Demonstration: Planning

“Afternoon at Otter Cliff” 12x24 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

What degree of success can you expect when, without forethought, you just grab a brush and start painting? You may have a feeling for a direction but perhaps no idea of the final destination. Of course, there’s something to be said for going forth, fueled by inspiration and guided by intuition, but the result often disappoints. If your goal is a successful painting, there’s a better way.

And that is to plan before taking that first step. Planning is, for me, is exploring with a purpose, a path where inspiration and intuition are welcome. It’s not always Step 1, Step 2 and Step 3 with a steady progress, ending up at a solid design and color scheme. Sometimes I wander, detour and explore a side trail that looks interesting.

With this in mind, I’d like to share the planning that went into “Afternoon at Otter Cliff,” the painting at the top of the page.

I had a fair idea of the subject I wanted to represent: the stunning height of Otter Cliff in Acadia National Park. These cliffs and their accompanying ledges have been the bane of many sailors, including the explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604, who struck a rock and had to waylay in Otter Cove for a spell. I also wanted to depict the limpid light of many a summer’s day that envelopes that part of the Maine coast. The design, however, escaped me.

I selected a few photos of the scene, took out my newsprint pad and a stick of vine charcoal and got to work. I took maybe two or three minutes on each of the following exploratory sketches. I kept in mind a “notan” format, using only two or three values. At this point, I hadn’t settled on a format.

Next, I wanted to think about color. I pulled out several 6x8 oil sketches and put them up on the wall along with my charcoal designs.  I then made an oil sketch on paper based on a design I liked as well as a color scheme that suited me. It ended up rather dark, and it felt like the scene was squeezed into a format that was much too square.

I made another charcoal sketch, tentatively thinking about expanding the scene horizontally.

But still hung up on a squarish format, I made another oil sketch with a lighter color scheme. What was it about this format that kept nipping at my heels? I needed some time to get my head around the square versus a much wider, 1:2 format.

While letting that issue simmer, I did a couple of charcoal studies of some elements I wanted to include, like a couple of tree trunks.


I put these tree trunks into some small charcoal studies. Again, with the squarish format!

A small pencil sketch followed…now I am leaning more strongly to a 1:2 format.

Two more squarish color studies…trying very hard to make that format work.

But ultimately, I felt the height of the cliffs would be best represented by the 1:2 format. The wider format would let me include a longer, more linear expanse of foreground that would offset the short vertical line of the distant rocks. Pushing the atmospheric perspective with cooler, grey colors and softer edges also helped. The crisp edges of foreground rock and cracks were the finishing touch.

“Afternoon at Otter Cliff” 12x24 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

I believe that if I hadn’t taken these little exploratory steps, the finished painting would have been very different—and much less successful.

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