Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Canada's Northern Masters

Over the weekend I was up in Toronto where my two sisters live. While there I made a pilgrimage to the Art Gallery of Ontario, the city's major museum. My sister Kathy years ago began sending me postcards of the early 20th century Canadian landscape painters. I didn't particularly like them at first as they seemed a little too abstract and over generalized. But over time they worked their magic on me and won me over. On Saturday I only had time to focus on a couple of galleries at the museum so I made a bee line for their Lawren Harris rooms, my all time favorite of Canada's painters. But next door were some truly wonderful oils by Tom Thomson, a precursor of Harris and his Group of Seven. 

Above is one of the most famous of all Canadian paintings, Tom Thomson's The Jack Pine (it lives over in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada). Below is the plein air oil Thomson made that he used as a basis for the larger studio painting. Looking at the two side by side is fascinating.

See how he decides to describe the tree with larger and simplified masses of pine needles. Leaving the delicate intricate textures of the his smaller study's limbs behind, he opts instead for fewer but larger shapes. He still however keeps those empty thin branches hanging down (which I just love!). The entire tree is pushed darker, as are the far hills. The color adjustments are tuned in a more simple direction- everything except the far hills are nudged into warmer colors so that those hills can pop out as the one bright area of cool color. 

What's going on I believe is Thomson wanted a stronger supporting cast for his star actor, the Jack Pine. So he's re-written the part for the far shore, giving it more lines to read in the play. The study was more about the tree. The completed studio oil is about the tension and contrasting characters of that tree against the distant shore. He makes the painting way better.

Here's another Thomson, Pine Island, Georgian Bay, one I'd not seen before. Like the previous works, it's the familiar "trees against the sky" motif. But this one couldn't be more different in feeling. Where the Jack Pine expressed an elegant stillness with its small branches hanging straight down, this one's all about the rushing wind. If you squint your eyes at it you sense the way Thomson groups his dark branches together like geese flying in tight formation.

The final thing I wanted to say is that looking at both the Lawren Harris and the Thomson paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I was struck by how these artist almost never painted completely empty skies. Whether they resorted to big blustering volumetric clouds or just wispy traces of brush strokes, these painters were decidedly in the "put SOMETHING in the sky" camp.

Often Thomson and the later Group of Seven are written about as having simplified the landscape as they painted it. Compared to the 19th century painters that's pretty much true. But they didn't go all the way with this idea either. Rather they stopped halfway, delicately balancing the needs for elemental dramatic compositions with their love of pattern and decoration.

It is sad so few Americans know about these Canadian painters. At their best they're right up there with Grant Wood, Edward Hopper , and Rockwell Kent. Perhaps some far sighted American museums will do shows of their work someday. Right now I'd wager it's impossible to find a Group of Seven painting hanging in an Amrerican museum.

That's a pity. I sheepishly have to admit that had it not been for my sisters' heading off to Canada 40 years ago, I might not have learned of them when I did.

Thanks Sis!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Are Artist's Freaks?

Philip Koch, Entryway, Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen,
oil on panel, 12 x 16", 2012

My oil above will be part of a small group of paintings I'll be showing at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York March 31 - May  13, 2012.

I was joking around with one of my students at MICA this week and told them something like "Artists are freaks. No wonder nobody understands us..." We both laughed and moved on. Later that day I recalled the incident, wondering if it were really true. The more I thought about it, I came to regret saying it. Edward Hopper, whose studio was the source for this painting, got me thinking about this from another angle.

Artists are a creative lot, and there are some who've extended their creativity to their appearance to help them stand out from the crowd. It is after all hard to get attention for one's artwork. And historically there have always been too few opportunities for artists to survive and have long, productive careers. Some artists resort to extreme measures. I remember when I was coming up as a young artist confronting some of the artists who carefully cultivated an outrageous appearance. One had Salvadore Dali-

who actually I think was a pretty good painter. His surrealist paintings tried to stretch the boundaries of art to employ dream imagery. He at least tried to get people thinking about the human unconscious. But he had the most awful mustache imaginable. You also were running into images of Louise Nevelson the sculptor. Again I thought her work was more than respectable. She was photographed often, always dressed in black and sporting hideously over sized false eyelashes. She also made it a point to be photographed smoking cigars.

And there's always Andy Warhol, who put on a preposterously fake looking wig to go out to art openings. 

If one were going to go for a really theatrical look to boost their art world notoriety, it would be easy to best Dali and friends.  I've entertained a fantasy of renting a really good gorilla suit and wearing it when I go out painting at the side of the road. Imagine the looks on drivers' faces as they speed past. Alternately, and this one would be harder to come by, I could see making a real impact painting in a dinosaur suit. I'd insist on one with big heavy dorsal fins, and they might get uncomfortable as they shifted around. And you'd probably knock over some one's drink with your long spiked tail at crowded openings. But people would talk.

Kidding aside, we artists aren't freaks. We do something that needs doing- we're trying to show society that there's more than one way to look at experience. A good piece of art gently taps you on the shoulder saying "hey, you've overlooked something important, come on back and take a second look."

There's a conflict between gimmickry and actual art. Art shows us something we haven't seen before, like an amazing pattern of sunlight and shadows in a good Edward Hopper painting. When it's done right, a great painting it is something you can come back to time and again and see something new in it each time. It puts us back in touch with the richness and depth that comes with being alive but that is all too easy to loose sight of. It's the reminder that being alive is extraordinary.

My painting Entryway, Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen is about one of those moments when in the middle of the afternoon I felt that sense of extra significance. We were staying up in Hopper's studio on Cape Cod and had just unpacked some groceries we'd bought up in Provincetown. I was walking back into the kitchen from Hopper's painting room and spied the yellow bananas that had minutes before been placed on Hopper's tiny kitchen table. What had been accidental and random became the opposite. I saw the curves of the bananas perfectly echo the arching back of Hopper's old wooden chair. The fruit, the chair, and the tall grasses on the sand dunes all seemed "dressed alike" in a beautiful yellow and ochre hue. In my mind's eye the entire tableau came together like a symphony, with every note fitting in just right.

When you see something like that your heart skips a beat and you're reduced to muttering something like "wow." But it's even better if you can share the experience. And that's why artists spend years training their eye and hand. We've worked to have the inner tools to make something solid and enduing out of these shimmering but all too ephemeral moments of insight. When you're really making art, there's not a gimmick anywhere in sight.

I don't think Andy Warhol wearing his "fright wig" out in public did lasting harm to art. Gimmicks like that do reinforce the stereotype that artists are nutty or are clowns. The "freakishness" of artists is a ploy some have tried so their work wouldn't be ignored. And it was a marketing strategy more than anything else. To their credit the overwhelming majority of artists don't put on a fake identity for the camera. They play it straight. They know they've got something genuine to offer.

In the quiet of a well hung exhibition in a museum gallery, I think silly things like Dali's mustache are quickly forgotten. Instead people fall into what they came for- seeing some of those necessary reminders of the depth and vividness of living.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Drawing V.S. Color: The Great Arm Wrestling Contest

I'm going to be giving a talk next month that will be titled Three Things You Didn't Know About Edward Hopper up at the Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY. There are dozens of things I could touch on. One topic I may talk about is Hopper's talents as a colorist, which in my mind were considerable. Early in his career Hopper did dozens of beautiful etchings like the one above of cows ambling over some railroad tracks. Hopper's strengths with color in part stem from his long practice at mastering traditional drawing issues- creating expressive flat shapes, composing darks and lights, building solid volumes.

Let's look at the cows above. Two of them are partly obscured by a foreground shadow but the third has clambered up into the light. It's pyramid-shaped back is highlighted against the far distant dark forest. You sense there's something about the house that reminds you of what you've seen and felt in that cow. Surely it's the shape of the roof's sharp peaks, similarly highlighted by Hopper. What does a cow have in common with a house? Usually not much, but Hopper is up to the challenge of making us see things differently. Sometimes in his oils he did this magic with color, but here it's accomplished just through drawing. 

Art historians love to recount the old controversy in 19th century art between Delacroix and Ingres as to whether painting was more about color or about drawing. I remember hearing about this in my undergraduate days as an art major at Oberlin College in the 1960's. Given the explosion of the then new color field paintings of artists like Morris Louis or Jules Olitski, the breezes of the day had shifted toward those answering the question with "color." And who can argue- color is the juicy and sensuous icing on the cake. As you enter any gallery in any museum don't your eyes go first to the brightly colored pieces? Mine do.

Looking at my palette last night:

It's lovely isn't it. You want to keep looking to see where each hue is going as the palette knife pulls and stretches the range of color - brighter, softer, darker, and on it goes. Yet that's only when you stare directly into the puddles of color themselves. Pull your eyes back a bit to focus at the shapes of the color and it's all haphazard, random, and monotonous. Imagine if you will going to a restaurant and ordering coffee. The waiter smiles, returns with the steaming pot and carefully pours the coffee but not into your cup but onto your plate. Then he hands you a spoon... Probably you could get some of it in your mouth, but I doubt you'd leave a big tip. 

To get the marvelous "flavors" of color something has to hold the color. Color's energy is too elusive and    fugitive by itself. The ultimate contribution of drawing is its ability to take hold of color and give it solid form. There's a great old story about Matisse. A young artist smitten by Matisse's brilliant hues comes to the master and asks how to learn to use color as he does. Matisse raises an eyebrow and replies to the student "Do as I did. Go to the Louvre and copy the great masters for two years. Use only charcoal."

Here's a vine charcoal I finished just yesterday, Adirondack Forest, 12 x 9". It was done from life on a cove off of Lake Placid in northernmost New York looking at a long row of trees. My first task had to be selecting out of thousands of tree branches the section my eye loved best. Then I went into the drawing back in my Baltimore studio, tuning it by softening a passage here and strengthening an interval between shapes there. 

Like so many artists who've gone before me, I find drawing in black and white simplifies what might otherwise be overwhelming. I think that was what drew Hopper to do his cows and house in black and white- he was smart enough to know the complexity of his nascent idea and didn't want to make a mess of it. 

I will be using this drawing as a basis for a color painting (or maybe several paintings). My confidence that this will work out comes from my excitement about how the drawing gave me a good and solid foundation. I could have worked out the various changes I need to finish the composition in oil, but at very least it would have taken much longer. And at worst the added complexity of colors might have clouded something where I was struggling for simplicity.

Here's Rembrandt doing the same kind of reductive thinking in a sepia wash drawing. Taking Matisse's earlier advice to heart, I spent hundred of hours studying Rembrandt's use of tones to organize his shapes. Look for example at how he creates two big triangles in his middle ground here (the house and tree at the far left and the roof of the central house) by simply washing in a middle tone shadow over the background. My old teacher Rudolf Baranik at the Art Students League of New York used to say of Rembrandt "he was simple, and he was radical." This drawing shows what he meant.

Finally here's a working drawing Lawren Harris (the Canadian Group of Seven) painter used to help him paint one of his masterpieces in oil, Isolation Peak from 1930.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Allentown Art Museum

Long time readers of this blog know I'm hopelessly in love with smaller art museums. They deliver. Partly because they usually hang work by slightly lesser known artists, you're likely to discover a gem by an artist you don't know or by someone who may have fallen off your personal radar. I was returning last month from a visit to the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY (where I'll be showing a small selection of my paintings March 31 - May 13) and stopped by the Allentown Art Museum (AAM).

I had visited a few years earlier, but AAM had just completed an important expansion and I was eager to see the new spaces. Somewhat amazingly, the Museum has a top notch collection of Old Master paintings thanks to a big donation of work from the Kress Foundation. Here's a an oil by the grand daddy of all landscape painters, Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch 1628/29- 1682). 

You have to spend a minute to let your eyes adjust to Ruidael's dark palette, but once you do you can fall in love with his inevitably cloudy skies. Ruisdael was huge to me when I was taking my first tentative steps out into landscape painting in 1970-71 when I was in my MFA program at Indiana University. I had a great art history teacher (who had a wonderful eye- I bet he had done some painting himself) who pointed out to me the hidden geometry in Ruisdael's clouds. Look at the topmost cloud in the middle of the sky in this painting- it looks like a giant tooth that has just gouged a chunk out of the distant mountain. Heaven and earth do a beautiful dance together in his work.

Speaking of heaven and earth, here's a painting by an artist I didn't know, Cornelius Saftleven (Dutch, 1607-1681) that I just love. I've always thought artists unconsciously (and often not so unconsciously) think of their paintings as dramas unfolding on a stage. This literally seems the conception as this angel appears through a "doorway" opening in a cloud that conveniently descends to earth. Saftleven pulls all of his lighter and warmer colors over to this far left side of his painting and pushes the cooler and darker colors to the right side, segregating the earthly space from his visionary space. I'm not a religious person, but when an angel comes for me, I sure hope they set the stage for it just like this. I'll become a believer on the spot.

Jumping forward two centuries, here's Thomas Anschutz (American, 1851-1912). He was a star pupil of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and went on to teach Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks (all of the Ashcan School of painters. I teach at the 2nd oldest art school in the US after PAFA, the Maryland Institute College of Art. And particularly pleasing to me is that Anschutz used to take the train down from Philadelphia to teach Life Drawing at MICA in the same room where I teach it every Monday. Some of our model stands and slate chalk boards are so old in that room I suspect it is seriously possible they are the same one's Anschutz used in teaching his classes.

In the Anschutz above, look at how the artist coordinates the model's pose with the props he's arranged before her. Like the straight backed chair, the woman stands erect. But see how her right forearm runs exactly parallel across the canvas to the highlighted broom handle. This is no accident and is almost certainly something Anschutz installed into his composition purposely. Unconsciously, our eye is always searching out connections like this between seemingly unrelated forms. When we see it in a painting we are pulled toward its composition even though exactly what attracts us might remain out of our awareness.

I always hope some of Anschutz's molecules are still floating around my Life Drawing classroom. I figure if they come home with me to my studio that can only be good luck.

Speaking of teachers of art, years ago I studied life drawing at the Art Students League of New York with this painter, Sydney Dickinson. AAM has a great Dickinson up. It's a painting of the woman who he would marry, with Sidney lurking back in the shadows. Quite a nice studio he had for himself! The painting is quite large but despite that it has a remarkably delicate light in it. That sort of thing is hard to pull off at such a big scale. Quite a good painting.

Two other treats at the Museum awaited me. When I was an art student at Oberlin College I often felt somewhat isolated from the larger art world. The College had only three artists on its faculty, and there were only a handful of studio art majors on campus. I tried to compensate for this by reading books about artists and by artists. Two of the latter that were especially helpful were Hiram Williams' Notes to a Young Pianter, and Maurice Grosser's The Painter's Eye. While I like their thinking, I'd never actually seen a painting by either. Happily both had work up. Below is AAM's Maurice Grosser painting of a cut open cabbage. I think its every bit as good as the best of Charles Demuth or Georgia O'Keeffe.

If you're anywhere near eastern Pennsylvania, take a trip over to Allentown and go to the Museum. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Survival Guide to the Art World

Philip Koch, Adirondack Charcoal #2,  vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2011

A drawing by Sol LeWitt

Navigating today's art world can be dizzying. Nobody's got a compass.

Above are two examples of contemporary drawing. The first is my own, Adirondack Charcoal #2, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2011 that I made up on location in Lake Placid, NY last fall. The second is by Sol LeWitt, American, 1928 - 2007, a prominent conceptual and minimal artist. I paired the two to show how far apart the outer boundaries have been set.

Last week I received an email from an art historian, Veronica Roberts, who's writing the catalogue raisonne on LeWitt. She's trying to track down information on a LeWitt drawing that was "made" by two students at my old school, Oberlin College in 1970.

LeWitt is labeled conceptual because he was playing around with our notions of what we expect drawing to be. I think his intent was to "do the art part" well before his drawings made it to a surface for us to see. Back in the 1960's conceptual art like this was a new idea. For many people it hit with some impact. I imagine the first time people saw International School architecture it was so far out of their expectations that it was shocking. Perhaps that was in the back of LeWitt's mind.

Veronica Roberts send me the instructions LeWitt had provided that two students were to follow in installing one of his drawings in the basement of Oberlin's art studio building. Here they are:

Instructions for the work:
Wall drawing # 35: A straight line is drawn; another straight line is drawn at a right angle to the first; lines are drawn at right angles to each preceding line until the wall is covered. The lines may cross.       
Executed by two students on different walls, not visible to each other. 
I imagine the Oberlin LeWitt drawing turned out something like the LeWitt image above.

My own drawing was about starting a work with a few lines, then stepping back and reconsidering, drawing some more, and then re-evaluating where I was going with the piece. Implicit in this was that the original conception of the drawing would be changed, often dramatically, during the course of making the piece. For example, mine began without a clear idea of whether the clouds or the mountains would dominate.

Where LeWitt seems to want to go against the traditions of drawing we know well, I go the other way. People have been drawing deep spaced landscapes for hundreds of years. I want to add my voice to that very long conversation. I do this putting my faith in the notion that every generation sees a little differently. That unconsciously we approach even the most familiar subjects, like the landscape, with a different eye than, say, the artist's of the 1930's. Ultimately it's trusting that if our experience of our idea is authentic, innovations will creep into our work without our having to consciously place them there.

Here's a pastel drawing I did on location in Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio's kitchen. Currently I'm using this pastel as a source for an oil painting of the same subject. My original intention when I began the drawing was to focus on the different colors of the interior and the outdoor spaces. But along the way the repeated curves in the  little table, the chairs, and the rounded bowl of fruit pushed their way to the front of the stage instead. Personally I like this "I-don't-know-what- this-is-going-to-look-like-when-it's- done" approach. It's like loosening the reins on the horse to see where the animal wants to take you. Sometimes you end up in a better place than if you'd planned everything.

I teach at one of the big East Coast art schools, MICA. There are lots of faculty teaching a very wide assortment of ideas to our students. Most of us are passionate about what we believe to be most important. I've marveled that there are never any fist fights between us about dearly held aesthetic ideas. In fact the school is very friendly, something I value

Robert Henri, the founder of the Ashcan School of painting is quoted in his book The Art Spirit as saying that the inspiration for art grows up out of the earth and flows up into us artists through our feet.  I remember reading this and thinking this was nuts, but feeling curiously attracted to the idea all the same. That image has stayed with me over the years and taken on a momentum of its own.

I think there is a Tree of Art. It's really tall and it draws its nourishment from deep in the earth. And sprouting off of each of its branches are all the artists.The tree has its own system- - a branch for conceptualists, another for performance artists, the video people, on another, and even us landscape painters (we're on one of the really old branches at the bottom). We don't all know everyone on all the other branches, and we don't necessarily like whole big sections of the tree. But somehow, with a little luck and lots of sweat, we soldier on to make art another day.

I've had to explore to find my branch on the tree of art- I've done happenings (that's what we used to call performance art), color field painting, surrealist work, and all sorts of realist painting, landing eventually on the landscape painters' branch. Obviously I'm partial to where I stand today and will have to leave minimalism and conceptual art to others. I'm sure they like their branches too. Did I tell you the view from my branch is really special?

A Sol LeWitt sculpture.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen

This is a new oil painting I finished a couple of days ago. It's 16 x 12", oil on panel, and its title is the same as this blog post's.  It's based on a pastel I did that in turn is based on a vine charcoal drawing I did on location standing in Hopper's painting room and peering into his modest kitchen. The translation from charcoal to pastel I usually find fairly easy. Both of these media after all are powdery, atmospheric by nature, and always given to beautiful gradations that seem to draw themselves. The move from a pastel to working an image up in oil I always find far more tricky. 

Don't get me wrong, I love oil paint- it's like the most tasty cake icing imaginable- buttery, smudgy, and dense in a way dry media can never be. Really, it's yummy stuff. But it has a mind of its own. You don't so much paint with it as negotiate with it. Always it will do things it wants to do that weren't part of your original plan. You work your way around its stubbornness because you know its rewards are worth it. Oil paint has body and heft to it. Often times I suspect painters feel more like they're masons troweling cement. Oil paint can give an unmatched solidity to what you are saying as an artist. 

One of the big things in this painting is building a deep space by giving the foreground a distinctly blue-ish color sense. The far distance (out the window) is conceived of as a world of oranges. And the middle space, the interior of the kitchen itself, is a world that's chromatically in between- sometimes warmer, other times cooler, but mostly based on greys more than bright colors.

Following are some photos I've taken over the last few years of the Hopper studio's kitchen. They give you a strong clue that the actual colors one is likely to see in the place are more muted than what I've chosen. Ironically, I never use photography in my work. I find it makes me too conservative. To me it's a painters obligation to take an idea and go somewhere with it. As someone who's deeply married to landscape painting, I want to pull the viewer towards a palpable sensation of what's the unique mood of a particular space. Space, and the light and shadows that fill that space, are the real stars of any landscape painter's imagination. 

I get playful with color, exaggerating, diminishing, or substituting one hue for another. All this aims at heightening the viewers' experience of the particular space I've presenting. Space after all isn't really empty- it has to come with a distinct personality for the painting to have any lasting interest. Most of my color choices are partly intuitive. I start by letting myself sink into the space, trying to feel almost through my pores what it is that has attracted me to a particular place. If one is open to it, a place that speaks especially strongly to you always feels a little different than any other you've experienced. We don't have the words in English, or any other written language to describe the emotional tinges that come with the best spaces. That's really why we have painting. It's the language to describe what words alone cannot.

Here below I've stepped forward into the kitchen and am looking at the view immediately to the left of my painting above. This is the doorway Hopper used to enter his studio from his driveway. It's the view looking toward the southwest.

Here's my wife Alice imbibing her morning coffee ( a quasi-religious ritual in our family). Notice she is pointing to her mug that is labeled "Truro." She's sitting at the tiny table where the 6'5"Hopper used to eat. In may ways he and his wife Jo lived extremely modestly when it came to furnishings and creature comforts. On the other hand, they did live 6 months a years high up on a sand dune with overpoweringly beautiful views of the rolling Cape Cod landscape and the shimmering waters of Cape Cod Bay. So don't feel too bad for them.

And here's a view of Alice sitting in the same chair seen from the small bedroom Hopper shared with Jo.

And here's the entrance to the kitchen seen from the outside. Looking due west that's Cape Cod Bay in the distance.

One of the delights of learning about Hopper is discovering his almost obsessive selectivity. He designed the studio he had built in S.Truro down to the last detail. Yet he never painted his studio, much as the place inspired him. He would paint houses like it, but alway because they had some special, almost magical relationship to the surrounding landscape. Here for example is his oil Ryder's House now in the Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The painting of the kitchen I began this post with will be exhibited March 31- May 13, 2012 at Hopper's birthplace and boyhood home in Nyack, NY, now the Edward Hopper House Art Center. I'll be showing more of my oils of the Truro studio interior that I've painted over the years. Saturday March 31, right after the 5-7 p.m. reception I'll be giving an artist's talk and slide presentation Three Things You Didn't Know About Edward Hopper. I'll show  more of my photos of Hopper's studio, and a look at some of his legendary Cape Cod imagery.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Memorial Art Gallery, Kodachrome, and Unknown Family History

I had a fascinating week. It all revolves around my family's involvement with color. Turns out there's more of a history than I knew.

Above is one of the main galleries in the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) in Rochester, NY, my old hometown. They sent me payment for the two drawings of mine they just purchased for their Permanent Collection.

Inspired by that, I was perusing their website and ran across a new Gallery Buzz blog post by Lucy Harper, the Art Librarian and Webmaster at MAG that stopped me in my tracks. It explained that in the fall of 1914, Kodak decided to debut their then revolutionary new Kodachrome two color process film, the first commercially available color film, with an exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery. My maternal grandfather, John Capstaff, was the inventor of this film, long a point of pride in my family. But nobody in my family seems to have known of the Museum's exhibit of my grandfather's photography, which seems strange to me. Harper continued "In all, over 27,000 people viewed the exhibition over its run, probably the Gallery’s first “blockbuster” exhibition after its inaugural exhibition the year before."

Memorial Art Gallery figured large in my life early on. My first visit there was a fourth grade school trip where some dedicated docent led us around and told us stories about the pictures. I remember thinking everything in the museum was amazingly old. But one painting stood out vividly for me, Winslow Homer's stunning oil The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Sun (painted in 1894).

It is an absolutely masterful painting.  What probably impressed my young eyes on that museum tour was that it looked so much like the Lake Ontario beach where my family had built a home when I turned four. The Lake was huge and mysterious. I couldn't get enough of it, playing on its shore every chance I could get. In Homer's oil I could feel the old artist taking the same kind of delight I did in the waves lapping at the rocks and the other worldly glow of sunlight passing through fog. Homer was giving visual form to something that came right out of my own experience. I saw that art could clarify and define things in your life that can't be expressed any other way. While I didn't realize it at the time, that early encounter with MAG's Homer continued incubating in the back of my mind until it could burst out a two decades later.

But let's go back to my grandfather, who was a pioneer with color in film.  His understanding of what a photograph should be was based on traditions of earlier photographers. It's interesting to compare one of the vine charcoal drawings MAG just added to its Collection, Shore II, with some of my grandfather's work.

Mine is a monochrome image of Mt. Desert Island up in Maine. Its space is built out of overlapping planes of very different tones, as are the individual forms like the isolated stand of highlighted pines in the foreground. Below is a photograph I grew up with in my home, Mrs. Capstaff, taken by my grandfather in 1914. As a boy I would see it and just think "oh, that's my grandmother" and make little of it. (this image is taken from an extensive article in George Eastman House's Image magazine on the history of my grandfather's early color film process. Here's a link).

See how much the portrait photo feels modeled on the traditions of oil painting portraiture. Capstaff's color process was able to generate yellows and reds. but wasn't able to provide blues. So it tended to rely on the tonal structure of the image, with the warm hues laid over the darks and lights as a final layer.


Also from the Image magazine article, here's a 1914 still life photograph by my grandfather that clearly shows an indebtedness to 19th century still life painting (the French painter Fantin- Latour or the American John Peto come to mind). You can see such precedents were in the back of Capstaff's mind as he arranged the vegetables and considered how he would light the composition.

Looking at these photos from a hundred years ago by my grandfather, I immediately thought of the early landscape paintings I did when I was in my MFA Painting program at Indiana University and how tonally oriented they were, so much like the early color photos. Here is my oil Fall at Lake Lemon from 1971. I too was thinking a lot of the precedent of the 19th century painters who did so much with a limited palette of color to evoke the liveliness of the natural world. Their example had convinced me that thinking in terms of tones of dark and light was a tremendously effective tool to express light, space, and emotional depth.

Like my grandfather's early color explorations, my paintings built ther foundation on a structure of darks and lights. For reasons I don't fully understand over the last fifteen years I've felt pulled toward a more chromatic way of painting. Instead of painting in oils directly from nature, I've switched to making monochrome drawings outdoors and from memory, and then employing them to springboard into a far brighter set of colors that before. 

Here are two recent examples of my more colorful work done in my studio based on charcoal drawings-North Passage, oil, 45 x 60"from 2011
And North Star, 40 x 40" from 2005.

Learning my grandfather had his work in a pivotal show at Memorial Art Gallery both intrigues me and excites me. He was a man I never came to know well as I was born when he was much older and no longer in good health. Yet his exploration into early color photography feels a fitting complement to the increased prominence of color in my own painting. Maybe I know more about the old man than I think.