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 painting, there is just more to think about art historically when one paints the East Coast.

This is one of my earliest large studio oils based on the plein air pastels I did there. It actually comes from a view from Mt. Tamalpais looking south at the fog that would roll into San Francisco Bay. In real life it was an amazing sight, but again I kept wondering if it wasn't a "special effect" from the film industry. The only solution I could come up with was to imagine a new background to replace San Francisco Bay- I substituted a shoreline that owes something to my memory of Irondequoit Bay near Rochester, NY, about a mile from where I grew up.
All this was worked out in a new pastel back in the studio- it's way easier to try it out on a small scale first before attempting a composition on a six foot wide scale.

Those who know my earlier blog posts know a key theme for me is childhood memory as a source for invention in painting. The beauty of it is that if an image can be recalled after many years it obviously is something to which you have attached a great deal of feeling. The other memories have just fallen away, lacking the emotional glue to stick to your psyche.


  1. Hi, Philip. Great essay - I think you've shared an insight for all of us landscape painters not often considered.

    I am surprised at the ingrained memory, especially from childhood, that turns up in my paintings. Especially when doing the figure, it is a problem, but I think with landscape I can relax more.

    You are right in some ways @ the west. It is larger than life - and more so than probably most non-native observers will ever realize. As a guy who inhabits the west, and I am one who hunts the high plains, and used to mountain climb throughout the west, including Canada and Alaska, I can report this size and scope to you. It is phenomenal.

    OTOH, I have a similar idea about NYC. My wife has never been there, and I have to try to get her to imagine the sheer size of it. The movies don't do it justice.

    I guess there is room for new history of representing the west. I recommend you look at Russel Chatham's landscapes of California and Montana - although his online presence is small.

  2. Hi Casey- thanks for your kind words. Enjoyed also looking at your work on line. Some very good stuff there. I see you have a real interest in Wolf Kahn's work. He is an interesting fellow on a lot of levels. He certainly blends what I think of as a European color sensibility (as in late Monet) with some imagery deeply indebted to America's North East where he's worked for so many decades. I've had the pleasure of bringing him down to my art school two separate times as well as organizing a show of his paintings here as well. He is articulate both with painting and with his writing and speaking.


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