Sunday, December 29, 2013

Philip Koch Work in Studio Visit Magazine

Above is the two-page spread on my paintings that appears in the new Volume 24 of Studio Visit magazine. Given that these two of my favorite paintings are reaching a broader audience I thought it would be good to tell a little more about them. In this post I'll take up the first one.

Inland, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2008 

The forests of inland New England are really dense. So much so that I often resort to searching out the clearing provided by a beaver pond so I can see more of a vista.

In the early days of American landscape painting small farms dotted New England. Painters of the Hudson River School like Cole and Church could set up their easels anywhere and likely find a panoramic view without too much trouble. That all changed with the expansion of mechanized agriculture in the Midwest. New England's rocky soil and hilly sloping fields made the going harder. A lot of New England farms failed and their owners made the trek to the cities to find factory work. Abandoned by the thousands, their farms reverted to the natural forest remarkably quickly. 

One of the most haunting of experiences for a landscape painter hiking through what seems to be an untouched natural forest is to come upon the remains of long forgotten stone walls that used to mark the edges of some one's tilled field. It's enough to make you believe in ghosts.

My title for my oil of this New England beaver pond, Inland, was chosen with all this in mind. It's a wildly complex painting, containing so many forms. My challenge was to make it intricate without descending into  confusing the viewer. I started as I often do by purposely including too much- water, grasses, white tree trunks, fields, distant pines and for good measure, a sun drenched mountain. 

As a painter you have to put the brakes on yourself sometimes. Stepping back and considering what among the perhaps overly generous offering needs to be scaled back or simplified. A painting after all can't be about everything.

Bringing Inland to completion meant going on a mission through the entire middle ground to tone down or eliminate most of that section's highlights. One prominent red mass of foliage remains near the middle. It serves as a bridge between the cooler hues of the middle ground space and the bright oranges to be found in the foreground and the far distant mountain. I had tried it with the red tree completely removed, but that made the middle ground feel too isolated from the adjoining warmer spaces. One wants the different spaces in a painting to feel differently from each other, but not so much so that they seem to be speaking in different languages.

I will write about the other oil painting, Ascension, in the next blog post coming in a few days.

Ascension, oil on canvas, 40 x 32", 2008

Friday, December 20, 2013

Do Artists Have to be Depressed People?

Charles Burchfield, Christmas Scene, watercolor on paper,  1951, 32 1/2 x 24", D C Moore Gallery

Christmas time finds me musing on the question of gifts. Surely supurb paintings are gifts to us. And to paint them, artists have to be gifted. What do the talents of the best artists cost them? Maybe nothing.

Nancy Weekly, the Burchfield Penny Art Center's Head of Collections and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator wrote on her museum's blog a few days ago. She touches on the question of whether artists need to be damaged people to accomplish something great. 

"...a few days ago on December 12, "The Writer's Almanac" celebrated Gustave Flaubert's birthday (1821-1880) and among their selected biographical details and quotations, one rang out to me as appropriate for how to perceive Burchfield: Flaubert said: "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." There are so many people, who in my opinion, try to cast Burchfield as a deeply disturbed "manic-depressive" among other labels-- which I consider such a stereotypical misconception on the part of non-creative people who assume that the "artist" as Other must be flawed and not 'normal" instead of acknowledging that the passion associated with creation is interior. Burchfield, despite his "ordinariness" in appearance and lifestyle, was actually an extremely extraordinary artist-- particularly in his attempts to create visual representations for sensuous experiences -- making the nonvisible visible."

My wife the psychotherapist often reminds me that everybody has great shifts in their mood. Nothing's wrong, we're not just this constant entity. For most, including Burchfield, this isn't crippling. Very likely the emotions we all share are not limited to just our difficult feelings but also include more positive and even delightful inner moments.

Christmas tree in Philip Koch's Baltimore studio, Dec. 20, 2013

I think everyone from time to time experiences extraordinary insights and even "visions" that are extremely creative. Were it not so, I don't think Burchfield's extraordinary work would strike a chord through millions of viewers the way it does. It's just that most people lack the means to express these things. If you can't find the words it's easier to just shrug and go on about your business. But it costs us to leave unacknowledged some of the most vivid sides of our lives.

Burchfield's genius may be that he attached extraordinary value to his inner emotional life and steadfastly worked to translate some of that experience into his paintings. Lucky for us he was so good at it.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Delicious Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple, watercolor, Edward Hopper

This Hopper was up at auction this last week (I didn't buy it). Found myself thinking about it and going back to sneak peeks several times over the last few days. There's its dazzling sunlight. Nobody paints bright sun better than Hopper. 

But he's also a master on other levels. For me one of the delights is
the feel of his pigments. His paint is gracefully pulled over a smooth grassy hillside. But Hopper uses a more agitated brush describing the textures in the maple tree. Hopper is so good he gets these radically different surfaces to complement each other. Robert Barnes, one of my painting teachers in grad school once told me you knew a painting was good if you found yourself wanting to taste the paint. This one looks pretty appetizing. 

There's a mystery to paint surfaces. They can entice you in extremely different ways. Some artists make them dry and chalky. Others go for a more fluid look, rapidly drawing their brush through creamy wet pigment. I'm in that second camp.

Here's my latest painting, Mirror, oil on linen, 36 x 36", 2013. I spend a huge amount of time working to make my paint handling make a little music of its own. Mostly it's about layers- letting a shape's edges sometimes rest on top of their neighbors, other times letting the neighboring shape have the upper hand.

Trace your eye along the left edge of the darkest shape above. Usually it's on top of the lighter adjoining layers. But in a few places I've pulled the lighter "underneath" colors back up over the dark color. It's about keeping the viewer's eye a little off balance.  Often I'll paint and repaint the edges of my forms many, many times. What counts is to leave footprints that feel like your hand was dancing as you painted.

A good painting is like an exquisitely prepared dish- its spices surprise your tastes but your mouth just knows they work together. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Back Home with Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, New York Interior, oil on canvas, circa 1921, Whitney Museum of American Art (I have writtten about some of Hopper's compositional ideas in this painting previously here).

Every Thanksgiving we travel north to Rockland County, NY to see some of our favorite relatives.  While there we all went back to pay a visit to my old friend Edward Hopper's home in Nyack, NY. Our party enjoyed a tour led by Lee and George Mamunes that reminded me of a little Hopper story I had forgotten.

One of my favorites of Hopper's oils is the seamstress glimpsed through an open window seen above. Her pose is just perfect, nailing the look and feel of the woman lost in her task. So much of the emotional richness of Hopper's interiors flows from how he connected his feelings to the spaces that surround this figures. He seems to know their surroundings intimately. Often he did.

Here's a photo of the fireplace mantle in one of the front rooms of the Hopper House Art Center.

The resemblance to the fireplace in  New York Interior is striking. Hopper reached back into his experience and drew forth some of the memories that resonnated deeply for him. You can just feel his affection for the elaborate woodwork and tile front on this piece of his childhood. He fits it seamlessly into his seamstress painting.

You can't go home again. But for all of us, including Hopper, a lot of the past remains tellingly present within us. We are fortunate that he knew how to put his favorite memories to such good use.

If you look over my shoulder you can see one of the fruits of the Edward Hopper House Art Center's labors in the newly restored woodwork on the railing on Hopper's front porch. I was delighted to see the progress they've made on it.

In other news, several of the galleries around the country that represent my work have new paintings in their holiday shows:

Annual Christmas Exhibition at Meredith Long & Company in Houston, TX.

A Passion for Painting at Nichols Gallery Annex in Barboursville, Virginia

(Largely) Small Works at Alpers Fine Art in Andover, Massachusetts

The Magic of Christmas at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Painted Palette Tree at Florence Griswold Museum

Philip Koch, Northstar: Griswold, oil on wooden palette,
12 x 8", 2013

Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut has an innovative way of celebrating the holidays- Christmas trees decorated with artist's palettes.

As a gesture toward their own history of artists painting panels for the Museum, they ask artists to paint on wooden palettes. I was invited by David Rau, Griswold's Director of Education, and Outreach to try my hand at one on one of their palettes. The Museum hangs them on Christmas trees inside their galleries. This is the 10th anniversary of "Miss Florence's Artist Tree."

Christmas decorations had a hand in turning me toward painting in the first place. At six I became something of an art critic. 

Back in the 1950's each year my family would receive a mountain of Christmas cards in the mail. I was handed a roll of tape and given the job of hanging them all up in our living room. Rising to the challenge, I found I enjoyed deciding which of the illustrations on the cards (they were all little paintings in those days) were the best. Usually these were the snow scenes. They got hung in the prime spots. Those I thought inferior were relegated to the hard-to-see corners of the room. I had a ball and made this my job for years after. It was my first dipping of my toe into waters of connoisseurship. 

Florence Griswold Museum  is known as "The Home of American Impressionism." In the first two decades of the 20th century, most of the leading artists of the Tonalist  and the Impressionist movements in America came to stay at the boarding house run by Florence Griswold. Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam and (my favorite) Willard Metcalf were among dozens of artists who came and did serious work there along the banks of the Lieutenant River. 

As a memento of their stay, many of the artists painted wooden panels in the boarding house dining room.

Here's one of the dining room's painted panels by Willard Metcalf (Am. 1858-1925), Beach and Headlands, an oil from 1907-08.

Here's another of the panels by another of Florence Griswold's guests, Arthur Heming (Canadian 1870-1940), Shooting the Rapids from 1906. My wife Alice took a special trip up from Baltimore last March to see the Griswold's Heming exhibition, our first visit in years. We delighted with the show. Amy Kurtz Lansing, Griswold's curator was kind enough to spend time with us and tell us about some of the Museum's history and how she came to work there.

A view of the Heming installed in the dining room wall.

This is the cover of invitation to the Museum's holiday exhibit. My painted palette is at the upper right.

When contacted about painting one of the Museum's palettes, I thought back to the spectacular snowy winters that I loved as child. In particular an image of the pines that grew around my house in the snow seemed perfect for the theme.

I hadn't worked on a non-rectangular canvas since 1967, so I figured it would be help to start by making a vine charcoal drawing to determine the best placement of my shapes.

Here I am in my studio, using the vine charcoal drawing at the right as a guide, working out the painting in oils.

The Griswold Museum's Magic of Christmas exhibition runs Dec. 6, 2013 - Jan. 5, 2014. There is a ticketed opening reception party Thursday Dec. 5. You can learn more about it on their website  here.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Little Lies

                    A 1914 watercolor by Edward Hopper.

As I was out this morning I was struck at the remarkable complexity of what we usually see in the world. Honestly it's a bit overwhelming to the eye, which is why we wear mental blinders most of the time. 

Artists give us energy by creating an "alternative universe" that is quietly simpler than reality. When it's done right, viewers are too busy drinking in a painting's energy to notice.

In the watercolor above for example, Hopper paints what in real life was a maddeningly busy rocky foreground. He radically edits out much of the detail (the bleached-out immediate foreground). He prunes it down, adding a powerful wind to the painting's sails.

 Inland, oil on canvas, 45 x 60" at
George Billis Gallery, New York

My own painting above also delivers a simpler reality. Its focus is the contrast of the vertical stripped-bare tree trunks against the rest of the painting.

Originally the trunks poking out of the water ran the whole gamut of warm light brown colors. I realized they were getting lost in the surrounding warm yellow and orange grasses. So I turned the trunks into cool white birches. The painting immediately jumped up to a higher level.

You have to tell little lies to get at the larger truth.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What Artists Need to Know

Caspar David Friedich, The Sea of Ice or The Wreck of Hope, oil on canvas, 1823-24.

I got a surprise this morning seeing something I wrote I'd completely forgotten about. 

My friend Mollie Earls posted on Facebook some notes I had used for a talk I gave at the Associated Artists of Winston-Salem down in North Carolina perhaps a dozen years ago. All these years later I still believe these things. Like any list of bullet points on a complex topic, it's biased and one sided, but I think totally useful advice. (I had wanted to title my talk the 7 Secrets of Art, but as you can see I couldn't seem to hold it to just that).

The 7 Secrets of Art, and a few more.                                        

Secret #1. 

That there are secrets.


That there are in fact rules.


Tone is more important than color.


Shapes are more important than color.

Silhouettes are more important than details


Intervals are more important than forms.

Craftsmanship is always in style.
The problem with one’s work is usually not where you think it is.

Art is not an idea but a vision.

Art is the marriage of the skeptic and the hopeless romantic.

Art revisits the joys and terrors of childhood.

An artist has to carry forward some of the threads that were woven by the great masters.

While art is solitary, an artist needs feedback from someone they trust who has a good eye.

The art world is filled in equal measure with people who are:

      and downright silly.


Keep your eyes open, your heart warm, and stick to your guns.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Real Power in Little Things

    Philip Koch, The Song of All Days, oil on panel, 36 x 72". 

The most powerful paintings can speak quietly.

They must be subtle enough that you want to live with them for years- drinking in what you can when you can or ignoring them when you must turn to other things. If paintings came on with all the clamour of a rock star they might gather crowds quickly but over time the crowds would drift away.

Instead the best paintings call for your attention quietly. Heck, they only whisper. Yet their power plays out into your life for a long, long time.

The point of art is to make something rich enough that each time people come back to it they discover something new. There are Rembrandts like that I've been looking at for decades. He'll make tiny things that charm me, like the how one finger is painted with sharp staccato strokes while the adjoining fingers are softly smudged. It's been done so well you feel he's painted it exactly the way it had to be. Somehow Rembrandt has won us over into having an almost timeless relationship with him. That's real power.

My neighbor has a ridiculously shy cat named Bobo. He likes to come and take naps on the deck just outside my studio. If you speak to him in a loud voice he freaks out and bolts.  To win him over you need to be artful, like a great painting. Softly call his name. Walk up to him slowly. Let him sniff your hand for a full minute. Whisper to him like a great painting and Bobo will befriend you. 

When I painted my oil The Song of All Days above I knew I wanted a super high contrast of prickly vertical pines against a wide open light horizon. You have to get the viewers attention. But what keeps me wanting to go back and look again are the little things. Like the soft gradations in the butterscotch colored sea in the lower right corner.