Showing posts from September, 2009

Artist Avoids Being Trampled by Herds of Angry Moose

This is my easel at 7:30 this morning atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine.
As you can see the place is deserted. Funny thing about that is just a half hour before there were probably a hundred people there in the space of five minutes. All of them were there with cameras to snap a photo of the sunrise and then take off again. It was amazing in its spectacle (not the sunrise, the speed people were traveling). I'll have some more to say about this tomorrow, but right now I'm tired after a long day of traveling (including perhaps the fastest run through of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, ME in recorded history).
Suffice it to say the painting trip was great- lots of good weather and strong new work resulted. I'm back home and need to call it a night. Will post some more images tomorrow.

Heading North to Maine

Philip Koch, Arcadia II, oil on canvas, 30 x 40", 2008
This is a painting I'm very fond of- enough so I've tried out several variations exploring different chords of color for earth and sky. It is entirely done from my imagination, though none of it would have happened without Acadia National Park in Maine on Mt. Desert Island. Alice and I honeymooned there back in 1982 in early May (to our surprise we were greeted then by pockets of snow still clinging stubbornly to the shadows at the summit of Cadillac Mountain ). It's the highest spot on the East Coast, and I think my favorite place on the planet. It inspired many of America's finest landscape painters since the 19th century, among them Sanford Gifford and Frederick Church.
We're headed back there again tomorrow for a week of painting. Nowadays I do most of my painting from memory and from plein air vine charcoal drawings, though for 30 plus years before that I was a hard-core perceptual painter. Arcadia II w…

A Rant and a Drawing Lesson

Philip Koch, Penobscot Bay, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 1998

Pictorial Unity. Such a dreadful, anemic sounding phrase my eyes are starting to glaze over just hearing it.
It is murder to put into words exactly what it is artist do when they paint or draw well. The reality behind the phrase pictorial unity though is red-hot with meaning. Any successful art piece marshalls its forces like a team of horses to pull the wagon in the same direction. I was looking at the latest Art in America magazine this morning had to wince. More than a few of the paintings, installations, etc. they reproduced tended to visually fall apart. To use a popular phrase, it's a pandemic. Attention artists! The pieces in your work are supposed to engage each other in a meaningful conversation, not ignore each other or try to out shout each other.
Why is this so? It's because life itself so often is a fractured experience that humans are drawn to art and music in the first place. We have the chaos part down…

Noah's Ark

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Bedroom vine charcoal, 13 x 6 1/2", 2006
Call me Noah. Had a flood in my basement several weeks ago. I store lots of paintings and art supplies down there. Fortunately I didn't lose a singe piece, partly because I had built racks to get everything up off the floor and partly because it's a walk out basement so the water starts to drain before it gets really deep. Now the whole basement is being re-done by an energetic if noisy crew, so I had to drag everything upstairs for a few weeks. Every room in my house looks like you're peering into the attic of someone's mad aunt Florence.
Funny thing is I'm loving it.
Anticipating moving artwork back into the re-done basement I'm reviewing my work, in many cases for the first time in years. It's a perfect chance to eliminate some pieces that just aren't my best. And I have found a few pieces that after the interval of years don't interest my eye enough to save. But the strongest i…

Dance Fever

This is my friend Lori Sappinton. Every Saturday morning I drive to a gym on the other side of town to take her Body Jam class. In her "normal" life Lori teaches elementary school and there I'm sure she's the very picture of decorum. In Body Jam it's a whole different story- loud, fast, sweaty, and a hell of a lot of fun.
It is a choreographed group dance class, a mix of hip hop, salsa, and god knows what else. Lori dons spandex and microphone and calls out the moves to about 40 people, demonstrating all the while up on a spotlighted stage. A small woman and slightly built, I have no doubt her muscled legs could kick anyone's head off should she feel it necessary.

Lori Sappington
She also is incredibly graceful, part natural talent and part years of dance training when she was young. I wasn't like that. As a boy I would have been laughed out of town had I ventured to take serious dance lessons. More than that I just wasn't comfortable enough in my ow…

Confession: I Don't Know What to Make of the West

Philip Koch, Recollection, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2000
Shortly after I started working seriously in soft pastels my wife and I took a week's trip out to Northern California to work from the landscape in Marin County. The work that resulted was good but something of a struggle for me to pull off working out on location.
In short, for someone who grew up back East, the West Coast always looks a little odd. Not that it isn't beautiful, it is and perhaps at its best too much so. But some part of me distrusts it as if what I am really seeing is a movie set. I worry my West Coast readers will be horrified by my confession- perhaps I'm not as open to new experiences as I like to think. One other problem for West Coast landscape painter (and again this is guaranteed to enrage somebody)- almost all the top landscape artists stayed back East and used it as the subject of their best work. As a modernist who relates to the 19th & early 20th century tradition of landscape pa…

A Magic Carpet for Would-Be Time Travelers

Philip Koch, Returning, oil on canvas, 28 x 42", 2009

Philip Koch, The Return, vine charcoal, 9 x 12"
Was looking for an image for today's post and on my alphabetical list found these two images with similar sounding titles. Each in their way is about coming home.
The top painting completed just this year was actually started some years back. It was painted from life on the same road where my oil Under the Moon was done (see 9/15/09- A Memorial to a Lonely Cat). Unlike that tall ghostly house, here was a diminutive house I could imagine myself wanting to come home to.
Only now writing about it do I realize how much it reminds me of a tiny house of roughly the same vintage in the woods in my hometown. I used to wait alone for the school bus there. At least in the earlier years of my public schooling an elderly couple lived there. The wife sometimes would come out and give me cookie and listen with interest to whatever I had on my mind. That and a genuine warm smile was all s…

One of My Heroes

We all have (or had) parents. They gave us life and a heck of a lot of other things. My wife Alice the therapist likes to point out that one of their gifts to us is to fail us. Had our parents been able to meet all our needs, not one of us would have been emotionally able to leave the nest. And there are important things that would have stayed unlearned had we never left home.
Artists need a wealth of different talents. The ones usually checked off on everyone's list include an ability to draw, an eye for color, and a fabulous imagination. I'd like to proffer one additional talent- the ability to find heroes. I could have said teachers, but I mean something more than that. Sometimes we encounter the work of another artist that just pulls some hidden internal switch in us. You see their work and you feel a floodlight has been switched on revealing new terrain you just have to explore.

For me, my first mega art-hero was an American landscape painter John Frederick Kensett (1816 …

A Memorial to a Lonely Cat

Philip Koch, Under the Moon, oil on canvas, 24 x 36" 2005
My bedroom faced the deep woods when I was a boy in Webster, NY, just outside of Rochester on the south shore of Lake Ontario. We'd get serious winter there every year and usually there was a deep snow blanket covering everything by mid-December. The snow would be illuminated by the moonlight, and as there were no other houses around it could seem as bright as a torch.
A very high pine tree rose on a ridge about a quarter mile off and at Christmas, some distant neighbors would string a handful of blue lights high up in the tree. They had an old string with only 5 working bulbs on it, but against the blackness, that seemed tremendously impressive . If I had to pick one memory of my childhood to stand for mysterious beauty, the sight of that lone set of lights in the winter night would nail it.
Years later I'd become a painter and lived in the (to me) deep South of Baltimore. But even here we get heavy snow sometimes. T…


Philip Koch, Deer Isle, oil on panel, 36 x 72"2008
This painting is going off tomorrow morning to the Maryland Institute College of Art's annual Faculty Exhibition. It's a large studio interpretation of a small plein air oil I did in Maine last summer (featured in my Sept. 2 post).
The Faculty Exhibition is always my favorite of MICA's shows, only partly because I'm often in it. It's got a bunch of traditional oil painters who are usually pretty darned good, and of course also a grab bag of video, conceptual, multimedia, etc. artists. All are stacked together in the galleries elbowing each other in hopes of grabbing the viewer's eye. It has all the decorum of an old fashioned circus sideshow but that's part of its charm.
Can artists of one medium or discipline be good teachers to a student artist who is pursuing a far different direction? My answer, based on listing in on many many group critiques over the years, is yes. Not that I haven't heard ab…

Artists Who Paint Often Fail to Apologize

Philip Koch, Out to Sea, Ogunquit, oil on panel, 5 x 10" 2007

Went to a panel discussion yesterday and heard an art historian tell the audience that the 1960's saw the complete demise of painting. That sounded pretty bad, but what's more this remains unchanged up through today. What I wish she's said was that she herself just wasn't into painting. But no, we painters are apparently deluding ourselves if we continue with this outmoded vehicle.
Silly me.
I have a very different vision. It's of a towering oak. Over hundreds of years the tree has sunk roots deep into the ground. Its rough trunk rises up and branches out and then branches again. Way out on one upper branch are video artists, another limb holds performance artists, a third conceptual artists, and so it goes on, marching around the trees radiating arms. Sure enough, there I am on a big branch along with a bunch of other suspects- we're the painters. And should anyone care to look, we seem to be havi…

Persistence v.s. The Spark of Invention

Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2008\
When problems resolve quickly, who isn't pleased? When resolution comes but only after a long process, one is pleased but that's laced with a bit of gratitude too. That's the story of this painting. 
Begun in the late '90's the painting had a grey sky. It was, well, heavy looking. I tried all sorts of gymnastics with it but nothing really helped. So it went into my Banishment Room in the basement (described in my earlier post Hard Time in the Banishment Room).  A year or two passed and I hauled the canvas up to the easel room and put in a violet sky similar to one of my favorite soft pastel chalk's color (you get attached to individual chalks to turn to them often). The sky, with its new coloration looked much better and I put in clouds in strategic spots. So, much improved, but I still felt it wasn't right, so back it went into Banishment.

I was sitting having coffee at the breakfast table one …

Good Advice from Matisse

Philip Koch, Red Trees, pastel, 8 1/4 x 6 1/2" 1997
Here's a drawing of particular importance to me- one of the first pastels drawings I ever did that satisfied me. It began as a vine charcoal drawing done on location just north of Houston where I was staying with the very fine landscape painter Chris Burkholder. It's a stand of trees just outside his house. Late in the winter afternoon the sky had taken on a subtle yellowish glow. Vine charcoal, so lovely for capturing form and atmosphere, is a bit out of its depth when it comes to color. Since color was so much a part of how I felt out in the field that afternoon, I decided to risk adding soft pastel on top of the charcoal.
There is no drawing medium that led to as many bad drawings as pastel- the stuff is like a drug and can take over a picture faster than you can snap your fingers. I wonder if the manufacturers secretly slip some kind of narcotic into it.
There's a story that years ago some art students approached Ma…

Going Wading

Here are two of my favorite Rembrandt's (both images courtesy of Art Renewal Center).
The above self portrait is in the Frick Museum in New York City. I used to go visit it a lot when I was a student at the Art Students League. The painting is of course an old fashioned notion of what a figure should look like, painted as it is in a full-blown northern baroque style. At the time I was in a figure painting class and none of my work looked anything like this in style (or of course in quality either, and then some).
But I could see in the Rembrandt a wonderous fusing of the forms with the emotion that quietly flows out from the painting. You get the sense you're seeing a moment of stillness from a man who has moved both his hands and his mind a great deal. There is a beautiful compositional device Rembrandt employs of running a red sash diagonally across his waist at exactly the same angle as his right upper arm, tying the movements together.

And above here is Hendrickje Bathing in…

Isabella, Cat and Art Instructor

This is Isabella. She's my neighbor Seanah's beautiful all-white cat. Here she is in my garden, just feet away from the bird feeder I fill every morning. She spends hours every day hiding in the bushes in my front yard. The welfare of the avian visitors to the bird feeder is low on her list. 
We artists can learn a great deal from animals. I've watched Isabella grow up from kittenhood. From the get-go she wanted to kill birds but her early attempts were comical. She'd lunge at everything that moved and despite being lightning fast, caught nothing. No doubt she had dreams of hunting conquest, but lacked the understanding to make them happen.
But she's nothing if not persistent and after years of trial and error, she's a changed cat. She's learned the art of concealment and above all, how to wait for the best opportunities before striking. Sometimes her teeth chatter in excitement as she spies potential prey, but otherwise she's got the patience of a zen ma…

Unexpected Sources of Creativity- Andi's Spinning Class

Philip Koch, October Sea, 5 x 7 1/2", 2009
I'm all wet.
It's sweat, honestly earned in this morning's spinning class. Spinning is a group exercise class with music at my gym. It takes place in a bunker like room with some 20 stationary bikes facing Andi Worthington, our teacher, on a spotlighted stage. Andi teaches exercise physiology at nearby Towson University- somehow that's a comfort as she barks out orders to her suffering troops. She also shouts out encouragement, and I need all of that I can get. The idea is to give a big hit of cardio-vascular exercise with as little stress on the joints as possible. Did I mention this class hurts?
For everyone, the sources of our creativity will always be mysterious and elusive. Often times I feel artists can get stuck in over-thinking their art. Art schools, universities, art museums and the like can inadvertently foster the idea that the essence of art can be grasped in hand and explained, usually at great length using lon…

Ten Secrets for the Painter (Short and To the Point)

Philip Koch, Sunset at Eagle Ridge, oil on panel 13 x 19 1/2",  2009
Why do we have art? I think for the same reasons we have music, dance, and even sports. Ostensibly not "practical" activities, they nonetheless fill a gap in our lives that our rational understanding isn't able to bridge. Art is something of a magic lantern to illuminate our path. Without its light, we'd stumble a lot more than we do. 
I often tell my students we artists are called upon to be magicians, but also to be practical magicians. For over 40 years I've been painting daily. From such a regimen, one learns of habits that routinely make the art better.  Make no mistake- art is profound and also profoundly elusive. It is usually good to talk at length about painting- exploring all the ins and outs that lead to understanding our vision.
Other times it's best to just cut to the chase.
Here's the list- it applies equally to drawing. All the advice comes with a 100% money-back guarantee…

Where to Shop for That Extra Talent

Philip Koch, Pamet River, Evening, pastel, 5 x 10", 2009

Philip Koch, Pamet River, Evening, pastel, 5 x 10", 2009
The biggest lesson I learned from my father was  what not to do with your life. He'd have been pleased by this.
My dad was an optical physicist and was hired by Eastman Kodak to run his own research projects. He loved the laboratory. Early on though his boss died and he was drafted by Kodak to stop his own research and instead become an administrator overseeing the work of the other scientists. He was miserable. By nature a dutiful person, probably to a fault, he had a wife and three children to support and stayed on in the post as the salary was too good to walk away from.
He survived by dreaming of what he'd do in his retirement. It would bring a large sailboat and long voyages. Before he was married he'd gone around the world on a "tramp steamer" as he called it. Though he wasn't a talkative man, if asked he'd tell me stories about hi…

Breakthrough Summer

Philip Koch, Evening Hillside, graphite and white pencil 7 1/2 x 13 7/8", 1971
You can go a long time just banging into things in the dark.
As an undergraduate art major at Oberlin College I made a ton of paintings and drawings, learned mountains of new ideas, and produced very few pieces I could be genuinely proud of. My first 9 months in graduate school at Indiana University pretty much continued this confusing pace.
Then events sharply pivoted, though even after all these decades I can't say exactly why. Perhaps imperceptibly the forces had been building up to the breaking point. In June 1971 the barn door burst open and out came the horses at full gallop. My work, all of a sudden, got good.
Always before a terminally impatient artist, I managed to slow myself down from my usual headlong-rush-method of painting. The passion burned as strong as ever but I found ways to temper and modulate it. A big part of the success was I finally accepted that the artists of the past could …

A Little Personal Art History

My education happened in the Midwest.
Four years at Oberlin College in Ohio where I had gone to study to become a sociologist...I thought. Took a required art history class my first semester to get it out of the way and found to my surprise it was the only class whose lectures I looked forward to. They put you in a dark room and showed you picture- lots of 'em. Some were amazing. I took two studio classes my second semester, loved them and never looked back.
A year followed where I experimented with design and color, turning out a painting or two a day in rapid succession. My then girlfriend brought up a disturbing question however, "Phil shouldn't an artist learn how to draw?" My profs actually had given me a decent introduction to abstract design and color theory, but "drawing" in the traditional sense just wasn't on their horizon. After initial reluctance, I had to admit the girlfriend had a point. After all if I was going to be a great artist (no sha…

Except for the Lies, I Am Extremely Truthful

Philip Koch,  Deer Isle, oil on panel, 5 x 10", 2008
This was painted on location last summer up in Maine. Like all my paintings it is extremely truthful to how it felt to me as I stood before the source. In art, that's the only useful meaning truth has. 
In reality the left shore divided itself into three major planes (foreground, middleground, background) as if it had read from the same book I had back in school. So far so good.

The water at the right was another story. Usually when faced my open expanses of water, I just wait, knowing sooner or later a pattern will appear in the ripples that will provide a surprising but appropriate shape. Not this time. I painted on this for three days on and off and... nothing. I have a fallback for when the source won't cooperate. It is a large bag I carry with me full of memories of shapes and colors I've seen other places in nature or in other painter's work. It's heavy to carry in addition to my easel and the paints, but…

Digging Deep in the Crypt

Don't have much time today as I'm knee deep in re-organizing my studio. Had a request from one of my main art galleries to send them some images of works on paper, so I was reminiscing as I got the images together for them. I've been painting daily since 1966. That's a heck of a lot of history. Often you forget where you were. Here are a few paintings I hadn't looked at in some time that greeted me like old friends.
Above is a view of the Texas Hill Country done as an oil on paper just west of San Antonio from the early '90's. It's a dry, rolling ranching country, cut up by cattle fences everywhere. This painting is about the tightly squeezed intervals between the forms and the counter-contrasting light and dark forms. I like the way I have a mostly light painting with a band of warm-colored darks running from one side to the other as a middleground.

This is also an oil on paper of the Texas Hill Country, though this one is painted way later in the day (c…