Sunday, February 24, 2013

Anders Zorn's Wonderful Dog

Note: I'm happy to announce the Burchfield Penny Art Center, one of the two major art museums in Buffalo, NY published my previous piece on one of Charles Burchfield's watercolors on their museum blog. You can read it here.

Anders Zorn (Sweedish,  1860 - 1920), Portrait of Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon Apparently that is actually the title of the painting and the poor woman's name isn't going to be revealed to us. That said, what a nice dog (also nameless, apparently) and moreover, what a stunning composition.We know we are never going to actually meet this woman or her proud looking hound. That Zorn could make us want to look more than once at this woman and her dog is proof of his remarkable skill as a painter.So often paintings, especially realist paintings, reveal some of their abstract artistry turned upside down. Zorn had an eye for making connections and instilling movement into his paintings. Look at the same painting inverted and see how he broke his canvas up into two basic flat shapes. Sharply angular, they push and pull our eyes rapidly around the canvas

The woman and her dog merge together to create a huge light colored triangle pushing all the way from one side of the canvas to the other. Everything outside this light area is pushed darker. I especially love the color harmony Zorn sets up between his glowing delicate yellows in the silk dress and the restrained blue grays of the floor.Zorn seems to have played around a great deal, adjusting his props to get the most powerful expression from his arrangement. One of my favorites is the yellowish cloth behind the woman's shoulder that seems draped over the back of her chair. He's lined up its long diagonal side to reinforce the long diagonal edge of his giant light triangle shape. It works beautifully. I think what Zorn is saying with a painting like this is that things aren't either as fragmented or as isolated as they often appear. As a painter, all Zorn can do is show us relationships and connections in a way that is a little more obvious than they are to the casual observer. So he's pushed and pulled at the outlines of his woman, her dress, and her dog to make them come together as a team that generates that big light triangle form. (I fantasize them proudly saying to us "See, we're part of something bigger").Zorn looks like he worked very quickly with is broad and quick moving brush strokes. But I bet in truth he took his time with this painting, looking and considering, toying with alternatives, and painting and repainting passages that he sensed could be made better. The magnificent dog for example. What are the chances the dog's fur really came so close to matching the colors of the woman's dress. Fido's chest fur is a touch cooler in color, but that gradates back to exactly the dress color as Zorn reaches the the dog's hind quarters. I think the artist is lying to us just a little bit, making the dog look like it's just has his fur color retouched at the Canine Hair Salon to fit his owners choice of gown.One little detail I think is utterly charming is the way Zorn paints the sitter's hand gently sinking into the long fur on her dog's shoulder. This could have been rendered with much darker shadows in between all of her splayed out fingers. Zorn would have none of that. He felt he had said enough with the dramatic dark and light contrasts in the dog's head and the side of his furry mane, so the woman's hand had to be subordinated.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Finding Happiness in a Bllzzard

Sunshine During a Blizzard, water color on paper, , 30 1/2 x 40 1/2", 1947-1959, image from Burchfield Penney Archives, Buffalo, NY.

This painting by Charles Burchfield (American, 1893 - 1967) is one of those paintings that should look superficial and a bit ridiculous but instead holds up as serious art. To me "serious art" just means something you're going to want to look at more than once. In this case I'd like to look quite often.

What is Burchfield painting? In a heavy snow sometimes the clouds part for a moment and shafts of sunlight pierce through the airborne falling snow. The air fills with thousands of improbable tiny drifting diamonds. One doesn't see it very often, but if you've lived in the snow belt in Western New York State (as Burchfield and I did) you've seen it more often. You'd have to be made of stone not to be moved by it. I don't think we have words adequate to describe the sensation.

Burchfield was making a painting about his inner experience of something he'd seen. That he was such a good painter allowed him to make something that could reach out and stir some of those same feelings in complete strangers. In that way it's remarkable.

Much of what makes this watercolor work is that Burchfield adds an unanticipated supporting cast to build a tableau to support his story. There's a whole extra element added by the sharply drawn rhythms of the pointy tree branches and the three quite solid houses. 

It's a challenge to paint sunlight and give it the feeling of weight and impact it deserves. Burchfield paints his rays of sun as if they're solid enough to cover over and block us momentarily from seeing his grove of trees and the wood siding on his tallest house. I think many lesser painters would have been tempted to overdo it with the sunlight and have it completely dominate the scene. 

Instead, Burchfield relegates his yellows to pretty much just the left hand side of the painting, and gives the neutral grays of snowy sky, drifts on the ground, and the all-gray houses much more of the surface of his painting. In a way the artist is walking a tightrope between snowy dreariness and golden exuberance. And he demonstrates an exquisite sense of balance.

Burchfield invented a deeply personal shorthand for his mark making. They're part calligraphy and part just little bursts of abstract energy. I think it fascinating that Burchfield maintained a long term friendship with Edward Hopper (a painter I'm stylistically much closer too).  Despite Hopper's legendary reluctance to find much worth in the work of his contemporaries, he did admire Burchfield's work. It's a tribute to the quality of Burchfield's expression that he could move someone as steadfastly focused on his own painter's direction as Hopper. 

That's what I love about painting. It's a language to share some of our most powerful yet hard to express emotions with others. Most of the people who see Burchfield's paintings will never have met the man in person, yet in another way, they know him well. That's a kind of magic we need more of in this world. That's what motivates me to keep picking up my brushes and heading back to my easel.

Update: I'm happy to report the Burchfield Penney Art Center added this post to their Museum Art Blog on 2/22/12. Here's the link.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bad Romance- J.W. Waterhouse



Monday, February 11, 2013

In Love with Snow

Frederic Church,  A View of Olana in the Snow, 1870-75

Some years ago I visited Olana, the palace of a home the Hudson River School painter Frederic Church built for himself on the eastern side of the Hudson River. With a commanding view of the Catskill Mountains just to the west it seems a landscape painter's dream.  Here's the view in winter. Pretty beautiful to my eyes. 

Church builds a deep space through his understanding of color. His lightest whites and the warm dark colored shapes are all in the foreground and middle ground hills. Those highly contrasting forms relax as we ford the River and climb up the pale blue-grey slopes of the Catskills. It is a modest little painting, but I can't think if a more poetic celebration of the delight an artist finds in letting their eye sweep across the space of the earth. 

Like Church, an American artist of the next generation, Walter Launt Palmer (1854 -1932) used color to carve out the spaces of his landscapes. Palmer is best known for his more intimate, closed in spaces of forests in the snow. In each of the two following Palmer oils, he selects an overall color to dominate the canvas.

The first is warmer in both the distance and the yellow-tinged foreground. The snow encrusted pine and its shadow stand away from the warm overall color, pushing cooler and darker notes for contrast. I think it's a portrait of the tree that Palmer felt to be like an almost surreal huge sculpture with its bending and outreaching long arms. 

Note: My exhibit, The Artist's Compass: Drawings and Paintings by Philip Koch runs through this Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 at Friends School of Baltimore's Katz Gallery. For more information click here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Hidden Little Gems

This is one of Edward Hopper's best "story telling" paintings, New York Movie, from 1939.  Is it possible to look at this painting and not try to fill in the blanks about what she's thinking about? Why does the painting pull us in and make us identify so quickly with the lone figure?Hopper tells us about the woman only indirectly- after all her face is mostly hidden in shadow. But he convinces us she's fully lost in her thoughts. A big part of this comes from how he builds personality into the space that surrounds her. On a gut level, artists grasp the innate expressiveness of shapes. And that patterns of shapes have a mysterious power to grab our eyes and shape our moods. Most people never give this a thought and might be tempted to dismiss the idea. But think for a moment about music. No doubt you have a favorite song. Its distinctive rhythm or harmony has the power to wake you up, bring back a memory, or shift your mood. Music is an abstract pattern of sounds that people literally dance to. Patterns of shapes command us to dance too, it's just often out of our awareness.

Here's my own painting Eye of the Sea, 14 x 28", oil on panel, now at George Billis Gallery in New York.

It was painted from life, with my eye initially attracted to the bold profile of the dark hillside. But within that sihouetted form an intricate pattern of shrubbery was shaking up my expectations that the surface of the hill would be ordinary or predictable. It lent the hill a uniqueness and individual personality. Like the that cast shadow in the Hopper movie theater above, it is a little abstract painting all by itself. 

One of the reasons I keep going back to working directly from nature is she is a storehouse of gem-like little designs like this that make the world feel so much deeper and richer. 

In the previous blog post I was analyzing Joseph DeCamp's oil The Blue Cup.

Studying his model he discovered some exquisite little passages where the patterns of shapes sound just the right visual chord. For example, who would have thought the back of the woman's hair could have such a surprisingly distinctive silhouette as this?

Or that her waist, the white apron, and her black skirt would come together into this intricate bouquet?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Here is Sally, an oil portrait by the American painter Joseph DeCamp. Decamp was from Cincinnatti, studied in Duseldorf, Germany, and ended up in Boston where he became associated wth the other impressionist influenced painters there often called "The Ten" (including Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson). These  painters coupled a fascination with light effects with a love of some of the older and darker tonalities of 19th century painting. 

With the excitement that came with the introduction of modernism in the first decades of the 20th century, their paintings were hung less prominently in American Museums for decades. It was our loss. Happily, interest in their work is swelling again.

The Sally oil above I think remarkably expressive. Characteristic of DeCamp's work, the sensitivity to light effects is masterful. Look at how beautifully he shines a brighter, cooler white light on the woman's sailors blouse than anywhere else in the canvas. In comparison the head and neck are pulled back in intensity just a bit and are all seen in terms of subtly warmer yellows and browns.

Below is DeCamp's oil The Blue Cup. The focal point of course is the woman holding up the cup. Part of what makes the painting so emotionally satisfying is how DeCamp builds a space around her that feels like it was just waiting patiently for just this woman to appear.

See how DeCamp shines a much brighter light on the woman's closer arm than her far arm. And notice how much darker he makes the shadow on that closer arm. This a a clue he wants you to sense one arm more than the other as it's playing a larger role in activating the painting. 

DeCamp injects structure into his painting by stressing the diagonal of her closer forearm from the wrist down to the her elbow. Keep following that diagonal trajectory down past her waist until you reach the crockery stacked in the foreground. DeCamp has concealed the vases and dishes in a half shadow, but that doesn't mean they aren't there to play a vital supporting role.

Moving from the top of the big ceramic vase at the left, follow the straight descending diagonal that rides down the successive top edges of the rest of the bottles and cups. It finally scoots down to the right along the bottommost fringe of the woman's apron. That straight descending diagonal was installed consciously by DeCamp  to move at exactly a right angle to the highlighted forearm at the top of the canvas. Unconsciously the viewer senses this special geometric relationship. It's DeCamp's way of saying the world doesn't have to be as fragmented as it often seems. That if we're open to them, all sorts of hard-to-see but nonetheless real connections surround us. 

This compositional tool crops up in successful paintings of varying styles. Here's my own oil The Reach IV that is up in New York at George Billis Gallery

I wanted to weave together a painting about two very different times in my life. The setting is recent, done from memory of walks along the beach just below Edward Hopper's studio in S. Truro on Cape Cod. We usually stay up there later in the Fall when all the cottages are empty and dark. The moonlight then on the white sand can be mesmerizing. And the sailboat is drawn from a very distant recollection of the many times my dad would take me out sailing at night on Lake Ontario, a powerful memory for me, something it felt important to make a painting about.

As I worked on the painting I tried out all sorts of different positions for the sailboat. The one that felt right was this placement where the boat's tall mast leans to the right and created an exact right angle with the descending line of the tops of the sand dunes as they move from left to right across the painting. Could the scene have appeared just like this? Sure, but only for a moment. 

Paintings achieve meaning by evoking the feeling they're after. Here I wanted to say this boat is deeply connected to the the land, each representing a powerful memory for me. Painters speak through the language of color and shape. It's a language without words, but with an expressive grammar all its own.