Sunday, April 29, 2012

Painting in Hopper's House in Nyack, New York

Just returned from several days of painting in the room Edward Hopper was born in and where he lived until well into his twenties.  It's now the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY.  I was invited to come and paint there when I was up at the end of March for their opening reception for their current show of my paintings of Hopper's "other House", his studio up on Cape Cod.

They also asked me to speak on a panel last Thursday evening, so I decided to spend a few extra days to do some painting. I got a lot of new work done (well, not completely finished yet, but very well underway).  And I took a whole pile of new photographs of the house and environs.

I put out a lot of energy and need to get some well earned rest. But I'll have some proper blog posts about the experience up in a couple of days. Please stay tuned. In the meantime, I'll leave you with a photo of one of the painting in their show of my work that's on display through July 1. The oil hanging over the Eastlake style chair that Hopper grew up with is my Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Bedroom, oil on panel, 24 x 12", 2012.  I thought the two looked good together.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Invisible Threads

One of the juiciest morsels the author discussed was the way Poussin would pull his compositions together by lining up the edges of key forms so they would imply a straight line moving all across the painting's surface. Now I felt funny about this because Poussin's imagery never grabbed me emotionally. But reading the guy's text and studying his illustrations I could see in Poussin an unmistakable unity emerging out of what should have been a tumbling jumble of half naked figures. That first summer I must have read the author's book four or five times through. It spoke to me.It's easier to see past what the figures are doing and comprehend how they're arranged if you turn the composition upside down.

In this upside down version, start looking at what's now the lower left hand corner at the line of dark shadows Poussin pulls through the middle of his clouds. Moving uphill and to the right you soon come to the upraised knee of the central figure. Keep going and you finally move up what's now the right side of the little kid in the foreground. Clouds, thighs, and little naked kids aren't things one usually talks about in the same sentence. We don't associate them belonging together normally. But that's part of the magic in the painter's hands, to make connections for us between things that seem separated from each other. 

In two previous blog posts I talked about this "separate but connected line" idea in a Winslow Homer watercolor. And I showed how Homer took the idea further and implied a cross shape by placing two of his major diagonal pathways at right angles to each other.

Homer was a real original, but he wasn't that original. He took from the tool box given him by the painters who'd gone down the path before him. Guys like Poussin. Look at the upside down Poussin again and notice how the artist casts an unusually bright spotlight on the legs of the central figure. Go back to that central knee and draw a straight line with your eye down to the end of the toes of the foot on the left. You realize there's something resonating between this new diagonal line and the first one we discussed. Sure enough, they're placed at exactly 90 degrees to each other. Look longer and you'll find lots of other places in Poussin where he's done this.

Poussin instinctively grasped that his viewers were unconsciously attracted to his paintings when he used devices like this 90 degree arrangement of this major diagonals. Why is this so? 

I'm not smart enough to know with any certainty. But it's fun to speculate. My guess is that when we're about nine months old we become seized with a desire to try to stand up like all those big people we've been seeing. Watch any little one struggle to do this and you know it's no small accomplishment. There's lots of falling, head banging and tears. Eventually kids get it and learn to stand.

What has to happen internally is children are learning to physically sense the concepts of horizontal and vertical. And through their early attempts to stand they're getting an intuition about the axis of their body and what positioning it at 90 degrees to the horizontal floor feels like. Falling is no fun and it's a long process to get it right. Sensing they are erect and can stay that way as long as they want brings a surge of accomplishment and confidence. 

Unconsciously this drama plays on in the back of our minds for the rest of our lives. Looking at a tangle of forms leaning this way and that in a Poussin figure composition, you're going to trigger some of the old anxieties about your struggle to learn how to stand. When you sense an right angle relationship hiding between some of the paintings major diagonal pathways, you get a hit of that old optimism and confidence. "Hey you're going to be alright after all" your unconscious whispers to you. 

Whether or not my pet theory about the right angle relationship is right or not doesn't matter. What does is that painters have been doing this arrangement of their forms for centuries because it made people want to look at their paintings.

Let's jump up two centuries from Poussin to Winslow Homer. This is a test. Look at the very light area of the ground to the right of the figure of the girl. See the diagonal Homer sets up moving along the top edge of this patch of grasses. Now what other form did Homer install in the painting that runs across the surface at 90 degrees to this?

There will be cookies and milk for every successful answer.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Winslow Homer and the Cure for What Ails You (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post I examined the center section of this Winslow Homer watercolor in detail. It ran long, so I moved my conclusion to this separate post. You can read that previous post here. And there's a couple of other Homer paintings for you.

Here's the concluding thought inspired by this terrific little watercolor-

Whenever I analyse a painting like this some readers wonder if I haven't gone too far and started projecting my own ideas onto poor Winslow Homer's art. I honestly don't think so. Homer had a lot to show us. But he spoke little about his paintings. Instead he spoke to us through a visual language. He himself had "read the classics" by studying the works of the best artists who'd trod the path before him. Each of them had built upon the achievements of artists who'd gone before and each had added a few words to the common vocabulary painters use to weave their tales.

I don't think it's necessary for art lovers to pick apart paintings in such detail. More important is to stand back and let the paintings wash over you. Don't think too much as it can derail the sensation. But for painters, we have an extra job. We have to peel off the outer layers and study the mechanics of great paintings. That means study, it means practice. We are taking our place in the great line of artists that stretch all the way back- Homer to Monet, on to Turner, to the Dutch Masters and so on. All of us join together in reminding the world that there is order and meaning in living. We are an antidote to confusion and demoralization. We might not always paint on the very highest level but we can take care to do our  honorable best as we grasp the hands outstretched to us from the past. And as we extend our hand to artists of the future.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Winslow Homer and the Cure for What Ails You (Part 1)


You know the feeling. Lose your car keys when you're late for work and you're guaranteed to go there.
I don't know if the painter Winslow Homer (American 1836 - 1910) ever rode in an automobile, much less if early cars even had keys. But there is no doubt Homer was a sensitive guy- just look at his paintings. My guess is he had his share of mornings when everything was at loose ends.

We have visual art (or music, or dance) because it helps us out of our personal swamps of confusion, alienation, fragmentation. I just ran across this Winslow Homer watercolor. It's a gem. Really good paintings have a remarkable ability to stir us up, excite us a little bit, but also to somehow lay a gentle calming hand on us. Looking at a piece like this Homer painting energizes and relaxes me. And there are  no bad side effects.

At first glance Homer's showing us a pretty ordinary garden. Maybe it's his backyard. Homer's eye could look at a seemingly disorganized scene like this and just sense within it the possibilities. On the surface it was chaotic but Homer pulls out of the jumble a sense of hidden connections.

I've taken the liberty to darken down the middle tones in his watercolor (sorry Winslow) to show the overall pattern more easily-

Homer had pushed almost all the tones in his painting away from the pure whites of his paper, except the open sky and the sleeve of the man's shirt. Bushes press in from the left and the right to shape a "keyhole" of sky between the darker branches. And Homer is going to do something special with forms he has spotlighted like this for us. As you look at the man's arm and the lower portions of the sky you sense there's something holding them together. To me they seem to be doing a subtle dance to the same music. Partly it's that they're the only two light forms in a darker world.

But it's more than that (warning- we are about to descend into total art-nerd territory. Casual observers may want to look away right now). My own personal interpretation is Homer secretly crafted a special relationship between the man and that space just to his left. See how as the man's arm leans to the right
a light grey flagpole  leans to the left at the same number of degrees off of a true vertical. They gesture upward and outward like an angel's wings in a Renaissance painting.

It gets worse. Start looking at the man's upper back where the suspenders move from this shoulder blade towards the bottom of his ear. Keep going in a straight diagonal line and you find your trajectory lines up perfectly with the bottoms of the dark leaves on the lowest branch at the right of the sky "keyhole."
And keep on moving on this course, pass the flagpole and you find yourself entering the bottom most notch in the dark bush at the left. Homer is posing his figure so that part of his shoulder lines up exactly with a long diagonal line implied by the foliage.

And still worse. Now look at the overall trajectory of the man's arm from shoulder to wrist- especially the left side of his white sleeve. It's marching across the painting in a steep diagonal that leans uphill and to the right.

Compare those two major diagonal lines and you realize they run precisely at 90 degrees to each other. They form a cross shape that's been tilted over a bit on its side. This is NO accident. Either consciously or unconsciously (artists make decisions from the unconscious part of their minds all the time) Homer has put that cross right there in the middle of his composition. He instinctively knew we viewers are attracted by this special relationship of pathways moving at right angles to each other- especially when those pathways are diagonal. (Sometime I'll blog about why I feel this happens).

Maybe one in a hundred viewers is aware of what Homer did in this section of his painting. But ALL of his viewer receive a gentle extra voltage as their eyes scan this passage.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Winslow Homer & the Element of Surprise

I had the great benefit of being able to study painting with a whole number of teachers when I  started in art. Some of them were terrific at showing me new ways to see- I'm forever grateful to them. Each had their own way at conveying their insights. Sometimes the kernel of an idea could be boiled down to a single sentence. Like-

In a good painting everything fits together, especially the surprises the artist threw in.

The notion of surprise is a big one in art. Picasso touched on that with his famous saying that the role of art was to wash away from our lives the dust of everyday living. Life can be by turns stimulating or stultifying. Who wouldn't choose less of the latter. That's one of the reasons we have visual artists- people who have a knack for using their eyes and revealing some of the secretive surprises they discover. Think of it as adding visual spice to living.

This Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910) painting above fits this advice perfectly (maybe he took the same class I did). If someone was telling you they were about to show you a painting of a woman lounging comfortably in a hammock wearing a long white dress and reading a book, think about the images you'd be likely to be calling up in your mind. It is a subject that has been hammered to death in the hands of less resourceful painters (for lessons in how not to paint I recommend going to the greeting card aisle in your local drug store).

Homer's oil plays against our expectations. He shows us things we'd overlooked, calling us back and saying "hey, don't miss this." And once you've seen them you're glad you didn't.

One of Homer's biggest challenges is to provide you with some drama of contrasting shapes. The long slow curve of the hammock needed something to move against it. He comes up with dramatically spotlighting just the bottom part of her dress that cascades over the hammock's edge to form a sort of triangular counterpoint to the hammock. I especially like the almost vertical highlighted edge of the dress that hangs the lowest in painting. We needed a surprise of major shapes moving against each other and Homer fills the bill right here.

Take a look at the woman's head. Nine out of ten painters would make the head the most detailed and sharpest form in a painting. It's their default setting. Homer says not so fast and proceeds to show us instead the short staccato accents of the dark pillow adjoining her neck on either side. They allow Homer to understate the face and at the same time push the whole head forward into our awareness. Imagine the whole right side of this painting without those two tiny spots of dark. It would be unforgivably dull and mushy instead of crisp and fresh.

If you look a long time at a good painting you keep discovering little new touches that take the piece to a higher level. It is like reading an engaging novel  except just as you're nearing the end new chapters start appearing out of nowhere to take you father with the story. We could talk about those two dark branches in the upper left and how they echo (but not too much) the curves of our hammock. Or the amazing rhythm Homer sets up between a few selected individual leaves and the more generalized large clusters of foliage. When you're looking at a really good Homer your eyes are in the hands of a master.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

From the Easel to the Gallery Wall


Last week was busy. Had two openings.

Above is part of the Inside Edward Hopper's Truro Studio: Paintings by Philip Koch at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York that will run through July 1, 2012. As regular readers of this blog know, Hopper was the most important influence on my direction as a painter. At the right that's the railing of the steps that lead up to the second floor of his boyhood home.

And below is a photo from last Thursday evening in Newport News, Virginia at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center. Michael Preble, PFAC's Curator, assembled a truly beautiful exhibition as part of PFAC's 50th Anniversary, Who We Are: Past and Present that shows a selection of artists who have exhibited over the years in their galleries. In July through October of 2011 PFAC hosted Unbroken Thread showing 50 of my paintings that was an amazingly well presented show.

I'm honored PFAC invited to be part of their anniversary commemorations and drove down to Newport News for the Members Opening of the show. It was an impressive, wide-ranging overview of the art PFAC has brought to its region over the years. I'd urge anyone to take a trip to see it. Above is one of visitors Thursday evening taking in my oil paintings Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Bedroom, 10 x 5" at the left and Memorial, 18 x 36" at the right.

By the way, PFAC is really blowing out all the stops to mark its 50th Anniversary later this year by mounting the biggest exhibition in its history that promises to be a must-see show. Michael Preble is pulling together 50 Great Americans, a collection of masterworks from the big names of American art history. It promises to be one heck of a show!

Seeing one's own work in art museums and galleries is deeply satisfying. There's nothing like a bright spot light shining down on your work hung on a freshly painted gallery wall to say to world "Look at this. Here's something important you don't want to miss." Every time I'm able to see my work displayed like this I feel like saying an extra thank you to the art gods.

It's a long journey a painting takes from the easel to the gallery wall.

I just turned 64 this week and that sets one to thinking about the length of the path one has taken as an artist. It all started in my first year at Oberlin College when quite by accident I fell in love with the images projected on the screen where 200 students would gather three times a week in a darkened auditorium for Art History 101. Sociology or History was my intended major when I'd arrived at the school. But those slides worked their magic on me and by November I'd decided to jump ship for the allure of the painting world.

It wasn't a straight shot. Some of the early chapters confronted me with the fact that contemporary art wasn't free from the painfully pretentious and the downright silly. I remember my first project in my 3D Design class. My professor was a conceptual artist who needed help to do a "happening"(as performance art of the day was called). He drafted me and 5 other students in the class to spend a Friday night pretending to play basketball with an imaginary ball and similar stunts on a stage in front of an audience that wasn't sure quite what it was in for. Probably for the first 5 minutes it entertained, but the happening was scheduled to run a full hour. Dutifully I pretended to dribble the non-existent ball and play an invisible trombone for 60 seemingly endless minutes.  As the hour ground on the faces of the audience turned from curiosity to dull resentment. Remarkably, no one in the audience left their seat early, but once it was over there was a stampede-like rush for the exits.

It's funny though, even painful embarrassments like that can help you find your way. Right there I realized my path wouldn't be making further explorations in the performance art genre. Fortunately there were wonderfully positive moments too.

In 1971 I had just started my MFA Painting program at Indiana University and was struggling to find my way doing fantasy paintings of imaginary worlds. It was slow going, mostly because I had no clear idea what I was after. One day Barry Gealt, one of the young painting faculty at IU, popped his head in the door and looked around. He wasn't my teacher, but was naturally curious about the graduate painters. Barry had an amazing enthusiasm to him and a rare ability to inspire you to think maybe anything was possible. With a grin he just said "Hey you might really like taking your paints outside and working right from the landscape. I think you'd like it." With that he gave a quick nod and was gone.

Figuring I had nothing to lose I went out the very next morning and started. I loved it. There was SO much information I could choose from. That seemingly offhand suggestion launched me off in a whole new direction. At the time you don't realize you're making one of the major turns in your life.

Here I am years later in 2010 still following that advice from grad school, painting from life right outside the Hopper studio on Cape Cod. Maybe in 2062 when Peninsula Fine Arts Center celebrates its 100th Anniversary I'll get invited back to show there again. I'll have more observations then. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Edward Hopper House Art Center Exhibit in Nyack, NY

The show of an intimate group of interior views of Edward Hopper's Cape Cod studio opened last Saturday night in Nyack, NY at Hopper's birthplace and boyhood home, the Edward Hopper House Art Center. The exhibition runs through July 1, 2012.

Here I am (in the middle) with Victoria Hertz, President of Edward Hopper House Art Center's Board of Trustees and Anton Schiffenhaus during the reception. We had a great turn out to see my artwork and that of Max Greis in an accompanying gallery. Afterwards I gave a slide talk to a sell out crowd on why I think Hopper's art claims so much territory in American imagination (though I should add his appeal certainly doesn't stop at our border).

I began the talk by showing who Hopper wasn't using an image of one of Claude Monet's famous oils of the Rouen Cathedral where he dissolves the limestone facade into the atmosphere. Monet was once described by Picasso as "Just an eye, but WHAT an eye!" He was talking in part about Monet's life long fascination with light and the effects of atmosphere.

Hopper in his way was just as close an observer of light, but he imagined it so differently. Very typically Hopper jacks up his highlights into lighter tones and pulls his shadows down into deeper darks than Monet. For Hopper the shapes of shadows was paramount and he didn't shy away from outlining them with sharp, clear edges. Corn Hill, the oil below by Hopper is a good example.

I think a real hallmark of Hopper is found in his affection for high contrast of shape and tone. Many of his paintings celebrate almost harsh transitions like the way the houses seem a touch out of their element as they perch atop Corn Hill.

For myself, I'm a big fan of Hopper's love of the expressiveness that can be found in the rhythms of flat shapes. In Corn Hill above, the repeated curves of the hillocks remind me almost of living things. They move so differently than the stiff and erect rows of little houses. Hopper's magic is he gets both of these worlds to visually coexist and even enter into a conversation with each other. A good painting like this one nudges you to slip over into your own private reveries.

Once in Provincetown, Massachusetts (just up the road from Corn Hill on Cape Cod) we went on one of those whale watching cruises. We did see whales and they were awesome, but as we returned to the harbor as the sun was lowering in the sky, an enormous group of dolphins surrounded our boat . Jumping out of the water with their characteristic arcing movements, their wet backs were highlighted by the sun in a totally amazing aqua ballet. I'll always remember that moment. And I can't look at Corn Hill without seeing a fleet of dolphins swimming their way across the hillside.

Here's some of the paintings in my show.

Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Bedroom, oil on panel, 24 x 12", 2012

 Morning Truro Studio,  oil on panel, 14 x 21", 2012. This painting was begun some years ago during one of my earlier residencies in the Hopper studio and re-painted just this year.

Edward Hopper's Truro Studio, oil on panel, 8 x 10", 2012

Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen, oil on panel, 16 x 12", 2012.

I gave the lecture in what used to be the living room of the Hopper House in Nyack. Right above our heads I told the audience was a major key to understanding Hopper's art. Over us was his bedroom, the room both he and his mother were born in, and the room he slept in the first decades of his life. This is the view out his bedroom window- an elevated point of view, telephone poles, triangular shaped roof tops, and in the distance, the waters of the Hudson River. These elements circled back and around in Hopper's imagination as he painted all through his life.

Below is a view of Gloucester harbor in Massachusetts, a Hopper painting I love, and one that shows the link to that childhood bedroom window view.

Here's another Hopper showing his love of telephone poles and the triangular forms of rooftops. It's Route 6, Eastham,  that's in the Collection of the Swope Art Museum in Terra Haute, Indiana. Years ago when I had the second solo exhibition of my paintings at the Swope, their Director let me hold this painting, one of my all time favorite Hoppers, in my arms (I had to promise not to drool on it). 

Here's a photo of my wife Alice standing at the head of Hopper's Cape Cod driveway with the studio in the distance taken in September 2010.

This is an oil I painted in 1983 when I was staying at the Hopper studio for the first time.

Below is a vine charcoal I did sitting on the end of the bed in Hopper's studio, with his bureau and lamp in front of two double hung windows looking out to Cape Cod Bay. I'm currently using this drawing as a basis for a new oil painting.

This is the Hopper studio seen from well out into Cape Cod Bay (it's the tiny white rectangle right in the middle of the shoreline). In Hopper's day, probably none of the much larger summer homes dotting the dunes at the right would have been there. Hopper was a man who wanted to be left alone to enjoy his solitude and enjoy nature. Building the studio he designed in 1934 on this sand dune in S. Truro, he found just the right spot.