Monday, January 18, 2016

Casting LIght on Charles Burchfield's Rainy Night

Philip Koch, Upper Story: Sunlight, pastel, 5 1/2 x 11", 2016

One of the best things about my serving as the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) for this year is the opportunity to go and paint from some of the same areas Charles Burchfield used for his sources. I was up in Buffalo for the Residency last week.  

I went to downtown Buffalo and worked from a building that inspired one of his best known paintings, Rainy Night, below. Burchfield's painting to me is deliciously evocative of the moodiness of the city at night. I did several drawings of the building, beginning by making a drawing of it sheltered from the January winds in the Public Library directly across the street. 

Charles Burchfield, Rainy Night,  watercolor, 30 x 42", 1929-30
San Diego Museum of Art

Overall I  did six drawing, including my pastel of the building's elaborate mansard roof in yellows at the beginning of this post and this one below in cooler violets. I probably will be turning a least a couple of them into larger oil paintings.

Philip Koch, Upper Story: Twilight, pastel, 5 1/2 x 11", 2016

The pastels were based on this charcoal.

Philip Koch, Upper Story, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2016

And it in turn was done from this drawing of the entire structure.

Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Rainy Night Building, vine 
charcoal, 10 1/2 x 14", 2016

What inspired my turn to working from an urban subject was that Tullis Johnson, one of BPAC's Curators and the Manger of its Archives, showed me a box full of the preparatory studies Burchfield made to help him conceive of the composition for Rainy Night. I was hooked. Tullis told me where I could find the building Burchfield had worked from and off I went.

While at the Archives I photographed the following eight of Burchfield's preparatory studies.  

Burchfield would go to remarkable lengths to amass information about the details of the scene.  Yet in the end what I find most intriguing about his watercolor is how he orchestrates all the details into an overall whole. He's masterfully selective in picking out only a few of his details to become focal points in his composition. I wonder if this came out of his experiments on the watercolor itself as he slowly worked it towards its completion or whether he had made additional studies of the overall composition that I didn't see.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My Painting Hanging in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas 33 1/2 x 50"

Katherine Kunau, the new Associate Curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (CMRA) in Iowa contacted me last week to tell me her Museum has my painting Cape Cod Morning from their Permanent Collection hanging currently in their The Nation Travels-themed gallery. That sort of thing is sweet to hear. I had the good fortune to be invited to have my very first solo art museum exhibition at CRMA back in 1994, and this painting traveled to Iowa to be part of that. (CMRA by the way has amazing collections of Grant Wood and Marvin Cone paintings very worth seeing).

There's a funny story behind my painting. For many years I have been traveling to the outer tip of Cape Cod, MA. It was here where for three decades Edward Hopper lived half of each year and painted many of his most memorable works. Hopper was the chief influence on me as a young artist to change from abstraction to becoming a realist. I love the landscape of Cape Cod in its own right, but knowing it was also Hopper's favored terrain puts a special aura around it. The Hopper oil below, one of my personal favorites, inspired my choice of the title for my painting.

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Not far from Hopper's studio in Truro there's a building he would have frequently driven past on the Cape's main road, Route 6. For several years I had been admiring the dazzling patterns the morning light would cast on its walls. It would make a great painting I knew but the commotion from the heavy traffic had put me off from the task. I'd tried setting up my easel on the road's shoulder but it offered a viewpoint too low that cut off the bottom of the building.

Finally one summer I broke down and marched out to the narrow concrete median between the four lanes of traffic. Only 3 feet wide, it barely accommodated the spindly legs of my French easel. Trying to paint there was unsettling to put it mildly, but the view of the building was perfect. So for the next week I'd spend 2 precarious hours each morning working on my painting. Despite the cavalcade of noise from the traffic, it turned out really well. Returning to my Baltimore studio I went on to make the large version from it that's now in the Museum.

My practice is to make smaller oils out on location rather than to paint the landscape from photographs I have taken. It's far more time consuming, but I find I need the extra hours to discover what it is about a source I can use to make a painting that is beyond the ordinary. If you study something long enough, it will reveal itself to you in unexpected and often delightful ways.

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning on display in the Cedar Rapids
Museum of Art's The Nation Travels gallery. photo courtesy 
of the Museum

Painters who set themselves up to work in the middle of four lanes of heavy traffic also are setting themselves up for all sorts of responses from motorists startled to encounter an artist in the middle of their road. I was no exception. My favorite was the words hurled to me through one car's open window "It needs more 

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning on display in the Cedar Rapids
Museum of Art's The Nation Travels gallery. photo courtesy 
of the Museum

Friday, January 1, 2016

Getting Inspiration: National Gallery of Art

My wife Alice and I went down to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. yesterday. Alice always wants to be sure to visit here favorite painting by Vermeer of a woman weighing pearls. Love the way the diagonal that runs through the painting is echoed by the angle of Alice's hair falling over her shoulder. It seems to link her to the careful balancing of the scales going on in the painting. 

19th century artists took delight in studying the sky as in the above landscape by Caspar David Friedrich. There are hardly any works by this mysterious German romantic in the U.S. I love the way the sky seems to come down and wrap its cool light around the distant mountain.

Speaking of light from the sky, here's a Sanford Gifford oil where the sun struggles to burn through a silvery haze. It's a painting where the main story is the land's pinks and oranges elegantly dancing with the cool gray colors of the atmosphere. 

Gifford's paintings are part of the long tradition of artists seeing the landscape as a vehicle for creating a telling emotional expression. Here's the National Gallery's Rembrandt from 1648, The Mill, where he casts a poetic solemn stillness over the ebbing of the day's light. 

All was not always so peaceful in 17th century Holland. Here is Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast by the wonderfully named Rudolf Backhuysen. This stormy sea oil below may seem a little overwrought to some contemporary eyes, but it is a masterful contrasting of warm yellows against cool silver grays. 

Since being the Artist In Residence this year at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY I've been studying the watercolors of the 20th century American watercolorist Charles Burchfield. You could say I have Burchfield on the brain. Look at the silver gray and yellow color palette of the background in Backhuysen's tempest. Burchfield so often would base his paintings around a similar palette as in his snow scene below. This last one isn't at the National Gallery, but wouldn't it be fun to see it hanging next to their Backhuysen.

Here I am just back from visiting the museum painting on the big canvas in my studio. It's based on a small oil I made on location in the bedroom in Edward Hopper's studio in Truro, MA. The view  looks into Hopper's painting room. That's the easel Hopper used to paint some of his world famous oils in the distance.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Christmas Eve

The holidays are a time to get together with good old friends. My wife Alice and I decided to drive down to Washington, DC to our favorite museum. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) has an enormous and unrivaled permanent collection. We've visited it ever so many times that many of my "old friends" are to be found hanging on its walls. 

They have the best angel painting ever, Abott Henderson Thayer's Stevenson Memorial. Can't help myself, just love that painting for how  it sounds its contemplative and slightly melancholy mood. That's me soaking it up.

Here's an old friend, Edward Hopper, who people never think of as a celebratory artist. Here's his Ryder House, to me it's a stirring hymn to the brilliance of sunlight on a white wall. Its light seems to pulse with its own clear energy.

Look at how the artist pushes the highlights on the sunlit grasses down way darker than the whites on the house. He knows you can only give a few of your highlights star billing.

SAAM owns one of Hopper's most famous paintings, Cape Cod Morning. Here's my wife Alice checking out the painting.

I've always admired the pattern of the white siding on the house. It's crisp rhythm plays off so nicely against the soft foliage and grasses at the right hand side of the painting. Hopper was sensitive to the danger that these patterned lines could become too stiff or rigid.

Looking closely at the painting's upper left corner one can see how Hopper approached painting these rows of lines gradually, painting them in first softly with thin oil washes with very low contrast. 

Another old friend to me is Winslow Homer's oil High Cliffs, Coast of Maine. I find it a beautifully decisive painting. Homer is a master of giving us lots of detail without it getting in the way of the main story he wants to tell. Here he wanted us to zero in on the long fingers of white surf that jut up into the dark masses of rocks.

Even though the rocks fill up the majority of the painting, Homer relaxes the contrasts within them, keeping their highlights only a dark middle tone. His white water just sings out in high contrast against all this hard darkness.

Finally I want to finish with one of my favorite paintings by Thomas Cole, who more than anyone else helped landscape painting gain a vigorous footing in this country. Homer and Hopper to me come out of a tradition Cole helped start.

Never one to shirk from drama, Cole's piece is titled The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge from 1829. It's the earth washed clean after the great Biblical flood. With our year 2015 coming to an end it's a wonderful symbol for us to hold in mind. It's a painting that tells any of us fresh starts are possible.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Is Making Copies Too Old School?: Charles Burchfield

Philip Koch oil copy of the left 1/3 of Charles 
Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight from 1950.

I was documenting paintings in my studio this morning. Two pieces needed labeling that I made during my first two stays in Buffalo this year as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC). They were copies of my favorite sections of two of Charles Burchfield's watercolors from BPAC's Permanent Collection.

My claim to fame is I am the only human ever to directly make copies of Burchfield watercolors in oils (I tell this tongue in cheek). It's a dreadfully old school thing to do.  Burchfield Penney Art Center indulged my whim. They were trusting enough to set up first Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight (1950) and then his Early Spring (1966-67) on an easel for several days each for me to examine them and copy from them.

Charles Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight on BPAC's easel at left.
At right Koch's French easel with the beginning of his oil copy.

Art students not that long ago were expected as part of their training to copy the work of acknowledged masters as a core preparation to become artists in their own right. When the modernist revolution swept through the arts in the early 20th century daring innovation came to valued in painting. The worst fear was to be seen as just repeating someone else's formula.

Philip Koch copy of the  central section of Charles Burchfield's
watercolor Early Spring from 1966-67 

Visual art after all is a language, we learn it by absorbing the grammar that's been hammered out by the best of the artists who've gone down the road before us. Budding novelists pick up the tools to tell their own unique stories by reading the master writers of the past. Whether you want to discover what's expressive in shape and color or in artfully turned sentences you have to revel in the best of what's been done before.

In the make shift studio in BPAC's Classroom, Burchfield's Early 
Spring on the easel with Koch speaking to BPAC's docents in July.

Is there a danger of letting the art of the past influence us too much? Sure. There are all sorts of contemporary paintngs of young women lounging on the beach in what look like ball gowns stolen from the costume department of the film Gone With the Wind. I think of Coubet's quote "I swam in the river of tradition. The others drowned in it." Excessively boastful of course, but he makes a point we need to hold in mind. 

Art of the past is a lens for us to see our daily experience more clearly. Burchfield articulated his inner sensations to us on a very hight level. He'd be delighted if newer artists learn from his example and come closer to their own authentic voices.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Painting a House Edward Hopper Loved

Philip Koch, Turret House, Nyack, oil on panel, 9 x 12, 2015

I have been traveling to Buffalo, NY frequently this year as the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. While there I go painting in the some of the locations where Charles Burchfield found subjects for his landscapes. Burchfield loved nothing better than studying his immediate surroundings. An unassuming neighbor's house or an empty field could inspire him to paint poetic and universal images. 

Burchfield's example reminds me of his contemporary and friend Edward Hopper.  Like Burchfield, Hopper went looking for magic right in the old neighborhood. 

Over Thanksgiving I returned to Nyack, NY the town where Hopper was born and lived until he was nearly 30. The area around the Hopper family home (now the Edward Hopper House Art Center) is nestled along the banks of the Hudson River. Below is a house that particularly caught young Hopper's eye.

It is on Loveta Place, four blocks from Hopper's home on North Broadway. With an elaborate domed turret, it sits right on top of the river's edge. You could easily toss a coin out one of its windows and hear a splash as it hit the water.

Hopper as a boy loved to play down by the river and no doubt knew the house well. Years later he would return to borrow from this memory when in 1941 he painted his oil The Lee Shore.

Edward Hopper, The Lee Shore

The setting of The Lee Shore appears to be Cape Cod. Yet the precarious placement of the house right down at the waterline and the house's prominent turret clearly suggest Hopper was dreaming back to his boyhood days in Nyack.

Here below is my preliminary vine charcoal drawing with the house in the background.

A better view of my drawing. 

Philip Koch, Turret House, Nyack, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2015

Sometimes one's neighborhood can serve as the best Muse of all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

There is no camera around when I paint.

Here's my new painting Uncharted II, 30 x 40", oil on canvas. I'm letting it dry on my studio floor until it's ready for me to brush on a protective coat of picture varnish. 

It's a painting I made entirely from my imagination. A friend asked where it was done. I told them really nowhere- I wasn't so much after a location as a state of mind. 

When I'm painting there are no cameras or photographs around. That makes my process a little different than the big majority of realist painters today. It's ironic as my grandfather, John Capstaff, was the inventor of the world's first commercially available color film (Kodachrome).

I don't have anything against cameras, but to me the real subject of a painting is the vision an artist has on the inside. That's notoriously hard to photograph. The point of art is to emotionally stir the viewer. If they feel in a different place after they've looked at your work you've done your job. A good piece of art energizes the viewer, it takes them on a little journey. 

I work from either direct observation or from my memory. It's a deliciously slow process, far more time consuming than working from a camera. Relying just on your eyes and your imagination as you paint puts some extra slack in the reins. You end up wandering in directions you hadn't meant to go. Of course you go down some paths that turn our to be dead ends. You backtrack and try another way, and then another. 

Looking at one of my completed paintings I find 100% of the time my favorite things are things that I didn't realize I was doing when I was making the painting. That sort of wandering takes up a lot of time, but it's the only way I know to get to a place I've never been before. Hope you'll come along.