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Robert Johnson strikes the perfect balance between master artist and down-to-earth mentor, supporting his students while pushing them to create the best works that they can. At a recent three-day workshop sponsored by The Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia, Johnson led students through the stages of creating a still life flower painting with oils. He was engaging from the very beginning, starting with a three-hour demonstration, during which he fielded questions about brushstroke technique, supplies, color-palette choices, and the attributes of his favored medium, which happens to be Gamsol.
Robert Johnsons floral still life demonstration began with a studied, thoughtfully
arranged composition (left) that culminated in the oil painting on the right.
From the start, Johnson emphasized the importance of spending quality time thinking through and arranging the elements of a still life composition. I arrived at the workshop 45 minutes before it began and Johnson was just starting to organize his setup and he finished only as students started to file in. “Give sufficient time to design,” he told them. “The first stage of painting is the design stage—and it is not all about working in ‘odds, not evens’ or adhering to other rules, but more about creating variety and a sense of movement. You’re striving for shapes arranged in an artistically compelling way. The result should look natural, effortless.”
When the demonstration was over and the students began arranging their own still lifes, Johnson cautioned them to steer away from cluttered compositions, suggesting that they instead let highlights define forms. A pair of students was stumped about what to add to their composition, which consisted of a small copper pot, a single rose, and a few tangerines. The instructor suggested situating the items closer together so each appeared less isolated. He also proposed peeling one tangerine and having segments of it, along with the unpeeled fruit, in the composition so that there was more visual variety. But Johnson warned that too much variety can backfire if objects have no artistic relationship to one another. “A large lily in a delicate teacup and a tiny bud in a large vase are disjointed pairings, and they distract the viewer rather than draw them in,” he explained.
Johnson began by loosely painting forms, focusing on light and dark values, and only adding
color once he was satisfied with the composition. His depictions of flowers
started with the body of the flower as a lit mass, not individual petals.
When it came to depicting flowers, Johnson quipped that students have to “earn the petals.” He warned students that the problem in all floral painting is the temptation to get bogged down in petals. Instead of working from the petals backwards or inwards, Johnson paints the big, lit mass or body of the flower first, and then adds coloration to the form to give a sense of the petals.
Another aspect of floral still lifes that is often overlooked is the importance of greenery, but Johnson stressed that these verdant tendrils are a floral painting’s “supporting cast.” Giving stems, leaves, and the shadows they cast the same attention as flowers is an important part of a successful floral painting.
Spending time in a workshop with an artist-instructor such as Robert Johnson is a sure-fire way to accelerate one’s learning and improve skills. How has the workshop environment shaped your artistic growth? Whether it was a great experience that left you wanting more or one that wasnt quite what you expected, leave a comment and let us know. And if you want all the workshop benefits while working independently in your studio, our Top 10 Acrylic Painting Techniques, Getting Started in Pastels, and Draw Faces in Colored Pencil video bundles are the perfect solution–informative and convenient all in one, plus you get an eMag on your chosen topic absolutely free! Enjoy!