Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sewing Up a Composition with Edward Hopper

This is Edward Hopper's oil New York Interior. It has that casual, almost accidental pose to the figure that make you feel Hopper might have literally peered in through a window and seen just this. But at the same time the painting has that "just right" quality to it that suggests it is far from an accident. 

I've always loved pose of the arms and hair of this seamstress. It's easier to see if one isolates key sections of the composition. 

Here's the right arm. Look at how Hopper squeezes the empty space just below the woman's upper right arm by fluffing up that billowing white fabric she's sowing. Her arm and the uprising white cloth act like book ends pushing in on the empty brown space in the background. It's Hopper's way of instilling personality into the seemingly empty areas of his painting. He knew well that properly painted, every inch of his canvas could be made to speak to the viewer, stimulate their eyes and stir their emotions.

Hopper makes the sitter's other arm intriguing as well. Look at how he frames the slightly diagonal upper left arm with two long  strands of her dark hair.

Here's my big oil painting From Day to Night that's on display in my solo exhibit at Friends School of Baltimore until Feb. 15. 

The entire painting was done out of my imagination and some memory of looking down upon islands in the Penobscot Bay in Maine. Probably the key focal point in the painting is the narrow passageway between the two biggest islands. It was remembering how Hopper would move his solid forms closer together to make them appear to be pressing in on the empty interval between them that caused me to squeeze this passageway so tightly in my painting. It's a chance for the islands to bend and turn their outer contours into shapes that swell with importance.

My painting below,  Deer Isle (currently in Inside Out: Still Life & Landscape, a group show at Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, DE) shows some of the same kind of "look at the form next to what you are working on" philosophy.

The orange stand of trees at the left foreground was painted in simultaneously with the big dark mass of trees just behind them. They had to be as they reinforce each other. I had both batches of color mixed up and hopped back and forth between the two areas, careful not to let one rush to completion before the other. It's like two different musical notes sounding together as a chord.

Paintings don't talk. They don't move. Yet at their best they can touch the heart with surprising forcefulness. Painters have to see all the forms and intervals in their painting almost as living little beings. Each has a potential to play a specific role and exude its own special energy. A successful artist scans their eye across their forms, searching for ways to tie together what looked at first disconnected. This is one of the joys, and one of the essential meanings, of painting. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

January Sometimes Is the Real Spring

Inevitably the theme of new beginnings is wrapped up in our notion of Spring. There's a famous painting by the Renaissance artist Botticelli called Primavera of the goddess of Spring appearing out of the sea carrying garlands of flowers. Most of you know it. To those of us who live in Northern climates, this is no small thing. But for me, when the snow and ice return, I always thing back to my own personal fresh start.

Way back in the Fall of 1966, after several years of feeling like I was holding my breath to get through high school, I left little Webster, NY and headed off to my Freshman year at Oberlin College in Ohio. As was the case for so many of us, high school was an awkward and sometimes difficult stage to endure. What kept me going was the thought I would one day leave home, get a fresh start, and everything would be better. That is exactly what happened. But, and it's a big but, not in the way I expected. 

I came from a long line of college professors and fully expected myself to follow suit. I knew I would find myself if I studied Sociology or History and loaded up my first semester schedule with just such classes. 

On the very first day of class I had an 8 a.m. Sociology 101 lecture waiting for me. I was a little scared. To make matters worse, it was miserably cold and pouring outside and I took my seat with 20 other soaked-to-the-skin Freshman. But this would be OK, as I was sure the Professor would shortly enthrall us with tales of arcane but fascinating academic lore. 

The door opened and a terribly depressed man in his late 20's entered the room, cast his eye around as if saying to himself surely he was in the wrong place, and finally shrugged and made his way to the lectern. He confessed he'd only just earned his Ph.D. and that this was to be his first lecture ever and to please bear with him. With that he dropped his eyes to his notes and never looked up again until the bell rang 50 minutes later. I have no idea what he said, and I doubt anyone else in the room did much better at surviving his somnambulist-like performance. Whatever he said felt impenetrably abstract and forever removed from anything I'd ever experienced.

How could this be? To my young eyes he didn't look so good. Was this what Sociology did to people? 

I didn't have time to ponder this as I now had 10 minutes to get to the other side of campus to my next class, so back out into the downpour I went. This was Art History 101, a required course I knew I was going to have to take sometime or other. I had propitiously decided to tackle it head on to get it out of the way so I could get serious about my planned future in Sociology or History. With appropriately low expectations I joined several hundred by now very wet students in the schools giant auditorium. We sat together shivering waiting for the professors to begin. 

What followed was something new to me as I'd never taken art in high school. They lowered the lights and spent the rest of the hour running through a survey of the art they would be covering in the class the rest of the semester. To my surprise, I really liked it- it felt a little like story time back in grade school- here were wild scenes of sword carrying soldiers slaughtering children and carrying off women and all other sorts of images. As each slide would pop into view, you'd feel like you'd just parachuted into a new world. Then a minute later you'd land someplace completely different. 

Only one image stood out enough for me to recall by name, the oil painting above by Caspar David Friedrich,  Sea of Ice (a.k.a. The Wreck of the Hope). I'd never heard of him before but his icy winter scene catapulted me right back to my childhood days of playing on the massive ice hills that formed each year on the shore of Lake Ontario where I'd moved just as I turned four. We kids used to half freeze playing out on that ice, but when I saw the slide of Friedrich's winter scene it hit me with the sweet warmth of recognition. Friedrich was painting my world, and painting it better and more clearly than nearly anything I'd ever scene before.


Oberlin College did in fact turn out to be the long wished for fresh start I had been hoping for. But it was more some of the deep friendships I made there and the getting that first nudge to set off into the world of art that made the difference. Sometimes you head off to the store for one thing and come home with something else. And that something else can sometimes be much better.

So I've got a soft spot for snow and ice paintings. Here's one by the American Impressionist John Twacthman

It's funny how people associate Spring with bright color. Well, the flowers, of course. But for a landscape painter, Spring also brings back the leafy green canopy that can seem to cover everything. With all due respect to photosynthesis, yellow green is not the easiest color to work with in oil paint. It's always warm and it can feel heavy and too dense if the painter isn't careful.

In the winter the wonderful grays of the tree bark are out and displayed in all their glory. Cast some sunlight on them and you're given a feast of pink, violets, oranges. And oh lord, the snow- it's heaven's gift to give you blazing light shapes to play off against the mid-grays and your darkest tones. A winter theme almost always guarantees so much high contrast that you'll find yourself having to rein back on your horses.

In the Twachtman oil above, the entire bottom third of the canvas is a shimmering pattern of zig zagging shapes. Does an abstraction by Wassily Kandinsky have anything on this? 

I suppose growing up in Rochester, NY in the snow belt predisposed me to like winter. I have the requisite heavy gloves and a good coat for when she is trying to kill me. But show her a little respect (alright, in storms show her a lot of respect) and she'll show you her beautiful side. Maybe your Spring can come five months early too.

Philip Koch, Under the Moon, oil on canvas,
24 x 36"

Friday, January 25, 2013

Carl Jung and What Seeing Has to Do with Art

Vermeer, Lady with her Maidservant Holding a
Letter, 1667, Frick Collection, NYC

Sometimes it feels like a piece of art picks us instead of the other way around.

For years I had this painting by Vermeer stuck in my mind. I felt kind of uncool obsessing about such a pedestrian domestic scene. Yet I'd find myself thinking about the painting seemingly for no good reason. Art is primarily about psychology and the play of emotions in our lives. The question for painters is how best to foster that in the viewer. 

Some years ago I started studying the psychologist Carl Jung. (If anyone out there is in the mood for challenging reading, this is the place to go. The guy loved nothing better than to include long passages in Greek, German, and English on each page. I kid you not). But he makes a convincing case for the active hand of the unconscious in guiding our actions. 

Animals live guided by inborn impulses they don't understand but benefit from- such as being able to build a secure nest for their eggs using only their beak, sticks, and a little mud (if you think that's easy go try it yourself and compare your results to that of the average sparrow). We descended from animals who were acting almost entirely from such instincts. Gradually we developed intellect and eventually language and teaching. But instead of our animal instincts withering away Jung said, they're still there just below our awareness. And just like the instinct that allows a sparrow to build a beautiful nest, they're almost magical in their creative power.

Jung believed further that the seat of these unconscious messages were mental images, little pictures that he describes as being "feeling toned." He coined the now often used term archetypes to name them. They form the biggest part of who we are. Trouble is, you can't just order your unconscious to reveal itself, it is notoriously shy and prefers life in the shadows. But from time to time pieces of it poke through the surface into our awareness and bring with them a ripple of special energy.

The act of seeing is usually misunderstood as the passive receiving of thousands of pieces optical data onto the retina, which the brain immediately senses as a finished picture in the manner of a video camera.  But that's wrong. 

Rather it is a meeting of these bits of optical information with the archetypes we carry within us. Our memories, feelings and our unconscious archetypes merge with the incoming visual data and we "see" a chair or a table. The thing is, if this is true, no two people do it quite the same way. We literally see differently.

Let's return to that pesky oil painting by Vermeer of the woman being handed a letter. I used to look at it when I was a young student at the Art Students League in New York. It lives at the Frick Collection in a lovely skylit gallery. I used to go there and drink the paintings in (Frick himself, something of a robber-baron from hell, had the bucks to buy an amazing collection). One painting always stood out to me, the Vermeer reproduced above. 

Now ostensibly a quiet painting, it always seemed to grab ahold of me in a way the others didn't. This morning I was wondering again about why and I suddenly focused on the particular yellow top the woman at the right wears. I felt myself being pulled back to my childhood again and found myself in my old basement bedroom. When I was four, my parents painted the walls that very same color yellow as Vermeer used to clothe his model. This is color that surrounded me for the years of my growing to adulthood. It literally colored my hopes and dreams. When I look at that painting, I have those memories of mine triggered and an internal gong is struck. I can't help but be drawn to that painting. It is reaching out to me to teach me about my forgotten childhood self.

This is why I'm such an enthusiast of direct observation of the world as training for artists. If you take one of my classes at MICA you'll do it a lot. As one looks out with wide open eyes, one will be drawn to subjects that strike internal bells in one's unconscious. To look long and hard at the outside word ironically leads you full circle to discover internal keys to yourself. The old artists believed in the Muse. More secular minds, like mine, believe the unconscious stores within it much of our creativity.

The path of the artist is to build a cooperative relationship with the unconscious. And the unconscious very much wants to use our eyes to look out at the world. Let it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Art Room

Philip Koch, Northern Pines, Morning,  oil on panel, 12 x 24", 2012

The artist Taryn Day writes an intriguing blog titled The Art Room that I believe many of my readers would enjoy. Taryn likes to focus on a theme for each month to organized her posts. Previously she had featured my work in a series she ran on the theme of windows.

This month she is writing about artists who write blogs themselves and invited me to contribute a few favorite paintings and some comments about why I chose them. And she added some choices of her own and gave some of her thoughts. So I'd like Taryn's blog post to make a "guest appearance" on my blog for today. Here is the link to her feature from yesterday on my paintings. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Strange Connections, Hopper, Harris and a Turn in the Road

One of the reasons I like being a painter instead of an art historian is I'm free to wander a bit more in my thinking. Artists love to make comparisons that jump from one artistic category to another. For example I was just looking at (alright, no surprise here!) Edward Hopper and the Canadian painter Lawren Harris (1885-1970). It hit me how the two, despite their difference in style, were instilling extra energy into their paintings with similar tools.  Here's Hopper's wonderful oil of his neightbor Burly Cobb's place, which was just over the hill south of Hopper's studio on Cape Cod. 

I love his contrast of the big, open areas of the shingled roof played off against the much more abrupt rhythms of the smaller oblique roof shapes and chimneys at the lower right of the painting. Hopper was a master of giving his viewer big massive forms and then contrasting them against something small, sharp and unexpected. Any painter can do that, of course, but Hopper binds the very differently scaled forms together into a tight little conversation. Sometimes it's so beautiful I could look at it all day.

It's easy to think Hopper just "painted what he saw" of course. He didn't. Instead he doggedly pursued making paintings that expressed his more internal, emotional side. In Hopper's day, the then largely deforested Cape Cod  looked in many places like a big, wide open panorama. This photo I took of Hopper's studio last fall during my most recent residency there is a perfect example of the typical landscape Hopper actually had before him. 

It shows little of the more densely packed imagery that so often made Hopper's paintings special. Hopper went for the more unexpected view, the combining of the broadly open form with something surprisingly intricate. It gave his work a freshness of seeing that we feel all these years later.

Below is a painting by one of Hopper's contemporaries, Lawren Harris, another of my favorites. Harris was little known in the U.S. and probably Hopper had never heard of him. Yet in so many ways, the moves Harris employs to energize his paintings are so similar to Hopper's. Like Hopper's massive roofs above, Harris gives us this big monolith of land projecting out into Lake Superior.

The huge dark land mass at first looks almost flat. Then your eye picks up little eccentricities like the subtle changes within the  dark form that break it up into three or four separate cliffs. Harris tells you he's found this big, brutish mass of a hillside that wants to impress you with its size.  But, he adds, if you stay around a little longer, intriguing individual component parts would be happy to reveal themselves to you. He hints at it with understatement instead of highlighting every detail. I'm in love with the syncopation of the rhythms at the very top of the dark hillside. Along the top of the hill at the right all is smoothed together into a rounded simplicity against the sky. But that's too simple left by itself, so as your eye moves to the left Harris gives you five sharp vertical trees that stant out from the crowd. It's like a tiny decorative accent on someone's  otherwise restrained business suit, giving your eye just a little moment to be surprised and deligted.
I myself am entering a new period.  Over the Fall and early winter I was all ramped up preparing for my second solo show at George Billis Gallery in New York ( today, Saturday, Jan. 19 is its last day). And I just opened a second major show at Friends School of Baltimore (through Feb. 15). Now that the work for these shows is complete, I can turn my eye back towards making new paintings. There are some works in progress from last summer calling out to me. And I've got some new ideas simmering in the back of my mind that will be making their debut appearances too.Don't feel bad for me, locked away in my studio with no one to talk to. I get out a lot. Last week I spoke to an audience of 400 students about my painting at Friends School in Baltimore and then just the next day drove out to Hagerstown, MD to speak to about 35 people at the lovely Washington County Museum of Fine Art. Here's a clipping about that from the Hagerstown Herald Mail. 

(Click on the article for a larger version).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Installation view at Friends School of Baltimore's Katz Gallery

BmoreArt Blog, "Baltimore's Contemporary Art Authority" as the masthead says, published an extensive illustrated interview yesterday on my current show at Friends School of Baltimore. Cara Ober, the Editor, interviewed myself and Ramsay Barnes
from Friends School's Art Faculty about the background and themes in the exhibit. Usually I write my own material on this blog, but since Cara did such a nice job with her article, I'd like to urge my readers to have a look. Here's the link to the article. 

Now that all the heavy lifting is out of the way, here's a few more photos from what you'll see at the show. Up at the top is my big oil From Day to Night, accompanied by a group of smaller pastels,

Below is an earlier piece, Country Road, oil on canvas, 28 x 42".

And here is West From Monhegan, oil on panel, hanging with the vine charcoal drawing I made on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine that ultimately led to me making the large oil painting. Often I'll wait a while before deciding which of my plein air drawings I want to use as a basis for a more involved oil. It's sort of like a farmer letting a field lie fallow for a year before replanting. I think on some level I'm working on these things in the back of my mind all the while.

Opening reception for the Friends School exhibit tonightWednesday, January 16 from 6 - 7 p.m. All welcome! The Katz Gallery is located in the lower level of the Forbush Building on the Friends Campus at 5114 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21210.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Color: A Chest of Treasures or Confusions

Philip Koch, Yellow Song, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2013

I can't think of a time when I've entered a gallery or a museum and have failed to glance first at the works that are in color. Maybe it's hardwired into our species? In any case, when savoring the delights afforded by any really well done painting, don't we all linger longest in its worlds of color. The irony is when paintings fail, it's almost always a color problem. Color is the ultimately mysterious ingredient it seems, ready to either delight us or bedevil us. An artist's color box can be a chest holding treasures, or it can more resemble Pandora's Box. 

Here is a new oil painting. I love experimenting with color. Very often I'll take a design I like, as in this vine charcoal drawing below and use it as a starting point for color explorations. The drawing was done this last June near the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine.

Song, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2012

My wife Alice took this photo of me working on this same charcoal drawing. Heck of a great view from up there looking southeast out onto an Atlantic Ocean dotted with a network of rocky islands.

Here below is a color version I did in soft pastel chalks from the vine charcoal. Often times I'll do a pastel to clarify my thinking about how I could use color to evoke the feeling I'm after. Pastel chalks help me find my way forward as I enter the elusive world of hues. If the pastel is successful, then very often I'll use it as a springboard for an oil painting. This method is like inching ones way forward after entering a dark room. It's in one sense cautious, but it allows me to relax and become, if anything, more adventurous with my hues. 

Yellow Song, pastel, 4 x 8", 2013

In both the pastel and the oil painting above, my thinking about color revolved around a few key points. One was that the closest space has to feel profoundly different than the distance, so I've pushed the foreground into registers of blue, while keeping the water and especially the sky all sorts of yellows. 

Another thing is that this color segregation couldn't be total. In the foreground one sees subordinated neutral grays underneath the blues. And I've inserted into the foreground tiny notes of very dark, low intensity yellow using raw umber pigments. In the water there are hints of blue in some of the highlights, and thin blue gray finger-like islands echo the cool hues of the foreground. In the sky at upper right, a blue cloud has been invented to remind the viewer of what the cold color of the close foreground felt like. 

It is enormously important to give the viewer a range of intensities with the colors I've selected. The sky in the oil and the pastel above could easily have been much more intense than the soft cream yellow I've chosen. But against the intense cold blues in the foreground that would have looked overly theatrical and felt inauthentic.

In a way the whole purpose of using color is to provide the viewer with surprises for their eye. Colors I arrive at after hours of mixing  shades and variations on my oversized studio palette are almost always more intriguing than the regular "out of the tube" hues. 

Here below is a second oil version inspired by the pastel at the bottom. Both stem from the same vine charcoal drawing. 

Red Song,  oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2013

Red Song, pastel,  4 x 8", 2013

Friday, January 11, 2013

Paintings That Shouldn't Work But Do: Burchfield

An artist friend, Anne McGurk, who I've never met in person but who's got a heck of a good eye for paintings (disclaimer, she owns one of my oils, proving right there she has an elite sensibility) has put together an album of work by the American painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) that is just a hoot. I have to recommend it to you- here's the link.

It's got lots of images that I've never seen before along with old favorites. Burchfield is one of those painters who defies being put into an easy category. He draws from America's long tradition of romantic nature painting (Hudson River School, Martin Johnson Heade), adds in an enthusiasm for modernist shallow spaces, and seasons the whole thing with what I can only call a psychedelic inner spice. In other words, he doesn't look like anybody else. Burchfield has a knack for making paintings that break all sorts of rules of "serious" painting but somehow manage to work successfully anyway.

In the watercolor above, Glory of Spring or Radiant Spring, Burchfield puts in a ton of bright yellow, usually a curse of death in a watercolor. Doing that can often just destroy any sense of deeper space or weighty solidity. He is however really careful to install most of his yellows into shapes that are clearly bounded and deliberate, like in the "auras" surrounding the two foreground tree trunks. Exactly what these shapes represent is any one's guess. But they do provide Burchfield an excuse to set up something more surprising than just the expected vertical thrusts one gets from the two foreground trees. I love the way these yellow "auras" overlap the distant thicket of sapplings and push them back into space.

Burchfield knows how well the color white works when placed right next to bright yellow. That's actually one of my own personal "rules" of painting. 

Here's another beauty from Anne's Burchfield album, Song of the Wood Thrush. And a song is exactly what Burchfield gives us. He paints about 15 major vertical tree trunks in a row extending either partly or entirely from top to bottom of his picture. This is a recipe for disaster in most cases. 

But then his wood thrush opens his beak and "sings" us a chorus of wiggling curvy lines, breaking up the monotony of all those previously mentioned verticals. That would look odd and out of place left by itself, so then in the far distance we see an echo of another network of wiggling lines in a group of trees on the far bank of the stream. Maybe it's an answering call by another wood thrush. Who knows, maybe they'll find love and start a family together. I'm kidding of course, but Burchfield is the kind of artist who sort of nudges you to indulge yourself in poetic flight-of-fancy. In a world so intent on maximizing efficiencies and multitasking, I think that's providing a real service.

Like any great painter, Burchfield is someone who does break rules when he had to to realize his very personal inner vision. But he also knew the traditions of painting backward and forward. And as wild as his imagery at first appears, he anchored his extravagant inventiveness in some very solid compositional ideas. I cant' think of a painter who better harnesses explosive energy and deftly pulls his paintings together. He goes right up to the edge of overdoing something, and then pulls back just in time to keep a sense of proportion and balance.

Thank you Anne for pulling this amazing Burchfield album together for us.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

North to Lawren Harris Country

One of Canada's best painters, Lawren Harris (1885- 1970), continues to fascinate me. 

Partly it's my attachment to the North. I grew up on the shore of Lake Ontario near Rochester, NY. One of my parents had gone to school in Toronto and used to speak excitedly of that experience. When you're 5 and 6 years old, hearing there was "another country" on the other side of the water summoned up all sorts of imaginative visions. I used to climb to the top of the highest hill near my house and strain to see this strange place called Canada. One couldn't of course, but that just added to the intrigue.

Lawren Harris was the key figure in the early 20th century Canadian movement known as the Group of Seven. I learned about their work as my sister Kathy lives in Toronto and began sending me postcards of Harris's work early on in my painting career. 

Above is one of Harris' views of Lake Superior. I particularly like the water's surface with its otherworldly cold blue green hue.  Harris is a master of creating inventive silhouettes to break up areas that otherwise would be flat and lifeless. He knows well how to gradate the tones in his shapes, heightening the contrast to draw attention to some and turning the volume down on others.

Below is a plein air oil where Harris seems to be painting through squinted eyes (no doubt he was) to break down a complex mosaic of forest branches into a simple pattern. His thinking was to assign each tree branch to be on one of his three "teams", each with its own distinctive colored team jersey- light yellow green,  the middle toned heavier green, or the more sparse very dark greens. I'd have loved to see a photograph of the source Harris was working from- I bet it would look completely different and dizzying in its complexity. In the painted version, a more essential and more simple rhythm emerges. It's rich, but not too much to digest.

Another Lake Superior panorama.

Below some half melted snow does an intricate dance with the black rocky mass of the mountain. I think the delight Harris takes in the abstract patterns here rivals anything the American painter Franz Kline managed a few years later in his Abstract Expressionist canvases.

And here's a final Lake Superior oil. It has a lot going on. I love the cool silvery sheen on the water that plays off beautifully against the gradations of warmer yellow greens in the sky. In the foreground there are again the inventive patterns of half melted snow interspersed among the burnt sienna colored soil. Their shapes seem to mimic the silhouettes of white seagulls' wings. Harris shows some of the same gestures in the white highlighted clouds. 

Why does it all matter? 

Well, I think most of us often feel life is speeding by us so fast that we can't really take it in. It can seem everything is stuck on a "Fast Forward" setting.  A well painted image of the world like what Harris often achieved has a mysterious ability to catch hold of this fleeting and surging energy. For a moment the painting holds things still for us, containing the rush, and giving us a chance to take things in slowly. It's a chance to savor the balance of both movement and peaceful equilibrium.

Painting at its best is a tool to let us feel we understand. It's a chance to  push away our confusions and dizziness long enough to let us appreciate the deep, sensual beauty that is out there. It helps us be open enough to take it in. 

I suppose I'm particularly excited by Lawren Harris' imagery because it speaks to my childhood of growing up on the shore of Lake Ontario, dreaming about this "foreign land" the adults called Canada. But if his work is well enough painted, and I feel it very often is, I think his painting has a magic to anyone who has ever marveled at the play of lights over any stream or river, pond or ocean. There is a kind of music out there. Lawren Harris is showing us how to hear some of it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Drawing as the Artist's Compass

Who doesn't need a secret weapon?

Above is one of mine. It's one of my sketchbooks attached to a pedestal in my current show at Friends School of Baltimore. In the photo above my large oil Down to the Bay hangs on the wall next to a framed working drawing I did to help me adjust the silhouettes in the big piece (detail below). A working drawing is a quick way to test out a new idea before you make a major commitment to it. 

Here's a close up of one of the pages in the sketchbook on the pedestal. This is a drawing I did midstream as I was working my way incrementally towards finishing my oil Adirondack Lake: Red,  24 x 18", 2012.

The thing is ideas, good ones, come to us only when they will.

When they do come the trick is to be ready for them. If I have my paints and brushes ready I can go at it. But if not, I make a note of the idea as clearly as possible. It's best to do this immediately. This means draw the idea in its essentials. There's nothing to lose as I'm not obligated to use the new idea the next morning. But if after some time has elapsed the sketch still looks promising, I work with it.

Above is another piece in the Friends School of Baltimore show- Home Triptych. Sometimes after I've done a more finished black and white drawing in vine charcoal I'll try out several alternative ideas for color, using soft pastel chalks as I've done here. My little drawings are all pretty faithful to the major shapes I arrived at in the original charcoal drawing. But in each I try to do something completely different in terms of color. Very often my favorite version will be the basis for a larger oil painting. 

The artists who've trod the path before us often times used drawing as a way to find their way forward when they do major oil paintings. (Long time readers of this blog won't be surprised to see me pick Edward Hopper as an example). He is a good artist to study as so much of the expressiveness of his work come through his focus on clearly drawn shapes. It turns out, he thought through his paintings as much as he could before hand, often times doing numerous studies of potential compositions. 

Here's Hopper's major oil, Summertime, in the Collection of the Delaware Art Museum. I pick this painting both because I love it, but also because it's one where it's easy to find some of his preparatory drawings on line. 

Below is one Hopper drew to gather ideas for the details of how the shadows could play over the stonework of this building. To me it has an unmistakable feeling of a drawing done from life, with Hopper more intent on capturing a few specific details than in orchestrating an overall composition. 

It's fascinating to see him circling around his growing idea in the next drawing. Here you see him with a slightly different point of view with a more oblique approach to the building as he experiments with where to pose a woman's figure on the steps.

Which drawing came first? We don't really know. What we can see is he took key elements from each- the elegant cast shadow from the first drawing above and the woman on the steps from the second. 

His final composition accepts neither drawing as the last word. There may well be other studies he drew to help find his way. Or perhaps most of his inventing and adjusting took place on the canvas itself. But he had saved himself a huge amount of casting around for ideas first with charcoal on paper. 

Drawing isn't the same as painting of course. But it is a medium that lets an artist think farther and think faster. And we need that. The entire idea of "master drawings" in Western art history is in almost all cases simply the evidence of artists preparing to do their paintings. It's an honorable tradition of artists taking good ideas and figuring out how to make them better before they create a finished piece. 


My exhibit at Friends School of Baltimore will have an opening reception Wed. Jan.16 from 6-7 p.m. All welcome. The show is in the School's Katz Gallery (lower level of the Forbush Building) and continues through Feb. 15, 2013. For more information on the show click here.