Monday, July 29, 2013

My First Art School was a Sandbox

The first four years of my life we lived a house with a sandbox in our backyard. It was a substantial wooden construction that my parents had replenished with new sand by the time I, the youngest of three, came along. Pulling my hands across the sand's soft surface delighted my tiny fingers. And best of all were the amazing patterns that magically emerged on the sand in my fingers' wake. In a funny way, that sandbox was my first art school.

Humans have been "playing in the dirt" like that for our whole history. It's embedded in minds, this love of making simple shapes and patterns on a flat surface. Here above is an oil by Willem de Kooning (1904 - 1997). In addition to being vividly colored, the painting shows some of that "sandbox playfulness" with the artist dragging his brush, scratching back over previously drawn shapes, wiping out and so on. Looked at as a design on a flat surface, the painting has a certain appeal. Also the woman's spacey expression leads me to think de Kooning had a sense of humor.

When I began studying painting in the late 1960's at Oberlin College there was still quite a buzz in the air about de Kooning. In the Art Department we chatted on about "surface" and "flatness'. In the one sided way beginners often understand things, I grabbed onto this notion like it was a lifeboat. 

Time passes. By my senior year at Oberlin I found myself increasingly drawn to something that hadn't been on my radar before. 

There was a view out the kitchen window of the run down second floor apartment I'd rented. I'd find myself gazing out at it for minutes at a time. I lived in back of Oberlin's famed Conservatory of Music, smack in the middle of its unassuming parking lot actually. In the late afternoons, the Conservatory building would cast a long shadow over the closer half of my view, but the farther spaces held the light longer. In the farthest distance a row of imposing pines would become highlighted with sunlight. There was something elementally beautiful here I thought. The way the light would change from midday to late afternoon, and how that would transform the feeling of the space. I think my first really good painting was a view of that late afternoon parking lot with the distant spotlighted pines. Wish I still owned it. 

Here's one of my largest paintings, The Morning, oil on canvas, 42 x 84" now at the Art Essex Gallery in Essex, Connecticut. It's a celebration of how a painting can plunge you back into its depth.

That parking lot and pines watercolor from back in Oberlin days was the first step I realize now in what would become my life long involvement with landscape painting.  We can cast our gaze up from our desks, to a window and beyond to rows of unexpected contrasting forms. They march off to the horizon, and beyond. It's a perfect metaphor for the myriad levels of our own experience. A painting, if it's a good one, wraps all those conflicting spaces together into a moment of masterful coherence. It's a reminder that life, at least some of the time, can feel whole, meaningful and very satisfying.

Those childhood lessons I absorbed in my sandbox are still with me. The designs we make on a flat surface have an enormous expressive potential. They also can magically bind together the most wildly ambitious composition that otherwise threatens to come apart at the seams.

Flat design is a ready tool for painting. For example, in my oil The Morning, I stack long horizontal row after row of water and land upon each other as if they're going to continue through the entire composition. But reaching the sky things shift as the two orange rows of clouds tilt up on a subtle diagonal. What I was doing was finding a way to link the far distant clouds to the leaning dark pole in the foreground. That's where my sandbox design training came in handy- it had taught me on a gut level there was something special that happens when lines move away from each other at right angles. 

We have to think of a painting as both a flat surface and as a window flung open to another world. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Busy Times in the Studio

Events conspire, good events mind you, against serious blogging this week. Had a crew come in and paint my studio and home from top to bottom. It looks great, but there's been a lot of moving of paintings and equipment to allow it to happen. Time consuming, but the studio has never looked so fresh and inviting...

My painting above, Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 32 x 40" is now hanging in the Annual Members Exhibition at the Academy Art Museum over in Easton, Maryland. It's a piece done entirely from imagination and memory of my boyhood in the northern forests.

Last Sunday my wife Alice and I drove over to hear Peter Trippi, Editor of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, give a great talk and slide presentation on contemporary realist painting. He kindly included my own work in his talk. 

That's Peter on the left below at the Academy Art Museum. For anyone interested in the links between historic realist painting and realist painting today I don't think you'll find another magazine of its quality.

As often happens, I got so charmed by the Academy Art Museum that I decided to bring a favorite painting to hang in their Members  show that opens tomorrow evening. I'll be at the opening reception (Friday 8/26, 5:30-7:30) if any readers can come by and say hello.

Watching Academy Art Museum grow from a simple community art center a few decades ago to an accredited state of the art regional art museum has been a treat. It managed to hold onto its 19th century architectural appeal while bringing in delightfully abundant natural light into the central lobby of the Museum. One of the most inviting spaces I've seen.

I was also contacted by William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, Massachusetts to send a number of works up for their annual Landscape Exhibition held during September. Very likely my oil now in the Academy Museum, Deep Forest Pool, will be making the trip north.

And lastly I'm finishing off preparations to send 16 paintings up to Isalos Fine Art in Stonington, Maine next week for their Aug. 13 - Sept. 2 show, Inside Edward Hopper's World: Paintings by Philip Koch. Michael Daugherty who runs Isalos has put together a handsome catalogue illustrating all the works in the show. I will be posting information in a coming blog about how to order a copy.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Are There Rules in Art?

Philip Koch, Inland, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2008, George Billis Gallery, New York

Are there rules in art? The short answer: yes.

I grew up in the northern woods along the shore of Lake Ontario. It was gorgeous. It looked a lot like my painting above. As a setting for a childhood it was amazingly vivid. Almost all my paintings today echo my memories of those days.

When I was a kid we played outside in all kinds of weather every day. Some of the games were competitive, and with them I noticed an odd pattern. Even though we were just playing, agreeing ahead of time what rules we would follow ended up being a lot more fun. Having some rules curiously heightened the drama.

Imagine a baseball game where one team got three tries at bat and their opponents could swing away as long as they liked. It would be pretty dull.

There is by now a well known story of how modernism swept through the art world in Europe. Painters like Manet started borrowing the unorthodox compositions of Japanese prints. The Impressionists  broke with centuries of tradition by radically lightening up their palettes and doing most of their work in oil out of doors. Many of the innovations worked pretty well, inspiring artists of the next generation to scratch around for other ways to do things differently. 

Ironically, this notion of innovation's primacy became almost enshrined. In many corners of the art world the new rule was that if you were going to do important art, you'd better break some rules. 

Painting is like that. You break rules if they don't bring you closer to expressing whatever inner vision you're after. But you can't endlessly change the rules midstream. It leads to art that goes in all directions at once.

Poorly chosen rules or mindlessly followed rules will get you into trouble. But a wisely chosen rule to follow can act like a compass, guiding you through the conflicting emotions and accidents that attend making a painting.

Here's my painting After the Storm III, oil on canvas, 45 x 90" from back in 1986. It was done entirely from memory and imagination. One of the things I love about the world is how big it is- sometimes you can look out into almost limitless distances. I knew I wanted that.

One rule I decided on early was that all my moves had to make the space flow without interruption from close to far away. For example, I made the water's surface a different color in each of the various distances from front to back. It's an invitation to the viewer to enjoy exploring the spaces.

Another key idea I had was that I needed to coax the maximum expression out of one of the painting's major flat shapes. Actually I consciously modeled the silhouette of the big sand dune on my memories of the shape of the Canadian Geese I used to watch flying on their seasonal migrations over Lake Ontario. The image of them flying in formation to unseen destinations had always seemed a piece of magic to me as a boy. 

In the painting I've made another rule- only put the most dramatic darks in the places that I felt most expressive. So the dark cool blue blacks are clustered along the top edge of my giant goose-like sand dune. The marsh grasses in the foreground have had their shadows lightened up and changed to a warm orange color. My dune's silhouette had to be the main focus, so my rule was to banish high contrast from most other places in the painting.

Making art, just like making one's life, is a precarious balancing act. Like the tightrope walker, artists thread their way between paired dangers: falling off the wire on one side by overly shackling themselves to tradition or tumbling off the other way in a swarm of confused and conflicting goals. In reality there's no way I'd try balancing on a high wire. But having painted a few thousand paintings, I think I know the feeling our steady circus performers have to master. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Brandywine River Museum- Rockwell Kent, Jamie Wyeth

At least once a year I have to get up to one of my favorite museums that's mercifully close to my Baltimore studio, the Brandwine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA. Cozily Tucked away on the wooded banks of the Brandywine River, the Museum is housed in a renovated 19th century grist mill and it celebrates its former self in a delightful way. Last week my wife and I drove up to see the Brandywine's just opened exhibition Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, and Monhegan (the show runs through Nov. 17, 2013). Part of the show is work by Kent owned by Jamie Wyeth. Other paintings are on loan from the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, the major repository of Kent's work.

The charismatic painter and teacher Robert Henri (Am. 1865-1929) visited Monhegan, one of the farthest out to sea islands off the coast of Maine and was enchanted by the place. Never one to keep his opinions to himself, Henri urged his students to go and spend time on the island and paint. Edward Hopper (Am. 1882- 1967) was one of his students to take the advice. He managed to produce a whole number of early little masterpieces on Monhegan. Another Henri student, Rockwell Kent (Am. 1882- 1971) did Hopper one better, becoming so enamored of the Island that he stayed for years, building three houses on the island, and painting his heart out in front of the Island's unique topography.

Both the painters N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) and his son Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) spent time on Monhegan, but Andrew's son Jamie Wyeth (born 1946) stayed the longest. Early on Jamie realized the depth of art history Monhegan possessed and in particular the importance of the work Rockwell Kent had done the Island. He actually bought and lived in one of the houses Kent had designed and built. It's pictured here in Jamie's oil with the incredibly fanciful title Jenny Whibley Sings from 2008.

The younger Wyeth segregates almost all of his lighter and cooler colors to the immediate foreground and into the seagulls feathered body. The distance is darkened down and warmed up. Looking closely at the sky one sees how Wyeth first put down a dark middle tone of orange burnt sienna and over that applied only sparingly just enough greys and blues to get it to read as a sky. I love the contrast between the bird's belly and the subtle orange of the house. I wonder what the bird is singing?

Here's Jamie Wyeth sitting in the Brandywine's exhibit with a row of Rockwell Kent's behind him.

Here's Jamie Wyeth's oil Kent House showing a very different mood than his painting with Jenny the bird in it. I love the way he makes an enormous variety in the shadows in all the crevices between the rocks. Too many painters would have become mechanical and just filled in each shadow with the same tone and color. But Wyeth knows how to milk his handling of the rocky foreground to instill an almost living personality into all that granite (or whatever sort of rock it is, being no geologist I have no clue).

Rockwell Kent did this view of a glaring sun setting behind little Manana Island that sits just off the west shore of Monhegan and provides shelter for the Island's diminutive harbor. If you go to Monhegan today you can find most of these same houses still standing just as Kent painted them in his oil Late Afternoon, Monhegan Island from 1906-7.

In Kent's earlier years he painted in oil with a softer and more painterly touch, letting adjoining areas of wet color meet and blend into each other when he wanted that effect. Here's a much later oil, Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan, from about 1949. In his later paintings like this one, Kent adopts a more dry and crisp paint handling. Much as I respect this piece, I personally am partial to his earlier work. 

I understand why the Museum can't allow photography in its gallery's when displaying loaned artwork, but I wish I could have taken just a few shots to show you other's of my favorite and little seen Kent's. 

Here's one of Kent's most famous pieces, Toilers of the Sea from back in 1907. It's just an amazing painting. In it Kent demonstrates his considerable skill of design. See how he holds down the tones of all his colors, even this yellow boat, so that his few chosen dramatic spots of pure white just dance off the surface for your eyes. In person it's remarkable to see. 

Years ago the art historian Eva J. Allen persuaded me that I should go to Monhegan to paint. She knew my work and sensed Monhegan would strike a real chord in me. It did. But making a trip to the Island to paint gave me the unexpected bonus of understanding this canvas by Kent. 

Kent loved nothing better than the theme of raw nature's vastness and power. He'd paint it over and over. The looming central rock that's so blunt and squared off is entirely a studio invention by Kent. In reality there aren't any such forms on Monhegan. Probably Kent tried all sorts of other variations for his composition first before finally settling on this highly inventive, yet completely convincing, rocky monolith. It's so well painted that I had always assumed this was what Monhegan looked like. And in a way, in the inner recesses of Kent's visual imagination, this is what his Monhegan was to him. 

One other treat in the Brandywine Monhegan show is this ink drawing Kent made of the inside of his studio. I imagine it's blowing and cold outside, but all snugly next to his wood stove. 
Who wouldn't want to put their feet up and draw. I loved the snoozing dog on the floor. My wife Alice was sharp eyed enough to spy Kent's sleeping cat in the picture.

I made a trip to paint on Monhegan in 2006, doing a whole series of small oils and vine charcoal drawings. Here below is one that was displayed in my recent solo show in New York at George Billis Gallery, Monhegan Dawn, Emerald from 2011.The view is the southern tip of Manana Island, the same small island visible in Kent's Late Afternoon, Monhegan Island oil above. 

My oil was based on a careful vine charcoal drawing I made on the spot. I like being as faithful as possible to my favorite features of an actual landscape, in this case, the needle-like rocky point jutting in from the right. But I prefer these days working in oil back in my studio, basing my paintings on these charcoal drawings but letting my imagination fly more free when inventing color schemes. 

The final image is a large studio oil I did based on both a small oil and on a vine charcoal I made standing on the highest hill on Monhegan next to the Island's lighthouse. The charcoal, West from Monhegan, 9 x 12", 2006 is the view looking back toward the mainland and focused on the low mountains in Camden, Maine. But Monhegan is 10 miles out to sea, far enough to reduce even the more impressive mountain peaks to distant looking little bumps if you draw them in a "photographically accurate" fashion.

After trying that, I realized to get the feeling the distant mountains actually gave me I would have to pull them in closer to the viewer. Just like Rockwell Kent inventing his huge rock formation in his Toilers of the Sea oil, I had to lie about the little thing in order to tell the larger truth. 

Here's West from Monhegan, oil on panel, 28 x 42", 2009. It's more sharply focused on just the tops of the foreground trees and the distant islands. I also pushed the colors in the foreground and middle ground cooler and lowered their intensity. 

Returning to the Brandywine River Museum, I hope you go. It's often referred to as "the Wyeth Museum" and it does have great holdings from all three generations of Wyeths. In particular, N.C. Wyeth's paintings that were used to illustrate Treasure Island are on permanent display and are just jaw-droppingly beautiful. But the Museum also has a very strong collection of 19th century American painting that was a surprise to me. 

Last year the Museum began tours of the nearby Andrew Wyeth studio to complement it's more long established tours of N.C. Wyeth's more grand hilltop studio. I found the difference between N.C.'s huge painting room and Andrew's surprisingly modest work space fascinating. It reminds one of the emotional difference between them as artists. I hope one day more American art museums can take on stewardship of the old studio's of our major painters and let the public visit these special workplaces. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pig Bladders, Drawing, and a Visit with Thomas Cole

Here's a new vine charcoal drawing I did while at the Thomas Cole  National Historic Site in Catskill, NY in June. It's titled simply Catskill. It was done from the same vista of the Catskill Mountains that Thomas Cole used for several of his paintings, including this one, View Near the Village of Catskill.

Here's my wife Alice standing in front of the same view, heavily back lit by the late afternoon sun. The particular mountains Cole and I chose to focus on are just above Alice's head in the photo.


Here I am working on my drawing on the Thomas Cole house's front porch that faces that dramatic panorama of the Catskills. One great advantage of working with vine charcoal instead of oil pigments in a sensitive location such as this is my vine charcoal medium doesn't leave a trace on any on the surrounding surfaces. A tiny gust of wind and even the tiniest charcoal particles are history.

Here's the drawing in-progress sitting on the front porch of Cole's house. The edges of the drawing are formed by a "window" of masking tape that gives the drawing the crisp outer edge I feel is critical if your drawing has lots of looser passages and subtle gradations.

I work on location these days primarily in monochrome drawing media and later use the results as the basis for large studio paintings. No doubt my drawing Catskill will inform one of my upcoming oils. Cole too worked from drawings he did out on location as a guide to help him back in the studio with his oil paintings. His was one of the last generations of oil painters who labored before the seemingly inconsequential collapsible metal paint tube revolutionized plein air painting. Cole had to grind his own paints, slowly mixing dry pigments in with linseed oil often daily before  he could begin actually working on his paintings. Many artists, including Cole, would store their fresh paint in the bladders of pigs to try to keep the paint from drying out before they used it. Also, it was a way to carry the paint about. Here's a photo of a 19th century artist's paint bladder. 

But it just didn't work very well and most artists, including landscape painters, restricted their work in oil to the studio. They relied on the drawings they made and Cole drew beautifully. Here's one of his nature studies, most likely done from life outdoors. 

Though artists of Cole's time and before did studies and compositional sketches more of necessity, I think their approach of beginning by working things out on paper was not without virtues of its own. Drawing after all is more than information gathering. It's also an exercise in where to place things, how light or dark should forms be, and most of all, what to emphasize and what to diminish. I think doing all their drawings made the 19th century painters more sensitive. I may be using my drawings to guide my own paintings, but I am convinced I gain many of the same benefits Cole and his company did from the old practice. (And no, I do not keep a secret herd of little pigs in my backyard...).

I started the previous blog post about Cole's Cedar Grove by saying we all want to be part of something greater than ourselves. Such is the deepest appeal of landscape painting. More than most contemporary painters, I seem to find more heat in the old embers  from painters like Cole and the Hudson River School. 

No one would mistake my paintings for that of an early19th century artist. My color and paint handling are fundamentally different. In their work one sees a remarkable and genuine investigation of how nature and her processes looked and felt to people in say 1840. 

Each generation sees reality slightly differently than those who have gone before. I feel a deep kinship with Cole and the Hudson River School painters as great-great grandfathers of what I am doing now. As they did in their time, my paintings are about how it feels to be alive in the world in 2013.  

Cole borrowed whatever tools and inspiration he could find from the painters who went before him. And the paintings he turned out depended on his predecessors but stood apart from them. 

Cole for example loved the 17th century landscape painter Claude (example above), yet in Cole's hands Claude's imagery and technique changed. It became something subtly different to fit the psychic needs of the early 19th century. I think Claude if he were to have looked down from Art Heaven and watched Cole working in his studio probably would have applauded. He'd think "there's a guy who's chewing on the same bone I did." And I'd like to think Cole might sit down on the heavenly cloud next to Mr. Claude and look down at me with a nod of approval.  I'm adding my personal 21st century chapter to the long chain of landscape painters. All of us have the same job, all of us have to achieve it a little differently. 

Given my fantasy about Art Heaven, it's appropriate to conclude with perhaps my all time favorite Thomas Cole, Expulsion: Moon and Firelight from around 1828. It's related to paintings by Cole and others of the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Dramatic as all hell, yet deftly painted with Cole's unmistakable sincerity and compelling visual storytelling.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Birthplace of American Landscape Painting- Thomas Cole's Studio

Who doesn't want to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves? That's always been at the heart of landscape painting, an art form that is most often a hymn of praise to our earthly planet.

Above is one of my favorite paintings, Schroon Mountain by the first great American painter who turned his focus on the look and feel of the wilderness, Thomas Cole (1801-1848). When I was in my grad school painting program from 1970-72 at Indiana University I got a hold of a book that had a splendidly colored reproduction of this painting. This painting was one of the spurs that propelled me into becoming a landscape artist myself. 

Cole's oil (from 1838, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art) depicts a mountain in New York State's Adirondacks. I feel it is one of Cole's best. The artist masterfully breaks up what could have been a monotonous jumble of 10,000 individual trees into dramatically contrasting large shapes. He cleverly plays off a spotlighted and highly textured foreground foothill against the surprisingly smoothed-down broad flanks of the mountain itself. 

I spent a rainy week in the Adirondack Mountains last month and saw similar duets of clouds wrapping around mountain peaks. It's stirring.

I first met Cole while an undergrad art major at Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum that had an early Cole, Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill), the artist did when he was only 24, thirteen years earlier than the previous painting. Allen's Cole had a background and sky that totally pulled me in every time I visited it. The foreground strikes an unexpected note with a deer who turns and looks so directly at you that you might feel self conscious . Looking at the painting today I realize now how Cole was still finding his footing. 

Cole was largely self-taught. Born in England, he came to the US when young with his family, landing in Steubenville, OH. He learned rudimentary lessons about painting from an itinerant portrait painter named Stein. He moved briefly to Pittsburgh and then on to Philadelphia, where he drew from the collection of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. For a painter without extensive training Cole's work is remarkably impressive. 

In his own time it garnered real attention and a student for Cole, the younger Frederic Church who went on to an amazing career as a 2nd generation member of what became known as the Hudson River School painters. 

The Hudson River painters saw what compared to Europe seemed an untouched wilderness (more often than not ignoring the thousands of years of its native inhabitants' residency). But despite that they produced a genuine and deep visual poetry about the natural world's vastness and power. In our times of ecological danger, their wholehearted delight in nature assumes an added contemporary  relevance. 

In 1825 Cole traveled up the Hudson River and rented a room in the town of Catskill, New York on a large farm called Cedar Grove. Apparently he found it to his liking, returning additional summers and eventually marrying the landlord's niece Maria Bartow in 1836 and moving in permanently. Here's the main house, restored and opened to the public in 2001 as the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (if you follow the link, there's quite a good video online about Cole's life and his place in American art).

My wife and I visited Cedar Grove last month, having finally managed to schedule in a visit there. We took an enjoyable guided tour with Melissa Gavilanes, Cedar Grove's Education and Programs Coordinator, of the home, the grounds, and one of Cole's surviving studios (Cole's second studio, that he designed himself, unfortunately no longer survives, though there are plans to rebuild it once the fundraising reaches its goal). 

Here's the main house looking very much as it did in Cole's day.

For most of his time at Cedar Grove Cole used a room off of the stables for a studio. Here's an outside view of the studio with the entrance steps at the right.

Here's me sitting on the steps leading up to Cole's studio.

And here's his studio, with one of his heavy easels in the foreground (photo courtesy of the Cedar Grove's website).

Even if you don't take the guided tour, Cedar Grove has some excellently produced signage laying out the basics of Cole's work and life at Cedar Grove.

A photo on one of the outdoor signs showing the interior of the main house.

And a map of the property as it was in Cole's day. The farm abutted the Hudson River, seen at the far right.

And what must be one of the most elegant outhouses afforded to any 19th century American painter...

In the main house there's a museum quality exhibition space where each season a Hudson River School themed show is mounted. This summer's impressive offering features Albert Bierstadt in New York and New England.  It's a beautiful little show, curated by Annette Blaugrund, the former curator at the National Academy Museum in New York. Bierstadt, while best know for his mammoth panoramas of the American West, also did work among his fellow Hudson River artists back east. Here's his Mt. Ascutney from Claremont, New Hampshire of 1862 on loan from the Fruitlands Museum.

I have a few more photos I want to post and some additional Cole paintings I want to talk about. I'll put them up in a new blog post on Thursday, July 4 (why does that date ring a bell?).