Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Kent Collector Journal & How to Draw

Marguerite Eisinger, the Editor of The Kent Collector journal kindly published my article in her new Fall/Winter 2010 issue. It's based on two posts I wrote on this blog last January as an appreciation of some of my favorite wood engravings by the 20th century American artist Rockwell Kent. If I was really organized I'd now have a spiffy link you could click that would bring up those two posts so the curious could read them. But I just raked up two tons of leaves out of my backyard and will make you go search for them yourself.

The journal is published by one of the coolest regional museums, the Plattsburgh State Art Museum in northernmost New York State. Kent lived at the end of his colorful life in the Adirondack Mountains near there and gave a large amount of work and personal effects to the Museum, making it really the Rockwell Kent Museum. Here's a link to The Kent Collector website- I urge people to subscribe.

Kent has been a wonderful teacher to me. He first came to my attention when I was 19 and just starting out as an artist. I was drawn to his wood engravings for their expressive power. Kent's secret in my opinion was his amazing drawing ability.

So much "drawing" these days consists either of passive recording of details or more often, slavishly copying a digital photograph. In both cases one can end up giving the viewer way more than they can digest. The real issue in draughtsmanship is sensing what's central to the feeling your hoping to evoke, and then ruthlessly clearing away all the incidentals that would distract your viewer. Kent was a master of this.

In the print above he shows us two lovers stretched out on the ground. When you look at their legs, all a network of intersecting diagonals, the figures seem very much separate individuals. But when you come to their arms, he arranges them to work together to create a beautiful unexpected shape- a sharp rectangle right in the center of the composition. To drive his point home look at how Kent plunges the woman's chest into shadow, leaving all the drama of the highlights on the arms and shoulders. He makes you look there and seems to say that together these two people make something new.

Always the struggle for an artist is to invent something that tells the story. Kent makes it look so easy in prints like this one. This man excites me. It feels like he reaches out to hand me a torch and urges me to go make my own new discoveries in my own studio. That's what good drawing is all about.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sad Chapter in Edward Hopper Story & New Paintings

Edward Hopper, Gas, oil on canvas

This is another iconic Edward Hopper painting. It evokes the end of day like no other painting. For good reason it's known worldwide.

It's based on two gas stations that stood until recently on Route 6, the main road that runs up the spine of Cape Cod. Hopper used to fill up his old Buick sedan at both of them. Tellingly, the building in painting was based as much on Hopper's invention as on the actual architecture of the old gas stations. The darkening dense woods on either side of the road captures the feeling of Cape Cod's forest perfectly. What's so interesting is how Hopper created such a universal image of the passage of time using the details of a very real piece of landscape, Cape Cod.

Below is the Truro, Massachusetts studio where Hopper painted so many of his most famous paintings.

It is remarkable for its simple understated qualities- so much like Hopper's paintings themselves. Below are the steps leading up to the kitchen entrance to the studio. I took this photo early in the morning as the first sunlight cleared the sand dunes to strike the building (the steps have been replaced since Hopper's day, and the walls around the little deck added).

Turning around here's the view of the steps leading up from the garage. In the distance is the driveway leading out to the "main" road, a bumpy, sandy lane you have to drive over slowly. Route 6 lies just over the trees in the distance.

There was one last stretch of undeveloped land along the shore in Truro. It immediately adjoined the Hopper studio. The property changed hands a few years ago and a dispute arose over the new owners' plans to build a huge mansion on the crest of the sand dune right smack in the middle of the open land. Sadly, so far, the construction has been allowed to happen.

When my wife Alice and I arrived for our most recent residency in the Hopper studio in September, our jaws dropped when we saw the scale of the new building. It dominates what had been a quietly lovely series of rolling sand dunes that led up to Hopper's studio. This was what Hopper saw as he gazed out his studio window as he worked to create his piece of American art history for over 30 years. Those paintings create many of mental pictures all of us use to define our experience. When one thinks of American imagery, well, this is where a lot of it came from.

The new mansion comes complete with a reflecting pool and an arrangement of huge boulders that were being lifted into place by a gigantic construction crane while Alice and I watched. How they managed to get the crane up the access road I can't imagine. According to town records, the structure is to be the largest home in Truro, MA (8,333 square feet).

The whole saga makes me wonder how this piece of land can be used this way. A very big part of what make Truro such a special place on Cape Cod has been taken away. One is free to cannibalize one's past I suppose, but once you do you've lost something irretrievable. There are only a handful of places in America as historic as this Hopper landscape. It's history is our history. It is short sighted in the extreme to cast these things away without realizing what we're losing.

Moving on to happier things...

Yesterday I took twelve paintings in to my framer, many of which I'll be using in my upcoming exhibits in Baltimore at the JLP Gallery (Nov. 8 - Jan. 7) and in Middlebury, Vermont at the Edgewater Gallery (Dec. 1 - 31). Many of them are pieces I've kept unframed in my studio for some time.

Philip Koch, The Hollow, oil, 10 1/2 x 14", 1990.

Above is a plein air oil I painted one morning because I was intrigued by the composition of the trees. A stream at the right tunnels its way under the trees and creates a "keyhole" of an opening in an otherwise solid mass of blue-violet grey branches. If you look closely you'll see a diagonal line links the top edge of that tunnel opening with the top edge of a light grey group of trees in the distance at the left. That's the kind of relationship you sense unconsciously before you understand exactly what it is you're seeing. When I was out that morning looking for what to paint, I just felt there was something "right" about that particular spot. In the course of making the painting I later on discovered some of the compositional magic that had attracted my eye in the first place.

Philip Koch, Green Catamaran, oil, 9 1/2 x 16", 1982

Above is one of the very first paintings I did working from a source that contained really brilliant color. Before this painting I'd always been shy of such chromatic intensities. Sometimes painting things that are outside of your usual box can be a nudge to send you off in a new direction. As I've gradually become more involved with using intense color in my paintings, I can now see this oil was a harbinger of changes yet to come in my work.

Philip Koch, Jones Falls River, oil. 12 x 16", 1985

This one above is the river just down the hill from my house in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Baltimore. I was drawn to the abstraction of shadows and sun on the concrete embankment of the river and wanted that to be the subject. Usually I would have focused instead on the river itself, but here I wanted stretch a little and try something more unusual. The building in the background is the old Maryland Bolt and Nut Company (I love that name) that's now been converted into a Whole Foods Grocery.

Philip Koch, Falls Road Bridge, oil, 8 5/8 x 9 7/8", 2010

This is a view just up the road from the last painting (Falls Road being named for the same river). The painting was begun on a couple of bitterly cold January mornings back in 1982, sitting in the crowded front seat of my van. The rhythm of the concrete bridge was echoed perfectly by the trees at the right. I saw that lovely connection driving over the bridge and made a point of stopping and working right there on the roadside. I went back into the painting just this month to increase the color contrasts a little and give the piece added vitality.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

More on Edward Hopper

Here's a quintessential Edward Hopper oil of Cape Cod, The Long Leg. It's a combination of influences. There is some of the lighthouse at the extreme tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown (the next town over from Truro, where Hopper had his studio). And there's a lot taken from Hopper's walking his beach along Cape Cod Bay and studying the structure of the sand dunes, tides, and the Cape light.

Hopper loved the poetry of Cape Cod as a source for his paintings. It's remarkable how different his Cape Cod looks than anyone else's. One thing he loved was the white sand that's everwhere on the Cape. In his hands it was by turns yellow, pink, pearl, subtle blue or delicately violet. Yet he always held the reins back on its colors, never lapsing into cheesiness or overstatement. I think it was because he took the Cape seriously. He realized it could stand on its own as one of the most dramatic pieces of landscape in the country without any overstated theatrical color.

The subtle palette he chose for the beach sands in the above painting slides effortlessly from warmer to cooler hues as one moves one's eye from left to right. He used such gradations to impel his viewer to move through the painting's space.

Below is a photo looking up at his studio from the path Hopper would take to the beach. I took it last month the first morning we were staying in the studio.

And here below is a vine charcoal drawing I did, Hopper Studio:First Light, that was drawn from a point higher up on the same path, looking at the studio from a different angle. As you can see, the studio is high up.

Here's a view of my wife Alice walking up the path from about the same place.

And here's the view from the front of the studio with me looking out over Cape Cod Bay. The deck I'm standing on was only added in 1983, long after Hopper died in 1967. Hopper kept the studio fairly spartan and just had a couple of steps leading directly down to the sand.

Here's Alice again standing in front of the doorway from the big painting room on the north end of the studio to the deck in the last picture. This is the doorway that Hopper was inspired by to paint his oil masterpiece Rooms by the Sea now in Yale's Art Museum (see following image).

Everyone's gotta eat. Here below is Hopper's modest kitchen, with Alice clutching her morning coffee. She's sitting at Hopper's tiny dining table.

And here's a small pastel I did of the same table.

Last of all, here's my favorite photo I took inside the studio. It's the view from Hopper's bedroom looking out into the kitchen. The picture has some of the solemnity of Hopper's paintings but also gives a taste of the amazing light that flooded into his studio. He used that light to create paintings that speak to the hearts of millions of people. It's a paradoxically modest studio, it gave birth to a host of Hopper's most remarkable paintings.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Funny Edward Hopper Story

My wife Alice standing at the top of Edward
Hopper's driveway, S. Truro, MA, September 2010.

Do you notice anything missing from this scene?

A funny story about Edward Hopper, which in itself is funny as he was hardly known as an exemplar of humor. Way back in 1983 my wife Alice and I stayed in the Hopper studio for the first time. As Hopper has been almost a guiding star to me as a young artist, I was over-the-top excited. Back then the trees hadn't re-grown so high from the 19th century deforestation of Cape Cod, and one could view the Hopper studio from quite a distance. I found a particularly good view of it standing on a sand bank along the dirt road and started a panoramic oil of the studio sitting on the dunes.

The painting was going really well when an older woman came out of a nearby house and angrily yelled at me for standing on the sand bank's plants. She had a point.

I'm usually really careful about trampling the local flora. But I was determined to stand my ground and finish the painting. Unable to think of a better response, I decided to play dumb and replied to the woman by saying only "yes." After an awkward silence, she repeated her protest. I smiled as warmly as possible and nodded my head, again saying only "yes." Another uncomfortable silence ensued and I continued painting. Finally the woman, perhaps concluding she had an impossible artist on her hands, shrugged her shoulders and retreated to her house.

A minute later her grown son came out to talk to me. He apologized for his mother's edgy tone and said I should stay and finish the painting (which really did turn out beautifully). We got to talking and he explained he'd grown up on that road. Asked if he'd known Hopper he said he had, so I asked "What was he like."

"Nobody liked Hopper" he said and, pointing to the power lines running over our heads, told me a story. When the Hopper's built their studio in 1934 none of the houses on its back road had electricity. A few years later the utility company announced they would install the electical cables for the neighborhood. The normal practice was to string the power lines overhead on road side wooden poles, but for an extra fee they would bury the cables instead if the homeowners on the road would agree.

Hopper was adamant that the lines be buried, but no one else wanted to pay the extra money which angered Hopper. Apparently he let this be known to all his neighbors in a none too graceful way. Afterwards the neighbors regarded him as something of a crank.

What amazed me about this story was that Hopper is thought of in art circles as a painter who celebrated the unvarnished side of America, finding the poetry in the commonplace storefront or rail yard. So many of his paintings, like the one below, include telephone poles and power lines, yet when it came to his own yard, Hopper said no dice. Unlike his neighbors, Hopper went ahead and paid the "burial fee."

Below is a photo taken near Hopper's driveway of one of the power poles carrying the wires along the road.

Hopper's place was then the last house on the road and to this day when you come to the edge of his property, the last wooden power pole (below) stands at the end of the line as the cable then heads underground. Hopper's studio stands just to the left of this photo.

I thanked the man for his story about Hopper. Without realizing it, he was helping me come to see this hero of my youthful imagination in a more rounded way. While a complex and talented man, Hopper had his share of character faults. In many ways he could be ordinary and petty, just like the rest of us. When you grasp that on a gut level, you realize that you yourself, with all your limitations, can potentially still do exceptional things.

Below is another of the drawings I did while staying in the studio this September. It's on Mill Pond Road. which heads from the Hopper studio over to the little harbor at the mouth of the Pamet River. Hopper knew it well and did at least one watercolor of the sand bank that was just to my right as I worked on this piece.

For reasons of my own, I eliminated from the drawing the four telephone poles that were actually there. I wanted to draw it without the trace of human intervention. But I was smiling as I did this, thinking of cranky Edward grumbling about his neighbors' power lines.

Philip Koch, Cape Charcoal #6, vine charcoal, acrylic
wash, pastel, 9 x 12", 2010.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Edward Hopper's Influence

Here's a photo of Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio I took during my 13th residency there in September. We're looking south at the studio and the sun has just come up over the horizon. To our right, though it's hidden by the crest of the sand dune, is a wide open view of Cape Cod Bay. As you can see, Hopper had a completely unobstructed view of the light from dawn to dusk. That's fitting for an artist whose hallmark was painting clear, strong sunlight in most of his paintings. He did it very well, and much of that came from his long and hard (but also loving) observation of the Cape Cod light.

Hopper no doubt learned about seeing light from his teachers such as Robert Henri, a painter who clearly loved sharp direct lighting. You can see a heightened awareness of strong directional lighting in Hopper or in the work of his classmate and fellow Henri student, Rockwell Kent. My own sensitivity to light owes much to the study of Hopper's achievements.

Below is a photo of the interior of the painting room in the Hopper studio. On the floor at the lower left is the drawing I posted on the previous blog, Cape Charcoal #2 that I'd done the previous afternoon. In the background is Hopper's easel.

Below are two more of the new works I did during the just completed residency. Both are done with a combination of vine charcoal and pastel applied over a thin acrylic paint wash on BFK paper. For now they're simply titled Cape Charcoal #3 & #4, but as I work from them in my studio to make larger oil paintings, their titles will no doubt change. Both were done close to the Hopper studio on tributaries of the Pamet River. Hopper himself knew these waters well.

Years ago I was invited to stay in the Hopper studio because its owners started collecting my paintings. At that time my indebtedness to Hopper's example was clearly apparent, which is what attracted them to my work. Below is my oil Houses on the Hill from the 1980's and below that a Hopper watercolor of a Cape Cod house. The influence I had received from Hopper is right up on the front burner.

It's a tricky proposition working out one's relationship to the great artists of the past. To shun all influence would be crippling oneself. Yet there is something so persuasive about an artist like Hopper that one can be drawn into his vision almost too closely. Hopper himself complained that it took him years to outgrow what he saw as his over-reliance on Robert Henri's vision.

In my own case, I didn't worry too much about this, choosing instead to let things take their natural course. I figured eventually I would find my way to my own path as a painter, and I think I have. But had I not had the good sense to stand for a long time on Hopper's shoulders, I wouldn't have come nearly as far.

In coming weeks (months?) I'll be posting some of the oil paintings I'll be doing from these plein air drawings I've just completed. They'll no doubt look more colorful, but also less like Hopper's work than the house painting I posted above. There's a little more of a dream-like quality to my painting now. And I feel more free to take big liberties with what I actually observe out in the landscape. For me the really big lesson from Edward Hopper is to find your own voice as a painter.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Surprised on the Cape

Last week I was up staying in Edward Hopper's painting studio on Cape Cod. Above is a photo of the studio up on the top of what's actually a quite tall sand dune with its garage just below. Behind the studio is the unseen expanse of Cape Cod Bay. This is the view from the "main" road, a very bumpy and pot-holed sandy thing that only adds to the mystique of the place.

My residencies in the studio are usually peak painting times for me, and this week was no disappointment. But as so often happens with art making, what I intended to do and what actually came out of the kitchen were entirely different. Several years ago I did a long series of paintings and pastels of the studio's interior. Here's one of my favorites:

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Bedroom
pastel, 14 x 7"

I hadn't done any more studio interior pieces the last few times we were at the Hopper studio and I was itching to try some more. So the first day there I set up my easel in the painting room and charged away at a view of a chair placed in front of the studio's tall north-facing window. The view was packed full of potential and I knew I could do something good with it. About 10 minutes into working a feeling I know well subtly stole into my head. My intuition was trying to tell me something.

It's not that I hear an actual voice, but I get the distinct feeling I have been warned to stop what I'm doing. Somehow some part of my mind knows I'm on the wrong track and need to get off it quickly. In the past when I've ignored its advice, artistic disasters resulted, sometimes painful ones. Maybe about some things I'm a slow learner, but I learned to listen to this "voice."

Chastened, I gathered my materials and headed for my car. And the rest of the week I worked outside. Me and whatever that voice is, we had a great, productive time.

This above is a vine charcoal, pastel, and acrylic paint piece done about a half mile from Hopper's place on Old County Road, a view Hopper would have passed daily.

And here's another vine charcoal, pastel, and acrylic paint piece, done up the hill on Old County Road and even closer to the studio. To get anywhere from Hopper's studio you have to drive through this canyon of foliage.

These colored drawings will be serving as the basis for oil paintings that I'll be starting over the next few days. I'm completely surprised by what I ended up doing on this trip to the Cape. But artists have to deal with what's unexpected, and I'm glad I did. A half dozen strong pieces came out of a week's work. Whatever that voice is that gives me advice, I'm glad I listened.