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Showing posts from 2009

The Most Important Painting

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Winslow Homer, Stowing Sail, watercolor, 1903
What's your first conscious memory?
When I was three my family moved from the house where I spent my first few years. I have a couple dozen images of life in that first house clear in my head. So few memories survive the ravages of time. Maybe the ones that do shine a little brighter as the years march by.
One memory that stands out for me is this painting. A framed reproduction of it hung over our couch in the living room where my sisters and I spent countless hours playing on the floor. I remember staring at it often. It's funny but I thought at the time that I wished the painting was more colorful and that the artist should have provided more details so we would know what was going on in the painting.
Many years later I got to see the original in the Art Institute of Chicago where it lives. While there are other paintings I love more, none have stayed with me quite like this humble little Homer watercolor. Just like you don't…

It's Great To Have One's Painting Hanging in the Corcoran Museum

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Here I am in Washington, D.C. with one of my newest oils, currently hanging in the Corcoran Museum of Art. Oh wait, that was my fantasy speaking. This is actually me with one of my all time favorite paintings, Frederick Church's oil of Niagara Falls. Church is a terrific painter but just to my eye he sometimes gets carried away with telling the viewer a little bit too much information. Not so here. He sticks to water and lots of it. What it remarkable is how solid and flowing the water seems at the same time. If nothing else, the painting is a masterpiece of how beautifully the full range of greens can be used. I am just in awe of what the guy pulled off here.

We had gone down to D.C. to see their soon to close John Singer Sargent show. We weren't disappointed though they didn't allow photography in the Sargent galleries (snarling half-starved Dobermans flanked each painting held by equally surly guards, so I didn't test their resolve on this question). But one was free…

Creative Insight (It Comes Wrapped in a Soap Bubble).

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Philip Koch, Eagle Lake, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2009




Philip Koch, Eagle Lake, pastel on artist's sandpaper, 8 x 12", 2009

This pair of drawings comes from a very famous spot in American Art History, the summit of Cadillac Mountain in what is now Acadia National Park in Maine. You could raise a football team from all famous American landscape painters who have stood in this spot to paint the view. Frederick Church and Sanford Gifford just to name two.
The top charcoal was done on location there this last fall. Just below it is one of the pastel drawings I did in the studio to begin my explorations about turning the original idea into a major oil painting. The pastel was begun on a sheet of paper covered with a thin wash of toned-down ultramarine blue acrylic as an underpainting layer. My idea was to let the cool blues show through in the foreground and middle ground and completely cover the sky with a warm, creamy yellow.
As it happened I started the drawing in the sky with …

Winter: Nature Is Bigger Than We Are!

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Rockwell Kent, The Trapper, oil, 1920's
Here's a painting by one of my favorite artists, Rockwell Kent. Partly I like him because he makes me feel so at home. For all of us that means different things, but when I cast my eye back in time to childhood I think of winter and deep snow. My father always wanted to live in the woods and eventually got enough money together to design and build a house on a steep hillside by the south shore of Lake Ontario near Rochester in the town of Webster. I was an impressionable 4 when we moved in, in the snow, in 1952.
The property had to be reached by a long sloping driveway with the house at the bottom. Even though we hired a man with a plow to clear us out after major snows, he just would do a rudimentary once over leaving lots of white stuff to deal with. If you didn't get out there and shovel it almost bare, even with a running start from the dry garage, you weren't going to make it up the hill.
Needless to say, all of us did a lot…

Celebrating Winter and Some Personal History

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This is a wonderful little oil by the Canadian painter Lawren Harris from the earlier part of the 20th century. He's a fantastic painter and it is a shame he's so little known in the United States. Working at the same time as the American artists Rockwell Kent and Grant Wood, he shared their ability to see the geometric forms in nature and celebrate them while still bathing them in brilliant sunlight. It is a painting about the visual delight that winter brings. As I write this our first major snowstorm in years is sweeping into the Mid Atlantic where I live. Like Lawren Harris, I grew up in the North and love the look and feel of winter, so this seems a perfect image to open with.
Celebrating. Well, I am tonight. This morning I finished packing up four big wooden crates with 22 paintings just as the shipper's truck pulled up. Crating large oil paintings and lots of works on paper under fragile glass so they can make the trip safely is no small thing. I'm delighted to …

A House is a Giant Still Life

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Philip Koch, Third Story, oil on canvas, 42 x 63", 1985
I've always been fascinated by old houses, at least the ones that have survived into my time. So many of them have all this extra architectural adornment. Most of it is done inventively and sensitively. Granted these weren't built for the poorest people, but even so it seems the extra expense of seriously decorating the houses was considered necessary. Compare that to the stark box-like constructions that comprise most of our contemporary architecture like your local Target store. Will people in the distant future look back at our time and think "god, what a bunch of dullards they were in the 21st century."
This is a house from near my home in Baltimore that honestly always creeped me out a little. It's one of the most ornate around and had been painted with a strange cool green. I imagined the Adams Family takes rooms in it when they're in town.
Painting architecture is much like painting still live…

Working Alone and Working With Other Artists

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Above is Clifford, my daughter's cat who I wrote about in the previous post "How Do You Know What to Paint?" Shortly after I took this photo he scratched my hand deeply and now I'm sporting a bandage. Would someone remind me what it is I see in these animals?

Was reading Stapleton Kearns' blog this morning. Couldn't agree more with his advice advice to get out there and rub shoulders with other artists. I'm always amazed when I stumble across a new good idea from someone else that I hadn't thought of it before myself. Nowadays one of my personal adages is "Nothing is obvious until you notice it."

There is a tricky balance to being an artist. We have a contradictory need for both contact with others and for solitude in the studio or out painting in the field. I often think about this on my many days where I'm alone painting for hours on end. It can be lonely sometimes, but I'm convinced that's one of the prices we have to pay to rea…

How Do You Know What to Paint?

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Philip Koch, Warmth of the Spring, oil on canvas, 42 x 63", 1991
I've been asked many times how I pick my ideas for paintings. Here's part of an answer.
This is a scene that still exists but you can't see anymore. It's a house and garage about a mile from my house in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Baltimore where I've done so many paintings over the years. Just a few years after I completed the piece I drove by just to take a look at the source once again and found it completely hidden by the saplings and brush reclaiming the front yard. I love that.
What first caught my eye when I discovered the place were the scalloped edges of the eaves of the house on the right. Probably when the house was first built, they looked almost too cute like an over-decorated gingerbread house. But as the surrounding forest reasserted itself, it lent credibility to the scene. After all, Hansel and Gretel found the gingerbread house deep in the forest where perhaps all sorts of …

" Whispered Promises and the Change in the Light"

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Philip Koch, State Road, oil on panel, 20 x 30", 1989
More scans of slides from the not so distant past. I'm encountering paintings I haven't seen in some time and am really enjoying them as old friends. The title of this post is a line from an old Jackson Browne song. It is something of a theme song of painting.
Oil painting is a slow process. That is one of its strengths. It teaches you patience- to wait and keep looking for something special to reveal itself. The longer I paint (or live for that matter) the more I value timing and pacing of oneself. Both art and life are tricky, and the headlong rush of wanting to complete something sometimes needs to be held in check. We prepare with some judicious watching and waiting until the time is just right. Especially us landscape painters, the chroniclers of the changing lights of day.
Awhile back I got into driving from Baltimore across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It is a flat as a pancake there. What…

Beavers, Artists and Computers

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Philip Koch, Beaver Dam, oil on canvas 48 x 36", 1985, collection Ruth and Frank Yoash-Ganz, Davidson, NC
More trolling through my older paintings as I scan the bin of slides from my studio.
This was painted from on oil study I did up in Norfolk, CT in the extreme northwest corner of Connecticut where the hills begin ramping up enough to be called mountains. Like so much of New England, the forests have reclaimed most of the abandoned farm fields so when looking for places to paint one's eye is caught by beaver ponds. For just this reason, I've painted lots of these remarkable natural clearings.
With this one the beaver had used the trunk of an old oak to anchor one side of their dam. It looked plenty sturdy. I loved the way the big trunk leaned to the left at exactly a right angle to the largest branch in the beaver's dam. It almost felt like a piece of installation art where the beaver was saying his dam seamlessly joined with the forest from which it was made. The iron…

Edward Hopper's Kitchen

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Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Studio Kitchen, oil on panel, 15 x 20", 1997
I've been scanning slides of my older paintings again to save them as digital files (kicking and screaming, I'm being dragged into the present day...). Here's one I scanned yesterday of a favorite painting done on my French easel in the kitchen of Edward Hopper's old painting studio in Truro, MA, on Cape Cod. It was done on one of the recurring residencies I've enjoyed in the place. Spending time there you discover little truths about this formidable painter.
One extravagance of the studio is it has the absolute maximum possible number of windows facing out in all directions. All provide an unobstructed view of the hump shaped dunes and the Cape Cod sky. Standing in the studio you have the feeling it is a sort of observatory for the Cape's legendary light. It literally catches both the first and last rays of each day's sunlight. And the light through the open kitchen door is t…

You Can Go Home Again

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Philip Koch, Northern Pines, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 1985
For everyone there are memories of people, experiences, and places that just stay with you decade in and decade out. They can be sources of some of the deepest inspiration. Here's one of mine. It's not that it looks like my home. Rather it's a place where I feel most at home with myself.
This is a pond in Acadia National Park in Maine. I fell in love with the spot and did a series of works there on location. They all sold and I found myself missing them. I got to thinking about them and without consulting any images of them started doing a version of the same spot out of my imagination and memory. Below is the result.


Philip Koch, The Song of All Days, oil on panel, 36 x 72", 2008
Actually I like all the ways it departs from the earlier painting. It seems a more universal statement about experiencing the landscape.
One gets busy with other things and though I always meant to go back to the original spot in …

The Puritans, Stolen Corn, and Using Color

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Philip Koch, The Return, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 1998

Philip Koch, The Return, pastel, 9 x 12, 1998
This is my post Thanksgiving post.
There's a famous landmark in Truro, MA on Cape Cod Bay named Corn Hill. The Puritans arrived there from England with their ship's stores badly depleted. Before heading on to Plymouth, MA they went ashore and stumbled into the local Native American's store of corn. Declaring this a gift of Providence (they literally did) they then took the corn for themselves and shortly after headed to the mainland to enjoy further calamities.
The name Corn Hill stuck. When I first started having residencies in Edward Hopper's Truro painting studio, I of course started checking out all the sources in the area he painted from. His eye was so sharp you'd be crazy not to. Hopper did a fabulous watercolor or two of the houses on the steep slope of the famous hill. From near the top you can look south and see this marvelous view. A tributary of the Pame…

The Strangest Comment this Painter Ever Received

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Philip Koch, Mount Washington, oil on panel, 18 x 24" 1995
"Would Monet Paint Mount Washington?" A motorist stuck in traffic actually rolled his window down and yelled this out to me as I painted this oil in the Mount Washington section of Baltimore. Now any artist who sets up a portable easel in a public place places them self in the front line for odd responses from passers by. I was set up just feet from traffic on a bridge over the river in the painting. The traffic was stuck in a terrible jam caused by the grand opening of a new Whole Foods grocery. It was drawing record crowds. Baltimore is a small enough town that this was a big deal.
Leaving the Whole Foods parking lot meant spending time in a traffic jam. Nothing is all bad, and my glacial progress driving in my car one afternoon allowed me time to discover the potential of the view when one was half way over the river. So I came back and set up my easel on the sidewalk, just a few feet from the inching along tra…

Second Chances and Then More Chances

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Philip Koch, Green Spring II, oil on canvas, 40 x 60", 2009
This painting was posted for a while earlier this week and then taken back to the studio so I could work on it again. About a pound of oil pigment later, she's back to debut at the ball once again. I became aware the balances needed tuning. The sky became darker and I pruned some of the trees and finally demolished a house.
This is a painting I began sometime ago and it was based on a plein air oil. As it became a larger piece back in the studio, the centrifugal forces that always threaten to break out in all directions took over for awhile. It is a little like calming down a herd of half-wild horses and getting them back into a corral. You have to be patient and keep after them, employing both a little charm and a steeled determination.
Even so, there is a whole lot left in this painting. I tend to like paintings that aim to tell one a great deal. So often real life is overcrowded with events, movements, moods and s…

A Very Short Explanation of Modern Art

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"What the heck is it with that modern art anyway?"
A friend from the gym where I work out asked me that this morning. All I managed was a "well..." accompanied by a shrug and a wan smile. Later in the day I got to thinking I've been in the trenches as a working painter for four decades and really ought to be able to give a decent answer. Here goes:
We humans are emotional creatures. We use images in our heads to try to navigate our way through our lives. And we make images of the things we see and of what we imagine because doing so seems to make some of us feel better. And others seem to like looking at what we've made. Maybe it makes them feel better too.
As far as painting goes, it really involves two ways of seeing. One is to enjoy the design of the flat surface just like that of a woven Hopi rug. The other is to imagine the painting's surface as a sheet of glass behind which the painter carves out a deeper space. Often this second type is populated by…

Second Chances: Why Art is Better Than Real Life

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Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, oil on canvas, 35 x 72", 2008
Above is a painting I started over a decade ago where I repainted the sky last year for a much better result. There is the old saying that "life is a work in progress." What isn't?
I've been going through a fascinating period this fall with my work as a basement flood forced me to literally handle most of the paintings stored down there. As you're trying to gently carry them up the steps to safety you can't help but do a little re-examining . As a result, I have a whole number of paintings I've decided to make little adjustments to.
Is there anyone who hasn't mulled over in their mind something that went wrong in their life, maybe a decision that proved a mistake or something said in anger you've regretted. Once the cat is out of the bag there's often little you can do.
If you're an artist, you get issued a special white armband by The Muse to go back and get it right the se…

Why I "Never" Paint Old Barns

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Philip Koch, Stone City Barns, oil on canvas, 24 x 48", 1991
Here is a painting that owes a great deal to one of the country's most intriguing regional painters, Grant Wood (1891-1942). A native of Cedar Rapids, IA, Wood conducted a summer painting school for, I believe, two seasons in the nearby town of Stone City, IA. One of his paintings, Stone City, Iowa, depicts the town as it appeared at the time. I remember seeing this painting reproduced in my 7th or 8th grade history textbook. Back then I didn't like the painting but found myself stopping to look at it often. Usually that's a sign it is slyly working its magic on you.


I was invited to have my first solo art museum exhibition at the Cedar Rapics Museum of Art by its then Director Joseph Czestochowski back in 1990. As part of the show they asked me to come out to Cedar Rapids for a week and teach a painting class. Naturally I wanted to paint the landscape myself and was strongly urged by the Museum staff to try S…

Haunted Houses

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Philip Koch, Shadows on the House, oil on panel, 9 3/4 x 8 3/4", 1982
This is another painting that's headed to the framer tomorrow morning. It's done plein air in a neighborhood that has always fascinated me near where I live. Called Dixon Hill, it lives up to its name, with some remarkably steep roads that make me glad I don't live there in the winter (unlike New England, where snow clearing is virtually on a military basis, down here in Baltimore I think the city only has 3 snowplows). I grew up in an extremely hilly section of the shoreline of Lake Ontario just outside of Rochester, NY and to me, really meaningful terrain has to have steep rises and valleys. It's a preference that speaks to how I started imagining the world as a little kid that survives to this day.
Dixon Hill is full of homes build long ago as summer homes for the wealthy industrialists of Baltimore who wanted to escape the heat and grime of the city. All the homes are architecturally distinct a…

Can a "Happy" Painting Be Any Good?

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Philip Koch, October, oil on panel, 13 x 13 1/2", 1978
Here's a painting I just took out of an older simple frame and will be taking to my framer for something a little more substantial this week. It's from a very long time ago. The fall of 1978 and my then girlfriend (and later to be my wife) Alice were taking our first trip out of town together. So it's an event that sticks in my mind. I started a painting on a beautiful but freezing morning in the front yard of my old undergraduate school friend Larry Farmer's place in the little town of Pottersville, NJ. It was absolutely freezing, but I cajoled Alice into posing in the front yard wearing only a light sweater (if I'm going to suffer for my art, why shouldn't other people too?).
I had met Larry my fist semester at Oberlin College back when we both had other futures sketched out for ourselves. Larry was a Government Major I believe and I was intending to become a Sociologist. You could say we watched each …

What Should One Paint?

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Philip Koch, Route 6, Yellow House, oil on panel, 14 x 15", 2009
Ran across a painting from the '80's a few days ago that I always wanted to go back into. Yesterday I gave in and dove in.
When I was a very little boy one of my first memories was a children's record titled "Whizzer the Airplane." On the dust jacket was a beautiful illustration of a smiling airplane that was painted bright yellow. I used to thrill to the adventure of Whizzer getting lost in a thunderstorm, almost crashing , and then righting himself and fly out into clear skies again (hey, I was four, and such struggles feel like they're happening daily to you at that age). Needless to say I identified mightily with Whizzer. In the realm of feeling, I was Whizzer.
Just south of where Edward Hopper lived on Cape Cod is the small town of Wellfleet, and right by the side of Route 6 that runs up the Cape's spine is this yellow house. I did a number of paintings of it, one time standing in a 3…

A Secret Artists and Collectors Know

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Philip Koch, Blackberry River Forest, oil 55 x 44", 1990
This is a short talk I gave at the University of Maryland University College at the opening reception dinner for their 2004 exhibition of my paintings A Vision of Nature.
Artists and art collectors have something in common- it is that search for that special painting. While there are far easier ways to decorate, art collectors sense on a gut level that there is a special quality they want more of in their lives.
Experience, living, is more unexpected than we adults let on. Sometimes it is even strange. The message of painting, and of my paintings, is that this is ok, and beyond that, that allowing ourselves to embrace this awkward side of our experience makes us stronger, gives us bigger lives, makes us more potent, and best of all, happier.
When someone brings a painting home and puts it up on their wall ultimately they are doing it for only one reason- they somehow sense it will make them an artist of their own lives.
A paint…

Why Titles Matter

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Philip Koch, The Arrival, oil on panel, 45 x 60", 2004 Collection of Susan and Michael Hughes, Baltimore, MD
When I married Alice in 1982 we went on a honeymoon to Acadia National Park in Maine. As most newlywed couples do, we spent the time working on paintings.
The title of a painting used to matter much less to me years ago when I got most of my ideas for paintings marching around with my portable easel. Simple descriptors like "Three Pines Near the Highway" served me just fine.
Over time though I had grown fascinated with using the image of the landscape in a more mythical fashion. Often now I think of my paintings showing a glimpse of a world that exists long before or long after our present time. Maybe they exist outside of time altogether. They come about after engaging in a long, elaborate daydream. My job as the artist is to make that gel into a mental image with actual solid form and real spaces. It's not easy.
What helps me is imagining every possible aspect…

Sitting Down to Breakfast with Edward Hopper

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Philip Koch, Hopper Studio Kitchen, pastel, 6 x 8", 2004
This is a pastel drawing I did on location in Edward Hopper's old painting studio in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. The studio was designed by Hopper himself in 1934 (built at the height of the Depression with money his wife Jo inherited).
The studio reveals Hopper's single minded devotion to making his paintings the center of his life. An unusually tall man (over 6' 7") he saved fully half of the dwelling's space to his painting room and had to cram everything else into what was left. The kitchen is quite small and is furnished with a table and two chairs more suited to doll furniture than holding the behind of America's preeminent realist painter. In choices like these Hopper shows us his priorities.
One can learn a lot from Hopper. I know I have. He studied painting with the legendary personality Robert Henri, by all accounts a highly charismatic teacher.Hopper absorbed from Henri much knowledge about …