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

Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020: The Year that Wasn't—or Was It?

The paintings I made in 2020.  These don't include the
Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vols. 1-3.  

It's that time again when we bloggers cast an eye back at the past year.  In many ways, 2020 was the year that wasn't:  plans were scuttled; anxieties sprouted like weeds; and, perhaps most sadly, brother fought against brother.  

But on the other hand, some good things came of what I call the “damndemic.”  I mastered Zoom and trained myself to mute both my microphone and camera in an instant.  I read the entire series of Michael Connelly's Bosch novels, all 22 of them, and now can walk my way through a murder scene like a pro.  Trina and I discovered “The Great Courses” and can expound for hours on Native American history, Celtic history and something called Big History.  We watched countless different BBC versions of “Mansfield Park”—or was it “Wuthering Heights” or perhaps “Jane Eyre”?  (They have started to blur together.)

But seriously, I am thankful for our little family and the extra time we've had together.  This spring, we bought a used 1999 PleasureWay camper van, which we take out on local overnight trips for our mental health.   I cook breakfast for us every day, alternating between hot cereal—muesli with Craisins and pecans being the current favorite—and an egg dish, usually a vegetarian omelette, although huevos rancheros is becoming my specialty. Blessed with plenty of hiking right from our front door, we take two or three nice walks a day with Raku, who also is grateful for the extra time.

I was lucky enough to sell several paintings this fall as part of my 50% Holiday Sale.  (By the way, it's still going on until the end of the year.)  A publisher offered me a contract to write what I consider “the” definitive book on plein air painting.  And I've been doing a great deal of sketching in gouache and casein in the little canyon behind our house—a wonderful meditation practice that has stamped down many of those sprouting anxieties.  This damndemic, despite its bad reputation, has fostered my personal growth.

What will 2021 bring?  Two vaccines have been approved here in the US, with more waiting in the wings.  Still, I'm not counting on a miracle happening just yet.  But with optimism I've scheduled a few summer workshops in Maine, and I dearly hope I'll be permitted to travel to Campobello Island to my studio there.  I'm looking forward to being part of the faculty of the Plein Air Convention in May in Denver which, I'm told, will go on in some form.  I'm also looking forward to more work on the book—the task of assembling paintings, illustrations and text is a pleasure indeed—and, yes, to finally handing it to my editor.  And as for painting, I hope to turn some of my little gouache sketches into bigger studio pieces.

We will keep pushing on—cheerfully. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Scottish Colourists

Samuel Peploe:  "Tulips--the Blue Jug"
National Galleries Scotland

As you might remember, we had scheduled an Isle of Skye painting retreat for this past summer.  But, as with many plans for 2020, things changed.  And because we didn't know what the summer of 2021 would be like—would the vaccine come soon enough?—we cautiously rescheduled it a little farther out, for 2022.

But this hasn't stopped us from yearning.  Our Google Chromecast device, hooked up to our TV, tempts us with a slideshow from our past trips whenever we're waiting for a movie to load from Amazon.  It's a joy to see—you can't take a bad photo anywhere on the Isle of Skye—and a reminder of what we'll find waiting for us when we do get back.

Recently, Trina came across a Zoom lecture series on the Scottish Colourists.  Having seen an exhibit of their work at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum a few years ago, I immediately signed up.  Four hour-long lectures for only 12£ (a little over $16 USD)—a real bargain.

“An Introduction to the Lives and Works of the Scottish Colourists,” hosted by the Berwick Educational Association and presented by Prof. Maria Chester, set the scene by examining the historic relationship of Scotland and France—a necessary step, since the Colourists spent most of their painting years in France—and then, after an overview of what the Colourists were all about, dived into detailed biographies of each of the four artists.  Although their paintings excited me at the Kelvingrove, I still didn't know much about them, so I enjoyed learning more through this very professional presentation.

So who where the Scottish Colourists?  From the National Galleries Scotland web site:

The term ‘Scottish Colourists’ describes four Scottish painters, Samuel John Peploe, F.C.B. Cadell, G.L Hunter and J.D. Fergusson, a set of radical artists in their day who enlivened the Scottish art scene with the fresh vibrancy of French Fauvist colours. Although the name suggests they were all living and working together in Scotland, they were not a close knit group with a specific set of aims, and only exhibited together on three occasions while they were all still alive.

Although early paintings suffer from a rather dull, tonalist style, their time in early 20th century France drenched their later work in color.  Portraits, landscapes and still lifes all pulse with color—not quite as crazy as some Fauvist work, but exciting nevertheless.

You can read more about them here:

Next time we're in Scotland, I'm hoping to see more of their work.

F.C.B. Cadell: "Iona Croft"
National Galleries Scotland

J.D. Fergusson: "La Voile Persan"
Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery

G.L. Hunter: "Still Life"
Dundee Art Galleries and Museum

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Wilson Hurley: Painter of the Big Landscape

Central panel, “The New Mexico Suite,” by Wilson Hurley, 1992.  16'x16', oil on canvas. 
Collection of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Not too long ago, a friend, an accomplished painter and critic of art, announced that he'd just gotten a new book.  “It's the best art book I've ever seen,” he said.  The subject:  New Mexico artist Wilson Hurley.  I've admired Hurley's work over the years, and looking for a gift for my birthday, Trina bought it for me.  With gorgeous reproductions and a detailed life story, The Life and Art of Wilson Hurley: Celebrating the Richness of Reality is, indeed, one of the best books I've come across, too.

Wilson Hurley (1924-2008) is perhaps most famous for his large-scale depictions of the West.  If you've ever flown into the Albuquerque airport, you might have seen “La Cueva Sunset, East”  and "La Cueva Sunset, West." The vast size (63”x135”) of these two paintings brings to the visitor the grandeur of Albuquerque's Sandia Mountains.  They are impressive, but not his largest paintings.

Hurley attended West Point, flew fighter jets over the Pacific in World War II, got a law degree and then became what he called a “Sunday painter.”  But after founding a bank and working as an engineer at Sandia Labs—yes, he was a man of many talents—he went full-time as a painter.  The only thing that interrupted his long career as an artist was the Vietnam war, in which he went back into the military as an air traffic controller.  When he returned to painting, he found himself painting large-scale commissions such as the five triptychs for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum:  The New Mexico Suite (1992), The California Suite (1993), The Arizona Suite (1994), The Utah Suite (1995) and The Wyoming Suite (1996).  As an example of the size of some of his larger pieces, the central panel of The New Mexico Suite alone is 16 feet by 16 feet.

All of this large studio work was based on smaller plein air studies:

His early painting procedures involved making pencil sketches, detailed color notes and photographs.  Above all, he relied heavily on his visual memory. … He became convinced that accurate color and values are best determined by painting directly from life.  … He saw his own work improve, and he became a relentless advocate that truth in atmospheric perspective, values and color comes from mixing paint and working directly on the studies outdoors.

Hurley is quoted:

"In the field, I first do a few compositional studies in pencil and then go to work directly in oil, mixing my colors in the shadow of my panel, the palette lit by the overhead sky.  Mixing color in sunlight is much too bright for control, and mixing under an opaque umbrella or shade causes the palette to be flooded by orange or  yellow light that reflects off the surrounding ground.

"The method of painting by overhead sky light seems to give me the freshest color and the best fidelity.  When the panels have dried, I lay them flat on my taboret in the studio and touch my mixed color to them until I have a complete match.  Then I use these colors to paint the larger painting.”

(As an aside, I've learned over the years that most professional studio landscape painters also paint en plein air; but for them, it's not a “thing” on its own but just part of being a painter.  They don't make a big deal of it.)

The book, besides being both biography and catalog, contains sections on Hurley's studio, materials and technique.  As a painter, I particularly enjoyed reading these sections.  But I will warn you:  At 380 pages, this book is heavy, tipping the scale at nearly seven pounds.  The only way I could work through it comfortably was while lying on the couch with a pillow supporting it.  But I do think that is the way a coffee table art book should be enjoyed, and with a cup of hot tea.

Here's an interview with Hurley: 

The book is available from Amazon: 

"La Cueva Sunset, East" by Wilson Hurley, 63"x135", oil on canvas.
Collection of the City of Albuquerque.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vol. 2

5x8 Casein Sketch from Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vol.2

If you've been following me on Instagram, you'll have been witness to my almost-daily hikes into the little canyon behind my studio.  I started these hikes not long after New Mexico “locked down,” back when the pandemic began in the spring.  I began a series of sketchbooks, which I'm calling the Pandemic Sketchbooks, with the intent not just of making studies of the canyon but also of clearing my mind.  The act of sketching, plus the hike in and out, gives me an hour or so in which I am happily removed from the world, a world that seems so full of politics and anger and fear and disappointment.  The canyon wrens and cliff swallows don't care about any of that, and when in their company, neither do I.

This week, I finished Volume 2.  If you're not one of my Instagram followers, I thought I'd share a few of my favorites from that volume.  Many of these were made in gouache, and I've written about that medium before.  But most recently, I'm been working in casein.  Stephen Quiller turned me on to that.  It's very similar to gouache, but unlike gouache, it can't easily be rewetted once dried, so it's not available in pans but only in tubes.  I tend to waste more than I like, but over time, I'll fine-tune the amount I need to squeeze out for a sketch.  One thing I've discovered is it's best to put out only the colors you need for the start, which for me includes ivory black, raw sienna and Venetian red.  I don't even think about putting out the other colors—Naples yellow, rose red, ultramarine blue, Shiva green and titanium white—until much later.

By the way, my 50% Sale is still going on until the end of December.  Anything on my web site store is eligible, and I include free shipping to the lower 48 states.  For full details:

5x8 gouache

5x8 gouache

5x8 gouache

5x8 casein

5x8 casein

5x8 gouache

5x8 casein