How a Painting Evolves

Philip Koch, Banner, oil on panel,40x30", 2011

Here's the newest painting at my show down in Virginia at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News (through Oct. 2, 2011). Two days before it was loaded on the truck for the trip to the museum I was up to my elbows painting away on it. There's something about a deadline that quickens the mind and the eye. In the old days when I used a traditional linseed oil medium it would have been delivered still wet, but I switched last year to Gamblin's Galkyd painting medium and the darned thing dried overnight (gotta love modern chemistry!).

Below is the source I painted from. It is also included in the Peninsula Fine Arts Center's exhibition and serves as a useful point of comparison.

Philip Koch,  Banner,  oil on panel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2008

As long time readers of this blog know, I'm something of a nut about the work of Edward Hopper, an affliction I share with millions of others around the world. Hopper's work was instrumental in shaping my career as an artist. And the idea for this painting came to me one afternoon when I was working on another painting in  Hopper's old painting studio on Cape Cod during one of my residencies there. His studio was build high up on a 60' tall sand dune that overlooks Cape Cod Bay. It's an amazing and stirring view. What came to mind and was inspired by that view was the sense of being up high and looking down on the landscape. That was my point of departure.

Now Hopper's work is instructive. He studied with the charismatic painter and teacher Robert Henri at the New York School of Art and Hopper's early work looks it. (I also think Hopper's Henri-like early paintings are terrific). But Hopper himself complained that it took him years to find his own way out from Henri's shadow. And find his own distinct path he did.

In my own case I spent years painting works that showed a very great debt to Hopper- especially the many architectural pieces I created. But for me also this gradually gave way to finding a more personal and I believe unique vision. For the last 15 years my paintings have moved into a higher chromatic key and taken on a more romantic (some have even described the work a "visionary") embrace of the natural world. I like to think of myself painting landscapes that exist outside of time altogether.

And in so doing my work has moved away from Hopper's example as far as the specifics of his images. But in other ways I believe I've become more faithful to the real message of Hopper's work- being steadfastly devoted to finding one's own voice.

Banner began in my mind as a meeting place for some of the key images that live on in my imagination. From my childhood one of most powerful memories was watching the winds off Lake Ontario blowing though the rustling leaves on the Beech Trees that grew along the shore. I'd stand in my living room and watch this daily drama for all the years of my growing up. And the other key memory is the delight I've always taken in the enormous rounded dunes of Cape Cod. To my eye they suggest enormous living creatures that seem to swim up to the earth's surface from some mysterious inner depth (giant whales? or perhaps elegant flying geese?). I knew I wanted to stitch these two worlds together and I knew I wanted the painting to be painted looking down at the world, as if one was with me up on the high dune at Hopper's studio.

As I frequently do when I'm working from just my memory and imagination, I began by making tiny thumbnail drawings with a ballpoint pen experimenting with various compositions. Then I took the most promising one and did the small oil.

In going from the 10" panel to the 40" oil a lot more had to happen to justify all the extra square inches. I worked on and off on the large panel for many months, inching my way along like someone sniffing out  a hidden trail through the forest. There's a lot of painting and then repainting. Layer upon layer you gradually build up the space of this new world you're striving toward.

My big decision was to devote far more attention to the sky than was possible in the small oil. What is only hinted at in the initial version in tiny specks of orange (actually these are places where the orange underpainting on the original panel show through) became an emphatic yellow ochre-green and cadmium yellow sky along the horizon. Seurat used to say painting a picture was "the carving out of its space", which always reminded me of using a mellon baller implement to carve out the interior of summer fruit- one of my jobs as a boy. Adding the extra intensity of yellows and ochre greens to the lower sky pushed them back into the space of the painting in a way that felt right.

And anytime you stray toward the brighter end of our color spectrum you need to also do the opposite. The range of greys in the sky had to be fundamentally expanded from neutral slate grey to gentle blues and going the other direction to glowing almond yellow greys. Color is tricky. It's intensely powerful and like a lunging tiger can quickly take over a painting. You need to show the tiger who is boss by contrasting intensity with  impressive subtlety. Good color above all else means having a whole range of intensities working together.

There are some other ideas in the painting I'd like to touch on, but that's enough for now.


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