Thursday, October 20, 2016

Sedona Plein Air Festival Mid-Term Report: Color and Contrast

Bridge of Dreams
16x12 oil panel by Michael Chesley Johnson

We're about halfway through the 2016 12th Annual Sedona Plein Air Festival.  Artists have been enjoying a period of beautiful weather, marred only by an occasional  gust of wind and, on one morning, smoke from a controlled burn near Flagstaff.  It's been a great week so far, and I've enjoyed meeting the new artists and reconnecting with old friends.  For me, this is my ninth time as an invited artist.  (Follow the event on my Facebook studio page and on the festival's page.)

This year, I wanted to shake up my process.  Normally for an event, I stick with the tried-and-true, but I yearned to add something new to the mix.  (Remember, this is my ninth year!)  So, I am starting my paintings in a new way.  I'm using nothing but rich, raw color in my underpaintings and shooting for as much contrast as possible.  Rather than try to mix exactly what I see, I'm just applying color straight from the tube.  If I see something in shadow, I paint it either cool red, blue or cool green.  If I see something in sunlight, I paint it either yellow, orange or warm red.*

This Was Once an Ancient Sea
12x24 oil/panel by Michael Chesley Johnson

And then I dull the heck out of it.  I start with what area looks the most garish and grey it down first, and go from there.  But always some of that rich beginning pops through.  Yesterday, another artist, known for vivid color and not familiar with me or my work, stopped by my easel to say, "I'm glad there's another artist here who likes strong color!"  If she'd seen me painting a week ago, she'd have expressed a different sentiment.  Although the start is somewhat scary – "How am I going to pull myself out of this particular hole?" – I'm really loving this new look.

Out of the Shadows
9x12 oil/panel by Michael Chesley Johnson

By the way, this week I'm also playing with two colors from Gamblin I haven't used before:  Radiant Turquoise and Brown-Pink.  The Turquoise, either pure or modified with ultramarine blue and sometimes the Brown-Pink, is great for skies.  The Brown-Pink is great for drawing my initial shapes, since some of that shows through at the end and livens up the painting, and also for greying down my phthalo emerald.  Thank you, Lori Putnam, our Keynote Speaker and Awards Judge, who suggested these two colors as suitable sponsor gifts to artists from Gamblin.

Although I'm painting in oil this week, I was asked to give a demonstration in pastel.  I thought this was a good idea since none of the other demonstrating artists were working in pastel.  There are lots of closet pastel painters out there who would love to see it demonstrated, so I eagerly agreed.

Sweet Morning
12x18 pastel demonstration by Michael Chesley Johnson

The theme this year is Gated Communities.  Sedona has several. Most are along Oak Creek or in especially pretty spots near the red rocks, places the public would "over-love" if they weren't gated. One day we painted at the L'Auberge de Sedona, a sunny spot along the creek with lots of ducks. (By the way, I have several paintings for sale hanging in the lobby there, courtesy of Goldenstein Gallery.) Another, at Back O'Beyond, which has views of Cathedral Rock and other famous features of Red Rock Country. This afternoon, we'll be painting at Seven Canyons, which abuts an extensive wilderness area of the national forest. It's energizing to paint in these beautiful locations.

I'll have another report at the end of the Festival.  If you're in the area, please come to the public events and say hello.  The public is invited today to Seven Canyons (1-4, followed by awards and sales), and also to the Opening and Awards Night on Friday (5-8) and the Main Street Paintout and Sale on Saturday (10-2).  For a full list of events and times:
*All my colors are from Gamblin Artists Colors, Inc.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Master Class: Dominance

Nestled in Dawn's Early Light
9x12 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
What color qualities are dominant in this scene?

I've decided to start a new series of blog posts, one that will address topics of interest to more advanced painters.  With this post, I'd like to talk about dominance.

Climb to a hill top on a summer's morning, overlooking a forested valley.  It's a breath-taking view, and you can see for miles.  You'd love to paint it.  But stop for a moment to consider what visual ingredients go into making this scene.  The sun begins to rise before you, casting a golden light over the valley, and the very air seems incandescent.  Summer has nearly reached its end, and the vibrant greens of spring are now tempered with muted reds and yellows, giving a hint of fall.

You set up your easel and prepare your palette.  Now, after you’ve used your viewfinder to crop your scene but before dipping your brush into the paint,  ask yourself three questions:

  • Is the scene mostly light or dark?
  • Is it mostly warm or cool?
  • Is it mostly filled with rich color or dull?

I usually think in terms of square inches.  For example, do the warm colors occupy more real estate in the scene than the cool ones?

You determine that yours is a low-key scene, filled with cool, mostly dull color.  Yes, there are little spots of warm light and a hint of richer reds and yellows, but these only serve to increase the sense of luminosity.

This analysis to determine what is dominant in a scene will help you to "capture the moment" successfully.   Although there are many different contrast pairs, I’ve found that these three -- value (light/dark), temperature (warm/cool) and chroma (rich/dull) -- are the most important ones for landscape painting.

In my next Master Class post, I'll write about what I call contrast pairs.

If you’re an advanced painter, do you have a Master Class topic you’d like to see discussed?  Let me know!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Workshop Report: Wilmington, North Carolina - and Hurricane Matthew

Pastel demonstration by Michael Chesley Johnson

I've never had to cancel or shorten a workshop because of a natural disaster or an act of God. However, I had to shorten this one. Read on!

I always like to teach a workshop on our annual fall migration from our summer studio on Campobello Island to our winter one near Sedona, Arizona. This year, the Wilmington Art Association in North Carolina asked me to come down and teach plein air painting to their group. I happily agreed, since I'd never been to that part of the coast before, and I'm always eager to spread the gospel of plein air painting.

Painting on the River Walk

Because Wilmington was new to me, we arrived a day early so that Ann, my workshop coordinator as well as our delightful lodging host, could show me the possible painting locations. I was pleased to learn she is an experienced outdoor painter, and her choices were excellent with restrooms, plenty of parking and, of course, plenty of great scenery. We went down to the Intra-Coastal Waterway and the River Walk, which is a boardwalk filled with interesting shops and restaurants; then to the historic downtown mansions, hedged with beautiful magnolias and oak trees; plus the Aboretum, which is just chock-full of painting possibilities including a Japanese tea house.

That same day, Hurricane Matthew had just finished chewing up Haiti and was hungrily marching on to Cuba.

Pastel demonstration by Michael Chesley Johnson
Horse trolley tour

We weren't worried yet, as the forecast seemed to indicate Matthew would slow down and possibly veer out to sea. There was a chance it might nick Florida on its way out. At any rate, a major hurricane hadn't hit the Wilmington area in 20 years, and most of us thought we'd escape this one.

But by the second day of the workshop, the forecast had changed remarkably. That morning, the governor of South Carolina issued a mandatory evacuation of the coast. North Carolina was still biding its time to give the order, but the prospect of the one million already ordered to leave made Trina and me reconsider the timing of our travel plans. We had a very tight schedule, and the next stop was a family visit in Georgia with my elderly parents. Our path was going to take us directly parallel to the coast and into the evacuation traffic. There was no other way around.

Also, students needed to prepare. Some had already made hotel reservations for further inland; others, who had planned a vacation at Myrtle Beach for the holiday weekend (this was Columbus Day weekend), canceled theirs. Some were discussing plans for their cats and dogs.

Ready for the critique!

Painting downtown

Sadly, we made the decision to cancel the last day of the workshop. Students got a refund on the last day, and I also offered to critique two paintings for each student via e-mail for free.

If you've watched the news, you'll know we made the right decision. Although Matthew slowed down a bit and arrived to the Carolinas later than expected, as I write parts of the the coast are still under water, and further inland, communities are flooded because of swollen rivers from the 15+ inches of rain received. Section of Interstate 95 are still impassable.

All that said, we had a great two days for the workshop. The weather couldn't have been better, and the students eagerly trooped on despite the threat of Matthew.

Now, I am back on the road and in Oklahoma. I'll arrive in Arizona on Friday just in time for the Sedona Plein Air Festival, which starts Saturday. As usual, I'll be posting to my blog daily if possible during the event. Stay tuned!

Oil demo by Michael Chesley Johnson

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Short Introduction to Pastel

A couple of years ago, I gave a short, introductory talk on pastel.  I was fortunate enough to have a professional tape it.  If you're new to pastel, you might find this informative.  Here it is:

(Email recipients, view video at

I have many more videos available at my online workshop!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mounting Paintings on Paper or Canvas to Hardboard

Many painters who practice their skill frequently complain about material costs.  One way I've found to cut down my costs is to paint on gessoed paper.  (I use domestic etching paper from Dick Blick with a layer of Gamblin's PVA size followed by two coats of inexpensive acrylic gesso.)  Gessoed paper is very inexpensive, pennies rather than dollars.  If you hate what you do, you can simply toss it without pecuniary guilt; if you love it, you can mount it and frame it as a regular oil painting.  Here's how:

(Email recipients, view video at

More videos available at my online workshop!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Fixing Light and Shadow with Greys

One of the biggest problems I've seen with plein air painting students in my workshops (other than lack of drawing skills, as I mentioned in an earlier post) is learning how to see value before seeing color.  Value is a tool we use to create a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional world; color is a tool we use to add mood and a sense of the moment.  Frequently, students will think of color first and value second or not at all.  But getting the values right -- and getting them right first, before color -- is essential to good plein air painting.

One approach I teach is to start with a monochromatic underpainting.  This lets you get create a solid representation of your subject before getting into trouble with color.  Here's a video that shows you how:

(If you're getting this via email, you won't see the video.  Go here instead:

Here's on more that shows a sequence without sound:

(Again, for email receipients:

More videos are available at my online workshop!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

How to Set Up a French Easel

Fall is a great time for taking a plein air workshop.  If you're new to the experience and happen to have a French easel, there's no need to sign up for that gymnastics class to learn how to set one up.  This short video should help.  And practice!

For those of you receiving this by email, you won't see the video.  Instead, go to

More videos at my online video course!

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Importance of Drawing

Good drawing skills will help you with your painting -- even landscape painting.  If you're a plein air painter, you  might find this video helpful.

More plein air videos at my online video course!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Get Ready for Paint Sedona Plein Air Painting Workshops!

Painting the Red Rocks of Sedona

If you've been following my blog, you'll have read nine rather long posts on my experience at the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art.*  I wanted to give you a feeling for what's it like to participate in a world-class event like that.  I hope you enjoyed them.

Now I want to tell you about another great plein air painting experience, my Paint Sedona plein air painting workshops.  Limited to four students, each four-day workshop runs 9-1, giving you time in the afternoon to either paint on your own or to explore the area with family and friends.  Each day will start off with a brief talk in the studio to get you started, followed by an excursion to the field where I'll demonstrate and then you will paint.   For the more advanced weeks, as noted on the schedule, I will present different topics or customize the workshop to your needs.

You can't go wrong in Sedona.  It's got some of the country's best Southwestern scenery including the famous red rocks, as well as creeks, sycamore and cottonwood trees, and more.  In one of the workshops, Exploring the Verde Valley, we'll go a little farther afield to places like the historic mining town of Jerome.

The workshop is only $300.  But I'm also offering a package deal that includes lodging at our studio for only $600.  Lodging is very limited, so you will want to sign up soon.  Workshops are scheduled from mid-October through next April.

You can get full details at  I hope you'll join us!

*If you haven't been following my blog, you can read about the event, in reverse chronological order, here.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Grand Canyon 2016 - Part 9

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Saturday morning dawned with the canyon filled with a blue haze from the Fuller fire still smouldering on the North Rim. The artists I met during check-in for the Quick Draw all remarked on how lucky we were; it always helps with a painting to put a feeling of “atmosphere” in it, and here we had been handed it on this day. We wouldn’t have to make it up.

Parking in the Village, which is where the Quick Draw is held, is always a problem on weekends. Even though check-in wasn’t until 7:30, I arrived at 6 to find a parking spot, which I was lucky to do right near the Kolb Studio. (I was able to keep that parking spot all day and didn’t have to move my car.) So I had plenty of time to join the tourists for sunrise pictures and coffee.

After checkin-in, I went to my favorite spot near the Bright Angel Lodge with a nice view of shadowed cliffs. Having over two dozen artists set up between Verkamp’s and the Kolb Studio, a short stretch of trail, meant that some of us would be painting similar scenes -- or so you would think. Artists who set up beside me were Brad Holt, Robert Goldman and Susan Klein. None of us painted the same view! Brad painted a picture of the Lookout Studio; Susan, an intimate close-up of some rocks right off the trail; Robert, the view looking west; and I, the view looking east.

The virtual pistol went off at 8; by 10, we wrapped up and delivered the paintings, finished and framed to the auction table. There was an amazing amount of good work done in just two hours, and it always amazes me that artists can pull that off. (But this is what we do, isn’t it?) I was very pleased to have my 12x16 auctioned off at $1000. You might remark that this is not a bad rate of pay. But as Whistler remarked, artists are paid for their vision, not for their labor.

We had a break after the auction, so I joined my lodging host and Robert Goldman at El Tovar for a beer. Robert, it turns out, lives in Prescott, and I also learned that we were in the same gallery (now closed) in Sedona for awhile several years ago. I talked to Robert about his painting process, and it’s always interesting to hear how other artists work.

Artists were asked to return to the Kolb Studio at 4 to vote on Artists’ Choice. (Won by Robert Dalegowski.) I love getting a chance to see the artwork before the collectors arrive because I can take my time to enjoy the paintings. Each artist has a studio painting as well as the week’s worth of plein air work. I won’t render judgement on my fellow artists and their work, but I will say there are some excellent paintings there. I was honored by Peter (P.A) Nisbet, a much-respected and highly-collected Grand Canyon painter, who said my studio painting of Acadia National Park’s Otter Point was the best of all of them. “I like to give credit where credit is due,” he said.

The collectors flooded in at 5, and the Studio became a mosh pit. By 7, it was over and time to go home.

Now it’s Sunday. Artists have a debriefing with the Grand Canyon Association at 8, followed by a Buyer’s Brunch at 10 and more sales. The exhibit and sale opens to the public at noon and will be ongoing until January.

On Tuesday, I fly back home to Maine and New Brunswick. Not long after, we pack up the car and head west for our winter home and studio in Sedona. I may write more on this event as a wrap-up, but I’ll be quite busy with packing, a workshop in North Carolina, and then the Sedona Plein Air Festival. I will say I had a great week and enjoyed, as always, painting on the Rim, working with the Grand Canyon Association’s staff and volunteers and the National Park Service, and deeply appreciate the support and hospitality of my lodging hosts. Thank you, everyone!

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