Ping Pong

Philip Koch, Adirondack Lake, Late August, oil on panel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2012

When I was a kid I had a pretty large bedroom. This was where my family set up a ping pong table. We played a lot even though none of us were particularly good. I think we all liked the sound of a good long volley more than anything else- ping, bounce, pong, bounce, ping, and on it went, a curious dance between the two paddles.

I got to thinking about this as I started going back into this painting, one I'd thought I'd finished last month. It's a new painting I based on a vine charcoal drawing I did last fall up on Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains of northernmost New York State.  I really liked how the new oil looked but kept wondering how it might work with a lighter sky. 

Not wanting  to risk the delicate balance it had achieved, I decided to paint a second version with some big variations in the sky's color. So off I went into the  new panel. From the get go it seemed to have a mind of its own, plunging off into a much cooler set of colors. It worked well in this new direction so I loosened the reins and pretty much let the painting start finding its own way.

Philip Koch, Adirondack Lake, Late September, oil on panel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2012

The funny thing is some of the design features in the second panel worked so well I sheepishly re-installed them in the first painting. And the opposite, taking some little feature from the original and putting it in the second version. This went on for a few days, with me bouncing back and forth. You might think this would have left me in the end with two identical paintings. Instead each of the panels developed early on its own distinct personality. 

What an artist has to do is treat a developing painting almost as if it is a person with an emerging individuality. If you're open to it you can watch the developing ideas forming and nurture the ones that seem to genuinely help the painting. My wife's a therapist and often she's told me how her job isn't to impose her wisdom on a patient but rather help them along to figure out for themselves what's best. Painting's not so different.

What's intriguing to me is that so often I find myself benefiting from having two related but not identical versions of a painting to bounce off of as I figure out what each needs to become complete.

Here's the drawing that began all this.

Philip Koch, Adirondack Forest, vine charcoal, 12 x 9", 2011.

Actually I like painting more than ping pong. Of course I'm a much better artist that I am a ping pong athlete. But remembering those casual childhood games of ping pong provides me a better mental picture of what I do in my studio. That's a good thing.

Often I tell my students that painting isn't something one comes to understand  so much as something one experiences. I doubt many people claim they "understand" ping pong, but lots of people have played the game. Those who have surrendered themselves to the curious rhythms of the game with its distinctive movements and sounds. I think that's an attitude that would help a lot of people get a feeling for what painting is all about.

P.S. My old website unfortunately will go dark at midnight on Saturday, June 30, 2012. A new site, has been posted. Over the next few days its content and design will grow to reach the level of the old site.


  1. The sketch done on location is the artist's immediate reaction to the environment. The painting done back in the studio often results in a laboured idea lost in translation. Sometimes by working in a series that which is lost can be rediscovered.

  2. Ernest, you hit a nail squarely on the head. Good observation.


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