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Showing posts from October, 2011

How to Eat Oil Paint

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Here's a detail out of an oil by Jan Vermeer  (Dutch, 1632 - 1675, which means the guy only made it to 43 and still produced so much amazing art). It's one of his most loved images, Girl with a Pearl Earring. I think it's fabulous. Below is an oil by Jean Michel Basquiat (American, 1960 - 1988). Long time readers of this blog probably know Basquiat is one of those painters I believe is seriously overrated. What's the difference between these two paintings that leads me to think so highly of Vermeer? 


Art and food have much in common.
When I was young something that made a big impression on me were Christmas cookies. Other times of the year my mother would sometimes bake cookies, an activity I always approved of. While they always tasted good (and yes, the chocolate chip ones were the best) they weren't much to look at- modest little lumps of squashed down cookie dough. 
Once a year though out would come something special- our Xmas cookie cutters. I would be given the e…

Art in Embassies

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Philip Koch, Recollection, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2000
Every few years Sarah Tanguy, Curator of the Art in Embassies Program of the U.S. State Department, asks to borrow some of my paintings to hang in one of their Embassies somewhere around the world. Three more large oils just headed off for the Embassy in Guyana in South America. 
I like the three selections Ambassador Brent Hardt and his wife Saskia made- they hang together beautifully as a thematic group. About  fifteen years ago my paintings began to shift away from reporting on actual places towards a more imaginative stance.  I began visualizing the earth as it might have existed long before we humans left our mark on her. In many ways this was my personal version of the theme of the "new Eden" that was a weighty symbol in 19th century American landscape from Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School on. 
To the eyes of the arriving European colonists, the America's seemed a vast unspoiled wilderness. Largely i…

How to Beat Up on your Art

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A few years ago I saw a wonderful Wayne Thiebaud exhibit at the Phillips Collection down in Washington, D.C. Thiebaud was one of the very few realist painters you'd ever see reproduced in the art magazines back in the late 1960's. Probably because the editors thought his paintings of pies and cakes dovetailed with the then super hot Pop Art phenomenon, they figured they could show such stuff without being considered "provincial." (I love the art world, but it's not a perfect place. It sometimes worrys way too much about whether it is cool enough). Me, I liked Thiebaud because he created such brilliant light as in the painting of slices of pie above. Often his work is best viewed right before lunch.
This was the first really comprehensive show of Thiebaud I'd seen and it brought me face to face with many paintings I'd loved for years from having seen them only in reproductions. Frankly the show freaked me out.
Half the paintings were damaged, some very badly…

Looking at Old Friends

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The mark of a really good painting is its ability to keep showing you new things even over long period of time. Sometimes 40 years.
Above is an old friend of mine, Edward Hopper's Western Motel. When I was in graduate school at Indiana University getting my MFA in painting from 1970-72 I taped a postcard of this painting on the outside of my studio door. You could see it from a long way away as you were coming down the hall. The funny thing was I always liked it best when I was ten or more feet out and less when I was close enough to see the details. Still, I kept it hanging there on my door for well over a year.
I'd forgotten all of this until 5 minutes ago when scanning through a pile of Hopper images on Google and a tiny thumbnail of this Hopper pricked my memory. This oil to me isn't one of Hopper's strongest, though I obviously have a nostalgic attachment. What I didn't care for was the stiffness of the figure and the sparseness of the interior. This is an imagi…

Are Artists Nuts?

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Philip Koch, North Passage, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2011

Sometimes I think we artists all have a kind of "divine madness." Other times I think we're just nutty.

We spend an inordinate amount of time focused on what's happening in our studios. We stop reading books, watching television, or going to football games. Sometimes I realize it's been days since I spoke to anyone but my wife.

When I was a boy I had a dog, Vicky, a sweet mutt who looked like an Irish Setter having a bad hair day. She might have been my favorite member of the family. One thing she did fascinated me. My mother would get bones from the butcher and give one to the dog about once a week. To Vicki this was a big deal. She'd have at the thing the first day like it still needed subduing. Then the next few days she'd settle down and just gnaw away at the thing for hours a day. Curious, I'd pick up the bone after a day or two of her doggy administrations. Every molecule of edible …

Edward Hopper's Poetry of Empty Rooms

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I've just been invited by Rachael Solomon who is the Program Director of the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY to have a mini solo show in one of their galleries.. We'll be showing some of my paintings of the interior of Edward Hopper's Cape Cod studio where I've had the great pleasure of enjoying 13 residencies since 1983. The Edward Hopper House Art Center is the boyhood home of the famous American realist artist. So much of what Hopper became stemmed from his early years there. So I'm excited to do the exhibit. It will be coming up in March through May of 2012.  
Hopper didn't teach. Yet I learned more about how to become a good painter by studying his work than by any other single thing. Art after all is visual. Words, even beautifully and aptly spoken can get in the way. And Hopper was legendarily tactiturn. I suspect had someone asked Hopper how to paint an empty room, his terse reply would have been "Don't!". 
Above is one of his la…

More Sharp Teeth

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The experience of living can be like trying to take a drink from a fire hose- there's just too much coming at you too fast. 
In the previous post I talked about using drawings to pare down the overwhelming complexity to make the sense of it. Paintings that try to encompass everything fail every time. The irony is we have to back away from a direct confrontation with nature if we're going to make landscape paintings that can ever do her justice. Making drawings is a way to do that, stripping away color and dealing just with shapes and darks and lights. It's getting down to essentials. 
I'm illustrating this post with more of the series of vine charcoal drawings I did last week up in the Adirondack Mountains in northernmost New York State. I've been going there regularly for the last half dozen years and feel I get a better understanding of the potential of those mountains for making paintings with each visit. 



When I was still an undergraduate art major at Oberlin Coll…

Sharpening your teeth.

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Does the world really need any more landscape paintings? If by that one means more of the work where the default setting is best described as "sweet", "restful" or "softly flowing" I'd say probably not. 
Reality has a sharp edge. It cuts though our outworn habits. When I'm painting I often hear the phrase "Nature has teeth"whispering in my ear. What I mean is that in finding her real beauty I'm going to discover something that comes with a jarring, a slightly unsettling surprise. 
Each generation sees a little differently than the one that went before. We need somebody to look hard at the world with eyes unencumbered by outworn blinders and expectations of just the predictable, The earth has a pulsing energy that always lies just a bit hidden from our view. For me working directly from nature has become my key tool- sort of like magnetic compass- to lead me toward the best of the unexpected that's out there.
I'm just back from a…