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Showing posts from November, 2009

You Can Go Home Again

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Philip Koch, Northern Pines, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 1985
For everyone there are memories of people, experiences, and places that just stay with you decade in and decade out. They can be sources of some of the deepest inspiration. Here's one of mine. It's not that it looks like my home. Rather it's a place where I feel most at home with myself.
This is a pond in Acadia National Park in Maine. I fell in love with the spot and did a series of works there on location. They all sold and I found myself missing them. I got to thinking about them and without consulting any images of them started doing a version of the same spot out of my imagination and memory. Below is the result.


Philip Koch, The Song of All Days, oil on panel, 36 x 72", 2008
Actually I like all the ways it departs from the earlier painting. It seems a more universal statement about experiencing the landscape.
One gets busy with other things and though I always meant to go back to the original spot in …

The Puritans, Stolen Corn, and Using Color

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Philip Koch, The Return, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 1998

Philip Koch, The Return, pastel, 9 x 12, 1998
This is my post Thanksgiving post.
There's a famous landmark in Truro, MA on Cape Cod Bay named Corn Hill. The Puritans arrived there from England with their ship's stores badly depleted. Before heading on to Plymouth, MA they went ashore and stumbled into the local Native American's store of corn. Declaring this a gift of Providence (they literally did) they then took the corn for themselves and shortly after headed to the mainland to enjoy further calamities.
The name Corn Hill stuck. When I first started having residencies in Edward Hopper's Truro painting studio, I of course started checking out all the sources in the area he painted from. His eye was so sharp you'd be crazy not to. Hopper did a fabulous watercolor or two of the houses on the steep slope of the famous hill. From near the top you can look south and see this marvelous view. A tributary of the Pame…

The Strangest Comment this Painter Ever Received

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Philip Koch, Mount Washington, oil on panel, 18 x 24" 1995
"Would Monet Paint Mount Washington?" A motorist stuck in traffic actually rolled his window down and yelled this out to me as I painted this oil in the Mount Washington section of Baltimore. Now any artist who sets up a portable easel in a public place places them self in the front line for odd responses from passers by. I was set up just feet from traffic on a bridge over the river in the painting. The traffic was stuck in a terrible jam caused by the grand opening of a new Whole Foods grocery. It was drawing record crowds. Baltimore is a small enough town that this was a big deal.
Leaving the Whole Foods parking lot meant spending time in a traffic jam. Nothing is all bad, and my glacial progress driving in my car one afternoon allowed me time to discover the potential of the view when one was half way over the river. So I came back and set up my easel on the sidewalk, just a few feet from the inching along tra…

Second Chances and Then More Chances

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Philip Koch, Green Spring II, oil on canvas, 40 x 60", 2009
This painting was posted for a while earlier this week and then taken back to the studio so I could work on it again. About a pound of oil pigment later, she's back to debut at the ball once again. I became aware the balances needed tuning. The sky became darker and I pruned some of the trees and finally demolished a house.
This is a painting I began sometime ago and it was based on a plein air oil. As it became a larger piece back in the studio, the centrifugal forces that always threaten to break out in all directions took over for awhile. It is a little like calming down a herd of half-wild horses and getting them back into a corral. You have to be patient and keep after them, employing both a little charm and a steeled determination.
Even so, there is a whole lot left in this painting. I tend to like paintings that aim to tell one a great deal. So often real life is overcrowded with events, movements, moods and s…

A Very Short Explanation of Modern Art

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"What the heck is it with that modern art anyway?"
A friend from the gym where I work out asked me that this morning. All I managed was a "well..." accompanied by a shrug and a wan smile. Later in the day I got to thinking I've been in the trenches as a working painter for four decades and really ought to be able to give a decent answer. Here goes:
We humans are emotional creatures. We use images in our heads to try to navigate our way through our lives. And we make images of the things we see and of what we imagine because doing so seems to make some of us feel better. And others seem to like looking at what we've made. Maybe it makes them feel better too.
As far as painting goes, it really involves two ways of seeing. One is to enjoy the design of the flat surface just like that of a woven Hopi rug. The other is to imagine the painting's surface as a sheet of glass behind which the painter carves out a deeper space. Often this second type is populated by…

Second Chances: Why Art is Better Than Real Life

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Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, oil on canvas, 35 x 72", 2008
Above is a painting I started over a decade ago where I repainted the sky last year for a much better result. There is the old saying that "life is a work in progress." What isn't?
I've been going through a fascinating period this fall with my work as a basement flood forced me to literally handle most of the paintings stored down there. As you're trying to gently carry them up the steps to safety you can't help but do a little re-examining . As a result, I have a whole number of paintings I've decided to make little adjustments to.
Is there anyone who hasn't mulled over in their mind something that went wrong in their life, maybe a decision that proved a mistake or something said in anger you've regretted. Once the cat is out of the bag there's often little you can do.
If you're an artist, you get issued a special white armband by The Muse to go back and get it right the se…

Why I "Never" Paint Old Barns

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Philip Koch, Stone City Barns, oil on canvas, 24 x 48", 1991
Here is a painting that owes a great deal to one of the country's most intriguing regional painters, Grant Wood (1891-1942). A native of Cedar Rapids, IA, Wood conducted a summer painting school for, I believe, two seasons in the nearby town of Stone City, IA. One of his paintings, Stone City, Iowa, depicts the town as it appeared at the time. I remember seeing this painting reproduced in my 7th or 8th grade history textbook. Back then I didn't like the painting but found myself stopping to look at it often. Usually that's a sign it is slyly working its magic on you.


I was invited to have my first solo art museum exhibition at the Cedar Rapics Museum of Art by its then Director Joseph Czestochowski back in 1990. As part of the show they asked me to come out to Cedar Rapids for a week and teach a painting class. Naturally I wanted to paint the landscape myself and was strongly urged by the Museum staff to try S…

Haunted Houses

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Philip Koch, Shadows on the House, oil on panel, 9 3/4 x 8 3/4", 1982
This is another painting that's headed to the framer tomorrow morning. It's done plein air in a neighborhood that has always fascinated me near where I live. Called Dixon Hill, it lives up to its name, with some remarkably steep roads that make me glad I don't live there in the winter (unlike New England, where snow clearing is virtually on a military basis, down here in Baltimore I think the city only has 3 snowplows). I grew up in an extremely hilly section of the shoreline of Lake Ontario just outside of Rochester, NY and to me, really meaningful terrain has to have steep rises and valleys. It's a preference that speaks to how I started imagining the world as a little kid that survives to this day.
Dixon Hill is full of homes build long ago as summer homes for the wealthy industrialists of Baltimore who wanted to escape the heat and grime of the city. All the homes are architecturally distinct a…

Can a "Happy" Painting Be Any Good?

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Philip Koch, October, oil on panel, 13 x 13 1/2", 1978
Here's a painting I just took out of an older simple frame and will be taking to my framer for something a little more substantial this week. It's from a very long time ago. The fall of 1978 and my then girlfriend (and later to be my wife) Alice were taking our first trip out of town together. So it's an event that sticks in my mind. I started a painting on a beautiful but freezing morning in the front yard of my old undergraduate school friend Larry Farmer's place in the little town of Pottersville, NJ. It was absolutely freezing, but I cajoled Alice into posing in the front yard wearing only a light sweater (if I'm going to suffer for my art, why shouldn't other people too?).
I had met Larry my fist semester at Oberlin College back when we both had other futures sketched out for ourselves. Larry was a Government Major I believe and I was intending to become a Sociologist. You could say we watched each …

What Should One Paint?

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Philip Koch, Route 6, Yellow House, oil on panel, 14 x 15", 2009
Ran across a painting from the '80's a few days ago that I always wanted to go back into. Yesterday I gave in and dove in.
When I was a very little boy one of my first memories was a children's record titled "Whizzer the Airplane." On the dust jacket was a beautiful illustration of a smiling airplane that was painted bright yellow. I used to thrill to the adventure of Whizzer getting lost in a thunderstorm, almost crashing , and then righting himself and fly out into clear skies again (hey, I was four, and such struggles feel like they're happening daily to you at that age). Needless to say I identified mightily with Whizzer. In the realm of feeling, I was Whizzer.
Just south of where Edward Hopper lived on Cape Cod is the small town of Wellfleet, and right by the side of Route 6 that runs up the Cape's spine is this yellow house. I did a number of paintings of it, one time standing in a 3…

A Secret Artists and Collectors Know

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Philip Koch, Blackberry River Forest, oil 55 x 44", 1990
This is a short talk I gave at the University of Maryland University College at the opening reception dinner for their 2004 exhibition of my paintings A Vision of Nature.
Artists and art collectors have something in common- it is that search for that special painting. While there are far easier ways to decorate, art collectors sense on a gut level that there is a special quality they want more of in their lives.
Experience, living, is more unexpected than we adults let on. Sometimes it is even strange. The message of painting, and of my paintings, is that this is ok, and beyond that, that allowing ourselves to embrace this awkward side of our experience makes us stronger, gives us bigger lives, makes us more potent, and best of all, happier.
When someone brings a painting home and puts it up on their wall ultimately they are doing it for only one reason- they somehow sense it will make them an artist of their own lives.
A paint…

Why Titles Matter

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Philip Koch, The Arrival, oil on panel, 45 x 60", 2004 Collection of Susan and Michael Hughes, Baltimore, MD
When I married Alice in 1982 we went on a honeymoon to Acadia National Park in Maine. As most newlywed couples do, we spent the time working on paintings.
The title of a painting used to matter much less to me years ago when I got most of my ideas for paintings marching around with my portable easel. Simple descriptors like "Three Pines Near the Highway" served me just fine.
Over time though I had grown fascinated with using the image of the landscape in a more mythical fashion. Often now I think of my paintings showing a glimpse of a world that exists long before or long after our present time. Maybe they exist outside of time altogether. They come about after engaging in a long, elaborate daydream. My job as the artist is to make that gel into a mental image with actual solid form and real spaces. It's not easy.
What helps me is imagining every possible aspect…

Sitting Down to Breakfast with Edward Hopper

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Philip Koch, Hopper Studio Kitchen, pastel, 6 x 8", 2004
This is a pastel drawing I did on location in Edward Hopper's old painting studio in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. The studio was designed by Hopper himself in 1934 (built at the height of the Depression with money his wife Jo inherited).
The studio reveals Hopper's single minded devotion to making his paintings the center of his life. An unusually tall man (over 6' 7") he saved fully half of the dwelling's space to his painting room and had to cram everything else into what was left. The kitchen is quite small and is furnished with a table and two chairs more suited to doll furniture than holding the behind of America's preeminent realist painter. In choices like these Hopper shows us his priorities.
One can learn a lot from Hopper. I know I have. He studied painting with the legendary personality Robert Henri, by all accounts a highly charismatic teacher.Hopper absorbed from Henri much knowledge about …

Love at First Sight

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Early September of 1966.
It was my very first day of classes my freshman year at Oberlin College. I was feeling more than a little bit intimidated and the fact it was pouring enough to soak the bottom of my pants wasn't helping. I'd come to Oberlin intending to be a Sociology major and my very first lecture at 8:00 a.m. that first day was by a new sociology prof who had never taught before. He was pretty dreadful as a lecturer and I was feeling the balloon of my enthusiasm for my college experience begin to deflate just a little.
Oberlin had a strict series of required courses one had to take outside one's major. Figuring I'd get at least one of them out of the way early so I could concentrate later on on my Sociology, I had signed up for Art History 101, a world art survey class. So braving the downpour once again I marched across the College Square and entered the schools largest lecture hall and sat down for the second lecture of my college career. The prof decided …

The Voyage of the Artist

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Philip Koch, Moorings, oil on panel, 15 x 20", 1985

I've mentioned before that sailboats have an unusual significance for me. It's an image that always has the promise of embarking on a voyage. All of us go on journeys- some of our making and others that come over us and sweep us along for the ride.
I was wondering about what is it that an artist does for the society. Surely we are among the least well understood members of community. Jokes and stereotypes about us abound. Last night I had a dream. Upon waking I realized it spoke to this question.
I'm living somewhere in a deep forest as one of a tribe - perhaps we're Native American. Among the tribe's children is one girl who doesn't make friends easily with the others and frequently has to play by herself. She's sometimes made fun of by the others. In the dream I confess I don't show her any special attention or kindness. One day she disappears for many hours and only returns near dusk, carrying wi…