Michael Chesley Johnson, Fine Art, Landscapes, Seascapes, Maritimes, Paintings, Oil, Pastel

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How to Prepare for a Plein Air Workshop

Plein Air Workshop with Michael Chesley JohnsonI've been teaching outdoor painting workshops now for nearly ten years, and I've taught hundreds of students, from beginners to professionals.  Over the years, I've seen some of my students struggle in three areas:  gear setup, painting basics and drawing skills.  (The latter even among some professionals who are selling their work!)  If I could create a "sure-fire," one-day lesson that would teach these, and plan it for Monday, they would enjoy the five-day workshop so much more. 

Not knowing how to set up your gear is like taking the road test for your driver's license without having ever gotten into a car.  "I just got this easel and I've never set one up before" is a phrase that tells me a lot about the student.  Part of my workshop is, indeed, helping you fine-tune your gear so you can get into the field with a minimum of fuss, but learning how to use your easel before the workshop will save you much frustration.  Before you pack your bags and head for the airport, take out the easel and practice setting it up with all its accessories.

For a painter to know painting basics is like a chef having a set of good cutlery.   He needs good knives to prepare a meal efficiently.  Knowing, for example, how to hold a brush and what to mix for a cool green will let you get to the "meat" of plein air painting faster.  In my workshops, we learn skills unique to working outdoors.  Painting basics should be learned in an introductory studio class.  Even a one-day class and studying a book like Oil Painting for the Serious Beginner or Pastel Painting for the Serious Beginner will help.  I'll assist you, of course, but remember that painting outdoors adds another layer of complexity to an already complex craft.

We usually think of drawing skills in connection with portraits and architecture.  One might think they don't apply to the landscape, but they do.  Drawing is all about proportion, and there are plenty of places where proportion can go wrong in a landscape.  In my workshop, if your drawing is poor, I'll let you know.  But I'll also tell you there is no shortcut to getting better, except practice.  Drawing involves first learning to see relationships accurately - length and angle of line, amount and shape of curve - and then teaching your muscles to copy what you see.  I recommend carrying a small sketchbook and a 6B pencil and sharpener.  Draw at odd moments - in the doctor's office, while stopped in traffic, when taking a break during a long walk.  Draw anything, even if you don't love the subject.  Draw the dumpster, if that's all you can see.

Not everyone who has a desire to learn plein air painting has the time to learn so much before taking a workshop.  Sometimes, we just want to jump in and do it.  If you're like that, I appreciate your enthusiasm!  And if you can continue with that admirable spirit, you'll do well as a painter.  But if you can find time to prepare, you will have a much more rewarding experience.

(By the way, I've created an on-line course with a series of videos on "Plein Air Essentials" to give you a jump start on some of these issues.)

- Michael Chesley Johnson

More Thoughts on Workshops

What's the best way to fast-track your painting skills?  Some seem to think that taking lots of workshops is the way.  But no, that only makes you more educated, not more skilled.  Especially if that's the only time you paint.

The best way to improve your skills is to practice outside of a workshop.  A cellist doesn't get better at playing Bach's solo cello suites by reading textbooks and listening to recordings; he gets better by playing.  Sure, the cellist needs feedback, and that's why he works with a cello teacher.  But every cellist knows that the cello lesson isn't the only time you practice!

It's the same with painting.  You can watch all the videos, read all the books and take all the workshops - and get a virtual MFA in the process - but it's not going to make you a better painter unless you practice on your own.

There's a type of student we painting instructors call "workshop junkies."  These are students who take workshop after workshop and build up a formidable warehouse of painting knowledge, but who rarely paint outside a workshop.  They don't have time, because they are busy travelling and taking workshops.  These students have so many different ideas about how to paint that they've picked up from so many different instructors that they don't know which end is up.

Here's what I recommend.  Treat  yourself to one real workshop a year, just one.  Pick a painter whose work you like.  Check around to see if he's a good teacher.  (Some pretty good painters aren't.)  Read through his material - his book, a magazine article he wrote or his teaching philosophy on his website - and see if he's on a path you want to go down. 

Then, take the workshop.  Be humble, and listen.  Ask lots of questions.  Take notes.   Listen some more.  During the workshop, try to incorporate what you've learned as you paint.  Finally, don't take another workshop for a year.  Just go out and paint, and remember what the teacher said.   If you found it valuable, use it; if not, discard it - but don't stop painting.