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Showing posts from August, 2009

Hard Time in the Banishment Room

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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 approximatio…

Dealing with Sudden Rainstorms

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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 …

Is the Art World Just at Big Nut House?

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Philip Koch, Windward, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2" 2008
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 onc…

An Artist Playing Ping Pong

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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" 2006
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 …

We March into the Future Facing Backwards

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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 burst…

Inspiration in Philadelphia and Chadds Ford

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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 …

Checking Out a Little Art History

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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 Mu…

A Key to Creativity from Our Very, Very Distant Past

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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 …

Hopper's Rooms by the Sea

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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 pa…

Painting Lessons from a Fox

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Philip Koch, Otter Cove, oil on  canvas, 44 x 55" 2008
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…

Sleeping in Edward Hopper's Bed

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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 ca…

Art Historians, Artists and Museums. The Mystery Explained

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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 d…

Into the Cape Cod Museum of Art's Permanent Collection

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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 stud…

World of Wonders

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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 …

My Troubles with Photography

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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 pre…

How to get an Artist's License

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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 pilgrim…

My Father

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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,…

Childhood Memory and Painting

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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…

Artist Attacked by Crocodiles?

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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…

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.

In Praise of Disorganization and Clutter

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Philip Koch, Ascension, oil on panel, 40 x 32' 2008
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 ol…

Falling in Love in a Museum

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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 tende…

Vast Worlds & Intimate Whispers

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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.…

Terror in the Frameshop

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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 ove…

A Vacation from All That Sunshine and Fresh Air

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Philip Koch, Sea Moon, pastel and vine charcoal, 5 x 7 1/2" 2009

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 Mo…

High School Romance

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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 h…

Rembrandt in my Body Flow Class?

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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.…

Seen Clearly Only in the Fog

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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 …