Authentically Human! Not Written by AI!
All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Plein Air Purist—Or Plein Air Snob?

View in browser

I made these three 6x8 oil studies in the field
in preparation for creating a large studio painting.
Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see the 
finished painting.

I admit, the lure of plein air painting is powerful.  The smells, the sounds and, of course, the sights, draw us landscape painters like pheromones do a moth.  I'd rather be painting outdoors than in the studio any day.

The moth may enjoy the momentary effects of a pheromone for its own sake, but ultimately, the pheromone has a higher reason for being:  the perpetuation of the species.  What about plein air painting?  I enjoy the moment—a two-hour tussle with the landscape that lights up all the pleasure centers of my brain—but is there something more?

Some painters seem to think not.  For them, plein air painting is an end in itself.  If they can't paint outdoors, they don't paint. It's all about the sex and not about begetting the next generation.  That is, it's all about the momentary satisfaction of “capturing the moment” but not about taking the art to a higher level.

I don't have a problem with this.  We all have different goals.  But what I do have a problem with is the swagger and brag of some of these plein air purists.  They become plein air snobs.  I want to pull them aside and say, “You know, if you spent some time in the studio addressing the issues that are difficult or impossible to deal with in the field, you'd be a better painter.” But they won't want to hear it.  

I said I prefer to paint outdoors, and this is true.  But I do value my studio time:  Outdoors, we can only receive and respond; in the studio, we can also reflect and refine.  Under the steady, unfailing light of my studio—a benefit you don't get in the field—and with the assortment of tools I have stored there, I can work out design and color issues and fine-tune these to better fit the idea behind my painting.  

It's easy to get addicted to painting on-location, especially if you make it easy on yourself by having  lightweight goals.  Constant work within a certain set of restrictions—such as limiting your painting practice exclusively to the outdoors—will only help you reach the limits possible within those restrictions, but no further.  For that, you need to move into the studio, where everything is possible.

By the way, do collectors care if a painting was done en plein air?  Not really.  They just want a good painting.  They may enjoy the story behind a painting—perhaps you had to fend off wild wolverines while perched precariously on a cliff overlooking your scene—but that won't sell the painting if it's not good.  

"Waterfall" 36x36 oil/canvas
You can read the full story about this painting in my 
book, Outdoor Study to Studio, available
from Amazon here

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Summer's Over – And About Next Summer: Part 2, The Retreat

View in browser

Shaun Painting at Low Tide

In my last post, I promised I'd write about the retreat.  Here's a little about it, plus some photos and paintings.

The retreat for experienced painters followed after the all-level workshop. Although my retreats don't include formal lectures, I offer plenty of opportunities to learn from each other, plus I give demonstrations and critiques.  (Click here to learn the difference between my workshops and retreats.) For this one, my twelve participants came from as far away as Colorado, Virginia and Quebec.  The weather this week was similar to the previous week, but with an addition of a half-day of rain.  During the rain day, I gave an oil demonstration on painting rocks and discussed some specifics on plein air gear and methods.  The week ended on a sunny note, and several participants said they couldn't wait for next year's retreat.  Me, too.

As much as it's sad to see my summer coming to an end, I'm looking forward to next year.  With that in mind, I've scheduled the following for Lubec, Maine:
  • All-level plein air painting workshop:  July 31-August 3, 2023
  • Painting retreat for experienced painters: August 7-11, 2023
Both weeks filled up very quickly when I announced them last year.  If you'd like to join me next year, I urge you to sign up soon.  Lodging can also be difficult to arrange if you wait too long because these weeks are “high season.”  And after this summer of record temperatures across the northern hemisphere, I imagine people will start booking for next year as soon as they can.  

I've also got two more retreats scheduled for this year, 2022.  I have space in both:
  • October 2-7 / Taos, New Mexico
  • November 7-10 / Sedona, Arizona
  • I'm also considering one based in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, for September or October 2023.  If I get enough interest, I'll pursue it.  If you're interested, let me know!
You can find all the details at my website.  Now, here are some photos and paintings!

9x12 pastel

9x12 oil

12x9 oil - this was a studio demo on our one rainy day

9x12 oil

5x8 gouache

5x8 gouache - low tide under some old fish buildings

5x8 gouache - more low tide

5x8 gouache

5x8 gouache

Rainy day demo

We had fog most mornings

Ann and Janet


One of my paintings on location



Late August means goldenrod

Erin and Liz

Suzanne, Shaun and Mary




Suzanne and Janet


My new friend, Ralph, who visited with us
while painting the old smokehouse complex.
Ralph worked in the canneries for 40 years until
they closed in 1991.  He insisted on having
his picture taken with me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Studio C Gallery in Los Angeles

View in browser

This week, Studio C Gallery in Los Angeles put out a wonderful blog post about me and my work with lots of images.  You can read the post here:

Peggy Nichols, who runs Studio C, took a workshop from me years ago.  It's nice to be remembered!

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Summer's Over – And About Next Summer: Part 1, The Workshop

View in browser

Find the painter!

Summer's over—well, for me, anyway.  After teaching an all-level plein air workshop and then running a painting retreat for experienced artists here in Downeast Maine, it's time to start packing up the studio.  (But wait!  I'll be teaching at Pastel Live, starting August 17.  You can find details on that here.)  I can't believe my time on Campobello is over.

The all-level workshop took place the first week.  Students came from Arizona, Pennsylvania and New Brunswick to enjoy the cool oceanside.  We had a few hours of fog some days, but we could still see plenty, and it gave us the opportunity to really study and understand values—an essential skill for beginners.  At sunny times, we focused on how color temperature differs between sunlit surfaces and shadowy crevices and with distance.  While going from easel to easel offering help, I observed porpoises playing just a hundred feet offshore while lobster boats came and went, checking their traps.  Painting from life immerses us not just in our subject but also wholly in the environment around us.

Here are a few photos from the workshop week.  In my next post, I'll write about the painting retreat.

9x12 oil on one of the sunny days.

9x12 oil on one of the foggy days.

You can't beat early morning fog for atmosphere.

The fog didn't give students any problems and,
in fact, kept us cool!

One day, we painted on the main street in town.

As much as it's sad to see my summer coming to an end, I'm looking forward to next year.  With that in mind, I've scheduled the following for Lubec, Maine:
  • All-level plein air painting workshop:  July 31-August 3, 2023
  • Painting retreat for experienced painters: August 7-11, 2023
Both weeks filled up very quickly when I announced them last year.  If you'd like to join me next year, I urge you to sign up soon.  Lodging can also be difficult to arrange if you wait too long because these weeks are “high season.”  And after this summer of record temperatures across the northern hemisphere, I imagine people will start booking for next year as soon as they can.  You can find all the details at my website.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

I Had a Frame

View in browser

I had a frame.

Sometimes, that's how a painting starts—with a frame. A couple of years ago, a patron made me a deal.  He offered to purchase some paintings and to pay part of the bill by trading a frame.  It was a very nice frame—solid wood, gold leaf, enough scrollwork so it looked classy but not gaudy—and even though it was for a large size (24x30) of painting I rarely work in, I took it.  It was a frame I couldn't have afforded to buy, not without a specific painting and a committed collector, but with the trade I thought it was a good deal.

The frame then sat in my studio, getting moved from corner to corner as I puttered around and tried to avoid it because I had no idea what kind of painting I'd make for it.

One day, while on a misty hike along our island's rarely-visited shoreline, I spied a beautiful arrangement of rocks sitting at the edge of the water.  The mist had made the rocks silvery with moisture, and the seaweed, at mid-tide, trailed gracefully about them.  The water was glassy-calm, as it often is on foggy days.  After snapping a few photos, I wondered if I should run off to get my gear and come back to paint my usual 9x12 plein air piece.  But I realized a 9x12 simply would not do it justice.  I felt it called for something bigger.

I then remembered my frame and immediately knew I had found my subject.  I took my photos home and got to work on some design ideas.  I pulled out a couple of plein air sketches I'd made under similar weather conditions to use as color references.  I gessoed some etching paper and got to work on figuring out a color scheme.  I ordered a panel large enough to fit the frame. (Its arrival was delayed for a few weeks, which was too bad, as I had wanted to put this new painting in a show as a centerpiece but the panel came too late.  But that tale is for a future post.)

Once I'd settled on design and color, I got to work.  I used a mid-value grey pastel to place the major shapes on the panel.  I like to use pastel for this step, as I can draw with it more easily than with a brush, and the pastel, being pure pigment, gets more or less eaten up by the following layer of paint.  Next, I used a large brush and blocked in the main dark shapes in raw umber, following this with greys, primarily cool reds, greens and blues.  For this, I made heavy use of Gamblin's Portland Greys, tinting them as needed with color.  I then moved on to sky and water, using the same color palette.  Once completed, I put down the brush and took up a large knife, blocking in first the rock cracks, using nothing but Ivory Black.  (I don't know why we artists are told that black is taboo, but there's nothing like it for the kind of dark you see in the crevices between maritime rocks.)   From here, I continued with the rock shadows, the lit parts of the rocks and seaweed and, finally, sky and water.

While working, I kept my color study, with was about a quarter the size of the final painting, right beside my easel so I could refer to it constantly.  I'd worked hard to come up with a palette that worked, and I didn't want to depart too much from that.  Occasionally, I found myself getting excited by adding some odd bit of color that lay outside my pre-chosen palette, but when I stepped back, I always saw it hurt the overall mood, and so I would scrape it off and go back to my color study, which had the mood just right.

Toward the end of the painting, I found that it was helpful to have a second pair of eyes.  Despite all the tricks of turning a painting upside down or viewing a photo of it to uncover hidden problems, there are some issues that only fresh eyes can see.  Trina pointed out a few that, once corrected, helped the painting immeasurably.  The lesson here:  Don't be afraid to show a work-in-progress to another artist.  You don't have to take the advice, but at least it gives you another perspective and, in the end, might improve the piece.

And don't turn down a frame just because you don't have a painting for it.  Someday, maybe, you will.

Here a few photos of my process.  Not pictured is my palette:  Portland Grey (Light, Medium, Deep), Phthalo Green, Olive Green, Permanent Green Light, Green Gold, Raw Umber, Ivory Black, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Titanium-Zinc White.  (All Gamblin.)

Block-in with raw umber

Restating the drawing with pastel

Block-in over the Raw Umber with tinted
Portland Greys

Restating the drawing with paint,
correcting the drawing

Working here and there

Done with the brush

My set-up.  Color study and value sketch on right.

Now the knife and some richer color

More knife work

Finished painting.
Adjusted shape of two rocks in the foreground.
Can you find them?
24x30 Oil
Available, frame included - details here

Monday, August 1, 2022

A New Line of Painting Knives from Gamblin

View in browser

The New Set of Knives from Gamblin Artists Colors

I'm always on the lookout for new tools to paint with—I'm like a raven, gathering anything bright and shiny.  Painting knives are bright and shiny, and I have many.  A knife is a good alternative to the brush and, in many ways, it's a more versatile tool.  You can draw the finest of lines with it, or you can trowel on a big load of paint.  You can finesse an area that needs subtle adjustment, or you can scrape down wholesale an area that doesn't please you.  You can also mix paint with it or even scrape your palette clean.  (Although I recommend using a palette knife—not a painting knife—for that purpose. Yes, there's a difference.)
Now I've found some new knives to collect.  Gamblin has introduced a line of painting knives, but interestingly, they're not shiny like all the others on the market.  Instead, they have a matte finish.
Here's what I like about them:
  • The single-piece design.  I’ve had knives with welded tips break, so it’s great to have a knife that I won’t have to worry about in the heat of the moment.  (I don’t always have a delicate touch.)
  • The amount of flex.  The have just the right amount.  Other knives tend to be too stiff or, worse yet, too flimsy.  
  • The handle.  The large, rounded handle is very comfortable, whether I’m making big strokes or tiny, fine ones. The handle has a flat side, which prevents the knife from rolling when laid down.  It's also color-coded for quick reference.
  • The balance.  The knives are well-balanced and easy to manipulate.
  • The matte finish.  When painting outdoors, it minimizes those sudden flashes of blinding light when the blade catches the sun. 
  • The names.  Rather than designating each knife with a hard-to-remember stock number, Gamblin has given them names, such as the “Ladd.”  (I'm told each of these names have some significance.  Ladd, for example, is the name of the street where Robert Gamblin first started making paint in a one-car garage.)  Besides the color-coding of the knives, each has the name stamped on the handle.
My only concern is the matte finish.  With my other knives, which have a slick, mirror-like finish, I can wipe them clean easily with a dry rag.  With these, some of the paint seems to remain on the surface, especially with high-tinting pigments like the phthalos. However, I found that wetting my rag with a little Gamsol first helps.  Another thought, although I haven't tried this yet, is to wipe a little oil on the clean knife prior to using it.
My favorites?  The Ladd (green handle) is perfect for most of my work, as I tend to paint on the small side.  The Taylor (blue handle) is good for blocking in large areas and down-stroking sky, water and other areas that should be somewhat smooth.  The Hoyt (yellow handle) is good for large areas, too, but its sharp, angled edge is good for rocky cliffs.  I'm sure I'll find uses for the other knives, too.

The "Ladd" in action -- perfect for these small areas

The "Taylor" -- great for sharp edges