Saturday, December 16, 2017

Transformative Paintings—and Gamblin Cold Wax Medium

Dream of Futures Past
14x18 Oil/Cold Wax Medium
Michael Chesley Johnson

I want to share with you a studio painting I finished this week.  You may ask, What does this have to do with plein air painting?  Well, it has to do with my yearning to take what I've learned from years of painting outdoors and to apply it in the studio to an idea with which I've been playing.  The idea concerns a world beyond the physical one we inhabit.  Call it a movement toward a more spiritual form of painting, if you will.  But don't get me wrong, since I do love painting outdoors.  But I felt something was lacking in my artistic life.  Now that I've moved to an area sandwiched between two places that overflow with the spiritual—the Zuni and Navajo reservations—I find myself exploring.  The studio painting I present here is, I hope, the start of a transformative process.

Unlike my landscape paintings, the meaning and beauty of which are accessible to all, this painting is intensely personal.  I don't expect anyone to understand it as I do.  I won't write an essay to hang next to it to explain things.  But I will give you some help.  In Zuni mythology, the raven represents transformation; the duck, the soul of someone who has died.  Other symbols are unique to me, perhaps.  What do you see in this painting?

Gamblin's Cold Wax Medium

Now a technical note.  I've had a can of Gamblin Cold Wax Medium on the shelf for some time now, but I haven't done anything with it.  Normally, I let the paint “stand on its own” and use no medium.  But this time, I thought, since I was trying something new, I should go all the way.  I opened up the can and dug out a lump with my knife, stuck it on the glass palette, and got to work.  A little bit mixed in with the paint gave it a paste-like feeling; a little more pushed the paint toward transparency.  (The medium is, indeed, a paste, made of beeswax, Gamsol and a touch of alkyd resin.)  I liked the texture, since the paint, once applied, gets slightly tacky during one painting session.  It's very helpful in getting the broken color that I prefer in my work.  What's more, it has a matte finish, eliminating any glare and making it easier for me to judge color relationships.  Overall, the paint surface has a translucent quality that enhances the “dreamy” feeling of the piece.

I thought you might like to see the different stages in this painting, so I've put together a short video.  (Don't see it below?  Here's the link.)  It was difficult to get the camera and lighting consistent with each shot, but you should get the idea.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Judging Warm and Cool

Can you tell what colors are warm and cool in this scene?

At the beginning of my plein air painting workshops, I usually ask my students:  What problem would you like to work on most this week?  You might be surprised to learn that color temperature baffles many.  “I have trouble telling warm from cool” is something I hear often.

You're probably now saying:  “That's easy.  If it's yellow, it must be warm, and if it's blue, it must be cool.”  Well, yes, that's true in a macro sort of way.  We have this innate understanding because we associate yellow with fire and blue with ice.

But as most painters know, you can have cool and warm versions of a particular hue.  (I am considering a hue not to occupy a specific point on the color wheel but rather a pie-shaped region; in scientific terms, a hue isn't a specific wavelength of light but rather a range of wavelengths.)   Orange, for example, runs from yellow-orange to red-orange.  But how do you tell which of these two tertiary colors is warmest?

Context is vital.  You can't just say that yellow-orange is a cool or warm.  It depends on what color lies beside it.  Next to blue, yellow-orange appears so hot as to be incandescent.  But next to red-orange, it will appear cooler.

You can't look at isolated patches of your painting and say that this one over there is warmer (or cooler) than the one down here.  You have to place these patches right next to each other.   When I'm painting, I'll even place a dab of a mixture right on top of another to discern which is warmer.  I can easily wipe out or cover up this spot after I've rendered judgement.

Of course, this is all well and good when I'm actually applying paint.  But what if I'm observing my subject?  How can I judge the relative temperature of this bit of sunlit grass compared to the sunlit leaves on that tree over there, which may be feet—or miles—away?

The ViewCatcher

Experience helps.  But there's a tool that will aid you if you haven't developed the observational skills yet.  This is the ViewCatcher from The Color Wheel Company.   Many of us, including my students, are familiar with this tool as a compositional aid.  But there's another feature that many miss.  It's a little hole in the center of the slider.  Surrounding this hole is a square of mid-value, neutral-grey plastic.  By looking at a patch of landscape through this hole, you can gauge all four color properties of that patch:  hue, value and chroma, but also temperature.  Memorize the apparent temperature of one patch, then look at another—and you'll easily see if that second patch is warmer or cooler.

I've taken the same scene as above and have laid over it two (simulated) ViewCatchers.
You can see easily how the two color patches, though similar in value, are different in temperature.
The top one, which isolates the blue of the background hill, shows the blue as cool.
The bottom one, which isolates the shadowed side of a bare cliff, shows the shadow as a cool red--but
it is still warmer than the blue of the distant hill.

This process of memorization and analysis also takes some practice, but it's far easier than trying to compare temperature without it.  You can, of course, make your own “color isolator,” but the ViewCatcher is durable and can be stuffed into your paint kit without crushing.

Monday, December 11, 2017

My Top Blog Posts for the Year

As we approach the end of 2017, it seems that everywhere you go on the Internet someone is offering the "top" somethings from the past year.  I thought I'd jump on that bus before it leaves.  With that in mind, here are my ten most popular posts out of the 77 written in 2017.  And, keeping in mind that the custom is to start with the least first, I start with No. 10.

(If you don't already know, you can see an index of posts from all time in the right column on my blog, and you can also search the blog through the search field in the upper left corner.  If you're getting this post via e-mail, you will need to go to the actual blog site to see these.  By the way, it's all well and good to just go back and read my blog posts, but I have so much more that I offer in my workshops.)
No. 10:  "The Selfishness of Art"How can an artist work without guilt in today's hurting world?
No. 9:  "Pochade Boxes I Have Known"I unload my closet to share some of my vast collection of paint boxes. 
No. 8:  "My Favorite Books"Books every painter should read--and then some. 
No. 7:  "What Makes You Happy?"How can the artist achieve happiness? 
No. 6:  "A Walk in the Woods: Texture Too Beautiful to Paint"Not everything can be--or is meant to be--painted. 
No. 5: "New Online Self-Study Course-Study to Studio"Lots of outdoor painters are realizing they aren't doing their best work in the field.

No. 4: "Goodbye to Our Dearest Friend"Saba was not just family but also my painting pal.

No. 3: "Smartphone Apps and Painting"Moving into the 21st century with social media and painting. 
No. 2:  "To Blend or Not to Blend--That is the Question"I answer the generations-old question, and without causing fistfights. 
No. 1:  "Etiquette for Plein Air Painting Groups"Politeness is an esssential tool for the outdoor painter.

You'll note that product reviews aren't included in the list.  I filtered them out, as I was more interested in presenting something other than reviews.  However, three product reviews were in my top posts:

No. 3:  "Product Review:  PanelPak 
No. 2:  "Product Review:  Travel Painter Art Box" 
No. 1: "Product Review:  Gamblin's Gamvar Matte Varnish"

That's it!  Please remember there's plenty more on my blog site to read, and don't forget my books at Amazon and videos at North Light and my plein air painting workshops!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Pochade Boxes I Have Known

I've been painting outdoors for nearly 20 years now.  You'd expect that over that time I'd have gathered quite a collection of paint boxes--and I have!  I thought you'd enjoy hearing about a few of them. With that in mind, please enjoy the following video.  (Don't see the video?  Go here.)

By the way, I just received word that I've been invited back to one of the most prestigious plein air painting events--the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art.  This will make my fifth year as an invited artist.  I'm very honored to have been invited again.  I'll have more details on this event in the near future.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Links You Need to Know About

Quiet Cove 12x16 Oil
Featured in my first demonstration for my website

One of my projects this year is to put up several demonstrations on my web site.  These demonstrations are free, and they will show you some of the techniques and methods I use, both in the studio and out.  You can bookmark the link below and check back regularly to see the latest demonstrations:

My first demonstration, "Study to Studio," shows how I take field studies and use them as a reference for finished studio paintings.  The painting above is featured in this one.

Lake in the Desert 9x12 Pastel
Small painting featured on my website

If you like small paintings, you should know that I regularly post small sketches and studies, all reasonably priced, on my website as well.  These are different from my larger, studio pieces that you'll find on the website.  This is a link that you can follow through a blog reader or news reader such as Feedly.  Here's the link you need:

Blue Boat 12x16 Pastel
Demonstration painting for my article in Pastel Journal as noted below

Finally, Artists Network occasionally posts some of my magazine articles from Pastel Journal and The Artist's Magazine for free.  Again, these are free articles, complete and exactly as they appear in the magazine.  Here's one they posted today, which is about limiting pastel palettes as a way of controlling color harmony:


Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Countdown's Begun—Have You Started Yet?

Are you drowning in a flood of email with subjects like “Christmas Gift Ideas”?  Well, I hope this one makes it through your spam filter, because I believe my list will take your paintings to the next level—all with the idea of helping you fulfill your New Year's vow of becoming a better painter.

Over the years, I've produced a number of educational products with that very goal in mind.  Many feature techniques I've learned or discovered that have really worked for me.  With that in mind, here is a holiday wish list just for you.

For Beginners

Are you just getting started in plein air painting?  Don't know where to start or what tools to buy?  Then my series of Plein Air Essentials courses is for you.  These online, self-study courses will show you everything you need to know through video demonstrations and downloadable material.  These are priced very reasonably, and the site also offers discount codes that take the price lower yet.  Even if you are an experienced outdoor painter, you'll find these courses useful as a refresher.  Visit .


I've published a number of helpful books over the years.  This list includes how-to books, books that offer my thoughts on painting, and books that feature favorite, very special locations.  They are all available through Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.  If you want a signed copy, bring the book to a workshop and I'll be happy to sign it!  Visit my author page at


As many of your know, I've written scores of helpful articles over the years for Pastel Journal and The Artist's Magazine.  Not too long ago, F&W Media, the parent organization, invited me to its video studio in Ohio to produce three videos on topics of my choice.  I chose topics that I thought would be most helpful for the painter in a video format, and I was very pleased with the results.  Although you no longer can order the DVDs, they are available for as downloads and as streaming video.   You can get “The Secret of” videos here.


Self-study courses, book and videos have their place, but there's nothing like taking a workshop with me.  It's the only way you'll get on-the-spot feedback and personal attention.  Plus, I teach in beautiful places, so you won't be disappointed with the scenery!  Treat yourself to a week by the seaside in Downeast Maine painting the stunning cliffs and vistas of a historic fishing village.  Or, come to New Mexico and take a one-on-one painting intensive with me to paint some gorgeous Southwestern landscapes.  I have a full list of workshops in Maine, the Southwest and elsewhere on my website at  And yes, I do gift certificates!


Of course, besides the instructional material, I'd also love to sell a few paintings!  I have hundreds of paintings on my website,, which you can purchase directly from the site.  I also offer sales now and then.  My holiday sale is still going on as we speak, and if you order right away, you'll get your painting before Christmas.


If you can't afford a painting, maybe you'd like a calendar for $13.99?  I've gone through and selected my favorite 13 paintings from this past year.  The calendar will provide you with a visual feast that will feed you all year!  You can preview and buy it here:

I hope you'll find something in my list that you or another painter will enjoy. Now get out and paint!

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Feast for the New Year: 2018 Calendar

Every year about this time, I get into the Christmas mood by going through the year's paintings and selecting my favorites for a calendar.  Well, I just finished my 2018 calendar, and it's a visual feast that will feed you for a full year.  I hope you'll consider this as a gift for yourself or for your friends and family.

The price of the calendar is only $13.99.  You can preview and purchase it by clicking the button below.  (If you need the actual link, it is

Support independent publishing: Buy this calendar on Lulu.

Here's a collage showing my selections for this year:

Sunday, November 26, 2017

My Favorite Books

As a voracious reader with eclectic tastes, I believe that a varied diet is best.  It  ensures that you get all the nutrients crucial to making good art.  Books that teach, books that inspire, books that lead you down an unexpected path--each of these pushes us to a higher level.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few that are in my library.  You probably have some favorites, too, and I’d love to hear about them.

Books that Teach

Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John Carlson

You plein air painters will recognize this title.  Painting instructors like me tout this book as the “bible” for outdoor painters.  And it is!  Observations from many years of painting from life fill this book.  In my workshops, I often talk about Carlson’s Theory of Angles--how light behaves in the landscape--but it contains so much more.  It’s a rather dense book, though, printed in a tiny font and with old school black-and-white illustrations.  It can be a tough read for those born into a world where information is spoonfed to us in easy-to-digest animated snippets.  Still, the book is worth the effort, and if you have to read one book about outdoor painting, this is it.

Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne

Not as well-known as Carlson’s book, this, too, I consider essential reading.  If you’re having trouble with creating pleasing compositions for your paintings, Payne offers page after page of useful templates that you can apply to almost any scene.  Templates are just a crutch, of course; over time, the intelligent artist will become more intuitive in design.  But Payne also shares design basics for those of us who prefer to learn concepts rather than to memorize templates.  Like the Carlson book, there’s a lot more to this one than I’ve described here.

Books That Inspire

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

I’d call Henri’s book a bridge between teaching and inspiration.  Compiled after Henri’s death by a student from class notes, the book contains many good rules for the painter, but what’s more, it offers inspirational nuggets about art and life.  It’s more like a book of quotes than a book written according to a meticulous outline.  “A great painter will know a great deal about how he did it, but still he will say, ‘How did I do it?’ The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself.”  You can read this one with a yellow highlighter in one hand.

Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, Edited by Irving Stone

The movie industry and museums have elevated Vincent Van Gogh to legendary status.  And, as with so many legends, truth is sometimes either distorted or invented.  This volume of Vincent’s letters to his brother was compiled after their deaths by Johanna, Vincent’s sister-in-law and wife to Theo.  Giving us an almost-daily look at Vincent’s life, the letters show us a painter who, possessed by a variety of demons both internal and external, swings from despair to ecstasy but who mostly walks a straight, sane line.  There is much here for the reader to sympathize with and learn from.

Books That Lead Down a Different Path

Not every book I own can be tied directly to painting; some are on other topics that, in some way, influence me as a painter.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard’s a writer, not a painter.  But this, her first book, is filled with the quiet, patient observations of nature by someone who easily could have been a plein air painter:  “Were the earth smooth, our brains would be smooth as well; we would wake, blink, walk two steps to get the whole picture, and lapse into a dreamless sleep.”  But the earth is not smooth, and Dillard luxuriates in the world’s complex beauty.   This book will help you become a better painter by teaching you to see more thoughtfully.

Basin and Range by John McPhee

John McPhee gets into a topic and then digs down as deep as he can.  Basin and Range is about vast time and the geological landscape.  As a painter who specializes in the landscape, I’m always fascinated by the story behind the scenes I paint.  But McPhee gives me more than that, taking the tale into the cosmic:  “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”  I’ve been a fan of McPhee for a long time, but this book is one of his best.

These are just a few of the books I enjoy.  I’d love to hear about yours.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thoughtful Gift: New Workshop Program!

Painting made just a few minutes from my home and studio in
New Mexico's High Desert.  We'll paint this as part of the program!

The gift-giving holidays are right around the corner.  So here's a gift idea for that special someone -- who might just be you!

If you're a painter with some plein air experience and feel that you've hit a plateau in your work, then this is for you.  And only for you -- you'll have exclusive access to me in this one-on-one, private study program.  The program is meant to help painters like you to hone their craft, learn more about responding to the landscape and develop a personal vision.

You'll do all that in some of the Southwest's most beautiful country.  Near the Zuni Pueblo and El Morro National Monument and on the shoulders of the Zuni Mountains, our home and studio occupy a point in the universe where the air is clear; the sky, blue; and the sun, intense unlike anywhere else. There's lots to explore and paint, from lava fields to sandstone bluffs, from ponderosa-clad hills to blue lakes.

So give yourself the opportunity to come out to the high desert of New Mexico and spend a week with us.  You'll get six nights' lodging, three simple but nourishing meals a day, plus the opportunity to work side-by-side with me.

By the way, you don't have to be a professional or advanced painter.  So long as you are serious about your craft, and are familiar with your medium and have some outdoor painting experience, you'll do well.  You can find more about this exciting program under "Private Painting Intensive Study" at

If you'd prefer an all-level workshop in the company of other students, don't despair.  I have scheduled just such a workshop for March 27-30, 2018, in Sedona, Arizona.  You can find full details about this workshop also at

Here are a few more pictures of New Mexico's High Desert:

Another painting made close to the studio.

One final painting!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Workshop Report: Sedona and Tucson

River Study, 9x12 pastel (studio) by Michael Chesley Johnson
Bobcat!  A visitor at the Tucson workshop. (Photo by Trina)

It's been a busy fall so far—and with no end in sight!  Following the Doug Dawson workshop in Sedona and a weekend trip to Chiricahua National Monument, last week I drove all the way back to Sedona to teach my own workshop, and then I went south to teach another for the Tucson Pastel Society.  Now I have a few days to catch up on paperwork (and the blog) before flying off to visit family back east for Thanksgiving.  December, thankfully, looks to be a little slower.

The Sedona workshop was so successful that I've scheduled another for next spring, March 27-30, 2018.  Like my previous workshops there, this one will run Tuesday through Friday with plenty of painting opportunities.  Late March is always a pleasant time to visit Sedona.  The trees will be just putting out their spring foliage, and the chill of winter will be replaced by a sunny warmth.  If you haven't taken one of my Sedona plein air painting workshops before, here's your opportunity.  And if you have already done so, I encourage you to join me again, since I have new thoughts and techniques to share with you.  Sometimes students think, “Well, I've already taken a workshop with that particular artist,” not understanding that all of us—even we teachers—constantly learn new things and always have something new to give.  You can find details on the program at

Red Rock Study, 6x8 oil (plein air) by Michael Chesley Johnson

Verde River Study, 9x12 oil (plein air) by Michael Chesley Johnson

The Tucson workshop was a one-day affair sponsored by the Tucson Pastel Society.  It was a free workshop for members—a nice perk that the society offers twice a year.  I counted at least 20 attendees, which sounds like a lot, but because the workshop took place indoors, I had plenty of time to go from easel to easel.  The second day, we had an optional outdoor painting session, which was held among the palms and cattails at a nearby wetlands.  Mallards, coots, egrets and even a bobcat joined us for the morning.  I had a great time with this group, and several students told me how much they enjoyed the program, which concerned limited palettes and “making your best guess” with regards to color choices.

Shadowed Rock Study, 9x12 pastel (studio) by Michael Chesley Johnson
For this piece I used only 14 sticks of pastel, as seen below.

That's my 14-stick limited pastel palette in the little box

Tucson Light 9x12 pastel (plein air) by Michael Chesley Johnson

I've included with the post some of the demonstration paintings plus a few snapshots.  If you're interested in any of these studies or paintings, please let me know.  Have a great Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Road Trip: Chiricahua National Monument

Hoodoos, columns, pinnacles and more

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to travel with Trina on a Sedona Camera Club outing to Chiricahua National Monument.   We both needed a break between setting up our winter home studio and teaching workshops, so this was the perfect adventure.  I went as "key grip" to help with camera equipment, but I packed along my new Travel Painter Art Box as well.


Waning moon over the rocks

We arrived Friday afternoon in Willcox, Arizona, and then hurried off to the park to shoot the sunset, followed by a little astrophotography.  Saturday morning, we met at 4:45 am -- no hotel breakfast for us! -- and went off to shoot the sunrise.  Next we worked the cramps out of our legs by taking a long hike, followed by daytime photography and then a second sunset shoot to round out the day.  Sunday, we had to forego the sunrise shoot to head back to New Mexico to pack for a workshop I'm teaching in Sedona this week and then one for the Tucson Pastel Society next weekend.  Whew!

The Travel Painter Art Box in action

I was happy to see how well the new paint box worked, and how handy it was to carry on the trails.  I only had time for a couple of quick sketches, but it was worth it.  The first sketch I made in a wash in the noontime shade of alligator junipers; the second, toward sunset up on Masai Point.  These sketches will become reference material for a future studio painting.

Six Years After the Fire 6x8 oil sketch

Hoodoo 6x8 oil sketch
(Palette for both of these was yellow ochre,
transparent earth red and Prussian blue, all Gamblin paints)

By the way, this was our second trip to Chiricahua.  Our first trip was about 15 years ago, and I remember being very impressed with the green lushness of the park.  But in 2011, a major fire swept through, charring much of the landscape.  Now, six years later, the grasses have returned, but so many of the hills and canyon sides are filled with broken, charred stumps.  This explains the title of my first sketch.  The amazingly strange rocks, of course, are untouched and just as weird as ever.