Saturday, August 27, 2011

What I'll Tell My New Art Students On the First Day of Class

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Beach, S. Truro, MA, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2006I teach two classes a week at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. It's a large art school ("America's oldest continuously degree-granting College of Fine Art"). PAFA up in Philadelphia is older, but we can claim Abraham Lincoln giving his second inaugural address at MICA, which is pretty cool.

Every summer brings to an end a period of intense painting activity for me, a time when I do a lot and speak little about it to others. It's my annual "monk" period. This is good for it clears my head and allows me to think afresh about what I want to say to my students on the first day of class. 

This Fall I'm teaching Life Drawing and an introductory Painting class. Both are required classes and always have a few over twenty students. I love teaching these offerings because I believe they offer perhaps the greatest potential to genuinely help young artists grow. On the first day you can't descend into all the subtleties and details. Since the students' ears are working overtime on Day 1, tell them what you feel is most important.


Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 36 x 54", 1990
Permanent Collection of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

So here are the things I'm planning to say:

1. Art is a visual experience before it is anything else. Expanding your capacity to see is our goal, so we are going to give you as many opportunities to look as possible. If you look a lot, you start to see. Those are not the same thing.

2. While there are many competing ways of working in today's art world, no one gets anywhere by barking up every tree simultaneously. Many branches of the art world have their own validity, and we are not here to deny them that. But we are going to concentrate on just a few approaches to making art so me can make the most progress in the short time we have together.

3. You have to become an expert not only on your own work, but also the progress of all your classmates. They are here so you can learn from them- how are they solving their problems? What do they routinely do well? What pot holes do they keep falling back into that you should avoid? If you
come to class and share your work, you are shouldering your responsibility of helping your fellow artists.
So you have to come to class.

4. We are going to require you to work standing up at all times. If you are standing you awaken your senses, including your eye. Artists have as much in common with dancers and athletes as we do with poets and philosphers, so we employ the whole body in our work.

5. Put your Home Studio piece up on our critique wall first thing when you enter the classroom in the morning and leave it up until the last possible moment before you leave at the end of the day. It will look different in our classroom studio than it did at home. You want as much time as possible to see what you may have overlooked. Also you want to see your work in the context of your fellow artists' pieces.

When you hang your work up, hang it with a sense of pride. There is no more important piece of art in the world for you than the one you are putting up each morning. Make sure it is level (and if it's a drawing pin it down lovingly flat with pins in at all four corners.

6. You must save all your work, both in class and the work you do outside of class for your Home Studio topics. Even if a piece is not successful (if you are trying to stretch your art wings you will fail some of the time) you have to absorb its lessons for you. A successful artist never "loses" her or his work, and you won't.

7. Entering into a creative frame of mind is difficult at best. The setting where you do make your drawings or paintings is critical to your success.

I like to talk about The Muse, the mythological figure who represents our deepest and most inventive side, and for convenience I call her a "she." The Muse has made it known through the years that she doesn't like to work surrounded by squalor. To get the Muse to come join you as you work you must keep your work space clean. After class you must clear up you work area, throw out your dirty rags, wrappers, recycle cans, etc. Remember, The Muse is watching. She is legendarily fickle. Do not annoy her or she won't help you with your art.

Philip Koch, Monhegan Dawn, Ochre, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Paul Revere's Painting Secrets

Years ago whenever I used to gather 35 mm slides to show my classes at MICA from the school's Slide Library I'd fall into gazing at a big poster of this painting by Grant Wood that was hung on the Library's wall. It's of Paul Revere's famous ride to warn of the approach of British troops outside Boston. In a lot of ways it was my real introduction to Grant Wood as previously I'd only known that American Gothic double portrait that's reproduced everywhere. As I didn't really care for that famous painting, I was surprised how much I felt drawn to this narrative from American revolutionary history. What I was feeling I now realize was the expressive power of Wood's talent. He was making me want to look at his picture. 

A really good painting has to first of all delight the viewer's eye with visually surprising and sensually convincing delights. It's gotta look good. Wood's painting does by employing many skillful moves. Let's talk about a few.

First, his point of view is unusual but well chosen to lay out the story. We're offered an invented bird's eye view of a rolling and undulating countryside interspersed with simple geometric shapes of the architecture. To get these two very different kinds of forms to talk to each other,  Wood treats them similarly. He takes pains to gradate the tones on all of his surfaces. In fact, you have to look hard to find a surface where the light and dark isn't gradated. It's subtle but powerfully wraps the painting together.

Wood images a light source (one heck of a full moon?) that shines most brightly down on Revere's horse. See how the light gradually diminishes as you move away from the horse in any direction. How moody and mysterious the growing shadows become once you reach the inky blues of the far distance.  I find one of the most critical strengths found in great paintings is the concreteness of how the painter conceived of the lighting situation. They see the light itself as one of the key actors in their painting. If you have a great story to tell in your painting, what is the optimum way to illuminate it? Painters like Wood offer us a crash course in creative lighting. 

Painters always develop habits that work well for them. One of Wood's favorite devices is creating a landscape full of hills and valleys and then wrapping a prominent winding road over and around them. It is amazing how often the prominent features of a Wood painting are the sculpted masses of the earth- usually imagined as giant swelling forms that seem like sections cut out of huge spheres. Wood seems to say the earth possesses a living, moving personality. Imagine the above painting repainted to show our horseman riding across a totally flat landscape. It would be a far less intriguing painting. One other feature I love in this particular Wood is the way his winding river is made to look so much like the curving roadway.

One final thing that's critical to this painting's success is the placement of the forms of houses and the trees. There is an unconscious tendency to spread one's forms out too evenly throughout a painting. I imagine a sinister figure who I like to call The Art Devil whispering in a painters' ears as they place the houses in a painting "hey, give 'em each a little yard- spread 'em out a little." Watch a truly inexperienced painter place three imaginary trees in their painting- inevitably they'll be equally spaced apart from each other, as if to give each one the most space to grow. It's a nice sentiment, but that's a recipe for a dull painting. 

Wood clusters all his houses close to each other. Then there is a relatively open space where your eye is allowed to rest, and finally as you move into the distance he gives you some fifty individual sphere-like trees, all tightly grouped together. It makes the painter seem decisive. THIS is what I mean it seems to be saying. I think what we're drawn to in a paintings is a vision that shows a sensitive hand painting for us in a very deliberate way. I get the feeling Wood is giving us not just any possible view of Paul Revere but the version he's convinced is the very best vision of this legendary ride. Wood is sensitive and intuitive, but he arrives at his best idea and tells it to us straight out without any mumbling. It's clear, crisp, to the point, and very effective.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Grant Wood and Me Down on the Farm

Though I'm originally from upstate New York, I spent some six years in the Midwest starting when I was 18, first in Oberlin, Ohio and then in southern Indiana in Bloomington. And it was in the Midwest I became first a young artist and then a landscape painter. Looking back I'm amazed how much learning I managed to pack into those years. And I made great friendships there as well. So perhaps my past predisposes me to like some of the painters who sprang from the Midwest. One in particular is Grant Wood. 

Farming dominates and leaves an unmistakable imprint on the people living there. Grant Wood grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and turned his sharp eye on the rhythms of planting and harvesting. He along with his Cedar Rapids compatriot, the artist Marvin Cone, turned the seemingly commonplace agrarian world into something almost mythic in their paintings. Their work has in it's own way the grandeur of the 19th century Hudson River School painters or the later nearly abstract landscapes of Georgia O'Keeffe. 

I was invited to have my first solo museum exhibition in 1990 at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in northeastern Iowa. CRMA by the way has the largest collection of both Grant Wood and Marvin Cone paintings anywhere and is well worth the visit. Recently they acquired and restored Grant Wood's nearby old painting studio so you can visit that as well.

Wood ran a summer art school in the small neighboring town of Stone City, IA. When I traveled out for the exhibition the museum people encouraged me to try it out for painting motifs as the area had proved a gold mine for sources for both Wood and Cone. I drove out there for a week of painting and found what had excited the earlier artists still very much there. Above is Wood's oil Stone City. To this day the little hamlet looks pretty much as it is in the painting. I was charmed as I remembered my 7th grade Social Studies textbook had carried a reproduction of that painting. It was one of the very first times I started really looking closely at any piece of art. Wood's unusual repeated arcing rhythms grabbed my eye- I wasn't sure at the time whether I liked them or not. Now I know I do.

Above is one of my all time favorite of Wood's oils. He's systematic as he goes about plotting the geometric pattern of his cone-like bundled stalks. I particularly love the gradations in the snow from warm highlights at the left turning slowly cooler and subtly darker as we move to the right. And the gradation in the sky from an olive brown to a dark charcoal grey at the right is nothing short of wild but it's convincing nonetheless.

Wood was also a master designer with how he selectively used patterned textures in the leaves  and bundled stalks that appear almost like a busy wall paper contrasted against the smooth furrows of white snow. Imagine for a moment how much less personality would be in the painting if one removes the decorative patterns on the plants and replaces them with smooth bland surfaces.

I love the Wood painting below as well for its maze-like network on the swelling hillsides. Maybe the texture gets a touch out of hand but I forgive the artist his excess.

I just finished working back into the canvas below, my oil Stone City Barns, 24 x 48", originally from 1991. It was done in the studio from a small on-location oil I'd done on a country roadside near Stone City. As luck would have it I always preferred the way the large version turned out. It had fewer highlights and came across as a more authoritative statement. So I gingerly went back into the small oil version intending only a few changes to bring it in tune with its larger cousin. Well, as so often happens, I started getting new ideas for other improvements and ended up mostly repainting the entire surface. The small piece improved noticeably. Almost like a ping pong match, I then had to repaint the big version to come up to the new level of the small study. 

I think that sort of back-and-forth conversation between small paintings and larger studio versions is almost always productive. Of course it is easier to try out new moves on a small surface. But you can't control or predict when or where insight and small breakthroughs will happen. Whenever and wherever you get a good idea, make a note of it. Insights are precious and have to be valued even when they come at unexpected and inopportune times. That's OK. Creativity isn't entirely logical, or perhaps it follows a logic we can't fully understand.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Veer Magazine Article on Unbroken Thread Exhibition at Peninsula Fine Arts Center

I just received this article that appears in Veer magazine's August 2011 issue from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Written by Francis Ward, it captures so much of the spirit behind my paintings that I thought it would serve as a perfect blog post in itself. 

Philip Koch, Otter Cove, oil on canvas, 44 x 55", 2008

August 2011


Contemporary landscapes of Koch stir the imagination at PFAC

by Fran Ward

It’s a moment of perfection! Standing in a gallery among landscapes by Philip Koch, we can slow our pace, come to a complete halt and breathe a sigh of relief. We’re here now! That’s all that matters. The art of Philip Koch has provided us a beautiful respite.

There’s more to Koch’s landscapes than meets the eye in “Unbroken Thread,” an exhibition of Philip Koch’s contemporary watercolor landscapes at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center through October 2.

Timelessness is central to Koch’s works. Each picture is a frozen vignette of Nature at its grandest simplicity. While this artist captured his vision, his artist models (sky, water, trees and hills) posed without moving. His paintings depict places where the earth is untouched and there is no trace of a specific time. There is no year. There is only forever.

The large works present an immediate awakening of all the senses. Vivid blocks of color first attract us. Upon closer glance, we see scenery, as expected. There are foregrounds and backgrounds, broad swipes of nature, color and silhouettes. 

As we stand in either of the two galleries devoted solely to work from his collection, we feel a distinct impact. Singling out an individual picture, we experience its sensuous nature. For observing is an experience of the senses, not the intellect, as we witness the moment Koch recorded that particular vision of beauty.

We share his view on cold mountaintops on a clear day as we overlook land and water below. On a buggy, muggy day, we stand at still water and hear big-winged insects buzz by our ears. As day ends, we observe bands of sky hold tightly to their vivid hues until last light as the temperature drops.

They are his expressions of New England--whether on the rugged coast of Maine or in a valley in the White Mountains. He does not recreate from photographs. He creates from the imagination. Before he paints, he draws using vine charcoal--a natural substance for storing his particular memory of nature.

He attributes his art to the location, his experiences and a continuation of work that preceded his. “Koch feels that artists of the past were crucial to his maturing into a professional artist and their creativity is an ‘unbroken thread’ of which he has become an extension.”
Formerly an abstract painter, Koch discovered the work of Edward Hopper, a 20th century American artist. “The sunlight and long shadows in his work absolutely enchanted me.” Koch fell under Hopper’s spell, decided to become a realist painter, and has painted at Hopper’s studio using Hopper’s easel.

I believe another common thread is that we, the viewers, are an element of each tableau. By looking at the scenery, we become part of the art. We breathe in nature and become part of its depiction. We share an air of contentment with the art, artist and natural setting.

There comes a realization, though, that the room is not about the art, and not about the artist. It is about the majesty of Nature, its peace and tranquility.

Koch has a gift for presenting what he experienced so we can experience it, too.

He says, “When you do it right, art is clearer than reality. Every now and then you see something deep and true.”

A professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Koch hopes to be doing what he’s doing for the next 30 years. Here’s to now and 30 more years “of something deep and true!”


Unbroken Thread:
Nature Painting and the American Imagination
The Art of Philip Koch


The Virginia Landscape: Works on Paper
Through October 2, 2011

Peninsula Fine Arts Center
101 Museum Drive
Newport News, Virginia, 23606


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Georgia (O'Keeffe) on My Mind...

Why do some artists become household words and others linger in obscurity?

Some months back I wrote about the intriguing but now little known American painter Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1885- 1968. You can read about Sparhawk-Jones on my friend Barbara Lehman Smith's  website). Sadly Sparhawk-Jones' ascent in the art world was derailed for decades by her struggle with mental illness. Once considered one of the people to watch in the art world, her reputation is only now coming back out into the daylight. 

The far better known Georgia O'Keeffe (1887- 1986) came to prominence a few years later than Sparhawk-Jones when O'Keeffe became romantically involved with the older wealthy American photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was prominent in modern art circles and had the financial resources to champion her work. I've often wondered if we today would know O'Keffe's work as well had she not become entangled with the famous older photographer. Personally I think her work strong enough to have earned at least some audience for itself entirely on its own merits. But whether she'd be the superstar she is today without the Stieglitz boost we'll never know.

Best known are her close up views of flowers, but she was also a first rate landscape painter. O'Keeffe forms an intriguing bridge between modernism and the traditions of realist painting. Her paintings are fascinating teachers who helped many to see nature with new eyes. 

Above is one of her long series of works done up on Stieglitz's home up at Lake George at the southern edge of the Adirondack Mountains, as is the barn painting below. Look in the top painting at the huge role played by gradation of tone and color. I love the subtle difference between the slightly warmer colored sky and the ever so slightly cooler water.

In O'Keeffe's barn painting there is a wonderfully managed collision between a natural world rendered entirely with softly undulating curved lines and the sharp and straight lines of the barn's geometry. O"Keeffe wasn't afraid to hit a harsh note to pump up the drama in her work. Look at the super high contrast in the barn's black window and its stark white frame. Test out how the painting would look without it by blocking it out from your view with your index finger. The painting becomes infinitely less powerful and energetic without it.

Below is a painting from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM where my friend Barbara Buhler Lynes is Curator. In a painting like this O'Keefe is taking a few hearty strides away from the colors she probably perceived when looking at the terrain around her. Color instead is chosen more for how she feels it will perform in her painting. 

As different as this mountain panorama below is from the barn painting above, notice one key similarity- the white patch of snow at peak at the right. It's so like the barn window, a fresh hand clap of an accent to wake you up just when you thought you had grasped the image's meaning. It's funny as in our time most discussions of paintings tend to center on color harmonies and dissonances. O'Keeffe, thorough going a modernist as she is, was more than ready to use tonalities of darks and lights to compose the drama of her compositions. As I've said before on this blog, the enjoyment of color is a least as much about the tones hidden in the colors as it is about the choice of a particular hue.

My eye certainly has enjoyed the benefit of studying O'Keeffe's landscapes. She's one of the people who have by example encouraged me to become more playful in my own paintings with my color choices. Below is a new painting I finished just last week that displays some of those good lessons.

It's titled Edward Hopper's Studio Bedroom, oil on panel, 10 x 5", 2011. The piece actually began several years ago when I set my easel up in the kitchen of Hopper's studio in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. It looks from the kitchen towards the two closet doors in the Hopper's bedroom that in real life have marvelous over sized black metal doorknobs. I first did a monochrome vine charcoal version. That in turn led to a pastel drawing of the same subject done working from the charcoal. And now this oil painting that I made looking at the pastel. My guess is that O'Keeffe too had an indirect working process like this, though I haven't researched her actual painting methods. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Wadsworth Atheneum's Edward Hoppers

What's this detail?

I won a contest! Last time this happened I was about six and won five dollars for my "Space Robot" costume ( a cardboard box with pipe cleaners for antennae) in my town's annual 4th of July parade.
This time around I've won a membership to the first public art museum in the U.S., the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art up in Hartford, Connecticut. 

The Atheneum has a cool history. It was built in downtown Hartford on the site of the Daniel Wadsworth family mansion with funds from that family and holding lots of their original collection. Their main building is a medieval looking castle (if you're going to be the oldest art museum why not look the part? Perhaps Susan Talbot, their Director, might consider jousting tournaments as a fund raising event). I get a kick out of older art institutions, partly because I teach at MICA (America's oldest continuously degree-granting art school. PAFA up in Philadelphia probably has the mantle of being the actual oldest school). 

When an art museum starts collecting early, you tend to have a pretty impressive collection. The Atheneum for example has a world class Hudson River School collection, something near to my heart. But back to the mystery print...

The Atheneum had a clever idea to post a detail out of a work of art on their Facebook page and challenge viewers to name the piece and the artist. At the top of this post is the "clue" they provided yesterday morning. Now normal people have diverse interests and probably wouldn't have any idea. Me, I don't have that problem.

As long time readers of this blog know it was looking at Edward Hopper's work that persuaded me to switch to realist painting instead of working abstractly. Hopper spoke to me on many levels and I made a point to get to know his work well- really well. So I had an immediate suspicion this detail was taken from one of Hopper's subway car etchings.

Turned out it was Night on the El Train from 1918. Hopper worked for twenty some years full time as an illustrator, but on his own time he feverishly worked at a long series of etchings like this one. So much of what he would later do in watercolor and oils was prefigured by these black and white little gems. I took Hopper's etching work extremely seriously for I knew just as it had helped him develop the vision that would later flower in his paintings that it would help me with my work as well. 

The Atheneum has a number of fabulous Hoppers, not the least of which are the following watercolors.When I had my first (of thirteen) residencies up in Hopper's Cape Cod studio starting in 1983 I made discoveries about Hopper's watercolor practice. He liked to stretch his watercolor paper not on a drawing board but over stretcher bars like the ones used for stretching canvas. Up in his attic I found just such a ready-to-go stretched piece of watercolor paper. Probably he liked using the stretcher bars because of their light weight (his watercolors tended to be fairly large and drawing boards that would have held them would have had to be big and heavy). 

What delighted me was the extra attention to detail he showed. When you take have paper stretched over stretcher bars it's pretty translucent and sunlight shining on its backside will show right through the paper, throwing off your tonal judgements. So Hopper had carefully tumbtacked layers of a 1954 sports section from the New York Herald Tribune to the back of the stretchers to block out the sun. It was such a modest solution to his problem that it utterly charmed me. It felt as if he might return at any moment to start working on the piece. I left it there for him.

Here are three of the Hopper watercolors in the Atheneum's Collection. 

This is Marshall's House, 14 x 20 from 1932, two years before he built his studio in S. Truro. MA.  It must be one of his Cape Cod scenes. The painting has a marvelous orchestration of color. Notice the way all the yellows and ochres and held down in color intensity so that his three different brighter reds on the roof will stand out.

This might be one of the most popular of Hopper's watercolors, Captain Strout House, Portland Head, 14 x 20" from 1927.  It's an absolute masterpiece. Look at the wild way Hopper has the watery blue horizon at two distinctly different levels in the painting. It should look ridiculous but instead it knits the painting together. See how if you connect the two differing water levels with a straight line, you get a diagonal angle that runs exactly parallel with the white fence railing in the foreground.

Here's Hopper's Methodist Church, Provincetown, 25 x 19 3/4" from 1930. That's eighty one years ago but you can still see exactly the same view as Hopper painted if you stroll down Commercial Street in Provincetown. While his version is an accurate bit of reporting, it isn't without some artful invention. Hopper wanted the diagonal sloping roofs to dominate the painting so he amped up the contrasts in those forms. In comparison, the edges and contrasts in the lower section of the church steeple have been softened and held back so as not to compete with the main actors he's placed in his foreground.

Here below is my own painting, Edward Hopper's Studio, oil, 14 x 21" from my first residency there in 1983.

And this is a painting I did last week based on an on-location pastel study I did in the studio. It's Edward Hopper's Easel, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2011.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Learning to Speak Dutch

When I was just beginning my journey to become a painter I was enrolled at Oberlin College. At the time its Art Department leaned somewhat heavily toward conceptual and avant gard art. Eva Hesse came as a visiting artist to give critiques to the art students ( I was the only one who showed up to hear what she had to say). Overall the key message I received studying art there was that the most important goal for an artist is innovation. Art from the past was important of course, but our job was to make a new art that boldly asserted its independence from all those outworn conventions. 

Trouble was, I didn't really like my paintings very much. I knew I was ripe for change. I went on to Bloomington, Indiana and entered their MFA program in painting. I took a course in Baroque art from the art historian Charles Hasthausen. He liked landscapes and showed lots of 'em. That's when I discovered I loved the Dutch Masters. And still more important, I realized that whether or not I wanted to be, I am as much of this time as any other artist. I am a painter who is unable to produce work that looks like it was painted in another century. Coming to that insight gave me the internal permission I needed to scour the past to see how it could help me make my way in the world of painting. 

One in particular, Jacob van Ruisdael (1628 - 1682), caught my eye. When he painted a field it seemed to be a portrait of the whole world.  No one else so forcefully built up a deep space or carved out such ambitious skies as he did. Ruisdael's oil above shows several tools used beautifully to butress the feeling of space and make it expressively important to the viewer.

Ruisdael invented his own light, dividing the ground plane into distinctly separated areas. In the painting above you can count three clear highlighted areas that say to your eye "close, middle, and far." Coupled with his spotlighting, he maximized the role of simply overlapping forms on top of each other. Look at the way he strategically places his houses at the left just at the back end of the foreground's lighted zone. Their roofs are bathed in sunlight and stack up on top of the large shadowed forest immediately behind them. I'd spend hours studying Ruisdaels in reproductions. I learned he was thougtful, systematic, and brilliantly inventive with his forms and sense of light.

Art books back then leaned more on black and white photography, but that wasn't as much of a handicap as one might think. The Dutch painters of that period were exquisitely sensitive to nuances of tones and the energy to be found in a simple gradation from light gray to darker gray. Previously when I had thought about color in painting I was almost entirely focused on which hue I was employing and how intense (or not) to make it. Falling in love with the 17th century Dutch painters was a personal wake up call to the tonal side of color. To this day I believe one of my best skills as a painter is a heightened awareness of the tonal aspects of color. 

Color after all is too complex to be easily held in mind. One sees painters becoming confused about how to manage their hues all the time. We need a fallback position when the dizzying intricacies of color relationships blind us to what we're really doing on our canvases. In that art history class I was discovering the wisdom of darks and lights. Artfully arranged, tones could have a poetry all their own.

Above is another Ruisdael landscape with a very different feel for both color and tone. And below is one of my paintings that shows the same break up the spaces on the ground plane as you see in the Ruisdaels. It's From Day to Night, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2011 and is now hanging in the big Unbroken Thread exhibition of my work in the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA (through Oct. 2, 2011). 

Where my work departs from the world of Ruisdael comes in the color choices this former abract artist favors and the far broader paint handling than you would ever see in a baroque era canvas. And there are other, harder to pinpoint differences. We have painting in our world as a tool to show us how the reality of living in our own time feels to us. There's something about a painting from 1930, or 1630, that is different than something made today- you just sense it on an intuitive level. I've been painting daily since 1966 and never has anyone mistaken one of my landscapes for being a 19th century canvas, much less a baroque painting. They never will. In ways that are hard for us to grasp, we just know these things in our bones.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Going Ice Skating with Charles Burchfield

One needs to see paintings in two opposing ways.

A painting is always a window into space- sometimes deep space and sometimes shallow. But almost never is a painting's space truly flat. Pictorial space draws a viewer into the painter's imagined world. It's a good thing.

But carving out the space of a canvas alone can be a one-way ticket from the painting's foreground to its far distance. That alone is never enough to keep a viewer with you. So you have to add the other big ingredient- an elegant design to move the viewer's eye around the painting's surface.

When I was a kid there was a neighborhood pond just over the hill from my house where all my friends would gather to skate in the winters. Maybe because I was never very good at the activity I found lots of excuses to sit on the sidelines and watch. I remember so vividly the sound skate blades made as they cut across the ice and the amazing geometry of the tracks they left behind. Some of my friends were excellent skating athletes and composed intricate networks of interlocking spiral lines in the ice. It was captivating. And it served as a wonderful introduction for me to the world of composing and decorating a flat surface, whether ice or a stretched canvas.

Here are three watercolors by one of my favorite artists, Charles Burchfield. In the second half of his life he lived in Buffalo, New York, just over from my skating pond in the nearby city of Rochester. But it wasn't until after he died in 1967 that I became aware of his work. (Burchfield by the way and Edward Hopper knew each other and admired each others work).

In the watercolor at the top of this post you see Burchfield painting in the shadows in the big tree at the upper left. They look to me like giant whales intent on swimming to the left and the right. That's Burchfield's intention- to propel your eye across the painting's surface. He does create a simple shallow space by overlapping forms in front of each other, but the big emphasis is on activating the flat surface of his paper.

Burchfield's watercolor below is a perfect example of one of his other key tools. He creates networks of little dots and squiggles that energize large parts of his otherwise flat planes. But then right next to those busy areas, he'll give you an empty and quiet surface to let your eye rest.  

In Burchfield's watercolor below try an experiment with me. Hold your hand over just the bottom half of the painting to block out the empty snowy field. The remaining top becomes a hopelessly jumbled tangle of competing lines that quickly just tires your eye out. But when you drop your hand away the busy top becomes elegant and orchestrated once again.

Painting depends so much on the artist playing off opposites. Flatness against deep space. Busy against empty. Making a painting comes down to discovering a successful balance point between these qualities.
Burchfield leans more towards the active surface and a shallower space than an Edward Hopper or a Winslow Homer. 

When I entered my Master of Fine Arts program at Indiana University in 1970 I met a student printmaker who was a nut on Burchfield. His enthusiasm was infectious and prompted me to start looking at his favorite artist more actively. Some dismissed Burchfield as "too cartoon-y", but to me his outrageous over-the-top watercolors expressed some of the radicalism that I myself was finding when I went out to paint plein air oils. Nature seemed wilder and less predictable the more I looked at her. I remember once commenting to one of my artist friends upon returning from an outdoor painting session that "I think Nature is on drugs."

Below is a painting of mine from just last year, Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 30 x 40" that's now on display at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center's show of my work (through Oct. 2, 2011) in Newport News, Virginia. It's done entirely from my imagination, stoked by memories of my years spent growing up in a deep forest near Rochester.

It's a piece that owes a debt to Burchfield. The highlights on the white birch trees on the far shore have been lightened up considerably while the highlights on the surrounding foliage have been darkened. This  puts the spotlight onto the flat silhouettes of the white trunks, each bending this way and that as if they're dancing to some private music. Trees really look like this when you open your eyes to them. They are wilder creatures than we usually think of them. 

One of the big purposes of art is to help us see more and see more deeply. Burchfield helped me.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Anatomy of a Painting

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Easel,  oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2011

In the August 4th post I dissected my oil painting Banner with a eye toward helping readers to grasp how its space is constructed. Every painting after all begins its life as just a flat surface. The sensation of depth, so palpable in the real world, has to be built by the artist. It doesn't happen all by itself (witness the remarkable flatness of all children's drawings). I wanted to return to Banner to bring out a few more of the ideas in the piece, but first I wanted to show you a small oil I did in the last couple of days as its so much like Banner. It's based one of my on location drawings from my residencies in Edward Hopper's painting studio in S. Truro, MA.

This is the easel Hopper used to create many of his most famous paintings. I had done a pastel drawing of his easel standing in front of the doorways made famous in his oil Rooms by the Sea now in Yale's art museum. While it served as the launching pad for some of the most remarkable realist paintings in 20th century art, that famous easel itself couldn't be more ordinary. It's identical to the standard wooden studio easels available in any art supply store. I'm reminded each time I see Hopper's pedestrian easel that the magic of painting has to come from the insight and spirit of the artist. Good tools help, but they're just tools in the end.

What struck me about the new painting above is that while it's architecture and not a landscape, it's space is built up in such a similar way. Below is Banner , oil on panel, 40 x 30", 2011 hanging now in Peninsula Fine Arts Center's current exhibition of my work, Unbroken Thread. In both paintings the viewer stands in a darkened foreground space of cool bluish colors and looks out into a more light filled and much warmer distance. Changing the color helps to alter the feeling of each of these spaces. 

Space is an emotional issue for us humans, Think of a dream you have had where you're trying to reach a person you're attached to. As you pull closer, your sense of well being surges. Or as the gap between you widens your heart sinks. All the deep themes- safety, intimacy, isolation, vulnerability come to us with particular spatial settings coupled to them. When you build a convincing space in a painting you are building the container into which your viewer can pour their feelings. It's not technical, it's emotional.

One other critical ingredient in both Banner and Edward Hopper's Easel is the emphasis put on movement. In human perception diagonal lines make us feel impending movement. And nothing makes one sense movement better than contrasting something stable and unmoving with something that leans over. Each painting has as a baseline either a clear horizontal (the bright yellow horizon in Banner) or the stately and sober vertical lines of the repeated door frames in Easel. Against these geometric foundations, strenuous efforts are made to make you feel the extra sense of movement implied by moving your eye along diagonal pathways. 

Just as an experiment hold your extended index finger out before you and block out your view of just the big leaning tree in Banner. Then in your mind's eye imagine the tree's trunk straightened up to form a true vertical. As you do this the painting seems to freeze over and its energy level plummets. 

Look back to the Easel painting. See how the primary straight lines of the easel lean to the right. Similarly the leg of the end table at the right of the door leans to the right as well at just the same angle.
The back of the shadowy chair in the lower left corner leans to the left in direction that is mirrored perfectly in the diagonal edge of the chimney just above it.

In the painting below, the initial version of Banner, 10 x 7 1/2", 2008 you can see I haven't really tried to describe details. The concentration is instead trained on whisking your eye across the painting's surface by emphasizing diagonals and plunging you into the space of the painting by making a background that feels different in color than the foreground. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Learning to Look with J.W. Waterhouse

We are born, we live, we die. While we are here it just makes sense to try to genuinely be alive. Surely that means learning to enjoy our senses to the fullest. Fortunately there's a crash course in just that available free- looking a great paintings. Let's check this one out.

Here J.W. Waterhouse (British, 1849 - 1917) gives us a beautiful woman who seems to be ensnaring a noble knight and keeping him from this knightly duties. This could be a cheesy illustration you'd glance at once and then lose all interest in it. But instead it has a lingering and smoldering intensity to it. That's Waterhouse's art working its magic on the viewer. 

Notice how Waterhouse divides up his canvas into a warm overall color in the bottom two fifths of the painting and a cooler, darker zone in the remaining top area. The red haired woman in the red dress seems to literally grow up out of the ground. Similarly our errant knight seems right at home as he leans forward from the cooler dark greens of the background. What the artist is doing is setting the stage for his action. He knows that if you are to be moved by the action in his painting, his figures have to act in a space that itself is expressive. And it is.

This is going to be a story about a woman engaging a man, of the world of the feminine meeting the world of the masculine. (Jungian psychologists have a field day with this painting). So Waterhouse makes the field and the background active players by counter posing their colors against each other. He goes further, surrounding the woman with an organic and decoratively patterned network of leaves and blossoms. The man in contrast, emerges out of a forest of repeated straight vertical tree trunks. It is the artist's way of making the contrasting areas feel different.

After setting up these opposite qualities in the two worlds of his painting, Waterhouse then pulls them together. Most obviously the woman reaches out and wraps her scarf or shawl around the knight's neck (or is it her red hair?) to draw him to her. Note how the gesture of the scarf makes a hard and sharp straight diagonal line that's one of the painting's focal points. Then look over at the knight's knee and ankle at the right. You realize the artist has carefully posed the man's leg to express exactly the same diagonal trajectory across the painting's surface. In his way, Waterhouse makes the two figures' forms begin to dance together. 

Admittedly, there's a lot of detail in this painting, yet the artist weaves it all together so skillfully that it reads as sensuous and rich rather than cluttered and distracting. One of the key tools is his pattern of tones (darks and lights). Like many artists of his time, Waterhouse imagines a world where the basic tone is a middle grey, and he begins his painting by covering its entire surface with this. Then he would gradually add lighter and darker notes, inching his way forward until he had just enough but not too much tonal contrast. Squint your eyes at the piece and you realize how the vast majority of the highlights in the painting (for ex. the shine on the knight's gleaming armour) are actually held down into the light middle tones. A weaker painter would have peppered the whole canvas with garish bright highlights everywhere. Waterhouse instead is a master orchestrator, giving us high contrasts just in the most critical places. It's as if he stands up in the balcony directing a spotlight on his stage first here then there to show us what he knows are the key shapes in his story. 

Waterhouse is using his heightened visual powers to help our own eyes wake up and see reality on a higher level. For this I'm always grateful to any of the great artists of the past- they help me and anyone else who's willing to look become a little bit more alive.