Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Candid Shot In My Studio Even Before My Morning Coffee

My wife Alice took this photo early this morning. I had stepped into my painting studio while waiting for the kettle to heat for my morning coffee. 

My studio is a place where I spend a lot of time. A kind of sanctuary from distractions and interruptions. A place to concentrate on the dreaming and imagining that go into making one's painting happen. This Saturday morning after an unusually stimulating couple of days the quiet of the studio felt especially inviting. 

I had just had a lively conversation with Heather Gring, the Archivist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. Heather is helping curate the museum's upcoming show next Spring of the work I've done over the last two and a half years as their Artist in Residence. We started making choices about which of my paintings will form the core of that museum's exhibition. Heather and I will be selecting drawings by one of my favorite artists, Charles Burchfield, from the museum's Archives to include in the show that echo ideas I've developed in my paintings. To me that's an especially exciting prospect. Beginning to finalize which works will be in the show is like an extra gust of wind in my sails.

And I spent the last two days up in Wilmington at the Delaware Art Museum. I attended the Symposium on the Museum's current exhibition, An American Journey: The Art of John Sloan, organized by Heather Campbell Coyle, their Curator of American Art. Sloan was a big influence on me in my early days as an artist. Years ago I took my first figure painting class at the Art Students League of New York in the very room where Sloan himself used to teach. I remember discovering a dusty framed photograph hanging on the classroom wall of Sloan with his students. Sloan stared out at the photographer with his usual thoughtful gaze. It felt like he was looking straight out and into me. 

At Delaware Art Museum's Symposium I heard over a dozen scholars tell of their research on the myriad influences of culture and politics that shaped Sloan's painting. (I don't think I've ever been in a room with so many Ph.D.'s). It stirred up a host of stimulating and contradictory ideas, almost too much to think about. I'll be reflecting on them for some time. 

Art historians and museum curators have a particular job. They juggle multitudes of influences and create a framework to understand where an artist fits into an over all historical pattern (they are historians after all). Their minds have much ground to cover.

For a painter, it's just the opposite. While we're aware of art history and outside influences, our job requires a stepping away from the outside world to narrow our thinking down to the canvas at hand. It means turning to introspection and a meditative state of mind.

Placing just one painting at a time on my easel I let myself slowly sink into its world. At first it's the most tentative and delicate suggestion, an image that is just starting to emerge. Inch by inch I have to imagine that new territory into being. It's a time for slow exploration, sometimes frustrating trial and error, and ultimately the satisfaction of realizing an inner vision. A safe, quite place to let this all happen makes it all possible.

P.S. On Sunday, December 3 at 2:30 p.m. I'll be giving a gallery talk at the Delaware Art Museum, John Sloan from a Painter's Perspective. All welcome.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Charles Burchfield at the Portland Museum of Art

Charles Burchfield, The Big Tree, watercolor, circa 1920,
Portland Museum of Art (Maine). 

A few days ago I was looking at the Portland Museum of Art's website and came across this painting from early in Charles Burchfield's career. Erin Damon, the Museum's Assistant Registrar, told me the Museum purchased the piece in 1998. Well, they got a really nice one!

The giant tree seems not only alive, it commands the surrounding  field.  It adeptly solves the challenges that come when an artist paints the colors of summer foliage. As commonplace as greens and yellow-greens are in that season, I know from my long experience as a landscape painter they're devilishly hard to make work in a painting. The way Burchfield tackles this teaches us a lot about the language of painting.

Burchfield doesn't worry about color in the beginning. Color probably is the most delightful aspect in painting, but by itself it tends to be formless. It needs a structure of shapes to hold it like a vessel. So usually he began his works with practiced drawing in black and white- concentrating on making believable shapes that surprise our eye. He was really good at that.

He imagines his giant tree as if it was a huge egg shape- at least the top 2/3 of one.  Critically Burchfield interrupts that shape with irregularly placed holes in the foliage where we can see through the tree to the background. These interruptions are a surprising counter-rhythm to what could have been a too simple massive egg form. 

The sunlight casts a gradation over the tree that the artist radically simplifies into 4 or 5 greens ranging from very warm yellow green to a cooler green in the shadows. He adds further unpredictable gestures with the half dozen darkest green accents. They follow a pattern your eye can't predict ahead of time, suggesting there's more to this tree's personality than we first thought.

A final thing to mention is the way Burchfield creates a massiveness to his tree- it's nothing less than imposing. One of the reasons its volume expresses itself so forcefully is the way the outer edge of the tree is softened all the way around, as if it's out of focus. Only in the center of the tree, which is closer to us, does Burchfield place his high contrast sharp edges, pushing these limbs closer to our space. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

New Hopper Studio Paintings to Somerville Manning Gallery

Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio, Sept. 2016

This week I brought some new paintings done from my most recent residency in Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio into Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, DE.

Two of the paintings are a actually a tribute to the very first Hopper painting I ever saw- his wonderfully strange oil of the corner of his painting room in the Truro studio (see below). It made a huge impression on me as a teenager and prodded me to begin thinking about becoming an artist myself.

Philip Koch, Truro Afternoon, oil on panel, 14 x21
inches, 2017 (this one oil will be available at the
Gallery Oct. 12).

Philip Koch, Rooms by the Sea: September II, oil on canvas, 
28 x 42 inches, 2017

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

I've learned unexpected things over the years I've stayed and worked in Hopper's studio. One is that an artist has to conduct a wide-ranging search for the subjects that open the internal doors wide to their creativity.

Hopper designed his Truro studio himself and over the course of 30 years painted many of his most admired works within its walls. For most of the paintings he made there he chose subjects well outside the studio's walls.

When he did directly refer to the studio the resulting paintings  weren't straightforward depictions of its rooms. He would borrow certain features of the setting, but radically rearrange them. He used it as a springboard  to make paintings that suggested a state of mind rather than a literal place. 

 Philip Koch, Truro Kitchen oil on canvas, 
40 x 30 inches, 2017

For me the studio itself is a wonderful and poetic subject. 

Light pours through its windows and spaces in ways that have inspired me to make all sorts of paintings of its interior. My oil above, Truro Kitchen, is the view from the spot where Hopper most liked to work at his easel. It looks from the grand painting room down a short hallway and into the kitchen. The far window is just above the kitchen sink and looks out over Cape Cod Bay. Hopper no doubt gazed out at it daily as he would rinse out his coffee cup.

Philip Koch, Morning at the Route 6, Eastham House
oil on panel, 12 x 24 inches, 2016

One other new painting is the rooftop view above that I made from sketches of the same building Hopper painted back in 1941 of a house just down the road from the studio in the town of Eastham. 

Edward Hopper, Route 6, Eastham, oil on canvas, 1941
Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, IN

Since Hopper's day the house has become all but surrounded by tall trees, but this view of the main house is still open from the road. I  painted it in brilliant morning sunlight in contrast to Hopper's choice of the last light of the day.

Here I am in September 2016 working in Hopper's big painting room on the smaller oil that would lead to my painting Rooms by the Sea: September II (above). Looking over my shoulder in the distance, hopefully approvingly, is the easel Hopper painted on.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Honeymoon Painting

Philip Koch, Thicket, oil on panel, 14 x 21 inches, 2017

Some of my new paintings go way back. This one actually started in 1982. Alice and I got married that year in the rain in our backyard with a female justice of the peace. Right after the ceremony we flew to Maine for our honeymoon. I'd never been to Mount Desert but Alice had and she insisted I'd love it. Boy was she right.

Wandering in the woods near the Island's distinctive towering cliff named The Precipice I fell in love with this stand of young white birches. Worked from it for three afternoons and made a wonderful small oil. Later that summer I painted a large version of the composition in my studio. But before I had time to really enjoy either oil, the small version went to a collector and the large canvas entered the Permanent Collection of the Butler Institute of American Art. 

Great as this was, I missed the paintings. Sometimes that happens. But in this case the image of these birches would stubbornly drift back to me repeatedly over following years. Maybe there was something special about those young trees that seemed so full of promise- you couldn't ask for a better symbol for the hopefulness of that first week of my marriage.

Many years later in 2014 I broke down and made another version closely related to the original plein air study. Then just two days ago I went back into that new version to fix "just one detail" and ended up repainting virtually the entire surface with lighter and brighter hues. I just needed for it to be right. And I love how it turned out.

I'm keeping the original title Thicket, but in my mind it's the honeymoon painting.

Friday, September 15, 2017

If Plants Could Talk...

Charles Burchfield, Sultry Moon, watercolor, 1959

Burchfield Penney Art Center's Facebook page is worth following. Every morning without fail they post a new painting by Charles Burchfield along with a selection of his writing from his journals. Seeing what they are offering up is one of the high points of my mornings.

Sultry Moon above was their pick this morning. It was new to me and as I looked at it the phrase "If plants could talk..." went through my mind. Burchfield is a very different kind of landscape painter than I am, but one thing I admire in his work is how remarkably animated his forms are. Much of the energy he injects into his paintings is built out of his mastery of brushstrokes. This guy knew what he was doing. 

Just to say two things about his mark-making:

-You never know ahead of time what direction his brushstrokes are going to take as he paints his forms. Always he's surprising us. Unconsciously that makes us want to keep looking.

-He beautifully orchestrates the intensity of his marks. In Sultry Moon, compare the high-contrast staccato brushstrokes in the foreground plants (are they dandelions?) and the trees with the ever-so-softly gradated strokes that populate the empty sky. His judgment about when to hit it hard or when to softly whisper his ideas is just terrific. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

How to Be influenced by a Master Artist

Charles Burchfield, The Constant Leaf, watercolor,
1960, Burchfield Penney Art Center

What do you do as an artist when you're excited about the work of a really famous artist?  Should you start working in their style?  

Over the last two years I've been serving as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. I've held several thousand of his drawings from their Burchfield Archives in my hands and studied them for all they're worth. One can learn so much from absorbing the methods of the best who have gone before us- but it's tricky.

detail from The Constant Leaf

Probably it's Burchfield's unusual calligraphy-like details that first catches our eye, as in the detail above. It's an idiosyncratic handwriting he injects into all his work. In the The Constant Leaf at the top the explosion of patterns in the foliage is a classic example. But a longer look at the painting I think reveals another side to Burchfield's vision- his uncanny talent at making the entire surface of his painting contribute to its expressive power.  

Burchfield's areas of heavy patterns (the foliage, tree trunk and vertical shoots in the foreground) are balanced off by an almost completely empty snow covered yard.  He wants to stimulate us but also give our eyes a place to rest. If anything should be imitated in Burchfield it is on this deeper level of composing the entire painting. It would be missing the larger point to superficially adopt his highly stylized handwriting.

For me what I want to take from Burchfield is not the eccentricities of his very personal style but his brilliance of orchestrating all the parts of his paintings to complement each other. Here's a new painting of my own- a view of a sycamore covered hillside. Like Burchfield, I most love the forest when the trees branches themselves take front and center.

Philip Koch, Late Autumn Sun, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches,

Here was a sea of highlighted white branches. All had the wonderful staccato-like rhythms so typical of those trees- too much for the eye to take in. To compensate I pushed all the distant trees into a darker reddish tone, letting the spotlight fall only on one foreground tree. To calm things down further I put in a slowly curving paved road in the foreground. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Andrew Wyeth

Yesterday my wife Alice and I drove up to see the two Andrew Wyeth shows near us at the Brandywine River Museum in Chads Ford, PA and the Somerville Manning Gallery in nearby Greenville, DE.

The Brandywine Museum show, Andrew Wyeth in Retrospect, marks the 100th anniversary of Wyeth's birth. Audrey Lewis of the Brandywine Museum co-curated the exhibition, borrowing important Wyeth works from across the country.

I was awed by what I saw. Wyeth has a quiet but insistent power to his imagination. He used "traditional" country and farm imagery but always found ways to show us the unexpected.

For many viewers Wyeth's ability to render painstakingly detailed surfaces is the big takeaway. And impressive it is. For me though, as a realist painter who eschews minute details, what really struck me throughout the show was Wyeth's masterful sense of design- the way he realized expressive power by leaving things out. 

The early watercolor Coming Storm (above) from 1938, done before the artist adopted his more detailed way of working in the medium of tempera paint, shows how much he could express using only the most broad and detail-free strokes. ( I apologize for the reflections on some of my photos).

Here's Hoffman's Slough, a tempera from 1947, a masterpiece of leaving things out if there ever was one. In this and other paintings Wyeth plays off areas of relative emptiness against a few carefully chosen focal points that lead our eye around the space of the painting.

A few years ago we took advantage of the tours the Brandywine Museum runs to Andrew Wyeth's studio and to that of his father, N. C. Wyeth, just up the hill. One of my favorite paintings in the show was this watercolor Andrew Wyeth made of his father's studio in the snow, North Light, done late in his career in 1984. The painting starts out telling us all about the delicate lattice work in the upper panes of arched window, but as soon as Wyeth felt he'd said enough  the rest of the window gradually dissolves into a mist of blown snow. It's so well done it's mesmerizing.

In a watercolor from 1959, Willard, we see Wyeth feeling his way as he gradually carved out the space in back of his model with the lightest touches of wash. I love the tiny spot of empty white paper he left untouched in the top half of the painting.

Almost at the end of the show is Crow Tree from just two years before the artist's death, a painting that especially grabbed me. With my own paintings of the forest, I've so often been drawn to the solemn elegance of trees that have died. They can stand for years  shorn of their leaves, fully revealing the rhythms of their almost sculpted branches. What a pleasure to see Wyeth turning his eye to a similar theme.

A few miles from the Brandywine Museum the Somerville Manning Gallery has mounted a large and wonderful companion exhibition of Andrew Wyeth watercolors. Highly recommended! The Somerville Manning show has been extended to run through September 9. Here's a photo of the Gallery. 

Somerville Manning Gallery, a few miles downstream on the
Brandywine River from the Brandywine River Museum.

Brandywine Museum's exhibition continues through September 17.