A Good Artist Has More Than One Way of Working

Philip Koch, Cathedral, oil on canvas, 42 x 54"

Above is a large painting done in my studio from a smaller plein air oil.

Philip Koch, Blackbird's Pond III, oil on panel, 13 1/2 x 18"

And above is an on location painting, pretty much started and finished outside on the portable easel.

These two paintings show the opposing tendencies in the two different ways of working. Both however are deeply indebted to direct observation of reality. As I often tell my students, reality (or "nature" as they used to say in the good old days) has a four and a half billion year head start on us. No wonder it is more evolved than any one of us . Inevitably there is something happening outside that is more inventive and evocative than anything one can summon up out of one's imagination. The trick is to keep one's eyes open to find it.

Cathedral is about selection, thoughtful consideration and gradual refinement. You can say a lot in a large studio painting and its success depends on staying focused on its message over many weeks time. Blackbird's Pond III celebrates a shoot-from-the- hip response to a location that has caught my eye. I learned early on with on location painting to employ brushes that were slightly larger than I initially want to use. The big guys force you to pull out of the complexity your absolute favorite large shapes. There isn't time working outdoors to do anything but block in the key element. Different parts of the painting will often bump into each other like rush hour riders on the subway. The tension of all these little collisions can often energize the whole painting. What one loses in term of smooth transitions you can make up and then some with a more lively surface. The plein air painting is the artist's version of living in the moment.

Cathedral looks in the other direction. Much of our experience as humans gains extra meaning from recollection and reflection. There are events in our life that become more important over time as we look back and come to understand them better. Studio painting speaks to this side of our lives. We humans are forgetful animals. Anything we can still recall after the passage of time is usually the important stuff. Some aspects of our emotions can only be revealed by steady working over weeks or months (or yes, years) in the studio.

The best way for any artist to work I'm convinced is alternating between quick and maybe even impulsive pieces and then long, slowly evolving major creations where you have time to consider, re-evaluate, and become profoundly selective. As a person you are more than just one thing. As an artist you should have more than just one way of working.


  1. I agree with your observation on process. I know that for me too, I like the fast, impulsive decisions because they allow me to get my brain out of the way of the art. But there are other times where a collection of those impulsive expressions inform a more carefully thought-out piece.

  2. I seem to move through different approaches every year as the seasons change. For a student with only a tear or twos experience that would seem strange, but after nearly 40 years of painting I enjoy returning each year to continuing to learn about a particular way of painting..........Stape


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