction Overlook)
Purchase Here

Snow Squall 6x8 Oil - $150 Unframed
(White House Ruins Overlook)
Purchase Here
Photo by M.L. Coleman

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Road Trip: Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly

Once a year, I like to get together with my painting friend M.L. Coleman and hit the road.  We'd been waiting for snow—who doesn't like to paint the patterns and colors of snow in canyon country?—but it's been a dry winter, and we were eager to paint.  So this past week, we loaded up the 22-foot Lazy Daze and journeyed to Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, Arizona.

As you drive toward Chinle, you won't find much to attract a painter.  In fact, that part of Arizona is occupied by a rather bleak section of the Navajo reservation.  Flat, dry, and, without snow, brown.   But hidden out of view is Canyon de Chelly, which is beautiful any time of year, snow or no snow.  Chinle sits on the west, shallow end, and that is where your adventure begins.

Rim View

I consider Canyon de Chelly to be a more intimate version of Grand Canyon.   Actually comprised of three canyons (de Chelly, del Muerto and Monument), it's a little over 20 miles long, less than a mile wide and perhaps a thousand feet deep at the east end.  But two things distinguish it from Grand Canyon.  First, the canyon bottom is easily accessible.   In fact, the Navajo, who manage the Monument jointly with the National Park Service, continue to farm the bottom, which is watered by an intermittent creek.  From the rim, you can peer down to see their patchwork of cornfields, plus a few horses grazing and the occasional Jeep tour toiling up the sandy road.  Second, unlike Grand Canyon, where at midday the lighting is flat and uninteresting to a painter, here you can find an enchanting arrangement of light and shadow almost any time.   Several overlooks occupy fingers that jut out from the rim, offering 270-degree views of the surrounding cliffs.

Cliff dwellings can be seen throughout the Monument

Two different routes through the Monument give you two different experiences.   Neither route is very long, just a dozen miles or so, but my favorite is the South Rim Drive.  This has the most options, from Tunnel Overlook on the west end to famous Spider Rock on the east end, and several in between.  We spent most of our time at White House Ruin Overlook and Sliding House Overlook.  (The names are taken from the Anasazi cliff dwellings visible from the viewpoints.)  I'd hoped to paint at Spider Rock—I think every painter out west has depicted it at least once, and I didn't want to be left out—but the weather turned.   Although we had perfect weather nearly every day, that one afternoon rain and snow squalls blew through with a lot of wind, making painting unpleasant.  We ended up taking photographs plus doing a little “out the window” painting from the Lazy Daze.

Face Rock, near Spider Rock
The North Rim Drive, which follows Canyon del Muerto, has fewer overlooks.  There, the scenery seems a little more closed in with fewer vistas.  But we painted there as well, at both the Massacre Cave and Mummy Ruins overlooks.  Although the Monument has few visitors this time of year, we saw even fewer people on this route.  Toward the end of a day of painting, we visited Antelope Ruins Overlook, getting there just at sundown, when the cliffs turned golden.  This spot seemed to have even more painting possibilities.


One of my favorite views, near White House Ruin

We never went down into the canyon as we found plenty to paint along the rim.  If we had wanted to paint at the bottom, we would have taken the White House Ruin trail, which is the only trail you can hike down without a Navajo guide.   Another option would have been to hire a guide and go into the canyon on horseback or SUV.  I'll save these for a future adventure there, perhaps in the fall when the cottonwoods turn golden or in spring, when the canyon bottom greens up.  I'm sure I'll be back.

In this post I offer photographs; in my next post, I'll show you the paintings I made at Canyon de Chelly.

My painting set-up (Daytripper from Prolific Painter); M.L. Coleman in background
(If you like to travel and paint, take a look at my plein air painting workshops in the Southwest.)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Becoming a Disciplined Painter

I created these 54 6x6 oil paintings for a special project.
It kept me on-schedule for several weeks and
was a great motivator to help me stay productive.

Being productive is easy if you have a boss.  You have deadlines, project goals, maybe even a daily quota to meet.  If you meet your quota, you get paid—and if you don't, you get fired.   This “carrot-and-stick” combination is a powerful motivator.  Discipline is rarely an issue.

The “carrot-and-stick” approach also works for the self-employed painter who relies on sales to fill the grocery cart and pay the mortgage.  But it's a case of “same carrot, different stick.”  Here, the stick is the possibility of a degrading market with declining sales, none of which is your fault.  Suddenly, you're facing the unpleasant prospect of job-hunting and “working for the man” again.  And who wants that, after enjoying the satisfaction of being your own boss?  When the going gets tough, the tough get...creative.  This situation fosters its own discipline.

Discipline is probably most difficult for the amateur painter, who paints not for carrots but for love and for whom the stick is often little more than a few lashes with a wet noodle.  The muse is fickle, and when her presence is desired, the stick never works.  In this case, quite often discipline is something that needs to be artificially created by the painter.   It doesn't happen on its own.  Goals must be invented, deadlines made up, quotas self-imposed.  But who can meet goals and deadlines and quotas where there's no reward other than seeing paintings pile up and no punishment other than a half-guilty conscience?

For those painters who would like to improve their discipline and become more productive, I offer the following ideas:

Enter a competition.  If you know a few months in advance, you can paint toward the competition.  If the competition wants three paintings submitted, paint nine and pick your best three.  The competition will give you a deadline.

Schedule a show.  A show will give you a deadline and a number of paintings to complete.  Some artists pull from existing inventory and select work that will hang well together.  But sometimes it's more efficient to paint “to” the show.  Maybe your show will require you to exhibit fifty 6x6 oil paintings of a particular place.  To make it easier on yourself, try a shared show with one or two other artists.

Create a project for yourself.  If your plein air work isn't quite at the level of craft you'd hoped for, take it to the studio.  Decide to do a series of study-to-studio paintings where you spend time in the field gathering reference material and then assemble a larger, more finished painting in the studio based on this work.  (I have a book on this very topic,  Outdoor Study to Studio:  Take Your Plein Air Paintings to the Next Level, available through Amazon.)

Work on problems.  If you find you could improve your compositional or color mixing skills, create a self-study program.  For composition, go out and spend a week just making thumbnail sketches; for color, take a black-and-white photo and try color variations in the studio.

Join a painting group.  If you can get a few painting friends to go out once a week to paint, that's a start to discipline.  Set up your calendar for three or four months in advance, rain or shine.  (And I mean it about rain.  You can usually find cover.)

Change your preferred subject.  If you're a landscape painter, shift to painting the figure or still life for a month.  Do one still life a day or, if you get into or can organize a figure group, paint a figure once a week.  Again, set up your calendar in advance and stick to it.  This will also help round you out as a painter.

Finally, if you're completely lost, just put a painting hour on your schedule for at least three days out of seven.  Saturday, Monday and Wednesday, for that one hour, go to your studio and close the door.  At least draw if not paint.  Doodle with a marker.  Squeeze out some color and mess with it.  Pull out old work you're unhappy with, and sacrifice it by painting over it where you think it needs improving.

Rather than forcing discipline out of despair, rejuvenate your discipline with joy.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

New Grand Canyon Painting

"After the Rains"
16x24 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
To Be Exhibited at the 10th Annual Grand Canyon Celebration of Art
(Update:  Readers have been asking about the secret violet color I used in much of the painting.  It's Gamblin's quinacridone violet--a beautiful color!)

I'm always amazed at how far tourists will go from the shuttle bus—which isn't far at all.  They spill out, head for the recommended view a few feet from the bus, take a few snaps of a loved one posing before a stunning view, and return.  If I'm looking for a quiet spot to paint in, I often need to walk just a short distance from the stop to be completely alone.

Mohave Point is one of my favorite locations at Grand Canyon.  It's very popular with tourists—after all, it offers a stunning vista, and the buses do pause there every few minutes—but just past the stop the Rim Trail snakes along quietly with only the occasional walker.  I can paint here with little interruption.

Just west on the trail, I can enjoy a glorious view of the Colorado River 4500 feet below.  As sundown approaches, the growing shadows pen a new drama every minute.   It's a view I've painted many times.

Recently, I decided to make a larger view of this scene, based on plein air studies and photos.   I worked out my design in pencil first and then charcoal; made a color sketch to explore harmony choices; and finally went to my 16x24 panel and got to work.  As I neared the end, I made a series of adjustments, mostly with color and modelling, but I also had to make a design change.  A second pair of eyes—Trina's—suggested that the tree I put in the bottom right interrupted the theme, and after some time, I finally agreed with her.  The painting is stronger because of that change, and it also opened up more terrain for the viewer to explore.

The painting will be my studio piece for the 2018 10th Annual Grand Canyon Celebration of Art this fall.  It will appear in the catalog and also be exhibited along with my plein air work.  The outdoor painting part of the event runs from September 8-15, 2018, with the exhibition and sale continuing until January 14, 2019.  For more details:

Please don't forget my plein air painting workshop at Grand Canyon October 24-28, 2018.  There are still a few spaces left.  I'd love to show you my favorite spots in the Canyon!  Details are here at  

Initial Design Sketch (Pencil, 6x9)

Value Study (Charcoal, 6x9)

Color Study (Oil, 6x9)

16x24 panel toned with Gamblin Fastmatte Transparent Earth Red
and references to the right.  Also had a tablet with photos to the left, not shown.
Ready to start painting!