Monday, April 25, 2016

Koch Invited for a 16th Residency at Edward Hopper's Former Studio

Photo taken by Philip Koch of Edward Hopper's
 S. Truro, MA studioi n the early morning sun.

I'm a fortunate artist. 

Over the past year I have been the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. On repeated visits there I've studied Charles Burchfield's painting and preparatory drawings at close hand as well as painted out in the landscape locations where he chose to paint. I've gained a far deeper understanding of Burchfield's methods and how his approach to the landscape changed over differnent stages of his career. Particularly valuable was a side trip I made to visit Burchfield's Salem, OH boyhood home.

Yesterday I received the invitation to have a 16th residency in the former studio of Burchfield's friend and fellow painter Edward Hopper in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. As an artist myself who originally was inspired by Hopper's work to turn from painting abstractly to working as a realist, the chance to work in the space where Hopper made so many of his world famous paintings has been remarkable. 

These two painters Burchfield and Hopper came to know each other because they showed in the Rehn Gallery in New York. Despite the marked differneces in the styles of their realism, they deeply respected each other's work.

Coupled with my experiences on the Burchfield Residency it's also led to some real discoveries about what each artist needed to best stimulate their very individual kind of creativity.

One is how differently these two realist painters approached their subjects. Both were deeply invested in direclty experiencing the landscape, often going for long walks or drives in search of material. Burchfield so often would find his material close at hand. He literally painted his backyard dozens of times in both Ohio and later in the Gardenville suburb where he lived the second half of his life. Often he would paint the interior of his home or studio, so window sills, closet doors and stairways became his major actors.

Charles Burchfield's painting of his Gardenville, NY studio, 
The Studio, watercolor, 1942. Collection
of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Hopper on the other hand seemed to relish finding subjects at a distance from where he ate his breakfast. With a few notable exceptions, almost all his work on Cape Cod was painted from locations at least a half mile or more away from his studio building. 
Somehow his painter's imagination got fired up better when he had more of a feeling of freshly discovering a new road or house he'd never seen before. Rarely would he paint the same place more than once, preferring to head out in his Buick to find something new to excite his eye.

Edward Hopper painted this subject a couple miles north of
his S.Truro studio. Corn Hill, oil on canvas, 1930, McNay
Art Museum, San Antonio, TX

Burchfield rather preferred the close at hand. Subjects often excited him more if they were familiar. Often he would paint the same building or yard over and over again, always varying his interpretation.

These two artists were blessed with abundant talents. For each of them one of those talents was the ability to recognize what way of working suited them best. They embraced it and the rest is history.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Cat Story Behind This Painting

Philip Koch, Lizzie's Day, oil on canvas, 18 x 16", 1980

Above is an oil I look at with wistful recollection. Hanging in my hallway it greets me when I come home. I did it on location in the Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore. I had started it during a string of exceptionally beautiful Fall mornings. It went well and I decided to add something to anchor the empty forgeground. I persuaded my then girlfriend Alice to model for me out at the park that coming weekend. 

When I met Alice she had emerged from a difficult period in her life and had even had a close call with a life threatening illness. Through these times she explained to me that she had felt the most comforted by, of all things, her cat Liz. Unfailingly devoted to Alice, Liz would always end up near her, offering that mysterious companionship that cats can be so good at. Liz of course would listen and to Alice's mind, Liz understood.

The same week I was working on the Arboretum painting Liz took seriously ill. Upon examination the vet was pessimistic but had us leave Liz overnight at his clinic for observation. Glumly we left and drove to park to have Alice model, both of us suspecting we wouldn't be seeing Liz again.

The autumn light that morning was shining down on us and the trees through a barely perceptible mist. It lent a quiet glow to everything it touched. It was quiet and stunningly beautiful and both of us felt comfort from that. Liz died the next day.

I wanted to somehow honor this small cat who had been such a confidant to Alice so I chose the title Lizzie's Day for the little canvas. Still have it as it has too many memories to put it on the market.

Three years later I did an expanded version of that painting. I wondered if I should also title it Lizzie's Day. Liz though was an authentic and modest girl. I think she would have wanted just one painting named for her. 

Philip Koch, Bright October Day, oil on canvas, 54 x 48", 1983
(Detail below)

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Here Comes the Night

Charles Burchfield, December Twilight, watercolor, 1932-38
Wichita Art Museum

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927, Des Moines Art Center

Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper, two of the giants of realist painting in 20th century America exhibited together in the same art gallery in New York and had a long term friendship. Despite the marked differences in their vision, they deeply respected each others painting. 

Both of them elevated times of day to play a key role in their paintings. Here are two paintings that focus on darkness- while very different each has its own intense poetry.  Ironically Burchfield's watercolor, while the spookier of the two, contains less black than Hopper's strangely empty storefront window. 

Intriguingly at the top of their paintings both artist employ a repeated pattern to create a recession into a far distance, Burchfield with his rows of low clouds glowing dark red and Hopper with his reflected saucer-like light fixtures.

Both artists are adept colorists. Wisely they make their highlights pulse with energy-  contrasting both warm hightlights and cool highlights against each other and creating a bit of magic. Burchfield lights warm yellows in three of his windows that feel ever so different than the pale band of light he streaks across his horizon. 

Hopper in turn ramps the light up way up, but plays off a whole range of yellows against an icy cool white table and an only slightly warmer white trim around his windows.

Burchfield and Hopper were known as outwardly reticent men. But deep within them burned an intense emotional fire. Each in their way had the visual resources to give us lifetimes of remarkable evocative work. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Best Rainy Night Painting Ever- Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield,  Night of the Equinox, watercolor,  
40 1/8 x 52 1/8", 1917-55, Smithsonian American Art
Museum, Washington, DC.

I was just looking at what has to be the wettest painting ever painted, Charles Burchfield's watercolor above. What caught my eye was the water gushing from the downspout on the side of the house and feeding a small lake where the yard used to be. 

I remember pulling on my rain boots as a six year old and happily splashing my way through just such suddenly appearing streams.  I'll bet Burchfield had just such a reverie as he painted. In the detail just above he paints the puddle as a huge waterway, giving it as much personality as the mysterious shapes in the sky.

Last year when the Burchfield Penney Art Center invited me to be their Artist In Residence for this year they suggested that I might travel out to Burchfield's childhood home in Salem, OH. There Burchfield came of age and there he made many of his early masterpieces. Looking at Night of the Equinox  this afternoon
I realized Burchfield used his Salem home (at the left) and the neighbor's house at the right with the tall chimney for the setting. Just to be sure, I contacted Nancy Weekly, the Burchfield Penney's Curator and she confirmed my suspicion. 

To make enough space in the foreground for his enlarged puddle, Burchfield more than doubled the distance between his house and the building at the right (which was known as the Weaver house, according to Weekly).

Here's a photo I took last summer of the low house that's at the right of the painting showing how narrow the alley between the houses is in reality.

Burchfield was after a different reality- one that celebrated the forceful wind and rain. To be truthful to those feelings he had to rearrange the big forms in his composition to tell that story better.

One other liberty he took was placing a small shed right in the center of his composition. I suspect he wanted a form that the swelling stream could disappear behind. Here's another photo from last summer of the backyard showing how the space is actually far more empty.

Here's the view of the Weaver house from one of Burchfield's second floor bedrooms.

I made a drawing of the view out that window while I was in Salem.

Philip Koch, Salem Rooftops, pastel, 14 x 10 1/2"

Here's a vine charcoal drawing I made on that visit standing in what would be the far middleground of Burchfield's watercolor looking back toward the Weaver house on the left and Burchfield's house at the right. Currently I'm using this drawing as a basis for a 5 foot wide oil of Burchfield's house and will be showing it soon.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Tips for Beginning Art Collectors

Last week I was asked by the Invaluable website  to share some tips for people who are starting to collect art.

Always we're confronted with the thorny question: how do you tell which art is good enough to collect? 

Since I'm a landscape painter I'll focus on painting, but we could easily be speaking of ceramics or historic posters.

A really good painting is just as much about how its forms feel as it is about what they are.

Does a painting offer you something that surprises you? And if so, do the surprises seem to fit the painting in a way that is believable and authentic. Sometimes paintings offer surprising contrast alright, but look like they were painted by two different people who weren't on speaking terms with each other. A painting that's going to be of lasting interest needs to contain surprising contrasts that are held together by an overall unified feeling. 

Philip Koch, Hillside, oil on panel, 18 x 24", 2016

In one of my newest paintings, Hillside, above I didn't want the viewer to know ahead of time which forms would be in sharp focus and which would be purposely softened and slightly blurred. It's my way of inviting the viewer's eye to dance its way all through the painting, intriguing them by sometimes giving abundant information and other times withholding detail. 

To the beginning art collector I'd suggest starting by looking at as much art online as you can. But also get in the habit of going to art museums and art galleries. Go with a friend and talk over what you like as well as what seems silly or uninteresting to you. Have a snack in the cafe, make it an enjoyable experience so you'll want to come back. You will best educate your eye if you're relaxed and having a good time. 

  • Remember nothing is more important than enjoying your eyes. Nothing. So first ask yourself not what a painting means but rather whether your eyes are enjoying looking at it. 
  • When there try looking at paintings through half squinted eyes. If something still looks good to you when it's out of focus and darkened in this way it probably is.
  • Look at pieces from as many feet away as possible as well as close up. From twenty or forty feet back you'll sense an overall composition's pattern much more easily than if you're three feet from the wall and able to read the artist's signature.
  • Visit the same exhibition twice or three times. Does the piece that attracted you on the first visit still seem as fresh when you return? If so it may be calling to you for a very good reason.
Understand that your taste in art inevitably will evolve. When I was  eighteen I bought my first piece of art- a lithograph with a pretty girl in it. I paid ten dollars. Soon I realized the print was more jumbled than lively and lost interest in it. Then for the next few years I fell in love with only abstract art. A few years later I found realist painting had taken the inside track to my heart. 

Your path to finding the kind of art you need to collect has to be different than anyone else. If you end up with an art collection that isn't cohesive that's not a bad thing- it's a record of your history and of how you came to a deeper understanding of visual art. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Hopper, "Psycho" and Haverstraw

This week I spent several days in Edward Hopper's hometown of Nyack, NY doing some paintings of houses that were important inspirations for Hopper's art. One that I'm still working on is of Hopper's boyhood home itself, now the Edward Hopper House Art Center. (Well worth a visit for any fan of Hopper's work). I'll be posting that new piece shortly.

The other painting I made on the trip was in the neighboring town of Haverstraw. In 1925 Hopper did an oil of a house high on a hillside there.  That painting, House by the Railroad, is now in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 film Psycho borrowed heavily from Hopper's oil for their movie set. Through Hopper and then Hitchcock the house has entered the American consciousness as the very archetype of a haunted house.

I worked from the Haverstraw house over two bright afternoons. My painting turns away from Hitchcock's gothic mood. Instead it celebrates the brilliant sunlight and shadows playing over the house's Mansard roof. It's fitting as Hopper, a painter with many sides, frequently made intense sunlight his main subject.

Here's Hopper's more solemn version of the house. 

I also made a vine charcoal drawing of the same house from farther down the hill. This was the viewpoint Hopper chose for his oil. Notice the railroad tracks in the photo just beyond my easel. Hopper moved them up the hill to be next to the house. It gives a slightly surreal contrast against the aging historic house.

Here below is the vine charcoal drawing I made that's on the easel. It measures 10 1/2 x 14" and gives a fairly accurate view of how the house appears today. 

I'm planning to do new large studio compositions later this year from both my oil and from my charcoal drawing (that is if Norman Bates doesn't get to me first).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Gallery of Earlier Oil Landscapes

Philip Koch, Edge of the Forest, oil on panel, 14 x 21",  1987

I recently started a project of looking through images of my paintings from some years ago. Have been really enjoying getting reacquainted with these old friends!

At that time I was doing an enormous amout of painting out on location in oil. My trusty French easel went everywhere with me. Quite a few of these smaller directly painted outdoor oils served as the basis for my larger scale studio work. Here's a group of paintings, some done outdoors, some in the studio from the '80's and early '90's.

Philip Koch, Saturday Morning, oil on panel, 12 x 29", 1987

Philip Koch, From the Bridge, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 1987

Philip Koch, Sailboats, oil on panel, 21 x 28", 1987

 Philip Koch, Three Boats,  oil on panel, 22 x 33", 1987

Philip Koch, Winter Yard, oil on canvas, 42 x 63", 1984

Philip Koch, Wednesday Morning, oil on canvas, 48 x 60", 1987

Philip Koch, Equinox, oil on canvas, 40 x 60", 1991

Philip Koch, Duck Harbor,  oil on panel, 12 x 29", 1987