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.


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