Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If Watercolor Doesn't Kill You It Will Make You Stronger- Part 1 Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer 1836-1910

Next month I've been asked to deliver a slide talk at the annual dinner of the Baltimore Watercolor Society. My title for the talk is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it's an acknowledgement that watercolor can be the trickiest of painting media. But my big point will be that seeing the work of some previous masters of this delicate medium teaches how to enjoy our eyes on a deeper more satisfying level. 

Three of the most important American watercolorists are Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield.

Let's start with Winslow Homer, who is photographed above wearing a natty three-piece suit that I bet he never wore to paint in. 

Homer's watercolor Stowing Sail, (1903, Art Institute of Chicago) was the first painting I ever saw. My parents had a framed print of it hanging over our sofa. I distinctly remember as a 3 year old connoisseur I used to lie on the carpet and study it. I figured it wasn't very good. 

Obviously, I thought, if Homer was a better artist he would have managed to paint in more of the missing details. What my young eyes missed was that Homer was using the watercolor medium with  broad and straightforward strokes intentionally. That's a kind of handling that the medium encourages. Watercolor was helping him practice the art of distilling his idea down to essentials. 

Here's Homer's Girl with Daisies. Even when doing the most stereotypical subject matter there's always something unexpected the artist can pull out for us. Here the artist avoids a too-ordinary presentation with a forcefully asymmetrical field, crowding all but a handful of his white blossoms into just one tightly-packed corner.

Homer was said to have advised other artists to never paint a blue sky. In his watercolor Rowing Home below he seems to take that suggestion to the water's surface as well.

Homer's watercolor Old Friends below reminds us painters to pay as much attention to what is next to our main forms. Here he makes
the tree trunk feel massive by pushing it forward with empty white areas of sky. 

Finally let's return to Stowing Sail. 

It's a masterpiece of curving rhythms that flow through the hull of both the rowboat and the big sloop. They're easier to see with the image upside-down. 

In the middle of these curves the ship's mast leans dramatically to the right. Homer gets his sailor to lean just the same angle, drawing him more tightly into a visual conversation with the rigging.

He does the same with the oar the sailor has put aside, mimicking  the angle of the ship's wooden boom at the top  of the detail below.

Winslow Homer left us over a hundred years ago. But more than any other 19th century American watercolorist, his work still speaks to us with forceful emotion. He realized studying the artists that had gone before him could make him a better artist. His paintings are the gift he left us that make us better as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Listening to One's Paintings

Philip Koch, The Reach, oil on panel, 10 x 15, 2015

Sometimes things take a while to unfold. 

I've always found I do well when I've let time pass and return to paintings weeks or months after I've made them to see how I can understand them differently. Often they seem to softly call me back and whisper in my ear about changes they think will make them more clear and focused. Usually when I listen to them things get better.

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Parlor, Nyack,  oil 
on panel, 12 x 9", 2015

I've been working happily in my studio the last few weeks on a focused project of revisiting some oils from last year and adjusting their colors. Lights and middle tones are getting some new emphasis.

Philip Koch, Sonnet I,  oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Here are a few from the group I've been working on. Some of them will serve as the basis for some new large studio oils.

Philip Koch, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Philip Koch, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6 1/2  x 13", 2015

Philip Koch, Still Pine,  oil on panel, 12 x 12", 2015

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Southern Inspiration for Some Northern Paintings

Philip Koch, From Day to Night,  oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Sometimes the Muse just comes and whispers in your ear with her blessings and her marching orders. Happened to me last month.

My wife and I had taken a few days to tour Virginia. We hit  the Nichols Gallery in Barboursville that carries my paintings and visited several Art Museums (that's me with an Edward Hopper at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk below). The Chryler was new to us and was a big surprise. I had no idea of its amazing Permanent Collection. Came back full of energy and determination to do a whole lot of new paintings.

A driving trip to visit new art museums can blow some cobwebs out of one's head. And we had a ball. 

My painting at the top of this post is a re-imagining of the Penobscot Bay in Maine, one of my favorite painting themes. There's something about the coast of Maine that feels like I've stepped out of time. When I paint it I often fall in to a fantasy that I'm painting the beginning of the world. So it is here.

Philip Koch, Mountains: Rust, oil on panel, 10 x 15", 2015

The last few years I've also been spending considerable time in the mountains of the Northeast- the Adirondacks, the Green and White Mountain ranges, and mountains of Maine. Above is a new studio invention based on on my mental mountain climbing.

And below is a view from half way up the tallest mountain on the East Coast of the US, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine. I thought the colors turned out to suggest the most peaceful feeling of morning.

Philip Koch, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

These panoramas depict deep, deep spaces, though they're modestly scaled paintings. I like trying out new ideas on this scale- it makes me more adventurous and more willing to try a new color I'm not used to. Right now I'm working on a 72" version of the painting at the top of this post. Hopefully in a few weeks I can introduce you to her.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield Showed Me

At my gallery talk last Friday evening on my current exhibition at Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY I spoke about my development as a painter. Above is a photo taken before the crowd arrived of me standing with my painting The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas, 38 x 38". That's a favorite of mine that combines some serious notes of my personal history with a tip of my hat to Thomas Cole, the great grandfather of American landscape painting. Putting elements like that together is a bit unusual in today's art world. There was a time when I wouldn't have had the temerity to paint like that.

Beginners start at the beginning. 

When I began painting it was in the then tiny studio art department at Oberlin College. I quickly pieced together what I thought were the essentials of the modern art story: contemporary art had evolved more or less in a straight line from the first Impressionists, then the Cubists, then the Abstract Expressionists. Armed with this reading of art history I honestly thought there was a correct style that all serious painters had to pursue.

After about a year of that I came to suspect I was missing something and began devouring art books in the campus art library. One artist I kept coming back to was Edward Hopper. I loved his shining bright sunlight and his long evocative shadows.

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil, Yale University Art Gallery

Now Hopper was somewhat confusing to my initial sense of art history. He had painted in a very different direction than the widely prevalent modernism. Yet he had a major show at the Museum of Modern Art and had had a big coffee table book on his work published. 

Hopper had been included in the historic Amory Show in New York City in 1913, the blockbuster exhibition that essentially introduced America to the waves of modernism that had been sweeping through the art studios of Europe. Hopper went to the exhbition and saw work like the Kandinsky and the Matisse pictured below. 

While aware of the shocking avant-garde paintings, Hopper just stuck to his guns and continued his straightforward version of realism. 

Another painter I fell in love with shortly after this was the watercolor artist Charles Burchfield. 

Charles Burchfield, Sleet Storm, watercolor, Burchfield Penny Art Center, Buffalo, NY

He showed at the same gallery in New York as Hopper and the two were long time friends. He too was the subject of a major show at the Museum of Modern Art and had impressive looking books published on his work. Like Hopper, Burchfield was well aware of modernist innovations that were sweeping the art world. But he too seemed to value the flavors of his own imagination more. He painted in a way that acknowledged the traditions of realist painting but added an almost psychedelic imaginative twist. 

I felt painters like Hopper and Burchfield were doing something closer to what I wanted to do. But just as important their example gave me the courage to strike out on my own with my paintings. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Touring Edward Hopper House Art Center's Koch Show

In preparation for my Artist Gallery Talk this Friday evening (March 6 at 7:00 p.m., free) at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY I've been looking at my works that are hanging in their current show Philip Koch: Landscapes and Hopper Interiors. Here are some more images of works in the show with a little bit of background for each one:

Hopper's Beach, Looking North, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2007. I drew this with my French easel set up on the beach on Cape Cod Bay, right below Hopper's Truro, MA studio. This sand dune in real life is enormous and deeply impressive. Nonetheless, Hopper never painted it, preferring to search longer and more widely to find just the right sources to trigger his painting imagination. Working where Hopper painted over the years I've learned to respect his extreme powers of selectivity. In them is a key to making art that moves beyond surface appeal to achieve real depth.

Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen, vine charcoal, 8 x 10", 2012. This is Hopper's tiny dining table where he and his wife Jo would eat their breakfast. The door at hte right is the main entrance to the studio. It opens to let in the afternoon sunlight. The pattern of that sunlight and shadows has a surprise and asymmetry to it that I knew would make a beautiful drawing.

The Reach IV, oil on linen, 40 x 60", 2011. Done from memory combining images of the Truro, MA coastline with my experience as a boy sailing at night on Lake Ontario. Obviously I've changed the color and the intensity of the moonlight that illuminates the sailboat, but I believe the altered color achieves an accuracy of how such a sail would feel.

Sun in an Empty Room: Blue, oil on panel, 12 x 16", 2013. Painted in Hopper's second floor bedroom in his Nyack family home. This is how the light streams in in the early morning.

Truro Studio Kitchen, oil on panel, 12 x 16", 2014. An oil I painted in Hopper's kitchen focusing on the one dining table Hopper and his wife Jo would use. The lighting provides a completely different effect than the charcoal drawing of the same table and chairs posted above.

Uncharted, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2", 2015. A painting I did from the memories I have of growing up in the snow country of upstate New York. After a heavy snow the world seems made new. It beckons to us to explore it. 

Shortly I will post more of the work that is hanging in the Hopper House exhibition. The show runs through April 12, 2015.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Upcoming Artist Gallery Talk at Edward Hopper House March 6, 7 P.M.

Philip Koch,  Monhegan Dawn: Ochre, oil on panel 
6 1/2 x 13", 2015

On Friday, March 6 I'm giving a gallery talk in Nyack, NY about the work in the Edward Hopper House Art Center's current exhibition Philip Koch: Landscapes and Hopper Interiors. Naturally I've been mulling over what I want to say. The talk's at 7:00 and is free to the public. 

The show is taking place in the house where Hopper was born and grew up. It's situated on a rise one block above the open sweep of the Hudson River, something that played a huge role in his youthful imagination. Years later he would build a studio for himself atop an 80' sand dune overlooking the waters of Cape Cod Bay in Truro, MA. And if one visits that studio that Hopper himself designed down to the last nail, one can't help but be struck by how similar it is in feeling to his Nyack home. That's no accident.

Philip Koch, Sun in an Empty Room, vine charcoal,
9 x 12", 2012

Hopper put enormous stock in the most vivid of his childhood memories- images so strongly etched into his mind that they weren't eroded away by the passing decades. Chief among them was his delight at seeing sunlight streaming through his bedroom windows and playing its patterns across the walls and planks of its floor. 

From the home itself, to the rooftops of the houses running down to the Hudson River, one finds all the essential elements that would appear and re-appear in Hopper's paintings. 

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen II
oil on panel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2014

Philip Koch, Yellow Arcadia, oil on panel, 
30 x 40, 2006

I grew up in a home my parents built on a hill overlooking the shore of Lake Ontario, just outside of Rochester, NY. Then the area was mostly unsettled and I would play with the handful of other children there along the shore and on its the densely forested hills. 
As a teenager I longed to grow up and leave the area, and once I turned 18 I went off to college and never lived there again. 

But a funny thing happened. I started dreaming about the old neighborhood's rocky shore and the crazy patterns of sunlight filtering through the forest's canopy. These images came unbidden, marching back into my consciousness. And they gradually came to feel like old friends returning. For a few years I struggled with the disconnect between the art I was making and the these old images that were populating my mind. Finally I realized I should put them to use.

Philip Koch, Deer Isle, oil on panel, 36 x 72", 2009

One of the oils that most closely resembles what the shore by my childhood home looked like is this painting above, Deer Isle, which was painted in Maine. That's probably why I made it.

Artists, when they've done powerful work, are teaching us lessons. 

One of them surely is to slow down and take a second look at ones immediate surroundings. Much of what is around you at any given moment is forgettable.  But alongside of those are a few fragments that mysteriously insert themselves into your memory. You find yourself carrying with you the feeling of the corner of your old bedroom or the way the shadows moved in late afternoons across your backyard. This is a good thing. This is some extra new vocabulary you will use for the rest of your life to describe yourself to yourself. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Opening Reception: Edward Hopper House Art Center

Here's a selection of photos from the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY of their opening reception for their new feature exhibition Philip Koch: Landscapes and Hopper Interiors that was held Saturday, Feb. 22. 

Carole Perry, the Executive Artistic Director of the Art Center did a tremendous job hanging the show and sensitively lighting the works. Honestly I think this is one of my all time favorites of solo exhibitions I have had over the years. The work will be on display through April 12, 2015.

Philip Koch in front of his oil The Voyage of Memory, with the oils 
White Thicket in the middle Yellow Arcadia at the right.

Deer Isle, oil on panel, 36 x 72" at right.

Above the mantel: The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas, 38 x 38"

Some of the smaller works in the Hallway Gallery of the Art Center. Upper left: Sun in an Empty Rood: Blue, oil on panel 12 x 16", top middle: Sun in an Empty Room II, vine charcoal, 7 x 14" and Below middle: Sun in an Empty Room III, vine    charcoal, 9 x 12" (which I drew in the room directly upstairs that as Edward Hopper's bedroom).

Illuminated sign in front of the Edward Hopper House Art Center

In the far gallery, Road to the Shore, oil on canvas, 42 x 28"

Philip Koch between the oils Yellow Arcadia and The Reach IV

Left: White Thicket, oil on linen 28 x 42", Right: Edward 
Hopper's Parlor, Nyack, oil on linen, 32 x 24"

Top: Monhegan Dawn: Ochre oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13"
Bottom: White Mountains: Warm Sky, oil on panel, 9 x 12"

Philip Koch with his oil The Voyage of Memory, 38 x 38"

Philip's wife Alice with Edward Hopper's Rooms by the Sea II,
oil on panel 18 x 27 and at right Deer Isle, oil on panel, 36 x 72"

At left part of Edward Hopper's Parlor, Nyack, which was painted 
in the same room in Hopper's house where it is now hanging, 
and in the far gallery, Road to the Shore, oil on canvas, 42 x 28.

I will post an additional group of photos from the exhibition shortly in a new blog post.