How Do You Know What to Paint?
Philip Koch, Warmth of the Spring, oil on canvas,
42 x 63", 1991
I've been asked many times how I pick my ideas for paintings. Here's part of an answer.
This is a scene that still exists but you can't see anymore. It's a house and garage about a mile from my house in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Baltimore where I've done so many paintings over the years. Just a few years after I completed the piece I drove by just to take a look at the source once again and found it completely hidden by the saplings and brush reclaiming the front yard. I love that.
What first caught my eye when I discovered the place were the scalloped edges of the eaves of the house on the right. Probably when the house was first built, they looked almost too cute like an over-decorated gingerbread house. But as the surrounding forest reasserted itself, it lent credibility to the scene. After all, Hansel and Gretel found the gingerbread house deep in the forest where perhaps all sorts of magic things are possible.
Why was I drawn to paint this place in the first place? Honestly it is very difficult to put into words. I find some places make me feel both comfortable and excited at the same time, and I like to paint such places. I know that's not much help towards clarifying the issue. But the biggest part of these decisions of what makes for art and what doesn't probably happens in our unconscious minds. How a place makes you feel, to an artist, might be the most important fact of all. Sure it may leave much unexplained but we have to live with that mystery.
Later today my daughter's cat Clifford is coming to stay with us for a few days. From his many years of previous visits, I know ahead of time exactly where Clifford will plant himself in our house. He has favorite chairs to sleep on and specially selected spots of the floor reserved just for him to sit on. How did he make these choices? Who knows beyond saying he's responding to some deeply buried animal instinct. Clifford is an old and most stubborn of cats with profoundly specific preferences. After he leaves I know ahead of time that only one of the six chairs around my dining room table will need vacuuming. And I know which chair its going to be.
Artists aren't so different from cats. Maybe we're just people who for some reason listen to our instincts a little more closely than normal people. When we let the right instinct guide us, some remarkable things are possible.
For you cat people out there, I'll post a photo of the Clifford in a subsequent post.