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.