Friday, August 11, 2017

Etiquette for Plein Air Painting Groups

How many painters can you find?

Overcrowding at National Parks?  Aren't some of them, well, vast?  Lately, there's been a lot of buzz about this topic.  Zion National Park recently made it into the headlines as considering the idea of requiring reservations for entry into the park.  (You can read an article on this here.)  The headlines had me wondering what part plein air painters, especially groups of them, play in this. As Boomers now catapult into retirement, many are picking up both paintbrush and backpack and heading into the field.  Eric Rhoads, editor of Plein Air Magazine, writes in a recent editorial:  "No one knows the numbers for sure...[but] I believe the movement could include a couple of hundred thousand people."

But it's not just National Parks.  It's any recreation area, whether it be lands administered by the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, state lands and city or town parks.  When I visit these areas, most times I'm either a hiker or a painter, and I'm usually alone or with just a few friends.  We always try to minimize our impact on the land and to be considerate of those around us or those who may follow us.  But sometimes I hear of large groups going out to paint.  I have to wonder if the organizer understands the impact such a group will almost certainly make.

With that in mind, I offer the following suggestions to organizers of plein air paint-outs, workshops and "flash" events:

1.  First, don't do it.  The best way to minimize impact is to not take out a large group in the first place.

2.  If you insist on organizing a large group, get permission.  Many recreation areas limit the number of participants in a hiking group to 10 or fewer, and this would apply to painters as well.  More than that, and you might need a permit.  To protect a sensitive natural or archaeological site, or to preserve a popular spot, permits are often limited to a certain number per year.  Getting a permit helps the recreation area manage resources.

3.  Make sure you have plenty of parking.  Some locations have small parking lots.  Filling up the lot (or standing in spaces to reserve spots for the group) is unfair to the visitors who are unlucky enough to come the day you decided to have your event.

4.  Make sure you have adequate toilet facilities.  If you plan to paint for three or four hours, you will almost certainly need them.  In remote areas of low visitation, it may be all right to go in the bushes, but in more popular spots, it's not only impolite but unsanitary.   Imagine a couple of hundred thousand painters over time using those same bushes.

5.  Stay off the trail.  But also, stay on the trail.  Does this sound contradictory?  Maybe, but you have to find a way to do both.  Don't block the trail to other recreationists.  And don't get so much off the trail that you trample the vegetation.  Out west, much of the vegetation is so slow-growing it can take decades for damage to disappear.

All this boils down to consideration—consideration for both the environment and your fellow humans.  Paint big—but act small.

(I've written other posts on etiquette for painters, which you can read here:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Plein Air Painting Products: PanelPak and PalettePak

Like most professional plein air painters, over the years I've gathered a variety of wet panel carriers for oil painting.  I like each of them for different reasons.  PanelPak is one I use most often these days because it fits in my backpack with all my painting gear.  Basically, the PanelPak is a sturdy frame that will hold two 1/8" panels, front to front with a gap between them, and the panels are secured in the frame by two big elastic bands.  This package is so rugged I just throw it into my backpack and don't worry about it.  And the elastic bands seem to last for years.  I've been very happy with the PanelPak.  Here's a photo of my 9x12 one, so you can see how much it's been used:

Today, I got two more of them.  One is 6x8 and the other, 12x16.  The 12x16 also incorporates a new product:  the PalettePak.  This is a PanelPak with a mid-value, neutral grey plastic panel that serves as a palette.  Lay out your paints, then paint; and when you're done, put the palette back in the PalettePak and head home.  Once you're home, stuff the whole thing in a Ziploc bag and put it into your freezer.  The paint will stay fresh for a long, long time.  The palette also comes in different sizes for different-size PanelPaks.

Here's a picture of these latest items.  I put a 6x8 oil sketch of some cows in the smaller one, so you can see how the PanelPak is used.  To complete the package, imagine another panel inserted in the frame.  By the way, PanelPak is great for pastel boards, too, so pastel painters, take notice!

PanelPak is available at

Monday, August 7, 2017

Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy - Paintout Report

"Antediluvian" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - click for details
Painted at Quoddy Head State Park, Lubec, Maine

Location Shot for "Antediluvian"

Each year, Plein Air Painters of the Bay of Fundy has its annual paintout.  This year, we had a two-day event.  On Saturday, we painted on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.  On Sunday, we painted at Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, Maine, right across the Canadian border from Campobello Island.  Both days started off with thick fog, which broke around mid-morning, leading to beautiful, sunny skies.

"Fox Farm" 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - click for details
Painted at Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, Campobello Island, New Brunswick

We had a small turn-out.  It seems that this year everyone had busy plans for early August.  But it's important, I think, to keep the annual paintout going so that the group continues.  Next year, we'll have a much larger event, plus an exhibition at Sunbury Shores Art & Nature Centre in St Andrews-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick.  I'll have details on that as we get closer.

In the meantime, here are a couple of my paintings plus some photos from this year's event.

Friday, August 4, 2017

What Makes You Happy?

"What Makes Me Happy" - 9x12 pastel - Available
This is only a sketch, but painting it made me happy.
I really got into the drawing of the rocks.

The other day, I went for a walk in the woods.  Usually, I speed along to get my heart rate up—fast enough to scare every bird, squirrel and Sasquatch.  This time, I slowed down.  A downy woodpecker chopped away at a limb two feet from my head, scattering wood chips onto the mossy ground.  A red squirrel sat on a stump, chewing through spruce cones like a teenager at a pie eating contest.  Sasquatch—well, I never saw him, but I saw plenty of other things.  And I experienced them, too, with all my senses.  I never knew you could actually taste the flavor of spruce in the air.  I was truly "in the moment."

Once I disentangled myself from that moment, I realized that I had been supremely happy in the midst of these little things.

As I grow older and time becomes more precious, I want to re-focus my life on what makes me happy.  I'd heard that if I can find one, true thing that always gives me joy, and then make that, as much as possible, the center of everything I do, the time left to me will be rich and full and satisfying.

So I've been slowing down.  Paying attention to those moments when I feel happy.  Trying to figure out what it is that is most often responsible, some common thread connecting these moments.

Not surprisingly, it's painting.  But what is it about painting?  Is there a way I can understand the connection?  How, exactly, does it buoy my soul?

I did some analysis and came up with the following.  Please note that this is extremely personal; your experience will be different and unique.

  • I love solitude.  As much as people find me friendly and easy to get along with, I love being alone best.  
  • In those periods of solitude, I also love to be in the midst of Nature, with a capital "N," the way Ralph Waldo Emerson spelled it.  Although I certainly appreciate architecture and beautiful buildings and the well-painted cityscape, my architecture is maples and spruces and alders.   
  • When I'm in Nature, I love to simply observe, listen, experience.  Painting helps me do this.  I can trace the form of rock and tree, all the while learning a great deal about the history of each.  At the same time, I'm aware of literally everything:  From the color of sunlight on birch bark to the chitter of a bald eagle overhead, from the smell of alders getting ready for autumn to the taste of my own blood when I bite my tongue too firmly as I concentrate.  
  • Not to be too literary, but all this input becomes Dylan Thomas' "force that through the green fuse drives the flower."  I'm not just experiencing the moment and recording it in paint; I am also responding to the moment and its energy.  I certainly couldn't paint the tree the same way in the studio.  In the field, on location, in Nature with a capital "N," I am painting the tree in a completely different and very pleasing way.

And this makes me happy.  It's not the final product, the painting, that does that; the painting itself is simply an artifact of that happy moment.  It's the process of observing, responding and being in the moment.

Sure, there are other things that make me happy.  Reading a good book.  Taking a walk with my spouse.  Writing a satisfactory essay.  Getting a good night's sleep.  A piece of Ghirardelli Intense Dark 86% cacao.  But for me, the most consistent thing is painting.

Knowing this, I can focus on making more painting time for myself and be happier.  I can also build in more of those other happiness-inducing things.  But it is the painting that will be the focus.

What makes you happy?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Post-Opening: Acadia Invitational III at Argosy Gallery, Bar Harbor, Maine

Posing beside my "Acadian Summer" (top) 12x24 oil

Trina and I just returned from an enjoyable weekend down in Bar Harbor, Maine.
 As you may recall, this was the weekend for the opening of the Third Acadia Invitational exhibition, which was organized by Argosy Gallery.  It was a beautiful weekend with plenty of sunshine and warm weather, which is always a plus when visiting Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor or Mount Desert Island.  We got to MDI early in the day, enjoyed a hike at a Nature Conservancy site on the western, "quiet side" of the island, and then spent the afternoon in Northeast Harbor exploring and taking photographs.

The Opening

My two other paintings, "On the Edge" (left) 9x12 oil and
 "The Schooner Margaret Todd" (right) 12x16 oil

That evening, we joined 18 of the 30 invited artists plus many collectors at the Bar Harbor Inn for the opening.  Amy and Charlie Sidman of the gallery did a fantastic job in hanging the work and organizing the reception.  As the sun went down, many of us headed out to the porch to view the spectacular sunset.  The "Margaret Todd," a four-masted schooner, was coming in from its sunset cruise, and was a perfect color accent to the sunset with its red sails.

The "real" schooner Margaret Todd, on the right with red sails

A Bar Harbor sunset

Sunday, we worked our way very slowly back home, visiting Prospect Harbor, Winter Harbor and Corea, looking for photo opportunities and future painting spots.

Now the exhibition has been moved from the Bar Harbor Inn to Argosy II, the gallery's location on the town green, where you can see (and buy!) the paintings. Argosy II is located on the Bar Harbor  at 6 Mt Desert Street. For details, contact the gallery at 207-288-9226 or send email to

Here's a short video of the Margaret Todd slowly sailing home.  If you're receiving my blog by email and can't see the video, here is a link.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Acadia Invitational III at Argosy Gallery in Bar Harbor

"Acadian Summer"
12x24 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available at Argosy Gallery as part of the Acadia Invitational Exhibition

This weekend marks the opening of the Acadia Invitational III exhibition for Argosy Gallery in 
Bar Harbor, Maine.  I'm proud to be one of thirty nationally-recognized artists participating.  Every few years, the gallery invites a select number of artists to paint in and around Acadia National Park and to then present these works in a show that runs for over a year.  You can see the three paintings I will be exhibiting in this post.

From the Argosy Gallery website:
On July 29 we will open the Third Acadia Invitational at the Bar Harbor Inn. This event, our most ambitious yet, features thirty distinguished artists, ninety fine paintings and fifteen awards, all to celebrate our region's striking and celebrated landscape. The exhibition and sale will be open to the public Saturday, the 29th, from 2-5 pm, and Sunday, the 30th, from 9 am - 6 pm. Everyone is also welcome to the Saturday evening reception; please contact the gallery for information and an invitation. After this opening weekend, the paintings will be on display at the Argosy II throughout the season.
When the first announcement of the Invitational appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of American Art Review, half a dozen artists called about entering. It certainly caught their eye. However, invitations and acceptances had been completed long before then. Participating artists, each of whom will have visited and painted in Acadia by the time of the show, come from eleven states and four countries. Twelve have been in one or both of the earlier Acadia Invitationals, eighteen will be new to this special show. We anticipate it being one of the most important landscape shows in the country this year.
The Bar Harbor Inn is located at 1 Newport Drive, Bar Harbor, Maine.  Argosy II is located on the Bar Harbor town green at 6 Mt Desert Street.  For details, contact the gallery at 207-288-9226 or send email to

Trina and I will be at the opening reception on Saturday night.  We hope you will be among the guests!

"At the Edge"
9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available at Argosy Gallery as part of the Acadia Invitational Exhibition

"The Schooner Margaret Todd"
12x16 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available at Argosy Gallery as part of the Acadia Invitational Exhibition

Monday, July 24, 2017

Monhegan Meditations

Approaching Monhegan Island

 The tiny island of Monhegan, scarcely a mile across, gets a lot of attention from painters. Its fame is due to a hundred years of celebrity painters enjoying its charms. Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and his son, Jamie Wyeth, and many others have painted its cliffs and the rustic fish houses gathered along its harbor. Recently, thanks to a workshop I taught in Rockland, Maine, I was able to visit Monhegan to see if it deserves its legendary status. I was curious to see what the fuss is all about.

The Elizabeth Ann

We departed from Port Clyde in a wet fog on the "Elizabeth Ann," which delivers both mail and passsengers.  The ride out can be rough, I’m told, but the fog indicated it would be a relatively calm trip.  The boat bobbed and dipped its way across the Gulf of Maine for twelve lonely miles.  Lobster buoys got scarcer as we rolled over deepening water.  A pair of porpoises appeared, vanished.  Flocks of seabirds thinned out as we sailed farther from land.  Despite the calm, tourists staggered from railing to railing, seeking a better view or the head.  Finally, dark shapes loomed up in the fog:  Monhegan Island and its adjacent, even tinier companion, Manana Island.  We entered a harbor so small it seemed you could almost cup it in your hand.

Leaving the Ferry Dock
We wouldn’t have a lot of time to explore the island.  Due to logistics and schedules, we’d taken the 10:30 boat, arriving at 11:30 or so; the last boat left Monhegan at 4:30 p.m.  Knowing our stay would be short, our small group of painters, armed with maps, went directly from the dock, up the hill and then down to Fish Beach, where there is a nice view of Manana Island and the harbor.

If you do your research, you’ll read that there are no cars on Monhegan.  Here’s the first surprise.  There may be no cars, but there are pickup trucks and golf carts a-plenty.  A fleet of rusty pickups meets the mailboat to haul not just mail but also carts of cleaned laundry for the hotels, supplies for the shops, and the luggage of guests.  Once loaded, these trucks pay little heed to the tourists on foot who crowd the road from the dock, hauling heavy backpacks up the hill.  And then there are the golf carts driven by summer residents and vacationers.  Stealthy as the fog, the golf carts can sneak up on you.

The harbor road joins “Main Street,” which, like all roads on the island, is gravel and no wider than a pickup truck. Garden-edged houses, many of which have been turned into galleries, shops or vacation rentals, border it.  For the painter, some of these would make lovely, intimate cottage scenes were it not for the traffic, both foot and wheeled.  One might think of setting up on someone’s lawn, many of which are just big enough to park a golf cart on, but one should ask permission first.  However, with all those visiting painters, both hobbyist and professional, I think “no” would be a common answer.

Fish Beach is advertised as having many fish houses stacked with lobster gear, such as you might find in a working harbor.  Old paintings of harbor scenes often depict classic motifs, such as little groupings of rustic buildings with fishermen sucking on corncob pipes and repairing sails.  Second surprise: This romanticized past is not the present.  You’ll find toddlers playing in the water, colorful kayaks lined up and ready for the day tripper, plus a golf cart or two.  The buildings are still there, of course, one of which is the aptly-named Fish House, with recently-arrived passengers hungrily queued up out the door, waiting for fish sandwiches.   At the water’s edge, you’ll also find a surprising abundance of sea glass.  This sea glass hasn’t just gathered there over the last hundred years; no, the beach here has been “salted” with the glass, in the way a “pan your own gold” business out west will salt its streams with fool’s gold for the tourists.  (We were told this by a shop owner.)

We headed past the Fish House and found a quieter nook by some black ledges, where we set up.  The tattooed youngsters smoking cigarettes on the rocks behind us left, giving us more room.  The fog, which had been thinning since our arrival, retreated off the southern point of Manana Island but slinked overhead as a translucent veil.   While I demonstrated, a few curious tourists came over.  (The residents aren’t curious and left us alone; they’d been seeing painters for a hundred years on that beach.)  I didn’t pay much attention to the onlookers, but one of the students said that she felt crowded.  While I painted, I happened to notice the goats!  There were goats gamboling on Manana.  I found out later that these feisty creatures only summer there; winters, they live in Kennebunk.  They must be wealthy goats.

After my demonstration, I went to the Fish House--the line was gone by then--and got my fish sandwich and returned to my seat.  It was a good sandwich, with the bun grilled on both sides on the outside, and a little sloppy, but tasty.  By this time, a couple of the students were sketching, but others had wandered off to explore.  We’d advertised the Monhegan trip as an “adventure” day, where you could paint a little and then play tourist if you wished.  I decided to extend my lunch break a little and walk, too.  I had no plans to haul my gear and paint elsewhere, given the time restraints, but if I were to paint on a future trip, I wanted to see where I might go.

After finding the island’s one set of public restrooms, hidden behind an ice cream shop, I wandered the paths.  I have to confess I didn’t go far--I was supposed to be teaching a workshop, after all, and there were a couple of students actually sketching that needed monitoring--so my scouting was limited.   By now the sun had begun to push its heat through the clouds, and the humidity intensified.  One thing I was looking for was a place where I could get a view of the chimneyed rooftops of the fish houses with Manana as a backdrop.  But I found the structures, as scenic as they were with their gardens and shingles and chimneys askew, were just too crowded to get a good view.

I wandered on up the hill away from the harbor and suddenly found myself alone.  It was if I had reached an elevation where tourists couldn’t survive, and they had all stayed safely down by the shops and galleries.  I came across one lawn that was large by Monhegan standards with three painters set up on a small knoll, painting the vista.  But the property seemed private.  Was this a workshop? Local painters enjoying the day together?  I didn’t ask, but the knoll was inviting, as it offered a fine view of the harbor, Manana and the rooftops below.  On another day with more time, I might have asked to paint there.

Beyond this point, the narrow gravel road petered out into a web of even narrower footpaths.  (You can purchase a map of the island and its paths for a donation of one dollar.)  Burnt Head was at the end of one of these paths.  I’ve seen many old paintings of its cliffs, and maybe a painter today could still find a place to set up his easel without fear of trucks and golf carts, without impeding the packs of tourists, or without annoying some resident.  If I get back to Monhegan, I’d like to explore Burnt Head and other trails.

My workshop - or what's left of it, what with the exploring and adventuring.
Whenever I'm on the Maine coast, a narrow, overgrown trail to me says "ticks."  It wasn’t long ago that Monhegan had a problem with deer ticks and Lyme disease.   In 1999, Monhegan killed the last of its deer population in an effort to get rid of the ticks.  As of 2016, according to an article written by an outdoorsman who helped in the project, the ticks are mostly now gone.  But there’s no guarantee.  Dogs and humans are as tasty as deer to the prolific tick.  This, and the fact that birds from the mainland can bring ticks to these remote parts, means that it’s possible a population could be re-established.  Narrow trails, such as the one on Monhegan, require vigilance on the part of the hiker.  (When I go out to paint or hike anywhere in Maine, I wear permethrin-treated pants and shoes, tuck my pants-legs into my socks, and spray everything below my knees with DEET.  Plus, I shower immediately after my adventure and do a “tick check.”)

I wandered back down the hill to my group.  The tide was starting to come back in, bringing in with it a new round of fog.  Another boat, not ours, left at three with many of the tourists; after that, the village was noticeably quieter, giving me a taste what Monhegan might be like in the off-season.  Our boat would be the last boat, at four-thirty.  It would take away the last of the day-trippers, leaving the trucks and golf-carts in peace.

As we left Monhegan and drifted into the fog, I decided that Monhegan, despite its rich artistic history, is today a better adventure for the photographer.  Painters, with all their gear and the time it takes to paint, would find Monhegan to be a good deal of trouble.  Photographers would have an easier time of it.  Yes, I do know that painters go out to the island, and some even teach workshops, but it's not for me.

When I returned home to Lubec and Campobello Island, I realized that where I live is a real treasure.  Although our artistic history is thin, this farthest point Downeast is uncrowded, unsullied and unbelievably beautiful.  And yes, I do paint here and even teach workshops here.  I hope you'll join me.  Details are at

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Plein Air Workshop Report: Rockland, Maine

Port Clyde Puffin
(no, it's not real)

I just finished up a fantastic week in Rockland, Maine, teaching a plein air painting workshop for Coastal Maine Art Workshops.  Usually in the summer, I don't venture far from my quiet home on Campobello Island.  The Midcoast area is always much busier with traffic and tourists, but that's all part of summer.  Fortunately, I had an organization behind me that knows the territory:  where to park, where to avoid traffic, and perhaps most important, where to get the best crab roll.  Director Lyn Donovan and her crew made life a lot easier for this traveling teacher.

Painting Near 'Keag

Evening at McLoon's Lobster Shack

Unlike my workshops in Lubec, this workshop was five full days.  We started in the morning, worked through lunch (stopping only for a crab roll), and then continued on until late in the afternoon.  Despite some fog the first couple of days and rather warm weather, we were able to get out every day to practice our skills.  To make the week even more special, we took the mailboat out to Monhegan Island one day to paint, and also spent an afternoon visiting the Farnsworth Museum to see the exhibition celebrating the Andrew Wyeth Centennial.

"A Summer's Moment"
9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - SOLD

"Breaking Fog"
9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson - SOLD

"Going to be a Hot One"
9x12 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson - AVAILABLE

I'll have a special blog post on our Monhegan trip in the near future.  In the meantime, please enjoy a few photos from the week below.

By the way, if you would like to paint in a place where there are few tourists and little traffic, I encourage you to come to one of my workshops in Lubec.  I have one opening in each of my August 1-4 and August 8-11 weeks.  For details, visit

Monhegan Ferry

Fish Beach, Monhegan


Rockland Waterfront

Camden Waterfront

Painting at Camden Waterfront

Painting at Birch Point

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: