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

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Workshop Report: Art Fest, Mesa, Arizona

View in browser

**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

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

View in browser

**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.   

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Painting Retreat Report: Pagosa Springs, Colorado

View in browser

**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

North of Town, 8x10, oil - available

Colorado is famous—and rightly so—for its spectacular fall foliage.  Last week, our group of plein air painters, hailing from Ohio, Oregon and Connecticut, experienced this first-hand at the Bruce Spruce Ranch at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.  Locals told us the color was a week or so late, but we couldn't have picked a more beautiful week.

The day before the retreat began, we had a solid day of rain.  But fortunately, our party was able to hunker down in the rustic  cabins with wood stoves fired up, keeping us dry and warm.  When the rain cleared the next morning, our first day of the retreat, we could see snow carpeting the higher peaks.  Despite the weather turning fine after this, mornings proved cold throughout the week.  The wood stoves ended up playing a vital role in our daily routine, and I got pretty good at getting a fire started.  However, my wood-splitting skills didn't improve much.  Although you could buy bundles of firewood, I foolishly chose to split my own for free; it wasn't long before I was enjoying the generosity of the spouse of one of our painters, who seemed to like splitting more wood than he needed.

A couple of mornings, to avoid having to wait for the day to warm up at the Ranch, we headed down the hill to Pagosa Springs, about 10 miles south.  We found several spots along the San Juan River, which runs through town, that gave us views of colorful cottonwoods.  Other days, we painted around the Ranch.  Established in the 1930s as a guest ranch just below Wolf Creek Pass, it is surrounded by fishing ponds, cottonwoods and broad vistas.  You didn't have to walk far for a stunning vista or an intimate view of a creek.  Another day, we headed up to Wolf Creek Pass, which tops out at a literally breath-taking 10,856 feet, and on to the historic mining town of Creede.  (The snow was gone by then.)  We painted there, but we also visited my friend, Stephen Quiller, which I think was a highlight for many of us.

Stephen Quiller is probably the best-known, all-round watermedia artist in the country.  He works in any medium that uses water:  acrylic, casein, gouache and watercolor.  I think he is personally responsible for re-introducing artists to casein and gouache, and he also designed a very helpful system for painters of any medium, the Quiller Color Palette.  (Did I mention he is also one of the artists I include in my book, Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air?)  He's also very personable and eager to help painters.  Although his gallery had closed for the season, he offered to come into town to open it for us and to chat with us.  During the gallery tour, I learned a surprising thing—he also creates beautiful etchings.  A committed plein air painter, he likes to stay out of the woods in November because of hunters, and he uses that time to make etchings.

After the retreat, on the way home, Trina and I stopped in Abiquiu—famous for Ghost Ranch and Georgia O'Keeffe—where the annual studio tour was happening, and then spent two days in Santa Fe, visiting museums and galleries.  All in all, it was a fabulous time, and we're eager to host another retreat soon.

If you're interested in my painting retreats, make sure you sign up for my newsletter, and you'll hear about them first.  Right now, my Maine retreat (August 5-9, 2024) is full, but I've started a waiting list.  You can find out more about my retreats here

By the way, I still have room in my one-day, studio-only workshop at Art Fest in Mesa, Arizona, this month.  My workshop is on October 26th, and in it, we'll take plein air references (such as I gathered on this retreat in Colorado) 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.   

Until next time, here are some more paintings and photos from the trip!

Autumn Vista, 8x10 oil - available

Autumn Friends, 8x10 oil - available

Cloud Shadows, 8x10 oil - available

Our rustic cabin

Snow on the peak

The San Juan River

More on the San Juan River

And Yet Even More on the San Juan River

Caught by the Beauty of theTrees

Critique Time

Around the Ranch

More Around the Ranch

Aspens in Creede

Visiting Stephen Quiller

Oh, Yes, I Painted in Gouache, Too

Aspens on the Ridge

Cottonwood Fiesta

Fall Doesn't Get Any Better

Coal Creek, 5x16 Gouache Sketch

Along the San Juan, 5x8 Gouache Sketch

Color at Fawn Gulch, 5x8 Gouache Sketch

Santa Fe Arroyo, 5x8 Gouache Sketch
(sorry, I decided to sneak in a Santa Fe piece)

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Location, Location, Location: Picking a Subject

View in browser

**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

Where to start?

"There's so much here—I don't know what to pick."

These are words I frequently hear from students when we get to the field.  But believe me, even as an experienced plein air painter, I sometimes hear these in my head, too.  Some locations can be so rich that they offer a wealth of possibilities.  As frustrating as it may be to have to pick just one thing, if I want to get anything done, that's what I have to do.

This is where the camera on my smartphone comes into play.  Used as a cropping tool, it allows me to focus on what interests me, eliminating everything else around it.  (A ViewCatcher or homemade tool also works.)  I'll first zoom in so that the subject fills the screen, and then I'll zoom out a bit, taking in more and more of the scene until I get an assembly of elements that pleases me.  Next, I turn to my sketchbook—mine is only 3.5"x5"–and work out a few thumbnail value designs as I described elsewhere in my blog.

What do I look for in a scene?  It's helpful if the subject attracts me in some way, either through an arrangement of light and dark shapes or color play.  (In a workshop, depending on where the instructor takes me, I may not find an attractive subject, in which case I try to select something that relates to the lesson at hand.)  Also, what I pick depends on my goal for the day.  Maybe I'm just looking at color relationships, so I'll worry less about a pleasing assembly of elements.  If want to paint a vista, I might zoom out quite a bit to take in a wider view, and aim for responding to the feeling of a place.

I do all of this before even setting up my easel.  That's because I may not yet have settled on my subject and might choose to go on down the trail a bit more.

But once I do settle, I consider where to place my easel.  Sometimes, I can get a better angle on my subject by moving a few feet left or right.  This is especially true when painting architecture, when I want a viewpoint that will present the angles of roofs and walls in a way that won't confuse my viewer.  Complicated architecture, like Victorian mansions, which have lots of odd roof angles and bric-a-brac, can be confusing. 

I also consider lighting and personal comfort.  The best lighting on your palette and painting surface is even lighting; I like everything in shade, whereas some painters like direct sunlight (which I find blinding.)  I also want to make sure I'm on even ground.  I don't want any rocks to trip me up when I'm "in the zone" and not paying attention to my footing.  In addition, I try to anticipate what's going to happen with my environment, taking into account sun movement. I want my easel to stay in shade—I refuse to take the extra weight of an umbrella on my outings—and I don't want to have to move it in mid-stroke.  And if there's wind, I try to find a tree or rock outcrop to serve as a windscreen.

Finally, I think about the possibility of human interaction.  If I want a quiet, relaxing experience, I don't set up by a shuttle stop.  I mistakenly did that once, while painting at the Grand Canyon, and a busload of tourists suddenly flooded around me.  (In my defense, I will state that the stop was hidden behind several large junipers, and since I had come up the trail from a different direction, I never saw it.)

Sunday, October 1, 2023

How Not to Fail: Going Out with One of Four Goals

View in browser

**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

No, I'm not homeless.  I'm working on Goal #2, gathering reference material

Which type of outdoor painter are you?  Once you're at your painting location, do you take a long time deciding what to paint?  Or do you arrive on the scene with a specific goal in mind?  If you're the first type, you may have a satisfying experience, but your success rate will be much better if you have a specific goal.  You'll become a better painter faster.

I always try to have one of four goals when I head out.  They're simple:

  1. Explore an area
  2. Gather reference material
  3. Work on a skill or problem
  4. Create a finished painting

Exploring an area is what I do if I'm in unfamiliar territory.  For example, my first time in Scotland I didn't know what to paint.  So, rather than doing something complicated (like a finished painting), I decided to focus on just sketching the things that were new to me:  craggy parts of castle ruins, bald hilltops carpeted with bright green grasses, expanses of yellow gorse.  This is a relaxing way of painting, and it increases your knowledge of a strange land.

Gathering reference material is a bit like exploring, but with more of a focus.  On a later trip to Scotland, I became enamored of a beautiful, ancient stone bridge in the Cuillins.  I wanted to make a big painting of it, but I didn't have the time or materials.  Instead, I spent the morning gathering references for the studio.  Besides sketching the bridge in gouache, I also made some pencil sketches and took a bunch of photos.  (Thank goodness for digital film!)  The idea here is that, once back in the studio, in a controlled environment where you have all the tools and materials at your diposal, you can create a more considered work.

Working on a skill or problem is usually a workshop goal.  But I also do this on my own.  Observing color temperature relationships—how cool or warm a note appears next to an adjacent patch of color—fascinates me, and I can't seem to get enough of this.  (Sunlit canyons with deep shadows are a particular favorite.)  But sometimes I have a question I want to solve.  For example, we've all heard that white in shadow is darker than black in light.  Is this true?  You might want to go out to see for yourself by observing and painting it.

Creating a finished painting outdoors is a Herculean task compared to the other three goals.  I usually reserve this goal for plein air painting competitions—although it's also a good skill to practice if you're heading for a painting competition.   To create a finished painting, you have to be at the top of your game:  good design, good color use and good edge treatment.  And, I might add, it helps first to have had a good night's sleep and a good cup of coffee.

Yet, after all I've said, sometimes it's just nice to let serendipity be your guide—and this is probably the most relaxing goal of all.

(And speaking of Scotland, did you know you can help me get back to Scotland for my next project?  Details are here.)