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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.