All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, February 27, 2022

My Art History: Gustave Courbet

View in browser

La Rencontre (Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet)
Gustaves Courbet, 1854
Oil on canvas, s129 x 149 cm
Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France


If you've done any reading on plein air painting history, no doubt you've come across “The Meeting: Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet.” This iconic painting by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) shows the artist, geared up for an outing with an easel strapped to his back, as he encounters one of his patrons in the field.  I've always admired the jauntiness of Courbet's beard and find it the most intriguing part of the picture.

Courbet was one of the first French painters to break away from the Romantic tradition and to embrace Realism.  But he didn't care for the label.  He wrote, “The title of 'Realist' was thrust upon me just as the title of 'Romantic' was imposed upon the men of 1830. Titles have never given a true idea of things: if it were otherwise, the works would be unnecessary.” 

Even so, that was his approach—to study the world and paint it as he saw it:  “To know in order to do, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art—this is my goal.”

Although he first began as a painter of large-scale literary scenes, he soon moved to painting works featuring less-accepted subjects such as peasants and laborers.  Then, on trips to the Low Countries, he discovered an artistic kinship with painters of the quotidian, such as Franz Hals, which convinced him that painting ordinary subjects was the way to go.  He also began to politicize his canvases by addressing social issues.

During the mid-1860s, Courbet spent time painting en plein air along the Normandy coast with Eugène Louis Boudin, one of the foremost painters of marine landscapes.  Over time, he developed a technique of using a palette knife to put down thick layers of paint and to create a texture that emulated the textures he saw in the landscape before him.  He was often ridiculed in the critical press for the thick impasto.

Courbet's painterly relationship with the everyday extended into his personal life—he was a committed socialist—and he became involved with the short-lived Paris Commune.  Once the Commune was overthrown, he was arrested and sent to prison for six months.  (He was allowed paints and an easel and painted a series of still lifes.)  Upon his release, the government ordered him to pay a bill for 323,091 francs and 68 centimes to cover the reconstruction costs of the famous Napoleonic Column, which he helped pull down during the Communard takeover.  Sadly, unable to pay, Courbet fled France for Switzerland, where he lived out his remaining few years, painting tourist landscapes before dying of alcoholism at age 58.

What does Courbet's beard signify in his painting?  Here we have Alfred Bruyas, the man in the fine suit and with gloves in hand, the son of a wealthy banker.  And here we have Courbet, garbed in clothes appropriate for the field, the outspoken socialist and supporter of the Common Man.  Whereas Bruyas greets Courbet in a manner of a man humbled before his better—Bruyas was a sometimes-painter as well as one of Courbet's patrons—Courbet thrusts out his beard, dark, angular and priapic.  I can imagine Courbet saying, chastising:  “Come, give your money to the poor, and let's go paint.”

Cliffs near Ornans
1865, Oil on Canvas

La roche de dix heures (bei Ornans)
1855, Oil on Canvas, 85.5 x 160 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France


Paysage de neige dans le Jura
1866, Oil on Canvas,60x76 cm
Musee d'Art Moderne de Troyes, Troyes, France


The Wave
1870, Oil on Canvas
Private Collection





Sunday, February 20, 2022

Thoughts for the Landscape Painter on Painting Portraits

View in browser

"Gayle" 16x20 oil/canvas
Painted over two days with three 20-minute sessions each day
(Plus a certain amount of adjusting at odd hours)


Recently, I took a portrait painting class at the Art Students League of New York through its E-Telier system.   I didn't do it with the expectation that portrait painting would inform my landscape painting—but if you read on, you'll see that's exactly what happened.

In my plein air painting workshops, I tell my students, “You can get away with a lot in painting the landscape.” And it's true.  Move a tree here or there, trim down a mountain—unless it's a well-known landmark, no one's going to know.  You're not painting a portrait of the landscape and trying to get an accurate likeness.  Mostly, you're just trying to depict a sense of the “moment” and the feeling the landscape inspires.  Getting the picture to look exactly like the view at your precise GPS location is usually a waste of paint.

But in portrait painting, the goal is often different—getting an accurate likeness.  Depicting the head with realism demands good observational and drawing skills, supplemented with a knowledge of anatomy.  Together, these will give you a reasonable-looking head.  However, to create a true likeness, those skills need to be raised a notch higher—and having patience helps.  (We plein air painters are an impatient bunch, mostly due to our habitually hurrying because of the moving sun.)

Painting the portrait (and the figure) competently is something I've always aspired to.  Why?  Because I consider this to be one of the most difficult skills to master.  As an artist, I feel it's important to push myself and to keep learning.  Although I've painted portraits in the past, they've not been very good.  Applying plein air painting techniques to the portrait get you part way there, but it's about as satisfying as assembling the components of a gourmet meal and then stopping short of following the recipe all the way to the dining table.

But before I get into my thoughts on how painting portraits can inform your landscape painting, let me share some helpful observations I made from my class:

1. Study anatomy.  I've always believed if you paint what you see you'll end up with a reasonable facsimile of your subject.  This works fine with the landscape, but with the portrait, it's the long, bumpy, uncomfortable route edged with steep drop-offs. Knowing anatomy and the basic rules of human proportion make for a speedier finish.  Having a mental image of what the “ideal” human looks like will give you something to correct your work by.

2. But before striving for a likeness, first paint the head generally.  Informed by your study of anatomy, start a portrait by just painting an accurate depiction of the simple beauty of how light and color work on the subject before you.  This is, indeed, rather like making a plein air painting but with an additional emphasis on also trying to get the drawing right.  The result should be a realistic-looking head.  Then, if you want to take the next step and get a likeness, only a few minute changes should be needed—perhaps a shift in the eyebrow, a lift to the lip, a widening of the nostrils.  These tiny bits, however, come from more careful observation and patience.

3. Pre-mix your colors.  Although some landscape painters like to pre-mix piles of color, I don't.  I think this can lead to unimaginative, flat color in the painting.  I enjoy the subtle variations that come from mixing color on the fly.  However, this doesn't work so well with portraits.  These variations, when applied to areas of what is supposed to be human flesh, can be ghastly and alarming—and worse yet, hard to adjust once put down.  A better plan is to figure out the general color of the skin and then pre-mix your light, mid-tone and shadow values; you can always punch up the color later.  (By the way, I quickly found myself adding the siennas and umbers to my split-primary palette so I could mix skin colors more easily and quickly in the 20-minute poses.)

Now, how can all this aid us in painting the landscape?  First, underlying your beautiful scene is geology.  Yes, you can paint the landscape as you see it, but understanding how different classes of rocks behave, how the strata they make up can be contorted into anticlines and synclines and how other natural forces erode and reshape these features will be a great help in drawing things realistically.  Just as a knowledge of anatomy can help with the portrait, a knowledge of geology can help with the landscape.  

Second, it's okay to just to “capture the moment,” where your aim is to depict the simple beauty of how light and color work on your scene.  The landscape will look realistic, so long as your painting is informed by your knowledge of geology.  Then, to get the likeness, perhaps it will need just a few minor changes:  altering the “sky holes” of a tree, adding an identifying crack in the rock, deepening the curve of the river.

Finally, pre-mixing color can be useful, too.  If I'm painting in a situation where speed is involved, such as a timed event or if I have a large canvas to cover, I might pre-mix my basic colors.  When pressed for time, trying to match a mixture you desperately need but have run out of can be frustrating.   I'm still a big fan of the color variations that come with mixing on the fly, but sometimes that approach isn't feasible.

So, what's it like, painting from life via Zoom?  Well, to be honest, it's far from ideal.  First of all, you're painting from a two-dimensional image.  The third dimension—which we depend on so much for seeing the turning of form—is missing.  Also, you'll discover blind spots with regard to bone and muscle structure, and you'll have to fake what's happening in those areas unless you have a strong command of anatomy.  Second, if a model is using a smartphone or laptop camera and has it too close (as will happen with a portrait), the lens will distort features. Things closer to the camera will look larger than they are, and if you paint what you see, proportions will be distorted, sometimes monstrously so.  And finally, painting a live model on a screen can be a spooky experience.  With a good model, who remains absolutely motionless, it's easy to forget that you're working from life; you begin to think you're painting from a photo.  But when the model suddenly blinks or shifts, you are abruptly brought back to reality—an unsettling moment.  Remember the scene in one of the Harry Potter films where the painted portrait on the wall suddenly winks?  It's a bit like that.

Here's another portrait from the class.

"Angel" 16x12 oil/linen
Also two days, three 20-minute sessions per day



Sunday, February 13, 2022

Encounter: Interview with Sandra Nunes

View in browser


In my ongoing series of interviews with artists who participated in my new book, I recently interviewed master Brazilian artist and pastel painter Sandra Nunes, who lives in her native city of Rio de Janeiro, which has inspired much of her work.  Sandra received her Bachelor in Letters and Arts at Rio de Janeiro Federal University and has traveled abroad extensively where she studied paintings by all the great masters including her favorite painter, Joaquin Sorolla.  Her paintings, which have won awards in many painting competitions, can be found in both private and public collections, including the Brazilian Navy, the Rio Zoo Foundation and Rio de Janeiro Federal University.  Sandra, as you'll learn, enjoys not only painting the outdoors but also painting portraits and from the figure, as well.

Sandra and I are both charter member artists of a group called Landscape Artists International.  About ten years ago, the charter member artists had a traveling exhibit of paintings that we called Far and Near: The World Tour of Contemporary Landscape Artists.  Sandra and I were both in the show, and we've stayed in touch ever since.  Some day, I will visit Brazil and paint with her.  (Can't see the video below? Go to this link.)



In case you haven't heard about my book, Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air, 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, February 6, 2022

Encounter: Interview with Kim Lordier

View in browser

Watch the interview here


As part of my ongoing series of interviews with artists who participated in my new book,  I recently interviewed California artist and pastel painter Kim Lordier.  Kim holds top designations in several organizations, including Signature Memberships in the California Art Club, the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association and the Pastel Society of America, as well as Distinguished Pastelist in the Pastel Society of the West Coast.  Her award-winning paintings have been shown  in many major exhibitions such as the Coors Western Art Show, and they have been published in magazines and books.  Kim also teaches workshops across the US.  (Visit www.KimFancherLordier.com for more.)

I first met Kim years ago at my first IAPS (International Association of Pastel Societies) convention in Santa Fe.  I hope to see her again in person this May, again in Santa Fe, at the Plein Air Convention and Expo.  We are both on the faculty. I'm very pleased that Kim agreed to be in my book and to sitting for the interview.  Thank you, Kim!




You can watch all the interviews on this playlist

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: