Love Letters

Philip Koch, Great Dunes, oil, 36 x 72"

I woke up in the middle of the night with a clear thought in my head. It was like the old cartoon of the lightbulb going off. "The job of an artist is to find things to fall in love with."

Why I was thinking this at 3 a.m.?  I have no idea.

In a world rife with alienation, disengagement, and just plain numbness, we need some of the opposite- somebody showing us that meaning, excitement, and beauty are real things. They're vital to our well being. And curiously we humans seem to forget this all the time.

In mid eighties I did a series of major paintings of the huge sand dunes in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. In real life the dunes have a massive, looming peronality. My first painting was done from a distance and focused on the dunes' distinctive silhouettes (that's always a good place to look first). But the following year I went back and set my easel up much closer to the subject. From this viewpoint the outer contours of the dune were understated. I was going to have to find something else to carry the expressive weight of the painting.

One thing I could get into was the pattern of the foliage against the bare sands. I got out my mental clippers and cleared out any stray grasses. I love Cape Cod for its sand. White sand shows the color change of the highlights and the shadows much better than ordinary darker soil. So it makes sense to cast the empty sand in a starring role. I pushed the highlights a little warmer in color and the shadows a little cooler than they actually were. Remember we're trying to hook the viewers' interest so a little theater is called for.

The scrubby bushes suggested an erratic and fascinating pattern breaking up the monolithic dune. But this was too subtle to give the viewer a vivid experience. So I carefully exaggerated the patterns. The top edge of the darkest bushes looked a little like the broken teeth of a comb. Increased contrasts there made an edgy rhythm to play off against the softer rounded sandy forms.

A final delight for me was the spectrum of greens in the bushes. Pushing some of them darker and more towards an inky blue green ramped up the drama of the hillside.

It's like falling in love with a person- you want something a little beyond the ordinary in the object of your affection. Just anyone won't do. And a painting of just any hillside isn't going to catch a hold of the viewers. By definition love is memorable, unique. My job in making this painting was to explore the dune and find something unexpected to ravish my viewers eyes. Good lighting, a little make up. Hey, we're casting a net for the viewers' hearts.


  1. Nice picture, Philip.Very strong and simple design.

  2. Thanks Stape.
    You know I'm still reveling in that story on your blog about Botticelli being buried at the foot of the model he so idolized. I don't think you'll ever top that one.


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