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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Cleaning Pastels with Cornmeal

I have to confess I'm not much of a cleaner.  Oh, I'm incredibly organized and neat.  I can easily find that scrap of paper with a note from five years ago, and you won't find a tool out of place in my studio.  But please, don't look at my pastel box!

As I paint, I try to wipe off pastels as I put them back into the box.  But in the heat of the moment, that doesn't always happen.  And over time, pastels just seem to get dirty on their own, even without my help.  They are dust magnets.

So, once a year, I clean the pastels.  I make some coffee and queue up the playlist.  For this year's event, I played just about everything Stevie Wonder ever recorded.  Or at least it seemed like it.

By the way, I used polenta to clean my pastels.  This is simply a coarser version of cornmeal.  Rice also works.  Don't use rice flour—it's too fine and doesn't work as well.

Tools are simple - two plastic containers with lids, metal sieve.

Put a handful of pastels in the cornmeal, close with lid.  Roll gently.
It doesn't take much effort or long to clean the pastels.
By the way, I start with the light values first.  This keeps the cornmeal cleaner longer.

Pour the cornmeal/pastel mix into the sieve.  Use a second plastic
container to catch the cornmeal.

Tap sieve gently to filter out cornmeal.  This provides additional cleaning.

Cleaned pastels, free of cornmeal.

Dump out the pastels on newspaper.  Since I start with the light values first,
I make as many piles as I have color categories. 
(I have six:  red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.)

The piles of light values.  The mid-values and dark values will be added as I progress.

Cleaned pastels.  On my Heilman box, I flipped over the little foam inserts so a clean side was face up.
The inserts can be washed if you are very particular.

Cleaning my pastels also gave me the opportunity to restock the box.
While cleaning, you become very clear on what pastels are lacking.

Friday, March 23, 2018

It's Still Not Too Late! Take a Plein Air Painting Workshop with Me in Maine this Summer

This summer, while the rest of the country is sweltering in what will no doubt be record-breaking heat, you can be enjoying a cool time at the Maine coast at one of my workshops.  And unlike other cool places in the summer, it won't be packed with tourists.  You will have the bold cliffs and gentle sea breezes all to yourself—or just about.

Bold Cliffs

Boats in Lubec's Harbor

I still have a few openings left in two plein air painting workshops in Lubec, Maine:  July 3-6, 2018 (all levels) and August 28-31, 2018 (experienced painters.)  The workshop goes from 8 until noon, leaving you the afternoons to either paint on your own or to explore the area with family or friends.  Besides painting some of the best scenery on the Maine coast, you can also enjoy boiled lobster, taking a whale watch or just hiking the cliffs and beaches.  If you do decide to paint more, I'll gladly give you suggestions for locations and then critique whatever you paint.  Also, if you bring your passport, you'll be able to visit the Canadian island of Campobello and visit my studio.

Painting the view toward Campobello

If this interests you, I have lots more information on the workshop and the area, including lodging suggestions, at my website:

Bernard, Maine

Lobster Floats!

By the way, I am also teaching a workshop August 21-24, 2018, just up the coast from Lubec.  This four-day, all-day workshop will be based in Bernard, Maine.  Bernard is a quiet fishing village on the “quiet side” of Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park.  I've taught here for many years, and it's always a special week for me. We paint boats and harbor scenes, quiet marshes and crashing waves on the seawall.  Plus, one of the highlights is lunch or dinner at famous Thurston's Lobster Pound.  I can't wait to go again this year.  For details and to register, please visit the Acadia Workshop Center site here:

I hope to see you on the Maine coast this summer!

Thurston's Lobster Pound

Wave at Seawall

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pastel-to-Oil: Moving to Your Second Medium

Outcrop 8x10 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Finished Studio Painting Based on Pastel Reference (Below)

First of all, happy First Day of Spring!  For all of us in the northern hemisphere, today marks the shift to days being longer than nights.  Despite the one inch of snow we had this weekend, our crocuses and tulips are pushing up with gusto.  On my hikes, I enjoy listening to the recently-returned songbirds among the groves of juniper and ponderosa.  Life is good.

Like many artists, I work in more than one medium.  Oil and pastel are my anchors in this business.  Also like many artists, I go through periods of using one or the other.  This past week, as I mentioned in my earlier post on my Private Plein Air Painting Intensive program, I worked solely in pastel.  However, my student was curious to see an oil demonstration.  I decided to base my oil demonstration on a pastel study I'd made of a rocky outcrop earlier that week.

Study for "Outcrop" 9x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Photo of the Scene

Wrestling with the Dark Grey Stain

Often when I use field sketches as a reference for a studio painting, I'll switch mediums.  This forces me to make different color choices and keeps things fresh.  Anyway, it's impossible to exactly carry the color of a pastel done in the field into an oil painting.  And why would I want to do so?  I never “copy” my field sketches in the studio, as that would get boring very quickly.  (I discuss this at length, with lots of demonstrations, in my book Outdoor Study to Studio, which is available at Amazon.)

The field sketch had two problems.  One, there was a dark grey stain on the rock that, although it was in full sun, just didn't look sunny.  Two, the shape of the left-hand part of the rock was just plain awkward.  (My student compared it to the front end of a smashed Buick.)  I tried to correct these two problems in the oil painting.  First, I made the dark grey stain a warmer green to indicate sunshine falling on it.  Second, I reshaped the rock and made the values of it closer to the values of the area just behind it to make it “dissolve” so it didn't catch the eye as much.  I stopped short of exercising that rule of thumb:  “If you can't get it right, put a bush in front of it.”  The job would have been easier had I recognized the problem in the field and changed my viewpoint.

Side-by-Side:  Field Sketch on Left, Studio Painting on Right

If you work in just pastel, I encourage you to work in another medium such as oil or acrylic.  Likewise, if you work in just oil, I encourage you to give pastel a try!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Mentoring: Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Study Program Report

Beautiful clouds during the week

And beautiful sunshine, too!

You may have noticed that I took a short break from blogging last week.  What was I up to?  Instead of blogging, I dedicated my time to the first Paint the Southwest Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Study week.  My mentee was Sue, an experienced painter from the north who stopped on her way to a residency in southern Arizona to study with me.  Although she paints in both oil and pastel, she decided to do just pastel, so I followed suit.  (I will paint in either medium or even both, depending on the participant.)  It was an intense but delightful week for both of us.

Although I offer a tuition-only version of the program, the student is welcome to stay with us; in this case, Trina and I provide three meals a day plus a private room and bath.  (The room is right next to the studio, which is convenient for working on projects throughout the day.)  Sue arrived Sunday evening after a long drive, so we gave her a nice dinner and toured her around the property.  Since both of us were excited about the program, we took some time to go through the studio as well, going over the gear and materials that I commonly use.

Sketching at El Morro
Painting on the studio property

Virga Over the Valley - 12x9 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

After an early breakfast on Monday, we got started.  (The program is completely customized to the participant's needs, so if you're thinking about joining us in the future, your week probably will be a little different.)  After consulting with Sue prior to her week via email, I decided she would benefit from working on foreground and design issues as well as practice in abstracting the landscape.  With that in mind, we headed over to El Morro National Monument with cameras and sketchbooks.  The weather was a little chilly, so walking and stopping for brief sketches to explore design was more comfortable than standing and painting.  After returning to the studio for lunch, we stayed on the studio property to paint the view, paying special attention to foreground handling.  In the evening, we relaxed with another nice dinner.  I introduced Susan to my art book collection; she spent her spare time during the week reading Edgar Payne's Composition of Outdoor Painting.  Being outdoors so much is both invigorating and tiring; I think we all retired early each night.

Painting at Ramah Lake

My painting, nearly done

Hiking back from the lake

Silent Watcher - 9x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

On Tuesday, we went to Ramah Lake to paint the “layer cake” cliffs of red and white sandstone.  Ducks, coots and geese made their welcome, springtime music while we worked.  Here again, foreground was a special focus; we positioned ourselves atop the earthen dam, which gave us a fine view with a complicated foreground of red willow and a variety of grasses, all much the same value.  Thumbnail sketches helped us with that.  That afternoon, we stayed on our property again to paint some of the sandstone rock outcrops, looking at abstracting the shapes and working more intuitively at design.

Among the rocks

You can really see my palette from this angle

9x12 Pastel Study for "Outcrop" by Michael Chesley Johnson

Outcrop - 8x10 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Wednesday was another gorgeous day, and since Thursday's weather forecast was iffy, we decided to take advantage of the fine weather and went on a field trip with a picnic.  We drove around the large cuesta that dominates Ramah to the east and headed for the north end of the lake.  From here, we painted the layer-cake cliffs from a different angle, and again, spent a good deal of time on design.  By lunchtime, the wind began to get up—foretelling a change in the weather—but we had a fine picnic by a historic ranch house with a broad view of the lake.  Afterward, we began to make our way back but first stopped on some acreage we own to paint the view.

On the north end of the lake

Lakeside Peace - 9x12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Where We Might Live - 6x8 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Thursday dawned, surprisingly, with sun and fast-moving clouds.  The predicted rain and snow had not yet arrived.  Taking advantage of the weather, we drove off to hike a trail that would give us yet another view of the lake cliffs so we could do some pencil sketching.   The wind couldn't touch us on the trail, but the trip back to the car was another story.  Rain squalls and snow squalls followed us back to the studio where, after lunch, we talked about and made adjustments to work we'd done earlier in the week.  But more importantly, we also spent a good deal of time pre-planning our trip back to El Morro.

Field sketch from the morning hike

Field sketch from Monday - with notes and cropping explorations

Design sketches from the studio with notes

Monitor and cropping tool for helping with design

We pulled out our photos and pencil sketches from Monday morning and explored design options.  We looked at double- and triple-squares as well as other less-standard formats.  We used charcoal to sketch out foregrounds, then wiped them out, and tried variations.  Finally, once we'd decided on the format (1:2) and the design, we copied the design onto paper we would use the next day for painting, and blocked in the shadow values with a dark color.  This preparatory work would give us a jumpstart on painting in the field.

I also did a demonstration in oil.  (See above for the oil.) Although Sue had chosen for us to work in pastel, she asked if I would do a short demonstration in her other medium.  Taking the idea of outdoor study-to-studio, I decided to use a rock study I had made in pastel the day before and use it as the basis for an oil painting.  I will often switch mediums for outdoor study-to-studio; it makes things fresher and forces different color choices.

Hike atop Inscription Rock
You'll note that my area is bounded by the Zuni and Navajo reservations.
The highway that passes through Ramah is called the "Ancient Way," and
is so-called because of the native cultures (Ancestral Puebloans) that included
the Anasazi and the ancestors of the Zuni and Acoma, as well as the Spanish explorers,
that traveled through here.  You can read more on the Ancient Way here.
Ready to paint

Paso Por Aqui - 8x16 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

On Friday, we drove back to El Morro.  The weather wasn't quite the same as it had been on Monday, when we gathered our reference material there.  More clouds cast more shadow on Inscription Rock, and the actual shadows cast by features on the rock weren't quite yet where they should be.  If we waited a little longer, we thought, the clouds would thin and the cast shadows would move to where we needed them.   A quick hike up and over Inscription Rock, which was about 2.5 miles round trip, was just the ticket.

Despite the wind, which began to blow when we reached the summit, we set up our easels down at our viewpoint and got to work.  Our decision to get the basic design and shadow values laid in prior to going out had been smart; it made the process of fine-tuning shape profiles and colors much faster, and it gave us more time to finish the paintings on-location.  Can this be called plein air?  I think so.  The only thing we didn't do outdoors was a bit of planning.

The Studio

Sue and our work from the week

That afternoon, we tweaked our week's work a little more, and then I sat down to write up for Sue a review of the week plus an action plan.  The review and action plan comprise an important part of the Private Painting Intensive Study week; they reinforce what we learned and provide a path for future growth.  I sat down with her that evening to go over the week and to present the plan, and I believe it was well-received and very helpful.

Saturday morning, we all enjoyed a special breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes before saying our goodbyes.   For all of us, it was a productive week, both personally and professionally.  I very much enjoyed working with Sue and look forward to reviewing her new work over the next few weeks.  In addition to the week we spend together, I also offer reviews and critiques for three months after.

If you are an experienced artist looking for this kind of one-on-one, intense experience, please take a look at my Paint the Southwest website.  I am already taking registrations for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019.  I have a lot to offer, and I would like to help you reach the next level in your painting.