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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!


Sunday, October 3, 2021

My Art History: John Constable

One of Constable's "Six-Footers":
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows
59.7”x74.7”, oil on canvas, 1831
National Gallery, Tate UK
(read its story here)

In the last “My Art History” post, I wrote about the Romantic painter, Turner.  John Constable (1776-1837) was of that same period, but his sensibility was entirely different.  Although I would classify him also as a Romantic, his landscapes, steeped in the pastoral and picturesque, mostly lack any depiction of the sublime, which was a hallmark of Turner's later work.

Constable took landscape painting into a new direction.  He meticulously studied the natural landscape, going on-location to gather reference material.  Unlike some other landscape artists of the time, who went into the field with a similar goal, he was the first to make his plein air sketches in oil.  From these well-observed field notes, he constructed his larger paintings, his “Six-Footers,” often first creating full-size sketches to explore composition before embarking on the finished works.

His working methods inspired many later landscape painters—the Barbizon School painters and the French Impressionists—to observe the landscape with a fresh eye:  "When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.”

Constable was a homebody.  Although he traveled some, he preferred to paint where he lived, in Dedham Vale, on the Essex-Suffolk border, now often called “Constable Country.”   He wrote a friend, “ I should paint my own places best.”

Personally, I dislike this large studio paintings; they seem overly-designed and staged and lack the freshness of his field studies.  They are, however, well-observed, thanks to all his work in the field.  His cloud studies, I think, are some of the best.  Clouds are notoriously difficult to study, as they are mutable and fickle subjects.  I've found that it's often best not to paint clouds right away, but to just watch, to discern a pattern in their movements and shape-shifting, before committing  to paper or canvas.

Here are a few of Constable's cloud studies, followed by a couple of my own.

Cloud Study, Hampstead; Tree at Right / Constable
Royal Academy of Arts, London UK

Cloud Study / Constable
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven CT

Cloud Study / Constable
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne AU

Cloud Study, 1822 / Constable
Tate Britain UK

And now, two of my own:

Cloud study - 6B pencil / Johnson

"Clouds O'er My Valley" / Johnson
6x8 oil/Multimedia Artboard