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:

Saturday, July 1, 2017

How to Become a Better Painter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Going from Oil Field Sketch to Studio Pastel

Passage 24x18 pastel
by Michael Chesley Johnson

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

Oil field study, 9x6

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Going from Pastel Field Sketch to Studio Oil

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

Gamblin Greens

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

Here are the two paintings in a larger size:

Pastel Field Sketch 9x12

"Highlands Cottage" 12x16  Studio Oil

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

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

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

Location photo:

Near Glencoe, Scotland

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Giant of the Valley: A Commission

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

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

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

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

Studio Setup


Working the sky, mountains and lake

Working the valley

Edge treatment
Finished painting

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

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

Cool Place Painting Workshops Starting Soon!

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