Mentoring: Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Study Program Report



Beautiful clouds during the week

And beautiful sunshine, too!

You may have noticed that I took a short break from blogging last week.  What was I up to?  Instead of blogging, I dedicated my time to the first Paint the Southwest Private Plein Air Painting Intensive Study week.  My mentee was Sue, an experienced painter from the north who stopped on her way to a residency in southern Arizona to study with me.  Although she paints in both oil and pastel, she decided to do just pastel, so I followed suit.  (I will paint in either medium or even both, depending on the participant.)  It was an intense but delightful week for both of us.

Although I offer a tuition-only version of the program, the student is welcome to stay with us; in this case, Trina and I provide three meals a day plus a private room and bath.  (The room is right next to the studio, which is convenient for working on projects throughout the day.)  Sue arrived Sunday evening after a long drive, so we gave her a nice dinner and toured her around the property.  Since both of us were excited about the program, we took some time to go through the studio as well, going over the gear and materials that I commonly use.

Sketching at El Morro
Painting on the studio property

Virga Over the Valley – 12×9 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available

After an early breakfast on Monday, we got started.  (The program is completely customized to the participant’s needs, so if you’re thinking about joining us in the future, your week probably will be a little different.)  After consulting with Sue prior to her week via email, I decided she would benefit from working on foreground and design issues as well as practice in abstracting the landscape.  With that in mind, we headed over to El Morro National Monument with cameras and sketchbooks.  The weather was a little chilly, so walking and stopping for brief sketches to explore design was more comfortable than standing and painting.  After returning to the studio for lunch, we stayed on the studio property to paint the view, paying special attention to foreground handling.  In the evening, we relaxed with another nice dinner.  I introduced Susan to my art book collection; she spent her spare time during the week reading Edgar Payne’s Composition of Outdoor Painting.  Being outdoors so much is both invigorating and tiring; I think we all retired early each night.

Painting at Ramah Lake

My painting, nearly done

Hiking back from the lake

Silent Watcher – 9×12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available

On Tuesday, we went to Ramah Lake to paint the “layer cake” cliffs of red and white sandstone.  Ducks, coots and geese made their welcome, springtime music while we worked.  Here again, foreground was a special focus; we positioned ourselves atop the earthen dam, which gave us a fine view with a complicated foreground of red willow and a variety of grasses, all much the same value.  Thumbnail sketches helped us with that.  That afternoon, we stayed on our property again to paint some of the sandstone rock outcrops, looking at abstracting the shapes and working more intuitively at design.

Among the rocks

You can really see my palette from this angle

9×12 Pastel Study for “Outcrop” by Michael Chesley Johnson

Outcrop – 8×10 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available

Wednesday was another gorgeous day, and since Thursday’s weather forecast was iffy, we decided to take advantage of the fine weather and went on a field trip with a picnic.  We drove around the large cuesta that dominates Ramah to the east and headed for the north end of the lake.  From here, we painted the layer-cake cliffs from a different angle, and again, spent a good deal of time on design.  By lunchtime, the wind began to get up—foretelling a change in the weather—but we had a fine picnic by a historic ranch house with a broad view of the lake.  Afterward, we began to make our way back but first stopped on some acreage we own to paint the view.

On the north end of the lake


Lakeside Peace – 9×12 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available

Where We Might Live – 6×8 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available

Thursday dawned, surprisingly, with sun and fast-moving clouds.  The predicted rain and snow had not yet arrived.  Taking advantage of the weather, we drove off to hike a trail that would give us yet another view of the lake cliffs so we could do some pencil sketching.   The wind couldn’t touch us on the trail, but the trip back to the car was another story.  Rain squalls and snow squalls followed us back to the studio where, after lunch, we talked about and made adjustments to work we’d done earlier in the week.  But more importantly, we also spent a good deal of time pre-planning our trip back to El Morro.

Field sketch from the morning hike

Field sketch from Monday – with notes and cropping explorations

Design sketches from the studio with notes

Monitor and cropping tool for helping with design

We pulled out our photos and pencil sketches from Monday morning and explored design options.  We looked at double- and triple-squares as well as other less-standard formats.  We used charcoal to sketch out foregrounds, then wiped them out, and tried variations.  Finally, once we’d decided on the format (1:2) and the design, we copied the design onto paper we would use the next day for painting, and blocked in the shadow values with a dark color.  This preparatory work would give us a jumpstart on painting in the field.

I also did a demonstration in oil.  (See above for the oil.) Although Sue had chosen for us to work in pastel, she asked if I would do a short demonstration in her other medium.  Taking the idea of outdoor study-to-studio, I decided to use a rock study I had made in pastel the day before and use it as the basis for an oil painting.  I will often switch mediums for outdoor study-to-studio; it makes things fresher and forces different color choices.

Hike atop Inscription Rock
You’ll note that my area is bounded by the Zuni and Navajo reservations.
The highway that passes through Ramah is called the “Ancient Way,” and
is so-called because of the native cultures (Ancestral Puebloans) that included
the Anasazi and the ancestors of the Zuni and Acoma, as well as the Spanish explorers,
that traveled through here.  You can read more on the Ancient Way here.
Ready to paint

Paso Por Aqui – 8×16 Pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available

On Friday, we drove back to El Morro.  The weather wasn’t quite the same as it had been on Monday, when we gathered our reference material there.  More clouds cast more shadow on Inscription Rock, and the actual shadows cast by features on the rock weren’t quite yet where they should be.  If we waited a little longer, we thought, the clouds would thin and the cast shadows would move to where we needed them.   A quick hike up and over Inscription Rock, which was about 2.5 miles round trip, was just the ticket.

Despite the wind, which began to blow when we reached the summit, we set up our easels down at our viewpoint and got to work.  Our decision to get the basic design and shadow values laid in prior to going out had been smart; it made the process of fine-tuning shape profiles and colors much faster, and it gave us more time to finish the paintings on-location.  Can this be called plein air?  I think so.  The only thing we didn’t do outdoors was a bit of planning.

The Studio

Sue and our work from the week

That afternoon, we tweaked our week’s work a little more, and then I sat down to write up for Sue a review of the week plus an action plan.  The review and action plan comprise an important part of the Private Painting Intensive Study week; they reinforce what we learned and provide a path for future growth.  I sat down with her that evening to go over the week and to present the plan, and I believe it was well-received and very helpful.

Saturday morning, we all enjoyed a special breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes before saying our goodbyes.   For all of us, it was a productive week, both personally and professionally.  I very much enjoyed working with Sue and look forward to reviewing her new work over the next few weeks.  In addition to the week we spend together, I also offer reviews and critiques for three months after.

If you are an experienced artist looking for this kind of one-on-one, intense experience, please take a look at my Paint the Southwest website.  I am already taking registrations for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019.  I have a lot to offer, and I would like to help you reach the next level in your painting.
Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM
www.MChesleyJohnson.com

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