Workshop Wednesday: Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson demoing during his recent workshop, June 2016.

Twice now I have had the  pleasure of taking a Robert Johnson workshop. Both at the private studio of a wonderful friend of mine in Purcellville, VA. This most recent workshop occurred during the record breaking deluge of rain we received in Northern Virginia. However, despite the rain spirits were bright and the painting “spell” cast by Johnson was magical.

Robert Johnson is a master painter of exceptional skill and technique. His marks are in essence calligraphic–and he admits to having been inspired early on by the Japanese art of Sumi-E painting. This influence is evident in his work and separates his approach to oil painting from his contemporaries. The way he  applies paint is a performance all on its own. He delicately controls the lift & pressure of his brush to  accurately render the ephemeral quality of his subjects.  Any opportunity to study with him is not to be missed.

One of the highlights of this recent workshop for me personally, was meeting an honored participant, the noble Statesman from Virginia–Senator John Warner. Senator Warner  stands with other notable Statesmen (such Winston Churchill), who have turned from  politics to painting later in their career. I thoroughly enjoyed the Senator’s recollections of his time both as Secretary of the Navy and as a United States Senator as well as his anecdotal stories of celebrities and personalities he has known along the way.

Below are my notes that I took during both of Robert Johnson’s workshops. I have placed them in categories to make them easier to understand and apply:


Robert Johnson’s initial drawing in Transparent Red Oxide from the first workshop, June 2015.


-Decide which direction the viewer will travel through your painting.

-Concentrate on negative shapes, variety, design. Decide whether your design will go off the canvas–if so, let it go off in several directions or it will look like a shortcoming.

-You want variety in your set – up. Its inherent in nature.

-Seek a feeling of movement. Good proportion: mass of flowers to greenery to container.

-Using the convention of “polarity”-the juxtaposition of opposites, allows both objects to acquire visual impact. i.e. vertical/horizontal, bulky/delicate.

“The function of the background is to support the “prima ballerinas”. It should not detract from the main event. The background should not be as thick, the values not as saturated ed, the edges not as hard, etc.”

-“Strive to get depth, even on a front to back composition.”

-“The eye goes to hard edges, more paint & bright colors. Be aware of this and design accordingly.”

Robert Johnson further along is his demo. Here he is working on the design of the rug, June 2015.


-Works on double primed lead supports.

-Preferred medium mixture: 5 parts stand oil, 5 parts Gamsol (OMS), 1 part damar varnish.

-Lays in an “imprimatura” wash with cobalt, viridian & transparent red oxide. Puts down marks on top in a rhythmic patter which he sometimes allows to show through in the final product.

“What do mediums add to your painting? They loosen up piles of paint, make longer brushstrokes like in the background and can create transparency”

-“You need flat brushes to get at the delicacy of the flowers. Paint them with the thought that if you blew on them they would move.”

-“All brushes should come to a nice sharp edge. Even your filberts.”

-Begins laying in his drawing very loosely-brush held way back, long brushstrokes. Thins down paint with turps (OM).

-Paints with only one glove on his “painting” hand.

Robert Johnson’s palette.


On levels of importance: Values, then Edges, then Colors

-Johnson wipes out the flower masses with paper towels from his initial drawing to set up the structure . He lifts quite often.

-He recommends creating charcoal drawings on toned paper to get used to “lifting out lights. Wipe out like an artist–your touch should have the feel of going over a peony.”

-“Paint the subject as if it is a under single source light. Ignore the ambient light.”

-“Don’t ever leave anything on your canvas that is confusing. Make it clear.”

-Johnson often redesigns as he is painting. He will mutter to himself, “Let’s make this little guy (a yellow peonie bud) white.”

-“The moment you touch your canvas, everything should be done with artistic intention.”

-“Don’t think about sugar bowls and roses-think about shapes and how they relate to one another.”

-“There is no democracy in art. The big forms always win.”

-“Get to your final painting stage quickly so that all you have to do are revisions. Finish the big statement as quick as you can.”

-“Always remember that perpendicular planes reflect the light the most. If you are having problems seeing or drawing try to remember that principle.”

-“Try to put the light down horizontally-it will stand out more. Implies ridges.”

“The Rembrandt effect”: Horizontal then vertical marks, ending on the vertical.

-THE 5 MIN RULE: “When you make a bold statement there is this instant fear that you have done something wrong. When you have that urge to change it-ignore it. Take a deep breath, recognize what is happening. Give yourself permission to modify it–but only after 5 mins.”

-“Strength and boldness lead to more strength and boldness. This is the purpose to the 5 min rule.”

-“Learn to make good descriptive brushstrokes. As the painting evolves each stroke should be laid down as if it is never getting lifted.”

-“Maximize the utility of the highlight. Give them breathing room in your design.”

-“The light (within a painting) can describe the intensity of the light on the subject, the surface texture, direction of the light, the contour that it is going over.”

On painting flowers: “Start with the outside shape of the flower, get that accurate. Then strive for the dimensional -the light and dark of it. Only then have you earned the right to paint a petal. Work abstract to detail.”

-“Say the most with the least. Be precise and you can get away with suggestion.”

-On the second day of a painting Johnson begins reworking the canvas by reapplying the background color so he has something to paint into.

On painting rugs: ” Try to establish a pattern. Don’t be a slave to it. Rugs should have a clear, paintable pattern to them. Use the weave of the canvas to describe the weave of the rug (sometimes scratches the paint away with the side of a palette knife to reveal the weave). Say the most with least. Allow the materials to do the work for you. Go back in and restate the design of the rug but avoid getting mechanical & uniform with your brushstrokes. Use a light touch, get the paint just on the tip of your brush and drag it into place.”

-“Brushwork should be a muscle memory thing. You should be able to render the object just by looking at it with your eyes.”

“Just lay the paint on. No scrubbing. The paint will look better if you just allow it to do what it naturally does.”

-“You need a blend of soft and hard edges. Let the soft edges dominate. Use hard edges sparingly. Especially in the background. ”

-“If you can do it in one stroke it looks better. Start with a very light touch and then apply pressure-the stem will be painted naturally going from thin to thick.”

Detail from Robert Johnson’s finished demo, June 2015.


-Follows thick lights/thin darks rule.

-Gets a highlight on quickly to key in the values.

-“A trick from Sargent’s portraits: Add more light/color to the shadow of a subject–just past its contour. It helps turn form more and gives a sense of air.”

-“Within the dark areas there are accents. The opposite in value of highlights.”

-“We never think “dark” (values) with flowers but we should.”

On foliage: “Layer light over dark, dark over light–adds dimension. Overlapping planes also give you dimensional”.

“Cast shadows are extremely important. Get them in early. They keep everything honest, related. The main thing I think about here is getting them dark enough and in the right places.”

On greenery: “Ultramarine blue + Cad yellow pale + something from the red family. Always sneak red into your greens.”

On painting red roses: “Don’t make lights, lighter- make darks, darker. White only makes red look chalky.”

-“Be careful painting yellow roses. It is the color most easily adulterated. It turns the key way down when other colors are accidentally introduced to it”.


Recommended Reading

-“Painting Techniques of the Masters”, Hereward Lester Cook

-“Russia, the Land, the People”

-“The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe


A comparison of Robert Johnson’s subject and painting from the second workshop, June 2016 (unfortunately the photos are not taken from the same exact position). Notice how beautifully nuanced he pairs the background color to his rug. He changed the hue to suit his artistic statement.He also turned up the chroma in the design of the vase for the same reason.
The finished demo painting, June 2016.





The Making of “Mortui Spinus Tristis”

“Mortui Spinus Tristis”. Oil on canvas. 8 x 10. Artist, Suzanne Lago Arthur. 2015.

I thought it would be fun to show some process shots of one of my most recent paintings. I found this sweet little goldfinch one day after she flew into my window. Once I got over the sadness of the whole thing, which took about 30 seconds, I ran into the house to get a freezer bag because I knew she would be the subject of a painting one day. Fast forward about a year, I found myself recently in search of a still life subject to paint under artificial light because it had been raining day after day and the light was horrible for the projects I currently had up on my easel.

So I pulled Franken Goldfinch out of the deep freezer and began placing her on objects in my studio. From a previous experience with a Franken Rooster, I know that frozen birds tend to thaw out really quickly under hot artificial light. So my strategy was to paint the bird alla prima (in one session) which took about two hours from start to finish. This includes redrawing the initial under drawing a couple of times until I had the composition just right to line up with the golden ratio.

The next day I began working on the plate. The following day I finished the Blue Willow design. I did the painting in about 8 hours spread out over a couple of days which I was able to accomplish because I put my covered palette, my painting and my subject back in the freezer in between sessions. I simplified the Blue Willow pattern considerably as I was only interested in getting the “feel” of it. However in future attempts at blue & white pottery, I know I will want to approach the design more abstractly.

Process shots showing the set up and painting in a couple of stages.

The title of this painting means “The death of the Goldfinch” in Latin. Spinus Tristis is the Latin name for the American Goldfinch. Coincidentally, “Tristis” means sorrowful in Latin. It adds to the significance of the painting which for me is an homage to a delicate and beautiful life.

Great Painting Comes in Little Packages

Artist, Emily M. Acrylic on panel.

Sometimes the work of my students makes me so proud I fuss over it as if I were their actual mother. This painting definitely falls into that category. Painted by the amazing, newly minted 10 year old Emily (as in she was still 9 only a couple of weeks ago). All from direct observation. Way to go Emily!!!

Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour (WLAST)


I will be participating again in the WLAST tour as a guest artist at Franklin Park Arts Center, stop # 32 in Round Hill, VA this weekend, June 21 & 22 from 10 AM – 5 PM. The paintings above, and many more including examples of my portraiture will be on display and for sale. I will also be conducting paintings demonstrations through out the weekend. Consider making a day of it by visiting the studios of more than 60 artists in Western Loudoun Co. You will see painters, potters, print makers, sculptors, jewelers, fabric artists,  photographers and so much more! There will be something to suit everyone’s taste & interest. I hope to see you there!

Impasto Logs 6: Pure Awesomeness

Impasto LogsI have been anxiously awaiting the latest installment of David Cheifetz’s awesome painting podcast. It is one of my absolute favorites to listen to when I’m in the studio. Not too long ago I went on a bender and heard ALL of them while painting and was left wanting more. So I was really happy today to discover that he had published a new one, #6 in the series, on the subject of composition which was a topic he covered in great depth at the recent workshop I took with him. Imagine my surprise then when I heard him mention my name, in particular the copious notes & blog post I wrote about his workshop. I was literally grinning from ear to ear when I heard it and somehow managed to keep a paintbrush moving in my hand.

Thanks so much for the shout out, David! You totally made my day!

To listen to David Cheifetz’s wonderful podcast, please click on the Impasto Logs logo above.

Technique Tuesday: David Cheifetz Workshop Notes

David Cheifetz's knife painting demo from our workshop.
David Cheifetz’s knife painting demo & palette from our workshop.

“Paint with paint”

The mantra most frequently uttered by the masterful David Cheifetz at the 3 day painting workshop I recently participated in was simply, “Paint with paint”. And David really meant it. In his demos his brush or palette knife was always fully loaded with a glob of yummy paint every single time he touched his canvas. We quickly discovered that he wanted each of us to do the same.

It was such a frequent utterance that fellow painter J Lyndon Douglas cheekily observed, “Amazing that paintings are made with paint. I think what I have been producing until now could be called smudgings.” After laughing and probably snorting at his statement, I realized that J was really on to something. To see the amount of paint David Cheifetz skillfully uses while painting is a true revelation. Anything less just looks flat & lifeless in comparison. It has me very much rethinking how much paint I use in my own paintings, or smudgings as J would say.

Here are my personal notes from the workshop to share with you all. Many of these concepts were new to me. Enjoy!:

-Emphasize the values in your primary subject and dilute them everywhere else. You want your darkest dark and your lightest light on your primary subject.

-When setting up a still life, contrast secondary objects by picking darker subjects against the light of your primary subject. Always think dark vs. light.

-Think groupings. Don’t scatter your subjects too much so or else they will compete against each other.

-“I always go for fear in a painting. If you are uncomfortable about something in your painting that is a good thing, it pushes you. Try to have at least one thing in each painting that makes you feel that way.”

-Before you start a painting get a clear mental picture of what you want to paint. Sit, stare at it. Imagine it completely in your head the composition, area of focus, values and edges. Then begin to paint, and only then.

-Think surface/fabric. Do the folds add to your area of focus? If not take them out. Simplify.

-Make sure the light is directed on your primary subject.

-Example: When painting a ball of yarn, subdue any strings that leave the main form (skein). It should not compete with the ball of yarn itself.

-Example: Killing an apple (secondary object). Subdue it by not rendering it as well, more flat. Subdue chroma, value, everything.

-Your set up (composition) is just a tool for your narrative. Don’t feel chained to it if it is not right.

-Cheifetz prefers to paint small. Mostly 9 x 12, 8 x 10 or 11 x 14.

-He sets his palette up from transparent colors to opaque. His colors include (but not in order): ivory black, phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, cadmium orange, burnt umber, raw umber, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, cadmium lemon and titanium white.

-You want your lights to be painted in mostly opaque colors because they attract the most light rays visually.

-Begin your under drawing by getting in the abstract shape of the shadows.

-Indicates the table line. Positions objects within the composition by making vertical and horizontal marks.

-He prefers compositions that are eye level. They elevate ordinary objects by bringing it to a “human scale”.

-He prefers to paint on a dry panel (no oiling in).

-Use enough medium to be able to draw. Prefers Gamblin’s Megilp.

-A tip on drawing straight vertical lines by hand: Make micro adjustments back and forth as you lay down the line. The overall impression will be a straight line.

-Jumps right into massing the objects & shadows (like an open grissaile). He immediately moves into his lights with color (direct painting) working first on the highlight of his main subject and moving out from there.

The early stage of David Cheifetz's knife painting demo.
The early stage of David Cheifetz’s knife painting demo. Notice how he has left the drawing of the kettle on the right rather simple & unfinished? He allows areas like that to melt into the background as the painting develops.

-Put one or two generous strokes of paint before changing colors. PAINT WITH PAINT!

-Paint your backgrounds as lovingly as your objects.

-Lays his color down with filberts in long tiles.

-When painting a portrait, pick your area of focus and then let everything else melt out.

-Begin your painting with your subject and end it there.

I want to personally thank our host for the workshop, artist Tricia Ratliff of Agile Arts Atelier for conceiving this workshop and inviting me to participate. And thanks above all to David Cheifetz for his exceptional instruction and the individual attention he gave to each of us. I’d like to also add that David hosts his own awesome podcasts called The Impasto Logs that are all about painting and are especially wonderful to listen to when painting, or smudging.

“Annabel”, oil on panel. 16 ” x 20″. Private collection. Artist, David Cheifetz.

Technique Tuesday: Super Glue and Richard Schmid

Still life by Richard Schmid.

On the latest podcast of Artist Mentor’s Online, artist Molly Schmid shares that her father, Richard Schmid (author of Alla Prima and Alla Prima II) often rearranges live flowers on still lifes by gluing them into place as needed to achieve the best composition. Genius, right? Well that’s why he’s Richard Schmid.

You heard it here first folks. OK, second. To get your own copy of Richard’s Alla Prima II before its completely sold out click here.

At the Finish Line


I am literally one session away from finishing my copy of Chardin’s “Still life with game” in the National Gallery of Art’s permanent collection. I basically have a little more refinement in the rabbits left and then I am calling it finished. Good thing too because I’ll be putting my copying status on hold at the NGA while I take a full day of classes with Robert Liberace starting in a couple weeks.