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.