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. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Edward Hopper's Watercolor Adam's House

Every year I have a wall calendar of Edward Hopper (Am. 1882-1967) paintings. Guess which Hopper I was enjoying all of October. Now it's November and I miss it. 

This is the very first watercolor by Hopper I saw in the flesh. It was 1972, the final year of my MFA Painting Program at Indiana University. Wichita State University had invited me to fly to Kansas for a teaching job interview. During a break in the interview process some of the faculty took me over to visit the Wichita Art Museum. My favorite piece was Hopper's Adam's House, a view of Gloucester, MA painted in 1928. It's remarkably crisp and fresh.

A big story Hopper wanted to tell was the "stand off" between the white house and the skinny and bent  pole holding up the power lines. He especially wanted us to feel the weight of the dark top of the pole. In a mostly warm painting he gradates the pole from lighter warm browns at the bottom to a cool black at its top. If that stronger dark had continued the whole length of the pole it would threaten to take over the painting.

Not wanting the electric wires to steal the pole's thunder, Hopper paints them way lighter than they would have appeared.

Another example of his skill with understatement is the how he lightens up all the shadows around the windows and doorway of the white house. Compare the startlingly black shingled roof to the sun blasted front of the white house. I think the darkness of the roof is meant as a visual surprise and a worthy partner for our humble but poised electrical pole.

BTW, I did get offered the job teaching at Wichita. As it turned out I took another position out at Central Washington University in the Northwest, but that's another story. Also any Hopper fans who might get to Wichita should know the Wichita Museum has four Hoppers, including the famous oil Conference at Night. Worth a trip,