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Showing posts from January, 2010

Practical Magic

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Art is about having visions. We all have such experiences. Artists are charged with the very special job giving those visions physical form. You have to do it by working with your materials and by mastering the craft. I like to think of being an artist as a kind of magician. Like magicians, we have to be knowledgeable and extremely practical.



There is nothing more hopeful than stretching a new large canvas. Above is a brand new 36 x 72" stretched linen canvas waiting to have its oil ground applied before I can begin actually painting on it. It's labor intensive and repetitive. It takes hours to build the wooden stretcher bars, cut the cloth to shape and staple it down, and finally apply the glue sizing. In a way it is meditative. When you are finally done you unconsciously know the terrain where your new painting is to unfold. That's why I like doing all these steps myself.
The glue that I use to seal the fabric off from the potentially damaging oils in my paint is made ou…

The Radical Eye

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Here's a view of Long Island Sound by the 19th century American painter John Kensett, who I've mentioned before. Superficially it looks like a whole lot of other pastoral landscape painters. But I think it's anything but ordinary. There is a startlingly abstract composition that hides beneath Kensett's delicately handled textured grasses. Squint your eyes just a tiny bit and look at how Kensett ties together the dark green shapes distant trees with the darkened horizontal line of the reddish distant field. To make this work his foreground had to be held much lighter in tone than was customary.
I think Kensett, like all the great painters, had a remarkable grasp how much stranger and more surprising reality is than how we usually imagine it. He knew a lot, but when necessary he could let go of preconceptions and just see more clearly than most. The composition he ended up with was hinted at by the actual landscape he painted from, but it required his radical eye to stri…

Baltimore Museum of Art Visits My Studio

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It's funny, my studio is usually the one place I go where there are no other people. Yesterday I had forty some new faces staring at the easel I usually face alone.
It was a studio tour organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art's Prints, Drawings and Photographs Society. Led by Rena Hoisington and Ann Shafer, two of the Curators from the Museum, and my MICA colleague Trudi Ludwig Johnson, a printmaker and President of the Society, the group is focusing their program on the pastel medium this spring. They had a morning and afternoon visit to my studio where they asked me to talk about working with this delicate and sometimes marvelous material. Next Saturday, Rena Hoisington, one of the BMA Curators, will be leading a seminar at the Museum on the history of the pastel medium with examples from the Museum's collection.
As I told the group, I'm very glad there's a Museum group devoted to looking at work on paper. Too often this branch of the art world gets short shrift…

Little Children and a New Painting

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Philip Koch, Memorial, oil on panel, 18 x 36", 2010
This is my first completed oil of the new year.
The title was chosen because I've been reflecting a great deal on the notion of memory and what we do with the past. It comes with lots of questions. What is it for? What do we hold onto? What needs to be changed? Just as this is true of our lives, these questions emerge in the way we make a painting.
Below is the way the then in-progress panel looked a week ago. There was a promise of a great deep panorama unfolding, but I was troubled by much of the background. Other than receding into a misty distance it didn't seem to reveal enough of a unique personality.
At times like this an artist has to roll up his sleeves and do some serious trial and error with the brush. It probably took several hundred variations in the lakes and islands to come up with the sweeping rhythm I wanted. Anyone who has ever painted knows this is hard slugging- more like digging in a mine with a picka…

The Beauty of Storms

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Winslow Homer, Summer Squall, oil
I've posted before that Winslow Homer was the first painter I noticed as a little kid. My folks had a nice print of one of his watercolors hanging over the couch. Funny how these things stick with you.
Often I wonder about the vividness of childhood. Lots of things delighted me as a kid, but I can also recall being shy, and frightened too. Often I had a sense of awe in the face of what seemed a very big world. Homer painted lot of pictures that looked just like where I grew up- rocky shores and big waves. As a kid I loved the big storms that would sweep down from Canada and bash the shoreline of my home on Lake Ontario just outside Rochester. I think Homer was well in touch with his inner thrill seeking kid too, based on a painting like the one above.
One of the reasons Homer affects so many viewers is his masterful sense of space. Take this painting. That little boat with its sail blowing loose is really out there in a different world than we stand…

Rembrandt and the Cat

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I posted yesterday about taking my daughter Louisa's old cat Clifford to the vet to be put to sleep and about how hard that was for all of us. Here he is in better days, sitting in our dining room on a favored chair. The trouble with falling in love is eventually every relationship you have has to end. Yet who would want to live a life without loves both large and small in it?
Why have humans always made some sort of art? Everywhere you go, any continent, any century you sooner or later just trip over the stuff. Fortunately some of it is pretty good and every now and then you'll see something from another time that just takes your breath away. A good Rembrandt can do that for me. Rembrandt was a man who experienced serious losses in his life. There's not much written record of what he said about art or living. Nonetheless he has a lot to say to us.


Here's a favorite of mine, one of his paintings of a windmill. It's the very end of a sunset, a time when the light is s…

In Memory of a Very Short Studio Companion

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This is a photo I took two weeks ago of Clifford, my daughter Louisa's 13 year old cat. Just this morning I picked him up off this same rug and took him to the vet to be put down. His kidneys had failed and he had become severely anemic. The vet assured us it was time. Most of all we knew he wasn't ok as his usually scrappy personality had diminished to only an echo of itself.
So we went in and held him as the vet administered the sedatives that gradually brought his heart to a full stop. It is surprising to me how hard this feels.
Clifford often boarded with us while Louisa traveled. He spent a great deal of time in my studio, often sleeping but other times staring intently at everything around him. There is nothing quite as intense as a cat's gaze. These are animals who seem to set the standard for being sharp eyed. Vision for a cat must be a powerful and deeply sensuous experience.
What did he think of my paintings? He never said much about them. I'm quite sure he wa…

A Visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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Last Sunday my wife Alice and I drove down to Washington, DC for an afternoon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). If the heavens opened up and in a booming voice God announced he is going to destroy all art museums except one and he's going to make me choose which one to spare, I'd reluctantly have to issue the white arm band to the SAAM. It just has so many of my favorite paintings. It'd be a tough choice as I have a soft spot in my heart for little regional museums, but in the face of divine wrath, what's one to do?
Above is Alice standing in front of one of my favorite's, Thomas Hart Benton's huge Achelous & Hercules, 1947. It is a massive, impressive painting. Here I am below standing by the other end of the same painting. Benton had a marvelous sense of expressive silhouettes and knew how to squeeze the empty spaces between the figures and animals to create wonderfully charged intervals of empty space.

I had already fallen in love with Benton…

Finding the Path

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As a boy I used to go on long walks through the deep woods with my dad. An explorer at heart, he loved to go a different way each time. Part of the fun was getting lost and searching out a new trail. I remember asking him who it was who had made the meager little trails we were following and why hadn't they made them wider and easier to follow? I was amazed to hear they were the trails made by the animals who lived in the forest. Cleared gradually with each passing hoof or paw following the line of least resistance through the thickets. Over time, a pathway formed.

Artists are followers too. One that I followed at a critical time in my study was the early British master of the landscape, John Constable (1776-1837). Above is one of his paintings, Deadham Mill, that was a particular favorite of mine when I took my first tentative steps with painting plein air landscapes in graduate school in the hills of southern Indiana in Bloomington.
Why Constable? More than anything else it was …