Philip Koch, From Day to Night, oil, 6 1/2 x 13', 2011
In my studio there's a six foot wide oil on the easel titled From Day to Night. It's from a few years ago and has been "resting" after being in solo exhibitions I had at the Cape Cod Museum of Art and at the University of Maryland University College in 2003. That's a long time to nap. I keep a fair amount of my paintings in my studio. Many are completed, some are almost finished, there's a few I'm uncertain where they're headed, Oddly, these strange urges steal over me and I'll find a certain painting just calling out to me to put her on the easel and start working. And so it was last week with this From Day to Night oil.
Above is a small oil painting I did as an alternative to the composition of the sky in that large canvas. Sometimes you see a way to make a good painting better. One tip toes out on thin ice whenever one goes back into older work- there's always the chance you'll ruin what you had. And I have done that occasionally, but far more often I come away with a stronger painting in the end. In fact, about 95% of the time when I re-work an older piece it ends up stronger. Them's good odds.
Philip Koch, From Day to Night, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2011
One way I keep those odds high is waiting until an insight comes clearly to mind about what it is a painting needs. So even though my wife insists I'm the most impatient person she knows, this is an area where I won't just charge in with both guns blazing. I make myself work as if I'm a patient person. Only when what looks like a good idea has crystalized in my mind's eye do I start to make my move.
I paint small alternative versions of other ways a composition might be pushed. Both of the above illustrations are just that. The vine charcoal was actually done first while looking at the older six foot painting. Then I tried it in oil on a small masonite panel.
Here's the way my studio looked this morning. On the white easel at the right are the small oil and the small vine charcoal. I like to sit at a distance in my rocking chair and look at all three versions at once, mulling over the possibilities.
A large canvas has a sweep and drama like nothing else- but it takes a long time to paint. Ironically, you are more free to experiment on a really small canvas. Nothing is as much fun for me as bouncing down to a smaler scale where I can try things out in minutes instead of hours (or days). On a small surface a single brushstroke can suggest a whole bank of clouds. Little accidents happen as you handle the paint, and you find at least some of them are better than what you had originally had in mind.
When I was six my father drove me down from Rochester, New York to the harbor in Baltimore where we were to board an overnight ferry to Norfolk, Virginia. I saw tug boats for the first time and asked my dad what they were. He explained to me the huge ocean going ships were great on the high seas, but in the close quarters of the harbor they weren't maneuverable. With their massive weight they were likely to crash right through the docks. So instead these diminutive tug boats teamed up to nudge the large ships into their proper berth. It's a good idea on the water. And it's a great idea in the studio.