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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Finger Cots

When I paint in pastel, I wear finger cots on the fingers that hold the pastel stick.  Why?  Two reasons.  First, to make clean up easier.  Second and, in my mind, more important, to keep my skin and nails from drying out.  Painting in pastel has the same effect on your skin as digging in dirt.  The pastel sucks both moisture and oil out of the skin.  Skin will crack and bleed; nails will split.

For some artists, nitrile or latex gloves are the answer.  I do use these when painting in oil in the studio, but they seem to get in the way when I paint in pastel.  Outdoors, I sweat too much for gloves.  A finger cot covers just the tip of your finger, down to the first or second joint.

For other artists, barrier creams work well.  I find a cream messier than finger cots.  Besides, it's an unnecessary bottle of liquid to take out when plein air painting, and I prefer the convenience of just keeping a Ziploc bag of finger cots in my pack.

I can also do finger-blending with finger cots, and this avoids the darkening that comes from getting skin oil into the pastel from the unprotected fingertip.

You can find finger cots in a local pharmacy or order them on-line.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: A Painting Knife for Pastel

Use a painting knife to scrape off excess pastel

Wait—aren't you confusing the medium?  No, I'm not.  Most people think a knife is used only for oil or acrylic painting, but I also use one when I'm working in pastel.  For me, it's just another tool, like an eraser or blender.

In fact, I use it for both purposes.  I use it to:

  • Scrape off pastel that is too thick (with the edge or tip)
  • Blend pastel (with the flat side)
  • Push pastel into the surface so it sticks better (with the flat side)
  • Add textural marks (with the edge or tip)

Painting knives come in many forms—long, short, fat, wide, tapered, straight.  I prefer a small, trowel-shaped one.  You might find a different shape suited to your style.

Use a painting knife to push pastel into the surface

Use a painting knife to add textural marks

Use a painting knife to blend pastel

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Importance of Practice and How to Do It

Now that winter has ended for most of us, are you out painting yet?

"It's a beautiful day, just perfect for plein air painting!  I think I'll grab my easel and—oh, I think I forgot to scrape the palette last time.  And I didn't clean my brushes, either, so I'll have to do that first, too.  And I really did mean to change the turps...."

Excuses like these for not painting are plentiful.  It's so easy to accept the difficulties in getting started and instead to search for old friends on Facebook.

I have the occasional student who claims the only time she finds time to paint is at workshops—which she takes only once a year.  This is like picking up the tennis racket once a year and hoping to play a good game. 

Maybe your goal isn't to become a master painter or even a professional.  But if you would like to improve your hobby so that it becomes more satisfying, then you must practice.  Practice doesn't always make perfect, but it will make "better."   And the more you practice, the better you become.  (Especially if you go about it mindfully.)

Practice become easier if you prepare for it, remove obstacles or make it more enjoyable.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Have your gear ready to go at all times.  I keep my tripod and pochade box, brushes and paints, turps can and panels, plus a backpack with accessories, ready to go, all piled up in one spot.  I can be out the door in 60 seconds.
  • Clean your gear after your last painting session.  Fill your turps can with clean turps (or odorless mineral spirits).  Clean and dry your brushes.  Scrape the palette and clean it.  This clean-up should be part of your regular routine—painting isn't just about the painting, but also about the cleaning up.
  • Set a regular day or time for outdoor painting. Yes, this is difficult to do in some parts of the world where the weather is mercurial, but if you set a schedule, it becomes easier.  If you really don't feel like painting on your scheduled day, at least go out with pencil and sketchbook.  Most painters don't draw enough. Drawing will improve your observational and painting skills like you wouldn't believe.
  • Even on bad weather days, try to stick to your schedule.  Go to the studio.  Look over old plein air paintings and see if one might inspire a studio painting.
  • Follow your painting session with a relaxing walk or hike.  This can serve as a healthy reward after you paint, and I personally find that a walk feels good after standing in one spot for two hours.
  • Join a plein air painting group that meets regularly.  Sometimes it's helpful to have another person handy to provide the motivation.
  • Introduce something new into your painting so you'll get out and experiment.  Everyone loves to learn something new, and newness can be a powerful motivator.  Maybe add a new color to your palette.  Try out a new box of pastels.  If you paint with only a brush, try painting with only a knife.  
  • Paint with a project in mind.  Perhaps you might gather reference material for a larger, more finished studio painting.  Or maybe you'd like to document some historic buildings in your county.  Give your project a definite scope and a deadline—and stick to it.

Even if painting is just a hobby for you, you probably would like to get better at it—wouldn't you?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Music Indoors, Music Outdoors

Many of us painters use music as a way to help get the brush moving.  We may not play an instrument—although I know several of my painting friends do—but just about all of us listen to music to help the creative process.  The tempo of the music drives the tempo of the brush.   Something fast and upbeat will encourage the intuitive, bravura stroke; something serene and atmospheric, the well-considered stroke; something jazzy, perhaps a stroke that is more improvisational. 

My tastes in music run to the eclectic.  Drop by my studio, and you're likely to hear anything:  the Black Keys, Bach, Heavy D, Mazzy Star, Led Zeppelin, Cowboy Junkies, Ella Fitzgerald, Peter Tosh, Satie, Sigur Rós—well, the list goes on.  I've found the online music service Pandora to be useful, as well as Amazon Music Unlimited.  I still have a stash of CDs from the past.  Sadly, the LPs were all sold some years ago, but much of that music I can now find on the Internet.

But as for painting outdoors?  I never listen to music.  I find it to be more a distraction than a help.  I'm too focused on observing.  Plus, I find Nature's own soundtrack never distracts.  The birds, the wind in the grasses, the water whispering over rocks—these sounds create a sonic space around me that I find conducive to observation (which is, for me, a form of communion.)  Plus, I never have to interrupt the moment in order to skip a track I don't like, as there never is one.

What do you listen to, and when?

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Taos Mentoring Workshop with Albert Handell October 2019

Taos, New Mexico - Painter's Paradise

I am pleased to be joining my mentor and good friend, Albert Handell, at his Taos Mentoring Workshop, October 6-12, 2019.   I've worked with Albert many times in the past, both as student and assistant, and I'm looking forward to working with him again.

If you haven't worked with him before, let me share with you a little about his mentoring workshops.  In these, he covers topics that aren't addressed in the all-level workshops, and he also covers the business of art.  What's more, he offers extensive critiques of participants' work.  I highly recommend this workshop to any painter who is serious about both craft and career.  This master painter, who recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 Plein Air Convention, has a great deal to offer the student.

Here is a description from his website on the workshop:
Join Albert Handell in this exciting 6-day indoor/outdoor mentoring/painting workshop. In the demonstration series you will see and learn what to select and emphasize and what to play down or even take out of your paintings in order to make a strong design statement, and work sensibly towards finish. It will be an opportunity to see how a Master Artist works in a studio setting and on location.
This is the 14th annual Taos Paint-A-Long mentoring program, Albert has painted there often and knows Taos and its area intimately.
The area has wonderful subject matter to paint, varying from the picturesque adobes; the farm/ranch museum at the Hacienda De Los Martinez; the thrilling road leading to the John Dunn Bridge at the base of the Rio Grande; beautiful, easy-to-get-to mountain streams; and the fantastic Rio Grande Gorge -- to list just some of the extensive subject matter available.
This will be an intense experience for everyone!  For full details on the Taos workshop, please visit

I've personally visited and painted Taos, New Mexico, several times, and it's always a treat, no matter the season.  (You can read about my previous adventures in Taos at this link.)  This workshop, in early October, should give us some good color.  If you've not been there before, I've included a few photos I've taken over the years. I hope to see you there!

The Rio Grande

Entry Gate to Mabel Dodge Luhan House

Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande near Pilar

Rio Grande Gorge

Taos Mountain

Mabel Dodge Luhan House

La Morada de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Taos Morada)

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Mindful Painting

Are you one of those painters who strokes repeatedly the same spot on the canvas?  Or one who continues to swirl the brush in a pile of paint on the canvas, blending a mixture that is already well-blended?  Chances are, you're just filling time with a pointless motion until the idea of what to do next comes to you.

When you paint, don't just pay attention to the subject before you but expand your awareness to include the thoughts that drive your brush.  I call this "mindful painting."  Mindful painting will help you pare down your process and make you a more efficient painter.  Does your stroking or blending have a purpose?  If not, stop and decide what will advance your painting.

The next trick, of course, is to become so mindful that you are no longer aware that you are so, and when this happens, the painting truly does become effortless-- and a joy.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Sharpened Brush Handle

If you're like me, what you fear most about painting is having to sign your work.  You need focus and concentration, perhaps a mahl stick to steady the hand, and maybe even to practice first.  The method is prone to failure.  Many artists who paint their signature use a rigger (a long, fine-pointed brush) and paint made fluid with medium.  When I use a rigger, I usually go through several steps:

  • Darn, paint wasn't fluid enough (add more medium)
  • Darn, I added too much medium (add more paint)
  • Darn, signature is too light (or too dark) (wipe it off, tweak the mixture and re-do)
  • Darn, I messed up the signature (wipe it off and re-do)
  • Darn, I messed it up again ( wipe it off and re-do)
  • Darn, I didn't get quite enough paint in the "J" (repaint the letter)

And in the end, it looks like a third-grader made it.

My preference is to use the end of the brush handle to scratch in my signature—it's almost as easy as writing with a pencil.  I think many artists, especially plein air painters, use this method, too.  But I've improved on it.  I sharpen the end of my brush with a pencil sharpener, making for a sharper point.  This lets me scratch down through more paint, even if I've toned the canvas in advance, right to the ground.  So long as the paint hasn't totally cured and is somewhat soft, this works.  The ground shows up white (or nearly so, if the canvas was toned).

Here's a signature scratched in with the sharpened brush handle.

Worse comes to worst, and the signature isn't clear enough, I can still paint the signature over it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

We Have An Opening - Special Plein Air Painting Retreat in Coastal Maine, August 2019

UPDATE: We've just had an opening in the Painting Retreat scheduled for August 11-16 this summer (2019).  If you are interested, please let me know right away, as this spot will be filled soon.  Do not contact West Quoddy Station for lodging just yet; contact me first at

I invite you to join us for a very special plein air painting retreat for experienced painters this summer. Unlike my usual workshops in Lubec, this retreat will be five luxurious days long, giving us plenty of outdoor painting time. Our base camp will be at the beautifully-renovated West Quoddy Station, a historic US Coast Guard campus right on the water. I have reserved the entire week for our retreat, with check-in on Sunday, August 11, and departure on Friday, August 16, for a total of five nights. (And of course, you are more than welcome to extend your stay!)

Here's a short video about the retreat:

(Can't see the video?  Here is a link.)

The Station offers many choices for lodging as there are several buildings. Some are apartments for singles or couples; others are cottages for one or two couples; the Station House has five bedrooms. (All units have kitchens.) Because of the variety, I urge you to bring not just yourself but your painting buddies. If you are a member of a painting group, please extend this invitation to your members. You can find full details and pictures plus pricing on the compound at

The Station is perfectly located for our retreat, as it is right next to Quoddy Head State Park with its trails and lighthouse. If you've never been to this park before, it offers stunning views of the Grand Manan Channel with rocky cliffs and rugged beaches as well as interior trails that wind through bogs and spruce forests. Like I tell my students, I could spend the whole week painting just there! The Station itself, of course, has many picturesque possibilities for us painters.

A short drive from the Station takes you to Lubec, a historic village with a working waterfront that includes fish houses and lobster boats. Lubec also has several restaurants and shops, as well as a nearby medical center and grocery store. (Check out for more information.) Beyond Lubec, there are several trailheads that offer painting opportunities, such as Hamilton Beach and Boot Head. You will need a passport, as we will visit my studio on nearby Campobello Island, which is in Canada, and also paint in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, which has 3000 acres of natural beauty. You won't want this retreat to end!

Each day will start at 8 a.m. with critiques of the previous day's paintings. Following this, I will give some helpful pointers on painting in the area. After that, we'll paint as a group for the morning. Although I won't be giving any formal instruction, I will be offering demonstrations to anyone who wants to watch, serving as your local guide to painting locations, and also painting along with you. After lunchtime, I will give you optional painting assignments for the afternoon. Or, if you prefer not to paint, you can explore—go on a whale watch, take a hike, or visit some of the other villages.

To hold your space for the retreat, you will need to send a $150 non-refundable deposit. The price of the retreat is $300, which does not include lodging or meals. Please e-mail me at first to make sure I have space, and at that time I will give you information about where to send the deposit. After I receive your deposit, I will send a confirmation letter with details. Final payment is due one month before the retreat starts.

I'm looking forward to this retreat, as it is so different from my usual workshops here in Lubec. I hope you'll join us!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Spring in the Canyon: Outdoor Study to Studio

Spring in the Canyon
30x24 Oil/canvas - Available

After I returned home from my painting trip to northern Arizona, I had a hankering to turn one of my little plein air sketches into something bigger.  One image that really spoke to me was the sketch from the very last day, a sketch I hurried through because of the wind and the fact that we had to get on the road by a certain time.  I painted "Face Rock" in about 30 minutes, perched on the edge of a cliff, hunkered down behind a juniper for shelter.  The wind was gusty, though, and found me.

Here's the sketch:

Face Rock
9x6 Oil - Available

I liked the color, the design and the sense of distance in this 9x6 piece.  I decided I could make a bigger statement with it in the studio.

There wasn't much re-designing to do, as I was rather happy with the composition as-is.  So, I took a 24x30 canvas and drew in the design.  The part that I knew would give me the most trouble would be the view in the distance;  in the plein air sketch, I had heavily abstracted it into just a pattern of color, but I knew I'd need a little more going on in a larger painting.  Although I referred mostly to my sketch throughout the painting process, I found a photo (snapped with my Moto G6 phone) that had enough detail to go by.  Using the photo, I played a little with re-organizing the distant space and also with working on getting the form right of the rock featured on the left.  Then I put the photo away, preferring to work as much as possible from my little sketch.

Step 1 – Drawing with black pastel.  I painted the sky in with cerulean blue.  (All colors are from Gamblin Artist Colors.)

Step 2 – I applied transparent washes (using Gamsol) of ultramarine blue, quinacridone magenta and hansa yellow light to the distance.  In the foreground, transparent washes of transparent earth red, ultramarine blue and sap green.  I followed this with reinforcing the drawing of the main rock with quinacridone magenta, straight from the tube.  For this first layer, I used Gamblin's Fastmatte colors so it would dry in a day.

Step 3 – Established the pattern of the canyon in the distance, again with transparent color.

Step 4 – I focussed exclusively on the foreground rock, which is the center of interest.  I applied both opaque and transparent color, building up the form.  I added burnt sienna to my palette.

Step 5 – I worked on the distant view, working to establish a sense of depth with cerulean blue and other colors. I addressed the foreground below the rock tower, using a burnt sienna, transparent earth red, sap green and other colors.

I continued to work on the patterning of the distant view, and I did pull out the photo again to get some ideas on the shapes of cliffs.  Once I thought the painting was complete, I put it away for a day, and then I returned to it, working a little bit more on the most distant rock wall to scumble a few more cool colors over it to push it back a wee bit more.

Who'd think that you could scale up a little 9x6 sketch into a 30x24 finished painting?   I referred to the photo very little, and only when I absolutely needed more information for forms.

Here's the finished painting, in a frame:

Spring in the Canyon
30x24 Oil/canvas - Available

Friday, May 3, 2019

May Newsletter from Michael

Spring in the Canyon
30x24 Oil - Available
(I'll be posting a blog on the creation of
this studio painting soon.)

May 2019
Ramah, New Mexico

It's hard to believe, but another season has gone. In just a few short weeks, Trina and I will be heading off for our summer studios on Campobello Island. This year, though, we're staying a little longer in New Mexico. Thanks to this winter's plentiful snows, we're being treated to a truly wonderful spring, and we didn't want to miss it. The sage on the mesa top is shooting out thick new leaves, and when we hike, we come home smelling of sagey freshness. Nature's brush has scumbled a rich green over the cottonwoods down by the lake. The hummingbirds are back, too. When we work in the yard, we now hear a frequent "zing" as one races overhead.

This past season, I taught several sessions of my Private Painting Intensive in which each day we got to enjoy our beautiful landscape. As part of the program, we took students to the nearby Zuni Pueblo to take a tour with a native, who taught us about their culture's understanding of the local landscape. I believe the more you know about the land—not just its natural history but also its human history—the richer your painting experience will be. Also, because each program is customized for the individual and some of the projects involved "new thinking" for me, I personally grew as a painter. (If you're interested in the Intensive, I already have posted the next season's schedule -

I also taught two full workshops in Sedona. Although we no longer live there, it is fun to go back and refresh our memories of that landscape. Taking students out to paint was, for me, like rekindling an acquaintance with an old friend. Although these days the town seems busier than ever, I know many quiet spots I like to share. (If you're interested in the Sedona all-level plein air painting workshops, I have already posted my future schedule here - I am now only teaching two Sedona workshops a year.)

Every year, I try to take at least one painting trip. In March, I headed to northern Arizona with my friend, M.L. Coleman, and his Lazy Daze RV. We painted at Navajo National Monument, Monument Valley Tribal Park and Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Despite the wind and some snow squalls, we got lots of painting done. (So I can do more of this, Trina and I will most likely be buying some sort of RV in the near future.) You can read it about the trip on my blog:

I was honored to serve as Judge of Awards for the annual Pastel Society of New Mexico National Exhibition and invited to give a demonstration to the group. The overall work at the exhibition was of a very high level, and I enjoyed the unqiue opportunity to spend a whole afternoon viewing the paintings at Sorrel Sky Gallery in Santa Fe. By the way, if your group would like me to judge a show and teach a workshop, I'd be happy to hear from you.

As for the future, I want to remind you that I still have a couple of spaces left in my Lubec, Maine, workshops this summer. You can find details at

Also, please remember that Trina and I host one or two painting retreats each year, and if you'd like to join us, you need to have taken a workshop with me first. We are just now starting to think about a retreat in Taos, New Mexico, in October 2020. If you'd like to join us for that, let me know, and I'll send details once we have them. In the meantime, you can read about some of the history of Taos on my blog, here. The retreats are small, so they fill very quickly!

Finally, don't forget to sign up for emails announcing new small paintings. These paintings are 9x12 or smaller, unframed, and offered at good prices. You can sign up here.

By the way, our lilacs are just starting to bloom. The fragrance reminds me that when we get to Campobello, the lilacs there will just be starting to bloom, too. Until then, enjoy life and be well!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Taos Society of Artists

Taos Mountain

"Mabel's Gate" 9x12 Oil
From the last painting retreat I held in Taos

Several weeks ago, we received a recall notice for our Subaru Outback.  It turned out we were one of 42 million cars being recalled for defective Takata airbags.  We'd been driving the car for five years, carefree, and this new knowledge that we might be showered at any moment by sharp metal fragments flying at high velocity was cause for concern.  We booked an appointment with a dealer in Santa Fe to have the airbag replaced.  But, we decided, why not make a fun trip out of it?  We hadn't been to Taos since the last painting retreat we hosted there, and it was only 90 minutes from Santa Fe.  So, Taos it was. 

I first heard of Taos back in the late 70s.  I was working as a sandwich cook in a college bar in Vermont at the time.  A friend of mine, another lost soul, said he was leaving Vermont for Taos.  "How do you spell that?" I asked, it being the first time I'd heard of it.  Since then, I've had a full and satisfying life, but a small part of me wishes that I, too, had packed up and gone to Taos.  Back then, Taos was a creative stew of hippies, artists and ski bums, and living was cheap.  Today, it's more gentrified, having been discovered by the likes of Julia Roberts and the late Dennis Hopper.  I'm not sure I could afford a house there now.

Ernest Blumenschein Studio

Taos is a small town—the population is about 5700—nestled in a flat area between the deep, blue-walled gorge of the Rio Grande and the juniper-dotted foothills of the Taos mountains.  The name Taos, in the language of the inhabitants of the nearby Indian pueblo, means "place of the red willows."  Spanish, Anglos and native Taoseños have shared the land for hundreds of years, ranching, farming and trading.  Old adobe haciendas, some in better repair than others, and smaller adobe homes still stand, occupied by the old families, in certain parts of town.  It can be a quiet, calm place for a creative person.  And for the plein air painter, well, the scenery is hard to beat.  I especially love it in the fall, when the cottonwoods turn yellow along the pastures below the mountains, which are themselves garbed in golden aspens.

"Buck" Denton Studio
While waiting to have our car worked on, we spent two days in Taos, one of which included Easter Sunday.   Unfortunately, the museums (the Millicent Rogers Museum and the Nicolai Fechin house, among others) were closed that day, and just a few galleries were open.  However, we were armed with a walking tour map, so we entertained ourselves by visiting the studios of members of the Taos Society of Artists.   I'd seen an exhibit on this group at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe last fall.   It reminded me that it had been an active, vibrant group, so we were excited to rediscover these mostly humble studios.  I'd seen some of them on previous visits, but one new to me was the studio of Victor Higgins, which is currently occupied by Parsons Gallery of the West.  I know Parsons—it's one of the best galleries in New Mexico—but didn't know its history.  I've included here a few photos of the studio exteriors.

E.I. Couse Studio

Closeup of Couse's Studio Door

The story of the Taos Society of Artists begins with Joseph Henry Sharp, who visited in 1893 and became enchanted by both the land and the culture.  Later, while studying in Paris with Ernest Blumenschein, he urged Blumenschein to visit it some day.  Finally, in 1898, Blumenschein and fellow painter Bert Phillips, spurred on by Sharp's tales of the American West, headed west, first going by rail to Denver.  Upon reaching Denver, they bought a wagon with a team of horses and drove down to New Mexico.  But their goal was not Taos but Santa Fe, where they'd heard that other artists were starting to settle.  Along the way, an elderly gentleman suggested they visit Taos, so remembering how Sharp had talked about the town, they decided to take a detour.  But twenty miles outside of Taos, the left rear wheel of their wagon broke, stranding them.  Blumenschein won the lottery to carry the wheel on ahead to Taos for repair, leaving Phillips behind on the roadside with the wagon.  On his return with the fixed wheel to fetch Phillips, he told Phillips he liked Taos so much that they should stay there rather than go on to Santa Fe.

Joseph Henry Sharp Studio
(actually attached to the Couse studio)

And so they did.  Phillips ended up making Taos his home, and Blumenschein returned every summer to paint, also finally settling there in 1912.  They encouraged other artists to join them, and in 1915, they founded the Taos Society of Artists, the primary goal of which was to sell their art through traveling exhibitions.  (There were no galleries in Taos in those days.)  From the original founders—Phillips, Blumenschein, Sharp, E.I. Couse, Oscar Berninghaus and W. Herbert "Buck" Denton—it grew to include Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings and Walter Ufer.  Other creative types, not part of the Society, also flocked to Taos, such as artist Nicolai Fechin, the socialite heiress Mabel Dodge and writer D.H. Lawrence.

Walter Ufer Studio - and a Haunted House!

Victor Higgins Studio
(Currently occupied by Parsons Gallery of the West)

Someone once said that working with artists is like herding cats, and that truth, along with infighting, caused the Society to disband in 1927.  However, its reputation had been established, and today paintings by its members are in museums throughout the country.

When you view the paintings of the Taos artists, you can feel the energy they drew from that new, strange place.  It's a pleasure to visit the galleries and museums and to suddenly come across one of their paintings.  For me, it's like seeing Taos for the first time.  (You can see more paintings by members of the Taos Society of Artists on the New Mexico Museum of Art site. )

By the way, I'll be hosting a painting retreat again in Taos in October 2020.  My painting retreats are small, just a handful of participants, and we all live together to really immerse ourselves in the week.  I give past students priority booking for these, so if you are interested but haven't taken a workshop with me yet, you'll want to do othat.  And do let me know if you would like to be notified when I have more information about this retreat.