Friday, June 19, 2015

Burchfield Penney Residency Part II

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Earlier this month I was at the Burchfield Penney Art Center for my first visit as the Art Center's Artist In Residence. One of my goals with the Residency is to study the working process of Charles Burchfield, an artist I deeply admire, to nourish my own working methods with my paintings. 

BPAC is a treasure house of Burchfield's drawings. Tullis Johnson, Curator and Manager of BPAC's Burchfield Archives, kindly pulled out for me volumes of Burchfield's drawings to examine. It was amazing to cradle his drawings in my hands (I did wear cotton gloves).

Burchfield drew in widely contrasting styles. Most of the drawings I'm reproducing here are his tremendously impressive finished nature studies. Their delicacy and sureness of form made me think of Leonardo da Vinci.  

But most of his drawings were gesture studies- drawings made rapidly more with his whole arm than with just wrist and fingers.  Often I'd encounter four or five sheets of paper each with only a handful of lines coursing across his page.

First and foremost he was an artist who  expressed movement. For him the earth is full of living things- plants, clouds, and even his rocks and buildings seem to move, sigh and breath. That he could make movement so credible stems in large part from how he began his pieces- starting not with detail but with the most sweeping gesture of his arm across the page. 

Here's a perfect example below of his gestural style that I'm talking about. 

Charles Burchfield, conte compositional  study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield loved going back into older watercolors and expanding them by attaching additional panels. Here is a giant newsprint study (about 4' on a side) he made by placing it around his earlier watercolor and experimenting by adding gesturing shapes into the expanded new territory. 

We can see above that his first marks are tentative, he is feeling his way forward. Once satisfied he was heading in a good new direction he would proceed to attach substantial watercolor paper around the small original and start painting. One usually thinks of preparatory drawings for paintings as something the Old Masters did. Here's a modern master doing it too.

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield liked to draw with black conte (a chalk with a little bit of oil in it that keeps it from smearing too much on the paper) on newsprint paper. Typical on many of his drawings are the short notes he wrote to himself often recording colors he wanted to remember or a design idea he needed to reinforce.

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

I left my first week of the BPAC Residency with renewed appreciation for the act of drawing in the work of any painter. Interestingly in the last 20 years my own oil paintings have been based on carefully composed preparatory drawings. Doing them I'd always felt a little out of step with most contemporary artists who are more likely to just jump right in with their paintings.
I'm inspired by Burchfield's example. He makes me feel less alone.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Part I

Several months ago Scott Propeack, the Associate Director and Chief Curator of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York invited me to be the second Artist in Residence at the Art Center for the next year. I'm just returned from the first of what will be a half dozen visits to the museum between now and summer of 2016. 

In my opinion, Charles Burchfield is one of the best painters of the 20th century. Burchfield has been one of the main influences on my own paintings of the natural world. I'm honored to be given this  opportunity by the Burchfield Penney Art Center. 

As an artist I've a keen awareness that none of us is alone in our studios- rather through our work we're engaging in a conversation with key artists who have gone before us. Painting after all is a language. By studying those who spoke it exceptionally well, I know I can learn to tell my own story better. Burchfield's work is different in many ways from mine, yet I feel strongly the two of us are chewing on the same bone.

BPAC is something of a unique museum. In addition to having by far the largest collection of artwork by the internationally known watercolorist Burchfield, it also has a mission of exhibiting, documenting, and collecting the art of Western New York State. 

I was born and grew up in nearby Rochester where my parents had build a home right on the shore of Lake Ontario.  That chapter of my life, spent in the hilly and heavily forested lake shore left an indelible impact on my imagination. I didn't take up art until I left for college in Ohio. Ironically until starting the Burchfield Residency last week I'd never painted from the landscape that had made such a big impression on me as a youth.

In addition to painting on location in some of the same parts of the landscape where Burchfield worked, I'll be studying some of the thousands of examples of Burchfield's work in the museum's Permanent Collection and in its exhibitions (like the delightful  current show, A Resounding Roarthat traces the influence of sound on Burchfield's painting, organized by BPAC's Curator and Manager of Archives, Tullis Johnson).

I will spend time reading from Burchfield's voluminous personal journals and get to know first hand Burchfield's much less known work in the medium of drawing.

A conte on newsprint drawing by Burchfield from the
Burchfield Penney's Permanent Collection

Despite a threatening monsoon the evening I arrived (which I realized Burchfield would have loved) the weather cooperated beautifully. I worked out on location five days in a row and got a whole number of drawings and paintings started. Tullis Johnson had urged me to drive south from the city to Chestnut Ridge Park that sits on a glacial line of hills. In addition to miles of trails through the woods it afforded a striking panorama looking north to Lake Erie. I was captivated and did four different views of it.

Here I am starting to work on the above drawing and painting.

One of my key goals was to soak up the special character of the Northern landscape that had fired up Burchfield's visual imagination. As well I'm intrigued with the idea of studying Burchfield's painting methods more closely, especially with an eye towards how he used his patterns of dark and light and his personal color sense. I'll have more to say about this in my next blog post.

While at the museum I was able to use their first floor classroom as a painting studio for five days.  Here is a photo above I took at the end of my fifth day of working. I think you can tell by the number of pieces I produced I was excited to be starting.  

At the end of my first week of the Residency my head was full of new ideas and I am charged up with new energy. I'll have a lot to chew on in my next weeks back in my Baltimore studio. 

I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to the staff of the museum for being so generous with their time and  sharing with me their special insights into the work of one of America's best painters. I have a feeling this next year of working at the Burchfield Penney will be one of the most valuable of my life as an artist.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Koch Hopper Paitings to Addison Art Gallery

Philip Koch, Rooms by the Sea III, oil on panel,  8 2/3 x 13", 2014

Last week I sent three of my oils up to Addison Art Gallery in Orleans, MA on Cape Cod. They will be shown as part of the Gallery's two year long After Hopper project in conjunction with the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis, MA. 

Edward Hopper (with Jo Hopper in the background)
sitting in front of the Truro studio in a photo by Arnold Newman

In 1983 I began a long series of residencies in Edward Hopper's studio. He chose to build it high on the ridge of a sand dune overlooking Cape Cod Bay in S. Truro. The artist had scouted out the location in 1930 during his first extended stay on Cape Cod. He even lovingly painted the site that would later be home to his studio in his 1930 oil Hills, South Truro  pictured below (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art). It suited the reclusive Hopper perfectly as back then the Cape was a far lonelier place. 

My painting Rooms by the Sea III was painted on location in the large painting room Hopper reserved for himself ( he made his wife Jo, also an artist, paint in the small bedroom and kitchen).  The view is of the doorway leading to his bedroom on the left and on the right his Dutch door leading out towards the Bay. This is the same corner of his painting room that inspired his famous oil Rooms by the Sea shown below (now in the art museum at Yale).

The following oil was made looking through the other doorway into the bedroom- I had set up my easel in the kitchen and decided to focus on the wonderful rhythms of the three open doors. The light in the bedroom floods in from Hopper's huge painting room.

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Bedroom, Truro, MA, oil on
panel, 10 x 5", 2011

The most recent of the three oils at Addison Art Gallery is this oil below painted with my easel set up in the room where Hopper slept half of each year for 3 decades. It shows the two doors pictured in the background of the above painting seen from a different angle. 

In the distance at the right is the easel Hopper used. It's an ordinary wooden easel like one can buy today from any art supply store.  Its ordinariness belies the amazing work that was created on it. At the left is the view out the bedroom window that greeted Hopper each morning when he woke up.

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Bedroom & Easel,  oil on panel
7 x 10 1/2", 2015

I am often asked what I've discovered about Hopper by staying and working in his studio 15 separate times over the years. More than anything I've been struck by the unpretentious beauty of the studio and the sweeping views it afforded Hopper. Yet Hopper did almost no paintings of either the impressive immediate surroundings or of the studio itself. Instead he was committed to searching out subjects at a distance from the studio. He drove around the outer Cape a lot, always on high alert for just the right material to express his deep inner feeling. One reason Hopper painted so well was he kept looking longer, searching with a remarkably sharpened selectivity

Here's a photo my wife Alice snapped of me walking up the winding path that leads up to the studio from the beach far below. The path was made by Edward and Jo Hopper picking their way down the steep sides of their sand dune to reach the shore. All these years later Edward and Jo are gone, but the path remains.

Save the Date: 
Philip Koch talk at the Cape Cod Museum of Art

On Thursday, Sept. 3 I'll be giving a slide talk on Hopper's life on Cape Cod and my residencies in the Hopper studio. Here is a link for more information-

Sunday, May 10, 2015

If Watercolor Doesn't Kill You It Will Make You Stronger, Part III: Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield drawing out of doors in the winter near Buffalo, NY
(All these images are courtesy the Burchfield Penney Art Center,  Buffalo, NY).

Last week I was the featured speaker at the Baltimore Watercolor Society's Annual Dinner. We had a great audience of 80 some people. I showed watercolors by Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper (OK, no surprise there) and Charles Burchfield. 

I saved Burchfield for last as I suspected he was the least well known of the three.  Several people approached me after the talk to say they'd never seen Burchfield's work before and wanted to know where to go to see more. (I recommend the Burchfield Penney Art Center's website which is where I obtained these images).

Deserted Miner's Home, 1918 Burchfield Penney Art Center

In his spooky Deserted Miner's Home the house and barn seem to almost scream out at us through gaping mouths. Yet nearly nightmarish drama is counter posed to an almost monochrome restraint throughout the rest of the painting. Burchfield is almost always like this- offering us something nearly over the top in each painting but always stopping just short of overdoing it. He is a master of balancing the conflicting needs for drama and for stability and making things plausible.

Charles Burchfield, Marshy Meadows, 1916,  Burchfield Penney Art Center

Burchfield's Marshy Meadows radically shifts gears between a spring-like green valley and a far distant hillside whose color palette belongs more to January. I think it's his skill in repeating the same rhythms with his brush through the whole painting that makes you accept his impossible color fantasy.

His watercolor Sleet Storm below is typically for Burchfield chock full of rooftops, snowdrifts and seemingly innumerable little branches. There is a constant artful adjustment going on through the painting as the artist kept changing the color of his trees, from black trunks, to a whole range of mid grey to white little branches. Think how overloaded the painting would have felt if he'd stayed with all dark tones for the trees. Once again, elegant restraint.

Charles Burchfield, Sleet Storm, 1920Burchfield Penney Art Center

Here's a totally wild painting from later in Burchfield's life.

Charles Burchfield, Wind Blown Asters, 1951, Burchfield
Penney Art Center

Populating his foreground are the most fantastical assortment of blossoms, butterfly wings and profoundly strange eye-like calligraphy at the left. It seems almost a menagerie.

But behind all this chaos a much more peaceful middle ground space restores peace to the picture. And the far distance is an expanse of unruffled smooth washes. In many ways spatially it's a very traditional panorama, but with Burchfield's signature imagination in full swing.

Unlike most watercolorists, Burchfield preferred to work in the studio with his paintings held vertically on an easel instead of laying them down nearly horizontal. When one sees his work in person one is struck that he mostly used a well-loaded brush to accomplish big free-flowing strokes. Curiously he almost never has accidental drips of color falling across his paintings. He had his brush handling down pat.

Below is an unfinished piece by the artist where he cut an earlier painting in half and was in the process of adding an additional panel to it at the left.

Charles Burchfield, Easter Morning in the Wood, Right Side,
Burchfield Penny Art Center

In the artist's day watercolors were modestly scaled things- rarely over 20" or so in width. Burchfield changed that. He loved nothing better than revisiting earlier watercolors by fixing adjoining sheets of paper to them, expanding their scale sometimes to the 40" or even 60". 

A consummate craftsman, he developed a technique of using a mat cutting tool to cut diagonal beveled edges on his sheets of watercolor paper so they could smoothly lie over and under each other. You have to stand very close to one of his watercolors to see just where these seams are. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

If Watercolor Doesn't Kill You It Will Make You Stronger, Part Two- Edward Hopper

One of the three American watercolorists I'm going to be talking about this coming week when I give a talk to the Baltimore Watercolor Society is Edward Hopper. The example of his works was my greatest teacher when I was a young artist.

There he is above giving the camera his typically gruff demeanor. Behind him looms the studio in Truro, MA on Cape Cod that he and his wife Jo lived in for half of each year for some thirty years.

Below is a watercolor he made of Jo as she sat drawing on a chest in front of the studio's 10' tall north-facing window seen in the photo above. (During one of my 15 residencies in Hopper's studio I discovered the same chest now resides in the studio's basement).

While not a complete painting his watercolor shows Hopper's characteristic love of clearly defined spaces with solid forms bathed under a strong light. 

Here's yours truly sitting in front of the same window last fall. The individual panes of glass had to be replaced, but the feeling of the space is just as Hopper showed us.

In 1931 Hopper found this view about a half mile south of where he would build his studio. His watercolor Roofs of the Cobb Barn puts his radical selectivity on full display.

It's a masterful rearrangement of his darks and lights. The main  story was heightening the drama of the irregular diagonal roofs. So Hopper reserves his lightest tones and most cool colors for them alone. Always as a painter I have to temporarily forget what I am painting to better focus on how it is to be painted- often these questions are answered by looking at the image up-side-down.

Look at how he maneuvers his darkest darks to be right next to the highlighted roofs. Further still, how Hopper subtlely darkened his sky. 

The very first Hopper watercolor I saw in the flesh is this crisp painting, a view of Gloucester, MA that's now in the Wichita Art Museum. To me it seems he painted a stand off between the imposing white house and the prominent telephone pole. You can read my thoughts on its composition in a short blog post  I wrote here.

Adams House, 1928

One of the things I so love about Hopper is how he realized how much more unexpected and even strange reality can be. Here's a totally wild watercolor that Hopper made in Vermont. He fell in love with the silhouette of this insanely steep hill and wanted his painting to convey that feeling. 

Bob Slater's Hill, 1938

So he reserves all the cool blues to only the far distance- they serve to push the warm hillside forward as if into our faces. Within the hillside he gives us a whole world of warm greens. He lightens up the individual shadows each tree casts because he doesn't want dark shadows to break up the massiveness of the hill. 

I learned about this painting from the author Bonnie Clause. She's done extensive research on the little-known time Hopper spent in Vermont painting landscapes. My wife and I made to trip a couple of years ago to a show of Hopper's Vermont watercolors Bonnie helped to make happen at Middlebury College Museum of Art. I recommend her website and her book.

One of the great privileges I've enjoyed during my residencies in Hopper's Cape Cod studio is studying his tools and materials. Hopper, always the craftsman, insisted his watercolors remain completely wrinkle free. He would stretch his watercolor paper around wood stretcher bars and hold it in place with thumb tacks. Here's a sheet of paper he stretched that is in his studio waiting patiently for his return so it can be turned into a painting.

He would paint on the paper while it was stretched over the stretcher bars. To keep sunlight from shining through from the back side of the paper he tacked on old sports sections from the New York Times. 

I'll have a blog post concluding this series on watercolor by looking at the work of Charles Burchfield on Tuesday, May 5.

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