Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking Out, Looking Back


Philip Koch, Fall at Lake Lemon, oil on canvas, 16 x 19", 1971




Philip Koch, Birches in the Forest, oil on canvas, 20 x 30",
1985

More reminiscing as I put paintings back into my just renovated storage room in my new basement (Maya Angelou and George Clooney are rumored to be planning to attend the official dedication ceremony I'm planning for later in the week).

These two paintings are both from earlier decades in my career. The first was painted during my first year in graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington. I had been doing a series of surreal landscape paintings without using any photos for reference nor any direct observation . One day one of the painting faculty at Indiana, Barry Gealt, stuck his head in the door to my studio one afternoon, looked over the work for a moment, and then amicably said "Why don't you try painting outside sometime. I think you'd really like it." Then in a flash he excused himself and disappeared down the hall. Amazing as it seems now, until that moment the thought had never occurred to me. I'd never seen a portable easel and didn't know such things existed, much less seen anyone actually using one outdoors to make a painting. Looking back on this story I have to smile today. Sometimes the biggest turns in your road present themselves at first in the most casual of ways. I took Barry Gealt's advice, and a whole new world opened up to me.

The paintings I produced that first year were heavily influenced by looking at 19th century landscape paintings. I was taking an art history class on 19th century European painting from Charles Haxthausen and a 19th Century Landscape Painting art history class from Louis Hawes. Hawes was a Constable scholar and his enthusiasm for that painter's work pushed me to start doing oil copies from Constable reproductions and even to take Constable books out into the field while I worked. I loved it as it gave me something like a handrailing as I tried to find my footing in what was to me unknown terrain. Starting all my paintings on a dark warm raw umber ground held all my work together that year.

While you can see a great deal of the 19th century method in Fall at Lake Lemon, my practice gradually shifted in the following decade and a half. Birches in the Forest shows the evolution. I was looking at a lot of impressionist work and liking it. One of my favorite inspirations was Claude Monet, but not the late Monet of the fuzzy water lilies. Rather I was (and am) more impressed by his earlier work where he holds onto his love of solidity and volume while demonstrating his amazing eye for the colors of light.

Often I feel too much is made of the "revolutionary" side of the French Impressionists. That was real, but at the same time these were artists who knew the realist tradition cold. They had trained and practiced until they could draw circles around many of painters of today.Innovating with one hand, they held onto the threads of that tradition with the other. Most of the American painters who took inhaled some of the first Impressionist vapors tended to follow the path of more solid forms and more clear delineation. Many of them (Sanford Gifford comes to mind along with George Inness, and later Winslow Homer) did world class art in the process.

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