Haunted Art

Caspar David Friedrich (1744-1840), The Crow Tree, oil

Philip Koch, Land's End Inn, vine charcoal, 9 x 12"

An artist's spirit needs to feed on the inspiration of those who've gone down the art path before us. I sure do. Above is a great 19th century oil by one of my early painting heroes, Caspar David Friedrich . Right below it is a plein air charcoal drawing I did in the backyard garden of the quirky Land's End Inn in Provincetown. The inn had these wonderfully gnarled trees setting off its distinctive roofline. When I stayed there I knew it was a perfect place for channeling Friedrich (and some Alfred Hitchcock perhaps as well).

I was joking in my blog post earlier this week that Friedrich was actually the same person as the early 20th century American painter Charles Burchfield. My theory added that Friedrich's usually gloomy saturnine style might have been transformed by his taking Prozac into the more ebullient moods usually found in Burchfield. 

Maybe I should have let it go right there, but this afternoon one of my Facebook friends, Picos Vazquez, put up an image of the wonderful Friedrich painting above and I fell again under its spell. Its amazing rhythms in the lace-like branches seemed so much to herald what Burchfield would do 100 years later. So while I don't literally believe Burchfield and Friedrich are the same person, poetically, well of course they are. 

Let's look for a minute at the Friedrich for some compositional tips.

It's a painting where dancing linear pattern predominates. But look in back of that to see how carefully Friedrich sets the stage for his magnificent tree. The sky is a sea of carefully gradated peach orange. That color could easily overwhelm the delicacy of the foreground, but Friedrich spends enormous efforts to give us a whole range of differing intensities of the hue. The misty clouds down near the horizon turn to a pearly grey for example.

For anyone who has ever attempted to paint a naked tree against a lighter colored sky, you know how easy it is for the branches to look too heavy and take over the painting. Friedrich very carefully adjusts his tones as he moves to thinner and thinner branches. Compare the most tiny branch's color with that of the most massive sections of the trunk and you see what I mean.

Aren't crows cool! You can just feel Friedrich felt that way too. One would have thought he'd have peppered the upper branches with dozens of the noisy cawing little guys. But instead he opts for restraint, give us maybe only three or four crows still in the tree and readying themselves to take off to join the rest of their family. (I've read that often crows will live together in families, with several sisters and their offspring hanging together as a group. It's kind of a touching notion, especially for such a maligned species).

That theme of restraint continues as we leave the tree and head to the ground. The grasses and sticks there seem to be almost dissolving into what looks like soft sand. I've seen many contemporary painters attempt a nature scene like this and end up with so many busy passages that it looks more like you're staring into a box of sewing needles than a landscape. That's the measure of how good Friedrich's eye was, knowing when he'd said enough with the busy contagion tiny branches and balancing them off against soft and more empty passages in the sky and on the hillside. He knows when to excite your eye and when to let us stop to just breath for a moment.

I said in my earlier Friedrich/Burchfield post that I'm confident Burchfield knew and loved Friedrich's work. Here are three of the later painter's watercolors. Of course there are big differences, but even more there's an unbroken thread running through time to connect both artists. 


-Next week Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta, GA opens its new group exhibit The Social Network
September 21- October 13, 2012 that will include two of my forest interior oils.

-Here's a link to the full page ad in the September American Art Collector magazine for my upcoming solo show at George Billis Gallery in New York Dec. 11, 2012 - Jan. 19, 2013

-My painting The Song of All Days, 36 x 72" (below) will be included in the Delaware Art Museum's Centennial Juried Exhibition, in Wilmington, DE. The show opens to the public Sat. Oct. 20 and runs    through January 13, 2013.

The Delaware Art Museum asked three of the artists who will be included in the Centennial exhibition to come and teach studio workshops during the show. I will be teaching a half day landscape painting and drawing workshop Sunday, Oct. 21 from 1-5. There is more information on the Museum's Education Dept. page.


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