Monday, June 11, 2018

Edward Hopper's Sailboat

Edward Hopper, Lee Shore, oil on canvas, 1941

Shortly before he died my father taught me how to sail. I was about 9 or 10. As a result I have a tremendous bias in favor of any painting with a sailboat in it. And I've painted quite a few myself over the years. Edward Hopper was also one to sail back to his own memories when he wanted to make a painting. Above is his 1941 oil Lee Shore. Naturally I like it almost too much.

Hopper drew on his boyhood memories for the painting, choosing to place a turreted house almost precariously near the water. Very likely he was remembering a similar house from his boyhood that still stands just a few blocks from his family home in Nyack, NY. As in the Lee Shore painting, in real life it's perched so close to the waters of the Hudson River it looks like it could fall in.

Philip Koch, Turret House: Nyack, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2015

Back in 2015 I made a trip to Nyack to paint. As the weather proved too rainy for extended painting sessions with oils I opted to work instead in vine charcoal and made the drawing below from the turreted house by the River. Back home I turned to the drawing to help me make an oil painting.

Philip Koch, Turret House, Nyack, vine charcoal, 9 x 12 inches, 2015

I would have liked to make a composition that included both the turret and the open water of the River, but these days a dense cluster of trees have grown up that blocked that view. Maybe I'll return to this idea sometime down the road and work more out of my imagination.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Same Place / Different Worlds

Philip Koch, Blackberry River Forest, oil on canvas,
55 x 44 inches, 1994. The on-site study for  this
studio oil is just below.

Introspection is a good and useful tool. Yet often we find out something new about ourselves when we're looking outside at the world.

This struck me as I looking at a group of my earlier paintings of white birch trees. All four were based on two stands of birches in Norfolk, CT. 

I had set my French easel set up alongside a hilly country road. If looked to the left an older growth of birches backed up against a heavily wooded mountainside. That forest looked impenetrable and the heavy older birches were bent over. They had lost many branches in  storms. Yet they stubbornly survived. You sensed there was a long history here.

Philip Koch, Blackberry River Forest, oil on panel,
25 x 20 inches, 1987. This was painted on location.

Philip Koch, Near the Blackberry River, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 
inches, 1987

From the same spot and looking to the right a very different tableau emerged. Here younger birches seemed to eagerly reach out to the world. Their thinner trunks stood more straight and erect. In back of them a farmer had mowed a pasture. Even though I began the on-site oil on a cloudy day, the open spaces lent a sense of illumination to the scene. There was a sense of anticipation in the air.

Philip Koch, Near the Blackberry River, oil on panel, 20 x 25
inches, 1987, the source for the larger studio oil above.

Sometimes I come upon a new source and get an itching feeling that I want to paint it.  Often it feels like I already know the scene. Though I may be seeing it for the first time it strikes a familiar internal chord.  

For the viewer who is grabbed by a particular painting it's the same- their eyes get excited by what they're seeing, but there's also a sense that they know the scene. Who hasn't said to themselves when looking at a powerful painting  "Yes, I've felt that.." 

Art and music, dance and even sport- at first glance these things can seem to lack real purpose. But they are useful tools. Unconsciously we reach for them to pry the door open wider to feeling and knowing what is really going on inside ourselves.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Selecting Charles Burchfield Drawings for my Exhibit

Drawing is seeing. 

I don't know who said that, but it is something I find myself saying all the time. 

One of the joys of the two and a half years I spent as the Burchfield Penney Art Center's Artist is Residence was my discovery of how much the painter Charles Burchfield apparently  agreed with me. Burchfield drew seemingly all the time.

When the museum first proposed holding an exhibition of my work from the Residency they suggested I could curate into my exhibit drawings I selected from their Burchfield Archives. I think my response at the time was a dignified "I'd love to" but on the inside it was " Holy Cow!!!" I feel deeply honored to have my work displayed side-by-side with this American master

Burchfield's drawing of a house and trees at left; at right my 
drawing of Burchfield's boyhood home that I made on a trip
to Salem, Ohio. Below is a better view of the Burchfield.

There are a few drawings in the main gallery where my exhibition's oil paintings are hanging but most of the work on paper is in the adjoining Museum Study Center in oversized flat file drawers one can pull out to look at the paired drawings.

In the exhibition's main gallery a display case had my pastel
drawing at left and Burchfield's drawing of the same building
His drawing served as a study for his major watercolor Rainy
Night (San Diego Museum of Art) while mine helped me prepare 
for the largest oil in the exhibition Mansard Roof.

Another of Burchfield's studies for Rainy Night.

In the Museum Study Center, my pastel The Rainy Night
Building on the wall hanging over a group of Burchfield's
preparatory drawings for his watercolor Rainy Night.

Making drawings from direct observation takes time. It forces the artist to slow down and absorb the look and feel of the world. The way I look at it is the world has a several billion year head start on any one of us- it has had time to evolve into an incredibly rich environment. We'd be fools not to absorb the things it has to tell us about who we are and where we come from.

My charcoal drawing Coke Ovens: Leetonia at left and a Burchfield
study of a the patterns in a thicket of trees.  

A better view of the Burchfield seen above.

A closer view of my drawing Coke Ovens: Leetonia.

I couldn't resist throwing in this photo my wife Alice took of me arriving at the museum to see my show installed for my first time. I had been working hard on the paintings and drawings for the exhibition for nearly three years and the sense of anticipation was palpable and then some.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Burchfield Penney Art Center Exhibition- Updated

My painting Winter Sky, oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches.

I have been busy with painting (very busy) and haven't posted a lot of the photos of the wonderful museum exhibition the Burchfield Penney Art Center has staged of the work I made during nearly 3 years of my being the museum's Artist in Residence. Here are a few photos from the show- I posted additional images Saturday 5/26.

Getting ready to speak to the museum's docents 
before the opening of the exhibition,

 My wife Alice with Late Autumn Sun, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches
at left and East Aurora Barns, oil on canvas, 36 x 54 inches on the right.

Chestnut Ridge Panorama, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, This
is a painting that started out as a summertime painting. As I
worked on it it seemed to want to be a story about the colder

Alice with the row of small oils on the far wall.

I apologize for all the photos that include me but they're the only
installation shots we have. Uncharted III, oil on canvas, 36 x 48

Late Autumn Sun, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches. 

Silence, oil on canvas, 34 x 60 inches.

 East Aurora Barns, oil on canvas, 36 x 54 inches.

Spring,  oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

Three winer-themed paintings, Left: Chestnut Ridge Panorama, 
oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, Center: Silence, oil on canvas, 
34 x 60 inches, Right: Uncharted III, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 

At right: Evergreen, oil on canvas, 30 x 60 inches, center: Charles
Burchfield's Salem Home, oil on canvas, 32 x 64 inches.

At left: Mansard Roof, oil on canvas, 36 x 72 inches. This painting
is based on drawings I made in downtown Buffalo, NY of the structure
that the artist Charles Burchfield made the centerpiece of one of his
most famous paintings, Rainy Night, that is now in the collection of
San Diego Museum of Art.

Evergreen, oil on canvas, 36 x 54 inches.

Here's the outside of the museum in Buffalo, NY.

Right across from the large galleries that hold my work is the museum's feature exhibition of Charles Burchfield's paintings that related closely to the dreams he wrote down in his journal. It is a real honor to be showing next to his work.

In the next few days I will do a separate blog post about the work on paper side of this show. One of the big discoveries for me during the time I was the Artist in Residence at the museum was how central the act of make in drawings was to Charles Burchfield. This warms my heart as I've always felt drawing is really the enormous tool for an artist. But more on that later...

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Warmth of a Frozen Memory

Philip Koch with his painting Chestnut Ridge 
Panorama, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, 2018

In June of 2015 I began traveling to Buffalo, NY as the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s Artist in Residence. One of the first places I went to paint was Chestnut Ridge Park, miles south of Buffalo, an area where the artist Charles Burchfield did some of his landscape work.

I loved the view from the Park’s overlook facing north- miles of forest and fields leading towards Lake Erie. The Lake at this distance was just the thinnest band of silver-white but it exerted a surprising pull on me. Sometimes you will see something that catapults you back in time.

I grew up on the shore of Lake Ontario in the then rural town of Webster, NY. A school bus would take me on a half hour long tour of the rolling countryside every morning and afternoon. Usually I rode lost in my daydreams. But there was one spot on the route where I’d rouse myself so as not to miss the view. As the bus crested the top of a particular hill it offered a me stunning glimpse of Lake Ontarios’s wide expanse framed by a field and dense woods. It never failed to excite me and leave me feeling that the world was something to celebrate.

That the Chestnut Ridge panorama evoked a powerful response in me suggested a major painting was in the offing. I did a whole series of drawings from the overlook. On canvas I tried out a number of compositions. Over many months of painting though I kept cutting away the middleground spaces-it became clear what I was really interested in was the far lakeshore itself.

Similarly I worked through a progression of seasons- what started as drawings of summer changed on my canvas first to autumn color and then honed in on full blown winter. In the begining I’d been working closely from my drawings but gradually relied more and more on memory and imagination. Not surprisingly my strongest visual memory of the lakeshore was playing with my friends in the huge and strange sculptural shapes formed by the lake water as it froze. We used to call these the “ice mountains.” It was perhaps a dangerous place to play, I’m surprised we never slipped and fell into the icy water. But always I felt transported as if to another world. To this day the memory remains a springboard for my imagination.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Freer Gallery of Art- Teaching Drawing in a Museum's Galleries

The inner courtyard of the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in 
Washington, DC

Last weekend I traveled to Washington, DC to teach a drawing workshop in the Freer Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian Institution. Just reopened after a two year renovation, the museum is incredibly elegant. 

Grace Murray, the museum's Head of Public Programs, and her interns did a wonderful job organizing the workshop so we could get a lot done in just three hours. Grace began the afternoon with a slide show introduction to the museum and its collection- a highly unusual mix of Asian art and a small select group late 19th century American painters. Afterwards we worked in vine charcoal to make a quick study of Edward Hopper's composition. Then we headed out to draw the interior spaces in the museum galleries. The dozen students seemed like they had a great time.

Winslow Homer, Early Eveningoil on canvas, 1881-1907

While I didn't have a lot of time to explore the collection I did spend a half hour in Freer's galleries of Western oil paintings.
One just mesmerized me- Winslow Homer's Early Evening. A seemingly  restrained painting, it manages to evoke a powerfully monumental feeling with its two young women silhouetted against the evening sky. The sky is a deliciously creamy gradation of soft atmospheric hues.

But it's not all about softness. Homer wanted to surprise his viewer's eye and used his mastery of two-dimensional design to do it.  The above detail shows him squeezing the empty sky between artfully placed folds in the the skirts and carefully drawn rock outcroppings. 

 John Singer Sargent. Breakfast in the Loggia, oil on canvas, 1910

John Singer Sargent's oil paintings seem so spontaneously composed- almost like a snapshot, but better. I love how he makes the wild shape of the shadows on the far wall more dramatic than the poses of his women enjoying breakfast. It makes me think maybe they're trading salacious gossip...

The Freer has an impressive collection of work by the darkly romantic painter Abbot Handerson Thayer. On display when I was there was Monadnock in Winter from 1904. He deftly shifts from the softly out-of-focus evergreens to the delicate but crip touches in the mountain peaks. I figured out by looking at the direction of the light on the mountain's summit it is a painting of the morning, surprising me as it feels it's a tender elegy at dusk to winter's light. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Searching for Color (or Coping with Vanishing Subjects)

Philip Koch, Recollection, oil on canvas, 36 x 72 inches, 2000.
This painting is based on the pastel drawing below.

Funny story about this large painting. It's based on a pastel that in turn was made from an an on-site vine charcoal drawing. At certain times in my career I found working in stages like this allowed me to be playfully creative with color.

My wife Alice and I were on one of our painting excursions, flying from Baltimore to Northern California. Once there I was taken by the sweeping panorama of San Francisco Bay from the summit of Mount Tamalpais just north of the city. We had crystal clear weather. With such a good viewpoint I grabbed my vine charcoals and set to work on a view of the Bay. Then the legendary fog of San Francisco rolled in like a freight train. In five minutes my subject was completely erased from view. 

 Philip Koch, Recollection, pastel, 10 x 20 inches, 2000. 

"I flew 3000 miles for this?" went through my mind. 

Landscape painters are battle-hardened to changes in the weather and I resolved to take it in stride. Plunging ahead I invented a completely new far distance for my drawing. Ironically, I came up with more intriguing shapes than my original view of the Bay had offered. 

I titled the pastel and the large oil that flowed from it both Recollection, though in truth these compositions are more about forgetting than remembering an original idea.