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

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Another New Year with Workshops, Travels, Books and More!

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Reflecting on the passing of another year has become somewhat of a cliché, but I'll indulge in it nonetheless: It's remarkable how swiftly time flies. But rather than dwelling on the past, I find solace in embracing the belief that life is best lived looking forward, with only the occasional glance in the rearview mirror.

As we stand at the threshold of 2024, the future holds both anticipation and excitement. Here's a glimpse into what the upcoming year will offer:

Winter: Paintings of Scotland, and Hoping to Get Broadband!

My winter endeavor is dedicated to crafting a series of large paintings capturing the essence of Scotland, destined for an upcoming book. (See below.) Drawing inspiration from color sketches and photographs from previous trips, this series aims to explore inventive expressions of color and abstraction.  And as for broadband, the prospect of it reaching our rural community soon will open doors to longer YouTube videos and the possibility of hosting Zoom workshops.

April: Sedona Plein Air Painting Retreat?

In the spirit of continuous exploration, I'm considering a "Hiking to Sketch and Photograph" retreat in Sedona, Arizona. Set against the backdrop of enchanting Uptown Sedona, this retreat will center around daily hikes on uptown trails, catering to experienced outdoor painters with a penchant for adventure. April is the tentative timeframe, and if this resonates with you, let me know.  General details on my retreats can be found here.

July/August: Maine Plein Air Painting Workshop & Plein Air Painting Retreat

Lubec, Maine, and Campobello Island, New Brunswick, remain my preferred summer painting havens. An all-level plein air painting workshop is slated for July 29-August 1, with openings still available. Following that, a plein air painting retreat from August 5-9 awaits, currently at full capacity but open for waiting list sign-ups. Click here for details on the workshop. Click here for details on the retreat.

September: Scotland Trip

Embarking on a four-week immersive journey through different regions of Scotland in September, my focus will be on hiking, painting and photography. While fellow painters expressed interest in joining, we're reserving this adventure just for Trina and me at this time.

October: Plein Air Painting Workshop at Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Trace the footsteps of Georgia O'Keeffe at Palo Duro Canyon in a three-day plein air painting workshop sponsored by the Amarillo Art Institute. Details are forthcoming, but mark your calendars for October 17-19 for a painting experience in this mini-Grand Canyon.  (I'll send out more details as they are finalized.)

November: Sedona Plein Air Painting Retreat?

A second "Hiking to Sketch and Photograph" retreat is in the works for mid-November, echoing the April proposal. The allure of Sedona in November promises stunning colors in the cottonwoods and sycamores.  Again, if you're interested, please let me know.

Winter 2024/2024: The Scotland Book and Wee Paintings of Scotland

Post-Scotland trip, my focus turns to crafting Through a Painter's Brush: Scotland, a book akin to its predecessors, filled with essays, diary entries, and captivating images. To support this venture, my revamped Patreon page offers two support levels, each with its unique perks. (And yes, if you'd prefer not to deal with Patreon, you can pay in full, up-front.)   As the snow shovel beckons in anticipation of a wet winter, I invite you to consider joining me on this artistic odyssey. Your support, whether through Patreon or direct engagement, is immensely appreciated. If you've already enlisted, my heartfelt thanks! Click here for details.

That concludes the current update—now, off to find that snow shovel! Winter's forecast promises precipitation, and I'm ready to embrace the artistic challenges it brings.

Wishing you all a productive and peaceful New Year!

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Thoughts on Seeing

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

As plein air painters, we are told one of our best tools is the squinted eye.  Sure, that's great for seeing a simplified version of the scene—detail and color are reduced, shapes and values massed—but it doesn't help with seeing more than that.  And to paint well, we ultimately need to see everything.  This means you have to open your eyes.

But what are we looking for, exactly?  For me, it comes down to comparing line, shape, value and color:

  • How does the angle and length of this line compare to that one?  Is it more or less acute, longer or shorter? 
  • How does this shape compare to that one?  Is it rounder or less round, bigger or smaller?
  • How does the temperature and saturation of this area compare to that one?  Is it warmer or cooler, richer or duller, in a different hue family?

As an experienced outdoor painter, I often rely on my naked eye for these comparisons.  But sometimes I need help. The handle of a brush or a pencil helps me measure angle and length.  A "color isolator," such as the hole in the center of my ViewCatcher, lets me isolate a tiny patch of the scene so I can judge the different aspects of its color.  The tool is a mid-value, neutral grey, so the questions I ask it include:  Is the color lighter or darker than the grey?  How much more saturated does it feel than the grey?  Hue is easier to see against the grey, too.  Additionally, I can compare different patches with the tool.

But what about depth?  I'm sure you already know how the atmosphere creates a sense of distance through reducing value, contrast and saturation, and by softening edges.  Yet there's more to it than that.  There is the "roundness" of form, the contours of the land or a tree, something you can only see with both eyes, binocular vision.  If you have experience drawing the human figure from life, you know what I mean.  There's all the difference in the world between a drawing done by someone who works exclusively from photographs and that done by someone who works from life.

By the way, you don't have to be painting or even drawing to learn to see.  Just go outside, find yourself a comfortable spot, and just look. Observe the scene as if you were painting it.  You'll be surprised how much just this simple exercise can improve your painting.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

What Do Plein Air Painters Do in the Winter?

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Ready, set -- go!
A 36x12 toned for a painting of Scotland.
Why violet?  It'll go well with all that green.

What do plein air painters do in the winter?  Well, if it's not too cold and not too snowy, I go out.  You've probably seen some of my snow sketches and paintings over the years.  But what if the weather is worse?  Then I retreat to the studio.

These past couple of weeks, we've had cold mornings (18°F or lower) and snow.  (Should I mention that the snow turns to mud here?) Sure, I've painted in worse.  But honestly, the only thing I get out of bad-weather painting is bragging rights.  I've realized it does nothing to advance my skills as as painter.  These days, I'd rather take a photograph.

For me, winter weather is the time for a studio project.  As you may have read, I'm planning a month-long trip to Scotland next fall.  One of my goals for that trip is to gather enough reference material for a book on Scotland as part of my Through a Painter's Brush series.  

As of this moment, I have enough material from previous trips to forge ahead on a few large studio paintings for the book.  (By the way, if you'd like to support my trip and get a small painting and/or the book, you can get details here.)  

Going through my photographs, video clips and plein air sketches helps me relive the moment and re-creates the excitement I felt while traveling.  (I'll share some photos of my past Scottish travels below.)  I've already got the first canvas toned and on the easel, so I'm ready to go.  I'll be posting all the work on my Instagram account, so stay tuned!  

In Scotland, I've painted through
sun, showers and...

...even sheep.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

For the Painter

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

Since giving seems to be on everyone's mind right now, I thought I'd jump in with my own "Top Ten" list of suggestions.   These are things I've found useful in my own painting practice in the past year, so maybe you'll find them useful, too.  In no particular order:

Tempered Glass Cutting Board.  Sure, you could chop onions on this, but I find it better to use as a painting palette.  They come in different sizes, and they are easy to clean, either with a quick scrape of a blade or a wipe of a paper towel.  The one I have has little plastic feet so it doesn't slip.  Although I use a large, homemade glass palette at my easel, I've found that having one or two of the smaller cutting boards is handy for any small project that doesn't require a big mixing area.  

Bluetooth Headband.  I listen to music when I'm in the studio, whether at the easel, bench or desk.  Because I tend to wander a bit, and also to flail my hands about when painting, I find cables a hazard, so wired headphones aren't an option.  What's more, my music often doesn't suit the other inhabitants of the house, so speakers don't work for me, either.  Sure, I could wear wireless headphones, but I find them a bit clunky.  My solution:  a Bluetooth headband.  The tiny speakers are fine—I can almost feel the bass—and the band itself is made of a material that keeps my head warm.  There are many brands out there, but mine is a MusiCozy.

Wacom Intuos Tablet.  I'm not a digital artist, but I've found that digital art can be handy in improving my paintings made with traditional media.  To do this, I take a photo of my work-in-progress, pull it into my favorite image editing software, and then experiment with the image using my graphics tablet.  I can simulate many of the tools I use in traditional painting – brush and knife, in many sizes and shapes – and play with different ideas in color and value.  Once I've come up with something that looks good, I return to my easel and make it real.

Rosemary Brushes.  I'm hard on my brushes, and it's disappointing to have an expensive brush wear down in no time.  I'd heard a lot about Rosemary Brushes, so hoping for a more durable product, I ordered the Michael Richardson Plein Air Master Brush Set.  (Most of the brushes it has are the sizes and shapes I typically use.)  Despite my scrubbing, grinding and general mistreatment, these brushes are still in great shape.

Gamblin's Gesso and Ground Blades.  These plastic scrapers I've found perfect not just for spreading gesso or oil ground on panels but also for painting with.  They're flexible and easy to clean.  Scraping down, spreading paint, making fine lines—all great uses for these.  I find them a great supplement to Gamblin's painting knives.

Gamblin's Painting Knives. These came out last year, but I've been using them this year on projects. The big handles make them easy on the grip, the one-piece stamped metal has no weld to break, and they clean with just a wipe. They're a bit big to take plein air painting, but they are great in the studio.

Mako Panels.  I started painting with these for a recent project, and I love them.  Well-crafted with good edges, plus a superior surface to paint on.  They come on ACM (aluminum composite material) panels or Gatorboard.  You can get them unprimed or primed with acrylic gesso or oil ground, or mounted with Claessen's linen. By the way, if you're a first-time buyer, you can get 10% off the order with the code FIRSTMAKO10.

And now it's time for some self-promotion!  Here are some other things you might enjoy:

My Calendar.  Twelves images of some of my favorite paintings from this past year.  Images are seasonally appropriate and feature Southwest landscapes and the Maine coast and Canadian Maritimes.

My Paintings.  In case you missed it, the studio clearance still goes on!  Get 50% off any Southwest painting over $300 with FREE shipping to the continental US.

My Books.  Each of these books contains useful demonstrations, tips and more for both the beginning plein air painter and the seasoned pro.  The most recent one is Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air, which features a dozen master artists offering demonstrations and instruction.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Some New Panels for Oil Painting

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

"Circle of Light" 11x14 Oil - Available
I painted this on the 3mm ACM panel that had been prepped
with an oil ground.  I really liked the slight texture of the panel.
Using a knife and a Gamblin Gesso and Ground blade, I was
able to make the most of the texture.  (See farther down
for a close-up of the texture.)

While researching materials for a recent painting project, I came across a company that was new to me, Mako Art Supply. I was looking specifically for ACM panels prepped with a ground for oil painting.  (ACM stands for aluminum composite material, and one brand is Dibond.)   Mako, a company founded in 2022, makes exactly what I was looking for, so I contacted them about my project.

I was surprised when a box landed on my doorstep with a generous assortment of samples.  Inside was a set of 11x14 panels: a 3mm ACM panel prepped with an oil ground, another with acrylic gesso, a third unprimed, plus a Gatorfoam panel mounted with Claessen's 09 linen.  Each panel is beautifully crafted and finished with nice edges.

I've tried one of the panels so far – the oil ground one – and it has been a delight to work on.  It has a slightly textured surface that holds the paint well, and being an oil ground, it's not as absorbent as acrylic gesso, so I can easily wipe down areas to the "white" if I want to.  I'm looking forward to trying the others.  As for the unprimed panel, I'll be prepping it with Gamblin's Oil Ground.  Stay tuned!

Here are a few images of the panels.  By the way, if you're a first-time buyer, you can get 10% off the order with the code FIRSTMAKO10.

Backs of the four panels

Close-up of three of the panels.  Sorry I didn't
get a photo of the oil ground one, but I had
already painted on it by the time I decided to
write this post!

Detail of the "Circle of Light" painting.
You can see the slight texture of the panel coming through.

By the way, the 50% Studio Sale continues! You can get 50% off any painting over $300 with free shipping to the continental US.  For details, click here.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Canyon Abstraction: Crevice

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"Crevice" 16x20 Oil

Not long ago, I sold a large painting from my Canyon Abstraction series.  It was one of a trio that I had hung in the bedroom, and I have been missing it like an old friend.  This past month, I had some free time and decided to paint it again.

I pulled out my pandemic gouache journals, which had most of the color studies I needed.  I also printed out a copy of the painting I sold, plus a few photos of this particular part of the canyon.  Interestingly, the only reference I ended up using was the photo of the original, and I used that just for the composition, not for color or form – all this other information was conveniently held in memory, thanks to having spent much time sketching in the canyon over the last few years.

I started off by toning my 16x20 panel with Gamblin's Transparent Earth Yellow.  This is a beautiful, luminous yellow that served well as a base color for the canyon wall.  After that, I used Burnt Sienna and Viridian to create a warm dark for the shadows and cracks, and Cerulean Blue Hue for reflected skylight.  Finally, I used touches of Naphthol Scarlet and Cadmium Orange to indicate hot spots of reflected canyon light in the shadows.

After my first pass at color, I shot a photo of the panel and used my photoediting app (Krita) and a Wacom Intuous tablet to do a little digital painting.  I wanted to experiment with color and get a sense of where I might go in the next stage.  I liked the result, and I used some of it in the finished painting, such as the cool pinks in the edges of the wall and the cool, blue-green stains on the rock.  But as much as I enjoyed my digital painting session, my preference is for using a real brush to push around thick oil paint.  Even so, I found the detour useful, and I'll probably do it again.

Another tool I used was the new "gesso and ground blade" from Gamblin.  Neat tool, which I also used in this painting for spreading paint over large areas and also scraping back areas.

Gamblin's Transparent Earth Yellow

Initial Drawing

Blocking in Darks plus a Few Lines

Adding Some Color

Wacom Tablet and Digital Painting

The "Digital Version" of the Painting
(Note that in the final version of the oil, I
departed slightly from this.)

Scraping with the Gamblin Tool

The Gamblin "Gesso and Ground Blade"

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

2024 Calendar is Ready!

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

New Calendar is Out!

Each fall, I put together a calendar with paintings I love from the past year. This time, the calendar showcases snowy scenes from New Mexico and summer vibes from the Maine Coast and Canadian Maritimes. You can see a preview of the calendar in the video above.  To order, you can either scan the QR code at the end of the video (or here) or go to this link:  

By the way, my Fall Studio Sale continues!  You can get 50% off on any Southwest painting over $300, which includes free shipping to the continental US.  For details, click here.  

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Fall Studio Sale

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

It's that time of year again.  Twice a year, I offer a 50% sale on paintings.  Now it's time for 50% off on any Southwest painting over $300!  I've got a huge inventory of work, some studio paintings but many plein air pieces from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.  Go here to see the Southwest paintings


  • Paintings are shipped unframed
  • Shipped free to the continental US (I'll contact you for extra shipping if you're out of this area)
  • You can pay by personal check, but I will also take Zelle and Paypal (contact me for payment details)
  • Coupon code (important!) is "fallishere" (all lower case, no spaces)
  • Coupon good until December 31, 2023

I'm sorry to see any of these paintings go, as they represent so many beautiful places I've painted in and so many wonderful times I've had.  But the walls and racks are a bit crowded, and I am still painting, and I need somewhere to put all the new ones!

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Time to Sketch

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

I love sketching trees, the deader, the better.
(Well, I do like live trees, too!)

This past week, I made my presentation to the committee that will determine which of the five finalists will be awarded the project to create public art for the McKinley County Courthouse Rotunda.  It's been fun – it's always fun to be in the running for a $100,000 award – and I learned a great deal about the county's cultural diversity and history while putting it all together.  Plus, I had the pleasure of figuring out my new Wacom tablet and tuning up my Powerpoint skills.  (In a future post, I'll write more about this project.)

But that's all done now.  While I wait for a decision, it's time to get back to tuning up some other skill – drawing.  Here in New Mexico, we have entered the monochrome season, a time best interpreted in pencil.  The glorious color of fall has passed.  Instead, the landscape is filled with ochres and umbers, dull yellows and browns.  Even the greens of the junipers and pines don't offer any relief, as they are a very dull, greyed-down green.  It's as if the world has been pulled into Photoshop with the color saturation dialed down to 5%.

While I wait for the snows of winter, which act as a sort of prism, breaking up the light and decorating the landscape with a rainbow of hues, I have pulled out my sketchbook and pencil.  It's a nothing-fancy kit.  The sketchbook is just something cheap I had lying around, and the pencil is so non-descript it doesn't even have a hardness rating stamped on it.  But I can make a dark mark, so it's probably something softer than a #2.

It's a very portable kit, and I am now taking hikes down into the canyon with it.  I find a rock outcrop with interesting shadows and cracks, or a tree (nearly dead or completely dead, the best kind of subject) and sit down.  Or, if I can't find a level-enough rock to sit on, I stand; a sketch only takes a few minutes, so I can tolerate standing.  It's a meditative process, and it's so much more satisfying than sitting at the computer, playing with the Wacom tablet and tweaking Powerpoint slides.  

But as enjoyable as sketching is, I am patiently waiting for this monochrome season to end.  My tubes of paint are at the ready.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Report: Lake Paintout with Plein Air Painters of New Mexico

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Here's my painting from the paintout:
The Delicateness of Autumn, 8x10 Oil - Available

As the Western Coordinator for Plein Air Painters of New Mexico, I have the pleasure of hosting a couple of paintouts in my part of the state each year.  In the fall, I host one at the lake in my neighborhood.  This year, six members attended—a good number, actually, considering how far the lake is from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where the bulk of the members seem to live.  Rather than do the drive all in one day, about half of them camped overnight nearby at a local campground.

This year, we hit the fall color at peak, and I think everyone enjoyed the day.  And, since my studio is close by, I invited members to visit at the end.

By the way, as you read this, I am in Sedona, Arizona, catching the end of the Sedona Plein Air Festival after teaching my workshop for Art Fest in Mesa.  I participated as an Invited Artist at SPAF many times, and it is good to see my colleagues having a fun and productive time!

Here are some photos to show you the glorious color at the lake:

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Realism Live: Paintings up for Auction

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Once again, as an "artist emeritus" of PleinAir magazine's online conventions, for Realism Live I've been asked to put up some recent paintings for auction.  The auction starts Monday, November 6th, and ends on Saturday, November 11th.

The paintings I'm offering are from the Pagosa Springs fall painting retreat that I led in October.  (Well, there is one extra painting that's not from that trip--instead, it's a view of the lake near my studio.)  They are all 8x10 unframed oils, and sure to please!  Above are thumbnail images of the five paintings.

You can get to the auction here.  

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Workshop Report: Art Fest, Mesa, Arizona

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My 12x9 demonstration for
the workshop.  It's a bit abstract, but
everyone liked the way I pulled
disparate elements together from 
different references.

As I write, I'm currently in Sedona, Arizona, having just left Art Fest, one of the "Makers Festivals" put on by my publisher, Golden Peak Media.  In Mesa, I taught an outdoor-study-to-studio workshop.  Interestingly, we didn't do the "outdoor" part, as it was just a one-day class, but I had students gather plein air references—color studies, pencil drawings, photographs—prior to the class.  (I provided them with plenty of instruction well in advance of our meeting.) It was a good class, and I think everyone came away with the tools they need to bring their paintings to a higher level.

My philosophy is this.  Plein air painting is for responding to the landscape before you; the studio is the place to reflect upon what you have done and to make it better.  In the studio, we have full control of the environment, plus plenty of time, as well as all the tools, to take care of the things we might not have been able to take care of in the field.  Personally, I've found my work much improved—and my satisfaction level much increased—by taking my plein air references into the studio where I can create a perhaps larger and certainly more-considered piece.

Color studies for the above piece.

And now I'm in Sedona.  If you've been following my blog over the years, you'll remember that I was an Invited Artist to the Sedona Plein Air Festival for many years.  (A quick check of my records shows I attended every year from 2006 to 2011, and then again from 2014-2016, a total of nine years.)  I have very fond memories of painting with excellent artists, many of whom have become good if not close friends.  Coincidentally, this weekend marks the end of this year's festival, the 19th, and I was able to go into town to see the art and to meet the new crop of artists.  The work is good, and I hope they have lots of sales.

Artists' games at the Sedona Arts Center, part
of the Sedona Plein Air Festival.  It was like
"tag team painting."

(By the way, I lived near Sedona for several years.  It was also good to revisit some old hikes.)

Did I feel nostalgic and, perhaps, sad at not being part of this year's event?  Not really.  I've paid my dues, enjoyed my time, and it was good to wander through the galleries and among the artists under the guise of anonymity.  Still, I might do the event again—so stay tuned.

A good fortune for an artist.
Received at the end of a fine meal at one
of our favorite Sedona restaurants.

One of my secret spots along Oak Creek,
not far from where I used to live.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Removing Varnish

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

Okay, let's assume you've varnished your painting.  (And if it's good enough to frame, why wouldn't you varnish it? Here's a post on that.)  But after having had the painting lying about in your studio for awhile, you suddenly realize that the painting needs another lick or two with the brush in order to reach perfection.

You wonder: Should you just go ahead and get out the paint, or should you remove the varnish first?

The problem with painting on top of varnish is that varnish, unlike oil paint, is not meant to be permanent.  Somewhere, years down the road, a conservator or restorer may find the need to remove the varnish in order to clean or touch-up the painting.  If you've painted on top of the varnish, that extra paint will be removed along with the varnish.  I know sometimes we forget to sign our paintings, but it's best if you don't sign them after varnishing!

You must remove the varnish first.  And you must remove it from everywhere on the painting—not just where you want to place your signature or repaint an area.  To not remove all the varnish will result in an unpleasant patchiness.  I tried that once, and I ended up having to go back a step and remove all the varnish properly, re-sign the painting, and then re-varnish it.

To remove varnish, you need to know what type of varnish it is so you can determine what solvent to use.  Is it an acrylic resin varnish or a natural resin varnish?  Damar resin, which you find in a natural resin varnish, will not dissolve in mineral spirits; for this, you need turpentine or a citrus solvent.  An acrylic varnish, on the other hand, can be removed with either mineral spirits or turpentine or a citrus solvent.

I varnish my oil painting with Gamblin's Gamvar, and if I need to remove the varnish, I use Gamsol with a soft, lint-free cloth.  I dampen the cloth repeatedly with Gamsol (wearing nitrile gloves, of course, and with good ventilation) and, using a gentle, circular motion, go over the whole canvas.  I can tell the varnish is gone because I typically use a gloss varnish, and when the Gamsol dries, the surface of the painting has a dull, matte look.  Once it dries, I can repaint (or sign) as needed.

By the way, it's not too late to get into my one-day, studio-only workshop at Art Fest in Mesa, Arizona.  The workshop is THIS THURSDAY, October 26th! in it, we'll take plein air references and learn how to create finished studio paintings from them.  You can get $20 off if you use the coupon code SAVEONMF.  You can learn more and sign up here.