Thursday, September 30, 2010

Painting in the Edward Hopper Studio

I'm just returned from the Edward Hopper studio in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. We had a blast.

Good weather and a smile from the Muse helped me do a ton of good new work. Above is Hopper's easel holding instead of his masterpieces three new vine charcoal and pastel drawings I did while there. His easel, by the way, is nothing special- it's the type still available today from art stores. Like everything else, Hopper worked with ordinary tools, materials and subjects, yet very often produced things that were magical.

Above is my wife Alice standing next to the 10' tall north facing studio window in the studio's painting room. That and the high ceilings give the room a steady bright daylight all day long. It's frankly a beautiful space. Hopper placed his easel just to the right of the window when he worked, as that's the spot where glare from the late afternoon sun could most easily be avoided.

And above is me with one of my many easels standing on the north side of the studio.

Below is a photo Alice took of me walking in a brisk wind along the beach Hopper used to swim at, usually alone, during his summers on Cape Cod.

In a couple of blog posts back I was talking about Hopper's oil Rooms by the Sea in the Yale University Art Museum, and how Hopper took many liberties with the actual facts to make his painting more expressive.

Here below is the actual corner of his painting room, with the dutch door opening toward Cape Cod Bay. On the left is Hopper's bedroom. Look at how cool the walls are in the photo below as they all face north and never actually receive direct sunlight. And notice how he's changed the door itself to attach to the other side of the doorway. This lets his sunlight splash across his enlarged wall uninterrupted.

I want to show you a lot more of the photos I took of the studio and surroundings. And I want to share with you some of the new work I did while up there. For me, who has been moved so often by Hopper's achievement, staying and working in his studio is a big shot in the arm. The next few blog posts will look at Hopper and his legacy more.

Addendum to Post:

I had an interesting exchange with Lisa Petrulis, the Curator of the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, IN concerning the whereabouts of one of the houses Hopper had painted on Cape Cod that became the oil Route 6, Eastham, one of the jewels of Swope's Permanent Collection. The former Director of the Swope felt the source for Hopper's masterful oil

was a house and barn located on the northwest side of the Route 6 traffic circle near Orleans, MA, just at the edge of the town of Eastham. I sent along a photo I took of that structure to Petrulis, thinking this was probably the source for Hopper's painting. No slouch she, Lisa Petrulis sent me the following photo of another house a bit north of my candidate that is now The Painted Dog Bed and Breakfast. Here's the photo:

If you compare the painting and the photo you have to conclude this is Hopper's source for what I have always considered to be one of his very best paintings. Typical of the changes to Cape Cod since Hopper's day, there's been a lot more growth of the trees that by the end of the 19th century had been all but cleared from Cape Cod for firewood and building. Now the Cape is gradually losing that open desert-like appearance featured in so many Hoppers.

The Swope Art Museum by the way is a real treat, with a Permanent Collection that's unrivaled when it comes to Regionalist painting of the early 20th century. They have in addition to Hopper, great work by Charles Burchfield, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and a killer Paul Manship sculpture. The Swope is a great regional museum. I've had the privilege of having had two solo exhibitions of my own paintings there and served as the juror for their annual regional juried Wabash Valley Exhibition. And they were one of the first art museums to add one of my paintings to their Collection. If you're anywhere near central Indiana, you owe it to yourself to visit.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More About Edward Hopper

Above is Monhegan Houses, Maine painted early on in Hopper's career around 1916-9. Monhegan was popularized as a great place to paint among artists largely through Hopper's charismatic teacher Robert Henri. Hopper was one of many who made voyages out to the little Maine island. His fellow Henri student, Rockwell Kent, liked Monhegan even better than Hopper and chose to stay and build a formidable studio there later owned by Jamie Wyeth, but that's another story.

Hopper did mostly small plein air oils while up there, and they rank among the very best paintings ever made of the island. This one's a view of the tiny village with Manana Island in the background. Nowadays lots of artists have painted similar views, though most lack Hopper's expressiveness.

One reason this oil has such power is Hopper's restraint. If you squint your eyes a bit when looking at it you immediately are struck by how Hopper segregated all his really light colors to just the very center of the canvas- the white house and a few boats in the harbor. Compare these to the much darker highlights in the foreground and in the distance. In real life there's almost no way such an arrangement is possible, yet Hopper makes it seem completely natural.

Probably 99 out of a hundred other artists standing in the same spot would have chosen to make Manana island in the distance one of the focal points of the painting. Hopper instead focuses on the geometry in the houses. Notice how he makes the little red chimneys dance around the roofs. And the way one of the diagonal roofs merges perfectly into the right hand diagonal side of the island in the background. This all shows Hopper kept looking a little longer than most other artists. Without that, one doesn't find the unexpected ideas to give one's viewers.

Above is an oil from later in Hopper's career. Titled Rooms for Tourists, it was painted up on Cape Cod from studies he made in Provincetown. Intriguingly, the same house is still there on Bradford Street and is still offering its rooms for rent as a Bed and Breakfast. It still looks substantially the same. Notice the wonderful detail of the odd shaped gap in the foreground hedge- if the artist hadn't included it and spotlighted it as he does the whole front of the painting would been too predictable. Another great touch is the way Hopper carves out a tangible space inside the house by using a warmer interior light than the cooler lights shining on the outside and on the hanging sign.

Gail Levin the art historian has written a great book documenting with her photographs the actual places Hopper used as sources for many of his paintings in her book Hopper's Places (you can get it from Amazon). I can't recommend it highly enough- she helps you tip toe into Hopper's mind as he selects, edits, alters, or down right lies about what he was looking at as he painted from a source.

And above is a painting Hopper did later in his career. He's pared down the room to its barest essentials. For Hopper that meant moving the viewers eye around the painting with his elegant and sharply focused shapes in the highlighted sunlight on the walls and floor. Just look at how he gradates the color from warm to cool in both highlights. This pushes your eye along and makes the emptiness feel meaningful and resonant.

I'm convinced the above painting was also inspired by his thirty years of living in his Cape Cod studio in S. Truro, MA. He kept it very sparsely furnished and would have seen light effects just like he painted above almost daily. When I've been up staying and working in his old studio I've been repeatedly struck how much the place reminds me of this painting.

Here's a photo of the Hopper's Truro studio overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Quite a place.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Big Ed Again

When your first impression of an artist comes from looking at reproductions in art books or images on a computer, you can get the sense the artist was flawless. Hints of the struggle the artist had with the piece can be hidden by the photograph. And you can come away with the sense the artist's feet don't really touch the ground. But as a veteran painter, I assure you they do. Completing a painting is a little like scaling a mountain. You get to the top by a circuitous route and you take a lot of steps.

Here's an early Edward Hopper oil, Sailing, I have always loved. Some years ago I was in Pittsburgh and got to see it in person at the Carnegie Art Museum. As I stood looking at it, I was annoyed by random bumps in the pigment in the sky. Then I realized what I was seeing- if one squinted one's eyes you could just make out a human head underneath the sky and sail. Hopper had recycled one of his early canvases. It had been a vertical portrait study he'd done that had apparently not turned out. Turning it on its side, it became this wonderful flowing impression of a sailboat surging forward under the wind.

In retrospect, Hopper probably realized he really hit it with this one, and I bet he regretted not having begun the painting on a fresh smooth canvas. Oh well.

Interestingly, he didn't seem to make the same mistake later on in his career. Just the opposite. As he grew older, Hopper got into planning ahead. Below is a mysterious and spooky Hopper titled Cape Cod Evening. I think it achieves a wonderful moodiness, partly from its unusual color chords, and partly from the odd unsettling relationship between the two figures and the collie.

His thinking didn't start out that way, as suggested by this little compositional study he did in pencil. Here the dog looks toward the woman, a pose he would abandon in favor of the collie turning away to gaze at something unseen outside the picture's frames. "What's calling to the dog?" he wants us to wonder.

Painting a painting is like any other relationship- you come to know another person well only over time. Initial impressions my be proved right, or may have to be adjusted or dismissed altogether. As a painter comes to know her or his painting more fully, its design has to evolve. If as an artist you know exactly where you're going ahead of time, you're going to turn out a very dull painting. Searching, discovering the unexpected, and integrating it into our vision is what it's all about. We can see Hopper working with the changes that went through his mind.

Below is a pencil study Hopper did in his Cape Cod studio. It looks like the room is just about to be flooded by the incoming sea. Though Hopper usually stood up to paint his oils, he is sitting down in a chair to do the drawing. When I've been in his studio I experimented to see if I could create the exact same viewpoint. If you look out when seated, the water (Cape Cod Bay) appears to flow right up against the open studio doorway.

And here's the final painting, Rooms by the Sea, now in Yale University's art museum (those ivy-league kids get all the nice ones). Hopper kept his idea of the water lapping right up against the door frame. You can see Hopper's thinking continued to develop as he went from pencil to oil versions of his idea. He moves his point of view slightly and expands the width of the empty white wall. Obviously he wants us to look first of all at the brilliant diagonal splash of sunlight there. Intriguingly, in real life, the sun never shines on this wall as the wall faces north. You realize his original pencil sketch was intended to help Hopper visualize a light that existed only in his imagination.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Edward Hopper

Later this Fall I'll be heading north to go and work in the old painting studio of perhaps the most prominent 20th century American realist artist, Edward Hopper. That's Hopper above in a self portrait done in his maturity. I've been very fortunate to have the opportunity to stay and paint in his studio thirteen times since 1983, due to the generosity of it's current owners.

I love the portrait above. Hopper seems to gaze out at us with a thoughtfulness and understanding I find touching. In reality he was a complex personality, troubled by depression and some social anxiety that pushed him to live an almost reclusive life. But while that may be true, he was also a man of enormous talents and extreme generosity, devoting his life to a vision that has meant so much to so many.

In my own case, I think I owe 90% of my current direction as a painter to this man. I was an art major at Oberlin College in the late 1960's. Seeking the approval of my teachers, I did work like theirs- paintings owing much to Frank Stella, Mark Rothko, and other heroes of the day.

Then I found a half dozen books on Hopper in the college's art library and something started to change. Though I couldn't put it into words at the time, I was drawn to his work. Night after night I'd pick up the same few books, page through the reproductions, and wonder why I felt so at home in his world. My own colorful abstract acrylic paintings seemed even at their best more clever than insightful. Hopper was whispering in my ear to start looking out at the world and teaching me of the poetry that could be found there. Forty years later, his whisper is still echoing.

Above is an early self portrait Hopper painted during his days when he was under the spell of the uber-teacher of the day, Robert Henri. Like me decades later, you can see Hopper was trying to paint like his admired teacher. Later on, he would find his own voice.

Hopper married a fellow student from Henri's class and years later, when she inherited money, they designed and build his famous studio in Truro out near the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Above is an elderly Hopper sitting on a bench that's still there in the studio. In the background of the photo, just as she was in real life, is his wife Josephine.

Hopper designed the house as a straight forward, no frills painting environment. Dominating the structure is the painting room itself, commanding fully half of the house. His 10' tall, north facing studio window floods the painting room with a light that is nothing short of delicious- just like in his paintings.

And here's the studio viewed from out on Cape Cod Bay. It's at the top of a high sand dune. When you're up there it feels a quite a bit higher than it looks in this photo. Amazing views all around. And always there's a sense of clear unobstructed light, the hallmark of his paintings.

I want to close with a drawing I began just yesterday afternoon and completed this morning. It was done on location in Easton, MD. It's the view of the intricate roofline of the Academy Art Museum where I was headed for a meeting later in the afternoon.

Philip Koch, Academy Art Museum, vine
charcoal, acrylic wash, soft pastel, 10 x 8", 2010

There's a lot of Hopper in it, especially the clear expressive silhouettes and hard, sharp lighting flowing into the drawing from the side.

I rarely do architecture anymore, partly because when I paint it I feel almost overpowered by Hopper. His work was a huge benefit to me, but over the last 15 years I've stepped back from his direct influence, on purpose. Hopper's vision had such a commanding personality that one can get lost standing in his shadow. Hopper had to struggle for years to grow out of Robert Henri's excessive influence. Following my own path meant I had to stop dating this guy.

In my own way, I've chosen to concentrate instead on exploring just the natural world. And I've thought long and hard about what was good in those brightly hued abstract paintings I made all those years ago. It was their whole hearted embrace of color. I've been putting those worlds together to see what I can cook up. Still, once in a while, it's fun to go swimming again in Hopper's waters.

I'll be doing a series of posts about Hopper, his achievements, and what he's meant to me in the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Welcome Home

This is my studio this morning.

Late yesterday the four heavy wooden crates came home carrying my paintings from my national traveling exhibition Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch. These same crates carried the show out to Washington State to the Clylmer Museum of Art in Ellensburg early this year and then traveled to Indiana for the Midwest Museum of American Art's installment of the show this June. They'll be staying home until next summer when they'll take the show down to a beautiful non-collecting art museum, the Peninsula Fine Art Center in Newport News, Virginia.

My wife Alice and I drove down to see the museum and talk with it's Curator, Michael Preble, last May. We liked what we found very much and are excited to show there next summer.

I learned long ago that sending one's art out of town was both a lot of work and totally worth the effort. Art is first of all a communication. Art isn't just the airing of someone's idiosyncrasies. It uses the visual language to move the emotions of the viewer. The artist is reaching out from the confines his or her studio to affect someone else who may be at a great distance, or even from a different time.

Here I am below standing last weekend with the amazingly soulful self portrait by Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art. It has traveled thousands of miles since it was painted long ago. Thought I don't know the history of this particular painting, you can bet Rembrandt built a lot of sturdy wooden crates and packed them lovingly in his day. He was proud of what he'd accomplished and was eager to share it with the world.

Having an exhibition at a museum or gallery is in a way the artist's gift to the world. But in return it gives something back to the artist. There is nothing like seeing the paintings you've labored on for months in the privacy of your studio hanging in somebody else's space. Your painting just look different. One of the great challenges for a painter is to hold onto your objectivity as you work the long hours it takes to make your paintings achieve the look you're after. This is almost impossible to do.

Every artist has a bag full of tricks to help themselves see with a fresh eye. My personal arsenal includes looking at the paintings upside down, studying them in a mirror, viewing them under very low light, including almost absolute darkness, and finally looking at tiny images of them on my computer monitor. When I'm really stuck I ask my wife for advice.

I had my very first exhibition my senior year at Oberlin College. I was amazed how much I learned about my work seeing it hung up in the corridor of the school's student union- both things I liked and flaws in the paintings I was eager to correct once the show came down. The same thing happened at my final MFA Thesis exhibition at the Indiana University Art Museum in 1972.

Since then I've made a point of getting my work out of the studio as much as I can. Having shows has taught me more about where I need to go next with my art than any other single thing I do. Painting is hard work and safely shipping your work great distances is hard too. Rembrandt didn't shrink from that task. Neither can we.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is one of those places that when you visit for the first time you scratch your head and wonder "What's a museum with a collection like this doing here?"

Rebecca Massie Lane, the Director of the Museum, asked me to join their Board of Advisors. As I've been a fan of the Museum for years and had an exhibit of my own paintings there back in 1995 I said sure. Was just out to Hagerstown, MD for one of the Board's meetings last Thursday and took time afterwards to enjoy the quiet of the galleries.

Situated between the mountain ridges of the easternmost Appalachians, it came into being when a wealthy artist William Singer and his wife Anna Singer decided her hometown should have an art museum. It's a bit remarkable as it happened during the Great Depression and was started just with the Singer's money and art collection. It's now got some 7000 pieces in its Permanent Collection and has American Association of Museum accreditation. Its Collection has an amazingly strong number of 19th and early 20th century paintings as well as one of my own landscapes.

Here's a few of the paintings that are up just now:

Above is a moody forest interior by Worthington Whittredge (American, 1820-1910), a painter with a name I always found overly stuffy, but one heck of an artist. He had an uncanny eye for the light and atmosphere of the deep forest. I grew up in just such a place in upstate New York and always feel Whittredge nailed it with such scenes. Notice how he divides the space with overlapping planes of dark, then light, then dark tones. A landscape has to earn its keep by building a space you can feel, and this one does that beautifully. It's also an example of how a good artist knows what to focus on and what to suppress- the limited whites in the painting are reserved to make high contrast just in the artist's favorite place along the center stream.

Here's a little oil by Theodore Rousseau (French, 1812-1867) who is my favorite of a group of painters who form the Barbizon School, named for the forest near Paris they loved to work in.

They form a bridge between the landscape traditions of 17th and 18th century art with a new interest in atmospheric effects and looser handling that came to full bloom with the Impressionists a generation later. But they were a powerfully expressive group of artists in their own right. Rousseau in this piece shows us a wonderful unity between the earth and sky. One of his tricks is using the same nervous little brush strokes to describe both foliage and clouds. And he's got an impressive ability to mass the thousands of leaves in trees to form an intriguing silhouette, like the two central trees here.

Switching gears, here above is an American Impressionist interior and figure by Richard Miller (1875 - 1943). Miller's a master of light effects and composition that combine to foster the distinctive and contemplative mood of the painting. Look at how the artist segregates all his cool colors and darker tones to just the indoors, leaving the outside warm and light-filled. The model's lounge chair and vanity table create a network of blues that form a large triangle, framing the reclining woman. That and oblique angle of the woman's pose play off against the more formal horizontal and vertical window frames. Maybe my favorite device is Miller's playful diagonal arrangement of the opened venetian blinds.

Just below is a Robert Bruce Crane (American 1857-1937) landscape that's a wonderful example of tonalist painting. Titled Near Hoboken, it shows Crane reserving almost all his lights for a dramatic flame along the horizon silhouetting two well chosen groups of trees.

And here below is a piece by the French painter Jean Charles Cazin (1841-1901) that has a luxurious softness to its paint handling. It's one of those paintings you want to stroke like you would a favored dog or cat's fur. But Cazin isn't just about his elegant textures. Check out the range of clouds he's giving us, smokey and amorphous at the top and then the completely opposite, sharply cut-out shapes near the horizon. He is telling us a story with his clouds, and of course any good story comes with surprises.

I once read an article in the New York Times labeling the Ogunquit Museum of Art in southern Maine as having perhaps the most beautiful setting of any art museum in the country. Well I've been to Ogunquit's Museum many times and love it, but I suspect the Times' writer has never seen WCMFA.

The Museum sits on a rise above the lake in Hagerstown's City Park and has a view to die for.

One of the other things I always do when I'm there is visit the ducks in front of the Museum in the Park's Lake. They're good looking, ill mannered and always busy, just as good ducks should be.

Right now the Museum is engaged in a major project to cover over their interior courtyard with a transparent or translucent roof. It's not going to be complete until next year, but it will be a very useful addition.

Here's the view from the front of the Museum.

And here's the giant archway you walk through to enter the Museum. On the other side on top they have an inscription from good old Oscar Wilde. "The Secret Of Life Is In Art" it says or something like that. Wilde was right by the way.