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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 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 - 

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