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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Looking Toward Autumn: Some Events!

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Here's a 24x30 studio oil painting I'm working on
this week.  I will have more to say about this in a
future post.

Yes, I know it's still July, but summer's quickened its pace.  The clock always races faster when one's busy, and it's about to go even faster:  I'm preparing for a workshop next week, then leading a painting retreat, judging a show for the Vermont Pastel Society, and finally, participating in Pastel Live.  (You can get details on this online convention for pastel painters here.)   With all this happening in August, I expect the month to barrel past me at Warp Factor 10.

And what next? you ask.  Well, for me, summer on Campobello Island comes to a close near the end of August.  At that time, I pack up and head for home in New Mexico, where I have a rather busy fall ahead.  Here are a few things that might interest you, including a painting retreat that is still open.

Escalante Grand Staircase in Utah

September 15-25, 2022
Escalante Canyons Art Festival (Escalante, UT)
The Escalante Grand Staircase area is a fantastic part of Utah with many beautiful rock forms and colors.  As a participating artist, I'm looking forward to painting here again.

Rio Grande River in Taos, New Mexico

October 2-7, 2022
Taos Painting Retreat for Experienced Painters (Taos, NM)
My painting retreats, unlike my workshops, have no formal instruction, but you'll have the opportunity learn plenty if you wish.  We'll have morning critiques after which I'll take you to one of my favorite painting spots.  I'll also give “formal” demonstrations during any downtime.  Afternoons are more free-form where we can paint together as a group or separately, or explore galleries and shops.  Last year, we had a memorable tour of the Couse-Sharp Historic Site.  Price is $300, which does not include meals or lodgings, both of which you would be responsible for.  The retreat is full, but I will be happy to put you on the wait list.  Contact me if you're interested.

Watson Lake in Prescott, Arizona

October 13-15, 2022
Prescott Plein Air Festival (Prescott, AZ)
Prescott, a historic frontier mining town, offers a wealth of beauty for the painter.  I've hiked in the area many times, but this will be my first time painting there.  I can't wait!

November 3, 2022
Demonstration for Arizona Plein Air Painters
I'll be demonstrating at the APAP monthly meeting in Phoenix.

Oak Creek and Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona

November 7-10, 2022
Sedona Painting Retreat for Experienced Painters (Sedona, AZ)
I lived and painted in the Sedona area for ten years, and I know all the best places.  I'll be sharing my knowledge of some of my favorite painting locations with participants.  I have a couple of spots left, so contact me if you are interested.  Price is $300, which does not include meals or lodgings, both of which you would be responsible for.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

My New Artist's Statement - and a Show!

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My new show is in the quaint little building on the right.
The buildings behind it comprise the historic McCurdy
Smoke House complex. 

I'll admit that I'm not very fond of artists' statements.  Often, if they aren't an intentional parody, they are filled with abstract terms and odd pairings of verb and noun that, in the extreme, become incomprehensible.  Here's one parody, courtesy of, which offers a statement generator if you don't want to write your own:  
My work explores the relationship between critical theory and unwanted gifts. With influences as diverse as Derrida and Miles Davis, new tensions are created from both opaque and transparent discourse.
To minimize your suffering, I've only included one paragraph of it here.  But it sounds surprisingly like many of the serious statements I've read.

All that said, I've written many versions of my own (serious) statement over the years.  Often a show will ask for one.  I've always wrestled with the writing, trying to find something that distinguishes me from other painters or, if I'm unsuccessful, trying to couch a cliché in a new way so it sounds fresh.

For my current show, details of which are at the end of this post, I decided to throw away all my previous statements and to just write, plainly and honestly, what I feel drives me.  And here it is:
My purpose in painting has changed over the years.  In the beginning, it was all about the “how.”  I worked hard at learning the craft.  Even as a child, I loved looking at paintings and felt a thrill when I saw a particularly beautiful landscape.  I wanted to create something like that myself.

Then it became about trying to understand the “why.”   I realized I was a sort of steward of the land, preserving on canvas places likely to disappear under the heavy foot of civilization and, hopefully, raising awareness.  I've always been a nature-lover and enjoy most being in the wild.  ( I'd read every page of Thoreau's voluminous journals by the time I graduated college.)

Finally, it became all about the experience.  For me, the experience is everything.  I now know enough about “how” that I don't have to think about it much.  I now understand “why” so I don't have to think about that much, either.  Instead, today is no longer about the product—not the picture in a frame hung on the wall—but about the experience, the act of responding to the landscape in a personal way.

When new visitors come to my studio gallery, they look around and finally venture the question:  “How many artists do you represent?”  “Just me,” I say, “but I have a dozen different personalities.”  And it's true.  Each scene I set myself in front of provokes a unique and individual response.  I may paint in pastel, oil or gouache; I may paint with tight realism; I may paint with a loose, impressionistic stroke; or I may paint in blocky abstraction.  Yes, this painting is by me, and so is this one, and that one.

Materials and process are automatic now.  This allows me to channel all my energy into observation and response.  What ends up on the canvas is a record of the beauty that enthralls me.  My hope is that my viewer can share in this moment.
Seasons in the Sun: Twenty Years of Landscapes.  
Paintings by Michael Chesley Johnson with guest artist Trina Stephenson.  
July 21-August 9, 2022, with an opening reception 5-7 pm ET Saturday, July 23.
Mulholland Market / Lubec Landmark
50 N Water Street, Lubec, Maine 04652

One of the walls in my show

A sampling of Trina's kaleidoscopic imagery

Sunday, July 17, 2022

My Art History: Edgar Degas

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Etude pour un Autoportrait
Edgar Degas, 1855
Sanguine on Paper
Rhode Island School of Design Museum

What can I say about Edgar Degas (1834-1917) that has not been said before?  Well, here's a personal perspective.  Even from an early age, I admired the French Impressionists—but not Degas.  Unlike most Impressionists, he didn't spark a pleasurable, synaptic storm in my frontal cortex by haphazardly shoving dots of complementary color against each other.  In fact, much of his color consisted of dull pigments dug from the earth.  And his drawing skills, obviously superb, undercut the happily naive idea I'd gotten from some of the Impressionists that I, too, didn't need to know how to draw well (or at all.)

A youthful ignorance is my excuse.  Of course, Degas didn't hesitate to use a touch of raw, chromatic color if it made a painting better, especially in his pastels.  And because his vision deteriorated with age, his later drawings did present a certain looseness, but beneath it all, of course, lay a solid structure built on a lifetime of drawing.  When I first encountered Degas, I didn't understand that he was all about control.  Nor did I understand that control is the hallmark of a great artist:  control of color, control of line.  

Degas was an artist's artist, zig-zagging across borders of artistic style, experimenting with a variety of media and techniques.  He didn't hesitate to glue on an extra section of paper if he felt it would give a composition more breathing room.  He played with monotypes and monoprints, often taking an old pastel painting and using it as a start.  He was an early adopter of photography as a painting reference and, interestingly, that new technology inspired his frequent use of informally-cropped designs.  He also studied Eadweard Muybridge's famous series of photographs of horses galloping and dancers dancing to refine his own drawing of these subjects.  

If there's anything I learned from studying Degas, it is that an active, inquisitive mind—along with control—is a prerequisite to becoming an artist.

Here are some drawings of his that show his skill as a draughtsman.

Bust of a Woman
Pastel, c.1880 - c.1885

Manet at the Races
Pencil, 32 x 24.4 cm, 1870

Mme Jacques Fourchy
Pencil, 1883

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Back on Campobello Island—And a Two-Person Show!

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Incoming Tide / 12x24 Oil
Will this be in my show?

Back on Campobello Island...and loving it!  I'd forgotten what a beautiful place this is.  Besides gathering up work for my show in Lubec in a few weeks (more about that in a moment), I've been trying to get out to sketch regularly.  I have a large oil painting in mind that I want to do, so some of these sketches are made with a purpose.  I'll post a few of them below.  They're all gouache and 5x8.

As for the show, I'll be joined by Trina Stephenson for Seasons in the Sun: Twenty Years of Landscapes, which will be at the Mulholland Market (Lubec Landmarks) in Lubec, Maine. The show runs from July 21 through August 9, 2022, at 50 N Water Street, Lubec, with an opening reception from 3-5 pm ET on Saturday, July 23.

Originally, this was going to be a solo show.  But US Customs threw a wrench into the works when I went to speak with them about importing my work from Canada into the US.  Turns out, if the value of the paintings entering the US is above a certain amount ($2500), you have to hire an import broker.  I spoke to two brokers, and learned that, frankly, it was going to be a paperwork headache and very costly.  So, I will unfortunately have to limit the number of paintings in the show.  (But you can still come over to Campobello Island to visit my studio, and I will donate part of the studio sales to Lubec Landmarks, a non-profit that is trying to save a historically important smokehouse on the waterfront.)

I will get on my soap box for a moment and note that this requirement favors the big corporations and not the little guy.  I have run into this kind of bureaucratic snafu before when running small, low-impact workshops on federal lands.  (You can read about that here.)  It's a shame, but it turns out it is all about easy money.

Trina will offer her beautiful kaleidoscopic imagery that portrays a variety of natural scenery.  Here's a sample, and you can see more at her website,

"Bog and Rhodora"

Even though my show is much reduced, I still need helping picking out the paintings.  I'm asking for my loyal followers on Instagram to help.  Every day, I've been posting one or two images of possibilities and asking for feedback.  If you'd like to help, head over to Instagram and follow the hashtag #mcjlubecshow (or go here.)  I appreciate the help!

Now, here are a few gouache sketches.  The big painting I will use some of these for will be in the show. 

Sunday, July 3, 2022

My Art History: Ivan Shiskin

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The Rocky Landscape, Ivan Shiskin
1889, oil on board, 25 cm x 26 cm
Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts 

The paintings of Russian painter Ivan Shiskin (1832-1898) share much with the work of his French contemporary, Bastien-Lepage.  Both painted achingly realistic landscapes in a style called Naturalism.  But did the one influence the other?  Although over two thousand miles separate Moscow and Paris, in the nineteenth century they were virtual neighbors.  Russia enjoyed such strong cultural ties with France that French was even the official language of the Russian court.  Naturalism—both a literary and artistic style that tried to represent the world honestly and without distortion—arrived in Russia via French novels and paintings.

Shiskin, a habitual drawer of trees, painted them so realistically that he became known as the “Tsar of the Forest.”  He spent a lot of time in the woods as a youth and while studying at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture.  Afterward, he went on to study at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts where he won the Academy's Gold Medal, granting him a stipend for study in Europe.  He eventually settled down for study at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany, where the curriculum included a focus on building a hard-edged, linear quality into one's painting and creating epic compositions.  (Think of the grandly realistic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Leutze, who also studied at Düsseldorf.) 

Upon Shiskin's return to Russia, he joined a group of reactionary artists called the Peredvizhniki (the Itinerants.)  He found the group sympathetic to his belief that the Russian academy was old-fashioned in its views and narrow in its definition of “good painting.”  The group, which included other high-caliber artists like Issac Levitan, considered Shiskin one of its founders and held him in high regard.

Interestingly, besides using field drawings and sketches as references for studio work, Shiskin later in life embraced photography and found it a useful tool for the study of nature.  As part of his teaching method—he was a professor at the Imperial Academy—he had students create drawings based on photographs that were projected and enlarged full-size on a screen via a “magic lantern.”  He did this primarily during the winter months when it wasn't possible to go out and work from life.  By summer, the students had gained sufficient drawing skills to go outdoors to paint with color.

Forest Stream

Birch Forest

Near the Monastery

Forest Stream

Near the Monastery

Birch Forest