Monday, March 26, 2012

Inside Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Exhibit

Last week I took eight small paintings up to Nyack, New York for Edward Hopper House Art Center's intimate show of my work opening this coming Saturday, March 31 through May 1, 2012. Titled Inside Edward Hopper's Truro Studio: Paintings by Philip Koch, the show features interior views of Hopper's studio on Cape Cod where I've had the honor of having 13 residencies since 1983. 

These are some of a long series of interiors I've painted while staying there. There's a reception from 5-7 p.m. on Saturday. Following at 7 I'm giving a slide talk "Three Things You Didn't Know About Edward Hopper" (suggested donation $5.). There are aspects of Hopper I feel I can shed some light on. Hope many readers of this blog can come by to the talk and/or the show.

Above is the poster my graphic designer daughter Susan made for the show- it's a view of Hopper's Truro studio early in the morning back in Sept. of 2010. On the far side of the hill is the open expanse of Cape Cod Bay.

Below is a pastel I did of Hopper's kitchen table and chairs, along with a bunch of bananas I'd bought at the store earlier in the day. I liked the way the shape of the fruit and bowl curved like the chair backs and the table top. It's a view where most of the shapes are big rectangles, so peppering the composition with some well placed curves gives a little sense of surprise. After all, a drawing with no surprises is a bad drawing.

In this pastel one of the things I'm enjoying playing with is the color of the white walls. I've been careful to add both warm cream yellow highlights to the walls and contrast them against light cool off- whites in the lighter shadows. Having a range of temperatures in each level of ones tones (highlights, middle tones, and darkest darks) is almost always a good idea. One can see Hopper doing that in all his work.

This is the kitchen.

Here's the studio looking from the dirt road that serves as Hopper's driveway. This is looking due west.

And this is the view from the end of the driveway looking up the steep hillside to the studio sitting atop the sand dune. Hopper designed the entire studio. I think there's a very Hopper-esque feeling to the way the architecture and the rolling hillside interact.

This is a pastel I did sitting on the end of the bed in Hopper's tiny bedroom looking due west out two windows to Cape Cod Bay. This is late afternoon and the sunlight really blasts into the studio. Very lovely.

While I was preparing my slide talk for this Saturday night at Hopper House, I ran across this lovely watercolor, Village at Two Lights from up in Maine. The feeling of it reminds me so much of how Hopper's Truro studio sits on a similar gently rolling hillside and looks out to sea. I was saying before that varying the temperature in the highlights brings an energy into the painting- look at the three lightest roofs in the foreground. So often you see paintings of buildings that look mechanical but not these sheds. That Hopper fellow knew what he was doing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rockwell Kent, A Master At Teaching How To See.

The earth, and everything on it is always moving. That's the problem, and the opportunity, for landscape painters.

What I've talking about is that landscape forces an artist to be an activist. There is so much out there within the space you are painting, most of it constantly shifting darker or lighter and waving in the breeze.  To paint that you have to take charge. If you don't you don't get a painting to happen. 

Above is a Rockwell Kent (American, 1882-1971) oil from Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. If you remove the white capped waves, you're left with a dreadful painting. Kent has chosen to pull all the other tones down into a dark middle grey or darker so you really need those two key white accents. Kent played around with the shape of those whitecaps. They have two very differing silhouettes, each moving across the painting surface in its own trajectory. I think these white waves feel alive and hint at  having distinct personalities. 

Below is a Kent wood engraving, one of his illustrations for Moby Dick (this image is from the wonderful Plattsburgh State Art Museum way up in northernmost New York State and the museum that has the most Kent's anywhere. Definitely worth a visit). The figure in the bow raises his arm and gazes to the heavens, straining to make a connection with whatever is great and forceful up there. His pose is simple, direct.  A cross-shaped bowsprit serves as a  perfect foil for the praying man shapes and it too strains heavenward. Together the cross and the figure do a powerful duet to get across the feeling Kent wanted to express. 

I teach figure drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. It's a class I love. As an art student myself I couldn't get enough time in front of the model. I found drawing the nude painstakingly hard.  I also saw it made for undeniable and rapid progress in my work, so I kept at it. 

Drawing the model isn't just looking hard and recording what you see. No matter how hard you look you find some parts of the body make way more sense than others. Even the best pose has areas where the foot may look more like a sagging balloon than something you could stand and run on. At times like that the artist has to come up with a better foot that what she or he has been given. You improvise, adjusting the silhouette in a bit here and out a little bit there. And you begin to move the direction the light shines down on the form to see if a light coming more from the right hand side might make things more forceful. In short, you invent.

Below is another Kent wood engraving, this time of Prometheus. The figure is most likely drawn completely out of Kent's imagination. He was an artist who had mastered subtle adjustments to the silhouette. Look for example at how the figure's axis leans diagonally uphill to the left, just like the lightning bolt and the big shadow on the rock. Then, Kent breaks this overall diagonal thrust, shooting a hard and sharp horizontal across the image, moving from the left elbow to the right. Out of this comes much of the movement implicit in the composition.

There's a further elegance to these limbs. Notice how the figure's left arm (our left) creates an almost enclosed equilateral triangle of empty black space. In contrast Prometheus' right arm pulls down to squeeze the space above his deltoid into just the narrowest sliver. It's little surprises like that that convince you Prometheus was a real go-to guy. Bringing fire to us humans after all proved tough. 

The actual world of outdoor spaces is often maddeningly complicated. Just this morning as I was driving I looked at the emerging buds on nearby trees. Only just beginning to come out, the new buds gave a startling pink cast to their filmy shape. Yet their edges were imperceptibly soft. One was left with something that was movingly beautiful but almost completely lacking in identifiable shapes one could draw on a canvas.

An artist could have a deep personal response to these budding trees, but to make the experience into something they could share with a viewer they were going to have to do on heck of a lot of inventing. Art after all is translating one's responses into something others can actually see. I think the kind of training the eye receives from learning to draw the figure well gives one the ability to invent clear form and shape to hold diaphanous, and improbable things like a hillside of ten thousand just-budding trees.

I look at Rockwell Kent's figures a lot. I love them, but they also teach me about seeing. He was a master  of the nuances of an outer contour line. As he explores the possibilities in a pose he takes you on the most marvelous journey. See a good figure by Kent and you'll find some shapes you never knew existed. I keep looking. Every time I come away with some new tools and a determination to use them.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper's Rare Friend

Edward Hopper was friends with few other artists and rarely spoke highly of their work. An exception was Charles Burchfield (American 1893-1967, ironically the same year Hopper died).  Wrote Hopper "The work of Charles Burchfield is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and life that he knows and loves best." It is impressive that someone like Hopper, whose work was in some ways so different than Burchfield's, would express such enthusiasm for his friend's watercolors. 

What Hopper was getting at was that Burchfield placed extraordinary value on his direct experience. And looking closely at Burchfield's watercolors you can share in much of what the man felt. I always tell my students that our job as artists is to notice the things of value that everyone else has overlooked. Nobody fits that description better than Burchfield.

His is an art that's about the gesture of grasses stirred by the breeze, the glare of sunlight, and even the noises made by insects. Somehow he found a way to make these things feel powerful and poetic. In lesser hands they would have seemed like corny illustrations. 

Burchfield lived with his widowed mother in the small town of Salem, Ohio. Back in 1995 I had a solo show at the branch museum there run by the Butler Institute of American Art. The Butler's branch was in an old bank and was very lovely- they paired my show with a show of Raphael Soyer etchings, which I felt was a real honor for me. Apparently Butler's Salem Branch roof later developed leaks and Butler had to close it (would some zillionaire reader of my blog please give the Butler a big donation for repairs so they can re-open it). While I was staying there I visited the old Burchfield home where the artist lived from age 5 - 28 and where many of his finest works were executed. 

A group of locals was trying to raise the money to preserve the artist's old house but hadn't completed their goal yet when I was visiting. I went anyway and walked around the grounds. Peeking in the front window I could see the place was undergoing repairs. The old wallpaper had been stripped off the plaster walls, and  I kid you not, scrawled in a child's handwriting on the plaster were the words "Charlie was here." Seems like our world famous Burchfield was very much a normal little kid at one time- perhaps his genius was in maintaining a link to that side of himself as he slid into adulthood.

It's now called the Burchfield Homestead and is open part time to the public. The Burchfield Homestead Society has a great feature on their website:  an interactive floor plan of Burchfield's house showing some of the watercolors he did from different rooms. It's marvelous- 

It's a place I'm eager to visit once again.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Mystery About Edward Hopper.

Here's one of the works that will be in Edward Hopper House Art Center's upcoming exhibit Inside Edward Hopper's Studio: Works by Philip Koch. It's Easel and Open Door, Edward Hopper's Truro Studio, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2012. It was begun several years ago up in Hopper's studio on Cape Cod and I made some important adjustments to it just in the last few days.

Below is myvine charcoal done standing in a slightly different spot in Hopper's painting room, Easel, Edward Hopper's Studio,  10 x 12 1/2" from 2002.

And below is a photo taken standing in almost the same spot just as the first rays of the day's sunlight pierced the studio.  A few of my other drawings I was working on at the time leaning against some of the furniture.

And here's a photo I've shown before of his bedroom at left and the door leading out from Hopper's painting room to Cape Cod Bay. 

One of the things I find so fascinating about Hopper was his failure to paint his immediate surroundings. His Truro studio is a case in point. It's a stunningly beautiful set of interior spaces, all designed by Hopper himself and all strikingly illuminated by the many windows he'd had put on the building. Except for his pivotal Rooms by the Sea oil, he did to my knowledge no other significant piece depicting his studio. 

This was a place he lived for half of each year from 1934 until 1965, two years before his death. It was obviously a place he loved. Over the years he amassed dozens and dozens of masterful paintings of interior spaces,  but he avoided painting direct depictions of his studio (the same is true for the other studio he maintained in New York City). 

Many of his paintings are populated by figures going about their daily tasks. Personally I find more of the personality in these pictures comes from the architecture and the shadows. The humans seem to take their place as just part of the overall ensemble. 

Hopper is often called a storyteller, and I think that's accurate. Looking at his work my feeling is he had to begin by telling himself a story. It seems he needed recall or imagine something at a distance. Details were stripped away mostly and the scene in his mind's eye became distilled down to some sort of essence. I think he made a conscious decision not to paint his studio and its furnishings. He was moving in the second half of his life to painting a realism of a world that existed "over there", maybe beyond the next hill. His world moved to a place entirely of his imagination

This wasn't always the case- early on in his painting career he worked a great deal from direct observation (some of his early views of Paris for example have a vibrant impressionist handling that's remarkable). And these were far from wasted years. He was gathering up the tools he would need for his mature work. Over time a more contemplative Hopper emerged, one less likely to paint while staring directly at his subject. He was happier remembering it, or imagining it. Sometimes those two things can be the same.

I know from doing my own paintings that there is a wonderful loosening of the reins when you work out of memory and imagination. It's funny but I'm realizing for the first time as I write this that I've been influenced by Hopper's example in this too. The first few decades I painted landscapes I always began by directly observing, like Hopper in his younger days. Then about 15 years ago I began to feel constrained by standing too close to my sources. I wanted my work to have the feeling of a well informed day dream rather than a faithful piece of reportage. Ironically my early work was consciously Hopper like (for example I couldn't pass a mansard roof without stopping to paint it). But I gradually moved on towards painting that is more my own personal territory. If anything it's harder to do than my earlier "Hopper-like" work. But that's OK. If you read Gail Levin's biography of Hopper you find many passages from his wife Jo's diary describing how hard Hopper found painting often was for him.

I'm in good company.

Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY will show an intimate collection of my paintings of the interior of Hopper's Cape Cod studio March 31- July1, 2012. There's an opening reception Saturday, March 31 from  5 -7 p.m. At 7:00 p.m. I'm presenting an illustrated slide talk Three Things You Didn't Know About Edward Hopper. Everyone is welcome.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Unlearning a Bad Lesson from the Past

Searching through my flat file drawers for another drawing this week, I ran across an early drawing I made, Edward Hopper's Kitchen, vine charcoal, 8 x 10", 2002. This is the tiny table and chairs Hopper sat at to eat his meals in his S.Truro, Massachusetts studio.  It's funny as Hopper was 6'5" tall and the idea of him squeezing his lanky frame into this tiny space makes me laugh. The kitchen is so small that to get this view I had to back up and set up my French easel in the adjoining bedroom. Hopper was a guy who put painting first, and when he designed his Cape Cod studio he lavishly devoted most of the space to his painting room. The rest of the studio makes you wonder if it wasn't designed as a doll house.

Long ago when I was just starting to learn to paint at Oberlin College, I shared a studio space with another student who was a year ahead of me. She was energetic and articulate and loved abstract expressionist painting. She insisted  "you have to discover the painting with paint!" Planning ahead with a preparatory drawing she explained would drain the life out of the final painting. This sounded good to me (though the fact I hadn't yet done the hard work of learning to draw might have made her argument one I wanted to believe). Anyway for many years I soldiered on with my painting without ever a hint of a preparatory drawing. I wasn't going to let drawing make me too conservative.

Here is a new painting drying in my studio, Adirondack Forest, oil on panel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2012. It's based on the drawing below begun last fall on Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. This vine charcoal drawing has been living in my studio ever since and I had been tuning it this way and that for several months until I was satisfied.

For many years I worked primarily outdoors. It was great. My work started and ended in oil paint. And the paintings I was making were pretty naturalistic- faithful to many of the lovely smaller details of what I was looking at. It worked well because I always chose my subjects only after much searching around. You have to be a connoisseur of possible sources.

But the wheel turns for all of us. I found myself wanting to put a little distance between myself and the original source. There is a remarkable power to the best of the natural world- it can dazzle us and we're smart to let it.

The problem is nature is too powerful- she can take you over as you're trying to paint her. I'm reminded sometimes of the reply of some famous mountain climber to the question of why he climbed some major peak- "because it was there." He was talking about mountains of course, but landscape painters always tackle huge and imposing spaces too. That's what moves us.

Nowadays I draw outdoors instead of paint. I find vine charcoal drawing lets me immerse myself in the drama of the natural world without getting lost in it. Partly it's that vine charcoal doesn't stick to the paper but smears and slides all over the place like you're on the world's slipperiest ice rink. It pushes you to think in terms of patches of tones  and gradations instead little lines describing details. And there's the act of translating the world of color into back and white. It sets up right away in your head the idea of eliminating most of what you're seeing before you.

The oil version of Adirondack Forest is quite different than the charcoal that preceded it.  Having a black and white drawing to paint from seems to loosen the mental reins I put on myself. It makes me more playful and adventurous, willing to try things out just to see if they'll work. For example, I don't think I'd have tried any greens in the sky had I been working in oils outdoors. The charcoal drawing frankly addressed the trees and I spent most of my time telling their story. As I worked with the oils however the sky started asserting itself more than the bank of trees. I've learned to let these things happen. The irony is I find I'm more radical as a painter if I have done a preparatory drawing. Funny how things come full circle.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Big Lessons from Lawren Harris' Small Paintings

As I wrote in the previous blog, I was up in Canada last week and saw a knockout collection of Lawren Harris paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It prompted me to do some cruising of other Harris paintings and I came across these two little studies. Both small scale oils. I think they're delightful.

Harris left us some time ago, but people still feel drawn to his work. It has an emotional "rightness" to it and a wonderful energy. Now there are a lot of reasons for this but one of them, I believe, was he took small paintings seriously. So often, most often, new ideas come to us not with cymbals crashing and  bands playing. They like to steal in from the sidelines into an artist's awareness, usually on tip toe. If you're not listening closely you can miss them altogether. Even the best ideas start small. There's a place for such modest beginnings.

In his oil study above look at how he spotlights the ochre yellow leaves up front. In comparison everything else is relegated to its role as a supporting cast. How much darker and less intense he makes the sky and the water's surface.  And how all the varying greens in the background have their intensities scaled back as well.

Partly Harris is so good because he insists on building his paintings on a tonal structure-  the pattern of darks and lights would hold up very well in a black and white photograph version of the composition.

Below is a painting I've just completed, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6  1/2 x 13", 2012. Like Harris, I'm purposely knocking down the lightness of the sky and the water in the left foreground. Your eye is pulled into the deep space and to the high contrast areas between  the distant islands.

Here below is another Harris oil study. I'd imagine in real life the foreground was peppered with higher contrasts of highlight to shadow. Harris wisely turns the volume down on all that, focusing instead on the marvelous "broken comb" like line of his pines against the far distance. You can't tell every story in a painting, particularly in a small one like this.

Here's another new oil of mine, Coastline, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2012. It's done from life up in Acadia National Park in Maine in the Otter Cove area. In truth there were far more incidents going on in the foreground bushes and in the water's reflections as well. But I wanted to talk instead about the vertical "bookends" of my pines that framed so nicely the long horizontal peninsula in the distance.