“Blue Bird Day,” by Monika Johnson, 2014, oil, 11 x 14 in. Collection the artist

Palette knife painter Monika Johnson loves to paint a spot near Lake Tahoe that offers plenty of depth and a sense of coziness.

“I like paintings with something interesting in the foreground, the middle, and in the distance,” says Johnson. “With the Martis Valley, I like the wide-openness of it, plus you can peek through trees and see the mountains, making it feel like a cozy place to be. I paint with my dogs, away from the highway. They run around and play and get tired and I paint. I don’t paint the creek; it’s small and surrounded by shrubbery. My spot is the high desert meadow, with its sagebrush and willows. They add a real nice color element in fall and winter. I love painting trees and mountains, and this place has both of them. This one spot I have painted multiple times.”

“Martis Valley Morning,” by Monika Johnson, 2015, oil, 10 x 8 in. Private collection
“Martis Valley Morning,” by Monika Johnson, 2015, oil, 10 x 8 in. Private collection

Johnson lives just 20 minutes away. She paints Lake Tahoe, and people love those paintings. But Martis Valley is very “Tahoe,” with a slightly different appeal. “I do paint Lake Tahoe a lot, but locals are looking for things other than the obvious,” says the artist. “It represents the area without painting the lake. But it’s more a place I paint for me, even though these sell well.”

“Martis Valley Winter,” by Monika Johnson, 2013, oil, 16 x 20 in. Collection the artist
“Martis Valley Winter,” by Monika Johnson, 2013, oil, 16 x 20 in. Collection the artist
“Highland View,” by Monika Johnson, 2015, oil, 10 x 8 in. Private collection
“Highland View,” by Monika Johnson, 2015, oil, 10 x 8 in. Private collection

The artist gets to Martis Valley about six times a year, and she favors fall. The magical time is when the snow still covers the mountains in the distance, but she doesn’t have to walk through it or stand in it to paint. “In the summer there’s not a lot of shade — it’s exposed, so I only paint if I get there early,” she says. “There’s a large variety of pine trees, which forces me to paint them differently, and I like that. I’ve been going there about six years.”

“Martis Creek Trail,” by Monika Johnson, 2013, oil, 16 x 20 in. Private collection
“Martis Creek Trail,” by Monika Johnson, 2013, oil, 16 x 20 in. Private collection
“Martis September,” by Monika Johnson, 2016, oil, 6 x 8 in. Private collection
“Martis September,” by Monika Johnson, 2016, oil, 6 x 8 in. Private collection

Johnson paints with palette knives, for the most part. She starts by sketching on the canvas with a graphite or colored pencil, then she goes to the knives. “I like knives because no solvent is needed, and there’s no cleaning of brushes when I’m done,” Johnson says. “It keeps me from painting too perfect — it keeps me loose. And it allows me to get a lot of paint on there.”

“First Snow,” by Monika Johnson, 2014, oil, 10 x 8 in. Private collection
“First Snow,” by Monika Johnson, 2014, oil, 10 x 8 in. Private collection

The artist paints from back to front, layering the planes to create depth. She doesn’t clean her knives, allowing sky color to mix with the mountain color, and so forth. As Johnson moves forward in the painting, she warms up the color temperature and increases the value contrast.

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