Friday, July 31, 2009

Awesome Sense of Light

Think of late afternoon sunlight and I immediately think Edward Hopper. 

Years ago it was seeing the poetry in his long shadows that convinced me I had to change from painting my early abstractions. I wanted a world with the dazzle of bright highlights and deep luminous shadows.

Edward Hopper's oil painting The Camel's Hump (image courtesy Art Renewal Center) features a distinctive pyramid-like sand dune that for decades was a landmark in S. Truro on the shore Cape Cod Bay. The road in the foreground is the driveway to Hopper's studio and he positioned himself to look south towards the memorable dune. When I was first invited to go and stay in Hopper's studio way back in 1983 I was eager to try a painting from this same vantage point. I got there and guess what- no Camel's Hump. 

The owners of the studio later told me about what had happened. Apparently someone bought the adjoining land and planned to build a house right where the Camel's Hump stood. He even hired a bulldozer and made quick work of the famous dune in preparation for digging the foundation. The town officials stopped him as he'd neglected to get the proper building permits. Still it was too late and this wonderful natural feature is lost to future generations. At least we have Hopper's vision of it.

Cape Cod is perhaps one of the most painted landscapes in the world. It has real beauty, but with that comes a certain strangeness. It appealed to Hopper's eye that had a unique way of seeing. For my money no artist caught the "feel" of the Cape like Hopper.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Year Is This Anyway?

I was talking with Ekaterina, the lifeguard at the pool yesterday. Don't know how we got on the topic but she said as far as she was concerned "the past is the past- I'm done with it." Now she's maybe 20 or 21. Me I don't have this problem.

The past, the present, what's up around the bend- it's all mixed up in my head like I'm swimming through a bowl of thick soup. The above painting is a case in point. 

I grew up on the shore of Lake Ontario just outside Rochester, NY. Especially in the winter it was magical. My childhood friend Bob Wetmore used to keep his little Sunfish sailboat in a creek that flowed north and emptied out into Lake Ontario. For some reason that memory of this protected little creek always stuck in my mind- perhaps I was touched by its seeming safety compared to the wide open and often wildly rough Lake Ontario.

Got a notion in my head to do a painting about winter a few years ago and started scribbling thumbnails in my sketchbook. What emerged as if from nowhere was an amalgam of Bob's little creek and some pines that grew outside my bedroom window (actually located miles away). So this painting, North Star, is simultaneously about the 1950's childhood of this artist and an imagined image that came to me in 2004. 

Sure I'm confused, but I kind of like it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is Drawing Better Than Painting?

There is a field outside one of the ATM's I sometimes 
use. Every time I go there my eye is caught and held by a stand of tall pines in the distance. Often they sway gently as they are raked by the wind. This went on for years until I took the hint and did a drawing of the place. Above is Harp of the Winds, vine charcoal and pastel, 9 x 9". Making the drawing felt right, as if I'd pulled the trees to myself and made them my own. Not surprisingly, this group of trees ended up completing the foreground of one of my large studio oils not too much later. 

One would think in painting that inventing trees out of one's imagination shouldn't be that hard. Just try it. Likely as not one ends up with foliage that looks more like wilted broccoli than oaks or pines. Making drawings is it a way to engage more of your mind in grasping the essentials in what you've discovered out there in the world. It is a way to wake oneself up enough to really see. 

Is drawing better than painting? No, but like a musician practicing scales, it is a way to sharpen and tune one's senses and understanding. Show me a truly fine painter and I'll show you someone who's filled up thousands of square feet of drawing paper.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cape Cod Museum of Art's "Unbroken Thread"

The Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis, MA is hosting the national touring exhibition of my work Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch through August 16th in its largest and beautifully skylit gallery space. The Museum has done a beautiful job with the exhibition.

The show reveals the on-going link between the American landscape painting tradition and the paintings of this modernist-influenced artist. It is particularly appropriate that the show appear on Cape Cod as in many  ways this was where I became a mature painter. It think it was in struggling to paint the strange colors of its white sand and stubby pine forests that I came into my own.

Years before in 1970 as I was entering my graduate painting program at Indiana University I was painting like an over-eager young dog chasing every squirrel at the same time. I had only recently stopped painting abstract imitations of Mark Rothko and Frank Stella's work. My discovering Edward Hopper's paintings in art books had put some wind into my new realist sails, but nonetheless there was still a strange mix of ideas bouncing around uncomfortably in my head. But just as I reached Bloomington, IN I had the good fortune to view a major exhibit of Hudson River School landscapes the University Art Museum had pulled together.

Such 19th century work was  way outside my previous experience, but it reminded me ever so much of home- the forested steep hills along the shoreline of Lake Ontario (just outside of Rochester, NY) where I'd spent my boyhood. Sure the Hudson River painters could be a touch too dark and gloomy, yet they clearly loved the trees and rocks they painted with such unblinking whole-heartedness.  I was snowed. Their example let me see my own recent past, something I'd been in a hurry to outgrow, as instead something of enormous value. Something that could make my art more genuine and personal. 

In a post last week I wrote about how childhood memory plays such a big role in most good art.

In the paintings I am making is a curious balancing act between two traditions: contemporary art's bold color and flat abstract shapes played off against the delight of deep spaces, natural light, and atmosphere of the 19th century painters. It's a little crazy, but it's a wonderful challenge to work out..

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Quick Trip thru Art History

Drove to Rockland County just north of New York City yesterday to visit family and came back home today. As we'd hit horrendous traffic driving north it wasn't hard to persuade my wife and daughter to take the indirect scenic route home this afternoon. 

We headed west through New Jersey's much underrated mountain region to the Delaware Water Gap. Here the upper Delaware River cut its way through the mountains and left an amazing geologic creation for us. My wife Alice had gone to summer camp there for years as a girl and she was obviously lost in time and space as we explored the river and forests. It was fabulous. When I was just discovering 19th century American landscape painting I learned of the Water Gap through the often reproduced depiction on it by the 2nd generation Hudson River School painter George Inness.  Above is one of Inness's Water Gap oils (courtesy Art Renewal Center).

Pushing on we headed through Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. Intermittent rain squalls duked it out with brilliant sunlight. It was great. Now we're back home in the studio and it's back to painting.

Friday, July 24, 2009

More Lessons from Edward Hopper

In the last post I mentioned staying and working in Edward Hopper's painting studio on Cape Cod. Above is an 8 x 10" oil on panel I did last October in his studio's painting room. The easel shown is the one Hopper used for decades to paint many of his most famous oils. Pictured below is Rooms by the Sea, now in the Yale University Art Gallery, which is one of my favorite Hopper's. It is exactly the viewpoint Hopper would have had when he sat down to paint his studio doorway opening out to Cape Cod Bay. But he made one big change- moving the sun north so it shone directly onto the door itself. It's an invention on his part that makes the painting happen.

Hopper set a great example in his openness to his surroundings. In looking at the ordinary corner and door way he felt subtle stirrings in his heart and found a way to translate them into shape and color. He evoked similar feelings in countless viewers of his painting. This is a man who never accepted a pat answer on how to make a painting. If I wore a hat (I don't unless I'm painting outside on a bright day) I'd tip it to him now.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My "Teacher" Edward Hopper

When I started out as a painter I was at tiny Oberlin College in Ohio. All the art students there worked abstractly so I followed suit.

But in their art library I stumbled across the work of Edward Hopper, so different than the simple geometric abstractions I was doing in painting class. Something about Hopper's bright lights and long shadows struck a deep chord in me and I realized I had to change direction and head off into realist painting.

Funny thing happened. 15 years later I had a solo show on Cape Cod at a small art gallery. At that time one could clearly see the influence of Hopper's work in my paintings. The family that owned Hopper's studio bought a couple paintings and invited me to come visit them in the studio Hopper lived in for 30 years in S. Truro on the Cape. One thing led to another and I ended up staying and working in Hopper's old studio every other year since 1983. 

At the top is a photo of me painting outside Hopper's studio along about '95. In back of me is the 10' tall north facing studio window Hopper put in to flood his painting room with natural light. 

Below is an oil painting of my wife Alice done from life in the studio. She stands at the door leading out to Cape Cod Bay. Hopper and his wife Jo no doubt spent a lot of time gazing out at the water just like this. 

Hopper was never a teacher face to face with young artists. But the power of his example and the inventive yet subtle qualities of his work spoke loudly to me back in Oberlin College's Art Library back in the late '60's. And when asked which teachers I studied with as a young artist, I always want to answer "Edward Hopper."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Observation and Childhood Reverie

Here's one of my newest oil paintings. It is titled The Sea and it's small, 6 1/2 x 13". Working at that size allows for lots of playful experimentation. Even so, I worked on it for months.

The origin is a plein air vine charcoal drawing I did four years ago of the Porcupine Islands up on Mt. Desert Island in Acadia National Park in Maine (see post below). That drawing got put away for a couple of years- long enough for my original impression of the place to fade. Once I unearthed the drawing again a few years later, my imagination saw it in a different light. What had been Maine islands recalled to me my childhood in upstate New York where I spent huge chunks of time gazing at the then to me ocean-like Lake Ontario. Children often are the closest of us to the art spirit. Carl Jung thought so.

And now in my sixties, I find reconsidering my on-the-spot drawings through the remembered eye of my childhood can chart the best road forward. As the oil progressed, some of the specifics of the place evolved away from observable fact to create a new place more in keeping with my state of mind. Most of my best paintings are like that.

Now I'm working on a larger studio version on this image. 

The original drawing is now on display as part of the seven museum national touring exhibition
Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch currently at Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis, MA through August 16.

A new beginning

Why do we look at art? 

Maybe to see what's possible. Painters take extremely simple ingredients (often literally colored mud and some oil) and turn them into something that has never existed before. Something from nothing almost. 

When one is struck by a powerful painting this something-out-of-nothing quality is there in the back of their mind. It is a reminder that genuine invention, rebirth, discovery, and so on are real possibilities in our lives. 

No wonder I go back to look in museum's so often.

My wife is a psychotherapist who has spent years in the trenches. She specializes in group therapy and has patients from all walks of life. Almost all have had recent suicide attempts. What strikes her most is how much alike all of us are, patient and non-patient. I've asked her many times what she considers most important in therapy and her answer always the same: hope. The feeling I get from viewing a really good painting is a quiet surge of energy that seems to flow out from the canvas and gently wash over me. It stokes my inner fires up a bit, gives me livelier mind, and it makes me hopeful for the future.