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Sunday, August 29, 2021

My Article on Color Temperature for Gamblin

Final Step of Color Temperature Demonstration
"Winter's End" 9x12 Oil

If you've ever taken a workshop with me, you know I've enjoyed using Gamblin oil paints for many years.  Well, Gamblin Artist Colors recently invited me to contribute a technical article for their web site.  I get a real pleasure in writing this kind of article.  It's not only an opportunity to share what I know, but I get to learn a bit, too.  The articles always involve research, experimenting and creating demonstrations.  Okay, let me be honest—I just love to play around with paint!

The article is about color temperature.  Again, if you've ever taken a workshop with me, you know that I stress using color temperature effectively.  It is key to creating a realistic sense of light and shadow, of form and distance.  If you'd like to know more about this vital topic, you can read the article on Gamblin's web site:

Sunday, August 22, 2021

On the Road: Downeast Maine Plein Air Painting Workshop and Retreat

End of Bar Road, 9x12 oil/Multimedia Artboard

I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Lubec, Maine, where I taught a workshop one week and then ran a retreat the next. Normally, I'd be there for the entire summer, but because the Canadian border was closed to me, I was unable to occupy our family home on Campobello Island, my usual base camp for workshops.  Having rescheduled these two events from last summer because of the pandemic, I didn't want to disappoint anyone yet again, so I decided to fly up and rent car and lodging.  Despite the extra expense and trouble, I had a fantastic time and enjoyed working with everyone.

Because of the unusual heat wave baking New England, a good deal of moisture pushed toward Lubec and the cold waters of the Grand Manan Channel, making for some foggy mornings and drizzly afternoons.  Even so, we had some stunningly brilliant hours.  Of course, one of the charms of Downeast Maine is the fickle weather, and as plein air painters, we are all used to rolling with whatever comes along.  We painted at a variety of locations, including West Quoddy Head, where the cliffs and the ocean swells are most dramatic; in Lubec itself, where we enjoyed a bounty of ramshackle fish buildings and fishing boats; and in spots nearby, where we lingered on quiet beaches or near tidal streams that created interesting patterns among the seaweed-cloaked rocks.

For the workshop, students lodged where they pleased, but for the retreat, we all lodged at West Quoddy Station, just a mile from the lighthouse on West Quoddy Head.  A beautifully-renovated US Coast Guard campus, it gave us immediate access to some of the best scenery and provided a comfortable place where we could be together and build the friendships that are so important to the retreat concept.  I am scheduling this retreat again for next summer.

I wrote that the Canadian border was closed.  This is not entirely true, as it did open up while I was at the retreat.  Fortunately, I was able to fulfill the requirements for entry, and I went over for an afternoon, which was all I had time for.  (The border agent asked, “You went through all that trouble just for a few hours?”)  I checked on house and studio—it'd been two years since our last departure—and I'm happy to say all is in good order.  I hope next year will be better for international travel.

In this post, I'm sharing some of the work I created while in Maine.  They are all for sale at $200 each, shipping included to the lower 48 US states

By the way, if you are interested in my plein air painting retreats, here are two coming soon that I still have space in.  Please let me know if you would like to join us!

Taos, New Mexico.  September 26-October 1, 2021.  $300, lodging and meals not included.  Join me for some of northern New Mexico's best scenery!  We'll paint at such beautiful locations as the Rio Grande Gorge, the scenic village of Arroyo Seco, the aspen-clad slopes near the ski area and, of course, in Taos itself.  Our retreat will include visits to such historic sites as the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, the Nicolai Fechin House and the Couse-Sharp Studio.

Sedona, Arizona.  November 2-5, 2021.  $300, lodging and meals not included.  I lived and painted in the Sedona area for over ten years, and I'm eager to share some of my very special painting spots with you.  We'll paint among Sedona's stunning red cliffs and explore its rich riparian areas.  At this time of year, we should have some good color in the cottonwood trees, which make for a beautiful pairing with the red rocks.

Unlike my all-level workshops, the retreats have no formal instruction.  However, we'll have daily critique sessions, informal art talk, and I'll demonstrate my painting methods in both oil and pastel.  The retreats are a great way to connect with the other participants and to learn from them.  And, of course, I will be your in-house expert and happy to answer any questions!  (You can learn more about my retreats here.)  The retreats will be held entirely outdoors, and we will follow CDC guidelines for masking and distancing.  Let me know if you're interested in any of these retreats.

Fog in Purples and Greens, 9x12 pastel/paper

Fog in Greys and Greens, 9x12 pastel/paper

Low Tide, 9x12 pastel/paper

Bay View, 9x12 pastel/paper

Fish Buildings, 9x12 pastel/paper

Standing Tall, 9x12 oil/Multimedia Artboard

The Village, 9x12 oil/Multimedia Artboard

Fog and Rocks, 9x12 oil/Multimedia Artboard

Staying Put, 5x12 oil/Multimedia Artboard

Reaching Out, 9x12 oil/Multimedia Artboard

Pirate Cove in Fog, 9x12 pastel/paper

Sunday, August 15, 2021

My Art History: J.M.W. Turner

Val d'Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm
J.M.W. Turner, 1836-1837
Art Institute of Chicago

Back when I was a young English Lit major, I fell in love with the Romantics.  John Keats was my favorite:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run...

The poem goes on with a lilting lushness that sounds sappy to modern ears, but when I first read it, it suited my sensibilities.

The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons
J.M.W. Turner, 1810
Tate Modern

The Romantic era had a visual side, too.  J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is still one of my  favorites from the period.  Many of his paintings exhibit the sublime.  Today, when we say something is “sublime,” we mean that it exhibits transcendent beauty.  But the word had a different meaning back then.  A sublime landscape was one that showed Nature in all its terrifying rawness.  Think craggy, storm-wracked mountain peaks and dizzying views.   (Learn about the three types of Romantic landscape painting here.)  Some of Turner's more sublime paintings even verge on the abstract.  However, not all of his work is like this; he made many finely-drawn paintings featuring architecture.

The Passage of the St. Gothard
J.M.W. Turner, 1804
Abbot Hall Gallery

Working in both watercolor and oil, Turner would make pencil sketches on-location and base his studio paintings on these.  He was also prone to experimentation, using transparent but unstable washes of oil and fugitive colors.  John Ruskin, a near-contemporary of Turner, praised him yet noted that his paintings were already deteriorating; Turner, it seems, didn't care about the longevity of his work and selected any material that looked good when fresh, regardless of its archival quality. Even so, his work changed the course of representational painting. Critic Richard Lacayo in the October 2007 issue of Time, states: “At the turn of the 18th century, history painting was the highest purpose art could serve, and Turner would attempt those heights all his life. But his real achievement would be to make landscape the equal of history painting.”

I don't paint like Turner, and I probably never will.  His paintings of Nature, convulsing and writhing and drenched with rainbows, paintings that can barely keep the lid on, energize the viewer—but their virtuosity is difficult to achieve.  All that said, here is my one Turnersque painting, with a somber palette that Turner would never have used.

Rain Over the River
12x16, oil - Available!
Michael Chesley Johnson

Sunday, August 8, 2021

How I Carry a Small Pastel En Plein Air

9x12 PanelPak with the 8x8 Multimedia Artboard
pastel panel taped to the inside; Blue Earth Pastels'
Nomad pastel set

The artist's tape is looped behind the panel

Oil painters have all sorts of ways to carry wet paintings from the field back to the studio.  Pastel painters, not so many.  My usual method is to make a “sandwich” of two sheets of foam board.  Each sheet has a piece of pastel paper taped to it followed by a sheet of glassine.  These two boards then get sandwiched face-to-face and clipped together.  It's a neat solution, but I get a little tired of wrestling the glassine, especially if there's any wind.

So here's another solution.  I'm fond of PanelPaks for bringing my wet oil paintings back from the field.  But I can use them for pastel, too.  For one recent outing, I wanted to create an 8x8 pastel painting on one of Multimedia Artboard's pastel boards with Blue Earth Pastel's “Nomad” plein air set.  

But rather than my usual foam board-and-glassine method, I simply put two unused oil painting panels in the PanelPak and then taped the 8x8 pastel board on the inside of one with artist's tape.  This secured the pastel board to the inside of the closed-up PanelPak, making for a handy package to stuff in my backpack.

Here are the relevant web sites:

Here's the finished sketch:

Cliff Study, 8x8, pastel

Sunday, August 1, 2021

My Art History: Johannes Vermeer

“The Little Street”
Oil on canvas, c.1658 - c.1660

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) didn't paint many landscapes.  He was known mostly for his genre paintings or interior scenes of daily life and a few portraits.  As for landscapes, we know only of two.

Like most people, I was drawn initially to Vermeer by the luminosity of his color and the beautiful light that seems to drench his interiors.  “Woman Reading a Letter” and “The Milkmaid” are two of my favorites.  A soft, lambent light pervades each scene, allowing the colors, especially the blues, to glow with an inner richness.  

I didn't know about his landscapes until some time later.  They are similar to his interiors in that they show a mastery of color.  What's most interesting, though, is that they show a level of near-photographic detail and realism not found in his interiors.  We don't really know for sure, but some art historians believe that Vermeer used an optical aid, such as a camera lucida or camera obscura, to help in constructing his paintings.

View of Delft
Oil on canvas, c.1660 - c.1661

In my mind, “View of Delft” is an unimaginative landscape although well-constructed.  It fits a model that will be used for the next few hundred years, all the way to John Constable and beyond:  four horizontal planes consisting of sky, city, water and a dry place to stand on.  The dark boat on the right is balanced by the figures on the left.  There is one strange thing, though, and that is the heavy cloud mass above.  It is dark enough that it unbalances the painting on the vertical axis and seems, well, ominous—a contrast to the idyllic scene below.  I think that Vermeer was hoping for less sky, but this was the only canvas he had, and he had somehow to fill up that empty region toward the top.  We landscape painters run into this problem when we want to paint a vista but have on hand only a squarish canvas.  His painting works better with a crop, as here:

"View of Delft" - Cropped

The most “modern” of his two landscapes, and my favorite, is “The Little Street.”  One doesn't see many vertically-oriented paintings of buildings from this period.  Plus, the scene is tightly-cropped, slicing off the right part of the building, putting the focus on the figure in the doorway on the bottom right.  It's almost like a snapshot, and it brings to mind how the French Impressionists used photographic references in their paintings.  You almost have to jump to the 19th century to see this kind of design.  The painting also tends more to the monochromatic than any of Vermeer's other works and consists mostly of dull brick-red and tints of yellow ochre, with the only contrasting color being a tiny patch of dull blue in the sky.