Saturday, July 15, 2017

Heading to Rockland and then Castine - Painting the Maine Coast!

Morning Glare
4x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
$175 unframed - Available

I'm about to head down to Rockland, Maine, to teach a workshop for Coastal Maine Art Workshops.  Although I've visited Rockland many times, I've never painted there, so I'm excited to paint this part of the Maine coast.  Even more exciting is the possibility of a day trip to Monhegan Island. Monhegan is legendary among landscape painters because so many well-known artists, including Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper, have painted it over the last hundred years.  If you're a last-minute-type person, I do have space left in this workshop.  Click here for details.

After the workshop, I'll be stopping by Castine to judge paintings at the Castine Plein Air Festival.  I've participated as one of the artists the last few years, so it'll be a different experience to see the festival from the other end as a judge.  I'll also be able to reconnect with some painting friends, but I won't, of course, let that influence my judgement.  (There will also be a second judge, Maine artist Jerry Rose.)

I just finished up a workshop in Lubec, Maine, this week.  I've included a few of my demonstration paintings in this post.

Storm over the Cove
5x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
$175 unframed - Available

Summer Marsh
10x10 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Few Paintings from the Week

Quoddy Head
9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
I can't believe both Canada Day and Independence Day have come and gone.  Where's the summer going?  It's been awhile since I posted, so I thought I'd share some paintings from this past week, which marked the start of my plein air painting workshop season in Lubec, Maine.   I teach through August, so I'll be sharing more paintings with you as time goes by.

This week was a perfect week for outdoor painting.  Every day was sunny and glorious and temperate--just the way I like it.

"High Tide at Cranberry Point"
9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - US$700 includes frame and shipping to US - Contact Michael

By the way, I have room -- plus the lodging package available -- for my August 8-11 workshop.  Contact me if you're interested!  More details here.

Fish Shack Study
12x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Here's a short video clip from one day.  It gives you an idea of the peace and quiet we painters experience here.  (Can't see the video?  Here's the link:

Saturday, July 1, 2017

How to Become a Better Painter

Field of Lupines
9x12 oil
Michael Chesley Johnson
$200 unframed - available

How to become a better painter?  Practice—with a series of exclamation points following—is the obvious answer.  But you can't just flail away at the canvas with a loaded brush and expect to improve.  Here are some tips for when you're at the easel.

1.  Have a goal.  Pick some aspect of painting that you need work on.  Maybe you have trouble evoking the illusion of strong sunlight.  This tells me you may not understand color temperature, and I would recommend working on a series that will force you to explore the relationships of light and shadow.  If you have trouble identifying what you need to work on, seek out a mentor.  These days, some mentors can help via the Internet.  (This is something I do.)

2.  Learn your materials.  I'm all for playing with the latest novelty that comes along.  Maybe this week it's painting on Saran wrap with watercolor.  But it's better if you find a set of materials that works for you and that you master it.  Once you've done this, you can get back to improving your painting.  Painting is more than just knowing the craft side of things; it's also about the art.  But art only comes after craft.

3. Work mindfully.  Ask yourself questions about what you're doing.  If you can't find an answer, stop.  Think if you're going down the right path.  Was phthalo blue the right choice? Maybe you should have gone with the cobalt blue. Speak out loud as you paint (even if it's just a whispery moving of the lips.)  Sometimes, of course, the painting will "paint itself," as they say.  It's wonderful when this happens, but in the early days of learning your craft, it will happen rarely.  Until it does, keep up the dialogue.

4.  Try new things.  Did I recommend against playing in my second tip?  No, I said you should concentrate on finding a set of materials that works for you.  Play is, of course, an important part of learning.  But I don't mean unstructured, romping-around-the-jungle-gym play.  I mean mindful play.  ("Mindful" is key in both work and play.)  If you've never painted with watercolor on Saran wrap, maybe it could lead to something.  But you'd have to think about it.  Can you paint anything representational on this surface?  Or do you just end up with abstract dots of color?  Maybe, when the paint is still wet, you could press watercolor paper down on top of it and get some kind of monotype.  Hey, that might be interesting!  And it could lead you to a new and satisfying path to becoming a better painter.

"Smile, breathe and go slowly." – Thích Nhất Hạnh

Monday, June 19, 2017

Going from Oil Field Sketch to Studio Pastel

Passage 24x18 pastel
by Michael Chesley Johnson

The other day, I wrote about taking a pastel sketch made in the field and using it as a reference for a studio oil painting.  This time, I want to address the reverse.  Earlier this spring, I painted several small oil sketches at Zion National Park in Utah at a retreat I organized for some painters.  One of the sketches really appealed to me, as I thought the moment it captured would make a stunning piece if painted much larger.  The oil sketch was only 9x6 inches; my plan was to make it 24x18, and to do it in pastel.

Oil field study, 9x6

I felt the sketch would translate fairly easily into a larger size without the need for photo references for detail.  So, I propped up the painting next to my easel and got to work.  After the block in, and once I began to adjust color relationships, the "detail" began to appear automatically—all without my having to refer to a photo.  Sometimes, the painting tells you what it needs, and also my experience in painting this kind of scene came into play.

I made the painting on a sheet of steel-grey Canson Mi-Teintes.  For my pastels, I used NuPastels for 90% of the painting and then finished with Unisons.  Because the Canson paper can only hold so much pastel, I used a little Lascaux fixative now and then to give the paper more "grip."  Also, I used it more heavily wherever I needed to darken a passage.  At the end, I used the sharp edge of a dark blue pastel to add three small ravens over the central cliff to help with the sense of scale.  Here are some detail shots:

I painted the original small field sketch because I'd fallen in love with the shadowy blue that you see as you look down the length of the Virgin River in the early morning.  I think I was able to preserve this beautiful blue in the larger pastel.

I put together a short video that shows some of the process, below.  For those of you receiving this post via e-mail, you can see the video at this link

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Going from Pastel Field Sketch to Studio Oil

The June 2017 of The Artist's Magazine features my article on greens for the oil painter ("Going Green(s): Tubed and Mixed").  In the article, I show an oil demonstration in which I use just about every green from Gamblin I could lay my hands on—and that's a lot of greens!  The demonstration is based on a pastel plein air sketch I made while in Scotland a year ago.  The article shows the oil painting but not the pastel reference, so I thought it might be instructive for everyone to see both side by side.

Gamblin Greens

When I work in the studio from a field reference, I often switch media.  If I painted the reference in oil, I may do a studio version in pastel, and vice versa.  I'll also scale up the work.  The pastel reference in this case is 9x12, whereas the finished oil painting is 12x16.

Here are the two paintings in a larger size:

Pastel Field Sketch 9x12

"Highlands Cottage" 12x16  Studio Oil

(Both the sketch and the studio oil are for sale, either together or separately.  Please let me know if you are interested.)

I rarely try to make an exact copy of the reference, and you can see some differences, though subtle, between these two paintings.  My primary goal was in using as many tubed greens as I could without mixing to maintain the purity of the color.  My secondary goal was to make a few adjustments with scale, value and intensity of color.  You'll note that in the studio oil, the distant shadows are lighter in value, which helps with the sense of depth; the rich browns in the foreground have been eliminated so that the eye pays more attention to the mountains and not to the stream; and the cottage has been reduced in size to make the mountains more impressive.

It's always dangerous to show a photo of the actual scene—we painters always make changes to it, whether we mean to or not—but I thought that might also be helpful.  What we change is the subject of a future post.

Location photo:

Near Glencoe, Scotland

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Giant of the Valley: A Commission

"Giant of the Valley"
12x24 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

I lived among the rolling hills and farms of Vermont's Champlain Valley for many years.  Back in those days, I was a runner, and I enjoyed a variety of scenery in every town I ran through:  Shoreham's apple orchards, Weybridge's dairy farms, Panton's rocky lake shore, the Charlotte ferry landing.  One particular run I liked was up Mount Philo, also in Charlotte, because at the top there is a grand view of Lake Champlain and New York's Adirondack Mountains in the distance.  With my heart and lungs working hard, especially on a humid summer's morning, it was refreshing to sit at the overlook for a few minutes to get a long view of that fruitful valley.

So you can imagine my excitement when, after all those years, I was asked to paint that view.  Well, not that view specifically, as I was asked to paint a picture of the Adirondacks; but I was given latitude to choose my viewpoint, and I chose the view from Mount Philo.  For the painting, I decided to make the centerpiece one of the Adirondack 46 High Peaks:  Giant of the Valley, which is number 12 at 4627 feet.  (Yes, I've hiked to the top.)  It towers over Lake Champlain and the farmlands of the valley.  I decided on a moody day, with dappled sunlight racing across the fields.

This painting was made on 12x24 cradled hardboard; it has a one-inch cradle and is designed to be hung without a frame.  I toned the panel first with Gamblin's Transparent Earth Red, which imparts a nice warm tone to a painting that has mostly cool colors.  You can see the different stages in the painting below.

Studio Setup


Working the sky, mountains and lake

Working the valley

Edge treatment
Finished painting

By the way, this is a second commission of this scene.  I originally painted an 8x24 version of it, which I liked very much, but I wanted to create in a format that would give me a little more opportunity to play with the foreground.  Here is the 8x24 version, which features a red-tailed hawk.

"From a High Place" 8x24 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Cool Place Painting Workshops Starting Soon!

If you're anywhere but in Lubec, Maine, you're probably experiencing record heat this week.  Well, it is pleasant here in Downeast Maine right now.  Maybe you'd like to get away from the heat and come to a cool place for a painting workshop.  My workshops here run July through August, and I still have a few spots left.  I hope you'll think of joining us.  For details, please visit

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Thinking Ahead to Fall and Winter: New Program for New Mexico

You will still have red rocks to paint in New Mexico!

Right now, most people in the northern hemisphere are looking forward to the long, warm days of summer.  On Campobello Island, the lilacs have just started to bloom and the lupines are showing the first hint of color.  Soon I'll be able to hike out to Liberty Point without a fleece jacket and enjoy a warm breeze off the Bay of Fundy.  Before long, there'll be barbecue picnics, strawberry shortcake and parades for Canada Day.

But at the moment, I'm thinking about my fall and winter season out west.  I have some news to share that affects my Paint Sedona program.   Trina and I have sold our winter home in Arizona and moved to New Mexico.  Although I'll be teaching a few plein air painting workshops in Sedona, I've created a new program for New Mexico.  (Read on for details toward the end of this letter.)

El Morro National Monument

I'm sure this comes as a surprise.  I enjoyed almost a decade of sharing my knowledge of Sedona and painting with nearly 200 students in my small-size workshops.  But for a number of reasons, the time had come to move on.

The area in New Mexico to which we've moved lies between the Zuni Pueblo and El Morro National Monument, south of Gallup in the western part of the state.  It's an area Trina and I lived in when we first went west almost 20 years ago, and it is a place very dear to our hearts.  It's along the "Ancient Way," which is the route that was traveled by the Spanish Conquistadors and, before them, the Zuni and Acoma puebloans.  There are lava fields and volcanoes and ice caves to explore; ponderosa forests to wander through; and the beautiful sunshine and clean air of the high desert to enjoy.

View from a hill top toward the Ancient Way

Now, about my new workshop program.  "Paint the Southwest" ( will be based out of our home and studio.  This will be an intense, one-on-one, private workshop.  You'll get a private bed and bath, three meals a day, and all my attention.  We'll paint in the mornings, either in the studio or in the field; and afternoons will be filled with assignments or more time painting with me.  I will customize this program to your needs, and I'll give you as much help as I can to bring your painting to the next level.

I am very excited about this program for experienced painters because it will give me the opportunity to share my deeper knowledge about painting, something that is rarely possible in my all-level, group workshops.  Plus, I'll  be able to share my love of this part of New Mexico. I hope you will consider joining us.   For full details on the program, please visit the website at

But as I said, I still have workshops in Sedona where you can paint beautiful Red Rock Country:

October 22-28, 2017:  Special mentoring workshop with Albert Handell
October 30-November 3, 2017: Special workshop with Doug Dawson
November 14-17, 2017:  Paint Sedona workshop with me

I hope I'll see you either in Arizona or New Mexico!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Slowing Down Time: A Painter's Perspective

Wild Apples
16x20 oil/canvas, en plein air
Available - Contact Michael

As I grow older, I notice something alarming.  An hour doesn't seem like an hour any more, and a year, not like a year.  Instead, they seem far shorter than they should be.  And the older I get, the shorter they become.  I mentioned this to my 86-year-old mother, and she said, "Just you wait—it gets worse."  No one warned me about this when I was growing up.

Now I envision a future in which a year will seem like a month, a week or, Heaven forbid, a day.  It's like Einstein's description of time dilation; as I approach the speed of light, entire solar systems are born and then die of old age, all during my short lifetime.

I want to slow down time.  I want to slow it down so that a summer seems as long as it did when I was eight years old.  How does one do that?

I think you slow down time by taking time to do the things that are important to you.  For me, it's taking time to enjoy a walk along the ocean with my wife.  It's taking time to paint the apple trees before the blossoms are stripped away by the wind.  It's taking time to relish the moment so I can cherish the memory.

In plein air painting lingo, when you reach my age, Life should no longer be a "quick draw" event.

I'm now taking more time with the painting process outdoors.  I no longer rush through a painting.  If it doesn't get finished in the time I have, so be it.  Instead, I'd rather consider each stroke, and while I'm considering, listen to the bees busying with the apple blossoms.  By the way, did you know that apple blossoms smell faintly of roses?  I discovered that while painting the above piece this week.

I'm still puzzled by this time phenomenon.  I think it has to do with percentages.  When I was six, a single summer—one quarter of a year—represented 1/24th of the amount of time I'd lived at that point.  The summer that is now at my doorstep, however, will represent a much tinier sliver of my life, just 1/240th.  So, summers may seem a tenth as long as they did back then.

By the way, if you don't know about Einstein's time dilation effect, here is a short video that explains it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Doug Dawson Plein Air Workshop in Sedona October 2017

I feel like I toot my own horn sometimes a little too much here.  So, I'll take this opportunity to talk about an upcoming workshop that isn't mine.  I'm proud to announce that Master Artist Doug Dawson will be teaching a plein air painting workshop October 30-November 3, 2017, in Sedona, Arizona.  As the sponsor of this event, I want to get the word out now, because Doug is a popular teacher, and the workshop will fill quickly.  If you're interested, don't delay!

The workshop will be based at the same studio I've used for my PaintSedona workshops, which also offers lodging ($60/night) and is close to many of our painting spots.  The cost of the workshop is $625 (not including lodging).  To register, contact Doug Dawson directly at 303-421-4584 or  For lodging, contact me, and I'll put you in touch with the studio.

I've known Doug for many years, and I've sponsored several workshops with him.  Doug, who was given the title of Master Pastelist by the Pastel Society of America in 1985 and inducted into the Masters' Circle by the International Association of Pastel Societies in 2005, shares so much during a workshop.  Everyone gets a great deal out of the week, and he often has repeat students coming back for more.

You can find out more about Doug at his website, which is  I've included a couple of videos here.  The first (at the top) is an interview with Doug.  The second (below) is a video I put together to advertise a workshop with him in Maine and New Brunswick.  Although it's not Sedona, it'll still give you an idea of the workshop week.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

My Inventory System for Paintings

Lifting Fog at Dawn
11x14 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

A reader asks, "How is it that you track and label all of your works?"  This is a great question, because keeping accurate inventory records is crucial for a professional artist.  What's the exhibition history of a piece?   What gallery was it in?  Who bought that painting? What did it sell for?  If I need to reshoot an image for publication, do I know its current location?  Having this information at your fingertips can make your job a lot easier.

Screenshot of my inventory system record form

I've been using the same inventory system for over 15 years.  I crafted what one might call an "artisanal" database—read "homemade, with many tweaks"—in Microsoft Access.  When Access became too expensive, I migrated my database over to Open Office, which is free.  Although not every painting, sketch or scrawl gets inventoried, anything I think worth keeping or selling does.  If I destroy a piece, I make sure I note that in the database, too.   That will save me time hunting for a painting that no longer exists.

Back of the above painting showing my labeling

Also important is the labeling of the artwork.  On the back of each painting, I make sure to write:

  • Inventory number
  • Date created (this can be as vague as a month and year)
  • "EPA", if the work was created en plein air
  • My signature
  • My name, printed
  • The month and year the piece was varnished plus the brand and type of varnish (this will help conservators down the road who may need to clean the work)

and sometimes, if I am experimenting with grounds or surfaces, I will write down what products I used such as Gamblin PVA size and Golden acrylic gesso.

Screenshot of my Picasa interface

As for images, I make sure to get a high-resolution (300 dpi, and at least 8x10 inches) TIFF file.  The filename contains the title of the piece plus the inventory number.  This gets indexed on my computer by Google's Picasa (a wonderful program, but alas no longer supported by Google.)  Naming the file this way makes it easy to find if I need to create an inventory sheet for a gallery or exhibition.

I know there are other systems, some professionally created—"by artists, for artists"—but the record-keeping doesn't need to be complicated or have lot of bells and whistles.  Simple is best!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

On the Road: New York Plein Air Painting Workshop

Painting along the Wallkill River

Some time ago, when I was looking for new places to teach workshops, I came across the Wallkill River School in Montgomery, New York.  What I liked about it was their mission:

Wallkill River School has been called Orange County’s first homegrown arts movement; mainly because we are the first arts organization with an agricultural component. We identified early on that our fate is intimately tied to our local farms, historic sites, and open spaces. Like our forebears; the Hudson River School, we seek to use our art as a way to raise awareness of and to benefit these important regional treasures. Arts generate tourism, and Wallkill River School generates agricultural tourism, heritage tourism, and brings in new arts audiences. 

This very much parallels my idea that landscape painters are stewards of the land.  So I was very excited when Shawn Dell Joyce, founder and executive director, invited me to teach a two-day workshop there.

My pastel of the Benedict Farm, 9x12

Though cool, the weather couldn't have been any better.  We painted one day at the Benedict Farm Park along the banks of the Wallkill River; the second day, at the Hill-Hold Museum, with its beautiful buildings and landscape.   Each morning, though, we started out at the School's wonderful Patchett House gallery and office, with art talk and critiques.  Shawn provided beverages and snacks each day as well as a bountiful lunch.

(Above photos by Shawn)

 I so much enjoyed the workshop here that I have scheduled another one for this fall, September 26 & 27, 2017.  Speaking of workshops, I want to remind you of my upcoming five-day plein air painting workshop in Rockland, Maine, for Coastal Maine Art Workshops.  Rockland has a beautiful waterfront, offering much for the painter.  If that doesn't work for you, please keep in mind my four-day workshops in Lubec, Maine.  If you bring your passport, I'll be happy to show you my studio on Campobello Island, right across the bridge!

Friday, May 12, 2017

On the Road: Ohio Plein Air Painting Workshop

"Out the Window" oil demonstration
(Photo by Nancy Vance)

It's hard for me to believe, but it's been almost a month since we hit the road on our annual spring trip east.  Right now, we're in Vermont.  After weeks of cloudy, cool weather in the Champlain Valley, the sun returned yesterday.  People now have a chance to smell the lilacs, mow their lawns and gather rhubarb for pies.

This past week, I taught two workshops, one in Columbus, Ohio, and the other in Montgomery, New York.  In this post, I'll write a little about the Ohio workshop.

Springtime is tick time in much of the country.
Here I model my tick gear while showing thumbnail sketches to the group.
I'm wearing pyrethrin pants tucked into my socks,
with Naturpel (picaridin) sprayed on everything below the knees.
(Photo by Nancy Vance)

My friend, Nancy Vance, has joined me in many workshops and painting retreats, both in the US and abroad.  Recently, she offered to sponsor a workshop with her group, Central Ohio Plein Air.  Since Nancy is a wonderful organizer and Columbus was on our route east, I agreed right away.

Spring weather in Ohio can run the gamut from heat waves and tornadoes to rain and even snow.  For our workshop, we had something right in the middle:  pleasantly cool weather.  Drizzle the first day kept us indoors.  However, we were based at the Stratford Ecological Center which, besides being a working farm with barns, cows, pigs, sheep, llamas and bees, offers a large workshop space, so we were comfortable.  I painted two demonstrations for the thirteen painters.  First was a pastel from a photo, followed later in the day by a "looking out the window" oil demo.  The next day, the sun appeared, and we enjoyed painting the landscape from life.  I painted two more demonstrations for everyone, one showing how to start a painting with a monochromatic underpainting and the second showing how to achieve depth in your painting easily.

(All photos above by Nancy)

Nancy wrote a really nice blog post on the workshop:  Thank you to Nancy, and to everyone who came out for the workshop!  I enjoyed the workshop so much we have scheduled a return for October 2018,

Next, I'll write about my workshop in Montgomery, New York, for the Wallkill River School of Art.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

July Plein Air Workshop in Rockland, Maine

Rockland, Maine, is one of my favorite places to visit in Midcoast Maine.  Why?  It's filled with historic buildings and a lighthouse, offers a beautiful waterfront, and it's close to many great plein air painting spots.  What's more, it's home to the Farnsworth Art Museum and its fantastic collection of original works by members of the Wyeth family (N.C., Andrew and Jamie) as well as other well-known American painters.  I always make sure to visit the Farnsworth when I'm in town.

So here's some news.  Usually, I stay put in my little corner of Downeast Maine to teach workshops in the summer.  But July 17-21, 2017, I will be heading to Rockland to teach a workshop for Coastal Maine Workshops.

Unlike my Downeast workshops which run four half-days, the Rockland workshop will be five full days.  This will be an intense painting experience for all concerned!  We'll have plenty of time to cover not just the fundamentals but also to delve into the deeper secrets of outdoor painting.  Each day will start with a studio lecture followed by a demonstration in the field, followed by student work and, time permitting, a second demonstration or illustration.  We'll also enjoy daily critiques and great seafood!

The details:

  • Workshop runs July 17-21, 2017
  • Tuition is $650
  • Suitable for all levels
  • I'll be demonstrating in oil and pastel, but I also welcome acrylic painters
  • Lodging suggestions are on the registration website.

For more details and to sign up, please visit

I hope you'll join me in Rockland.  To whet your appetite, here are some historic postcards of Rockland:

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - Final Report

Big Bend I 9x6 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Some readers have been curious about what colors I used for my painting retreat at Zion National Park this week.  Well, in addition to my usual split-primary palette, I added a few "convenience" colors; these are colors that I could, if I wanted to, mix with my split-primary palette, but which I decided to include to save time.  The colors are raw umber, transparent earth red and yellow ochre, all Gamblin colors.

Raw umber greys down ultramarine blue nicely.  Transparent earth red (TER) is a great base color for the shadowed parts of Zion's cliffs.  Yellow ochre, for the warmer, sunlit areas.

I started each painting by first blocking in the rock shadow masses with transparent earth red.  Although this is a very rich, warm red, it is easily greyed down as needed with yellow ochre, raw umber and ultramarine blue (plus white.)  Some of this rich underpainting always remains, adding a little spice to the landscape.  Sunny rock areas I block in with yellow ochre.  Together, these colors give good value and temperature contrast.  Later, I use many other colors to modulate them to get the correct local color and atmospheric effect.

Our week ended with a painting session at Big Bend, near the end of the shuttle line and below stupendous, vertical cliffs that are favored by rock climbers.  I've always loved Big Bend, especially in the morning, since the rising sun lights the cottonwoods along the banks of the Virgin River from behind, giving them a beautiful halo.  I've painted here several times before, once for the Zion Plein Air Festival in the fall, when the cottonwoods were decked out in their autumn beauty.  This time, I made two small color studies, which I hope to turn into larger studio paintings later.

Big Bend II 6x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
To paint the two studies, I simply divided my panel in half with a
piece of masking tape.  Later, I'll use a utility knife to cut them apart.

It's always sad, parting at the end of these retreats, but there'll be another one at Zion in a few years.  Now, Trina and I are on our way to the east, but first – a stop at Capitol Reef National Park.

Backlit springtime cottonwood

Goodbye to the Virgin River!