Blinded by the Light

I'm thrilled to announce that "Blinded by the Light" has been awarded 5th Place in the Pastel 100 Landscape/Interior category. Thanks to juror Nancy Nowak and the Pastel Journal for honoring this 9x12 pastel painting, inspired by a hike at Lillie Park near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Michael Chesley Johnson interviewed me for the Pastel 100 article, published in the spring edition of the magazine.

Below is the extended version of the interview.


Q&A with Michael Chesley Johnson:


1. For your winning painting, please discuss the following in as much detail as possible with regards to that painting specifically. This is the most important part of the interview because Pastel Journal readers are very interested in process and technique for your winning painting.

· Materials used (paper or surface, pastel brands, etc.)

· Preparation (e.g., if you made the surface, how you made it; if you used reference photos or detailed sketches; if you Photoshopped a reference photo, etc.)

· The making of the painting (complete and detailed, step-by-step process, from any preparatory sketches through block-in and on to finish)

· Any special "tricks" or techniques that you used and would like to share

· What inspired this painting and any story behind it?


“Blinded by the Light” was composed on Uart 400 grade paper using a variety of soft pastels including Rembrandt, Mount Vision, Unison and Sennelier brands. The painting was inspired by a hike at a local park outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, on an early morning in September. The painting was completely done in my studio using a series of reference photos. I had taken several photos of the scene, as I determined that the intensity of the sunlight would likely “wash out” portions of the grasses and the distant shrubs in the resulting photo. Restricting the view of the camera lens to targeted dark and light areas in separate exposures enabled the camera to more accurately capture the true colors and values within the scene.


As with any potential landscape painting, I note the unique features of the landscape that I wish to convey in the painting. In the case of this painting, the blues of the water and the orange of the grasses created an appealing contrast of hue. I emphasized this relationship by adding an occasional deep orange pastel stroke against the dark, rich blue water. To balance out the blue masses, I added short strokes of blue within the orange grasses to capture where the grasses caught a bit of light. I was engrossed by the scene’s brilliant light and the stark reflections of the grasses in the water. Using a bit of “artist’s license,” I decided to modify streaks of light to enhance the composition of this scene. I added diagonal reflections in the lower right, joining the spill-over light falling from the focal point in the upper center through the grasses and atop the water toward the lower half of the painting. This choreography of light keeps the viewer’s focus in the painting, gazing in a circular fashion within the bounds of the canvas. I chose a limited palette so as not to distract from emphasizing the unique impact of the lighting. As a twist, I chose the title of a song written by Bruce Springsteen and popularized by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. There is no under painting beneath the pastel application.


Upon completing a first pass of the painting, I note further refinements to pursue in the next pass. Frequently with my works-in-progress, I will photograph the pastel and upload the digital image to my computer and use software (such as Microsoft Paint3D or Paint.net) to visualize modifications to be made in the next pass. Between taking notes and modifying the digital image of the painting, I can be most efficient when I return to my studio the next morning to continue working.


2. Please tell me about your other pastel painting practices, if they differ from the above (do you paint en plein air, etc.) Also, if you paint in other media, tell me a little about those.


I would typically develop an underpainting to my pastels. I prefer to use bold acrylic colors to help emphasize either the hue of the pastel to be applied, or a complementary color. Most of my work is done in the studio with a variety of digital reference photos. My computer enables me to zoom-in, crop the picture, and saturate the colors of the digital photo to bring out hues I might not have otherwise observed. I occasionally paint en plein air when time is on my side and the weather is favorable. 90% of my work is in pastel, with the balance done in acrylic and oils.


3. I'd also like to know about your studio: How it's set up, what it looks like, the kind of light you use, what you've furnished it with, type of easel, and so on.


My home-based art studio is just under 200 square feet and, at my Stanrite aluminum studio easel (vintage 1975 when I launched my painting interest as a teen), I have within reach two table-top open Dakota Art Deluxe Travel Boxes of pastels, and a Heilman pastel box on a tripod to hold the pastels for my work-in-progress. The easel is also within reach of a laptop attached to a large flat screen monitor, and a drawer full of acrylic paints for under painting. Papers and canvases are stored on shelving in the back of the studio. I mostly work in three sizes: 9x12, 12x16 and the occasional 21x27 Uart 400 full sheet. This standardization allows me to easily frame the smaller sizes in a mat-free plein air frame, sending the largest pieces off to Saline Picture Frame for matting and framing. My pastel paintings are mounted on foam core and displayed on several shelving units throughout my studio, as well as stored in a flat file. Newly completed paintings are posted on Instagram, on my website and a selection of online galleries. I also have a variety of art books, classical music and opera CDs shelved in my studio.


4. What drives you as an artist? How does it fulfill you?


As my typical work week is a hectic schedule of business meetings, painting in the early morning hours provides me with a fresh start to the day with a strong dose of coffee, creativity and inspiration. This helps to keep my right brain’s creativity in balance with my left brain’s analytics. It is both peaceful and invigorating. I have always focused my art on landscapes, as I enjoy the nuances and mysteries of a natural setting. My nature heroes are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whose writings inspire me to keep seeking out those unique features and wonders of the landscape. Hiking through the nature preserves around Ann Arbor and biking through the countryside and past farmlands in Southeast Michigan, it is a joy to observe and photograph the landscape, and to have the opportunity to express my own interpretation based on what inspires me.


5. Do you have any words of wisdom would you give an up-and-coming painter?


I would suggest to an up-and-coming landscape artist to continue to learn to “see.” I learn every day when I am outdoors, determining how I might convey a scene in a painting, such as what to include, exclude, or re-arrange. An emerging artist should recognize that even though a vista may be breathtaking, it will not necessarily make for a great painting! Create art every day. Experiment with various mediums and surfaces. Learn what makes a great composition. And keep practicing.


6. Give a brief history of your life, including where you grew up, how you became an artist, where you've studied and with whom, and favorite teachers or artists you admire.


I grew up in Yonkers, NY, and became interested in art after discovering pastels and oils as a teen. At that time, I began to be influenced by the Hudson River School, living in view of the Palisades across the Hudson. I moved to Saline, Michigan in 1993 in a corporate finance job transfer, and I have been in finance full time for my entire career, earning degrees in Economics and Finance from Fordham University and the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. I have no formal art education, but I have been strongly influenced by the landscape art and pastel teachings of Edgar Payne, John Carlson, Albert Handell and Elizabeth Mowry. I have also taught pastel classes at local art centers. In 2004, I re-discovered pastels after a thirty-year hiatus, when my wife Mary found two pastel paintings done in my teen years and had them framed. My day typically starts at 5:00 a.m. when I paint for two hours, before heading out on a run with my dog and then off to work.


7. What struggles did you go through to become an artist?


Getting the pastel and underpainting techniques down and being able to discriminate between a good and a bad composition, were important steps in my development. All too often, I would look at a painting of mine and wonder “what is wrong with it?” After much practice and studying, I can now better pinpoint what goes wrong, and avoid mistakes the next time! I have found it immensely useful to learn what jurors look for in a painting. I would encourage all artists to listen to what the jurors have to say and enter juried exhibits.


8. What else interests you besides painting?


I spend most of my workday as a fractional CFO for FocusCFO, helping privately held businesses to grow and prosper. Art business interests me, and with my business background I would love to find an art-related business (besides selling my paintings) to own and manage. Art will become a larger part of my routine as I wind-down my finance career.


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