Road Trip Part Two: Plein Air Painting in Sedona

posted in: Behind the scenes, Plein Air | 1
Painting along Oak Creek

Part two of our road trip focused on plein air painting in Sedona, Arizona.  Arriving in Sedona always feels a little magical.  Flagstaff is gorgeous with it’s snow capped peak, but turning off I-17 onto 89A, and weaving down the canyon with sheer drops, falling rock, multi-colored rock walls and Oak Creek roaring, is really special.

We arrived Sunday evening and quickly made it to our Airbnb rental, a little house called Chap’s Cottage.  Located next to Oak Creek, and only minutes from Schnebly Hill, we were lucky indeed.  The cherry tree out front was just beginning to bloom, giving us a show of pink all week.  The creek blocked almost all of the noise of ATVs going up the road, traffic from town, and the drumming of the neighbors.  Tucked away, it felt like I was on retreat.

After a day of exploring, laundry and restocking the fridge, I joined Michael Chesley Johnson and two other painters for four half-days of a plein air painting workshop, “Exploring the Verde Valley”.

Four Days of Painting with Michael Chesley Johnson

Day one was spent on the edge of Sedona, overlooking Thunder Mountain.  The focus of the demo was making simple shapes with distinct values using a simple block-in method.  Following Michael’s lead, I painted this juniper tree with a hint of the valley and rock in the distance.

Looking toward Thunder Mountain and a huge juniper.

Day two, we met at Michael’s studio and explored the creek in his backyard.  The demo for the day was use of color studies.  Having seen others do color studies, I thought what a great idea, but didn’t explore it further until Michael showed us the value of doing small color studies, how to benefit from doing them, and seeing a color study in action.

Color Study 1 (30 mins, not quite done)
Color Study 1 (30 mins, not quite done)
Color Study 2 (30ish minutes)
Color Study 2 (30ish minutes)

Day three, we moved further afield to Jerome.  Formerly a copper mining town with over 15,000 residents in it’s hey-day, the town was built on a 30 degree slope. Filled with brothels, hotels, bars, etc., Jerome was abandoned after copper prices dropped.  

As artists sought out inexpensive accommodations, they slowly rebuilt the town and created an attraction for tourists with plenty of art to choose from (not to mention bars!)  Each year, more of the buildings tumble down the side of the hill during storms.  In fact, several shells were all that remained of several buildings.
That day, Michael demonstrated how to paint a complex scene by creating a clear center of interest and eliminating excess detail, while hinting at objects.

On day four, we painted at the Sedona Heritage Museum, a great place for a picnic lunch. While we were there, it was incredibly quiet and peaceful. You wouldn’t know that only a few blocks away there was gridlock traffic and tourists shoulder to shoulder.  Also, two girls from France were doing a documentary on Max Ernst. They filmed Michael and several of us for their show.  Pretty cool!

Michael Chesley Johnson at the beginning of his demo – blocking in shapes.
Additional Exploration

Since the workshop only went from 9-1, there was plenty of time to explore in the afternoon and evening.  One afternoon, I hiked up Schnebly Hill and painted this 12×16 as the sun was setting.

Painting at Schnebly Hill

Another evening, we searched out Cathedral Rocks.  Being later in the day, I wasn’t sure I would have time for a painting, so I brought my camera and sketchbook.

Cathedral Rocks at Sunset

I also painted on the grounds of our little cottage.  There were several vignettes to choose from, including these little yucca plants next to the patio.  The cottage was picturesque too.

Chap's Cottage, Oil, 10x10
Chap’s Cottage, Oil, 10×10
Yucca Courtyard, Oil, 8×10

The last morning, I returned to Schebly Hill for a final go at painting the light and shadow on the rocks.  While the painting wasn’t quite finished, I was pleased with my application of the lessons learned during the week.

Schnebly Hill, oil, 9×12
Key Take Aways/Lessons Learned

The most helpful hint was to find three values that meet such as light, shadow and sky.

  1. Compare the colors (temperature and value) of these shapes in a small area, mixing small amounts of paint before committing to the complete block-in.
  2. Get the shadow shapes in right away.
  3. Decide what’s in the light and what’s in the shadow.  It’s either/or.
  4. Go with your best guess. Typically,  I want to ‘get it right’, which can lead to a lot of frustration and uncertainty.  Going with the ‘best guess’ is quite freeing.
  5. Do color studies.  I’ll be doing a lot more of these in the future.
  6. Seek first to understand.  Although this is easier to say than do, slowing down and really looking at light, shadow, shape and composition has been the most helpful practice of all.

As Michael went through each demo, he talked through his process which was very helpful and easy to follow.  Additionally, we reviewed our paintings each morning and discussed various aspects of technique, materials, etc. before painting each day.

Home Again

As soon as I got home, I laid all of them out to dry and to decide what adjustments to make.  Some of them I will leave as is, others I will touch-up.

Although there wasn’t time to ‘paint it all’, my sketchbook was a great way to highlight and remember the images from the trip.  

If you are in the area, it’s well worth it to join one Michael’s workshops for a memorable and valuable learning experience of plein air painting in Sedona.  You can find his workshop schedule at

PS: By the way, if you visit Jerome, be sure to stop at the Flatirons coffee shop.  They make a delicious cup of coffee, and I had a piece of the fresh-baked blackberry scone that was divine.

One Response

  1. Michael Chesley Johnson
    | Reply

    Thanks so much for the review and the kind words, Nelia! It was a pleasure having you out here.

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