Friday, July 27, 2012

Sun in an Empty Room

This is the latest of my series of paintings done on location up in Edward Hopper's boyhood home in Nyack, NY, the Edward Hopper House Art Center. This one was painted on my portable easel upstairs in Hopper's bedroom where he was born and lived (on and off) until he finally moved out and settled in Manhattan when he was 28. It's Sun in an Empty Room II, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x13", 2012.

The window at the left looks directly east to the Hudson River a block and a half away while the right window faces south, giving a bird's eye view of Broadway, one of Nyack's main drags. Hopper's father owned and ran a local hardware store on Broadway. Young Edward worked there sometimes.

You get a profound sense out of these surroundings that this was an emotional home base for Hopper's visual imagination. Seriously, the big majority of what he would paint for the rest of his life can be glimpsed in this room or out these windows. Since Hopper, perhaps more than any other single figure created the imagery by which Americans envision themselves and their society, this room should be a museum. Fortunately, it is. Forty years ago a group of far-sighted and art loving Nyack folks saved the building from demolition to make way for a parking lot (now that would have been just about the most boneheaded move).

In addition to the redolent art history in this room, my eye was intrigued by the one V-shaped highlight that came in through the south window in the afternoon. Sharp and angular like so many of the highlights and cast shadows one finds in mature Hopper paintings. The antique wooden highchair in the painting at the left was in Hopper's family when he was little- very likely little Edward was placed in it for his meals.

I think the job of artists is to notice what has been commonly overlooked that is of value and then present it back to the public in a form vivid enough they won't miss its significance. I know that is what always aim to accomplish. Hopper was a man with a deep talent for finding the extraordinary right in his backyard. And most of the time he had the painting talent to show us the magic that was right under our noses all along.

The title I chose for my painting, as dyed-in-the-wool Hopper fans might suspect, is inspired by Hopper's famous late oil painting Sun in an Empty Room seen below. I think you can see the connection to his boyhood home in this one.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Peter Trippi, Allentown Art Museum, and The Lady of Shalott

Sunday I drove up to Pennsylvania to hear a talk by Peter Trippi at the Allentown Art Museum. The Museum has an impressive exhibition up now of fantasy and science fiction art, At the Edge (through Sept. 9). Allentown Art Museum is delightful- it's recently completed an expansion and has a wonderful permanent collection. If you're near eastern Pennsylvania try to visit.

We forget that current fantasy art is just the latest installment in a long tradition. Peter Trippi's talk provided background on this movement by looking at fantasy painting in 19th century Britain. As Trippi showed, there was lots of it, much of it first rate. Trippi is the Editor of one of my favorite magazines, Fine Art Connoisseurthat champions the continuing vitality of the realist tradition in painting. He for several years was Director of the Dahesh Museum in NYC. And he is an expert on the work of JW Waterhouse, a late 19th century British painter, and the author of a great book on the same published by Phaidon. Peter showed lots of Waterhouse paintings of King Arthur legends. Counting myself as a major Waterhouse fan, I was in heaven.

Above is one of my favorites, Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott from 1888. It's a painting that should have been corny but instead comes across as genuine and authentic. That's what happens when an artist paints really, really well.

Waterhouse took his subject from the then popular poem by Alfred Tennyson. The Lady dwells in a tower on the island of Shalott, on the river near King Arthur's Camelot. For reasons she doesn't understand she lives under a spell that forces her to spend all her time weaving a magic web of the scenes outside her window. It gets worse- her curse allows her to only look at the world through its image  reflected in a mirror. Otherwise, she dies.  Her undoing comes when she catches sight of the knight Lancelot and overcome by his handsomeness, goes to the window for a better look. This means she is now dying. She goes down the river towards Camelot, singing sad songs of longing as she expires. You gotta love this stuff.

It's quite a story. It seems to ask how closely we should engage with the world, filled with all its passions and dangers. Waterhouse spent a lifetime painting women and water, suggesting the two are mysteriously linked in the back of the mind, as Jungian psychology would tell us. Waterhouse drew that link with a somber elegance.

I want to look at a few of the painter's moves that make this such a powerful painting.

First off, Waterhouse puts the key emphasis on the Lady by reserving for her and her alone the lightest tones in the painting. Her elegant white dress just glows. Everything else is pushed darker. It's only fitting as she had to spent her life weaving her "magic web" tapestry that she's brought in along too, letting it drape over the gunwales and spill into the water. Her tapestry is all golds and oranges. Notice the way Waterhouse knits her together with her tapestry by assigning the same color to the yellow trim on her sleeves and bodice. 

There is a particularly powerful shape in the acute sliver of white dress that plunges over the side of the boat and pushes down into the water. Try an experiment- hold just one finger up to block out only this feature of the composition and see how static the whole thing becomes. Waterhouse just had a sense of when his compositions needed a special injection of visual surprise like that provided by the tapestry.

Look closely at the pose of the figure. The Lady seems ready to meet her fate. She leans subtly forward towards the bow, as if to express her sorrowful acceptance of what happens next. See how the right edge of that lowest triangle of white cloth shares that same subtle lean toward the right. One other touch I just love, the three candles near the bow. The first two stand erect, but the rightmost tilts just a bit forward to the right, echoing that same axis of the woman's pose. It's little things like that that put just a touch more air into this painting's sails.

It's fun to think of how he might have handled the painting differently. Imagine if instead of spilling over into the waters the tapestry had been neatly folded up within the hull. We'd miss all that wonderful abstract geometry of its quilt-like design. The dark brown of the boat's hull would become too simple and predictable a shape. The artist artfully plays off the decorative patterns in the tapestry against the plain and empty wood planks of the boat's hull.

Waterhouse was a master storyteller, but he could also ravish the viewer's eye.  He understood he would also have to tell a magnificent story with his colors and make his shapes dance together to make a rich composition. That way he was sure to get people to stop long enough to take in the literal story about this doomed young woman. 

There are a thousand other design ideas that come together to make this such a masterpiece. Allow me to mention just two more. One is the way the arc of the boat's prow is echoed by a curve of the bunched up reeds leaning the other direction in the lower left foreground. See how he pulls the reeds together with the tapestry by infusing both with a gold ochre color.

And then there's her marvelous hair (yes I confess having a crush on this woman). It billows out in magnificent burnt sienna reds. It's so stated that it could have looked out of place in the painting. So Waterhouse installs into his background a tree on the far shore with a blush of red in its foliage. The whole background is cast in deliciously cool greens and greys. Yet he animates that one reddish tree  almost as if the tree is giving a final wave of sympathy to our doomed heroine. With such moves the painting becomes sensitively knit together and yet so powerful.

I don't know why Waterhouse isn't better known in the U.S., though interest in his work seems to be rising.  Just about all of his work is over in Britain or Australia. Trippi organized a major show of his work several years ago but unfortunately it only came as close to us as Montreal. Maybe one of my zillionaire readers could step up to the plate and underwrite a new Waterhouse exhibition in the U.S. I promise I'll come.

Reminder: you can see Koch's paintings at his new website:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

My Old Flames

Sometimes you look back at your old heartthrobs. I don't have such an active relationship with them today, but here are two artists who once were a huge help to me finding my way. We have some great memories of our times together...

I've often told the story about how I never intended to become an artist. There was art in my family background- my great grandfather John Wallace was a Scottish landscape painter and his work decorated our living room. My mother's dad John Capstaff was a photographer and developed the first commercially available color film (Kodachrome) back in 1915. And my dad's brother Robert Koch was an art historian who taught at Princeton for many decades (his specialty was the early 16th century painter Joachim Patinir, a transitional figure in later Renaissance painting who was known for leading the way in giving a far larger role to the landscape in his figure paintings). 

But I wanted none of that, figuring I was a more "serious" person and would study politics and sociology. That lasted only a few weeks into my first semester at Oberlin College when I felt myself falling into the paintings that were being projected on the screen in my Art History 101 class. Ironically  I had only enrolled in that course to get the College's "art or music requirement" out of the way. Dangerous things those required courses...

The short story is I went on to major in studio art, knocked out a pile of abstractions, taught myself how to draw from direct observation, and made some halting progress with a my first group of realist paintings. Then I arrived in grad school, Indiana University's MFA Painting Program. As luck would have it, the campus art museum had some 1st rate 19th century landscape paintings, a kind of art I'd never paid much attention to before. Somehow the ground must have been shifting beneath my feet as suddenly I couldn't get enough of their paintings of rocky shorelines and moody woodlands.

The campus bookstore carried a small pocketbook of the British painter John Constable (1776-1837) that I bought and devoured in worshipful detail. Above is Constable's oil Dedham Vale. I found a bunch of things attractive in his work but nothing as much as its familiarity.  When I turned 4 my family moved to a then distant suburb of Rochester, NY, Webster and built a house on the shore of Lake Ontario in a dense forest. It was wildly vivid to a young boy like me. The wind off the lake would usually be vigorously stirring the trees. Most of the time, unless you stepped out into one of the few clearings or went right onto the beach the woods were pretty dark. There were very few other kids around, so I ended up spending lots of time alone playing in the forest. When I came across that book on Constable it looked ever so much like the old neighborhood I'd left behind. I was a goner. 

Constable's Dedham Vale has a wonderful drama to it- I get the feeling Constable was wrapping the clouds around the trees at the right like a scarf around a neck.

Constable was also a great teacher to me in showing me how to build up a painting in layers, letting little bits of the colors underneath show through the outer layers. I carefully made several copies of paintings in oil from the book. I was amazed to see how he could get away with starting a tree's interior with a coat of deep burnt sienna reds. On top of that he'd lay in the masses of foliage in greens. To someone who had first learned to paint using acrylics imitating the simple flat shapes of artists like early Frank Stella this seemed a revelation. 

As I pushed further into landscape I started looking back to the artists that Constable had turned to. One of his favorites was Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch 1628-1682). Above is his Landscape with a Windmill. Its placid mood couldn't be more different than the Constable painting above. There's a remarkable conversation Ruisdael sets up between the sky and the land.

It's one of the great ironies of landscape painting- you go outside and the sky and the earth normally seem so far away from each other in color and tone. Yet in the hands of master painters like these two landscapists, somehow the gulf between the ground where we stand and the sky above is bridged. Perhaps unconsciously we all long to be at one with the heavens. It their way, I think their vision of earth and sky tied together as one is something we find so deeply satisfying.

One of Ruisdael's most impressive moves in this painting is the variety of silhouettes he places up against the sky- one of the trees being a network of little openings through which any sparrow could sail, and the other a somberly solid and majestic tower of the windmill. Don't the windmill's blades have great shapes- they look like they could be feathers that have fallen from some gigantic bird.

As active as the right hand side of Ruisdael's painting is, look at how he turns the volume down at the left hand side, letting us drop our guard and meander through some reassuring gentle pasture. He could install drama but he knew when to balance it off against some quiet areas.

I don't think it's possible to paint just like Ruisdael or Constable today. Each generation perceives being alive in slightly differing ways. And each generation has a need for new artists to take up the challenge to find ways to describe the particular feel of its time. Part of that is to show us what the world looks like to us now. One of my greatest delights is to build my own place on that long line of landscape painters stretching back to Constable, and to Ruisdael, and beyond. It's one heck of a good story.

P.S. I am happy to report that after it taking an unscheduled vacation for a day this week, my website is back up and running using a new web host. It is being completely re-done with new information and images. I am glad I have a good assistant helping me do it. More new content is being added daily.
Remember the website has a new address:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Art of Second Chances

Made a new version of Hopper Bedroom, Nyack (oil on panel, 13 x 8 5/8", 2012). Last week I had painted mostly on location in the Edward Hopper House Art Center this oil-

I was painting upstairs in Hopper's old bedroom and used as a prop the bentwood chair that had belonged to the Hopper family. Its marvelous over sized curved wooden arms had worked out well in the other painting I made last week (see previous blog post) but I didn't want to paint the same chair twice. I invented a more simple chair. But after consideration I came to feel it lacked the expressiveness necessary to commandingly hold the front of the stage. So I cast around for alternatives.

One of my favorite things to do in a painting is to work on an area that's right next to the part that's giving me trouble. I've found this to be helpful so often that it's just become part of my unconscious tool  bag. So I looked at the floor to the left of the chair to see if I couldn't imagine a different and better way to handle it.

Hopper was a great one for inventing his own sun light. Perhaps with that in mind I moved the sun (I'm an artist- I have the license) so it peeked directly in and splashed a highlight on the floor. It was my way of building a more inviting space for a new alternative furniture.

In my studio in Baltimore I have two rocking chairs. The more antique one seemed period appropriate to fit Hopper's bedroom and provided some more compelling geometry than my invented chair. So I inserted it into the painting's space as a alternative. 

Changes like this are the heart and soul of my painting process. Probably three quarters of my time is spent casting around for the right forms or the proper light to get across the painting's meaning. Never is  a painting able to borrow all its ideas from just a single source. There's inevitably going to be a few notes from the original tableaux that just get in the way of the overall composition's expressive direction. The artist's job is to discover alternative ways to tell the story better. 

One thing about oil painting that is an enormous aid to this trial and error filled method is that it dries slowly. What might have occurred to the painter only late in the game can be seamlessly woven in among the earlier strokes. When you're done it has to look like everything was there right from the start. Unlike real life, artists can reconsider and rework their arguments for as long as they need. Often I think one of the real meanings of painting is that it offers us a glimpse of what it would be like to always be given a second (or a third or a fourth) chance. 

Usually if you keep trying, you end up getting it right. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Painting in the Hopper House in Nyack, NY

Earlier this week I spent three more days painting in the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY, Hopper's birthplace and home on and off until he was nearly 30. In April I also painted there for three days. Hopper House hosted an exhibit of my work this spring that ran from the end of March through last Sunday, The show opened in one of their downstairs spaces and later moved upstairs to hang in what was Hopper's bedroom. Carole Perry, Director of Hopper House, told me this was the first time one of their scheduled exhibitions has been presented in Hopper's bedroom. As Hopper was the primary influence on my early art career, this is a deeply felt honor for me.

Above is one of the results, Hopper Bedroom Window, Nyack,  oil on panel, 13 x 8 5/8", 2012. From this window Hopper used to look east towards the Hudson River, a block and a half away. Years ago when I was studying at the Art Students League of New York, I lived in an apartment on the far Upper West Side of Manhattan. My bedroom window back then overlooked the Hudson River as well. I used to daydream looking at the tour boats make their regular circuit up and down the Hudson, never realizing I'd one day paint this new view from Hopper's space.

Here's another new painting, Hopper's Parlor, Nyack, oil on panel, 12 x 9", 2012. It's painted downstairs in what in now the main gallery space for Hopper House. I set up my French easel downstairs and used the same bentwood chair as I'd done for the upstairs bedroom oil to break up the space. Below is my easel in the parlor as seen from the front hallway.

This is staircase seen from the front hallway. On the far wall is a sign telling visitors Hopper House has opened the upstair bedroom space holding my exhibit.

Here's me working on the  Hopper Bedroom Window, Nyack oil in the bedroom.

This shows a few of the paintings in the exhibit of my work installed in Hopper's bedroom.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Andrew Wyeth's Studio

The weather gods have been cruel recently, freakishly hot and taking out power in my studio last Friday night. Since the next day Baltimore's temps hit 104, we figured that since we'd toughed it out one night we'd proved our street cred.  But we couldn't face a second night and retreated to a motel with a functioning air conditioner (I am, after all, a sensitive artist. I also grew up way up north and this Mid-Atlantic region usually seems like a runaway toaster to me).

Saturday morning my wife Alice and I drove up to Wilmington, Delaware to visit the Delaware Art Museum (which has a great Permanent Collection and an equally impressive climate control system). Later on we headed over to the heart of Wyeth country, nearby Chadds Ford, PA. Sunday we visited the Brandywine River Museum, which is always a treat, and were delighted to find the Museum had just opened up tours of Andrew Wyeth's studio to the public. Wyeth (1917 -2009) isn't an artist who was a direct influence on me as a painter, but he's someone I've always greatly respected. So we hopped on the Museum's tour bus and headed off.

I know many people in the art world who have mixed feelings about the Wyeths. Some find Andrew's work sentimental and retrograde. It's true his painter's imagination found its deepest reverie in images that could have happened in 1850. To me though his sharp eye and his ability to design amazingly tantalizing compositions is hard to beat.

Maybe a lot of the resistance in the more "sophisticated" art world is tainted by the legions of Andrew Wyeth imitators who have been churning out some pretty uninspired Wyeth-like imagery, but without his powerful inventiveness with shapes and color. I think we've all seen one too many paintings of barns with weathered planking that lack any real teeth. Above is one of his most famous paintings,  Winter, 1946. I'll return to it at the end of this post.

Wyeth's studio is just a short distance from the Brandywine River Museum. It's an unassuming little building, a former school house, and I can't recall when they said it was built (It was so hot on the tour that my brain was only half functioning and I missed some of the information the tour guide was telling us). But like any Wyeth painting, it was old.

Here's a clue to one reason Andrew Wyeth was such a good painter- the sign outside his studio doorway.

It takes a long time to get a painting just right. Wyeth knew that and valued his time.

Here's Alice suffering away with the other tour members waiting to be let into the at least relatively cooler studio.

Below is a photo of the roof just above the doorway.   We all pretended to be waiting patiently for it to open but inwardly I suspect we were getting desperate to get out of the heat.

Unfortunately photography isn't allowed in the studio which is sad. The interior was fascinating and revealing.

While inside there were two rooms that had been used as studios, neither was all that large, and the one Andrew had usually worked in was actually surprisingly modest. (Remember Wyeth was born to some means, and his early career success would have allowed him to purchase a domed stadium for a studio had he wanted that). Instead he opted for privacy and quiet. The one luxury was a large north facing window he had built to illuminate the smaller studio room. Still, it was cramped.

In contrast, the studio of Wyeth's father, N. C. Wyeth, the famously successful illustrator and painter, was just up the hill. We had toured it two years ago and it couldn't have been more different. It sits on a majestic high point, grandly mastering the landscape below. Andrew's studio occupies an unassuming spot at the bottom of a hill. Where Andrew's work space was about quiet and intimacy, N.C.'s was grand- two huge rooms where you could fit a hundred people.

Here's a drawing a teenage Andrew Wyeth made of his father working in the studio.

The two artists' preferences for studios reflects the different temperament between the father's and the son's painting. Here's a great painting by N.C. illustrating two men fighting in the surf. His story telling is bold and overt. Compare that to the Andrew Wyeth below of the boy running down the hill- perhaps the most action filled of any of Andrew's paintings. Where N.C. leaves nothing to chance, Andrew gives you more a mystery to solve.

That said, I think they're both terrific paintings.

N.C. was Andrew's teacher and he taught his son well. Look at the silhouettes of the figures. Andrew's running boy at the bottom with his outstretched arm seems indebted to the rock wielding combatant in the surf above. Andrew Wyeth of course is known for his skillfully applied layers of details. What this juxtaposition of paintings helps reveal is how he based his paintings on a framework of bold simple shapes that he learned from his father.

In my own work over the years I've moved  from the painstakingly detailed paint application of my graduate school days to a much more broad handling, especially in my paintings of the last 15 years. This has been less a conscious decision than an evolution. I kept finding my paintings became richer and more evocative when I pared them down to focus on fewer key ideas. The essence of the painting has to be in the overall action of the composition. Often I'll tell my students if you get the painting to come to life before you've added any detail then you've got a real shot at pulling the thing off beautifully.

A good example of this boiling things down to their essential forms is my painting The Song of All Days, oil on panel, 36 x 72", 2008 below.

It will be on display in the Delaware Art Museum's Centennial Juried Exhibition this October 20 through January 13, 2013. In conjunction with the painting appearing in the exhibition, Delaware Art Museum is going to have me teach a half day landscape painting workshop on Sunday, Oct. 21 at the Museum (details TBA).

My old website has been replaced by a new site
Its content is being regularly augmented over the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hot times in the Studio, with a Vengeance

Hows that for a vista of mountain with the crisp air blowing gently across your face.

Excuse me but I'm dreaming. Last year at this time I took a week long painting trip to Vermont to work from its wonderful Green Mountains. The above vine charcoal was one of the results. I had hoped to be greeted by cool & crisp temperatures, but that trip coincided with some serious heat and humidity (at least by New England standards). 

We had a major storm tear through the Mid-Atlantic region Friday evening and it blew out the power for us and hundreds of thousands of others. Unfortunately we're in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave as well. Hotter than blazes in my studio the last 3 1/2 days. As it was 104 on Saturday we called it quits and spent three nights as refugees. This interrupted the blog I would have written as well as the ongoing updating of my new website (that replaces the old site). 

Things are coming back to normal as of this morning so the blog and new website will be getting refreshed soon. In particular I want the new pages devoted to my vine charcoal drawings and to my pastels to get posted.

One of the cool things we did while away was drive up to Wilmington, DE to see the new shows at the Delaware Art Museum, and then over to Chadds Ford., PA where we toured the former studio of Andrew Wyeth as well as the new exhibits at the Brandywine River Museum. I'll probably do a blog post or two on Andrew Wyeth shortly.

More soon.