Authentically Human! Not Written by AI!
All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Music as Landscape

Roger Dean's Cover for the LP "Osibisa"

I know, this is supposed to be a blog about painting and, specifically, about plein air painting.  But the main concern of plein air painting, the landscape, doesn't belong to this art form exclusively.  As a long-time lover of the landscape, I've discovered the same beauty in many of the arts.  And most importantly to me, in music.

Like many people my age, music was a vital aspect of college.  Who didn't have a stereo system that occupied more auditory space—and, sometimes, more physical space—than anything else in the dorm room?  When I was a freshman, my roommate had an embarrassingly small stereo, tucked up in an overhead closet.  He had a bucket list of all the popular albums that he wanted to buy and tape.  He played each LP exactly once to record it to cassette tape, and then he put it aside, listening thereafter only to the tape, thus keeping the actual LP in near-pristine condition.  Because his list was long, my education in popular music of the 70s was comprehensive.  Elton John, The Eagles, Bad Company, Pink Floyd—well, it was a very long list.

As the months passed, I made other friends, art students, who were into more alternative music.  (One's musical taste was a political badge; you could learn a lot about a person by the music he listened to.)  Patti Smith, the Ramones, The CureVelvet Underground, Frank Zappa—not as long a list as my roommate's, but it was growing.  Having alternative tastes myself, this music appealed more to me than what the fraternities were blasting out their windows on weekends.

But I've always had eclectic tastes, so over time, my LP collection swelled to include a little bit of everything.  (Yes, even Elizabethan consort music.)  Because my high-rise dorm was a veritable Tower of Babel of music, I finally bought a stereo with headphones so I could listen to my music and not my roommate's or the neighbors' down the hall.  Besides my studies, I also sketched a great deal, and this was always to the accompaniment of music.  Some music I found to be better than others to sketch by—and this was music that evoked a landscape.

Some of this music I might call representational art, as opposed to non-objective.  Albums like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here contain samples of actual noises—cars speeding up and driving away, for example.  These speak immediately of real landscapes.  Others, like Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, are more abstract yet still conjure up a landscape.  Tubular Bells is peripatetic, a stroll (sometimes a mad dash) through an incredibly varied world.  And although Yes, for me, doesn't create a mental landscape, the stunning LP covers of fantasy landscapes by Roger Dean are magical in the way they help the listener project the visual onto the musical.  The covers have nothing to do with the actual music, but while listening to the album and studying the art, my imagination welded the two together.

Some of my sketches made to music were pretty wild, I remember.  I'd love to share some of them with you, but a search through my archives proved fruitless.  So instead, I encourage you to slip on a pair of Koss Pro 4A headphones, throw Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans on the Technics direct-drive turntable, crank up the Garrard amp, and sketch your own worlds.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

En Plein Air Pro: Pastel Plein Air System

The En Plein Air Pro Pastel Easel System

It's been a few years since I reviewed En Plein Air Pro's oil and acrylic system.  Now I have a new setup to tell you about:  the En Plein Air Pro pastel system.  If you're a pastel artist who likes to paint on-location, this well-designed package offers everything you need for a successful outing.  Unlike some systems that make you undertake a series of yoga poses when putting everything together, this one sets up easily and quickly.  On my test runs with it, I had everything ready to go in about five minutes.  Here are a few things I'd like to highlight.

First, the pastel palette.  The durable plastic box, divided into six sections, is lined with foam pads to protect up to 108 of your precious pastel sticks.  (Or many more, if you're like me and hang on to those little, well-loved nubs.) What I like best about the box, though, are the two extendable wings, one on each end.  I'm always searching for a place to lay the sticks that I have selected, and the wings solve that problem.  What's more, they have a series of grooves to hold the sticks so they don't roll off into the grass.   By the way, the lid of the box can function as a sunshade.  With the included bungee cord, it attaches to the tripod to keep sun off your pastels, making it easier to judge color value.  The box “hangs” on the tripod legs for comfortable access.

Next, the aluminum panel holder.  The holder attaches to the head of the tripod with a quick release plate, giving great flexibility in your working angle.  Two ABS brackets hold your backboard securely but swing out of the way for compact storage.  The brackets can hold boards anywhere from 6”x8” to  22” tall.  One of my favorite features is the dust ledge.  This metal piece piece screws quickly to the panel holder just below the bottom bracket, and it's wide enough to catch most of the dust that falls.

One of the problems I've run into with some systems is an inadequate tripod.  Pastel painters can put quite a bit of pressure on the work surface, and not all tripods, especially the ones with plastic heads, are up to it.  En Plein Air Pro comes with the Slik U8000 tripod, which is perfect for this setup.  Although it does have a plastic head, in my test sessions it held up under attack.  I was able to paint quickly and with abandon but without having to worry about the board twisting.

Finally, there's the heavy duty backpack.  When you open up the box, it looks like just a nicely-tailored black bag with a couple of carrying handles and lots of straps for securing extras to. (The tripod, by the way, fits neatly inside.)  But concealed inside a zippered pouch are two shoulder straps and a waist strap, should you decide to convert it into a backpack.  So, you can either hike with it on your back, or you can carry it by its handles.

I enjoyed working with this new system, and I recommend it for beginners because of its ease of set-up but also for experienced painters because of its handy features and stability.  The system is now available at 

Pastel palette, showing grooved 
side trays and cover used as sunshade

Panel holder with my backboard in 
place; dust ledge beneath

The pastel palette closed and stored with bungie cord

The bag converts quickly
and easily into a backpack.

The bag

Pack with hidden backpack straps revealed

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Parting with Art

Snow and Rocks II - 9x12 oil - Available
One my favorites I'll have a hard time parting with.

Do you have a hard time parting with the paintings you've made?  I do, especially if they are recent ones.  But many times, I feel the same about the old ones.  As much as I appreciate the money, my heart drops a little when an order comes in.

Each painting contains a bit of the magic that happens when I'm working.  For a plein air painting, it's a distillation of the moment:  the wine cellar fragrance of the ponderosa pines; the solitary call of the canyon wren; the soft carpet of last year's oak leaves beneath my boots.  For a studio painting, it's a crystallization:  the pressure of thought and emotion and memory, working against sometimes intractable material, with the molecules suddenly snapping into alignment, creating a new thing of beauty.

How can I part with one?  The painting may hang on the wall, sit on a shelf or collect dust in a box, but it still possesses the magic.  Even a small piece, squeezed into a plastic file crate with a hundred others and stored in a closet.  When I go hunting for the one that has sold, it's not just that one that sparkles with magic—they all sparkle.

It takes awhile for me to truly be ready to wrap up a painting and ship it off.  I need time with my paintings, even after they are done.  I want to savor them to the fullest.

Don't get me wrong—I am grateful for my collectors.  And I am also grateful that they understand me when I say parting is hard.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

November 2020 Newsletter

"Village Poplars"
8x10 casein on board - Available
I've been playing with painting in casein lately.  More
on that in a future post.

November, 2019 
Ramah, New Mexico 

As the time to write another newsletter approached, I found myself scratching my head and wondering: How should I begin? 

Like many of you, Trina and I have spent the bulk of 2020 dealing with issues that should never trouble a citizen of an enlightened and developed country. Yet, I've decided to emphasize the positive. I'm not putting my head in the sand—believe me, with three close family members working in hospitals and extremely elderly parents, I'm acutely aware of current events. But again, like many of you, I think being positive may do more good. This year, I've had: 
  • More time to spend with family and to create good memories
  • More time to focus on painting for myself and growing as an artist
  • More time to focus on writing projects that help me understand the world and my place in it
  • More time to spend reading books on my wish list and learning
  • And more time to take long walks to refresh my spirit among the pines and oaks

In many ways, it has been a wonderful year—and I'm optimistic that 2021 will be even better. 

My last newsletter was in June. Since then, I've been in two exhibitions (many shows went virtual this year and were only online): In August, the Pastel Society of New Mexico Signature Members' Exhibition; in September, the American Impressionist Society Online Exhibition; and now in November, the Plein Air Painters of New Mexico National Annual Exhibition. I've interviewed several artists for Watercolor Artist, Pastel Journal and The Artists Magazine. I've been working on my series of Pandemic Sketchbooks, which consist of 5x8 gouache sketches, painted en plein air on daily hikes into the canyon behind the studio. Also, Trina and I have been traveling locally in our Pleasureway camper van, giving me a chance to paint in places I normally wouldn't get to. And finally, although I had to cancel all my workshops and retreats for 2020, I've been hosting private, one-on-one critiques and mentoring sessions via Zoom. 

Now that you're all caught up on the news, here are some things coming up. 

50% Holiday Sale 

Through December 31st, I'm offering 50% off of any painting and any number of paintings from my website. To make shipping easier, these will all be unframed (even if the description says they are framed.) I'll include free shipping to the lower 48 states; if you need them shipped elsewhere, I'll bill you for shipping. Also, keep in mind that most of my Maine and Canadian Maritimes paintings are trapped at my Canadian studio; I won't be able to ship those until Canada lets US visitors in again. Southwestern paintings, however, I can ship with no problem. Use the coupon code “Holiday50” on checkout for the discount. 

2021 Calendar 

Every year, I put together a calendar of some of my favorite works from the year. This year, the price on the calendar is only $10.99. You can get yours here: 

New Book! 

Yes, I have a new book to work on! It will be released in 2022 by a major publisher. As excited as I am about this project, which will consume most of the winter, I can't say anything about it yet.   (But it will be a book worth having in your plein air painting library!)

Plein Air Convention & Expo 

I will be at the May 2021 Plein Air Convention and Expo in Denver. If you remember, the 2020 PACE was originally scheduled for May in Denver, but because of the pandemic, it was rescheduled for Santa Fe in August, which didn't fit my schedule. So, the 2021 PACE will be in Denver, and I'll be there (if this one isn't also cancelled!) Details will be announced at


Zoom Critiques. One-on-one, private sessions to help you in your craft. You send me images of two paintings, I run them through my Photoshop mill to make them better, and then we talk about them as I go through them step-by-step. Also mentoring available. $25 for one two paintings and a 40-minute session. Details at 

Sedona, Arizona. All-Level Plein Air Painting Workshop, April 6-9, 2021.  Spring is beautiful in Sedona, and we should catch some spring greens against the red rocks and along Oak Creek. If you're looking for inexpensive lodging, the studio offers two rooms at $75/night. (There's plenty of lodging elsewhere, though.) Only $300. For full details, visit 

Ramah, New Mexico. Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Program, Spring and Fall 2021. If you are an experienced painter and want to reach the next level in your craft, consider this program. I'll customize it just for you. Only $1400, which includes lodging and meals. (A tuition-only version for $700 is also available.) For full details, visit  

Lubec, Maine. July 27-30 & August 3-6, 2021. All-Level Plein Air Painting Landscape Workshops. Summertime is the time to paint the ocean, and in this workshop, we'll paint bold cliffs, crashing waves, lighthouses, historic harbors—everything Downeast Maine might conjure up in your mind. And, yes, lobster! $300. Details at 

If you're unable to join me for one of these workshops and would like to fine-tune your plein air painting skills, check out my courses at I offer online, self-study, self-paced courses, and at this web site you can get my monthly discount codes for them. 

Painting Retreats 

What's a painting retreat? It's a gathering of like-minded artists who want to spend some serious time painting and enjoying the camaraderie of others. As the organizer, I offer critiques of work painted; invite participants to treat whatever I paint as a demonstration; and serve as location guide and on-site consultant. Trina and I have been doing these for several years now, and we love it. 

Lubec, Maine. August 8-13, 2021. Stay at the beautifully-renovated US Coast Guard campus on West Quoddy Head, very close to the lighthouse, and paint bold cliffs, cobble beaches, tamarack bogs, historic fishing villages and boats. And yes, there is lobster! Download the detail sheet here. 

Taos, New Mexico. September 26-October 1, 2021. Besides a wealth of stunning scenery including the Rio Grande Gorge and Taos Mountain, the town has a long history with painters. As part of the retreat, we'll also arrange to tour the Nicolai Fechin House, the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, and other historic artist studios. Optional painting at Ghost Ranch before or after the retreat. Meals and lodging not included. $300.   Contact me for this.

Isle of Skye, Scotland. June 11-18, 2022. We did this retreat in 2018 and had a great time, working with a local artist guide to visit some spectacular locations. We’re very excited to do it again! Very limited size. Painters only, due to limitations in facilities. Currently filled, but contact me to be put on “interested” list.

That's all for now!

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Exhibition

 I'm happy to announce that two of my paintings, "Path to the Shed" and "Near Los Gigantes," are in the annual Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Juried Member's Exhibition.  You can see these two 9x12 oil paintings in the postet above, and also below.

The exhibit runs from November 7 - 29, 2020 at the Wilder Nightingale Fine Art Gallery in Taos, New Mexico.  Although the opening reception has been cancelled due to the pandemic, the awards ceremony will be held via Zoom.  For details, visit  TO PURCHASE THE PAINTINGS, visit

Near Los Gigantes, 9x12 Oil

Path to the Shed, 9x12 Oil

Sunday, November 1, 2020

App: The Notanizer

Thumbnail samples from my sketchbook

I'm standing in front of my painting workshop students, armed with vine charcoal and paper.  I'm about to show how helpful it can be to create a notan sketch prior to painting.  I carefully analyze the scene and begin to explore a variety of designs in charcoal.  “You can group a set of values that are adjacent on the value scale into a single value and—“

About this time, a student interrupts to tell me about a really nifty app on her phone that does all this at a touch.

“Let's see,” I say.  She pulls out her iPhone and demonstrates.  Alas, my phone runs on Android, so I won't be able to install the app.  But yes, I agree, it is nifty.  And then I continue the lecture with my Neolithic tools.

By now, the Japanese concept of the “notan” should be a familiar one to visual artists.  Briefly, imagine looking at the world in black and white—literally. That's what a notan sketch does.  It simplifies the world of a hundred values into just two.  For the artist, it makes the task of wrestling all that complexity into a pleasing design far easier.  Sometimes, the number of values can be expanded to three or four, but keep in mind that the more values, the harder the task.

One of the questions I've always had about any notan app is, Can you control how it groups values?  For example, can you tell it to group everything between 0% and 46% grey as the darkest value?  Or does the app apply a strict rule, grouping only between 0% and 25% as the darkest value?  With my stick of vine charcoal, I have total control over how values are grouped.  

I asked my student this question, but she wasn't sure.  Since then, I haven't had the opportunity to look into it but, alas, my phone is an Android phone....

But recently I learned that the Notanizer app, which once worked only on Apple devices, now works on Android devices.  So, I installed it from the Google Play store.

I was pleased to learn that it does let me control how the values are grouped, doing so through a set of sliders at the bottom of the screen.  Also, it lets me see an image in several ways:  as a traditional two-value (black and white) notan, or as a three-value or four-value notan.  There's also an option to view the image with up to ten values, but frankly, I don't find that as useful for design work. 

All in all, it's a nifty app indeed.  A Notanized image can be a quick reference when you're wrestling with values in your painting.

The only issue is, if I have elements that fall into widely-separated points on the value scale, and I think the design would be better if I made them the same value, I can't do that.  (Think of sunlit areas on a tree that is mostly dark, and you want to make it all one dark value shape.)  The sliders don't give me that ability.  So, for the time being, I'll continue to make my thumbnail sketches by hand.  

But there are two more reasons why I want to do it the old-fashioned way.  First, the creation of a notan manually gets your hand, eye and brain working together to better understand a scene's value structure.  Second, going through the motions with Neolithic tools of your choice is, in a way, a rehearsal for the actual painting, and you can do it as many times as needed to work out issues before setting brush to canvas.  You don't get any of this by tapping a button on an app.

Still, I'll keep playing with Notanizer.  It will certainly be great as a teaching tool—a set of training wheels, if you will—but I'm uncertain about its value for the experienced painter. 

By the way, if you'd like to learn more about notan, read Arthur Wesley Dow's excellent book, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color.

Here are some screenshots of Notanizer:

Image shown in full color

Image shown in black-and-white
with full value range

Simple, two-value notan

Three-level notan with default value
distribution.  I don't like the way the sky is
broken up into two values, so I will move the sliders...

...until the sky is all one value. Better!
Plus, I also adjusted the cast shadows so I can see
the darkest areas more clearly.

Default four-value notan.
Same problem with the sky. So...

...I move the sliders to make the
sky a single value.

Here's the slider for up to 10 values.
Not very useful for the plein air painter,
since we have to be fast! Too many values,
too much time.