Painting in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

Last week Amy Hunt who runs the Education program at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland invited me to set up my easels and work in the Museum's galleries for a day. This was to be part of Hagerstown's Artwalk, a coordinated day of artists, musicians and poets performing throughout the city. My first response was hesitant. I've never done a painting demonstration where a group watches as I create a painting and talk about what I'm doing as I work. Honestly I find painting hard enough to do well as it is without worrying about being entertaining or educational as I do it.

But as I thought more about it, I reconsidered. This was an opportunity to use the Museum and its unique ambiance as a studio for a day. Now there are times in the creative process that are especially critical- the times when you're just beginning to inch your way forward in unfamiliar territory. It can be a little like walking on egg shells. Sometimes you need complete privacy to steady your nerves and clear your head enough to pull it off. But things aren't always that tenuous. Once you've decided on a course with a particular painting, there are times when you can breathe easier and just work your way steadily forward. I realized it would be possible to take works in progress that I'm really confident about and paint on them in public. And I have a bunch of pieces that are at that stage right now, so I told Amy "count me in."

WCMFA has an amazing collection of old master work, particularly the paintings of some of my heroes from the 19th and early 20th century. The image of my easels holding my wet oil paintings standing in the same rooms with some of the historic artists intrigued me. It seemed a way to make a kind of romantic connection to the art of the past.

Lastly, I thought back to how I felt as beginning artist when I was teenager. How much I would have liked to run into a real professional painter working on their paintings in a museum. I would have been fascinated to see experienced hands using the artist's exotic materials and tools . Most people have never seen an artist working anywhere except maybe some aunt or uncle who's got a painting hobby. I am a veteran painter and to be honest I'm proud of the work I've done. Nobody benefits when artists keep their work and vision a secret.

So I packed up three easels, all my equipment and materials, and took some oil studies I wanted to expand upon and drove off yesterday morning to Hagerstown. I set up and worked from ten until four in the afternoon. A former student of mine (from the 1970's!) from MICA in Baltimore came by to say hello which was great, and I chatted with a couple of dozen other people as I worked.

But mostly I just painted Here I am in the WCMFA's Old Master Gallery laying in the underpainting for a 40 x 60" canvas that will be titled Northern Sky. At the left you can see the small oil on panel painting where I had first worked out the basic shapes and color harmonies. Even though the small version is modest in size I worked on it several dozen hours stretched over a two month period to get it just right.

Philip Koch, Northern Sky, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2", 2010

Above is a view of one of the other paintings I wanted to work on, Memorial, oil on panel, 18 x 36".

As it turned out I "got into it" with the new large version of Northern Sky and spent almost all my time getting a solid foundation for it laid down. I'll be going back over its whole surface a least two or three times more as I resolve it, adding new ideas and making the gradations and transitions in the paint more sensuous. The medium of oil paint was invented for just such reasons.

I was reminded of this as I worked in a room surrounded by some remarkable examples of subtlety and expressiveness from the Baroque era of the 1600's. We of course live in a different time than the old Baroque masters and our art has to reflect that fact. Yet I'm convinced the best work we contemporary painters can do has to be based in part on a weaving together of the best threads from the past with those of our present experience. That in short is the theme of Unbroken Thread, the traveling exhibition of my landscapes organized by the University of Maryland University College. The next stop on its eight museum national tour will be the art museum in Newport News, Virginia, the Penninsula Fine Arts Center, opening next July.


  1. Excellent Philip. Thanks for sharing pics from your day. And although I didn't comment, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your last couple of posts on the Hopper studio. It is very difficult for us to separate ourselves from our "masters" -those whose work speaks to us in a special way. It would be especially hard when surrounded by his subject matter, his house and his easel! You have done that though, acknowledging your debt to Hopper and others, but finding your own way. I applaud you for that-and so would Hopper.

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  3. Deborah,

    Thank you for your kind comments. I still have some neat photos from the last Hopper studio stay I'll be putting up on this blog and on my website.

    It is a dicey business trying to negotiate one's way through the influences of other artists. We'd be completely up a creek without their example, their work, and their vision. And yet it's also so possible to imitate too much and achieve only a 2nd rate version of someone else's vision. For me there have been times of difficulty with this issue, but more often I felt propelled along my road by Hopper, Winslow Homer, and heck, even Mark Rothko when I was just starting out.

    You know all that talk about art being a deep communication from one person's mind to another's. I think it's true. Painting is such a personal search, and we need others to help us do it. It's pretty funny.


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