Monday, August 31, 2009

Hard Time in the Banishment Room

Philip Koch, Pamet River, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2", 2008

In the studio I believe in tough love. I have a special windowless room where paintings who have refused to come together to my satisfaction are sent. It's dark and cheerless, and no conjugal visits are allowed. My paintings, with a tremble in their voice, call it "the Banishment Room." Some never make it out alive. 

This oil was begun years back in the early '90's on location on Cape Cod, looking just south of the mouth of the little Pamet River. Edward Hopper's studio is just a little bit over the dunes in the background. I did this during one of my  residencies in his studio. At the time I began the painting, I was "under the spell"  of Hopper's vision quite a bit. This meant interest in the details of human intervention in the landscape, so I included small beached sailboats that were in the foreground and a long spindly dock. My color choices were constrained to close approximations of what was observed, mostly beiges and grey blues.

Not completely satisfied with how it turned out I put it into the banishment room and moved on to other projects. With it out of sight, I forgot about the painting. 

A few years passed and I found my imagination getting restless and decided to loosen its leash to see where it wandered. I had recently turned 50 and naturally was speculating on the themes of time, its passage and the changes that brings. Often I would start wondering how the landscape I was painting would look long in the future, or how it looked 40,000 years before. My eye was increasingly drawn toward the all-natural landscape that offered no clue as to "when" it was happening. Concurrent with this, I had begun experimenting with soft pastel chalks, a medium that forced me to use a different color palatte than what I was used to. The pastels were turning out with some more intense hues that I liked. In time, this new color sense seeped into my oils.

When I unearthed this oil panel from the my studio's banishment room, I saw immediately I wanted to go back into it to see where it could go. The boat and dock were replaced by tidal march grasses. And to allow the sky to change from a light sky-blue, I changed it to a sunset and pulled in a new flotilla of clouds to contrast the sand dunes.

My wife accuses me of being a pack rat. It's true. But I've had too many successes revisiting old paintings and making them better with some revisions. I believe the unconscious sometimes is working out better solutions for troubled passages in the paintings that initially are less than one's best. Not every painting, but enough that I've learned to be slow to discard anything. Fortunately, my studio has lots of storage.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dealing with Sudden Rainstorms

Philip Koch, Truro Beach, vine charcoal, 8x 12"

One time while walking along the beach outside Edward Hopper's studio we decided to hike a distance to the south along the Bay. We spied what we thought was a log in the distance but as we approached we were astonished to see it was a seal. It was dead, but very recently so and it was in absolutely perfect condition. It took an effort not to think it was merely asleep. I'd never seen such a beautiful animal such as this up close before. It particular, though it was large, it felt curiously feminine. Perhaps it was the delicate and surprisingly long eye lashes.
It was sad to see the life of such beauty cut short and a solemn mood stole over us. Surely the seal hadn't planned for her (?) days to end just when they did.

I came back the next day as I wanted to do a drawing of the spot and, silly as it sounds, dedicate the drawing to that seal. This is the resulting vine charcoal. As I neared completion of the piece, the clouds closed in fast and it began to rain lightly. I beat a retreat back to the Hopper studio and finished the drawing there. Landscape painters have to be ready to work around sudden rainstorms. They happen, but they don't have to stop us dead in our tracks.

Right now I have a major plumbing emergency- it's raining in my basement and I have to close to attend to that. But we'll get through this. After all, I'm an old hand at rainstorms.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Is the Art World Just at Big Nut House?

Philip Koch, Windward, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2"

I'm surrounded by a sea of young artists two days a week for seven months of the year. It's the Maryland Institute College of Art which shares with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts the distinction of being the two oldest continuously operating colleges of fine art in the country. Some amazing painters taught here- Eakins' old buddy Thomas Anschutz taught life drawing in the same room where I do! 

As anyone with any awareness of the contemporary art world knows, there's some pretty nutty stuff being made as art. Something that's big right now is for artists to try to bring their art out into the world itself, forgoing painting or the sculpture pedestal for installation work. This is challenging stuff and to be honest, very many of the installation pieces I've seen fall short. 

It is tempting, especially when I'm tired and grumpy, to dismiss the entire direction of installation art. But I confess once in a while I have seen it done very well, where for a brief moment the installation transports you to another place and makes you feel something new. If someone asks me whether over time I have seen more mediocre traditional landscape paintings or more ineffective installations, just in sheer numbers I'd have to answer landscapes.

Shouldn't art reflect reality?  The answer is yes. When art is good it reaches deep into the unconscious of the viewer, stirs things up, and acquaints the viewer with a part of him or herself they've forgotten about. I care less about the medium an artist chooses. What matters most is that they get genuinely involved with their vision. Vision has two parts- what you see outside yourself, and what you can glimpse of your innermost nature. Both sides of this coin have to make it into an art piece if it is to be successful.

One of the best ways to think about it is to recall a vivid dream one has had. Our dreams after all are part of who we are. The were provided to us by the great hand of evolution. They are part of nature just as much an an oak tree. I remember a scary dream I had years ago where I was in a Nazi concentration camp facing execution. A frightening witch-like woman appeared who wore a hooded robe. She pushed two small metal rectangular plates upon me and commanded "take these." I realized they were powerful magnets, and to my amazement, discovered that by manipulating them, I could fly over the barbed wire fences and escape to freedom. 

Now of course I can't spell out exactly the meaning of this dream, but I awoke that morning feeling shaken but also energized and curiously hopeful about my future. Part of my personal reality was revealing itself to me in this dream. It carried a powerful message that whatever was "imprisoning" me in my life could be overcome. Heck, I'll take all the messages like that I can get. Sometimes we live in a world that presents itself in a straightforward way. Other times our lives are nothing but mysterious and confusing. But potentially all of our experience can serve as fodder for art making. It's just really hard to do it well, whether you're painting oil landscapes or doing installation pieces.

The above painting is an oil I did partly reflecting on these issues. I'm in the small boat trying to navigate between these big dark rocks and probably unseen reefs as well. It is of course, a tip of my hat to our old friend Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School who painted some similar imagery. In the painting at least, I'm making my way forward, into the oncoming wind.

Friday, August 28, 2009

An Artist Playing Ping Pong

Philip Koch, Forest Pool, oil on panel, 15 x 20", 2008

Above is an oil done completely from imagination in the studio. Over the years I've done many paintings on location deep in forest interiors. And memories of those experiences percolate through my mind as I work "out of my head." The beauty of working this way is you can move your shapes around like pieces on a chessboard, plotting out whatever strategy feels best to you. But to make it work, one needs to know the structure of trees, water, rocks and sky like the back of one's hand. As John Singer Sargeant used to say, the thing that separates accomplished painters from novice artists is miles of used up canvas.

Philip Koch, Monhegan, Dawn, vine charcoal, 6 1/2 x 13"

A very different operation is involved with the above drawing. It was done on one of my portable easels on location on Monhegan Island in Maine looking out at the southern end of little Manana Island that shelters the tiny harbor from the rougher seas. The first rays of sunlight had  just struck the rocks on Manana and I could just see it as a composition. 

For several decades I primarily worked on small canvases outside and I loved what was postive about this method. There is simply no way even the most fertile artist's mind can match the insane combinations of shapes and spaces reality has waiting for us out there. I always tell my students that "reality has a four billion head start on all of us so of course it is more interesting than we are." The challenge with observational painting though can be that an artist can become too passive in accepting everything he or she sees. I find I'm very good at remaining selective when it comes to shapes but have a little more difficulty saying "no" to  the actual hues out in nature. And that leads me to so often working in the pearlescent greys of vine charcoal. 

So my studio practice these days is to ping pong back and forth between observational work on location and then long periods of just "out of my head" work in the studio. They feed each other. Can't imagine ever giving up either of them.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

We March into the Future Facing Backwards

Leon Trotsky in his elegantly written book History of the Russian Revolution came up with the title for this post. He was talking about how our understanding, ideas, and emotions are formed almost entirely by past events. It literally is all we have. We struggle to see what lies ahead, always just around the bend and out of sight. Revolutionaries and artists aren't so different. We are trying to make something new out of the clay of the present.

I was wondering how to sum up what kind of painter I am. 

Here's a wonderful Sanford Gifford I saw again up at the Philadelphia Museum of Art two days ago. Anyone who's ever been swept up in storms of rain or a tempest of their emotions can feel themselves in this picture.

And here's a seemingly very different artist, Charles Burchfield watercolor. Here a very different kind of feeling sweeps us away. Unlike Gifford's gathering storm,  this painter give us the dance between lace-like branches and the diamonds of sunlight bursting through the leaves.

Both of these artists found something elemental and important in their view of nature. I love being alive now. In my own painting I'm not trying to duplicate artifacts of the past. We have moved on and in ways both obvious and hidden our reality is different than those who've gone before. But the art of the past so often echoes in the experiences any of us have.

As I march into my own future in my studio (facing backward, of course) artists like Gifford and Burchfield are whispering in my ear. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inspiration in Philadelphia and Chadds Ford

My wife Alice and I went up to Pennsylvania for two days to "do serious art museum." One of the things I love about living on the east coast is the quality of the art museum collections. If one is open to the subtle strains of 19th and early 20th century painting, the museums in the northeast US are simply the strongest. It makes up for us having to breath the worst air in the country.

Above is the studio N.C. Wyeth had built for himself in Chadds Ford- it is full of his equipment and props. He came from a prosperous family and made a great deal of money early in his career from his excellent skills as an illustrator. So he built himself a studio that has to be the envy of any painter- his big north-facing studio windows put Edward Hopper's to shame, but then Wyeth didn't have Hopper's view of the sea. If I had to choose between the two, a not terribly likely dilemma, it would be the more modest Hopper studio, but only by a hair. Sadly, the Brandywine Museum that runs the tours through the studio allows no inside photography.

Here I am working this morning along the banks of the Brandywine River, just outside the old grist mill that has been turned into the Brandywine Museum.  As typical of my current methods, I'm using vine charcoal on good etching paper. The Museum has to win the prize for the most charming setting for a regional art museum. They have a fabulous show up of N.C.'s paintings that I'd recommend to anyone. One gallery has 17 large oils he produced to illustrate Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island in a single summer, an amazing accomplishment. My wife the therapist wonders if he wasn't manic. Starting in September, Brandywine Museum will have a rare Rockwell Kent exhibition, so we're making plans to truck on back up there for that.

Below is a photo of me in the Philadelphia Museum of Art standing next to a beautiful Sanford Gifford oil. I'd seen this before and it had even come down a few years ago to the National Gallery of Art in their big Gifford retrospective. He is an amazing painter, and the way he makes the storm clouds wrap around the mountains so believably is very sensitive and quite touching.

The final photo is me on the grand stair case at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Had they provided top hats and canes I would have happily done my best Fred Astair for them- that's how the place makes you feel. If you want to see Victorian extravagance done well, this is the place. It is just drop dead gorgeous as a facility. Again sadly they only allow photography from the entrance lobby. Trust me, if you haven't ever seen the PAFA's old building you need to try hard to get there. You won't be sorry.

The Academy has a treasure chest of a Permanent Collection. One of my favorites was a very unusual Charles Burchfield oil landscape (he worked almost always in watercolor, and always well). They have real gems of 19th century American painting. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Checking Out a Little Art History

Philip Koch, Ocean: Morning, oil on  panel
7 1/2 x 10", 2009

This is an oil done in response to this plein air vine charcoal drawing done on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. 

In the studio now I'm working up a larger version of it, hopefully ready for unveiling this fall.
I like to work on many "in-progress" pieces at once. Somehow they seem to start up a conversation among themselves that helps me move them all along towards completion. I pretend to have the requisite patience to let them all ripen on the vine, but secretly I'm drumming my fingers.

My wife an I are off for an overnight trip to PA. We're headed to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (which shares the distinction along with my art school, the Maryland Institute College of Art of being the oldest continuously operating art schools in the country. They however have a great museum attached to the school. We had a great collection but never had a place to display it and finally sold it to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum).

Then on to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for more punishment (I love going to museums). Then finally tomorrow on to  Chadds Ford, PA to the Brandywine Museum and a tour of the studio and home of N.C. Wyeth, the great painter and illustrator. How I suffer for my art!

Unlike my painting trip two weeks ago, I don't anticipate being attacked by tiny flying crocodiles while working plein air. Although who am I kidding? I know I'm taking my supplies and will be in a beautiful and art historic part of the country. So I may just have to answer the Muse's call.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Key to Creativity from Our Very, Very Distant Past

Vermeer, Lady with her Maidservant Holding a
Letter, 1667, Frick Collection, NYC, image courtesy
Art Renewal Center.

Have been doing some hard thinking about how to teach art. My two drawing classes at Maryland Institute College of Art start up shortly. I teach observational drawing, with pride.

Art is primarily about psychology and the play of emotions in our lives. The question for painters is how best to foster that in the viewer. 

Some years ago I started studying Carl Jung. (If anyone out there is in the mood for challenging reading, this is the place to go. The guy loved nothing better than to include long passages in Greek, German, and English on each page. I kid you not). But he makes a convincing case for the active hand of the unconscious in guiding our actions. Animals live guided by inborn impulses they don't understand but benefit from- such as being able to build a secure nest for their eggs using only their beak, sticks, and a little mud (if you think that's easy go try it yourself and compare your results to that of the average sparrow). We descended from animals who were acting almost entirely from such instincts. Gradually we developed intellect and eventually language and teaching. But instead of our animal instincts withering away Jung said, they're still there just below our awareness. And just like the instinct that allows a sparrow to build a beautiful nest, they're almost magical in their creative power.

Jung believed further that the seat of these unconscious messages were mental images, little pictures that he describes as being "feeling toned." He coined the now often used term archetypes to name them. They form the biggest part of who we are. Trouble is, you can't just order your unconscious to reveal itself, it is notoriously shy and prefers life in the shadows. But from time to time pieces of it poke through the surface into our awareness and bring with them a ripple of special energy.

The act of seeing is usually misunderstood as the passive receiving of thousands of pieces optical data onto the retina, which the brain immediately senses as a finished picture in the manner of a video camera.  But that's wrong. 

Rather it is a meeting of these bits of optical information with the archetypes we carry within us. Our memories, feelings and our unconscious archetypes merge with the incoming visual data and we "see" a chair or a table. The thing is, if this is true, no two people do it quite the same way. We literally see differently.

Let me give you a concrete example. This morning I was thinking about all this and out of no where I started thinking about a beautiful painting I used to look at when I went to the Art Students League in New York. It lives at the Frick Collection in a lovely skylit gallery. I used to go there and drink the paintings in (Frick himself, something of a robber-baron from hell, had the bucks to buy an amazing collection). One painting always stood out to me, the Vermeer reproduced above. Now ostensibly a quiet painting, it always seemed to grab ahold of me in a way the others didn't. This morning I was wondering again about why and I suddenly focused on the particular yellow top the woman at the right wears. I felt myself being pulled back to my childhood again and found myself in my old basement bedroom. When I was four, my parents painted the walls that very same color yellow as Vermeer used to clothe his model. This is color that surrounded me for the years of my growing to adulthood. It literally colored my hopes, fears, and dreams. When I look at that painting, I have those memories of mine triggered and an internal gong is struck. I can't help but be drawn to that painting. It is reaching out to me to teach me about my forgotten childhood self.

Coming back to teaching art, I'm convinced direct observation of the world has to be at the core of the experience. As one looks out with wide open eyes, one will be drawn to subjects that strike internal bells in one's unconscious. To look long and hard at the outside word ironically leads you full circle to discover internal keys to yourself. The old artists believed in the muse. More secular minds, like mine, believe the unconscious stores within it much of our creativity.

The path of the artist is to build a cooperative relationship with the unconscious. And the unconscious very much wants to use our eyes to look out at the world. 

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hopper's Rooms by the Sea

Philip Koch, The Easel, Edward Hopper's Studio, pastel
8 x 10", 1998

Dealing with ghosts is always tricky. 

I started going to stay and work in the Hopper studio on Cape Cod in little South Truro way back in 1983. But for the longest time I never touched Hopper's old easel. It sat in the corner like more like furniture, but to me it was more than than- too much more. One of his long sleeved painting shirts hung on the easel as if  on a display rack in department store. A half dozen of his brushes lay in the tray built into the easel, and hanging on a loop of worn string on the easel's side was an old wooden yardstick that Hopper used as a mahlstick to steady his hand for painting details. Drips of his paint were on the easel, but one could see he had been meticulous with his materials. For all the use it had received in painting so many of Hopper's world famous oils, it was remarkably clean. 

Since Hopper had been such an enormous influence on me when I was a young painter the darned easel took on in my mind aspects of a religious relic. Or perhaps I should say reliquary. 

Besides the glorious 10' tall north-facing studio window, the other crowning feature of the painting room is the dutch door or double door that opens out towards an unobstructed panorama Cape Cod Bay some 60' below. This doorway was the source for one of his most famous paintings, Rooms by the Sea now in the art museum at Yale. I'd done several paintings of the doorway and wished I could somehow bring myself to combine Hopper's easel and this storied doorway in the same painting. As it turned out, I just wasn't ready.

I funny thing happened in 1997. My students were working in soft pastel combined with charcoal and it got me itching to give this combination of media a go. As I did, I found it impossible to reproduce all my accustomed favorite color combinations. In time, the pastels nudged me into using a fundamentally different palatte of brighter hues in my oils as well.

Just as important, soft pastel wasn't a medium Hopper employed. My older work clearly showed Hopper's influence, but as color became more and more a key focus of my oil paintings, my choice of imagery began to shift away from Hopper's path. Wilderness came to replace the Hopper era architecture I had so often been painting. Honestly the most respectful gesture I could make towards Hopper's legacy would be to gradually grow out from under his shadow.

By the time 1998 rolled around and I came back to the old studio to work that fall, I felt the time was right and I moved the easel all the way across the room to do this early morning pastel. It literally wasn't a big move, but in what it symbolized in my head, it was a very big sign that I was moving into some new territory of my own,

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Painting Lessons from a Fox

Philip Koch, Otter Cove, oil on  canvas, 44 x 55"

Just unpacked this oil from the crate that brought it back from Cape Cod Museum of Art to my studio (it and all its friends survived the perilous journey). This was done from memory/imagination of the Otter Cove area in Acadia National Park. I had been there several years earlier, choosing the causeway over an inlet off the Atlantic Ocean. This was the spot Frederick Church, the  Hudson River School painter, had chosen for his oil Otter Creek back in the mid 19th century. Time had done nothing to diminish the view. I did my own version of the mountain peaks Church depicted in his oil. But then I turned to face out to sea and did the drawing below. 

With my easel erected at the side of the road I was about 2/3 of the way through the drawing when I sensed something coming toward me. A large fox had come out of the woods and was eying me suspiciously as it approached. It realized to get to the other side of the inlet it had to pass within feet of me and my wife Alice who, city kid that she is, was now frozen in horror.

It advanced without missing a step. As it came closer I saw this was the largest fox I'd ever seen, perhaps the scale of a medium sized dog, a well-fed dog. Perhaps it preyed on hapless landscape painters I thought. It passed on by and ran up an impossibly steep embankment as if it were Superman, finally disappearing into the brush again. 

To paint the landscape well one has to sense it as a living thing. I don't mean this in an over the top mystical way, but just to say the deeper you feel its presence, its durability, and its long history, the more it will stir your unconscious mind to help you make the painting happen. This wild animal, totally unconcerned by the the conceits of a painter as it passed me by, was a reminder of this. Nature is big and we remain small, despite our striving to the contrary. I think when you give yourself over to this thought you begin to be ready to do painting of real quality.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sleeping in Edward Hopper's Bed

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's
Bedroom, pastel, 14 x 7"

Wanted to return to the times I've worked up in Edward Hopper's studio on Cape Cod. 

Hopper artwork is always talked of as an avatar of loneliness in contemporary society. If you read Gail Levin's biography of him, which is based in large part on his wife Jo's diary, you learn there is much evidence of his preference for his own company. The painter Robert Douglas Hunter recently told me an excruciating story of the time when he as a young art student was taken by a mutual friend to the Hopper studio to be introduced to the famous painter. According to Hunter, Hopper stayed seated during the introduction, remained absolutely speechless, and just glared at younger artist until he left. Low marks for social graces.

I have no reason to doubt the accounts that paint Hopper as a difficult personality. Yet he was multilayered. Despite his rough edges there also existed within him a warm and deeply generous man.  I can't see the lengthening shadows of a clear late afternoon without saying to myself "oh, that's Hopper light." When one inspects his paintings up close you discover all these tiny notes of color that escape notice in the reproductions in books. Though it's not how most would describe him, I think he's a master of color. Unlike the artists who leaned on the impressionist painting tradition, Hopper's color manages to work in concert with the solid, even heavy forms he inevitably used to populate his paintings. For Hopper there was no contradiction between dense solid forms and brilliant sunlight. He loved the dance they did together.

I'll be returning to work in the Hopper studio up on the Cape again next fall for my 13th stay there. 

Even the studio gives clues to the nature of this painter. Hopper designed it himself and and had it built at the height of the Great Depression, using money his wife had inherited. One of the first things you notice as you enter the studio is the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom are absolutely tiny. Given that Hopper was famously tall, he must have looked ridiculous in them. But then when you move on back and enter the painting room one is immediately struck by the enormous open space, the high ceilings,  and the fabulous clear light pouring in his ten foot tall north-facing studio window. The painting room occupies fully half the square feet of the building's footprint. With his design, Hopper was saying painting was going to be his first priority. And in the 30 years he lived and worked there he made good on his promise. 

Awkward in his social relations, he used painting as his way to interact with the rest of the world. Most people of course never met Hopper in person, yet millions who have loved his work know some of his most intimate sides very well. 

Thanks for the presents, Edward.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Art Historians, Artists and Museums. The Mystery Explained

Edward Hopper, White River at Sharon
watercolor (courtesy Smithsonian American
Art Museum).

This week I had lunch with Joann Moser who is the curator for work on paper at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. She took me to a little Burmese restaurant where I can heartily recommend menu item #35 (for the curious it's a ginger salad).

We talked for an hour an a half about artists and museums and of the exhibitions she's worked on. Right now she has up a wonderful survey show called Graphic Masters II which is drawn from the SAAM's collection (through Jan. 10th). The above Hopper watercolor is in her show. It's a large show of mostly modestly sized work on paper. There was a lot to like including a fabulous Grant Wood of well-worn tracks in the snow to an urban outhouse (so well drawn that it was both funny but also curiously touching). And she included some strong pieces from the abstract expressionist period, my favorite being a delicate looping ink wash drawing by DeKooning.

Of course in a show of any size there have to be choices any particular visitor will question - "why did she include this one?" Had I been charged with organizing this survey show, it would have ended up comically too focused on just my favorite handful of artists. It got me thinking about the difference between artists and art historians. Generally art historians have a much bigger say in running museums than artists. I've yet to meet the artist who's entirely comfortable with that. The word museum comes from the Latin that means "seat of the muses." (Hint to museum directors- this is why you should have lots of comfortable benches in your galleries).

Here's a true fable: Once upon a time the Muse appeared. She gave each artist a tiny seed and said "see if you can make this sprout, water it, and protect it from all the hungry animals.  Let's see how great a tree you can grow." Naturally the artists wanted to please the Goddess of Art and and devoted themselves singlemindedly to tending their particular little sapling. So much so that they all grew tall with arching limbs laden with foliage. The only problem was, the trees grew into each other and all the artists grumbled that "their" tree wasn't getting the light and air it deserved. It got so bad you could barely inch your way through the thicket of green.

Seeing the problem she'd created, the Muse then took a bunch of art historians and whisked them into the middle of a dense and impenetrable part of the forest. She turned to them and slyly said "This is the forest of art. Let's see which of you can draw a map to guide people out of here."

Into the Cape Cod Museum of Art's Permanent Collection

Philip Koch, The Morning II, oil on panel, 18 x 36", 2004

The Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis, MA has just concluded their solo show of my work Unbroken Thread that hung from June through most of August in their largest gallery space. One of the highlights of this is they have decided to add this painting to their Permanent Collection. This will be their second Koch as several years ago they collected one of my pastels, Edward Hopper's Road: Triptych.

CCMA's latest addition has a long history. The painting was a re-examination of an oil I had done back in late '80's when I was staying in the little town of Wellfleet on the Cape and painting in the tidal estuaries in the Paine Hollow area. What attracted me were the interlacing streams of the tide moving in and then out of the marsh grasses. Their pattern added some surprise and elegant complexity to what otherwise would have been simply too wide open a space. I did a plein air painting that led to a very large studio painting that included a telephone pole and the black roofs of a cottage. As my palatte became more colorful in the later '90's I went back into the painting and added just a touch more color contrast, but only a touch. Here's that painting-

Philip Koch, The Morning, oil on canvas, 42 x 84", 1999

Before long my imagination began speculating- what did the area looked like before the telephone pole and the houses were added? In fact my fantasy drifted back to a time before the Europeans, and maybe even the Native Americans had arrived. What might it have looked like then?

The newer version couldn't just strip out the man-made features of the original, as they had been painted in concert with the architecture. Without the telephone pole, the painting would have been excessively horizontal, so I spread out the fingers of the tidal streams in the marsh grasses to give a more diagonal feeling. A new distinctive new pattern was invented for the dark thicket that replaced the roofs at the left. And the entire color chord of the painting jumped up to a higher key. There is an architecture to trees, marshes, sand dunes and skies.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

World of Wonders

Philip Koch, Equinox, oil on panel, 30 x 45", 2008

Some of my paintings come directly from imagination, but for this is happen they have to lean heavily on some vivid memories. 

When I was a boy growing up on the south shore of Lake Ontario I would sometimes be awakened by the sound of loud and incessant honking. It was the migrating geese heading north to Canada in the spring and back south in the fall. I'd walk down to the shore and see them by the thousands. To me this was magical. Unlike the birds,  I was stuck living in one spot while the birds seemed a most privileged species to travel so far and wide. I wondered what they saw.

This painting was stitched together from that memory and several others as well. Right after I received my MFA degree in painting I got a job teaching painting in Washington State at what's now called Central Washington University in eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains. With 1000' tall mountains ringing the town it was spring down in the valley while the snow covered the hills.

Years later when I took a painting trip to the Arizona desert I was stunned by the sight of the pyramid-like San Francisco Peaks outside the lovely town of Flagstaff. They found their way into the background.

So where is the bird in Equinox going. Really anywhere the imagination takes us- into the future, returning to our past. We are not able to literally fly, but with both our eyes and heart open wide, we too sail through a world filled with wonders. 

Monday, August 17, 2009

My Troubles with Photography

Philip Koch, Moon Dance, vine charcoal, 8 x 10", 2009

There are two reasons I avoid photography. I'll start with the real reason.

My father worked for Eastman Kodak as an optical physicist. For the entire time I knew him he was doing work for the US military that was classified. And he never once told anyone in the family what the work was beyond that it involved light and lenses. I couldn't help but notice that my dad didn't seem to like his job very much as he came home in a dark mood almost every night. In his defense, he was a very kind man and, despite his troubles with depression, his affection for me was apparent. And it meant the world to me. Still, using the logic of a child, I concluded that cameras and lenses must be bad for you.

My mother's dad also worked for Eastman Kodak and was early on very prominent in the company, being the inventor of the original Kodachrome color film process. He had fallen in love with his secretary at Kodak. When she became pregnant with his child, he left his wife and my mother and went to live in California with the other woman and their baby. My mother, a young girl, was devastated. I almost never saw him but knew mom was terribly angry at him. I saw him only a hand full of times before he died. When I was old enough to remember the encounters he was not well and struck me as remote and irritable, and scary. 

Between these two important males figures, each life-long Kodak employees, I unconsciously connected unhappiness with the camera. It sounds irrational and it is, but even now I feel a slight unease in picking up photographic equipment. So when it came to making paintings I gravitated away from using photography as a tool.

As I have painted over the years, I have discovered there are other good reasons why a painter can benefit from avoiding photographs as sources. One is that it takes a long time for artists to sort through the multitude of feelings they have about their source. Drawing from direct observation is a maddeningly slow proposition, and that's its beauty. It provides the painter with the extra time to winnow out only the finest of their perceptions. Time after time, even with second rate painters, the direct observation artist is more selective than the photo source painter. 

By the same token, I find a lot of the same ultra-selective attitude happens when I paint direct from memory or fantasy. It is way slower than using photos for sources, and it's hard as hell, but it can bear amazing fruit.

One of my favorite teachers at the Art Students League in New York, Rudolf Baranik (himself an abstract painter) used to talk to me about how the artist's job was to interpret an idea rather than report dry facts about it. He would show slides of Rembrandt and revel in how much his shadowy light concealed from the viewer. In Baranik's opinion the most important quality of a painting was mood. He was a big fan of rigorous editing. What a fine teacher. In describing painting he loved the word "poetry."

One night last fall my wife and I went for a walk when a full moon struggled to peek through a broken pattern of heavy clouds. It felt magical, evoking a delicious mysterious light. I'm experimenting with painting from the resulting vine charcoal drawing Moon Dance in my studio right now. I'd love to show you the results, but we're into slow cooking...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How to get an Artist's License

Philip Koch, West from Monhegan, oil on panel
28 x 42", 2009

Degas is reputed to have said that artists need to have the cunning of criminals. He probably said this to stimulate peoples' thinking. Artists are famous for saying slightly outlandish things for just that purpose. What he was getting at was that artists genuinely try to tell us the truth, but that they distinguish between big truths and small ones. 

Back in June '06 I made my first painting trip out to Mohegan Island off the coast of Maine. Way back in 1969 I first learned  of Mohegan while reading Robert Henri's book The Art Spirit while I was studying at the Art Students League in New York city. The book quotes Henri advising a young artist to go to paint the wild elements on Monhegan, as he himself had done. His students including Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper, and many others, took him up on it. So many fine painters ended up painting on the island that for me my trip there took on the aura of a pilgrimage. I wasn't disappointed.

The oil painting above was done back in my studio from an on site vine charcoal study. Here's a drawing I did standing within feet of the lighthouse atop  Monhegan's highest point. It is 9 x 12."

It looks back toward the mainland, to the mountains surrounding Camden, ME, where I'd painted seriously a few years before.  And their memory was clear in my mind as big, broad shouldered and massive.  The shore in reality was some 12 miles or so away and the mountains very just little blips on the horizon. If I'd drawn them as they actually appeared they would have had the impact of wilted lettuce, so I tried pulling them closer mentally. The closer they came, the more the image felt like the Maine I knew.

Truthfulness in this case meant honoring the awe the big forms of the mountains had stirred in me. I think the result is "accurate" only to the degree it expresses the feeling the artist had about the motif. 

Saturday, August 15, 2009

My Father

Philip Koch, The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas
40 x 40", 2004

We find echoes of ourselves in the artworks produced by complete strangers. Often their work speaks to us with remarkably intimacy, like picking up and putting on a pair of comfortable old shoes. 

My father was a very quiet man who kept to himself. Many days would go by where he'd utter no more than a sentence or two around the house. He had  the misfortune to suffer from clinical depression in an age when there were no anti-depressant medications available. And suffer he did. When he was a young man he had learned to sail and briefly owned a sailboat himself. When he neared 40 he decided to buy a boat for the family. In a very unusual move, he invited me to drive with him from Rochester, NY to New Bedford, MA to pick up little combination rowboat/sailboat directly from the manufacturer. As a boy of 7, this was a great adventure, and an unusual honor to be asked to spend this much time with him.

He taught me to sail, and after the little boat was swept away in a storm on Lake Ontario, he bought a larger Flying Dutchman class sloop, a racing sailboat then used in the Olympics. For the three years before he died at age 49, he joined a yacht club on one of New York's Finger Lakes and he and I would join races on the weekends. I loved it, most of all as it was something I could do with my dad. If asked to pick my most treasured memory of childhood, this would be it.

He got sick with lung cancer when I was 11 and shortly after my next birthday died at home one morning. My sister and I watched the men from the funeral parlor come and awkwardly carry his lifeless body out the front door. I remember the incredible sense of unreality mixed with sharp anger at my father for leaving me and a steady overarching sadness. The wind off the Lake was blowing like mad that morning and despite the danger, I took the tiny sailboat out on the waves. I remember feeling scared of both the weather that day and most of all of what lay ahead of me in the uncharted future. I knew it was reckless to be out in a small boat alone but I think looking back on it that I wanted to test myself. If I could survive sailing in a storm then maybe I could make my way without a father.

Here are two paintings (courtesy Art Renewal Center) that I discovered years later that obviously spoke to me. The first is by Edward Hopper and is I believe an invented painting that borrows heavily from the lighthouse at the very tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown, one of my favorite places. The other is from the 1840's by Thomas Cole from his Voyage of Life series. Melodramatic, but still affecting. While the two are very different in mood, they each take up the issue of the small boat in the big sea. Hopper speaks to the incredible beauty of the sky meeting the land and water. Cole turns more toward the sense of awe and mystery. 

A few years ago I painted The Voyage of Memory as a reflection on moving through the various stages of life. It is of the little boat I sailed that day my father died. I've replaced a raging open sea with a passage way that is perhaps a little perilous with rocky outcroppings. So far, the boat seems to be making its way ok

Friday, August 14, 2009

Childhood Memory and Painting

Philip Koch, The Song of All Days, oil on panel
36 x 72", 2008

Inevitably at an opening reception for one of my exhibitions, someone will come up to me and excitedly tell me they've figured out just where it was that I painted a particular work. I play innocent and ask them to tell me. They are always wrong.

Each time their suggested location is a place of deep significance to them- somewhere where they grew up, or raised their children, or had that mythical perfect vacation. And something about how my painting was put together stirred up that memory in them anew. That's when art is doing what it is supposed to do. 

Let me tell you the story of this painting. On our honeymoon years ago Alice and I went to Acadia National Park in Maine. On the approach road there was a pond with mountains in the background and little marshy islands with pines. I did a painting of it that I loved that sold almost right away. So quickly in fact that I started missing the painting. To keep myself company I did a sepia wash drawing of it from memory. It stayed around for years until my boyhood friend from the old neighborhood, Bob Wetmore, came to visit my studio. (Readers of this blog might remember an earlier post where I mentioned the little creek than ran near Bob's boyhood home serving as inspiration for my painting North Star that illustrated an earlier post). Bob purchased the sepia drawing , and before long I started missing that as well.

So, another large oil version emerged. Each time I revisited this place in my memory, it evolved. This last time around, the marshy little islands became rocky and the time of day shifted to twilight. It's funny but my old friend Bob perhaps figured in that last change too. Thinking back to my days in high school, I think what got me through the hard spots was the warmth of my best friends. I have a clear memory of coming home from school late one afternoon with Bob and collapsing on the living room couch to listen to music. As no one else was home, our conversation drifted to girls and our hopes and dreams of romance, as young teenagers will. It being winter, it gradually grew dark but that only heightened the mood of the talk and the music. This scene sticks in my mind as one of the times I felt great as a teenager, enjoying the bonds of close friendship and the pleasures of honest and sharing conversation.

I wanted the painting to be about a host of things- all the times I've gone to Maine and how special a place it is to me in my personal life, the many painters I've learned from who worked up there, and the many times I had painted an image of this particular spot. But even more I wanted the painting to reflect on the passage of time and how central memory is to ability to feel our way through this life. For me a painting like this is successful if it evokes most of all a state of mind rather than a specific location. So while I could have called it " Scene on the Approach Road to Acadia National Park" I chose to call it The Song of All Days. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Artist Attacked by Crocodiles?

Went to the Eastern Shore of Maryland Tuesday and Wednesday for some plein air work. First stop though was Easton to visit one of my old favorite art museums, the Academy Art Museum. Years ago it was a much more humble institution simply called the Easton Academy of Art- basically a community arts center with a small Permanent Collection. I taught a couple of landscape painting workshops there in the '70's and '80's. 

Boy has the placed grown. Above is a picture of my lovely wife Alice making acquaintance with the topiary that flank the Museum's front entrance. A long-overdue restoration and serous expansion of their gallery spaces transformed the place. Their Director, Chris Brownawell obviously worked long hours building support for the Academy and seriously upping the quality of its programs. Very gratifying to see. Still the place still has its original modesty and charm. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. Had a chance to meet and talk with Chris Tuesday afternoon. Nice fellow.

But then off to work. Headed to the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge south of Cambridge, MD.
Vine charcoal has been increasingly my medium of choice for working on location. The key reason is I want to take home extremely careful observations of the shapes and tonal relationships in my motifs. But color choices in the last dozen years have been most satisfying when I create them after the fact back in the studio. This is only possible because I had 30 years of painting outdoors where I pretty much devoted myself to working with the actual hues one sees on location. You internalize a great deal of what reality looks like.

Vine charcoal also has another advantage- it let's you work quickly as there is no color mixing involved. This sometimes, like this weekend,  can be a lifesaver. Understand I'm a little swimmy-headed right now as we've just returned, but it was hot. Very hot. The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was beautiful, but it was a malarial swamp yesterday and today. I think also I discovered that crocodiles live much farther north than previously thought (I heard something thrashing in the water behind me as I worked). What is more, they likely have a previously undiscovered larval form where they fly and bite the unsuspecting passing mammals to eat their flesh and drink their blood. Certainly these weren't mere mosquitos and deer flies.

Philip Koch, Blackwater Refuge, vine charcoal, 
9 x 12", 2009

I also did a drawing over in the tiny town of Oxford, MD of trees on the Tread Avon River.

Philip Koch, Eastern Shore, vine charcoal, 8 x 12", 2009

Now likely is that some elements from each of these drawing will tip toe their way into some of the paintings I'm currently working on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Painting Trip

Off this morning to the Eastern Shore of Maryland for an overnight painting trip. Our destination is the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, highly recommended by our naturalist daughter Louisa. Hope to get some good vine charcoal drawings done in the plein air fashion. Will also visit the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD.

Monday, August 10, 2009

In Praise of Disorganization and Clutter

Philip Koch, Ascension, oil on panel, 40 x 32'

There's a funny story to how this painting came about. I get stimulated by surrounding myself with lots of my work, both completed canvases and works in progress. I like to work on a lot of paintings at the same time- a few hours on one, then put it aside and work on another. It's not unusual to paint on 4 or 5 different pieces in any given day. Needless to say, there's lots of artwork in various stages of completion stacked (carefully) all around my studio. My wife always asks me if I wouldn't be happier if I "cleaned out" my studio. I confess I kind of need the clutter. You can be finished with a painting but that doesn't mean the painting is finished with you.

In the far corner of the room is a wall mirror. About 2 years ago, if one sat in a certain chair, the mirror would catch in its reflection a very oblique view of a long 84" horizontal  landscape leaning against the wall. Now this was an older painting and it had been in the same spot for many months- long enough that I'd pretty much stopped looking at it. Except the mirror's reflection transformed its image into something that grabbed my eye. The painting's wide horizontal forms  had been squished into a narrow vertical. And it looked fabulous. So I set off to see if I could do a painting on just that theme of forms rising up and falling down. Ascension pictured above is the result.

Countless times in my studio I come across a work in progress that I'd forgotten about. Something I'd put aside intending to get back to it, but instead had moved on to other projects. I think the key is in the forgetting. If you can't remember how you were thinking about the painting, you're free to see it with a fresh eye. Old difficulties with passages in the unfinished paintings very often will then suggest to you how they can be resolved. 

If only in real life you could put someone with whom your having a conflict on the shelf until you're ready to deal with them again. People, like fruit, don't take well to such treatment. But painting is a different matter.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Falling in Love in a Museum

Image courtesy Art Renewal Center

This is a painting that made a huge impact on me when I was a Freshman at Oberlin College in 1970. It's by Hendrick Terbruggen of St. Sebastian having these terrible arrows removed from his body. It was painted way back in 1625.

It hung in the College's Allen Memorial Art Museum. At the time I foolishly believed all colleges had such amenities as great master paintings. It was a small campus and I was able to visit the museum a lot, sometimes daily, and most often it was mine alone. The quiet was delicious.

What struck me about the painting is that a scene that could only be described as ghastly was painted with such delicacy and an overall serenity. The woman reaching for the arrow looks like she has sweet music playing in her head. Strangely I found the painting reassuring. While I'd had no arrows piercing me recently, I had had some genuinely troubling years in high school. Here was St. Sebastian being treated with such unbelievable tenderness. I was sure he appreciated it a lot. Terbruggen painted this thing lovingly.

I think Terbruggen's art lay in his amazing ability to elegantly compose solid forms and natural light in ways that mysteriously affect our emotions. I knew the impact this painting was having on me and under its spell I decided I to learn more about this elusive business called art.

One other thing helped. Allen Art Museum had these marvelous sky lights in its galleries back then. I'd revel in how the light would change minute to minute, subtly altering the mood of the paintings on the walls. Sadly the skylights were covered over years later, perhaps in some cost-cutting move. I hope they'll one day be re-opened.

The gallery was a private refuge for me and I wish I could somehow thank the people responsible for building the collection. It gave me a big shove into dropping my intended Sociology major in favor of picking up the paintbrush.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Vast Worlds & Intimate Whispers

These are two images showing some of the variety of work I've been involved with the last decades. Funny thing is, the relative sizes are reversed. At the top is The Morning,  oil on canvas, 42 x 84", 1990. I was photographing it yesterday and fell into looking at it once again. It is also one big painting. Below is the tiny Nightfall, pastel, 9 x 9", 2009, and I was working from it in my studio just minutes ago.

Sometimes ideas come to you in a big, bold fashion, with trumpets blaring, other times they sift their way into your awareness like lightly falling snow. In either case an artist is going to need a different format to get those feelings across. There is a tendency to value the large and expensive over the diminutive (and less expensive) in our society. We in the art world need to put that way of thinking aside and take both modes of expression equally seriously.

The Morning was painted in the studio from a plein air oil study I'd done in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. It was a wide open space that just called out to be painted on a major horizontal canvas. It says in a booming voice "Look how big our world is." I like it a lot. Nightfall is a more intimate little fantasy, perhaps my idea of a dream I'd like to have. It probably owes as much to my love of  the wonderful American artist Rockwell Kent as anything else. I'd recommend Kent's book N by E with its amazing wood engravings it anyone. To me Nightfall represents what the spark of of creative spirit might look like if we could see such things. Certainly we can feel them.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Terror in the Frameshop

Philip Koch, Yellow Arcadia, II, oil on panel, 18 x 24", 2009 just home 
from the framers in its brand new frame.

When I was finishing my Master of Fine Arts Program at Indiana University all graduating artists were required to have a Thesis Exhibition in the University's Fine Arts Gallery. It was funny that we were all scandalized by one of the painters actually putting frames on his paintings. This was back in 1972 and there was lots of talk in the air about seeing the painting as an object and that framing was somehow contrary to this. Of course the funny thing was that the framing artist sold most of the work out of his show. No one else sold a thing. 

I started re-evaluating my position though when I started showing my work in galleries and found them coming back to my studio often having little dings and scratches along the carefully painted edges where the canvas wrapped around the stretcher bars. As a painter who prided himself on good craftsmanship, I realized I had overlooked the obvious role of the frame played in protecting the painting from collisions with the hard and abrasive world. I began visiting framing shops to look at their wares. 

Anyone who steps inside such an establishment is at risk from drowning. They inevitably overwhelm you with hundreds and hundred of "L" shaped sample stacked in neat rows all on top of each other. The distraction level is completely over the top. If you somehow managed to make a selection of a frame, the first time you're told what the bill is going to be you're likely to have to be put on oxygen. It's important  for artists to frame their paintings if only to spare their collectors these anxieties.

Over the years I bravely experimented with different frame choices. There are two ways to go. One school of thought opts for the gold frame. It conveys a sense of riches and implies the painting is a precious object. As most of the designs of gold frames tend toward historical styles, they often also convey a connection to art history.  Many art dealers will tell you it is far easier for them to sell paintings in gold frames.

As a contemporary painter who started out as an abstract artist though, I've never felt comfortable with the antique gold frame look. Especially for realist paintings like mine, I want to differentiate my work from 19th century paintings. My art is about how it feels to be alive today, in the early 21st century. And the frame is part of that.

My choice for the last few years have been to go with custom made mahogany fames. I like the warmth of the wood, but want the attention to stay on the painting so I keep it simple. They are milled into a reverse wedge shape cross section so they taper gradually narrower as one moves toward the outside perimeter of the frame. I also have always gone nuts when even a small portion of the painting's surface is covered (even a 1/4"). It is a little irrational, I know. But to avoid that I use a 3/8" wide white colored reveal to separate the painting just a bit from the actual frame. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Vacation from All That Sunshine and Fresh Air

Philip Koch, Sea Moon, pastel and vine charcoal, 5 x 7 1/2"

My wife just came back from her annual professional conference. She is a psychiatric nurse who runs a day hospital program at a big local hospital. Patients normally come to her shortly after a suicide attempt. Her program is widely respected as one of the best. 

One of her secrets is she really works at making it better and puts in incredibly long  hours. But picking her up at the airport after her return flight I saw immediately a twinkle in her eye that usually signifies she's fired up. She launched in excitedly telling me she'd just figured out how to solve some thorny problems she's been having with her program. She was confident she was onto something. Getting away from her routine and talking shop with new therapists always does this to her.

I worked for over 25 years pretty strictly as a plein air painter- a way of working I love. But a persistent problem was color. Despite what people think about Monet, most of what you see outside, at least in the warmer months, is yellow green, grey, or brown. I longed to stretch my color choices, but as I would stand and work at my portable easel, I'd mimic the actual colors that were before me. Nature is powerful like that. 

Then I made a discovery. I found I could make paintings back in the studio based on the closely observed charcoal drawings I had done outside. I'd be as faithful as possible to the key shapes and tonalities, and then invent the color combinations. It was a way to take a "vacation" from direct observation I do out in the field. The color study illustrated above is a recent example that is serving now as a source for an larger oil painting. Like my wife getting away from the routine of her hospital job, I love alternating between working outdoors and painting back in the studio. 

Out of the glare of the sun, the light of one's inner imagination sometimes can shine a little more brightly.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

High School Romance

Philip Koch, Hopper's Beach, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2007
(begun in '06, but re-worked in the studio the 
following year).

Philip Koch, Hopper's Beach, Looking North vine charcoal , 9 x 12", 2006 

When I was 16, in my sophomore year,  I fell in love with a girl in my high school. I was sure I was going to marry her. When summer came my mother decided abruptly I should go on a tour of Europe my high school history teacher was organizing. The teacher's daughter came along and my girl friend, who couldn't afford to come on the trip, was intensely jealous. I assured her nothing would happen on the trip between me and the other girl. Nothing did happen, but it wasn't because the other girl wasn't interested or that I didn't find her attractive. She was lovely, but I white-knuckled it and stayed away from her for the whole tour. When I got back home, my jealous girlfriend, convinced hanky-panky must have gone on in her absence, dumped me. I was broken hearted.  

This story is just where art is better than life. Let's jump forward four decades...

These two drawings were done on site down on the beach just below Edward Hopper's studio in S. Truro, MA. His wife's diary reports he used to go swimming right here by himself (pretty much the solitary way he did most things). 

This top drawing focuses on the massive silhouette of the sand dune- it is the one one sees looking out of Hopper's 10' tall north facing studio window. But this is the view from down on the beach where it looks even more impressive. The light is just after sunrise.

The second drawing, Hopper's Beach, Looking North actually happened because I fell in love with the patterns in the dune grasses in the foreground as I worked on Hopper's Beach. But when I tried to include the grasses in a detailed way they interfered with the massive presence of the big dune. So I had to choose and I opted for the dune.

Unlike in real life, you can have your cake and eat it too. I then did a second drawing that could embrace the exquisite patterns where the foreground grasses met the white sand of the beach. It was a rhythm I knew was better than anything I could ever invent and it was mine for the asking.  What was needed was to make the second drawing be about the foreground and de-emphasize the dune in back.

I love both of these drawings, and I have it on the best authority neither is jealous of the other.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rembrandt in my Body Flow Class?

The Birches of Maine, pastel, 10 x 8", 2008 

I have a confession- I am a gym rat. Most days likely find me at the gym for an hour. Today was my friend Kim teaching Body Flow. For the uninitiated, it's sort of a combination of Yoga-lite and Tai Chi done in a darkly lit room to music. Kim, frighteningly buff, performs a choreographed series of moves to music from a spotlighted stage. The rest of the class follows her moves as best we can. It is hard as hell. Surprisingly it is also very beautiful.

One moves slowly from one bending or twisting pose to another while trying your best not to topple over. And you push each move just a bit to make the gestures crisp, flowing, and the extensions of the limbs sharp and stated.  As the class progresses, your senses gradually wake up. Balance, gravity, and forceful yet delicate movement become amazingly tangible. It reminds me ever so much of what I do when I'm painting- making clear, stated gestures with the hand that holds the brush. The brushstrokes of pigment are just footprints in the snow each gesture leaves behind. 

Artists are people who learn to express the issues and emotions of life through images. They call up sensations in their viewers of rising, falling, expanding, contracting, stability, precariousness... Visual artists do this through endless practice with their oil paints or pastels. Kim, up on the stage teaching Body Flow dispenses with the paintbrushes and instead uses the whole body to convey these polished and perfected moves. Painting, Body Flow, there's a real elegance to both.

My pastel drawing The Birches of Maine illustrated above is a good image to accompany this post. While I was drawing it I was thinking about the amazing dance a bending birch tree has to master just to stand erect. And in no time my thought drifted back to my last Body Flow class. 

Maybe they should teach it in art school.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Seen Clearly Only in the Fog

Sometimes we can pick out the significant pattern in the clutter of events. Other times we're not so lucky.

One of my favorite places to paint is Cape Cod, and Truro out near the way end is particularly rich in possibilities. Partly it is the Edward Hopper art history there. Running right through the middle is the Pamet River, itself one of Hopper's favorite motifs. Except for Truro Harbor itself, I had had little luck finding other places along the river to paint. Usually the problem was the spaces were too crowded, with foreground, middle ground and background all clamoring for my eye's attention. 

A few years ago I was staying in the Hopper studio and woke up early to paint only to find everything covered by dense fog. Nonetheless I packed up my charcoals and headed out. Once at the river I was delighted- the fog had pared down the selection by totally obscuring the far shores of the river. It just wasn't there. Here's the resulting drawing.

And here is the oil on panel, October,  28 x 42" that I painted in the studio based on that vine charcoal as well as a vivid memory of how it felt to stand and work shrouded by that fog.
Some things stayed faithful to the drawing and much else transformed into something else.

For the last dozen years I've been doing most of my work indirectly like this, using the drawings to simplify the choices for me and inventing the color harmonies back in the studio.
For nearly 30 years before this though I had done almost all my work in the plein air fashion with the major decisions happening out in the field. There is real honor in both modes of working. It is just that now for me landscape painting is above all about capturing a state of mind rather than a literal place.