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Painting the Grand Canyon (Inside): A Step-by-Step Demo with Michael Chesley Johnson

Painting the Grand Canyon (Inside): A Step-by-Step Demo with Michael Chesley Johnson

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by Michael Chesley Johnson

This is an excerpt from Maureen Bloomfield’s full feature “Poetry of Earth” in Magazine (September 2013). Click here to subscribe for 10 issues per year.

For my studio painting Moran Point, I used a photo and several plein air sketches for color reference. Sometimes if I separate the issue of value from the issue of color and handle value first, my paintings seem to go more easily in the early stages.

1. Drawing a grid: After drawing a simple grid on my photograph with a fine-point Sharpie, I drew a similar grid on my surface with a No. 2 graphite pencil in preparation for transferring the design. I used a light touch so the pencil marks would disappear beneath opaque passages of oil paint on my surface, a 12×24 sheet of Ampersand Gessobord.

2. Transferring the design: Continuing with the pencil, I loosely sketched in the major shapes in the design while also paying attention to the forms of the rocks—where plane meets plane or where cracks intrude.

3. Split-primary palette: For my palette, I use a custom-cut sheet of glass with a sheet of white paper beneath it. My colors are by Gamblin (left to right): titanium-zinc white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium red light, permanent alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, phthalo green, gold ochre, and chromatic black. This is my standard, split-primary palette with gold ochre and chromatic black as supplements. Additionally, I’ve premixed three values of gray using white and chromatic black.

Above the palette, I have a small container of Gamblin Gamsol odorless mineral spirits (OMS) and a container of Gamblin Galkyd Lite medium.

4. Initial sketch: Next I redrew my pencil sketch with a thinned, midvalue gray and a No. 4 natural hog bristle flat. For this painting, I used all flats, Nos. 2, 4, 6, 8 (all Grand Prix brushes from Silver Brush Ltd).

5. Shapes and values: Then, starting with my three values of gray and a No. 8 flat, I blocked in my major shapes. I started with the darks first and worked my way up to the lighter values. The paint was thin, but not drippy-wet with thinner. I like to think of what Richard Schmid says in his book, Alla Prima: “Thin paint doesn’t necessarily mean thinned paint.” I use just enough odorless mineral spirits (OMS) to thin the paint so it flows easily across the surface.

6. Perfecting the monochrome: Here is the completed monochromatic gray block-in. As I was evaluating my value choices, I decided that my light gray wasn’t quite light enough for the sky, so I used a paper towel to remove some paint and lighten it. I made similar adjustments with a paper towel here and there as needed. It’s important to have the painting “read” well in this monochromatic stage.

7. Drawing the rocks: After I’d established my darks with the grays, I wanted to focus on the light shapes first and add some real color. A mixture of gold ochre and white, with perhaps a touch of permanent alizarin crimson, gave me the sunlit tones of the rocks.

By the way, when painting rocks, I always draw them first as very angular shapes. I draw the outlines, even if the rocks seem round in real life, as a series of interconnected straight lines. As I continue to paint the rocks, these straight lines will get softer and rounder. If you start “round,” things will only get worse, and you’ll end up with a painting full of “baked potatoes.” I would rather exaggerate the angularity—and also the darkness and thickness of cracks and crevices—than be too subtle. I can always make things subtler later.

8. Starting thin: In this step I applied the first pass of color. You’ll note the paint in the sky is so thin you can see brush marks and some of the white Gessobord showing through. For the greens of the bushes and other vegetation, I used only gold ochre and chromatic black, which gave me exactly the kind of dull green I’ve seen at the Grand Canyon (beginners often go too vivid with the greens).

By the way, I used very little blue in this painting. Ultra-marine blue appears only in the sky, in the distant canyon, and in the shadows of the cliff in the middle ground; most of what is perceived as blue is actually chromatic black plus white.

One of the benefits in painting wet into wet on a gray underpainting is that some of the gray will stir up and mix softly with the colors added later, graying them slightly. I find that many beginning painters have a hard time controlling chroma with my split-primary palette, and starting with gray is a good way to keep colors somewhat muted. If I want a spectacularly rich passage of color, I can always slather on some good, rich paint with a thickly-loaded brush or knife at the end.

9a. Noting the darks and highlights: This is the point where I needed to mark my extremes of value. First, I noted the darkest darks. I also wanted to make the rocks look even craggier, so I punched up the darks by taking my darkest gray and adding a bit more chromatic black to it, plus a little cadmium red light to warm up the mixture slightly. My darkest darks are in the most recessed shadows in the rocks.

Next, I noted my lightest lights, which are the tops and edges of the rocks that receive the sunlight most directly. I used white plus a dab of gold ochre and cadmium yellow light for these accents. You’ll see that I go even a little lighter toward the edges of the painting in a few spots.

9b. Palette in process: Here’s my palette as I neared the end of the painting. I tried to keep the palette organized so I could find my mixtures easily. Also, as I adjusted paint mixtures, I tried to keep some of the original paint mixture

untouched so I could refer to it if I needed to. Beneath my original row of split-primary colors, I had a series of blue-grays that I mixed for the sky and distant canyon walls. Beneath that was a series of warm colors for sunlit rocks. Below that was what’s left of my original three piles of gray.

By the way, I used a little Gamblin Galkyd Lite in these later mixtures to help the paint flow better and dry faster. I find that mixtures with a lot of white, such as the light sky colors, require more medium for better flow.

9c. Applying thicker paint: Here I applied thicker paint to the sky, deepened some of the darks in the distant canyon wall, added a touch of blue, and refined the shadow passages in the middle-ground cliff. In the foreground area, I warmed up some of the bounced light areas in the rock shadows, reddened the sunlit areas of flat ground, and adjusted the shapes of the vegetation. Additionally, I added a little light blue-gray to key shadow areas among the rocks. These passages indicate where some of the sky light diffuses down into the shadows.

9d. Increasing the light: To finish Moran Point (oil, 12×24), I applied thicker, lighter paint where light highlights were required and softened some of the dark accents on the rocks. I also increased the light in the distant canyon wall and, finally, improved the sky with some subtle clouds.

Meet Michael Chesley Johnson

Michael Chesley Johnson was awarded Master Pastelist status by Pastel Artists Canada in 2008, and he is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and a juried member of Oil Painters of America and the American Impressionist Society. His paintings have appeared in Magazine, Pastel Journal, American Artist, and Fine Art Connoisseur (PleinAir Magazine) and are part of both corporate and private collections.

He has been an invited artist at the Sedona Plein Air Festival (2006–2011) and in 2011 also participated in the Plein Air Southwest, Grand Canyon National Park “Celebration of Art,” and Zion National Park “In the Footsteps of Thomas Moran” invitationals. In 2012, he was an invited artist in PleinAir Magazine’s First Annual Plein Air Convention Expo and again at the Grand Canyon event.

A contributing editor for Magazine, he writes regularly, as well, for Pastel Journal. He is the author of several books, including Through a Painter’s Brush: A Year on Campobello Island, Through a Painter’s Brush: The American Southwest, and Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil Pastel (all available through his website). He has two art instruction videos available through and as well as an online video course, Plein Air Essentials, at


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Watch the video: Grand Canyon National Park, Plein Air oil Painting - The Grand View (August 2022).