All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Monday, December 27, 2021

My Art History: Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021)

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"San Francisco, West Side Ridge" by Wayne Thiebaud
36x36 Oil


I don't remember when I first came across the work of Wayne Thiebaud, but I am sure the encounter involved cakes or pies or maybe even ice cream cones.  Thiebaud is famous for these paintings of sweet desserts.  They are so thickly-painted, it is said, that they themselves often resemble cakes, each topped with an abundance of icing.  

I like these paintings, but even more, I prefer his landscapes.  Most people I run into, when I mention Thiebaud, remark, “Oh, the artist who painted all those pies!”  They aren't familiar with his landscapes, which often present the viewer with dizzying perspectives and streets going straight up, with buildings and trees and cars perched on impossible slopes.  In some ways, these paintings resemble a Diebenkorn painting, unflattened and with a little realism re-installed, and then distorted in an alarming way.

Thiebaud started off painting the landscape from life with artist Norman Hart of Long Beach, California.  The first time out, Hart took him to Palm Beach to paint.  But he began to prefer to sketch on-location and to save the painting for the studio.  An inveterate sketcher, he once said:  “I actually can’t think of any place I haven’t taken a sketchbook—hospitals, churches, ships, airplanes, even to the tennis courts.”  

But clearly, something happens between Thiebaud's sketches and the finished landscape paintings.  This creative “something”—a  process—is what we artists need to develop for ourselves.  Even if we can't put a name to it, it is a way to one's unique vision.  Thiebaud noted rightly that all painting is cumulative and collaborative; yet when the artist runs the raw material of the world through this process, the result can be—should be—a brand-new thing.

Thiebaud passed away this week at 101.  Till the very end, he was working in his studio.  A photo I saw of him lecturing in 2018 shows what appears to be a man no more than 80 or possibly even 70—but he was 98 at the time.  You can read more about him in this excellent article.

"Valley Farm" 16x22 Watercolor

"Up Street" 24x12 Oil

"Valley Farm" 11x8 Gouache


Sunday, December 26, 2021

Encounter: Interview with Calvin Liang

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Watch it here


I recently had the chance to chat with California artist Calvin Liang for my ongoing series of interviews of artists from my new book, Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air. Originally from China, where he studied at the prestigious Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts and did theatrical set design, Calvin moved to California once his country opened its borders. Soon employed by Disney and Nickelodeon, he worked on many animated films including “Little Mermaid” and “Spongebob Squarepants.”  Always eager to return to fine art, he finally did so full-time, and since then he's won many awards and has been featured in many exhibitions. He has Master Signature membership with Oil Painters of America—a very distinguished achievement indeed.  (Visit www.CalvinLiangFineArt.com.)

I was pleased to meet Calvin several years ago when each of us was invited to participate at the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, one of the country's premier plein air painting competitions. And so it was my pleasure to talk to him again, this time in his studio in southern California. You can either watch the video below or through this link: https://youtu.be/UTF8rZEgvKM



You can view the entire playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7uFe0ZxvExKRxn2kGrTa4ChYzd44sPJt

In case you haven't heard about my book, it features 15 master artists who share their tips and techniques for plein air painting. This 160-page book is packed with demonstrations, illustrations and, of course, beautiful paintings. The book, which will come out March 2022, is available for pre-order from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can get details at the following links:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1684620457

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/beautiful-landscape-painting-outdoors-michael-chesley-johnson/1140004875?ean=9781684620456


Tuesday, December 21, 2021

NFTs – Should I Worry?

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Magritte's "The Treachery of Images"



By now, you've probably heard the buzz around NFTs.  If you haven't, you probably will soon.  The art world seems to have caught NFT fever.

NFT is an acryonym for “Non-Fungible Token.”  It's something for sale that exists only in the digital world.  But unlike a streaming movie you  and a thousand other people might buy tonight from Netflix, an NFT is a unique, one-of-a-kind item.  If I buy it, you won't be able to.

How's that possible? you may ask.  Can't digital items be copied endlessly, ad infinitum?  Well, yes, but there are mechanisms in place that keep the NFT unique so that only one person at a time can possess it.  (It all has to do with cryptocurrency and blockchains, something beyond the scope of this article.)  A work of art that is an NFT can be sold or put up for auction, just like an original painting, and the buyer is guaranteed that he possesses the only one.

But in the “real” world, this work of digital art exists only as a chunk of binary code.  Sure, if the code can be executed by your computer and displayed as an image, you can print it out and hang it on your wall and enjoy it as a work of art, but that's not the NFT.   The NFT actually IS that chunk of binary code – and not the printed representation of it.  You can print out many of these “copies” of the NFT and sell them, but they aren't the NFT that you may have paid millions for at auction.  (Yes, millions.  Someone recently paid $6.6 million for a video – well, actually the NFT, not the video – by an artist named Beeple.)

Does this all sound weird?  To me, it sounds like something Jonathan Swift would have dreamed up for his satirical Gulliver's Travels.   Or something Magritte would have painted, such as “The Treachery of Images,” which features a pipe with the legend, “Ceci n'est pas une pipe.”  Or something John Cage might have composed, like his piece that contains four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.  In other words, a joke with a point.

So, as an artist, do you need to worry about NFTs?  I'm not going to worry.  After all, I have enough trouble handling the technical aspects of my web site without trying to learn how to handle cryptocurrency and NFTs, too.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Encounter: Interview with Stephen Quiller

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Watch it here


While I eagerly await an advance copy of my book, Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air, I am interviewing some of the contributing artists in a series of videos.  Here's my first one, with master artist Stephen Quiller.  Stephen is an internationally-known painter who works primarily in watermedia, monotypes, and intaglio printmaking. He's best known for his innovative approach to working in watercolor, gouache, acrylic, casein and their combinations, and for his use of color. He has written six books, all published by Watson-Guptill, and teaches workshops in both the US and abroad.  He also invented the Quiller Wheel, which offers a very intelligent way of describing color and is a great learning tool.  (Visit www.QuillerGallery.com.) 

I've admired Stephen's colorful work for many years, and it was a delight to talk to him.  You can either watch the video below or through this link: https://youtu.be/u6ZRpScJXuM



In case you haven't heard about my book, it features 15 master artists who share their tips and techniques for plein air painting.  This 160-page book is packed with demonstrations, illustrations and, of course, beautiful paintings.  The book, which will come out March 2022, is available for pre-order from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  You can get details at the following links:


Sunday, December 12, 2021

My Art History: Thomas Cole

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Thomas Cole's paintbox, complete with pig's bladders


Of the Hudson River School painters, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was the first.  Although he lived a short life, he inspired many of the Hudson River painters who followed him, including his protégé, Frederic Church.  Born in England, at age 17 he settled with his family in Ohio, later moving to Pennsylvania and, finally, to Catskill, New York.  Working first as an engraver, he moved on to portraiture but soon discovered his main love, the natural landscape.  Landscapes took off for him as a marketable art when a patron financed a trip for him to the Hudson Valley, where he gathered reference material and returned to the studio to paint Kaaterskill Falls and other sublime  subjects.  Two of the paintings ended up in an 1826 exhibition – Cole was only 25 at the time – and caught the attention of some better-known painters, like John Trumbull, painter of The Declaration of Independence, who helped him rise in stature. In his later years, Cole spend a good deal of time in Europe, sketching Italian and Greek landscapes and ancient ruins.

In 1831, while in Florence, Cole began to sketch in oil en plein air, a way of gathering reference material that he apparently learned from another painter.  This was before the invention of the paint tube (1841.)  In Cole's day, painting with oil in the field meant carrying the paint in pig's bladders—a messy proposition at best. You can see these in the photo above.  I don't know if he ever made the move to paint tubes.

In his essay, “American Scenery,” he first notes the abundant beauty that the natural landscape gives us and then mourns how a rapidly-industrializing America is heading the way of Europe in tearing up the countryside.  He laments that the country will not change from this path:

This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel; it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.

Yet finally, he waxes with guarded optimism:

I will now conclude, in the hope that, though feebly urged, the importance of cultivating a taste for scenery will not be forgotten. Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly. … May we at times turn from the ordinary pursuits of life to the pure enjoyment of rural nature; which is in the soul like a fountain of cool waters to the way-worn traveller.

Cole embodies his generally pessmistic outlook in  his wonderfully imaginative series, The Course of Empire.  I have always loved these five paintings, which describe the history of an imaginary city as it rises out of wildness to the peak of civilization, only to descend into a desolate landscape, empty of Man save for a few marble columns.  (I am reminded of Shelley's poem, “Ozymandias.”)  As a reader of fantasy and science fiction, I find a kinship between these literary genres and the paintings; they would make great covers for a five-volume epic.

The Course of Empire
Collection of The New York Historical Society
All oil on canvas and 39.5” x 63.5”, except for “The Consummation of Empire” at 51″ x 76″

The Savage State, or, The Commencement of the Empire (1834)

The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1834)

The Consummation of Empire (1836)

Destruction (1836)

Desolation (1836)


Sunday, December 5, 2021

Cleaning Brushes

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Granted, cleaning up is a lot less fun than painting.  All that said, it's hard to start a new painting when your studio is a mess—especially your brushes.

Recently, a reader asked me about brush cleaning:  How do you clean brushes while painting, especially when switching from one color to another?  Also, she has become very ill, and her doctor, who has made many tests, believes that mineral spirits are the cause.  What other option, she asked, does she have for cleaning brushes?

First, let me address the cleaning of brushes while painting.  I generally have two of each size of brush.  This lets me keep one for light (or warm) colors and the other for dark (or cool) colors.  With my light brush, so long as the colors are on the same side of the color wheel, I don't clean my brush between colors.  I can go from one tint to another without making mud.  Likewise, with my dark brush, I can go from one shade to another without trouble.  The only time I rinse my brush is if I am going from one color to its complement or near-complement.  For example, if I need my brush to go from dark blue to a dark orange, I may first wipe it with a paper towel and then give it a swish or two in the Gamsol to rinse out some of the “loose” color.

That's the theory, anyway.  Sometimes I just paint with one or two brushes.  I'm pretty good at not making mud, even with such a limited number. 

As for cleaning brushes when done, I first wipe off as much paint as I can with a paper towel, and then I swish it in the Gamsol until it is reasonably clean.  I rarely go beyond this step to clean my brushes.  If I'm painting all week, every day, as at a competition, I will more thoroughly clean the brushes mid-way through the week with Murphy Oil Soap.

If you're sensitive to mineral spirits, you might try rinsing the brushes in a non-drying oil, such as baby oil.  But you must get as much of the oil out as you can before painting again—a non-drying oil will affect the drying time of the linseed or safflower oil in your paint. Another option is walnut oil.  It's a drying oil, but it will, if not removed from the brushes, gum up the hairs.  So you must wash out as much of that as you can, too.

One final option:  move to either acrylics or water-miscible oils.   I have been using the Cobra water-miscible oils, and I like them.  You do need to use the Cobra medium when you want to thin them, however, otherwise they clump.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Plein Air Painting...and Smart Phones? Tablets?

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In the first season of Landscape Artist of the Year (reviewed in my last post), I noticed that many of the painters used tablets or smart phones in the painting process.  That is, they took photos of the landscape and painted from the captured images.  Clearly, they were more comfortable painting in the studio from photos than painting from life.

I've had some students try do this in my plein air painting workshops, but I quickly discouraged them from doing so.  First of all, the human eye has a greater sensitivity (I believe) to color and value than any man-made image sensor.  Second, the brain, when coupled to our own wonderful, organic image sensors, can exercise greater selectivity and control than any camera app.  Finally, our binocular vision helps us to see depth and form—something a single lens can't do.  Perhaps in the future, artificial intelligence will change all this, but what is the pleasure in having AI do it all for you?

For now, the eye and your brain are your best tools.  All they require is training.  Leave the camera at home.  Then, go out and sketch with a pencil.  Go out and sketch with color.  The more you observe and sketch, the more you will see those fine gradations of color and value, the subtle turning of form and how distance functions in the landscape.

So what IS a camera good for?  It excels at capturing detail and patterns.  If you need some important detail to make your painting better, by all means, look at the photo.  If you need to remind yourself of the shadow pattern because the sun has moved, go for it.  But don't get trapped by the “literal” quality of the photo.  Take creative control, and use your eye and brain to truly observe your subject and turn it into something remarkable.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Giving Suggestions for the Holidays

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The New Book!


It doesn't hurt to mention this again.  I figure if you'd prefer not to hear about my painting sale and my new book, you can either skip this blog post or stop following me.  But I do hope you don't stop following me, as I still have a great deal to share with you about plein air painting.

Painting Sale!

Use the coupon code “holiday2021” on check out to get 50% off for any of my Southwest paintings.  (Sorry, no Canadian Maritime, coastal Maine or seascapes — they are all in my Canadian studio.  I will run a summer sale once I am there.) Zelle or check accepted.  You can see the Southwest paintings here.
  • Paintings will be unframed (even if they say they come with a frame — this makes it easier for us to ship quickly)
  • Free shipping only to the lower 48 states  in the United States.  For other countries, we’ll contact you for the shipping.  For most paintings, shipping will be via US Postal Service with insurance and tracking.
  • We can’t guarantee delivery dates, but we’ll do our best. 

The New Book!

My new book, BEAUTIFUL LANDSCAPE PAINTING OUTDOORS: MASTERING PLEIN AIR, is now available for pre-order from Amazon.  The book shares tips and techniques from 15 of today’s master plein air painters and covers all major media—oil, pastel, watercolor, gouache and acrylic. 160 pages and hundreds of beautiful images!  The book will be released March 1, 2022.  You can get it here.


(Can't see the video? Go here.)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

TV: Landscape Artist of the Year

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The "pods" the competing artists work in

“Landscape Artist of the Year” – a rather ostentatious title.  But each year, Sky Arts in the UK awards it to the one artist out of many who survives eight episodes of painting in spectacular properties belonging to the National Trust.   I hadn't heard of this TV show until recently, but once I came across it, I found myself bingeing on the few free seasons available on the All Homes channel on YouTube.  (If you're in the UK, you can subscribe to sky.com and see all the seasons. And if you're a UK artist, you can also enter here.)

The concept:  Over six episodes, eight artists – mostly professional but with a few amateurs – must paint a specific scene in four hours.  At the end of each episode, the judges pick the top three.  From this short list, they then pick one artist to go on to the semifinals.  Of the seven semifinalists (a "wildcard" artist is added), three are chosen for the final competition where one will win the title “Landscape Artist of the Year.”  This comes with no mean prize, as the award is £10,000 and the commission to paint an iconic National Trust property.  The final episode is all about the artist painting the commission and its unveiling.

Interestingly, most of the artists chosen to participate in the “heats” aren't plein air painters.  Not at all.  Instead, they tend to be studio painters—and painting the landscape from life is almost always a struggle for them.  And the artists aren't all painters, either.  Over the two seasons I've watched thus far, I've seen etchers and sketchers and fabric-art makers.  One artist even created a large, felted-wool piece.  Artists have brought printing presses, hair dryers, sewing machines, ink jet printers and other interesting bits of machinery to the event.  I wonder how many extension cords the roadies have to run?

Although it's fascinating to see how the artists fail (often comically) or succeed (often skillfully but sometimes accidentally), I find most intriguing the comments of the three judges.   (For the seasons I've watched thus far:  Tai Shan Schierenberg, a portrait artist of high merit; Kathleen Soriano, an independent curator; and Kate Bryan, an art historian.)  Throughout each episode, I'm treated to an ongoing-dialogue between the judges about the performance of each artist and the end product.  Generally, I find the judges working much too hard to sympathize or to find the good in abject failure.  And many times I disagree with their selections for the short list and finalists.  But when one realizes they aren't looking for technically-competent landscape painting but for novelty, their choices become clearer.  They're also looking, they say, for growth in the artist.  Yet it is hard to grow much in a four-hour episode -- or over weeks, should you make it through the heats -- with all the cameras and the judges and the public poking around.  The “growth” is often just another manifestation of novelty. 

Good entertainment, yes.  But it's also a way to see a few truly excellent artists at work and their different approaches.

By the way, Katherine Tyrrell, who writes the wonderful “Making a Mark” blog, has written detailed reviews of the later seasons (as well as of the related show, “Portrait Artist of the Year.”). You can read her reviews here - https://makingamark.blogspot.com/p/art-on-television.html 


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Plein Air Painting Retreat Report: Sedona, Arizona

The Other Side of the Creek
9x12 pastel - Available

This past week, I conducted a plein air painting retreat in Sedona.  The weather couldn't have been better—cool mornings and pleasantly warm afternoons with plenty of sunshine.  We focused mostly on painting the red rocks that surround the area, but we also made the pilgrimage to the spiritual waters of Oak Creek to paint the lovely fall foliage.  I've included some of the sketches I made with this post.

For many years, I taught plein air painting workshops in Sedona.  Although my studio was located in West Sedona, I sometimes wandered far afield with my students, taking them on excursions to scenic painting spots in Uptown Sedona, the Village of Oak Creek and beyond.  But changes in lodging laws and the construction of massive hotels created a fertile environment for unrestrained traffic growth.  As the traffic grew worse, I started staying closer to the studio.  Finally, with my last couple of workshops, I often saw the traffic—even in West Sedona—bumper-to-bumper, gridlocked between traffic lights and roundabouts.

To someone from a big city, the traffic might not seem so awful, but for this country boy, it was something I no longer wanted to deal with.  Yet I had one more painting retreat scheduled.  I decided to hold it in the Village of Oak Creek (VOC) instead.  The traffic can get backed up there, too, but I had some places I knew that were usually less busy.  Plus, it would be a change, since I hadn't painted in that area for some time.

As luck would have it, approaching VOC from the east to check in to our lodging, we ended up sitting in a 40-minute delay.  I thought there was some major construction ahead, but when we finally got to the work zone, I saw the stoppage was caused by a single backhoe, digging weeds out of a median.  This did not bode well for the retreat.  As the week went by, we tried to get out early enough to avoid traffic and parking problems, but sometimes it was unavoidable, especially when we went to paint at some of the more popular trailheads.  On our last day, we were very lucky to find enough spots for our group.  By the time we left, a merry-go-round of cars seeking spots made it difficult—and dangerous—to back out of our parking spot. Trina acted as traffic cop so we could exit.  Cars were parked illegally everywhere, and not a single USFS enforcement officer was in sight.

Yet despite the hassles, the retreat was productive, and for our painting sessions, we found very peaceful locations.  In my experience, not many tourists leave the main trail, and so it was on the side trails that we attained true happiness.  Will I teach again in Sedona?  It's hard to give up the hiking trails and scenery, but I will have to think seriously about it.

A Fine View - 9x12 oil - Available

November Morning - 9x12 oil - Available

From the Backside - 9x12 oil - Available

Oak Creek View - 5x8 gouache - NFS

Courthouse Butte - 5x8 gouache - NFS


Sunday, November 7, 2021

My Art History: Camille Corot

An Artist Painting in the Forest of Fountainebleau (1850-1855)
Camille Corot / Private Collection

At 26, frustrated with his career as a draper and weary of commercialism and what he called “business tricks,” Camille Corot (1796-1875) finally gained approval from his father to study as an artist.  Although he trained in the Neoclassical tradition, in which the artistic aim is to represent an ideal of Beauty in nature, often sacrificing scientific accuracy in the effort, Corot quickly merged that approach with another, Realism.  "I made my first landscape from nature...under the eye of this painter, whose only advice was to render with the greatest scrupulousness everything I saw before me. The lesson worked, and since then I have always treasured precision.” 

Quarry of the Chaise Marie at Fontainebleau (1830-1835)
Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium

Early on, he began traveling widely to gather field studies for studio work.  When he was 33, he arrived in Barbizon—an event that would win him fame as a member of the Barbizon School.  There he discovered other artists painting Barbizon's Forest of Fontainebleau, including Daubigny, Rousseau and Millet.  Although he worked hard and even showed in the annual Salon, critics were slow to praise his work, which varied from landscapes to nudes to scenes of Italian architecture.  But the writer, Baudelaire, acclaimed Corot as the leader in the "modern school of landscape painting,” noting: "M. Corot is more a harmonist than a colorist, and his compositions, which are always entirely free of pedantry, are seductive just because of their simplicity of color."  After the Revolution of 1848, Corot was admitted to the Salon jury, which was quite a boost after years of struggle.

Fontainebleau, the Bas Breau Road (1830-1835)
Private Collection


Over the years, many painters came to him for instruction, including Camille Pissaro, Eugène Boudin and Berthe Morisot.  He also contributed to many charities for artists and their families.  In 1872, he purchased a house for Honoré Daumier, who was blind and penniless.  Not long after that, he gave 10,000 francs to the widow of Millet for the support of her children.  Despite the successes which enabled this generosity, many of his fellow artists and collectors felt he had been neglected, and in 1874, one year before his death, they awarded him with a gold medal.

Corot is often considered a parent of Impressionism.  Yet, unlike the Impressionists, Corot used more traditional, muted colors in his palette.  And whereas the Impressionists focused more on color and light than on form, which resulted in “loose” brush strokes, Corot laid down the paint with careful placement and control.  So what is it really that makes him one of Impressionism's progenitors?  I think it was his attention to noting accurate color relationships in his landscapes,  which allowed him to create a realistic sense of light and shadow.  Despite their sloppy brush work, the Impressionists were all about these color relationships, and that is what they learned from Corot.

Now, here's one of my works, an oil-on-paper that has a peculiarly Corot feeling:

"Towering Cottonwood"
12x9, oil on paper
Michael Chesley Johnson



Sunday, October 31, 2021

My Art History: Asher Durand

Field Sketch by Asher Durand, 1855
Pencil, 13 13/16 x 9 7/8 in
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Engraver Asher Durand (1796-1886) made the leap to painting in 1837 after accompanying Thomas Cole on a expedition to Schroon Lake in New York's Adirondack Mountains.  We are fortunate that he did so; although he initially gained fame as an engraver with John Trumbull's landmark painting, “The Declaration of Independence,” today we remember him as one of the more prominent Hudson River School artists.

Durand spent a great deal of time tramping through the woods, drawing in pencil and sketching in oil.  The Catskills, the Adirondacks and the White Mountains of New Hampshire provided plenty of material for his studio paintings.  In 1855, he published his “Letters on Landscape Painting” in which he advised painters to work from life, touting it as a better way to learn to paint than by studying the work of other artists—a practice common in the academies then.

John Constable, about whom I wrote earlier, became an inspiration for Durand after viewing his work on a trip to Europe: “[Constable's paintings show] more of simple truth and naturalness than any English landscape I have ever before met with.”  I think he must have sensed his kinship with Constable as a fellow plein air sketcher.  For both of them, the key lay in representing the landscape as a place filled with trees that are real individuals rather than generic representations.  In their paintings, a beech tree looks like a beech tree; a fir, like a fir.

Here are some more of his field studies, plus a studio painting--and one of my own tree studies.


Landscape (from McGuire Scrapbook), Durand, ND
Pencil, 7 7/16" x 5 13/16"
Metropolitan Museum of Art

 Nature Study, Trees, Newburgh, New York, Durand, 1849
Oil, 22.13" x 18"
NY Historical Society

The Beeches, Durand, 1845 / Studio Painting
Oil on Canvas, 60 3/8" x 48 1/8"
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Juniper Study, Johnson
Gouache, 6"x8"


Sunday, October 24, 2021

Winter's End: Pastel Demonstration Video

Pastel Demonstration for Pastel Society of New Mexico
"Winter's End" 12x16 Pastel on Art Spectrum Paper
See the Video Here

Earlier this month, the Pastel Society of New Mexico invited me to give a demonstration at its monthly meeting.  I've done this for the group before, but in person, on stage.  This time, I had to do it via Zoom from my studio because the Albuquerque Museum, where the meetings have been held in the past, still isn't permitting group meetings.  As always, I eagerly accepted and immediately went about figuring out how I was going to set up a broadcast studio in my painting studio.

Fortunately, I had the gear I needed—a tripod plus a phone-holding gizmo and a couple of good LED lamps.  I also was able to arrange my easel so I wouldn't knock over my phone every time I took a step.  (I tend to bump into things when I get excited about laying down a particularly virtuosic pastel stroke.)  The only limitation I feared was my Internet connection, which one might imagine as a trickle coming out of a somewhat clogged bit of plumbing.   But as luck would have it, the trickle never stopped, and I was able to share my entire process.

The Pastel Society is gracious enough to let the public see the finished, recorded videos from its meetings.  I'd like to share mine with you.  It's only a little over an hour, and I hope you find it enjoyable and informative.  Click here to see the video. (In the video, the blues are a bit over-saturated, no doubt from my smartphone's processing.)


Thursday, October 21, 2021

The New 2022 Calendar is Here!


Well, it's that time of year again!  I've gone through the paintings I've made since January and have selected some of my favorites.  The new calendar features beautifully-painted landscapes of the American Southwest, and it includes both studio paintings and paintings done en plein air -- live, in the Great Outdoors. They represent some of the places I most love to visit and paint, and I am happy to share them with you.

So, if you're looking for a Christmas present for others (or for yourself!), you can find more details on the calendar here: https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/michael-chesley-johnson/2022-michael-chesley-johnson-wall-calendar/paperback/product-2gp868.html

Here's a collage showing the paintings.




Sunday, October 17, 2021

Painting Intensive Report: Improving Studio Work with Plein Air Studies

6x8 Oil Cottonwood Study
(all sketches/paintings mine)


This past week, an accomplished studio painter come to me for help.  She wanted to improve her plein air practice with the goal of improving her studio work.  Arriving from Maryland to study with me for a week, she agreed to a plan that we'd both worked on to help her with these goals.  The plan:  

  • Gather field references in the way of color studies and photos
  • Return to the studio to create designs in charcoal based on the color studies (and to avoid resorting to photos unless absolutely necessary)
  • And then to “scale up” the color studies into finished paintings, using the value sketches to plot out our compositions

Although she'd painted en plein air many times before, it wasn't her usual practice, and she often worked just from photos.  Photos, however, give us nothing but shape and detail; value and color are always distorted by the camera.  The eye is the ultimate tool for observing value and color.  So, every day, we went to the field to sketch in color with a particular subject and scene in mind.  (All except for one day, when we experienced an unusual October snow.  We focused on studio work that day.)  Although she brought oil pastels and oil sticks, I gave her oil paint, too.  Ultimately, we decided that her best plein air kit would consist of oil pastel—quick, clean and easily ported to a location.


Mentor and Student

Back in the studio, we worked out a number of design possibilities with charcoal on newsprint.  To avoid getting distracted by the details of a photograph, we used only color studies and pencil sketches as a reference for design.  These references contained enough information for us to come up with successful designs.  Finally, we moved to a studio medium to build the finished paintings  To keep things abstract, she used large oil sticks, employing a brush dipped in Gamsol to help spread the pigment around.

Our first day found us at the nearby lake, where golden cottonwoods, juxtaposed against the red and white cliffs, made for some beautiful fall scenes.  We returned there later in the week, too, as the location offered so much.  Another day had us exploring El Morro National Monument to look at the rock towers with an eye to abstracting them into engaging shapes by stripping away unnecessary detail.  All in all, it was a very successful week, and my student now has the tools and a process for improving her studio work on her own.

If you're interested in a plein air painting intensive such as this, please see my website:  http://paintthesouthwest.com/sched_int.html 

By the way, I still have space in my November 2-5 Sedona, Arizona, painting retreat.  It's only $300—not including lodging and meals—and I'd love to show you some of my favorite painting spots.

Plein Air Studies

6x8 Gouache Study

9x12 Oil Panel Split into Two
4.5x12 Cliff Study and Cottonwood Study

9x12 Oil Cliff Study

8x10 Oil Cottonwood Study

9x12 Oil Cliff Study

Value Sketches




Studio Paintings

12x12 Oil Cottonwoods

12x12 Oil El Morro


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Plein Air Painting Retreat Report: Taos, New Mexico

Down by the River, 9x12 pastel


From my years living in Vermont, I know that it is hard to pin down precisely the week of peak fall foliage.  Sometimes the peak comes a little early—and sometimes a little late.  It's the same in northern New Mexico.  For our plein air painting retreat in Taos this year, the colors were just beginning.  Down by the Rio Grande, the sumacs were showing their first flush of red; in town, the cottonwoods were polishing up the first few gold coins.  As a painter, I find this subtle color more enticing than the full-out carnival.

This year, we had four participants—a small group by design.  Small groups make for easier parking and less impact on the environment.  Plus, if you're visiting a small village to paint, it's less bothersome for the locals.  And, as luck would have it, one of the museums we visited only permitted groups of 6 or fewer, and so we were all able to take the tour together.  Participants came from Arizona, Colorado and New York, all of them past students.  (I give past students priority for the retreats.).

Although painting day in and day out may sound attractive to hard-core outdoor painters, I like to enrich the retreat experience by arranging other (always optional) activities.  In addition to a bounty of beautiful painting spots, Taos also offers several museums, galleries and celebrities.  On Sunday, the day of our orientation meeting, we visited artist Walt Gonske, who was having an open studio weekend.  I first met Walt many years ago.  I was pleased to see that he, fast closing in on 80, still paints from his famous “paint mobile,” which is now in its fourth and, Walt says, perfected version.

Later in the week, we had an opportunity to visit painter Kevin Macpherson.  Although he was very busy—he'd just wrapped up 10 days of shooting a video in his studio and was now packing for a workshop in Maryland—Kevin took the time out to show us his studio and to talk about his travels.  He also invited us to paint his pond, made famous among plein air painters by his book, Reflections on a Pond: A Visual Journal.  Unfortunately, we'd had threatening weather all day, and just as we started painting, the rain began.  (We did enjoy the protection of a gazebo.)  Toward the end of our time, though, the sun burst out, lighting up the aspens along the water's edge with bright yellow.

We also visited the Plein Air Painters of New Mexico annual exhibit at the Wilder-Nightingale Gallery; the Taos Art Museum at the Nicolai Fechin house; the historic Hacienda de la Martinez; the Mabel Dodge Luhan house; and my favorite, the newly-opened Couse-Sharp Historic Site.  E. Irving Couse and Joseph Sharp, both members of the original Taos Society of Painters, shared the property but had separate studios.  A two-hour tour gave us an in-depth look at the lives of these two painters. (I personally preferred the Couse studio, as it remains virtually untouched since his death; the Sharp studio had been, alas, cleaned up by museum curators and looked more like a show studio than a working studio.)  All of these activities put an educational spin on a week that otherwise was filled with painting in inspiring locations.

If you're interested in next year's plein air painting retreat in Taos, the dates are October 2-7, 2022.  Let me know if you'd like to join us.  You can find out more about my retreats—how they're different from a workshop, for example—at my website:  https://www.mchesleyjohnson.com/workshops-2/ 

Here are some paintings and photos from the week.  All of the sketches are available for sale; contact me if interested.

Rainy Day at Mabel's, 9x12 Oil

River Study, 6x8 Oil

Wonky Adobe in Arroyo Seco, 9x12 Pastel

View of John Dunn Bridge, 5x8 Gouache

Taos Mountain, 5x8 Gouache

Walt Gonske's Gate

Painting by the River

More by the River

Me, Sketching in Gouache

Morning Critiques

Kevin Macpherson's Studio (and Kevin)

Tour of the Couse-Sharp Historic Site

E. Irving Couse's Paintbox

Painting at the Couse-Sharp Site

Gate at Mabel Dodge Luhan House

Rain Coming In!