Discovering Secrets

Philip Koch, Lieutenant Island Bridge, oil on panel, 15 x 20" mid '80's

When you first meet someone you can feel all sorts of emotions about them that are triggered by their outer appearance. Half the time your initial impressions later prove accurate, other times not at all. 

One of the big reasons we have art and music is their usefulness as tools to dig below the surface. One thing all artists do is spend the time it takes to have a relationship with their subject, whatever it is. They use the time to dig down to the bedrock. 

Let me show you a concrete example of what I'm talking about. The above oil painting was painted on Cape Cod in the town of Wellfleet. There's a place there that intrigues many people, a small land mass named Lieutenant Island that juts out into Cape Cod Bay. At high tide the approach road is mostly surrounded and in some places covered by water. Landscape painters wander around a lot waiting for something to strike them as extra-ordinary. This spot by the one bridge on the Lieutenant Island approach road just felt a little extra magical to me. When that happens I try looking at it from all angles and at all times of day, trying to discover how to make a painting out of the experience I'm having.

I settled on this morning view looking back inland toward the Cape. While the actual place was an extreme wide open horizontal space, this view provided a delightful countermove to that. Squint your eyes at the painting and look at the diagonal line of the darkest part of the background forest in the upper left. Then let your eye move down into the water and to the right side. There you see a prominent diagonal in the dark reddish reflections in the water. It runs across the picture's surface exactly parallel to that first diagonal up top. Visually it feels like something very close to you is in a conversation with another part of the painting way in the distance. Trees and water, just for a moment, start speaking the same language.

And here's another conversation. Notice the white highlighted railing of the bridge at the left. I wanted it extra bright as it too shared a special relationship with those first diagonals mentioned above. The railing runs exactly at 90 degrees to the first diagonals in trees and water. That right angle I believe speaks to us unconsciously and we come to just feel the bridge belongs with those trees and that water. This is a tool artists have been using for centuries to pull viewers into their paintings. 

My suspicion is that we're all secretly in love with the right angle. You probably don't remember your early attempts at walking when you were approaching one year old. It's a safe guess they involved a lot of falling and your own tears. Think of the rush of mastery and self confidence a toddler has when they finally take several steps without falling. Somehow they unconsciously visualize a vertical axis played off against the horizontal plane and try to hold that vertical with their body. When a painter hints at this right angle relationship between separate forms that are diagonal (like our bridge railing and the trees) it stimulates a feeling of well being and attachment to the painting in the viewer. 

I didn't see all these things when I started this painting. That came later. What I did do is try out about twenty different spots to place my easel and settled on the one that I just sensed felt best. It's a matter of trusting your instincts. And artists are people who have trained their visual instincts to be just a little more awake than the average person's. 


  1. Nicely put. Both words and paint.

  2. I just discovered your work this past summer and recently your blog. Thank you for sharing your insights, your work and the work of so many of my own favorite artists. I'm being slightly forward here but would you consider looking at my work?
    Thanks again and I'l be looking forward to your next entry.

  3. Sue, I enjoyed looking at the three images of your paintings you have posted on your blog. The one titled "Merge" reminded me of the wonderful landscapes of the 1930's era painter Marvin Cone from Iowa.
    You obviously have a romantic spirit. I've never been to northern MIchigan, hope to get to see it sometime.


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