Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Three New paintings: Hopper, Maine & Burchfield

Philip Koch, Eward Hopper's Painting Room, 
oil on panel, 20 x 16", 2016

Painting well is a little like developing a green thumb. You can't rush a painting into completion. They reveal themselves to the artist only gradually. All we can do is water and nourish them. Often several paintings will come to completion all around the same time. So it is this week in my studio. Here are three newcomers to the fold.

My painting above was done from some drawings I made during my previous residencies in Edward Hopper's studio in Truro, MA. It is a view looking from the studio's small kitchen down a short hall and opening into Hopper's large painting room. In the distance at the left is the easel Hopper used to paint many of his world famous masterpieces and at right is the dark walnut desk where he and his wife Jo would pay their bills. 

Initially I had centered his easel right in the middle of the painting room but it didn't feel right in that spot. Instead I moved it to the lefthand side to create an empty space between it and the lone white chair. One of Hopper's gifts as a painter was his legendary ability to infuse seemingly empty spaces with a personality. I chose to focus my painting more on the light-filled empty space of this room. It's a slightly wistful reflection on solitude.

Philip Koch, Porcupine Islands, oil on panel, 9 x 12", 2016

This was painted mostly from direct observation in June during a trip to Mt. Desert Island in Maine. It was early in the morning and
I chose a vantage point half way up Cadillac Mountain overlooking the Porcupine Islands. As I worked a dark bank of clouds was pushing its way insistently into what had been a crystal clear morning. I love these sorts of dramatic changes in the weather and chose to make that the subject of the painting. Also as I'm serving as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY  I have in my mind the watercolors of Charles Burchfield, who loved an oncoming storm more than anyone.

Philip Koch, East Aurora Barns, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 2016

On my last trip to Buffalo in June I spent most of my time in the nearby town of East Aurora. It was an area that Charles Burchfied loved to paint. 

It held an additional attraction for me as the town had so much of the look and feel of my old hometown of Webster, NY, just outside of Rochester. We all find certain places ressonate with us in a very personal way. Often times they resurrect old memories for us. This can lead one to traffic in a formula-ridden nostalgic way of painting. But when approached correctly, inviting some of the energies of long held memories into one's painting can provide a vital spark. 

Once in East Aurora my method was to slowly drive the backroads searching for a subject. I had in mind wanting to paint some architecture much like Burchfield often did. I came across a barn with a cupola atop it that seemed loaded with personality.  Yet it felt unconnected to the surrounding field. I needed to get a conversation going between it and some other major element. After trying out about 20 different points of view I settled on letting an old apple tree obscure much of the barn. It seemed to bring out a rhythmic dance between the its limbs, the angles of the barn's roof and the irregular geometry of the dark far distance. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Upcoming Philip Koch Exhibition at Swope Art Museum

One of the galleries at the Swope Art Museum

Susan Baley, the Director of the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana is arranging the programming for the Museum's 75th Anniversary in 2017. As part of that the Museum will be featuring my work in a solo exhibition:

Light and Shadow: Paintings and Drawings by Philip Koch from Edward Hopper's Studio,  January 20 - March 25, 2017.

The Swope is blessed with a world class collection of American realist paintings from the first half of the 20th century. The Museum's first Director, the painter John Rogers Cox, purchased them for the Museum.  He had a good eye and was able to buy important pieces for his new collection before their prices reached today's stratospheric level. 

The Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana

The 75th Anniversary programming will focus on the Museum's permanent collection and connect it to some contemporary artists. Perhaps the keystone of the Swope's collection is its masterful Edward Hopper oil, Route 6, Eastham. Hopper painted it on Cape Cod near the studio he built in the nearby town of Truro, MA. It is through this painting that my own art connects to the Swope's legacy. 

Edward Hopper, Route 6, Eastham, oil on canvas, 1941

Most of the actual painting of Route 6, Eastham was done in Hopper's studio with him working from from extensive on site drawings he had made. I am fortunate to have been granted unprecedented access to Hopper's Truro studio. This year
I will be having my 16th residency staying and painting there. 

Philip Koch walking up the path from the beach to Hopper's
Truro, MA studio.

I have been doing a long running series of paintings of the interior of the Hopper studio during my stays there. Also I've used the studio as a base of operations to explore the immediately surrounding area and paint landscapes with my portable French easel.  

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Bedroom and Easel, oil 
on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2015, a painting I made with my 
easel set up in Hopper's bedroom looking at his easel in
the distance.

Philip Koch, The Reach IV, oil on canvas, 40 x 60",
2011. A painting done from memory and imagination. 
The setting is the shore on Cape Cod Bay just below
Hopper's studio. It is based on a charcoal drawing I
made on location on the beach there. I removed the
contemporary beach houses that have sprung up, 
choosing to depict it as it would have appeared in 
Hopper's time.

Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, oil on canvas, 36 x 72"
2008. I painted this from the town of Wellfleet, just
north of where Hopper painted his oil Route 6, Eastham.

 Here are some more of the paintings in the Swope's Permanent Collection.

Grant Wood Spring Planting,  oil, 1942

Thomas Hart Benton, Threshing Wheat,  1939

Charles Burchfield, Old Houses in Winter, watercolor, 1929-

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Myterieous Beauty of Edward Hopper's Captain Strout's House

This is one of my all time favorite paintings, a watercolor by Edward Hopper, Captain Strout's House, Portland Head from 1927. It's in the collection of the venerable Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT (founded in 1842!). The light and color of the painting are amazing. Yet I always sensed there was something beyond that but I couldn't put my finger on it. I think this painting points to how playful spontaneity and unconscious thinking makes the art happen.

In our kitchen each year we always have a wall calendar that features Hopper paintings. One evening as I was scrubbing a frying pan I paused and glanced up at the calendar. That month featured a big reproduction of Captain Strout's House. My eye fastened on the far watery horizon and a mental alarm bell went off. The water to the left of the house was way higher than the water level on the right.  They didn't come close to lining up with each other. How could this be?

Looking a little longer I realized my eye liked the discontinuous levels of the water. It added a hidden syncopation to the painting. I was amazed I'd never noticed this before about the painting-probably because the disconnected levels of the water fit into the overall composition so perfectly. 

There's a skinny fence rail in the immediate foreground that most of us tend to pay little mind to. Notice how the rail slopes down diagonally from left to right. Then compare the two spots where the ocean disappears behind the walls of the house. These two water levels imply a hidden diagonal that runs exactly parallel to the sloping foreground fence railing. 

Hopper was famous for his long searches after just the right subject matter. Once he found this exceptionally good subject and viewpoint I bet he was chomping on the bit to do the painting. He painted this watercolor from direct observation, beginning by quickly drawing in pencil the angles he saw. His hand would have been guided by careful optical measuring but also pushed and pulled by the sensations the view was having on him. I believe he unconsciously altered the horizon lines to make them mimic the thrust he felt in the fence. I suspect he didn't notice the what he had done until later. He probably liked how this "accident" energized and made this landscape less ordinary. 

We can't know if my theory about Hopper's painting is correct. He was notorious for saying and writing almost nothing to explain his work. But we do have this glowing little painting. To me that matters way more.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Happy Birthday Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil on canvas, 1951, 
Yale University Art Gallery

Woke up this morning and realized it was the birthday of the artist who inspired me to become a painter. Edward Hopper (July 22, 1882- May 15, 1967). Many years ago as a teenager I had all the usual concerns of someone that age but visual art wasn't one of them. My parents subscribed to Newsweek magazine and as I thumbed through a copy I stumbled across the mysterious painting above. Though I'd never heard of Hopper I remember thinking to myself "Now THAT'S a painting!" A seed was planted.

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 50", 1994.
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. A painting I made of a building in 
Wellfleet, MA just south of Edward Hopper's studio on Cape Cod. 
Without knowing Hopper, I don't know if I ever would have let
myself paint a subject like this.

It's ironic how someone you have never met can prove instrumental in shaping your life. Years later as a fledgling art student I rediscovered Hopper's work, fell in love, and changed from working abstractly to making realist paintings inspired by the glowing light and dramatic shadows Hopper painted.

Hopper's Rooms by the Sea was inspired by what the artist saw looking out one of the doors to the studio he built in 1934 on Cape Cod, MA. The Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana contacted me recently to discuss holding a show of some of the paintings I've made during my 16 residencies in Hopper's former painting studio in Truro, MA. I'm excited about this and am looking forward to the exhibit. It will probably be held in early 2017. The Swope is a particularly appropriate venue for this show as a keystone of its Permanent Collection since its founding is another Hopper Cape Cod painting, Route 6, Eastham.

Edward Hopper, Route 6, Eastham, oil on canvas, Swope Art Museum. 
A painting I have always loved. Hopper worked from a some buildings 
a few miles south on Route 6 of where I painted my oil above Cape Cod Morning.

The Hopper studio sits high up on a sand dune overlooking Cape Cod Bay. On a particularly glowering morning during one of my residencies there I took a walk down the long winding path Hopper used to reach the shore. Stopping to catch my breath I looked up and saw the studio from an angle I'd not noticed before.  On that cold morning it seemed to express something poignant about the man who used to live and work there. I made the drawing below from the spot. It reminded me of something out of Wuthering Heights.

Philip Koch, May 15, 1967,  vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2004.
The drawing has a lonely feeling to it so I chose the day
Hopper died for its title.

Hopper's work has survived him. By all accounts he was a shy and deeply introverted man. Some recall him later in life as often irritable, enough so that I am kind of glad I never met him in person.  But he shared the best part of himself through his paintings and for that I know I owe him a big debt of thanks.

Hopper in front of the Truro, MA studio he had built in 1934
from the 1960 photograph by Arnold Newman.

In other news:

A new book by Carl and David Little, Art of Acadia, has just been published. It's a 280 page hardback that provides a comprehensive art history of how Acadia National Park in Maine has influenced generations of artists. I am delighted to have my painting North Passage included in the volume. It is a painting done entirely from memory and imagination that's based on my dozens of painting trips to Acadia. Not a record of any specific spot it's more a tribute to what for me is the single most paintable spot of the East Coast
of the US. ( I am biased of course as my wife Alice and I honeymooned there years ago).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Charles Burchfield Archives- Unexpected Influences

Philip Koch, Great Dunes II, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 1985
A painting I made from a smaller plein air oil painted on location
just outside Provincetown, MA.

An unexpected benefit of being the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center this year was spending time going through the Center's extensive Burchfield Archives. Charles Burchfield valued all his work and saved almost everything. Burchfield Penney has each of the 25,000 pieces of his work and his writing assigned a catalogue number and archivally stored. 

They gave me white cotton gloves and more boxes of his drawings than I could ever work through. Gingerly lifting each drawing out of its box I felt like Burchfield was sitting right next to me. For someone who wants to get beneath the surface of how a creative mind like Burchfield's worked, it was dream. 

 Philip Koch, State Road, oil on paper mounted to panel,
19 x 28 1/2",  circa 1989. I painted this on location
on the Eastern Shore of Marland.

Examinging hundreds of Burchfield's preparatory drawings gave me a more complete picture of how carefully and strategically he worked up his compositions. What I saw in the Archives proved to me it's possible to be both spontaneous and thoughtful as a painter.

The experience lit a fire under me to get images of my earlier work organized and to write notes about each of the paintings. Undertaking this made me take a long second look at paintings I haven't given as much thought as they deserve. 

Philip Koch, Third Story, oil on camas, 42 x 63", 1985. This was
the most creepy house near my Baltimore studio. Wouldn't want 
to spend the night in it, but I had to paint it. Its builders created
 an elegant gothic sculpture. Sadly it was torn down
after I painted it.

When I first stared with landscape painting I did almost all my work in oils outdoors in front of the source. Eventually I switched methods, opting to work in only black and white charcoal drawing outdoors and inventing color when I worked from the drawings in oil back in my studio. 

Getting to know my earlier oils better inspired me to start painting in oils outdoors again. In the last two weeks for for example I worked in oils outdoors in both Buffalo and Maine. I'm finding that I have more creative freedom with color after all that experience painting from my black and white drawings. I am thinking in color more clearly. Couldn't be more pleased with where things are going.

Philip Koch, Spring Front Yard, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 1985.
While I liked this white house it seemed too formal viewed 
straight on. Seen from the neighboring yard the wild shapes of this 
screen of trees changed the feeling completely. Sometimes an 
oblique view tells us more.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Painting in Buffalo and Bar Harbor


I am just returned from two back-to-back painting trips in just a little over two weeks. First I flew to Buffalo, NY on my 7th trip for my being the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. No sooner had I returned to Baltimore than my wife Alice and I flew up to Maine for a week in Bar Harbor. Only last night was I able to unpack my suitcase and lay out the oil paintings I've started on my studio floor. As you can see, I kept busy. The upper right and lower right oils are from Buffalo and the rest are Maine paintings. I will be going back into each oil to finish it back in my studio.

The Burchfield Residency has been an amazing experience and I've written about it many times on this blog over the last period. Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island has been a personally meaningful painting destination for me as Alice and I honeymooned there many years ago and fell in love with the place.

Here's a selection of photos from the Maine trip. I have some pressing painting work to take care of so I'll just post the photos without much commentary. 

Eagle Lake from Cadillac Mt.

Above and below are photos of me set up on Cadillac Mountain to paint.

Mt. Desert Island has wonderful glades of white birches. So delicately beautiful. As you can see I am not exactly suffering on this trip.

Starting to pack up wet oil paintings for the flight home. The weather all week in Maine was perfect for painting. Buffalo provided more of a challenge in that department so I wasn't able to get as much accomplished there. Still, I now have lots of new ideas to work on.

My wife Alice posing in front of Mt. Desert's distinctive little mountains called The Bubbles.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Looking Back / The Burchfield Archives

A selection of the original backing boards on the Charles Burchfield
work that entered BPAC's Permanent Collection

None of us live our lives in isolation, even if we sometimes might want to. We carry with us the influences big and small of everyone we'd known, of everywhere we've lived. It's the same for artists.

As a landscape painter I have worked all over the country, but always in the back of my mind is a palpable memory of the Western New York landscape I grew up in. Charles Burchfield grew up in Northeast Ohio and moved to Buffalo, NY to take a job as a wallpaper designer. Despite becoming a nationally renowned artist he consciously made the decision to stay in Buffalo as the roots he had sunk there nourished his creativity. Naturally this is someone I wanted to know more about.

Over the last year as the Burchfield Penney Art Center's Artist in Residence I've made seven trips to study the legacy of Charles Burchfield. Last week found me once again in Buffalo, NY painting at BPAC and in the fields on the outskirts of Buffalo in an area where Burchfield himself often painted.

Close up of the exhibition stickers on one of the backing boards
that used to be on the museum's framed pieces.

In addition to having the largest collection of Charles Burchfield's work, BPAC has an exhaustive archive of the artist's writings, notes, sketches, doodles and memorabilia. Heather Gring, the museum's Archivist organized some of their holdings into the exhibition Finding Aid: Making Sense of the Charles E. Burchfield Archives (through June 19, 2016).

A giant wall-mounted collage of Burchfield's original backing boards that have been removed from the original frames of works on paper greets you when you enter the exhibiton's first gallery. They have all been replaced by more archival materials to preserve the work. Facing them on the opposite wall are some of the drawings that accompanied the boards in the opening display.

Burchfield's Barracks and Tree, India ink and graphite, 1918
An early drawing he made while in the army.


Gentle Snow Fall,  graphite, 1920

I did a double take when I came across this drawing. In my very first studio art class my Freshman year at Oberlin College I made a drawing of the very same plaster cast of a cat. Perhaps this is something Burchfield worked on when he was a student at the Cleveland School of Art.

Here are the original folio cases Buchfiedl made to hold thematically 
related drawings together. They've been replaced by archival folders.

A close up of one of the Burchfield's in the show.
Spider and Grasshoppers,  1948. Isn't this the 
prettiest spider ever!

A sample of one of Burchfield's wallpaper designs.

The exhibition features a giant photo of a group of the artists that exhibited with Burchfield (back row far right) at the Rehn Gallery in New York. His friend and fellow artist Edward Hopper is in the back row at the far left.

Most photographs of Burchfield show him as seriously 
focused. Here's a family photo taken by his granddaughter 
Peggy Richter Haug where he mugs for the camera. The family 
has just eaten together at a Howard Johnsons. His wife Bertha
is getting into their car.

Easter Morning in the Woods watercolor, 1947 - 1964. Burchfield
returned to this earlier painting and cut it in half. This is the right hand
half of it. He intended to add a complementing section on the left side 
but never got to complete it.

Few artists have left us with as much documentation and commentary on their work as Charles Burchfield. Any artist who has wondered about the fate their life's work once they are gone will find the careful archiving of Burchfield's legacy on display here genuinely heartwarming. This is what we would all hope for. 

I had a planning meeting with Scott Propeack, the museum's Chief Curator, for an upcoming major exhibition of my own paintings at BPAC. It sounds exciting and I will be sharing details as we finalize our dates and plans. I am confident it will be an impressive exhibition.

On this visit to Buffalo I spent most of my time working in oil paint. I used part of the museum's Classroom as a temporary studio.

I spent most of my time this week southeast of the city in a rural field in East Aurora. Here's a photo of my work in progress of a split rail fence that I took just before packing up my paints and brushes to head home.