Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Most Important Painting





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 choose your parents, early influences stay with you. You have to make the best use of what they offered you, good and bad.

With this particular Homer, I think there was plenty of good. It offers us lots of lessons. One would be just to show how much can be accomplished working primarily in grays. Homer is alleged to have told artists "never paint the sky blue." While he didn't always follow this advice he certainly does here and sounds a beautiful color chord of the warm gray sky against the pale blue waves.

Nobody can paint a figure in the landscape with more authority than Homer. The sailor standing in the skiff has a marvelous rhythm between himself and the mast of the larger boat. Notice that while the man braces himself with legs apart against the skiff's rocking in the waves, the overall axis of his body is at exactly the same diagonal as the lean of the big boat's tall mast.

And a final design idea that I loved as a little kid: the upturned arc of the painted waterline on the transom (the back end) of the large boat merges perfectly with the front of the little skiff. One boat flows effortlessly into the other yet the unique personalities (if one can use that word) of each boat's hull is respected. To this day I can remember sitting on the floor of my childhood home and tracing this movement from one form to another. It intrigued me in a way I then couldn't understand, but I looked at it countless times, trying to make sense of it.

Probably it was my dad who had brought that Homer painting into our house. He had a life long love of the sea and no doubt identified heavily with the man in the skiff. His taste in home decor turned out to be quite a gift to me. Below is my granddaughter Nora who just now is the same age I was when I was first checking out the Homer print in my parent's living room.


Hanging in her living room now is a large oil of mine I gave to my daughter Susan and her new husband Mike as a wedding present. It is The Arrival, oil on panel, 45 x 60". No doubt little Nora has been taking it in with her 3 year old eyes. Probably there are things she likes and no doubt a few suggestions she can make about how it could be better. Wonder what she'll remember about the painting years from now...










Friday, December 25, 2009

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




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 to photograph the rest of the museum. Sargent it struck me was really really good at seeing things in groups. The fellow has a knack for amazing compositions and a sense of movement we can all learn from.


As they have a fabulous collection, there was lots left to shoot other than the Sargents.




Above is my wife Alice checking out her soul sister in this great Winslow Homer painting. She and I were talking about Homer today and she commented how muscular his paintings were.
She meant that in the sense of their simple bold shapes and dramatic contrasts, as well as the fact his fisherwomen were working women with real physical presence and power. Don't cross one of them or you'd likely end up face down in the wet sand. Of course as well as flexed muscle, Homer had an amazingly sensitive eye for shimmering light and the perfectly placed detail.

Below is a just over-the-top gallery of famous American paintings by some of my favorites. At the right on the bottom row is an Abbott Thayer winterscape of Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. It's got wonderfully varied ideas about what color snow can be. Nearby are goodies by Paxton, Dewing.





And finally here she is with Oscar Bluemner. He's one of her favorite modernists and I can see why. Bluemner always has great tonal contrasts and excellent silhouetted flat shapes to contain his high intensity color. It's a good combination.





Wednesday, December 23, 2009

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


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 yellow pastel, but the first few strokes seemed so bright I decided to immediately go down to the bottom of the paper and work in the closer forms with various greys. That done, I returned to the top intending to finish covering over the blue underpainting. But I stopped. Instead I left the underpainting blue uncovered to form the largest shape in the sky.

What happened was one of those moments when a new, better idea comes over us. I've previously described this as like hearing a little voice in my inner ear. But of course there isn't an actual sound. This time around I had a somewhat different sensation as if I could see a new idea floating into view. It approached almost imperceptibly in the manner that a child's soap bubble may sometimes take flight and appear where you least expect it. As a former child who excelled in blowing bubbles, I like this second analogy.

As kids we used to try to blow the biggest bubble we could and then catch them in our hands. With practice at getting a light touch, it was sometimes possible to get the fragile things to alight in hand and to carry the bubble for a least a few steps before it would shatter.

We artists need to "catch" good ideas when the occur to us. But we have to better the awkward attempts of a child to catch and hold them like a soap bubble. New ideas almost always come to us half-formed, as if they are struggling to exist at all. Somehow we have to quickly identify the ones that have the real deal of promise, catch them, and then slowly build them into something of substance. A quality of real tenderness and patience on our parts is involved here, something you never hear spoken of in art schools and universities. But we don't blush at the thought as we're too drawn to the glow of new possibility in this bubble-like new insight. To handle the soap bubble you need very soft hands and very thin skin.

A curious thing creativity. Without a dogged will power an artist gets nowhere. The world is all too happy to pour cold water over our dreams. Yet right next to that steely will has to lie the complete opposite- a willingness to let ourselves be at least temporarily distracted by new thoughts, of changing direction, of finding the gold dust under a pile of straw.



Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winter: Nature Is Bigger Than We Are!


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 of shoveling, including the three children. It was kind of fun except when the wind blew in from the Lake as it usually did. But it kept you warm to keep moving and since we weren't going anywhere until the road was cleared, we didn't complain much. The deep woods after a heavy snow is a sight to behold. It is unbelievably clean and as the snow is so soft and sound absorbent, incredibly quiet. Everything stops when it snows like that. You have no choice but to stand and look around at the transformation of your once familiar surroundings.

Little children are by nature ego centric. They have to be. But witnessing heavy northern snows gave me the unmistakeable lesson that nature was much bigger than I was and far more powerful. You developed a healthy respect and, when she showed her beautiful side, an awe for her artistry.

I remember reading a passage in one of John Irving's earlier novels where he spoke of how often memories of childhood fertilize the best writing. He observed that for any specific memory to persist in one's mind for decades it had to be stated and vivid to begin with. I think he was on to something. So much of the art I admire has this childhood memory ingredient. In many ways most of the painting I've done over the last four decades has been a reverie on growing up in the woods by the Great Lake. And when I've traveled to landscapes far removed from what I knew as a boy, such as a painting trip to Tucson, AZ, I've found the terrain almost too "foreign" to paint.

One of the things my father did every morning before leaving for work was to, without fail, put new birdseed on the bird feeder he'd built outside our kitchen window. Well, I do the same.Wanting to share the spectacle, I placed a cast iron rabbit (who the family affectionately knows as "Bob the Rabbit") in my front yard in Baltimore facing my bird feeder. Standing tall at 12 inches, he's cuts an impressive figure. And he's worked out a good relationship with our local bird population. Here he is watching our avian friends as the snow piled up today.




"Bob the Rabbit" at 11 a.m.




Bob holding his post at 1 p.m.




Bob still on duty at 2 p.m.




Bob snugly napping under his white comforter at 4 p.m.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Celebrating Winter and Some Personal History





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 be finished with the job so I can get back to my easel and work on new paintings again.

Here's one of the smaller crates being loaded on their truck by the two guys who work for the company. The work is headed all the way across the country to the Clymer Museum of Art in Ellensburg, Washington at the edge of the Cascade Mountains. They have winter there, big time. This show is part of the national tour of the Unbroken Thread: Nature Paintings and the American Imagination exhibition organized by the University of Maryland University College.



Years before the Clymer Museum of Art was founded, I lived in Ellensburg for one year right after my painting graduate school experience at Indiana University. It proved a difficult time in my life. Grad school was the first time I got to work at length with really good painters as my teachers for an extended time. I had learned a lot and had made some solid friendships there. I was sad to leave the supportive embrace of the school to take a job teaching painting at what is now Central Washington University. I was though delighted to have landed a job teaching art three days a week that paid enough to live on. I was getting too old to be a student anyway, so off I went.

It's a funny story. Apparently one of the people who had taught painting at the University had been caught having faked his credentials. A long and drawn out battle was fought over whether to fire him or not. Bitter recriminations abounded. He eventually was told to leave, but not before all the faculty in the art department had had their feelings hurt so badly in the faculty brawl that they had all pretty much stopped speaking to each other. I was hired long distance to come to Ellensburg to teach painting but had no clue what sort of environment I was parachuting into.

Fresh from the warm and supportive environment of my MFA painting program I was totally unprepared for the reception that awaited me. I found no one at the new University wanted to even talk to me. Ignorant of the just concluded battle over firing my predecessor, I immediately decided they didn't like me. It took months before I realized that it wasn't just me that the other faculty were avoiding, nobody was talking to anybody else either. This was a big life lesson about how first impressions can sometimes be deadly wrong.

Plus as any new teacher has too, I had to begin the long trial and error journey of learning how to become a teacher of art. It isn't as easy as people imagine it, and I made more than my share of mistakes. I left after that first very difficult year to come back East to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where I still live and paint. To be honest, I left Ellensburg with a sign of relief. A new beginning was what seemed called for and in truth, Baltimore provided exactly that. The year in Ellensburg had carried for me some disappointments on both professional and personal levels. Never did I think I would see the place again.

Now I'm going back to Ellensburg in February for a gala opening reception at the Clymer Museum on the 5th. My wife Alice who had only heard about the place in my stories is going to come along so I can show her a piece of the puzzle of my life before I met her. It's a happier state of mind that I'm carrying with me as I return to the little town than when I left all those years ago, so I feel like celebrating.

Here's the exhibition announcement card for the Clymer Museum show that arrived just this morning. All invited. Happy winter everyone!



Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A House is a Giant Still Life



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 lives. The two kinds of subjects offer a similar complexity of rhythms and intervals. But for me painting these "giant still lives" outdoors give you the added excitement of dealing with fast changing lights and shadows that you rarely see in still life arrangements. As a teaching exercise there is nothing like it. My practice with these paintings was to begin with a plein air version that was around 14 x 21' and to work on location for no more that two hours at a stretch when the light was right. With subjects as involved as this house that would mean returning again at least two or three more times to nail down enough of the basic information.

Of course weather rarely cooperated, so it could take weeks of waiting until you'd have the requisite three or four mornings of clear weather. I'm not by nature a patient person (just ask my wife Alice) but landscape work has taught me how to at least act patient despite how I might be feeling on the inside. Sometimes pretending can be very useful to an artist.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Working Alone and Working With Other Artists


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 really get any momentum going in our painting. Really good ideas don't usually come in and announce themselves with trumpets blaring. Rather they start out giving you little hints and the briefest glimpse out of the corner of your eye about what might be possible. When you work alone without distraction your ear gets attuned to the subtle whisperings that come to you from your inner creative side. Our "muse" is shy and fickle, but she will sooner or later come and visit us in our studio and give us great ideas. When she does, we better give her our full attention. She hates to have to repeat herself.

Like anything else, a steady diet of solitude is too tough on one. None of us is so wise that we can't learn from others. Every artist needs to get out and see what other artists are doing, listen to them, trade jokes with them and simply enjoy their company. Looking back at my own life as a painter, I realize some of my best ideas came to me from unexpected people. I discovered soft pastel chalks for example from watching some of my drawing class students who insisted on working in color. I had at first resisted this as they still had so much to learn about seeing shapes and tones.Yet going through their portfolios at the end of the semester I was amazed at how often I was saying to myself " oh gosh there's a color I could use in my painting."


On Thursday I took a break from my final portfolio reviews for my Life Drawing Class at MICA and went to the end of semester show/reception the school has for its upper class General Fine Arts majors. Each student had about 10' of space to display their latest creations. Everyone went around and checked everyone else's work out. Probably 25% was really good, another 25% needed a lot more time and development, and the rest fell somewhere in the middle. While it partly resembled a madhouse, it was a chance for everyone to see and learn and most of all make up their own minds about what is the right path for
them.

Friday, December 11, 2009

How Do You Know What to Paint?



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 magic things are possible.

Why was I drawn to paint this place in the first place? Honestly it is very difficult to put into words. I find some places make me feel both comfortable and excited at the same time, and I like to paint such places. I know that's not much help towards clarifying the issue. But the biggest part of these decisions of what makes for art and what doesn't probably happens in our unconscious minds. How a place makes you feel, to an artist, might be the most important fact of all. Sure it may leave much unexplained but we have to live with that mystery.

Later today my daughter's cat Clifford is coming to stay with us for a few days. From his many years of previous visits, I know ahead of time exactly where Clifford will plant himself in our house. He has favorite chairs to sleep on and specially selected spots of the floor reserved just for him to sit on. How did he make these choices? Who knows beyond saying he's responding to some deeply buried animal instinct. Clifford is an old and most stubborn of cats with profoundly specific preferences. After he leaves I know ahead of time that only one of the six chairs around my dining room table will need vacuuming. And I know which chair its going to be.

Artists aren't so different from cats. Maybe we're just people who for some reason listen to our instincts a little more closely than normal people. When we let the right instinct guide us, some remarkable things are possible.

For you cat people out there, I'll post a photo of the Clifford in a subsequent post.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

" Whispered Promises and the Change in the Light"



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 drama there is comes from wide open vistas contrasting the dense stands of pine they have there. It is a landscape that forces an awareness of the skies on you.

It is funny but the painting trips I've taken to this area taught me something about myself I hadn't realized. The week I turned four my parents moved the family into the new house they had had built on a steep hillside on the shore of Lake Ontario just outside of Rochester, NY. The whole neighborhood was hills and valleys. Even now if the ground under my feet isn't sloping it doesn't feel quite natural. Also, Rochester is way north and with that came long cast shadows, all year really, but especially in the winter. To me, there is nothing more beautiful. How artists paint in a place like Tucson I'll never understand.

If you keep your eyes open, even the most level and tame of landscapes can yield up treasure. On this particular trip I had begun another canvas in the morning and then gone inside to warm up from the blustery January wind. More important still, I knew the sun was so high overhead that the winter shadows were at their weakest. Better to wait a while. After lunch, fortified and warm, I went back out and drove the back roads hoping something would call out to me. Sure enough, it did. One particularly dense group of pines at the left offered up some unexpected possibilities.

By a little after 2 in the afternoon the winter sun had sunk low enough that it was only highlighting a few of the tree branches at the left. These sketched a downward sloping diagonal that seemed to repeat three times, like a well-rehearsed corps de ballet. It formed the perfect foil for the ever so different open fields at the right side of the painting. Finally stitching it all together were the cranking dark shadows spreading farther and farther to the right as I watched the sun sink lower.

In January you can't paint outside much past 4 o'clock. After that the sunlight gets so gold colored and all the shadows start to look too dark and opaque. I did this oil in two afternood sessions that felt like high-speed chases after the changing light.







Saturday, December 5, 2009

Beavers, Artists and Computers


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 irony is that beaver, while not worrying about aesthetics, end up producing some of the most beautiful constructions we've ever seen.

As a child I remember having my mind blown away when I learned that birds and beaver build nests and dams using mostly just their mouths. Sure, beaver do use their front paws to push sticks around, but that hardly seems like much of an advantage. And they do these intricate constructions without going to school. Even now when I think about it it seems a little impossible. Somewhere deep in a beaver's brain a movie must be playing with dramatic footage of beavers building perfect dams. Maybe inspirational music swells at the end as the water rises in their newly built pond.

I'm using a new slide scanner at my art school, MICA in Baltimore. I asked one of the students who works at our tech Help Desk to show me the ins and out of this particular scanner. He was great, very helpful and obviously knew his stuff. We got to talking and not surprisingly, he does all his own art with digital media and photography. I wonder if I was just starting out today as a young artist if I'd be lured into digital media instead of making drawings with little burned sticks of wood and painting with colored mud. I'm looking at one of my brushes as I write this and thinking its technology (tying some stiff hair to a stick) hasn't changed in thousands of years.

The answer, I think, is that I would still stick it out with charcoal, oil paint, and hog bristle brushes. There is a romance and drama it holding these materials in your hand. They have a weight and texture to them. And when you have a good day in the studio you can utterly transform these most simple of materials into something completely other than what they were. Grey pigment can become a oat tree, a slab of limestone, or the face of moon. It's all in how the artist arranges the notes they are playing.

Thinking about the furry wet animals that dam up streams I feel I've met some kindred spirits. If beaver were give bulldozers and cordless drills to build their dams I don't think their results would still have the same magic. There is a something out of nothing performance to the beaver's artistry. I think early humans much have marveled at what they saw in this damp little rodent. And it no doubt stirred the early human imagination to move toward architectural feats of our own.



Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Edward Hopper's Kitchen



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 the engine of contrast that makes my painting happen.

Some weeks ago I did a post showing a pastel drawing I did after this oil of the kitchen table at the left. It too featured a bunch of bananas. The bananas provided an elegant arcing shape to accompany the arc on the back of the wooden chair. And they provided relief from all the straight edges in the doorway and windows- the viewer's eye needs that.

At the time I commented on how humorously small the kitchen and its furniture were for as tall a person as Hopper. He consciously chose a tiny kitchen, bathroom and bedroom to allow the maximum space for his painting room. That, with its 10 foot tall north facing studio window can only be described as grand, though in a characteristically modest Hopper sort of way. It just shows the high priority Hopper put on his painting. It must have been a hoot to watch him eat his morning Wheaties at his mini-breakfast table.

The bananas have acquired cult-like status in my family. We had purchased them for our morning cereal but were only able to find very green ones. No worry, we thought, simply place them in the sun for a day and they'll ripen right up. Except they didn't. We kept them for a week and then just out of curiosity drove home from Cape Cod to my Baltimore studio with them. Still bright green.After another week of patiently waiting the still green bananas started to rot. I briefly entertained the thought of mailing them in a box to the Chiquita Company Headquarters but let it go. Still, I wonder if maybe I should have sprayed them with plastic when they were at their prime and used them as a hood ornament on my minivan.

Monday, November 30, 2009

You Can Go Home Again


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 Acadia, I got drawn into other paintings. Then just a few months ago I went back to Acadia and returned to the same spot for the first time in over 20 years and did the plein air vine charcoal drawing below. I am sure before long it will lead to some oil painting. Nobody is more curious than I to see what I come up with.



Philip Koch, Two Islands, Acadia, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2009

There are special themes for every artist. The contemporary landscape painter Wolf Kahn has painted hundreds of versions of the same set of barns on his Vermont hillside farm. Winslow Homer returned again and again to the open sea for inspiration. Rockwell Kent spoke most eloquently in his wood engravings of the human figure in a wide open landscape. If the artist keeps finding new things to say with recycling the same imagery they are doing the magic right.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Puritans, Stolen Corn, and Using Color


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 Pamet River does several world class "s" curves for you before emptying into Pamet Harbor in the distance.

When I was first experimenting with working in pastels I did the above color version from the vine charcoal drawing I'd done at the location. As it was an early foray in the new to me medium, my color goals were modest, mostly just to work with the pattern of tones that I'd had such good luck with in the vine charcoal drawing. I think it worked out pretty well.

In our time there's a notion that hues need to stand alone, independent of a dark and light structure. It is claimed that hue alone creates its own special kind of space. While this is half true, I learned long ago that tonalities (which is my term for gradations of black, white, and greys) have an unmatched subtle magic in them. Hues love to work with darks and lights. I first organize around tonalities and silhouettes, and only then entertain dancing with all the many hues available.

Even the great 20th century colorist Matisse insisted on this. Once when he was asked by a young painter how he could learn to use color as Matisse did, the crusty French master replied the young artist should go to the Louvre and spend two full years copying the works of the Great Masters in charcoal. Honestly, that course of study would rock.




Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Strangest Comment this Painter Ever Received



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 traffic. The view was great even if I had to breath automobile exhaust as the price of entry.

What caught my eye was the pattern of late afternoon shadows on the ancient concrete bulkhead that contains the waters of the Jones Falls river as it flows south to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Mount Washington is an area that was almost rural in feeling when I first moved there, but a number of new commercial developments are rapidly changing that ambience. Sadly, despite their stratospheric prices, I'm a very regular customer at Whole Foods. Deepening the shame, a Starbucks went in right next door. The area was once a separate village, but it is now encircled and engulfed by urban Baltimore. I am torn between regret of losing the what was unique in this little town's past and enjoying the convenience of the new retail ventures. It is hard to rage against the advances of suburban commercial development with a latte in your hand.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Second Chances and Then More Chances


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 surprises- there has to be a place in art such tumult. Of course if it is left as a confusing swirl the viewer can't get any traction on the piece and just walks on by. One of my favorite teachers in graduate school, the painter Ron Markman, used to talk to me a great deal about orchestration. He always pronounced the word with special reverence, always pausing briefly to convey the special place it held in his heart. If a painting is complex, finding the right balances can be tricky. You keep at it, trying out first one move then another. If the muse is pleased, she finally let's you close the gate and say goodnight to the horses.






Monday, November 23, 2009

A Very Short Explanation of Modern Art


"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 people, hills, skies and the like. All painting has some of these two ways of seeing in it. Right after 1900 Picasso and Braque in France started shining their spotlight on the first aspect, the decorated surface, and toned down the deep space thing. A very big fuss was made of this and soon lots of people hopped on the Cubist bandwagon, including quite a few deep-pocketed collectors.

What's important is that these early modernist painters were returning to the earliest roots of painting where simple repetitive shapes were used to decorate an empty surface. Picasso himself was open about his indebtedness to African and other non-European artists to get him moving in his new direction. Above is an oil painting by the American painter Hans Hoffman from the 1950's that traces its lineage back to Picasso and Braque. Hoffman, a legendarily charismatic personality, was a big deal as a painting teacher in his day. Everyone who was anyone in the abstract painting world a few years ago had to study with Hoffman. He was sort of a one man modernist academy. Personally I've never been a fan of Hoffman's paintings. To me they seem a little harsh and the shapes too predictable.

A major part of the meaning of both Hoffman and before him Picasso and Braque was that they scandalized much of the public when they first appeared. These artists and the collectors willing to pay money for their work loved shocking people. I think those of us who came down the pipeline a generation or two later have trouble realizing how outrageous abstract painting looked. By now it has been around so long it can seem cozy and even a little quaint. Not then.

As some painters moved away from the exacting demands of creating convincing realistic images, which is very hard to do, all sorts of people who would never before have considered working as an artist took a second look at the profession. The ability to shock people with either upsetting or even ridiculous imagery and methods began to gain traction in some quarters as an important talent. Of course it was presented in more sober terms like "employing new channels of dialogue" but what was meant was trying to shake people up, and in some cases, freak people out.

Fast forward: Damien Hirst is currently the most expensive contemporary artist. He got his big ticket with his series of dead animals suspended in huge tanks of preservative. Many of them are cut in half, exposing their skin or fur on one side and their innards on the other. They are big, troubling objects, that always leave me feeling sorry for the animals involved in making the sculpture. No doubt many viewers have had their mortality fears stoked by his work. I know I have. Picasso, himself a master of publicity, I imagine is looking down from artists' heaven and calling down "Great showmanship, dude! "



Is Hirst's Shark great art? For me the answer is no, it relies too heavily on theatricality. I do think there is a place for such work in the art world though the one I'd assign it would be smaller. Sooner or later the fuss made over its profundity will subside. In time it too may come to seem quaint and dated, like all previous attempts to bulldoze the sensibilities of the art viewer.

Hirst isn't all bad. There is a strain of genuine melancholy to his work that invites all of us to reflect on the brief time we are alive before we too must pass from the stage. It's just that I can't imagine having a giant tank with a dissected fish in it next to the table where I eat breakfast.

I don't think the job of art is just to be pretty or happy, though sometimes it is so. Some of the most moving paintings suggest the passage of time and hint at things ending. The Rembrandt landscape below is such a painting. As the last rays of the sun slip off the top blade of a windmill a figure bends over to fish in the reflective waters of a river. Soon it will be dark. Somehow Rembrandt paints the forms and colors so well as to make me wonder what sort of a day it has been for the fisherman. It is a scene so delicately and yet forcefully painted that I psychologically fall into its world. It both simulates me and calms me. Really a remarkable painting. I don't think everyone should run out and try to paint in the same manner. But it is a picture I'm happy to live with at my dinning room table.





Friday, November 20, 2009

Second Chances: Why Art is Better Than Real Life




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 second time. More than most painters, I'm a habitual tinkerer. If I lay eyes on a painting of mine I haven't seen for some time, about half the time I get an idea of how I'd like to change it. If I still own the painting, I usually do. It is a little risky, but the odds are good. For every repainting I attempt that turns out poorly there are another 20 that push the painting up to a higher plateau.

Like real life, a painting is a multi-layered proposition. If it is any good at all it has so much going on in it one cannot possibly see it all at one time, at least not in any conscious way. Rather one apprehends just part of the picture. We need to get away from it to let ourselves forget our preconceptions. Sleep on it, perhaps for a long time, and should you get a new, better idea go ahead and try it out on the painting.

Until someone invents a functioning time machine, we can't do this with real life problems. But at least knowing you can go back in time with art and get it right gives us some hope. I like to think going back into old paintings and strengthening them makes me smarter. I have a suspicion it can subtly guide me in making better choices in real time with my life.





Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why I "Never" Paint Old Barns



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 Stone City as a source. At first I hoped to duplicate the viewpoint Grant Wood had painted from, but as so often happens, a wall of trees had grown up in the intervening years to block the panorama. Still you could drive over the little bridge depicted in the painting and wind your way up the road that climbs the far hillsides.

Undeterred, I set out exploring the surroundings and made a discovery. Back East where I'm from, wood barns have long since been replaced with those soulless corrugated metal barns that look like industrial warehouses. But this part of Iowa has the good sense to preserve their historic barns. At least near Stone City, all the farms had these marvelous one-of-a-kind working wooden barns, lovingly painted and repaired over the years. In such an open landscape, they stand out as monumental sculpture, only better as they don't make any pretense about being high art. What they do have is an unmistakable personality.

I did two major paintings of different barns and both turned out beautifully. There is a cruel irony to this as for years I had made fun of landscape painters who featured old barns. Confronted with the sensitive inventiveness of these Stone City barns, I ate my hat and succumbed to their charms. "Never say never" department.

As year have gone by I've come to deeply appreciate Grant Wood's imaginative world. He found a way to incorporate the modernist winds that were sweeping the art world of his time without losing his connection to the land and people of the Midwest he knew, and loved, so deeply.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Haunted Houses


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 and all speak of being from another time. I love looking at them. Probably I've painted easily 30 different houses there over the years.


Philip Koch, Houses on the Hill, oil on panel,
14 3/4 x 12", 1983

What's funny is I grew up in a sort of California-modern style house inspired no doubt by Frank Lloyd Wright style buildings. My father scrimped for years to build a dream home and sadly only lived for a few years in it before he died. Shortly after, a new and unwelcome stepfather moved in and made the usually tough teenage years a lot more difficult than they'd have otherwise been. While on some levels I love the house I grew up in , I'd never want to paint similar modern houses. Rather I'm drawn to older buildings that have lived a long life. They have a romance to them, and in what I admit is a childish notion, I usually imagine I'd be happy living in them.

I think the older houses and their grounds have had time to grow into each other in a way modern buildings haven't. What I'm interested in is some sort of resonance between the architecture and nature. Also, the inventiveness of the old architects working within their own traditions very often lends a palpable personality to the old houses. Often they seem a little haunted, though I think happily so.

Houses on the Hill was painted literally from the same spot as Shadows on the House, it being the view right in back of me when I painted the latter. Very often when I've gotten deeply into one painting out on location, another great motif will suggest itself off to the left or right of what I'm working from. I could point to many dozens of my paintings that come in pairs or even triplets from the same location.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Can a "Happy" Painting Be Any Good?


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 other go through some changes. Larry taught public school teacher for a few years and eventually settled into doing therapy. I didn't make it past my first 20 page term paper before realizing I needed to do something more tangible than reading sociology. Fortunately the Muse was recruiting new artists and caught me in her net. Sometimes you get lucky.

Larry has the honor of being one of the very first people to buy my paintings. I think he bought two or three back in 1970 for the then handsome price of around $30.- 60. each (it really pays to be the early bird).

The painting above was meant to celebrate a happy moment in my life. I was filled with excitement of beginning a new romance. I remember stepping outside that cold morning carrying my easel and cup of very hot coffee feeling ready to take on the world. With no particular idea in mind about what to paint, I turned and looked back at the house and front yard. A breeze was rustling through all the branches causing a network of shadows to dance over the white clapboard house. Everything seemed to fit together like the pieces in one of those interlocking picture puzzles I had spent so many hours on as a kid. I did the painting a the most fevered pace I could manage- fueled both by delight in what I saw and a urgent need to get back in the warm house. It probably came together inside of an hour and a half. For me that's fast.

There's the old phrase about a scene being etched in memory that is used too often. That said, this painting is of a day in my life that still shines right through the usually obscuring fog of times long past. Generally I hate the idea of people wanting paintings to look "happy.' But sometimes, just sometimes, it's a feeling that wells up anyway from deep in the painter's experience.



Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Should One Paint?


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 foot wide concrete traffic divider in the middle of four lanes of heavy summer traffic. Precarious true, but it provided the best viewpoint on the yellow house.

You won't be surprised if I tell you the house was the same yellow as my old friend Whizzer the airplane. Powerful memories of early feelings I'm convinced often get tethered to seemingly unrelated things- like a favorite illustration for children. When I first saw that house, I knew immediately its color was calling to me. I would be painting it. I also suspected I'd have a lot of success with it. To paint it would be to encounter a piece of my internal self out in the outside world.

What should one paint. Be on the lookout for things that strike an unexpected emotional chord in you. Those are the things you're meant to paint. Your batting average with them will be way up there.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Secret Artists and Collectors Know


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 painter knows a secret recipe. I put down on a big canvas several thousand colors, shapes, layers, brushstrokes. Each of them resonate from a part of our experience- a memory of a place, or a person, or a delight, or a fear.


We put in way more than we need, for it is like a giant casting call. Everyone, each brushstroke, is allowed and even encouraged to be themselves. I accept and I value every color, every drip, every smear from the most beautiful to the most inelegant.


It starts going in a dozen different directions, and this is good for in its early stages you want a painting to be at cross purposes, to be a little insane.


My studio is really a kitchen where on any given painting I stir these ingredients at a low simmer for sometimes several months on end, sometimes longer.


I am finding out who can learn to dance with who, who must be painted out of the painting, and who needs to be given a starring role.


Finally the painting is done and taken out of the kettle to cool. And only if you listen closely, the painting whispers its secret message to you: "Yes, life can be ridiculous, sometimes crazy, yet it is often so beautiful. I was born with some of that chaos and confusion, but I made some sense of it. Spend time with me, look at me whenever you can. I am your tool to make you an artist of your own life."






Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why Titles Matter



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 of the image I'm trying to create- is it warm or cold there? Is the wind blowing? Time of day and time of year? And naturally what words would I use to summarize all my thinking. It's strange, but coming up with just the right title seems to now to have to happen before I can complete the painting. It's sort of a key completing the visualization process.

This painting, The Arrival, summed up a feeling I had at the time that things were coming to a new plateau- that many threads in my work of the previous years were coalescing to allow me to make a more unique kind of painting. Discovering Maine was part of it. And also finding I could be happy creating work once again entirely out of my imagination. It was when I put this thought into words that I was finally able to realize the painting in a complete, successful way.

We are always coming to a new place in our lives. But at certain junctures this fact impresses itself upon ourselves in dramatic ways. So to me The Arrival is about just such a moment of recognition in my own life. It says in its way " I haven't been here before, but this new place is ripe with possibilities." Isn't that what any of us want from art, and from our lives.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sitting Down to Breakfast with Edward Hopper



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 making paintings but also managed to not get stuck standing in Henri's shadow. Hopper has the self awareness to realize his own personality would lead him to a somewhat different vision.

And what a vision it was. Perhaps like nobody else, Hopper could look at the seemingly ordinary and catch ahold of its hidden romance. In particular his knack for building contrasts of bright light and sharp shadows gave us unrivaled compositions. They frequently surprise us with what he chose. Looking at a Hopper composition I often find myself saying to myself "I never thought of it like that."

Hopper wasn't a technical genius like John Singer Sargent. It's not uncommon to discern a slight stumble here and there in his work. But he found ways to work around his limitations. His paintings earned broad respect from all corners of the art world , both avant and traditional. I remember reading in the book of Robert Henri's teachings, The Art Spirit, about Henri advising his students to go out and do a masterpiece today and not wait for some future time when one would have amassed greater skills. Henri I think conveyed to Hopper the urgency of painting. Fine something that truly moves you and half the time the depth of your feeling will show you a way to make the painting happen.

I never literally had breakfast with Edward Hopper. But sitting in his uncomfortable kitchen chair to drink my morning coffee he nonetheless left me some clear hints about how to be the real deal.