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