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All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, April 30, 2023

My Painting Teachers and Mentors

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by a Bot**

Four Teacher/Mentors and their Work

I’ve been blessed with many painting teachers over the years, some in person, some virtual.  But it’s the “in person” ones that have had the most impact, and I thought I’d honor them here with a few words.  The ones that continue to influence me, in alphabetical order by last name (so as not to bruise any egos):  Doug Dawson, Albert Handell, Bob Rohm and Ann Templeton.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

GPS Coordinates and the Plein Air Painter

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My old GPS unit.  Coordinates noted on the panel.

One year, at one of the many plein air painting events I've been invited to, I decided to scribble GPS coordinates on the back of each painting.  I figured it'd be one more "talking point" I could use during the sales event:  "And here," I'd say, proudly pointing to the coordinates, "is the exact location where I stood when I painted this."

The occasion was the invitational Celebration of Art at Grand Canyon National Park.  Although the GPS unit—an old, bulky Magellan that I'd decommissioned from my car—added just one more complexity to a very busy event, I committed myself.  Each time I found my painting spot, I wrestled it out of my backpack and put it on the ground.  It always took a few minutes for it to lock onto the satellites, so I'd turn it on even before setting up my easel.  Once it locked, I took out my black Magic Marker and noted the coordinates on the back of the panel I'd chosen to paint on.  I felt rather smart and smug about it all.

But after a week of this, at the culminating sales event, I discovered no one really cared.

So, at the next year's event, I ditched the GPS.  I also decided to make larger paintings, ones that would require me to visit a location two or three times in order to complete them.  For my first painting, I found the ideal spot.  It had a beautiful composition of weathered rocks and storm-blasted junipers.  I painted away happily, stopping after a couple of hours with the understanding that I would finish it the next day.  Knowing it would be important to find the exact same spot, I carefully memorized details of the location.  I even took a photo of the scene as a memory aid with my Canon point-and-shoot.  (It did not have a GPS feature.)

Now, if you've ever hiked the South Rim, you might have noted that the view doesn't change much; the buttes and mesas are far enough away that, unless you hike a long distance, you see basically the same features all along the way.  And as you hike, you pass by many similar-looking patches of junipers and rocky outcrops.  It's easy to lose your way, especially if you're hiking off-trail, which I always do when hunting a painting spot.

The next day, despite my close observation of the scene and having a reference photo, I could not for the life of me find the spot.  I regretted not having a GPS.

Today, of course, I have a smartphone with an excellent GPS, and it goes with me everywhere.  I've used it many times on hikes to mark a location that I thought would be a good painting spot and wanted to return to. It's also been great for helping me find my way back to civilization.  But I still don't bother to put the coordinates on my paintings.

As I mentioned, buyers aren't interested—but other painters, photographers and hikers sure are, especially when they see my work on social media.  They are eager to visit the same beautiful spot so they can paint it, photograph it or hike it.  And they can do exactly this, if  I tag the location or upload the image with the location metadata intact.  But as a "steward of the land," I find this practice troubling—and I'll tell you why in a future blog.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Kathie Odom: Let the Art Speak

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A few years ago, I had the chance to interview plein air painter Kathie Odom for The Artists Magazine. In the magazine, I wrote:
Viewing the paintings of native Tennessee artist Kathie Odom is like taking a drive through rural America, passing by family farms that have seen better days. Old barns with sun-warped siding and tin roofs starting to peel back; log cabins with wide bands of chinking in need of repair; weed-thick gardens with a few wire tomato baskets, forgotten after the last harvest. An organic messiness, lovely in its unpredictable growth, has begun to surround the farms. 

Odom paints this with a loose brush, art imitating nature in all its vegetative energy. Look longer, and you'll start to feel a wistful hankering for times gone by.
Last year, at the Plein Air Convention & Expo in Santa Fe, I ran into Kathie and her husband, Buddy.  We had a delightful talk (even though I was wearing my pandemic mask), and she let me know that she had just published a retrospective of her work, Kathie Odom: Let the Art Speak.  I was delighted a few weeks later to receive a copy.

The book runs to nearly 200 pages, with each page beautifully printed.  The paintings are organized chronologically and, in keeping with the title, the artist lets the art speak for itself and keeps her remarks brief.  As I pored over the paintings, page by page, my vision of the world she inhabits and paints in grew.  Many of the paintings resonated with my own memories of the South:  hoeing corn with my grandparents on their truck farm in Mississippi; catching lightning bugs on sweltering summer nights with my cousins in Arkansas; driving with my family through the blue hills of Appalachia and in awe of the mountains of kudzu weighing down abandoned tobacco barns.

Kathie Odom: Let the Art Speak is a real treasure.  It's available from the artist:

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Minimalist Plein Air: Perhaps a Solution

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Is your studio filled with clutter like mine?  I'm organized,
but it still is a lot of stuff.  And worse yet, I have two studios!

Back when I was just a writer, the clutter of my occupation was very little:  a typewriter, a ream of blank paper, and a box containing my output.  Well, okay, there were also drawers of drafts, some on blue paper, some on yellow—you writers of a certain age will remember all that—plus file folders of research material and rejection letters.  But I pretty much kept my business within the bounds of my physical desk.  These days, a writer can keep all that on a thumb drive—or better yet, in the Cloud.  A writer could literally live in a cardboard box on the street with nothing more than a smartphone. 

But then I became a painter.  For those of us who engage in non-digital visual arts, this requires stuff, lots of stuff, stuff to make more stuff.  Technology hasn't helped us one whit on this; you can't be a painter and live in a cardboard box.  So now, I have jars of tired brushes that should be thrown away but maybe not, because I might some day need the one that looks like it's been gnawed down to the bone.  Boxes of exhausted paint tubes out of which I might squeeze a pinhead of paint if I took a hammer to them.  Shelves of finished canvases that haven't yet sold or might never sell and perhaps should be painted over.  Drawers crammed with the detritus of an active, artistic life:  pastel sticks and pastel nubs; virgin erasers and eraser crumbs; sketchbooks, both large and small, some with very good sketches, others with very poor ones.  And then pencils and crayons and pens and—oh my! as Dorothy exclaimed.

Yet, there is hope.  I have occasionally been accused of all-too-seriously suggesting that a painter really only needs one canvas and a camera.  Make a painting, snap a picture of it, and then scrape out the canvas so it's fresh for the next one.  Paint, photo, wipe—and repeat.  Over time, a painter could have a digital archive of thousands of paintings but only the one canvas, which he recycles as needed.  You could almost live in a cardboard box with this approach.

Of course, I said that tongue-in-cheek.  On the other hand, I am learning that, for me, painting is more about the experience and not the final artifact, so maybe I'm onto something.

Recently, I had another idea.  Busy in the studio on a painting that featured some autumn foliage in my canyon, I decided I needed to hike out to the location for more information.  As I stood on the rim, gazing down into a beautiful collection of fall color, deep in the moment, it occurred to me that I was actually building the painting in my head, with each observation adding another stroke to my mental canvas.   What if I took this to its natural conclusion, refining the process of painting until I had moved it out of the physical dimension and into some transcendental plane?

What if, whenever I felt the urge to paint, I just sat quietly, never picking up a brush, never mixing a color, but instead simply observing with a painter's eye?  Would that be enough?  This minimalist would like to think so, but, no. There's something about picking up a brush and mixing paint that is also satisfying. I don't think I could give up the physical component of painting.  And then there's the communication aspect.  As much as the experience is most important to me, it's also satisfying to share that experience—and the only way to do that is through the painted canvas.

So,what's the solution to decluttering my artistic life?  My grandfather was a farmer and, having lived through the Depression, never threw anything out.  When he passed away, we found in his barn countless gallon glass jars containing screws and bolts and nails, boxes of gaskets and oily wrenches and bits of wire.  Everything, all of it used and probably bent, torn or broken, was sorted and neatly organized.  Still, did he really need to keep all of that?  In a way, he was an artist, too, since he could fix anything—not just because he was creative but also because he had the odds and ends to make it happen.  So, yes, I suppose he did need to keep all of that.

And maybe I do, too.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Extreme Makeovers for Plein Air Paintings: Sunrise in the Canyon

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Makeover: "Sunrise in the Canyon"
9x12 oil / sold
Read about my process below

Who hasn't been awed by the sunrise at Grand Canyon?  Many times, I've walked along the rim with a to-go cup of fresh coffee from the Bright Angel snack bar to witness it.  I usually find a little nook away from the other tourists, where I can watch in peace the sun's first warm rays as they paint the canyon walls in golds and reds. 

It's a great moment for photographers.  They line up jauntily at the rim with their tripods, making small talk, waiting for the right second to trip the shutter.  But for painters, it's another matter entirely.  When I try this, I find I have about 20 frantic, intense minutes of trying to block in the general idea before the glow weakens and gives way to a harsh, glaring light. That's not much time to mix paint, apply it, consider it, and make corrections.  You'd be surprised at how big a 9x12 canvas can seem in those few minutes.

And that was my situation when I painted the original piece.  I was reasonably content with it, but it always had a half-finished feeling, like something I might use in the studio as a color reference.  But after looking at it again, I decided the "bones" of a decent painting were there, and it wouldn't take long to take it to the next level.

The sketch was hung up in the mid-values, so I pushed the contrast by adding darker notes around the formation (the "Steamboat") in the foreground and darkened its cast shadow.  I also darkened the shadowed area of the distant canyon and simplified the pattern of cliffs receiving the first bits of sunlight.  I worked in richer color in the Steamboat to pull the eye.  Finally, I sharpened the outline of the cliff on the left to give it more presence and to bring it into the middle ground, making more sense of the depth of the canyon.  Finally, I added touches of purer color here and there throughout the painting to give it more "punch"overall.

Again, my apologies for the lack of step-by-step photos.


Makeover: "Sunrise in the Canyon"
9x12 oil / Available

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Extreme Makeovers for Plein Air Paintings: Above the Canyon

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Madeover: "Above the Canyon"
9x12 oil / Available
Read about my process below

Once in awhile, when I'm out painting, the energy of the scene will take over.  That is, I lose control and am at the mercy of the landscape.  That's what happened with the original painting.  (See below.)  Looking back at it, I'm not sure what caught my eye, unless it was the movement of the clouds and the shadows on the land.  The piece has energy to it, but it's caught in the mid-values, and it has an unorganized complexity that concerns me.  I decided to give it one of my more "extreme" makeovers.

First, I dealt with the cloud pattern.  In the original, you can detect some sort of pattern, but I wanted to strengthen and simplify it.  Using my sky color, I carved back into the clouds, reshaping them.  Next, I wanted to do the same with the shadow patterns on the mountains, so I increased the contrast and simplified those, too.  Finally, the flat ground, I thought, was a muddle.  I decided to add a sliver of canyon.  I've always liked the view of the Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico; from a certain viewpoint, it looks like a split in the earth, and I decided to introduce that here.  Although the painting has become a fantasy scene, I much prefer it to the plein air painting that lies beneath it.

By the way, I apologize for the lack of step-by-step photos.  When I'm painting, I so often get carried away and forget.  But I'll tell you  a secret—I'm glad I forget.  It keeps me "in the moment."

Original Plein Air Painting

Extreme Makeover!
"Above the Canyon" 9x12 oil / Available