Thursday, May 31, 2012

Falling Over and the Still Pine

Philip Koch, Still Pine, oil on panel, 12 x 12", 2012

Sometimes you'll read that a particular artist or a musician got their start because they were sickly and couldn't play with the other kids. Forced to stay home they would discover their inner calling. Well that happened to me too, but in my case it was because I was clumsy. 

Of course there's lots of factors that pushed me to onto the path of becoming a landscape painter. One of the biggest is that I fell off my first bike. It spooked me.  Every time after, no matter how hard I tried, I'd freak out and lose my balance and go crash again. It's odd as I'm fairly well coordinated as an adult, but try as I might at six and seven years old, I just couldn't stay on that bike.

There weren't many kids in my rural neighborhood to begin with and for those there were, bikes were big news. For several years, long after all my friends had mastered the art of the two wheeler, my secret shame was that I'd failed in this key measure of boyhood competence. Actually I felt awful about it.

So whenever my friends rode their bikes I'd slink off by myself with the weight of failure on my shoulders. It was lonely. But when you spend a lot of time alone you start noticing things in your surroundings most people overlook. Lots of times I'd end up foraging around the deep woods. Other times I'd climb the steep hills down by Lake Ontario and peer down upon the water.

Usually the winds would blow down from Canada and bring with them some heavy waves. My favorite times though were when the wind would blow from on shore. Sheltered by the land, the close in water would take on a smooth glass-like sheen. Best of all it stirred up insane fast-shifing patterns in the water. You can look at gesture in painting (from El Grecco to Franz Kline). I first saw moves like that in those days staring at the darting of the dark  rippled shapes across the water. All I could do was look on in wonderment. How could nature be so intricate and so elegant?

I think had I been quicker to learn to ride a bike (or play basketball, the other main activity for boys in my neighborhood I was simply dreadful at) I'd wouldn't have discovered so early in life some of the subtle delights I found in the natural world. I had good friends as a kid, thank goodness, but I couldn't be with them all the time on their terms. My forced segregation from them led me to some unexpected riches.

I got to thinking about all of this when I started working on the above oil painting. In it a lone pine stands a bit away from its neighbors. No wonder I started thinking back to the story about my bicycle-challenged youth. Our hero the pine casts its reflection down into the pond. As I was painting in the patterns of the water I used fairly big brushes, first pushing the shapes this way and then that way until the pattern of movement felt right. I tried placing the pine's reflection properly right underneath the tree but it didn't feel as believable as when I scooted it over to the left.

At first this might seem perverse, consciously going against the photographic "truth" of the scene. But the larger story of the painting was playing off the relative stillness of the pine against the moving shimmers in the water. In a way I'm more truthful in suggesting the movement than had I simply lined up the reflection dutifully right beneath the tree.

Life puts us off balance much of the time, just like me falling off my kid's bike. Sometimes that unanticipated push moves things in just the direction they should go.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Heading North with Thomas Cole to Mt. Desert Island

Philip Koch, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6 1/2" x 13", 2012

In June my wife Alice and I are headed up to Maine for the thirtieth anniversary of our honeymoon. We're actually going to be a month late, but on our honeymoon there in May of 1982 we just about froze, so a little discretion seemed called for. That was my first trip ever to Mt. Desert Island and it knocked me over backward with its elemental beauty. But from experience now we know it's still stunning in June, plus a lot warmer.

Many people ask what it is Alice does when we go on these painting trips. I tend to get all ramped up and want to paint all the time and she doesn't make art. Normally back in Baltimore she works like a fiend in mental health (she runs an excellent partial hospitalization program at a local hospital). So mostly she rests, calmly soaking up the trees and the surf in her mysterious zen like way. Whatever she does, these trips seem to calm her and relax her deeply. Lord knows she's earned it. Me, I like the company. And it's great to have someone to complain to about the mosquitoes.

Above is a new oil I did based on an on site charcoal and pastel drawing I had made looking north from Cadillac Mountain (the high peak on the Island) out over Frenchman's Bay.

For me the most important thing about a painting is summoning up a specific feeling in the viewer. Partly that's accomplished by being faithful to what you saw that provoked your initial response. But almost always simply literal transcriptions of your experience fall short.

In my own work I've found that to be truthful to the feel of the experience I have to add something to the painting that wasn't really there. The biggest factor in my case is altering the color. For example the sensation I wanted for this painting was to get across the expansiveness of the waters as they spread out towards the right and the left. Trying out several dozen variations of color chords, I hit on sandwiching the blue waters in between a warmed up yellow sky and a yellow ochre orange hue for the foreground. There's a tension to this-  the thin strip of blues is a bit like a knife blade slicing through the wider expanse of yellows.

Mt. Desert Island was discovered early on by American painters. Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School painted up there. Here's one of his oils of the same Frenchman's Bay I painted. As you can see, Cole had a taste for the dramatic. Some feel Cole wasn't always the most technically skillful of artists. Compared to his followers like Frederic Church or Sanford Gifford (who both did great Mt. Desert Island work), his foregrounds could be a little rough. To many contemporary eyes they can seem plagued with too much detail.

But for his ability to convey his sense of sheer excitement (what I like to call Cole's "Holy Cow! factor") I find him unrivaled. To painters of Cole's time, compared to long civilized Europe North American seemed exquisitely new and unspoiled. Cole wrote about it as a new "Eden." It was a painting of a place but it was also a painting about starting over, about getting a fresh start with a second chance.  Who doesn't need some more of that? Looking at his painting I'm getting excited about heading north.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Silhouette Magic

Above is a new painting I just finished up last night, Northern Pines, Morning,  oil on panel, 12 x 24", 2012. As I was painting on it I found myself thinking about the quote from Charles Burchfield that I wrote about on a blog last week (it's from the Burchfield Penny Art Center's website).

In April of 1956 Burchfield wrote, “I would see our western N.Y. landscape, not in terms of modern life...but rather in terms of eternal verities of the primeval earth..which can never be erased if only we look beneath the surface.”

Partly because I grew up near Charles Burchfield's home in Western New York State I've always had a liking for his work. His line about the"verities of the primeval earth" strikes a chord in me. Burchfield, through his painting and his writing helps me understand what it is I am doing with my own art.

The source for the painting was actually an experience one morning thirty years ago. My wife and I were on our honeymoon and driving toward Mt. Desert Island in Maine. It was May and still really cold. As we approached the bridge to the island, I spied a turn off road that led to a small pond. It was a still pool reflecting a long row of pines.

Nearby were the impressive peaks of the mountains, but this viewpoint provided something else- a nestled and amazingly calm corner of the world. It was a place that was untouched by time. I did a painting there over the course of several mornings. As I worked it seemed this remote little space might be untethered from the rest of the contemporary world. It could have been 30,000 years ago or maybe from sometime long into the future. Like the timelessness I sense when I see the best of Burchfield's work, I felt that here as well.

Why did this place provoke such a feeling of peacefulness and such fantasy in me? Well, that's what happens when you find an especially powerful source- I believe the overall composition and the relationships of the hues and shapes, textures and spaces conspire with our unconscious selves to stimulate an emotional response within us. Some places in nature just speak to us while with others we walk right on by. That's the way it should be. An artist's job is to notice which experiences are beyond the ordinary and to figure out how to translate them into the solid shape and color that can be shared with others.

My original painting long ago went off to a new home with some collectors. I missed it and thought I might do another version with some of the features re-arranged. That's what led to this new oil painting.

Over the years my thinking about what a painter is supposed to hold in mind as he or she works has changed. In the very beginning I was fascinated by the challenge of getting the sense of volume into my work and learning how to create convincing highlights and shadows. Both of those concerns focused my eye on the insides of my forms. My early drawing instructors used to hammer on the idea of moving to the inside of the form. And they had a point- children always begin their drawings with simple outlines of the shapes they're trying to draw

In later years modeling volume and convincing shading techniques had become second nature to me. As my understanding deepened I came to realize there could be an enormous expressiveness in that outermost contour of a shape. And studying the work of the best artists who'd gone before me (like Degas) I began to see I needed to return to the basics. To focus my attention back on the silhouettes of forms.

Here's the above painting with the background simplified to let you see the silhouettes of the line of pines more easily.

Like well rehearsed dancers on a stage, my pines show you something about themselves with their very largest shapes. All of them talk about rising up vertically, but some of them do it boldly and simply while others like the one tall pine closest to the center want to ascend while flashing you with a little extra filigree. In reality, all the pines displayed elaborate textures and layers of branches, but had I made that the first thing you notice, the drama of simple movement in the trees would have been lost in the confusion of detail.

One other thing about the movement in the pines. The pines' watery reflections move vertically as well but with more interruption from some strategically placed ripples. The silhouettes above the shoreline speak of a bold simple up and down movement. Below the water's edge, that motion has a halted, syncopated feeling to it. Sometimes life moves smoothly, other times it progresses in a series of lurching stops and starts. We all know those feelings. A painting like this reflects that. And to bring that home the painter has to sometimes pare down experience. Simplifying the trees down by focusing on their silhouettes lets you talk about things you can't touch grasping a small paintbrush.

There are things in life that can only be expressed with layers of intricacy and detail. But there are other stories that can only be told with the most broad movement of the boldest outlines.

Monday, May 21, 2012

One of Paintings Secret Ingredients

Painting is a language that has been handed to us by people from the past. What we choose to say with it can vary, but we have to fully employ the tools the language places in our hands.

Ran into some images like the one above by the painter Max Ernst (German 1891- 1976). I don't usually spend a lot of time looking at surrealist art, but I've always had a soft spot for some of Ernst's paintings. Like this one. In particular I love the smoothly gradating sky contrasting the jumble of leaves and vines in the foreground. This is one creepy jungle, a place I'd rather not spend the night. Its moodiness is increased by how Ernst balances the earth and the sky together so well.

After his second marriage to the heiress Peggy Guggenheim (which you can't help but wonder about as a career move), Ernst married the painter Dorothea Tanning. Here's one of her paintings below. One of the fun things in it is to let your eye be drawn down the hallway until you reach the only slightly opened doorway. You know something is being concealed from you yet you feel an emotional presence so strongly at  far right hand side of the painting.

I like both of these paintings quite a bit. Varied as they are, both make great use of gradations of tone and color to make what would be empty, flat surfaces come to life. Try a little experiment. Where ever you are sitting now, look around you to see if you can find a large empty surface in your surroundings that is genuinely unchanging in terms of its tones or its color. If you stare for a minute at even the most flat looking surface it almost always reveals its gradation.

Tones and colors vary because we inhabit a world of real spaces and changing lights. Our minds long ago internalized this.  Even our dreams are crammed full of varying gradated surfaces. They evoke a sense of atmosphere and mood almost instantly.

Here below is a marvelous painting by the German 19th century landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. More than half of it is "empty" sky, but what an emptiness! It's full of a softly pulsating energy of the hidden sun and the slow sweep of the clouds.

Beginning painters usually don't gradate their surfaces very much, or if they do they tend to wildly over do it with each gradation going all the way from very light to almost black. With experience a painter learns to use this tool carefully, usually letting gradated surfaces be very subtle, as in this wonderful Friedrich oil.

If the purpose of art is to help us learn to enjoy our eyes (which certainly it is, among many other things), spending a moment to study the gradations in this Friedrich, and the Tanning, and the Ernst is worth it. It sharpens our eye to see how the world is presented to us instead of just what we are being shown. That's huge.

Now can anybody tell me where I can get one of those hats like the guys in the Friedrich are wearing? I think I could carry it off pretty well, don't you?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My Justifiable Fear of Wrens and a Quick Tribute to Charles Burchfield

Every spring I lose access to the deck that juts off my painting studio. There's this wren family that takes over the birdhouse I placed there long ago. The wren parents start screaming at me if I dare invade their nesting territory. Sure they're small and not likely to cause me permanent bodily harm, but to be on the safe side, I stay out of their way. Their babies will be grown and fly from the nest soon enough.  It's a real drama playing outside my studio window that hints at something deeper.

I ran across a beautifully expressed sentiment by one of my favorite artists (and like me a Western New York resident ) Charles Burchfield on the Burchfield Penny Art Center's Facebook page.

In April of 1956 Burchfield wrote, “I would see our western N.Y. landscape, not in terms of modern life...but rather in terms of eternal verities of the primeval earth..which can never be erased if only we look beneath the surface.”

Burchfield is getting at something right at the heart of art with this comment. Why do certain images have the power to strike us, shake us up a little and stay lodged in our minds sometimes for years on end? 

If you do a google search you won't find any books written for wrens on how to be a wren. Think about it- these little guys find a safe place every year and using only their mouths construct a sturdy nest out of twigs and grass. Though I've tried many times to match their construction skills I always have to cheat and use my hands a little. And even then my bird nest looks completely amateur.

I'm kidding around of course, but these darned little birds remind me of us humans and where we came from. For most of our time on the planet we humans managed to get food, escape predators, find mates, and raise our young without being told how to do it (exactly when we developed speech remains contested, but clearly articulate and detailed language as we know it is one of the more recent acquisitions for our species). So how did we manage to do all those necessary tasks to keep us alive?

Carl Jung the psychologist wrote that there are inborn guides to behavior in animals (including humans) that guided us in our survival. In short he said that, like birds, we humans are guided by short little movies that play in our head. They're in our genes and are totally nonverbal. But they teach both those wrens and us things we need to know to survive. Over time we humans have tried hard to become more rational and  "civilized" and tended to push down those "little movies" to some shadowy and neglected parts of ourselves. But they play on in the back of our minds. Painters like Burchfield spent a lifetime painting and re-painting their composition until they captured something that felt authentic. Could it be that what the best paintings give us is a glimpse of the original imagery we carry in our genes? 

Charles Burchfield spoke above about the primeval earth carrying a special level of meaning for us. And through the best art, and I'd include most of his paintings in that category, we are given a roadmap that takes us back to those original and now largely unconscious images. Burchfield's goal with his work, like any good artist, is to re-acquaint us with parts of ourselves we've forgotten. It's not an academic exercise, it's a way to make us feel more whole. Here's a gallery of Burchfield paintings from the Burchfield Penny Art Center's website.

Right now the wrens on my deck have started screaming again. It's Bobo, the neighbor's cat. Everyday he climbs up on my deck and stands longingly beneath the birdhouse hoping one of wrens will swoop a little too low so he can grab it. The wrens keep yelling at him. And Bobo, obviously watching a very different "little movie" than the wrens, sits there patiently with his claws on the ready. 

Me, I think I'll close the sliding door to the deck so I can paint in peace.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Light as the Subject: An Example by Hopper

One of the things I value most highly in painting (and in life for that matter) is the enjoyment of light. Square Rock, a small oil Hopper did early in his career out on the coast of Maine that's in the Whitney Museum's big Hopper Collection, makes the dazzling light palpable in a way few painters can.

One of the particular talents Hopper has mastered was telling his viewers about the connection between the strong sunlight and the very solid and even massive forms they illuminated. If you trip and fall in a Hopper painting, you're likely to need a bandage afterwards. Bright light in his world shows us crisp and sharp edges. Against that he shines a bright, weightless spotlight on his scene. It's usually marvelous.

As the painting's title suggests, Hopper was intrigued by the geometry of the square-ish big rock at the left. But he knew to just plop it right in the center of his composition might make it overwhelm the other smaller rocks, especially since it's so different in its scale and form.  To him painting was always telling a story about the precarious balance between opposites. Here he finds a second major character, an irregularly shaped rock over on the right hand side of the foreground. He makes it as different as possible from the huge, dark and cool-hued square fellow at the left. For counterpoint its sunlit surface is made just about the lightest shape in the whole painting (the only exception the small white surf in the distance).

I find my eye bounced like a ping pong ball between the opposing "paddles" of these two rocky foreground opponents. Sure there's lots of other things to enjoy- like the purposefully blended edge of the farthest waters meeting the greys of the sky. But I keep being pulled back to the foreground.

I read a quote yesterday from the contemporary painter Chuck Close where he says there's no real  difference between looking at a still life set up and looking at a photograph of the same subject. The shapes are the same was his point. I happen to think Close is one of the better artists who are thought of as blue chip painters. I actually saw his first museum exhibition way back in the 1960's at Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio where I was an art major. My art history teacher Ellen Johnson brought some of his work to campus.

Close is known for his giant enlargements of heads and especially for coming up with ingenious ways to decorate the surface of his pieces. He's good at what he does. Yet his work isn't primarily interested in capturing the feeling of light. Close works from photographs and while they're good for many things, they don't give a painter much information about what's going on in the shadows. Hopper could have used photographs, but he felt he needed to understand his subject, including the light and shadow, in a profound way.

I feel the reason Hopper was so good at making his highlights and shadows come to life so convincingly is he knew he could see more if he went outside for hours and studied the light. There are easily 10,000 different little adjustments he could have made to the hue and tone of each of his shapes. He stood there so long he could sense on a deep and intuitive level the pattern that would help his painting the most. His painting is actually a patching together of different interpretations of the light- sometimes adjusting it warmer, other places pushing it darker. An incredible amount of editing and invention went into making his painting.

What he achieved is a record of the feeling of the place and the specific character and mood of the light.
Later on in his career, after decades of on the spot painting with his portable easel, Hopper turned more to painting from his memory and his imagination. But he had a painters mind by then. It had been cultivated and nurtured by decades of close observation of the ways the world looks. He did his homework.

One last thought, a confession really. I sometimes wonder how far outside of our own direct experience we can go and still feel open to what may be unfamiliar. When I saw this painting the other day on the Bowdoin College Art Museum website (they did a cool Hopper in Maine show recently) it just stopped me in my tracks. I think it's one of the most beautifully painted little oils I've ever seen.

As I write this blog post I'm realizing this view is so much like the place where I grew up outside of Rochester, NY. My folks built a home right on the shore of Lake Ontario and I would spend hours playing down on the rocks with my friends or just by myself. It seemed heavenly. And it could easily pass for Hopper's Maine coast. I look at this Hopper oil and WHOOSH I'm eight years old again building a campfire on the beach out of driftwood. I often tell my students painting is a tool to help us feel our sometimes partly buried emotions. Maybe I should add to that they can also help us with our need for time travel.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A New Painting of Edward Hopper's Nyack Bedroom

Philip Koch, Sun in an Empty Room III,  
oil on panel, 12 x 9", 2012

Here's the first of the oils I was telling you about in the previous post that I began in the bedroom in Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY. I had layed in my basic design in oil and then switched from oil paints to vine charcoal to do a more finished preparatory drawing. I love bouncing back and forth between these two media. Each has its own strength and each comes with its own unique challenge. 

Is there anyone who doesn't love color? Whenever someone walks into a room with art hanging on the walls their eyes inevitably go to the works in color first. We can't help ourselves. Probably there are reasons buried in our DNA from our evolution. 

In my own family there was a long intrigue with color. My grandfather John Capstaff worked for years to develop color photography. In 1915 Eastman Kodak unveiled his invention, Kodachrome, the first commercially available color film. (As my family told it, this was akin to Moses bringing the 10 Commandments down from the mountain). There were other early events as well. The weekend I turned four my family moved to a house they had built on the shore of Lake Ontario. My father took enormous pride in showing me the redwood planking used for both exterior and interior walls. I remember him telling me it was much more expensive than pine, but so beautiful a material it was worth it. To drive the point home later that spring we got a mutt Irish setter puppy whose fur matched the house's color. I was impressed.

Color's magic is very real, but it's a bit mysterious, slippery, and hard to handle. I like to tell my students  its like a glowing fluid- to carry it with you you need to fashion a vessel. And that's where drawing comes in. Here's the vine charcoal I did up in the Hopper House peering in from the upstairs hallway to Hopper's bedroom (like the oil it's 12 x 9").

The shapes and the darks and lights in a drawing are that vessel I talked about. They take and hold the color, making it behave. Hues alone have an almost intoxicating effect. Left to their own devices colors are so spirited they're likely to drive you into the ditch half the time. Everyone who has tried painting in oil or watercolor has the painful memory of waking up the next morning and looking at the "visual hangover" of a painting where the color took over the reins from the artist. Drawing lets your head swoon in a coloristic reverie, but it keeps your feet firmly nailed down. It makes you make specific commitments - this much color over here to play off against that other color over there. 

Below is Edward Hopper's Rooms by the Sea, probably the very first Hopper painting I ever saw and one that continues to resonate with me. It's dramatic like crazy despite being a painting of mostly empty spaces. Yet look at the exquisite care Hopper took to draw the sweeping diagonals of sunlight. And see how he made the color of the white walls ever so subtly different, a bit warmer in the distance, a touch cooler in his front room.

Here's the outside of the Hopper House. The one window in my oil painting at the beginning of the post is the one at the far left on the second story.

And here's my trusty French easel in the afternoon sun in Hopper's bedroom. Look at those amazing floorboards. 

Hopper too often in my opinion is described as a painter of loneliness who brushed on his pigment with a sparseness to his hand. To me he's got a remarkable ability to juxtapose a sharp colored light with his love of the sculptural quality of forms. Everything in Hopper's world looks like it weighs a lot. But he wraps his solidity with the most felicitous pattern of bright highlights dancing shadows. This was a man who took absolute delight in the look of the world. That world, and Hopper's deeply sensitive openness to it, began in this room.

I thank the art gods that some good people of Nyack, New York had the sense forty years ago to preserve the old Hopper homestead when it was threatened with being turned into a parking lot. So much of our sense of ourselves in this country comes to us from Hopper's imagery. That sunlight shining through that window above started a very remarkable painter on a life long journey. If you want to know who we are, take a long hard look at that window and those rays of sunlight.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Painting in the Edward Hopper House Art Center

I was up in Nyack, New York at the Edward Hopper House Art Center painting for three days last week in the room where Edward Hopper (American 1882-1967) was born. On and off he lived in this room until late into his twenties when he finally moved out to Manhattan. Hopper used to give art lessons in the parlor downstairs. (Wonder if any of his former students ever wrote about the experience?). 

I did these three vine charcoals and got two small oils on panel pretty far along. I would show you close up photos of the in-progress oils as I really like their overall color, but I've found it's bad luck to post works-in-progress. It seems to tempt the art gods to wake up and start messing with you. They hate presumptuousness in us artists and often take the displaying of works in progress as a personal affront. They've been known to reach down from art heaven and mess with any painter they think overly confident. So it's best to tip toe  your way through a painting in private. At least that's been my experience.  

Carole Perry, the Director of Hopper House was looking at one of the charcoal drawings as I worked on it and commented it was a subject reminiscent of one of Hopper's late oils Sun in An Empty Room.  I think she may have given me a title for at least one of them, maybe all of them.

Last November for Thanksgiving I visited with my two cool nieces who live near Nyack. We all came down to tour the Edward Hopper House Art Center and it was then I first saw this bedroom.

Hopper's bedroom is modest but what immediately struck me were the three windows through which the light streams in. Two faced due east. Gazing out one of them, I could see the Hudson River one block away half obscured by a jumble of slanting rooftops. The late November sun was sharply hitting the roofs and casting those long evocative shadows so typical of that time of year.

I was looking at a view that looked for all the world like most of Hopper's most powerful paintings- seemingly ordinary architecture illuminated by brilliant sunlight. Hopper's famous oil Cape Cod Morning (it's an old friend I visit frequently in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC) comes to mind.

Through those two east facing windows the morning sun would have blasted in and awakened Hopper all through the years he lived in that room. I realized this view was the original source for Hopper's remarkable sense of sunlight. It was an image that embedded itself deep in his mind. He spent his entire life painting pictures that evoked this view. It may well have been one of his happiest memories from his childhood.

Much later in his life, Hopper had a studio for himself built on the shore of Cape Cod in S. Truro, MA. Through a stroke of good fortune I have been given opportunities to stay and work in that studio. Since 1983 I've had 13 residencies there so I know the place well. Hopper designed the studio himself down to the last detail. It too is quite modest, but dominated by windows all around designed to catch the light. When I entered his childhood bedroom last November I realized how much the Cape Cod studio he built in his 40's looked and felt like his early bedroom. I don't think that's an accident. It was his way of summoning up one of the Muses of his early creativity.

Hopper shows us that maybe, through his paintings, you can go home again after all.