Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Should Artists Paint Directly from Life Anymore?

John Singer Sargent, An Out of Doors Sketch, oil

Friday night I drove down to the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD to hear Peter Trippi, the Editor of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, who had just judged the paintings that came in from the Plein Air Easton event. He spoke about each of his selections for prizes. But he also addressed bigger concerns from the point of view of an enthusiast of observational realism in painting. He argued against the misconception that painting by direct observation of nature produces nothing more than a photograph-like copying of reality.

As a someone committed to "painting from life" for over four decades I know it has changed the way I look at the world. Try an experiment: stare closely at a photo. Then raise your gaze and look out a window at perhaps the cars on the street outside. What you see through the panes of glass is overwhelming to the eye. You're now taking in tens or hundreds of times the number of "pixels" of visual information than you saw in the photo.

To make sense of it, your brain has no choice but to take in only a small fraction of the mountain of information out there. And here's where the creativity comes in- no two people are going to notice the same features. One can pretty much copy in paint what one sees in a photograph. But when painting by observing real life one has left realm of just reporting and entered the more mysterious, and challenging, terrain of interpretation

 Here are two highly inventive paintings based at least in part on direct observation. First a Winslow Homer watercolor from 1874 of a man fishing in a small boat. It's fascinating to see Homer swim through the torrent of possibilities and show us only a few favored ideas.

He had become fascinated with the silhouette of the man's head and shoulders and focuses the viewers' eyes there. The playful ripples, so enjoyable in the immediate foreground, are banished from the water on the far side of the skiff. Homer wisely didn't want to distract you from tracing the outer contours of the fisherman. He's also deleted almost all details and folds in the man's jacket. 

Here's another boat painting by (OK, no surprise here to you regular readers of my blog) Edward Hopper.

It's  Dories at Ogunquit from 1914. To paint it Hopper wedged himself down between the rocks of this narrow cove, yet he all but glosses over their particulars as its the boats and far distance he wants to tell the story.

Direct observation in painting offers no guarantee as the mountains of less than successful realist paintings attests. But in other hands, like Homer's and Hopper's, working from their direct experiences of nature took them to a place more selective, more subjective, and more personal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Deep Water

Philip Koch, Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 16 x 20", 2012

My father died just as I was turning thirteen. It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  I remember him as tall and quiet, physically very strong, thoughtful, and always kind to me. When he was around I felt OK. My mother sadly had enough of her own struggles that she just didn't have it in her to be very supportive. But in his own way my father made up for that. In his presence I felt held up and safe, and after he died my family moved into painful new territory.  I hung onto that memory of how my dad made me feel as if it was a life raft. 

Where I live we have a pool and for the last half dozen years I've been taking my granddaughter Nora and now her younger sister Maya swimming with me. When she was two and three, Nora would cling tightly to me as I carried her around the 3' depth of the pool's shallows. Bit by bit she learned to dog paddle and tread water.  Still much of our pool time consisted of me carrying her around on my back like I was some kind of over sized seahorse. We made a game of it we both enjoyed  Now she swims better than I do and races around the pool's deep waters. To see her grow like this is a wonderful feeling. So is her justifiable pride in what she's learned.

Her sister Maya, two years younger, naturally is a more modest swimmer. Up until now she has had me carry her as I would stand in the waist deep end of the pool. Two weeks ago she managed to dog paddle her way to pass the pivotal "Deep Water Test" administered by our Life Guard and has joined her big sister in the pool's deep end.

But Maya tires quickly and reverts to clinging to my shoulders like we did in previous seasons. Back then I held her up effortlessly while sanding upright with my feet firmly planted on bottom. But now we're in deep water and I have to vigorously tread water to keep us above the surface. Not the strongest swimmer in the world, it's a bit of a stretch for me to hold her up.

Honestly I don't think Maya has noticed the difference- she just knows I do the same old job of supporting her as I always did. I've thought about telling her that sometimes she inadvertently comes close to pulling me under, but I haven't said anything to her.

I think I like too much the illusion that there's always going to be someone there to hold her up. She'll find out for herself how at best this can only be a sometimes thing. I just want to keep that "everything is safe" feeling playing in her head a little longer. If I'm honest I think really it's my need I'm trying to meet.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Claude Monet and Me

Here is one of my new paintings, White Mountains: Cool Sky,  oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10". It is based on the drawing below, White Mountains, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2014, that I made on location last month up in northern New Hampshire. 

For about 30 years most of my painting was done camped out in the field with my portable easel and my oil pigments. It was an unbeatable experience in deepening how I see and extending the range of color chords I can employ. I am very proud of the paintings I made this way.

Eventually though I confronted the fact that working in oil right in front of my sources often made me too conservative. After all, much of the time nature's colors can be restrained and understated. Nature has a way of pulling you in and I often erred on the side of being too faithful to everything I was seeing. I wanted more slack in the reins to explore additional color options than just what I was seeing directly in front of my easel.  

So I hit on the idea of working in oil on paintings I would make back in my studio based on finished drawings I would do on location. One advantage of this way of proceeding is it allows me to experiment more with alternative worlds of color. 

Above is another new painting based on that same vine charcoal drawing. This one is White Mountains: Warm Sky, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2014.

As I have matured as a painter I've come to see more and more that art for me is more about how I paint an idea rather than just what that idea is. The three versions above are from the same scene. Yet in each the personality of the composition's main actors, the sky, the dark mountain, and foreground trees, seem to read their lines with a different inflection. And an overall feeling results that's distinctly different in each landscape. 

One of the reasons I tried this way of working in the first place was the example of Claude Monet, the French Impressionist. He was fascinated at how the same forms would totally transform as he viewed them at different times of day and under varying weather conditions. Below are two of his haystack series painted from precisely the same spot but giving us profoundly different interpretations.

Monet was said to have sometimes hauled a wheelbarrow loaded with canvases out into the field so he could work for a few minutes on one canvas, switch to another as the light changed, and then switch again. I hope the story is true as it's such a good image I carry in my head of what he must have looked like.

Much as I love Monet, my methods are different than what he was up to. But his example serves as a reminder to all of us. Our job as artists is to be a little relentless- search out the best tools and ways of working that allow you to hone in on just the best of what you want to say to your viewer. For me this has meant taking the act of drawing more seriously as a source for my painting. Ironically, spending extra time working in a black and white medium like vine charcoal gives me more freedom to try more adventurous things with color.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

My Dream Last Night of Charles Burchfield

       Charles Burchfield's watercolor November Sun Emerging

Regular readers of this blog know of my interest (some would say obsession) with the work of the American watercolorist Charles Burchfield. This morning I awoke from a dream I had about the famous Western New York painter.  I was showing some friends the studio Burchfield had used. Unlike his actual studio, the walls were gleaming white and were covered with subtle and distinctive abstract leaf designs (appropriate as before his painting career took off, Burchfield worked for years designing wall paper at a firm in Buffalo, NY).

We were seeking the special inner room where Burchfield made his paintings. We moved through a series of hallways that became progressively more narrow.  I realized was going to have to crawl through a space so tight that I feared I would get stuck.  Maybe Burchfield could fit through that space, but clearly I couldn't.

What a metaphor. It was saying I think you can love Burchfield's work, study it and learn from it, but you can't in the end successfully enter Burchfield's inner sanctum or be just like him. 

Burchfield himself spoke highly of some of the teachers he had studying under at what is now the Cleveland Institute of Art (that I myself briefly attended). Yet Burchfield while learning much from his teachers valued his own personal experience so highly that his paintings bore the indelible stamp of his own personality. 

Edward Hopper, Gas,  oil on canvas

Burchfield's friend, Edward Hopper, was an enormous inspiration to me as a yound painter. Seeing his work made me change from painting abstractions to working as a realist. For many years I made paintings of the kind of houses I thought Hopper would have like to paint. To this day I am extremely proud of that more Hopper-like body of my work. 

Hopper himself had studies with the charismatic teacher Robert Henri and learned a great deal from him. But he was to complain later that it took him a whole decade to "get over" Henri's undue influence. About 15 years ago I began to feel the stirrings of another voice that was urging me to move on into some unexplored new painting territory. 

    Philip Koch, The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas, 38 x 38, 2008

Most of my paintings moved more towards a brighter color palette and turned back toward the setting of the natural world. It was less a conscious decision and more of responding to an inner feeling. 

The point of my Burchfield dream was that we have to maintain a careful balance when we approach the work of the artists from the past we are most attracted to. They are so good they could potentially pull you in like a moth to a flame. Nor do you want to turn away from the genuine insight and energy they achieved. It's just too much fun to look at and it has enormously important lessons to teach us. 

Great figures like Burchfield and Hopper cast long shadows. We can spend long hours imbibing their work. But we honor their spirit best when we find ourselves stepping out from their shadows into light we discover for ourselves.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Edward Hopper on Cape Cod

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA is bringing me to give a talk on Edward Hopper's life on Cape Cod on July 31, 2014. It is part of their programming around their new exhibition The Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator that runs at the Museum through October 26.

Hopper was drawn to aspects of the world that he felt hadn't been explored enough. He found unexpected meaning in rooftops, glimpses through windows and in humble backyard settings. And it is intriguing that when his wife Jo inherited money he chose to build his studio outside New York on Cape Cod. Cape Cod, especially its outer section from Eastham out to Truro and Provincetown is a pretty distinctive landscape with a look all its own. If one looks at the history of artists who made the Cape one of their subjects, nobody in my opinion nailed it like Hopper. 

Above is one of my own paintings, Edward Hopper's Road, oil on canvas, 40 x 60" that is in the collection of the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, IN. That's Brian Byrn, the Museum's Curator with the painting during a solo show the Museum held of paintings. I painted it during one of my residencies in Hopper's Truro studio some years ago. It is of the winding dirt road that leads to Hopper's place. It gives a good feeling of the landscape around the studio- large rolling sand dunes. 

In Hopper's day the Cape was only just beginning to recover from the near total deforestation it was subjected to in the 19th century. Now some two decades later than when I painted this oil, the same view is completely blocked by new growth in the roadside trees.

Below is Edward Hopper's, Hills, South Truro,  oil on canvas,  now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

The painting shows what it looked like there in 1930. This is the view looking west from a rise towards the cresting line of duned where Hopper would choose to build his studio (he chose to put it on the dark dune at the top right, about an inch in from the right hand side of this image). From there he could look out to sea to the west or survey the dunescape looking back inland.

Another of my personal favorites is The Camel's Hump, painted in 1931, three years before Hopper would construct his new studio just off to the right of the space depicted in the oil. 

The Camel's Hump is one of the big stars of the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY. That same sense of monumental rolling sandy dunes comes across clearly.

Some years later I went to stay and work at Hopper's studio for the first time in 1983 and did this oil looking towards the studio from the approach road. These days this view is obscured by the taller foliage. 

Here's a photo of the studio taken from the path Hopper would walk down to go swimming on the beach on Cape Cod Bay. The views from the many windows in the studio that's located at the top of a commandingly high sand dune make you feel you're in an observatory. In many ways you are. I think that is what Hopper wanted for himself.

With the tide out I was able to shoot this view of the studio from the beach. 

And here is the famous portrait of Hopper by his studio taken in 1960 by Arnold Newman. Hopper's wife Jo appears in the background.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New Paintings at Isalos Fine Art in Stonington, ME

Isalos Fine Art in Stonington, ME just received four new Philip Koch oil paintings for their summer season. The gallery is owned by Michael and Rebecca Daugherty (Rebecca is also a painter and that's her oil of the gallery above). Last summer one of the gallery's feature shows was a solo exhibition, Inside Edward Hopper's World: Paintings by Philip Koch, that focused just on my work done in Edward Hopper's former studio on Cape Cod and his boyhood home in Nyack, NY. 

Here's Michael Daugherty standing in front of some of my work in the show last summer in his gallery.

The show did well and garnered a feature article by Bob Keyes in the 8/11/13 edition of the Maine Sunday Telegram (you can read the article here).

This year we're showing my landscapes.

One of the new quartet is my Adirondack Lake: Red, oil on panel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2014. It was painted on Lake Placid, NY near where they held the Winter Olympics.

I emphasized the amazing density of the tightly packed trees one finds in the forests throughout the Northeast. As a boy I went to scout camp near Lake Placid and was surprised by its northern forests. Previously I had had no idea trees and bushes and mosses could be so tightly packed together. Their forests were dazzlingly beautiful, but maybe also a little haunted.

In another new oil, Uncharted, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10" I worked entirely from memory and imagination to create a winter landscape that beckons us to explore its deeper spaces. To me it's a metaphor for the allure of what lies down the future path for all of us, something intriguing but also something that sounds a note of uncertainty. One of my memories that served as yeast for this image was the heavy snows of my childhood in upstate New York in Rochester- they often meant no school and the prospect of a day exploring the deep snows with my friends.

Sonnet II, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2014, was painted from a vine charcoal drawing I made on location last Fall on the Schoodic Peninsula. The view looks south towards the mountains on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. On the right is Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic Coast in the U.S. Next to the wide open horizontals of the surrounding bays it has a remarkable presence as if it was a mountain many times its size. If any mountain can be said to have a spirit, Cadillac would have to be on that list.

And my final painting was begun just a few hundred yards from Isalos Fine Art's building when I was in Stonington for the opening reception last August of my solo exhibition there. It is Isle au Haut: Morning III, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2013. I had climbed the steep hillside in back of the art gallery to gain a vista of Stonington Harbor and in the distance the low mountains on Isle au Haut, an island on the north side of Penobscot Bay that's part of Acadia National Park.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My painting Banner at Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta

My painting Banner, oil on panel, 24 x 18", 2014 is in the new group exhibition Summer Pleasures at Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta. There is an opening reception Friday, June 13 from 6-8 p.m. The show runs through Aug. 2, 2014. It is a painting based entirely on memory. And it comes with some history. As I often do I worked out this image over the course of years.

Below is the initial version, an oil on panel from 2008 measuring 10 x 7 1/2". And it too stemmed from events farther back. About ten years ago my wife Alice and I went on a painting excursion to northern Vermont. One morning I got rained out from working with my portable easel in the field but found a wonderful alternative view from the breakfast room of our B&B in Burlington. Situated on a hill, it looked out on a towering pine that framed a distant view of Lake Champlain and the even more distant Adirondack Mountains of New York. 

The pine just spoke to me. It had a broken rhythm of shapes and empty intervals that suggested its surviving decades of northern winters. I make drawings of things like this- so often they surpass in richness even the most inventive thing we create in our minds. We'd be foolish not to take them in, study and enjoy them. So I set up in the breakfast room and made a vine charcoal drawing that served as a basis for this small oil. 

The far distance came from another of my memories. Way back in 1975 I visited Cape Cod for the first time. Previously I had known its distinctive topography only through the paintings Edward Hopper had made there. I had always found them slightly odd. But seeing it in person I realized Hopper was more than anything truthful to the spirit of the place. I was transfixed by the landscape of the Cape's enormous sand dunes. In particular the monumental silhouette of Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet, just offshore from the cabin I had rented with friends, delighted my eye and found a permanent home in my imagination. It seemed the perfect backdrop for my evolving Banner painting. 

I'm sometimes asked what a painting like Banner is about or what it means. A lot of things, of course, but I'd be kidding if I didn't admit to much speculating on just that over the months I worked on these pieces.

The juxtaposition of the upward thrusting tree against the dense earthbound distant dune is really the heart of the piece. They speak of the curious dance we all do between the moving and changing parts of our lives and what stays unchanging and gives us a foundation for everything else. 

Is it clouding over and about to storm or is the overcast breaking open and just about to let the low sunlight blast down upon our foreground tree? I like to imagine it both ways. And the tree itself is far from densely verdant. Instead it seems to have weathered its share of years and storms. Maybe from that it derives a kind of hard won beauty.