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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

This Month's Most Popular Posts

I thought I'd start a regular "column" here in my blog.  I'm calling it "This Month's Most Popular Posts."  On the last day of the month, I'll list the top three posts--just in case you missed something.  (And of course, this means I have to write at least three posts a month!)

Here are this month's favorites.

Master Class:  How to Determine the Color of a Light Source
Most people find this hard, so here's how I make it easy.

My New Summer Studio
Every painter needs a barn studio.  Here's mine.

Why I Paint: Communion
We paint for many reasons.  Here's one of mine.
That's the top three, but here are a few more.

Painting the Moon: Astronaut Alan Bean
Alan Bean was the first artist to visit the moon.

Grey and the Colorblind Painter
I'm colorblind -- yes, really!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Help Me Get to Scotland

One of my 6x8 oil paintings of Scotland from my last trip.
Now owned by a lucky collector!

I've been to Scotland twice now, and I love it so much that I'm going again in June 2020 to the Isle of Skye.  Last time, I was able to fund the trip in part by pre-selling a series of small paintings of Scotland—thanks to all who bought them!  I'd like to do the same for this trip.  You can support me in widening my artistic horizons and also get a little piece of Scotland as seen through my eyes.  It is, as they say, a win-win.

Me, painting in Portree on the Isle of Skye

Just like last time, I will keep a color sketch journal during the trip.  Upon my return to the US, I'll paint a series of 6x8 oil paintings based on the journal and photographs.  These paintings will be beautifully framed.  (You can see how I will frame them in the image at the top.)  My goal is to have these completed and shipped by Thanksgiving 2020, so if you're thinking of Christmas gifts, you'll get them in plenty of time.  Price is only $225, which includes frame and shipping to the US.

Me, painting at Talisker Bay on Skye

I am taking orders for these now.  When I announce the completion of the series, I will offer them to those who paid first and go down the list of supporters chronologically.  Let me know if you are interested!  Also, if you have a special subject in mind, please let me know, and I'll do my best to paint it.  You can email me here if you are interested.

You can see the sketches from the 2018 journal here:  and the finished 6x8 paintings here:

Of course, I'll be blogging the whole time, as I did previously; you can read the posts here.

To whet your appetite, here are a selection of the many, many photos I took of Scotland on my previous trips.  Scotland is a landscape painter's paradise, and I am looking forward to my trip and to sharing it with you all.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Recreating the Feeling

"Fog Ascendant" 12x24 Oil - Available

Sometimes, when I'm out walking, I'll see a scene that suddenly lifts my spirits.  I can best describe the feeling as a moment of effervescence, a stream of bubbles shooting to the surface.  The cause might be a spectacular sunset or, as recently in my case, an unusually beautiful cloud formation.  Such a scene is not something one can just pick up a brush and paint.  Paradoxically, careful planning is needed to recreate what was a spontaneous response.

Why?  Because it's not the subject alone that created the feeling.  In the moment depicted in my painting, the cloud wasn't the only player.  Yes, its magnificence took my breath away, but what really stirred me was a combination of things:  the tall vertical of the towering cloud opposing the wide horizontals of land and water; the dominant cool colors of land, sky and water contrasting with small notes of warm white; plus the struggle between the grey fog and the richer colors of sky and land.  I needed to understand all of this before I could paint it.

When I decided to paint this scene, I worked from two photo references and memory, as well as from many years' experience in painting Maritime scenery.  The photos were just snapshots, but I spent several minutes letting my eye rove over the scene, memorizing color and form.  I  paid special attention to trying to figure out why the scene provoked the feeling it did.  When I returned to the studio to paint it, the act of painting recreated the wonderful feeling I felt that morning on the beach.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy – Annual Paintout

Spot the painter!
Theresa MacKnight (oil)

The Bay of Fundy—50 miles wide, 150 miles long.  That's a lot of coastline.  And it's so knotted with tiny coves and peninsulas that, were you to straighten it out, it'd reach almost to the moon.  Well, I'm making that up, but I bet it would be a long distance.   Snuggled up against the bay are two Canadian provinces—New Brunswick and Nova Scotia—and one US state, Maine.  Thanks to the bay, getting from here to there can take more time than you think.

This weekend, members of my painting group, Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy, met for our 13th annual paintout.  We're scattered all around the bay, so I never quite know how many will show up, especially this year, since the paintout was on Campobello Island, which requires two ferry hops from mainland Canada or a long drive around Passamaquoddy Bay and the St Croix River.  Despite that, I think we had a record group—nine painters, plus a number of spouses.  The ones who lived closer by came for the day; those from further afield spent a night or two here, camping at Herring Cove Provincial Park or lodging elsewhere.  Members came from both Maine and New Brunswick; sadly, no one from Nova Scotia was able to attend.

Saturday was the hottest—and muggiest—day of the summer yet.  Much of eastern Canada and the US was experiencing record-breaking heat.  (The heat index for New York City was a life-threatening 106.)   But fortunately for us, we were on Campobello Island, and I can usually find a cool spot to paint in, no matter how hot it gets.  I led our group down to the southern tip of the island, which juts out into the deep, cold waters of the Grand Manan Channel, where we had a nice breeze off the water.  Some of us even wore jackets at the start.  By mid-afternoon, my car thermometer read a cool 70°F (21°C); however, at my studio, which sits on the west side of the island and doesn't get the benefit of those deep, cold waters, the temperature was 87°F (31°C).  That's a full seventeen degrees difference!

After the Fog 11x14 Oil - Available
The first of my two paintings.  Although the fog had departed,
there was a thick haze in the air that weakened the darks. 

Behind the Barrier Beach 11x14 Oil - Available
My second painting.  I loved that little beach rose bush in
front of all that driftwood.  Can you feel the heat?

I worked in oil, as did most of the others, but we also had a couple of watercolor painters and pastellists.  Most of us did two paintings, breaking the day with lunch or a walk along the beach.  When we arrived at our location, it was low tide, and at this particular place, the sea bed has a very shallow angle, so the 26-foot tidal change revealed a vast swath of sand, seaweed and rocky cliffs.  This is one of my favorite times to paint, because the low tide reveals so much.  After lunch, as the tide was coming in, I moved and walked  along the barrier beach—a long, wide, natural dike of cobbles the size of my fist—to paint a view of the lagoon behind it.

But it got hot on that beach.  Despite the breeze, the cobbles reflected heat like a solar cooker, and I ended up drinking an entire bottle of water and sweating it out in an hour.  After that, it was getting late in the afternoon, and I'd promised a tour of my new barn studio, so I packed up and headed home.

After the studio tour, a large group of us headed to a local restaurant (with air-conditioning) for dinner.  We had a fine a view of Passamaquoddy Bay to the west as the sun lowered.  Once dinner was over, a few of us decided to visit the nearby Head Harbour lighthouse to look for whales.  When I got into my car, which was sitting in full sun on pavement, the gauge read 110°F.  That reading was exaggerated, of course, by the oven-like conditions in the parking lot, but I'm sure it was in the 90s.  There wasn't much of a breeze at the lighthouse, so it was hot there, too.  I envied the whales—we saw a couple of minke whales and a few we couldn't identify that blew tall spouts into the air before sounding again—and the life they enjoyed in the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy.

We try to have an exhibition each year, but we didn't arrange one this time.  In the past, we've had exhibitions at venues in either Canada or the US.  Next year, I'm hoping to have an exhibition in St Andrews-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick, with a paintout there just prior to the opening.  Once plans are finalized, I'll announce it on both our website ( and on our Facebook page (

Here are a few photos from the weekend.

Me on the beach
Bruce Newman (oil)

Joyce Morrell (watercolor)

Ann Oliver-Nickerson (pastel)

Simone Ritter (watercolor)

Helen Stephenson (pastel), Carla Perkins (oil)

Joyce Morrell (watercolor), Ann Oliver-Nickerson (pastel)

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Painting the Moon: Astronaut Alan Bean

Harvest Moon
9x12 Oil - Available
by Michael Chesley Johnson

It's one of those historic events about which people ask, "Do you remember where you were when...?"

I was 12, going on 13, staying overnight with friends of the family in Georgia, on a sweltering summer night, watching the Apollo 11 moonwalk on TV.  When the words came, "That's one small step for a man, a giant leap for Mankind," one of the adults said, "Take these binoculars out and see if you can see anything."  As a space buff who'd followed every second of the Apollo flights, I knew better—the moon was a good quarter of a million miles away with the landing site invisible to even Earth's most powerful telescopes—but I humored him and went anyway.  (I'm sure he was just humoring this over-enthusiastic teen, as well.)

I worked my way outside the ring of light cast by a porch light and beyond the dark shapes of pine trees obscuring the night sky.  The humidity wrapped itself around me like a wet blanket; the clear night sang with countless crickets. I looked up, and there was the moon, blindingly bright in its fullness.  I did use the binoculars to scan its surface, noting what was now familiar to so many of us who had watched Walter Cronkite's broadcasts over those last few days, the pale blue splotch marking the Sea of Tranquility.  Although I couldn't see Neil Armstrong and his little lunar lander, I marveled that at that very second, a human tread lightly on the moon.

That was 50 years ago today.  The simultaneity of the moment struck a chord in me that reverberates to this day.  It is fainter, but if I listen closely, I can still hear it.

What also fascinated me that night and the following years as I viewed images from our explorers was the sheer bleakness of the lunar landscape.  Much different from Earth's, it is all rubble, sand and dust with the occasional house-sized boulder thrown in.   Still, I enjoyed looking at detailed maps and glossy photos of it because it was literally an alien landscape.  (We had no Internet in those days, but I could mail-order these from the Government Publishing Office or somewhere.  I did the same with the maps and images of Mars from the Viking landers a few years later.)  I was painting landscapes back then, but it never occurred to me to try to paint moonscapes.

But astronaut Alan Bean did.  Bean was the fourth person to walk on the moon in 1969 for Apollo 12.  When he retired from NASA in 1981, he became a painter—and his specialty was moonscapes.  The biggest problem with moonscapes, he found, was color.  "If I were a scientist painting the moon," he said, "I would paint it gray.  I'm an artist, so I can add colors to the moon."  And add colors he did, enriching that grey world with pastel tints of the rainbow.  You can see his paintings at

Maybe someday a plein air painter will go to the moon.  Because the moon has no atmosphere and the temperature range is extreme, most media won't be practical there.  Pastel, however, is a different story.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Master Class: How to Determine the Color of a Light Source

I can't really tell what the color of the light source is here, but
I can definitely see a blue-violet cast to the shadows within the folds.
So, I'm going to assume the light is the complement, or yellow-orange.
Of course, blue skylight bouncing down into the shadow also
colors the shadow.

"First, determine the color of your light source."  This piece of advice often is shared with painters when they are striving to paint correctly the color relationships of light and shadow areas of an object.  Knowing the color of the light source helps you decide how warm or cool to paint illuminated areas, and consequently, how to paint the shadowed areas.

So how do you determine the light source color?  I must credit Doug Dawson, my friend, fellow painter and art instructor, with this idea.  Take a sheet of white paper, crumple it up, and toss it into the light.  But rather than look at the lit areas of the paper for clues, look into the pockets of shadow.  It's easier to determine the color of shadow than of light.  Once you've determined the shadow color, you can assume that the light will be its complement.

For example, if you see the shadow as a pure blue-violet—often the case on a sunny day with clear air—you can assume the light will be a yellow-orange.  On a cloudy day, the shadow will be lighter and warmer because of the diffused light, which makes the shadow color somewhat harder to gauge.  I sometimes read this as a grey with a slight red bias, which would indicate that the light has a greenish quality.

Finally—and this is my own advice to students—if you can't determine the color of the light, just make a decision.  If you waffle, your light/shadow relationships are likely to be confused, and this will also confuse your viewer.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Time and Tide

After the Tide
16x20 Oil
Available - Email me if interested

"Time and tide wait for no man," the saying goes.  Here on the Bay of Fundy, the tides are tremendous.  They're the highest tides in the world.  Of course, that depends on where you are, exactly, in the Bay.  Here on Campobello Island, the tidal change averages around 28 feet.  So, if you're painting outdoors and typically paint for about two hours (as I do), there's a 10-foot change during that time.   This is significant, and the contour of the shore shifts drastically.

This week I went out to one of my favorite spots on the island to paint a particular rock outcrop that, at high tide, is isolated from the "mainland."  I wanted to paint from a low angle and looking up at the rock, which meant I had to do it from the beach.  I also wanted to make sure I had some water in the scene, which meant I had to do it as high tide approached.   And if I timed it wrong, I might get my feet wet.

But I'm very familiar with the way the tide behaves around this outcrop, so I set up near the wrack-line, which indicates the point the last high tide reached.  I wasn't in any danger.  Plus, I only spent a little over an hour on this 16x20.  Just so you can see the tidal change during that 80-minute period, here is a before and after shot of the scene:

8:38 AM

9:55 AM

By the way, it's gotten to be fashionable for plein air painters to shoot a photo of a painting in the field so it seems to merge with the background painted.  Here's my attempt at that.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Grey and the Colorblind Painter

Seven Miles Out
12x9 Oil - Available Here
The rocks in ths painting exhibit a variety of greys in the sunlight.
After reading my post on greys, can you see how I painted the sunny passages?

Hello, my name is Michael, and I'm a colorblind painter.

Well, not completely colorblind.  As I wrote in an earlier blog post, I suffer from a degree of protanopia, or red-green colorblindness.  About 8% of all men and 0.5% of all women suffer from it.  But for me, I don't consider it a handicap.  If my eyes tell me I'm seeing grey, I don't paint it just plain old grey—I can't trust my ability to mix a true neutral—but I push it into some color family.  As a result, my greys are more interesting, perhaps, than those mixed by a painter with normal vision.

A reader asked how I decide which way to push a grey if my less-than-perfect eyes can't discern its color family.  To help me avoid odd juxtapositions of color, I need my greys, however subtle, to display a color bias that I can actually see.  Here's how I handle that.

If the grey is in sunshine, I first determine the color of the light source; anything touched by it will show a bit of that color.  (I'll tell you how I determine the color of a light source in a future post.)  Let's assume the light is yellow.  Next, I mix a more-or-less neutral grey, often just ultramarine blue and burnt sienna plus white, which makes a warmish grey.  I then add yellow to push it toward the color of the light.  I may tweak this as needed with other colors, but I aim to maintain the influence of the light source.

Whatever the resulting color, this sunlit grey has to look, well, grey.  One trick to making a grey look even greyer is to surround it it with more intense colors.  By the way, white is a useful modifier for light greys.  It will not only cool down a grey that has become too warm but will also help grey it down even more.

On the other hand, if the grey is in shadow, I assume it will be influenced by the complement of the light source—I am thinking here of simultaneous contrast—or of the sky color spilling down into it.  Again, let's assume the light is yellow, so the complement is violet.  I'll take that same warmish grey mixture (ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, but with little or no white) and add violet.  If I can determine that the shadow color is a little more influenced by the sky color, which is usually a blue, I will add some of that, as well.

To get even more interesting greys, I use broken color as I apply paint to canvas.  One of my favorite recipes for painting fog is to scumble pale tints of cool red (cadmium red plus white) and cool green (phthalo green plus white) over each other.   For painting a broad area, I lay down large patches of these two colors, alternating them as I go.  Then I go back and very lightly drag a loaded brush of the complement over each color.  For grey rocks along the coast, I may paint the rocks pink to start, then add greens and blue-greens to grey down the pink.

When I'm working in pastel, I take the same basic approach.  I do have a small set of greys (warm and cool) to scumble over passages I want to grey down, but I rarely start with a grey if I am painting a grey shape.  Instead, I usually first layer complements or near-complements to get a grey, and then use my grey pastels, if necessary, to grey down the passage more.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

New Summer Studio

My New Barn Studio

A proper artist needs a proper studio--even a plein air painter.  There's always stuff to store and paintings that are better adjusted indoors than out.  But as much as I've enjoyed my small studios over the years, I've always had a hankering for a barn studio.  It's not so much that I have a need for more space for stuff as it is a need for just more, well, space.  Room to swing a brush in.  Room for the light to play in.  Room to breathe in.

If you've seen photos of the studios of historic painters, the studios are usually quite large.  Mostly, that's because the painters made big paintings, and they needed a ceiling high enough for their tall easels and room for storing all those big paintings.  And, it seems, they needed space for a day bed for a nap after wielding a big brush all day long.

Here's Jackson Pollack in his studio.  I don't think I'll be painting on the floor, nor will I be painting canvases quite that big.  But I do have my barn studio now, and the electricians have just finished wiring up new lights.  I'm very excited to have it and eager to show it to visitors.  It's also a gallery, filled with my maritime paintings.  I'm calling it "Michael Chesley Johnson Studio at Friar's Bay," and it's open by appointment seasonally.  If you're in the area, email me or give me a call.

Here are some more pictures of the new studio, plus a short video showing it.  (Can't see the video? Here's the link: )

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Why I Paint: Communion

Shadows in the Cove
9x12 Oil
Available Here
I didn't paint the otter into this painting, but he is there, nonetheless.

I'm painting at a secret pond I discovered on one of my hikes.  It lies behind a barrier beach, piled high by the tides with cobble stones.  A small break in the barrier lets the tide come and go into this cove.  The cove's waters are brackish, dyed a deep red by the tannins leached from the peaty soils at its edge.  Spruces and firs, tamaracks and the occasional birch grow so thickly around the pond that they create a land of midnight outside this spot so brightly illuminated in the June sun.

As I get deeper into painting, the nouns and adjectives and verbs cease.  I am looking without talking to myself, as I sometimes do.  Instead, the brush does the speaking, translating what my eyes see into strokes of paint.

If this pond could speak, what it would say is being said in paint.

This moment, where I am one with the pond, becomes inscrutable, ineffable.  Even though words are one tool that I use to explore the world—another being paint—the moment is difficult to examine, even upon reflection, as well as difficult to understand.

"Communion" is the only word that seems to fit.

Communion is most often a religious term, and it means the joining of your spirit with something else, usually a higher power.  For Christians, it's about the union of your soul with Christ or God, or about the union of your soul with other Christians in Heaven and on Earth.  For me as a landscape painter, it is also the moment I spend connecting with the natural world when I paint.  Some might think of this as a secular use of the term, but as I paint the pond I sense a spirit in Nature.  Whatever, there is something sacred about the moment.

Breaking the moment, an otter splashes to get my attention.  As I paint, he continues to paddle back and forth, his small head lifted ever so slightly above the surface, watching, pulling a long wake across the glassy water.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

More New Paintings

One day I went out to paint on a trail that I hadn't  painted on before.
Hard to believe, considering I've spent more than 15 years painting on the island!

Although this has been one of the wetter springs and starts to the summer I can recall on Campobello Island, I've had enough sunny days to get out and paint.  I thought I'd share with you some of this new recent work.  All of them are available for sale at

One thing I've done with these new paintings is to use a large (for me) brush.  This is an #8 synthetic flat from Silver Brush.  I've not used synthetic brushes before because I've always liked the feeling of natural bristle.  But my natural bristles wear down so fast during the block-in!  So, I decided to buy a couple of synthetic ones for blocking in.  I like the feeling of them so much I did the whole painting with them.

You'll note that the scenes are a little different from what I usually paint here.  I've grown a little tired of the compositions that have an arc of beach terminating in some point of land that juts out into the ocean.  So, I've been consciously looking for different motifs.

Outreach 9x12 Oil
I've painted this point plenty of times, but never this loosely.
Available here.

Seven Miles Out 12x9 Oil
Capturing a sense of sunlight on these grey rocks,
which you can see toward the bottom of this cliff,
is always challenging.  By the way, "seven miles
out" refers to the distance from this point to
Grand Manan, which you can see on the horizon.
Available here

Shadows in the Cove 9x12 Oil
A secret  place that I'm not sharing even with students!
The whole time I painted this, an otter swam back and forth,
keeping an eye on me.
Available Here

Shady Barn 6x8 Oil
My new summer studio is in this barn.
Available here

Shady Pond 9x12 Oil
Another favorite spot, at the head of Glensevern Lake.
Available here

Stand Alone 12x9 Oil
Maybe this one should be titled, "What? Still there?" since
every year I come back to Campobello expecting this tree
to have fallen to winter storms.  It's lost many limbs but still stands.
Available here
That's it for now.  I'll have more as the summer continues.