Spring Flood III - 12x18 Pastel - Available The first abstraction. See below for commentary.
Trina and I went to Santa Fe a few weeks ago so I could judge an art exhibition. Whenever we go to the New Mexico capital, we like to check in with the galleries to see what's new. A favorite is Meyer Gallery on Canyon Road, one of the few in the city still handling representational painting. (So many have gone to what I call "decorator" art, but that's a topic for another blog post.) William Hook is a painter represented by Meyer, and we always enjoy his landscapes. But this time, we saw something unexpected—his abstracts.
The gallery manager explained that the artist will paint a typical William Hook landscape and, then, using the same palette, create an abstract version of it. When you look at his abstracts with this knowledge, you can see clues of what the original might have looked like. Sometimes, the gallery hangs the original landscape and the derived abstract side-by-side. (You can see Hook's work here.)
I like his new work. And as I was seeking a late winter project, I thought it would be fun to try abstracting some of my landscapes. I had a studio piece I liked, the one that was the basis for my demonstration at the Pastel Society of New Mexico recently. Since the subject and color choices were still fresh in my mind, I decided to try the approach with this one.
One question you might ask is, If you have an already-beautiful representational painting, why abstract it? Well, since I do begin any landscape painting by simplifying and abstracting the scene, doing the opposite—a sort of reverse engineering—might give me some additional insight into my usual process. Second, I enjoy an abstract painting as a playful design; a good one always expresses energy and the unexpected, and it will both excite and surprise me. I wanted to see if I could improve on Nature and enhance these qualities. Finally, having never done this exercise before, I thought it would be at least educational, even if it didn't turn out to be a lucrative detour on my journey as a painter.
Is an abstraction removed from reality? It shouldn't be. Instead, an abstraction has had the representational squeezed out of it, but the reality—the truth of the scene—remains. In each of my abstractions, I tried to stay true to my original vision of showing intense sunlight on water.
Below I will show you the original painting, my practice piece for the demonstration, the demonstration painting itself plus the two abstract versions. You'll note that I didn't take the abstraction anywhere near as far as does Hook. Where one stops is a personal choice.
But first: What did I learn? Abstracting the landscape is hard, really hard—at least for me. I continually found myself backing off from the asbstract and retreating to the safety of the representational. I would step away from the work after making a series of marks only to see that I was starting to depict branches and blades of grass and pebbles and ripples in the water. Whenever this happened, I took my painting knife (ideal for scraping out passages in pastel, if you paint on a durable surface) and scraped down the marks. The first abstraction actually reached a stage that was too representational not once but three times, and each time I scraped back, I doused the paper with fixative and started over. The second painting went more smoothly, as I tried to work more mindfully. Yet, although it is an asbtraction, you can still see the landscape lurking. I may yet try again to see if I can take it even further.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on abstraction—how you would define it and what your process is.
Keepers of the Creek - 12x18 Pastel - Available The ORIGINAL studio painting.
Spring Flood - 12x18 Pastel - Available The "practice" painting for the demonstration. I liked the original painting, but I wanted to make the tree on the left less important, plus I wanted to shift the sun for more obvious rim lighting. (By the way, I used Blue Earth pastels on Art Spectrum Colourfix paper for each painting.)
Spring Flood II - 12x18 Pastel - Available The demonstration painting. Further reduction of the left tree and enlargement of the cluster on the right, plus more water movement.
Spring Flood III - 12x18 Pastel - Available The first abstraction. Dark and moody, but dramatic contrast evoking the sense of glare on water. I used the full range of 7 values in my Blue Earth set. This painting I scraped down three times to take it back down to abstraction. I started this one with a block-in of Pan Pastels; at the end, I used some metallic Pan Pastels to add glitter.
Spring Flood IV - 12x18 Pastel - Available The second abstraction Lighter overall (I used only the top 4 values of 7 available in my Blue Earth set, except for a few darker accents) but the sense of glare remains because I tried to use complementary colors between light and dark passages.
This past weekend, the Pastel Society of New Mexico invited me to the Albuquerque Museum to give a painting demonstration. My theme was "Understanding Value: Painting Light on Water" with a focus on the effect of what I call "glare." I had a large and receptive audience, and it was a real pleasure to show them how I create this effect.
The Society likes to have a presentation in the last hour of each monthly meeting. Although that's not a lot of time to do a full painting, I made sure to practice the demonstration in my own studio a few days before, and I also did a good deal of preparatory work, such as pre-drawing my design on the pastel paper I would use, to make sure things would go smoothly.
(By the way, the scene has become important to me in a series of works. In my next post, I will talk about the progression of getting from the plein air study, done in oil, to two studio versions done in pastel, plus the demonstration, and then an abstraction.)
The demonstration was also recorded in video by Nicholas Tesluk and is available on the Pastel Society of New Mexico's web site at the "PSNM Resources" tab and on Vimeo. I've embedded the video below. (Can't see it? Here is the Vimeo link: https://vimeo.com/323380193)
Michael Chesley Johnson "Understanding Value: Painting Light on Water" - Vimeo
A few days ago, in a warm, dry spell between late winter storms, we had some beautiful clouds. Throughout the day, I kept my eye on them. They were cumulus clouds, torn ragged by the wind aloft. By afternoon, they had become backlit by the sun and glowed with a heavenly incandescence. Their beauty called me to paint them, but I knew I'd never capture their shapes precisely in the slow medium of paint. So, I dragged out my sketchbook and a 6B pencil, set up a chair in a warm, sunny spot, and got to work. A bit of smudging with the fingertip to darken the interiors plus a very light line to indicate the luminous nimbus encircling each cloud gave me great satisfaction. Pencil is fast enough that I could sketch the shapes accurately.
I decided there was nothing more relaxing than sketching clouds while sitting on a sunny porch.
My students, however, often express anxiety when it comes to painting clouds. To my mind, clouds are the easiest of Nature's shapes to paint. Clouds do change quickly, but with careful watching and a little memory work, you can paint the "feeling" of those particular clouds. You can have the "truth" of the cloud without depicting a specific cloud. One trick in the field is to observe and sketch a variety of cloud shapes in your sketchbook before painting, and then transfer the most interesting shapes to your canvas lightly with pencil.
Some Clouds, II
Some Clouds, III
Here are some other observations about clouds that may help:
Cumulus clouds overhead at midday have warm, shadowed bottoms and cool, sunlit tops.
But those same clouds, as they go farther into the distance, will develop cool, shadowed bottoms and warm, sunlit tops—a reversal of what you see when they are closer and more overhead.
Cumulus clouds often have a flat bottom that is rather like a dinner plate. This will help with painting these clouds in proper perspective. Imagine a sky full of dinner plates (or flying saucers, if you prefer.) With the overhead plates, you will see more bottom than top; with ones farther off, you'll see more top than bottom.
Different kinds of clouds—stratus, cirrus and so on—act differently. A good exercise for painters is just to observe the properties of different kinds of clouds with a pencil.
Look for rhythmic lines, not just in individual clouds, but in the patterns clouds make. These lines will add energy to your painting.
I thought it might be helpful to show some small, color studies of clouds by other painters.
Cloud Study: Stormy Sunset (1821-1822) by John Constable (1776 – 1837.) Oil on paper on canvas, 8 x 10 3/4 in. National Gallery of Art.
Landscape Study with Clouds (1829-1831) by Émile Loubon (1809–1863.) Oil on cardboard, 5 7/8 x 9 1/16 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Clouds (ca. 1838) by Thomas Cole (1801–1848.) Oil on paper laid down on canvas, 8 3/4 × 10 7/8 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
An essential tool for the plein air painter? I think so!
In case you've missed them, I've written several posts over the years that have to do with what I consider essential tools for the plein air painters. You can read the posts here.
Am I missing any? Let me know, and I'll write about them!
By the way, for most of us in the northern hemisphere, plein air painting season is upon us. If you've never painted en plein air before or feel that your skills need brushing up, please consider taking one of my online, self-study courses. I have them here, at www.PleinAirEssentials.com, along with discounts for the courses!
Path to the Shed 9x12 oil - $600 unframed - available
Perhaps I was inspired by my own article on painting snow in the recent (February 2019) issue of PleinAir. Or maybe it was the fact that the Southwest has had record-breaking moisture this winter, and the snow was piled up a foot deep at times between Christmas and Valentine's Day. Whatever the cause, I've found myself going out to paint snow this winter.
While painting these, a few thoughts occurred to me that might be helpful to other painters. (That is, if you're not tired of the snow already!)
To help with getting the values right when painting a large expanse of snow, first paint the cast shadows. Assume that the white of your canvas or paper is the lightest value. Key everything down from this white or maybe go just a little darker. Save painting the darks for the end.
Paint distant, sunlit snow cooler, such as a tint of red-violet. Paint closer, sunlit snow warmer, such as a tint of yellow. Save pure white for the lightest highlights, which are often cool.
On a clear, sunny day, the nearer cast shadows on snow tend to be blue-violet. These cast shadows get lighter and warmer in distance. On an overcast day or a day with clouds, the shadows tend to be warmer because light bounces off the clouds and into the shadows.
Find variations in the topography of the snow field and use subtle shifts in temperature and value to indicate changes in this topography. Use cast shadows to help define it further. Look for edges in snow, both hard, soft and lost.
Looks like spring is almost here, but I bet we're not done with the snow yet.
Snow and Rocks II 9x12 oil - $600 unframed - available
Still Standing 12x6.5 Oil on 2" cradled birch panel (no frame needed) $600 - available
Part of the exhibition at Sorrel Sky, before the judging. You can see how the organizers have covered up signatures and wall labels to keep the judge "blind."
I always love going to Santa Fe—good art, good vibes, good food—but this time was extra special. This past week I spent a couple of days in "The City Different" serving as Judge of Awards for the Pastel Society of New Mexico's annual National Exhibition. I enjoyed spending some real "quality time" with over a hundred pastel paintings. Nowhere in town could I see so many pastels in one place.
The exhibition, which runs through March 31, occupies the entire second floor of Sorrel Sky Gallery on Palace Avenue, a very short walk from the plaza. The paintings range from landscapes to portraits and figures to still life and abstracts, and the quality of the work is very high. (Jurors were Alan Flattman, Brian Cobble and Sally Strand, and they did a great job in selecting.) Conditions for judging were ideal, as all the paintings are hung under excellent lighting. Still, I had a very tough time narrowing down the 133 paintings to just 22 winners—and an even tougher time picking the top four for the major awards. Everyone who made it into the show should feel proud. I congratulate the winners on their success.
I've written before about how I judge a show, but I'll summarize it again. Armed with a stack of yellow Post-It notes, I go through the gallery quickly, putting a note next to every painting that appeals to me. This is my first pass, and I'm looking for work that strikes me immediately in some way. I'm not thinking of design, color or mark-making at this point but visual and emotional impact. Then I go through the gallery again, looking more carefully at the ones I skipped. Did I miss a quiet, shy piece that appeals to me if I look longer? If so, I give it a Post-It note. Then I go through yet again, looking at everything—noted or not—with an eye to design, color and mark-making. Next, I count the number of Post-It notes and compare that to the number of awards. The difference is what I have to remove. So, I go through several more times, re-evaluating my choices and removing—or, in some cases, moving—the notes until I have the same number of notes on the wall as I have awards. Now the painful part begins, and I have to decide on the top awards. This involves double-checking my work (thinking again of design, color, mark-making plus emotional appeal and how well the artist conveyed the message) until I've made my selections. Believe me, although the process sounds logical and simple, it's a lot of work, and sometimes I wish I'd worn roller skates to make the going back-and-forth easier! I go through these multiple passes to make sure I've made my selections with honesty and integrity.
The Society has invited me to do a demonstration for them at their monthly meeting next Saturday (March 9, 10 a.m. at the Albuquerque Museum.) I'm looking forward to showing how I paint "glare" on water with Blue Earth Pastels. If you can't make it to the meeting, at least try to see the show in Santa Fe. You won't be sorry.
Me at Sorrel Sky in front of my painting. Judge and jurors were asked to bring a sample pastel painting to hang.
In case you haven't heard, I'll be teaching a springtime plein air painting workshop for The Chestnut Group in Franklin, Tennessee, May 10-12, 2019. The Chestnut Group is a group of artists very much aligned with my own philosophy that the artist is the steward of the land, and they do a great deal to celebrate the vanishing landscapes of rural Tennessee.
This three-day workshop will be based in Franklin, just outside of Nashville, and in May, I expect some nice spring colors. I hope you'll consider joining me in Franklin.
Also, for many of us, we are on the brink of spring. If you have been working in your studio all winter, aching to get outdoors, you might want to refresh your skills. I have a website, www.pleinairessentials.com, that can help you. Take a look!
In a previous post, I wrote about a self-portrait I've been working on. At the time, the "first draft" of the self-portrait was complete; I'd spent about an hour in the studio, channeling Lucien Freud and, perhaps, Van Gogh. I was looking to achieve an intuitive but accurate representation in a short time. Liking the result, I posted it on Facebook and Instagram.
Well, turning a self-portrait into a group effort is always risky, as you never know what the responses will be—especially if you like what you've done and think the work is complete. Predictably, most responses (from close friends, family and fans) were favorable, but a few included suggestions. The most important suggestion, I thought, had to do with background color. The original background was a fiery red, and the red collar of my shirt got lost in it. What if, it was suggested, I remove the red background? The red collar would then "sing."
I wasn't sure if I wanted the red collar to "sing," but the suggestion planted the idea of playing with background color. So, I digitally changed the color to first green and then a bluish green and took a poll. First, here are the three images:
and here is the result of the poll:
Blue led with 47%, followed by red with 36%, and trailed by green, at 17%.
I was a little surprised that green didn't get a larger slice of the pie. Green tends to enhance the warmth of the face as well as that red collar. ("Now it really 'sings'!") And as much as some viewers didn't like the red—saying it made my expression feel even angrier—nearly as many people voted for red as for blue.
I also asked respondents to comment on their choices. These comments were interesting, too. Here are a few of them:
The Argument for Blue
The contrast of cool and warm is more pleasing with the blue background.
Blue...or red if you are after a very disturbing image. But I prefer the more peaceful bluish background.
Although I do like the red one, the bluish background allows the red highlights to stand out in a very nice way. The red one makes me feel like you are standing near the Gates of Hades.
They all create different moods, and they are all effective in their own way. So it depends on what kind of mood YOU want to create. I chose blue because the other two are too intense for my taste.
Brings balance to the whole.
The blue is cool enough to drop more into the background than the green and it picks up the colour in your eye. I was really okay with the red, too, but when you started to talk about the nice pop of red at your collar, I realized the sense in that.
The intensity of the expression is exaggerated by the overall heat of the red background. I like the blue-green better.
The red and green are to harsh (severe). They both compete with the portrait. The blue is more neutral, more sedate and doesn't compete with the portrait.
The blue reads as neutral and calms the angry, intense red.
The Argument for Green
The red is harsh and the scarf looks better with the green or blue background.
More on the complementary side than red.
The Argument for Red
Green makes you look sickly; red makes you look wise!
Red is more unique and suits the warmth in your personality.
The original red has a fabulous intensity. I always believe in creative 'gut reactions.' The original was painted that for a reason. The subconscious sees it as a more cohesive whole and focuses on the subject rather than the background.
Red best suits the "aggressive" look of the face.
The red is much more graphic and exciting. Yes, more grumpy, but more powerful.
Red is an "energy" color..and a "passionate" color.
The red seems to better suit the nature of the picture, and I like how it emphasizes the red collar/scarf.
The Argument for Something Else
(Yes, there's always someone who wants a choice outside the ones offered.)
If you are questioning either red or green, why not mix them to create a neutral that picks up both in the portrait? Better harmony, and a bit more highlight/shadow would have your likeness leap off the canvas.
I actually began to modify the background in the portrait before I got so many votes and began to read the comments. As much as a fiery red background seemed appropriate at the time—I'd started with a burnt sienna background to give the canvas some initial life and warmth—it felt a little too much as I sat looking at it with a cup of tea during a relaxed moment. Green, I decided would make it too jazzy and, as someone else pointed out, invoked Van Gogh in a heavy-handed way. I decided to try blue. Blue calms, and I felt that's what the thing needed.
So, that one-hour self-portrait ended up having another few hours added to it in the way of background changes and tweaks. I initially started with a light blue scumble, but it gave the sense of floating through the sky. I darkened it, greyed it, and finally ended up with something that seemed to give the overall painting more weight. I also adjusted the contours of the head, getting it closer to the actual thing. (Yes, I had to pull out my antique 50-pound wall mirror a few more times.) I tweaked the facial hair, losing the lower lip and then regaining the lower lip. That "mystery eye," as someone called it—my right eye—needed more definition despite being in the shadows, so I played with that some until it read right. (Oh, and I ended up darkening that red collar. Too much "sing.")
The result of all this is the painting at the top of the post.
Am I as satisfied with the portrait as I was after that initial single hour of inspired bravura? I do like it, but it's going to sit on the easel for awhile longer. It is said:
A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.
and I think this is more true of a self-portrait than of any other type of painting.
Are you looking for a creative summer retreat? One that gets you out of the heat and into the cool mountains? Then read on!
Our home in the mountains of New Mexico is available for a 5-month rental from May to October this year. Living at this 7,000-foot elevation, with access to trails on public land and a lake, we've found it a perfect place to be creative. Whether you're a painter or writer or are involved in some other creative endeavor, you'll enjoy not just the beauty of the area but also the house, which sits at the edge of the quiet, friendly community of Ramah.
The house, which is our home and studio, is completely furnished, and the price includes all utilities (electricity, LP gas heat and hot water, water softener, town water and sewer, and Internet) as well as washer/dryer and creative spaces to work in. The 1200-sq-ft house is suitable for one or a couple. Sorry, but no smoking anywhere on the property and no pets.
The price is $800/month and requires a five-month commitment from early May to early October. In addition, we would ask for some minor yard work—weed-whacking the weeds.
Ramah lies in the heart of what is called the Ancient Way. The Zuni reservation is just to the west; the Ramah Navajo reservation just to the east; and the Cibola National Forest surrounds it all. The El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments are just a few miles away. Gallup, the main service town, is about 45 minutes away, but Zuni (20 minutes) has an excellent grocery store and Ramah itself has a restaurant, the El Morro Market (natural foods and local produce) plus a convenience store as well as the Farmer's Market in the summertime.
And here's an idea. If you are thinking of retiring to a scenic area like this, perhaps you might use your time to explore. We have a nearly 8-acre lot nearby in Timberlake for sale, and it would be a perfect building lot in a very desirable area with views of rocky cliffs, the Zuni Mountains and ponderosa and juniper.
If you are interested, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and I can provide photos and other details. I've included a few photos of the area here, plus some paintings I've done.
We've been having a good deal of snow here in northern New Mexico. It seems like we get one warm, sunny day, and then we get another snowstorm blowing through. I'll gladly paint snow, but not when it's snowing! So, I've been spending some time in the studio working on painting projects. It's fun to poke through old plein air sketches to see what strikes one's fancy. This week, I'm thinking of Scotland. As you may recall, I've made two trips to Scotland, so I have quite a bit of material to review.
I decided I wanted to paint a scene of a burn. We don't call it a "burn" here in America, but rather a "stream" or "creek." I also wanted to play some more with my set of Blue Earth pastels. With that in mind, I set up some reference photos on my tablet, pulled out some color studies, and got to work. "A Scottish Burn" is the result. Although I started with harder Cretacolor pastels for the block in, I quickly moved to the softer Blue Earth pastels. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I like Blue Earth pastels because of the logical color and value arrangement, which is very similar to how I arrange my palette. (You can read all about that here.) I painted it on a sheet of burgundy Art Spectrum Colourfix, a brand I prefer because of its coarser texture, which gives a more "painterly" look to the finished piece.
One guiding thought I had as I worked was to use as many greens as I could, but to incorporate touches of red and orange here and there to keep the green from being overwhelming. I found that, even in Scotland, where you see so much green, there is still an undertone of red and orange in the landscape. Also, I chose the burgundy paper for the same reason.
I've included some details photos as well as two shots of the studio (thank you, Trina!) to show you how I have it set up. By the way, the painting is available for sale. Click here for details.
Blue Earth pastels used for the painting. I like taking a photo of this box at the end because of the little "jumble" I create as I work.