Monday, December 31, 2012

Mysterious Flame: Rockwell Kent

Some images just stick with you. This one's got me.

When I was just turning four my family moved to a house on the shore of Lake Ontario, some miles outside of Rochester, NY. There were few other houses around and not too many other kids to play with so much of the time we made our own fun. One of my clearest memories were the huge fires my sister and I would make from the driftwood we'd collect along the rock covered shore. 

With no other lights visible, the night sky was pure ink black. Part pyromaniac, I used to love to make the biggest fires  possible. Like the one in Rockwell Kent's engraving Flame above, the fires would spit out sparks that would be carried upwards by the heat to disappear among the stars. Looking at Kent's reclining man, I know Kent loved following those upward paths of his fires' sparks too. 

Fire of course when you watch it flicker and burn seems to have a living quality. And in the hands of Rockwell Kent it becomes an amazingly believable symbol of life itself, of all our energies and our loftiest striving. Pulling that off was a tall order.  

A lot of thought went into inventing the pose. While what first catches our eye is the man's up-reaching arm, his raised and bent knee is also important. Kent is trying to subtly mimic the feeling of the mountains in the figure. The raised knee evokes the pyramidal feeling of the distant peaks. Look at how the shin on the upraised leg is exactly the same length as the diagonal sides of the mountains. Kent doesn't over do this, letting the pose seem unforced and natural, but at the same time he sets up a little dance between the figure and the enormous snow-clad topography behind. It's Kent's way of saying what ever he's going to show you is grand and important.

I spoke in the last blog post about how Kent seemed most inventive when confronted with the severe limitations of wood engraving- white and against black with almost no chance to go from sharp to soft edges or show us gradations of his tones. Somehow having fewer of these tools at hand brought out in him a deeper level of seeing, allowing him to milk every last drop of expressiveness out of a well chosen shape.

The perfect example is the relationship of the arrow-straight gesture of the man's arm reaching to the heavens contrasting the sinuous curving silhouette of the flame.
Kent plays up the contrast of the arm against the carefully sculpted curves. 

There's alway a danger of being too predictable with where one places one's shapes. So often lesser artists make things too symmetrical. Instead Kent injects little surprise of asymmetry into his design. See how the man's arm is just a bit to the left of the center of the flame. Or even more subtle, how the thin white rays shooting off the left side of the flame are more vertical than the ones coming off the right side. It's little touches like this that unconsciously pull you in by provoking your curiosity. 

P.S. George Billis Gallery in New York reopens its 2nd solo show of my own landscape paintings on Wednesday, Jan. 2 after their holiday break. The show runs through Jan. 19, 2013.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Doing Much With Very Little / Rockwell Kent Prints

I posted this Rockwell Kent angel on Facebook on Christmas Eve. Since then I've been looking at it repeatedly and keep noticing amazing little design inventions Kent employed to make it so powerful. He worked in the extremely limited palette of black against white. By some quirky miracle of his creative mind, instead of inhibiting his imagination this seemed to let him soar.Kent pares down art to just clear hard shapes, contrasts of patterned against empty surfaces, and the starkest black and white imaginable. If you want to learn about design, nobody is a better teacher than Kent.In his snow-giving angel above, look at how he divides up the inky black sky.  Someone else might casually scatter stars throughout the sky like wall paper. But instead Kent sees the background stars as a means to build surprise into a night sky that makes up 4/5 of his composition. He corrals the stars into just the top of the sky making the remaining emptiness feel more vast and the clustered stars above more dazzling.The angel's hands are particularly effective, opening up like a hinged folded paper fan. See how Kent hints at a circular rhythm of the tinier snowflakes issuing from her fingers. Then they become larger and vertically shower down on the earth. It's his attention to little things like this that lift what could be a maudlin  illustration of an angel into something we have to take more seriously. Kent tells us that at least in the realm of dreams and imagination, winter angels bearing snow are absolutely real.
Kent was also a prolific producer of bookplates. Here below are a few examples. They are all little works of high art in their own right. Below a happy reader sits beneath a magical tree whose fruit is more and more books.

Our reader above wears a loose fitting robe. Look at the way Kent echoes the downward thrust of the two massive tree roots with two big upward moving folds in the cloth stretched between his knees. 

Here's an modest yet powerful image- a young sapling emerging from the withered remains of a long gone tree. I love the way Kent shines a hard light in from the left side to create a massive old stump. Its clear highlighted and shadowed planes make the old wood feel so solid and heavy. In contrast the new sprouting tree seems diaphanous and almost a spirit more than an earthly plant.

Finally here's a double offering. At the left, a rising sun (or is it setting?) The composition could have been miserably static with old sol smack dab in the middle of the page symmetrically radiating out rays of light. So in comes Kent with a totally unpredictable pattern to the rays. Since you don't know ahead of time what he's going to do with his patterning, you feel like you have to look just to see what's going on. 
Kent for many years was virtually disappeared from mainstream accounts of 20th century American art history. I'm happy to see he is finally starting to get his due. And the winners in this are us, who are finally seeing some of the most inventive and heartfelt drawings and prints to be found anywhere. The power of his imagination prods us to enjoy our eyes in ways we haven't before. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Billis Gallery Show Tour Part III

Let's conclude my guided tour of George Billis Gallery's current show Earth's Shadow: Landscapes by Philip Koch in New York (note: like many Chelsea art district galleries, Billis Gallery is closed for their holiday break and will reopen the exhibit Jan. 2 - 19, 2013). I'm happy to report one of the major pieces in the show, Otter Cove, will be heading to its new home with some collectors in London.

Here is  Northern Pines, Morning,  oil on panel, 12 x 24".

It was painted on the same small pond that was the source for another oil in the show, Still Pine. My wife and I discovered the source by wandering down an unmarked dirt road on our honeymoon thirty years ago in Acadia National Park in Maine. Sheltered by the surrounding forests, the water there is always calm and can be counted on to have stunning reflections of the far shore's frieze of pines. I like to return every so often to work there.

I have to smile thinking about the first day I set up there to make this particular painting. There was a quintessentially taciturn Maine fisherman already there fishing on the narrow band of open shoreline. He eyed me doubtfully when I arrived with my equipment but managed a silent nod and went back to his fishing. Selecting a viewpoint a few feet away with my back half turned from the man, I set up my easel and paints and fell into the concentration of making a painting. It went well and I was all business for about 40 minutes. Stepping back to take a break I turned and was amazed to find my fisherman had disappeared, somehow packing up and leaving without making a sound. Nonetheless, he seemed to have given me luck and the painting continued to go well that and the successive days I returned to work on it. Guess the Muse of Art can appear to us in all kinds of guises. 

Some of the crowd at the Gallery's opening reception. The Gallery hung five small oils in a long row under the window to the street. Looking at them from right to left, here is Monhegan Dawn, Emerald,  oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13".

Begun on location on Monhegan Island, Maine. The Island is 12 miles off the coast of Maine, and for generations has served as a magical beacon for American landscape painters (Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and a host of others of my favorite artists from the past did some amazing work there). 

This is the southern tip of the small companion island, Manana, that shelters just enough of the exposed larger Monhegan Island to form a small harbor. It's completely barren rock and early in the morning can turn some remarkable pink hues as the sun is rising. 

Below is Blue Mountain, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2". Painted in the Green Mountains in Vermont, this piece celebrates the unpredictable rhythms of these geologically ancient peaks. 

Here are the final three oils in that row.

Asgaard  was the mythic home of the Norse gods. Rockwell Kent, who I mentioned above as one of my favorite American artists who painted on Monhegan Island, later bought a farm in New York's Adirondack Mountains and named it Asgaard. As a boy I had gone to scout camp nearby and later worked as a teenage dishwasher in the same camp. While the camp kitchen wasn't particularly inspiring, the surrounding mountains made a deep impression on me. This is a painting totally from my memory and imagination. I return to the Adirondacks frequently to paint in that rugged area of the Northland.

The Hollow, oil on panel, 10 1/2 x 14" is a very different kind of painting, done mostly on location with my portable easel in the Texas Hill Country. I was exploring the enormous ranch of one of my major collectors and came upon this intriguing "tunnel" of bushes over a stream. I liked the way the diagonal roof of the tunnel moved across the painting and lined up with a light grey hillside in the upper left corner of the painting. Linking things together like this that at first glance might seem unconnected is one of the major delights of making paintings.

And here is Quiet Shore: Silver, painted on a tidal estuary on the Chesapeake Bay in Oxford, Maryland. What began as a sunny day painting evolved into this moodier treatment back in my studio. I had a lingering fascination with some of the fogbound mornings I've loved when painting on the Pamet River in Truro on Cape Cod, MA and those deeper tonalities eventually inserted themselves in this piece.

Here's some of the happy folks at the opening reception, (L to R,  Wendy Cohen, Carol Flach, Jenny Pirc and my wife Alice).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Billis Gallery Show Tour Part II

This continues the guided tour of my solo show at George Billis Gallery in New York. (Part I is here).

NOTE:  Like many art galleries in the Chelsea art district, Billis gallery is taking a holiday break from Dec. 23 - Jan. 1. The show reopens Jan. 2 and runs through Jan. 19, 2013.

In the last post we ended talking about works in this group of small oils pictured below. Picking up where we left off, above is After Sunset,  oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2", 2012 (to see larger images click on any of the photos). This is part of a tidal cove on Deer Isle in Maine. There was a beautiful delicate light at twilight one evening I was there and I rushed to paint it before it faded. The soft yellows and sharper oranges in the sky seemed to capture just the calm feeling I was after so I removed a distant shoreline that was at the right to let the sky's reflection play without interruption in the water.

This is Still Pine,  oil on panel, 12 x 12", 2012. 

It was done up in Maine in Acadia National Park on a secluded pond I discovered while on my honeymoon thirty years ago. Obviously it's a spot that feels special to me. I chose the title Still Pine as the week I was working on it persistent winds were raging through the exposed areas of the Park along the coast. This pond was inland and sheltered by nearby higher forests seemed gentle and welcoming. It was also a lot warmer (Maine can be nippy, even in June).

Here is Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", another piece from Maine.


It's a view from half way up the highest peak in the US along the Atlantic Coast, Cadillac Mountain. This is looking northeast towards the Schoodic Peninsula and where the Bay's waters reach out into the open Atlantic. It was done very early in the morning when the natural light produces some of the most remarkable shimmering effects.

Just to the left of that wall of five small oils are two of my Edward Hopper themed vine charcoal drawings. You can see one of them clearly in this photo below. I had spoken about the drawing on the right, Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen in a previous blog post (it's toward end end of the post).

Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen, vine charcoal, 8 x 10"

The other vine charcoal drawing in the exhibit is hung behind the gallery desk, but it is hiding in the above photo behind Gallery Manager Tamar Holton-Hinshaw. Here it is below.

Titled Sun in an Empty Room III, vine charcoal, 9 x 12" it was named partly after one of Edward Hopper's most famous late oil paintings of sunlight hitting the floor of a completely empty room. I made this drawing on location in the bedroom where Hopper was born in Nyack, NY in 1882. Hopper lived there on and off until he was nearly thirty. The windows let sunlight into his bedroom from early morning until late in the afternoon. If one spends any time in the bedroom on a sunny day (I spent 6 days straight there just this year) you come away with a grasp of a key source for his painter's imagination.  Hopper mined the imagery of his childhood to make all those wonderful paintings throughout his career of sun streaming through  windows.

And here's Eye of the Sea, oil on panel, 14 x 28".

This actually began as a painting of the desert in the Southwest.  The dry red earth out there can be totally intriguing for a painter. The foreground is quite faithful to what I saw working from a cliff in the Texas Hill Country. But I felt the actual background the location presented was a little too uneventful and decided to bring in an alternative version. What resulted is a tip of the hat to my beloved Atlantic Ocean- I imagined the desert as it might have looked long ago when large parts of our continent lay submerged below the sea. I've often described some of my landscapes as depicting a world that exists outside of regular time.

In a  couple of days Part III of our tour will continue and look at more of the show.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Billis Show Tour, Part One

Here's a tour of my second solo show at New York's George Billis Gallery that is on display until Jan, 19, 2013.

I want to say something about each piece in the show, so probably I'll do this in three parts. You can enlarge any image by clicking on it.

Let's start with the images above. This is Inland, oil on canvas, 44 x 55", the largest piece in the exhibition. For many years I've loved painting the forest interior in New England and the Adirondack Mountains. Often beaver ponds have caught my imagination, like this one. These furry little engineers clear out some of the trees, giving a landscape painter a shot at painting a deeper space like this one.

This is Ascension, oil on panel, 40 x 32". 

Ascension is a large oil painted entirely from my memory and imagination. As the title suggests it conveys a feeling of rising up as its central focus. For many years I had been doing long horizontal paintings of the sand dunes on Cape Cod. But I remembered one of my favorite sensations being on those dunes was lying in the sand and looking up at the sky. Knitting those two worlds together is what this painting is all about. 

Next to Ascension is my oil on panel Horizon,  40 x 60".

Again, like most of my major pieces, this oil is painted from memory and imagination. Stemming from my growing up on the shore of Lake Ontario, where as a boy I watched literally thousands of sunsets descend over the horizon, it also combines traces of more recent experiences on Cape Cod, Lake Champlain, and the coast of Maine. Making a painting like this is dipping into each of those different times and places and getting them all to add some special element to an overall conversation

Here's the last of the fours larger pieces in the show, The Reach IV,  oil on linen, 40 x 60". (my large canvas, Otter Cove was talked about in my previous blog post). The Reach IV is psychologically intriguing in that it combines imagery connected to my actual father and that of Edward Hopper, who for me is something of an artistic father figure. My dad was one of the most taciturn people you'd ever have met. Yet despite his usual silence, he had a warm quality of "being with you" when he spent time with me. This was never as true as when he'd take me sailing in a tiny boat out on Lake Ontario at night.

Sadly he died right after I turned 13 which left me with a somewhat rudderless feeling. Six years later though I fell under the spell of the famous American realist painter Edward Hopper's work. I loved his intense sunlight and long, poetic shadows. But truthfully, I think a big part of my attraction was that in his photos, Hopper bore a strong resemblance to my dad. 

The shoreline the boat in the painting is sailing past is the beach just below the Hopper studio on Cape Cod Bay in S. Truro, MA. When my wife and I have stayed at his studio, one of our favorite things is walking along the beach and looking up at the dunes Hopper enjoyed in his days.

Here's this wall of smaller oils in an unobstructed view.

From left to right they are:

Mouth of the River, Connecticut, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10" that I painted over the course of two blisteringly hot days this summer in East Haven, CT. There was an delightful heavy fog early each morning that only burned off slowly, casting the riverbanks into a series of elegant silver grays. 

Hopper Bedroom, Nyack, oil on panel, 13 x 8 5/8", 2012 was painted this summer up in the second floor bedroom where Edward Hopper was born and where he slept each night until he was nearly 30. 

The view out this window, looking down onto one of Nyack, NY's busiest commercial streets and off to the Hudson River one block away, was to be an enormous influence on Hopper throughout his entire painting career. I spent three afternoons this last August painting this window and one of the Hopper family's rockers. I came away from the experience understanding how much of what we love about Hopper was his ability to hold onto his early childhood experience and translate its vividness into paint. I highly recommend to any Hopper lover a visit to the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack. You will come away with a far deeper understanding of Hopper's remarkable creativity.

I think that's enough for now. In the next couple of days I'll continue touring the show with you.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Billis Gallery Solo Show

Here's part of the crowd that came out Thursday night for the opening reception in New York at Chelsea's George Billis Gallery. The gallery has a big window facing out onto W. 26th St. and you get a preview from the street of the paintings hung in the show.

Here at the right is my painting Otter Cove, 44 x 55". with an unobstructed view following below.

You can see a video of the opening reception (you have to sit through 5 seconds of an ad, but the images of most of the work in the show are very good). Thanks to ODelle Abney.

Otter Cove was painted from some on-the-spot vine charcoal drawings I did on Maine's Mt. Desert Island. Years ago I had been struck by a wonderful painting by the American Hudson River School artist Frederic Church. He made his painting standing at this very spot on the Island but had faced inland toward the island's mountains. With my artistic forefather pleasantly in mind, I turned and faced out to sea instead (I figured Church wouldn't want the competition if I had tackled the same view he'd painted). 

I imagined the scene at early morning with the sun just coming up over the Atlantic Ocean and changed the time of year from summer to winter, adding some heavy snowfall to the trees at the left.

Here's my wife Alice and I standing in front of the oil The Reach IV, 40 x 60" (photo courtesy of Joseph Sweeney). Like the preceding Otter Cove, this oil is a coastal view, but one done farther south on Cape Cod. It is a painting based in part of the walks Alice and I have taken during our 14 residencies in the former painting studio of the famous American realist Edward Hopper. If the painting continued farther to the left, Hopper's place would be right in the space between Alice's and my head. 

The other big source for the painting is my memory of going sailing in a tiny boat at night with my father when I was about 10 years old. My dad was an adventurous sort. Though I always felt a little uneasy about night sailing, I figured as long as my dad was there it would turn out alright, It did. And it provided me with one of my fondest memories from my childhood. What better than to combine the memories of the Hopper beach and the childhood nocturnal sailing to make a new painting.

The last two oils were large paintings made back in my studio. I also do small work, lots of it. Here's a wall of five oils on panel in the show. I'll write about each of them in my next blog post in a couple of days. (If you click on the photo you can see a larger image). The second from the left pieces, the only interior painting, is from Edward Hopper's boyhood home in Nyack, NY. I spent time there this spring and summer painting the famous artist's bedroom. It's now the Edward Hopper House Art Center. Below you can see this row of five little paintings on the wall at the far left to give you a sense of the scale difference with the first two paintings I talked about.

And here is the gallery desk with Tamar Holton-Hinshaw, the Gallery manager, and Rob Motto sharing a lighter moment. Gallery people work very hard to keep the doors open and stage exhibits like mine. For this we artists should be grateful.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Tender Cradle

One thing that's little understood by the public is how artists grow their paintings. I often tell my students that when a good idea first comes to you it tip toes into your consciousness. Even for your
best ideas it's more likely to whisper to you than shout.

The trick is to give the idea water, nurturing, and patience until it's grown enough to stand on its own and let you work with it. The whole idea of drawing as a fine art in the Western tradition came from the artists of old gently rocking their ideas in the cradle. They made working drawings. The great masters made drawings, usually lots of them, to figure out where they wanted to go before they did a painting. Drawing, a medium where one can more quickly erase and adjust than with oil pigments, was a perfect bridge between the great masters' imaginations and their finished paintings. 

Above is my painting Equinox, oil on panel, 30 x 45". It came about from the fusion of several images I had been kicking about in my mind. One was thinking back to my boyhood amazement at the flocks of migrating birds I'd watched coming back from Canada each fall. The would stop along the shore of Lake Ontario by my home near Rochester, New York. Another was a fleeting glimpse I saw of the monumental San Francisco Peaks in a snow storm in Flagstaff, Arizona. Somehow I knew I wanted to pull these two disparate images together to make a painting. Sort of like cautiously feeling your way forward in a dark room when you're looking for the light switch, I at first tried out some compositions in vine charcoal.

Some pastel color studies followed...and as the color is added you can also see the shapes being maneuvered into better positions and firmer contours.

Ramsay Barnes, an MFA former grad student at MICA who a while back had helped me teach one of my classes, is now on the Faculty at Friends School of Baltimore. He invited me to have an exhibition there next month. One of the themes he is particularly eager to demonstrate with the show is the process an artist uses to make his/her work. Thinking about this, we are planning on showing some of the preparatory drawings alongside some of their related  finished paintings.  I like that idea very much. Equinox is a likely candidate for that show.

Below is Eye of the Sea, oil on panel, 14 x 28" which is headed up to New York this week for the show at George Billis Gallery, Earth's Shadow: Landscapes by Philip Koch (Dec. 11 - Jan. 19).

The piece has a roundabout history. It was begun in the Texas Hill Country outside of Austin. I loved the unusual reddish tint to the dry soil out there. But I felt I needed a different background than the locale provided. After trying out several alternatives in oil, I decided to invite the Atlantic Ocean to flood the far valley. To flesh out this imaginary marriage I made the vine charcoal drawing below to help guide my insertion of a new background into the world of the foreground.

You can see I didn't follow the drawing exactly in the final version. Rather it was a guide to get me heading in the right direction.