Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why I Don't Use Photographs When I Paint

Went to an exhibition of paintings by a prominent realist painter who is known as one of the first committed photorealists, painters who consciously attempted to capture the look and feel of a color photograph in their work. The work had been executed with extreme care and was impressive for the amount of detail each canvas catalogued. 

But if pressed, I would admit my most favorite works would be from other painters from the museum's permanent collection.
The art I like best is about feeling and mood. They are highly interpretive.  And they're always surprising, you don't know ahead of time what the artist is going to focus on and what they're going to leave out.

Charles Burchfield, The Mysterious Bird, watercolor,
Delaware Art Museum

Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield are two of my favorite artists, as long time readers of this blog know.  Neither of them used photographs as sources for their work, preferring instead the dictates of their own eyes, memory, and emotions. As different as they are from each other in style, each engaged in an inner dialogue as they painted. 

In the Burchfield above notice how the artist reserves almost all his darkest darks for moodier top half of the painting compared to the lighter and warmer foreground road. He makes a shift in feeling from the close space to the distance. As we travel through his painting we feel our mood change.

Below is the first painting I ever paid attention to when I was a teenager, Edward Hopper's fantasy about his painting studio on Cape Cod. At first glance a tableau of empty spaces, Hopper invests  each surface with gradations of colors that weren't really there but that breathe life into each section of the painting. And I know from my residencies in the Hopper studio how extensively Hopper lied about the actual architecture of this corner of his painting room.

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil on canvas, 
Yale University Art Gallery

Hopper and Burchfield looked out at their world but also turned their gaze inward upon themselves. Their resulting paintings look like nobody else yet speak to so many of us. 

In my own studio, while my style is different than either of these two masters, I borrow from their way of selecting, interpreting
and  inventing. I think this is the road that leads to an art that genuinely reflects how living feels to us in our time.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Falls Road, A Trio of Baltimore Paintings

Philip Koch, The River, oil on canvas, 20 x 16", 1980

There's always a lot of time spent casting around and considering which pieces to select when preparing for an upcoming exhibition. So it is as I get ready for my show at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY (Feb. 14 - April 12, 2015). 

I ran across these three oils I painted over the span of some 34 years. Anyone who shops at the popular Whole Foods in the  Mt. Washington section of Baltimore will likely recognize these scenes. The River, above, is the earliest of this trio. With its olives and sliver greys it shows most clearly my roots in the traditions of America's Hudson River School painters. Today this scene remains almost identical to how it appeared over three decades ago.

Philip Koch, Jones Falls River, oil on panel, 12 x 16", 1985

Not so with this one, Jones Falls River. On the far bank is what is now the parking lot for the bustling Whole Foods grocery. Back then it was a field outside a factory that noisily banged out metal bolts. I remember feeling the low rumbling vibrations in the ground as I stood and painted this on my portable easel. It's quiter now. The plant shut down shortly after I painted it. At least a couple of times a week now my car is parked on that lot, waiting for me to throw my groceries in the back and head home.

Philip Koch, Falls Road Bridge, oil on panel, 8 5/8 x 9 7/8", 2014

Here's the final member, a painting I began in the 90's of a bridge on Falls Road rising over the river, just north of where I did the other two paintings. Recently I went back into it to pare away some distracting elements, allowing the elaborately bending forms of the bridge a bigger role. My color choices have brightened considerably since the first painting at the top of this post. 

It's funny as I like nothing better than traveling hundreds of miles to go painting from subjects that speak to me, especially to the mountains and shores of New England. But these subjects, each within a half mile of my home studio, call out with a different but just as poignant a voice. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Why I Don't Fit In

Philip Koch, The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas
38 x 38", 2008

I've come to the realization that I don't fit in on any of the branches of the art world. My paintings have been alternately described by others as both "traditional","realistic", "visionary", and even "tinged-with-the-surreal." I don't disagree with any of that.

It is not my intention to criticize the contemporary art world. After all, I am part of it. One thing bedeviling me is how much of contemporary art is so concept driven. It breaks down boundaries and grasps for the newest of new media. Often I find the work bewildering.  

Artists of course are thoughtful people. We have a lot to say with our work on multiple levels. But my hope for my paintings is to have all that cognition fade away to let the viewer lose themselves in my work. I'm after a visceral reaction to nature, not an intellectual discourse on it. My paintings are a celebration of how deeply nature resonates within us as human beings. 

There's another whole wing of the art world that produces works that would satisfy the most savvy art collectors of the 1860's. No one loves the old masters more than I do, yet whenever I try to duplicate their methods it's felt like I was trying to squeeze my size eleven foot into a size nine shoe.

Philip Koch, White Mountain Pond, oil on panel
7 x 10 1/2", 2014

There is something unique to every epoch. We see and feel a little differently that the generations before us. Their best recipes revealed their sense of their experience. My task today is finding new forms to convey how life feels today. We have to write a new cookbook.

What I am doing with my paintings is marrying the excitement of my early years of abstract color-drenched painting with my deep affection for the romance of 19th century paintings of the landscape. It's not the most obvious match. And it puts me on a branch of the great tree of art where there's not a lot of company. 

I suspect that all of the people who view my paintings each have their own sense of not fitting in. I hope my paintings take them to a place where for at least a moment they can feel at home.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Secret Way to Enjoy Art

Philip Koch, Uncharted II, oil on panel, 18 x 24", 2014, at
Art Essex Gallery, CT

Everyone has had the experience of waking from sleep feeling we've returned from an incredible nocturnal adventure. We've been dreaming.

I want to do paintings with all the vividness of a powerful dream. Art is an invitation to feeling something beyond our day to day concerns. While it sets us to thinking, it's not primarily about ideas. Rather it's a sensation, an experience to be had and savored.

I wish people would approach art the way they approach food. Few people ask what their food means or ponder whether they "understand" their food. Instead they jump in and taste it. If it's good they'll ask for seconds. 

That's the way we should go to museums. Taste the work with your eyes. If a piece doesn't appeal to you keep moving until the flavor of a painting's colors slows you down and pulls you in for a closer look. 

Of course artists are thoughtful people. They try to produce work that has a lot to say on many levels. But little of that meaning happens until their art first ravishes the viewers' eyes and stirs their hearts. 

Philip Koch, Equinox,  oil on panel, 30 x 45", 2008, currently in Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two Thanksgiving Stories

   Philip Koch's easel set up with White Mountain Pond, vine 
charcoal, 8 x 12", 2014

Two stories . Things that happened to me early in my four decades of painting the landscape out in the field. Both still make me smile. 

First the funny one, though in a slightly painful way.

In the summer of 1972 I was just about to leave Indiana University in Bloomington with my newly minted MFA degree in painting. I had been very happy living in an old army barracks that had been converted to married student housing. So for one of my final Bloomington paintings I was set up in a field painting the somewhat dilapidated building that housed my apartment. It was going well and I was pleased with myself. 

A young girl wandered by and stopped to see what I was doing. She looked for a long minute and finally asked me "Did you paint that?"   I readied myself for the praise I was sure would follow and pridefully responded "Yes."

The girl managed a sad smile and responded "Well, I'm only eight years old and I'm already a much better painter than you are." 

Philip Koch painting in the White Mountains, New Hampshire
June 2014

A happier story occurred the summer before. 

This was the first year I was trying my wings with painting out on location. I had discovered nearby Lake Monroe, "Indiana's Largest Lake" as the Chamber of Commerce pridefully proclaimed. Up on a distant ridge the large gravel parking lot of the extremely modest Scenic View Restaurant provided the viewpoint I needed. 

I worked away for five hot June mornings on my new painting (the Midwest I discovered can be painfully hot). As I was largely unfamiliar with this whole landscape painting business, I was lucky to be stumbling into what was probably my first genuinely professional level landscape painting. 

The back kitchen door of the Scenic View opened and out came a 50-ish woman wearing a soaking wet white apron. Peering at my canvas she told me she worked as the restaurant's dish washer and that she'd been watching me from the window over her sink. Finally she just had to come out to see what I was doing.

Unlike the upstart young artist in my first story, this woman loved the painting and said "How much does it cost?" Honestly I had no idea as I'd barely sold any of my paintings before and never one to a complete stranger. And how much could a dishwasher in rural Indiana afford anyway?  Out of nowhere I heard my lips say "Oh, it's $60." 

A moment of silence. Then the woman said, "This is the view I see out my window everyday at my work. I think this painting should be on my wall. That's a lot of money. Could I mail you ten dollars a week until I pay it off?" 

I was surprised. Actually stunned is more like it. Something about her made me nod my head, and more remarkably, hand the wet painting to her right then and there. Mind you I thought this was the most accomplished painting I had ever painted. I hadn't even photographed the thing yet. But the woman's straightforward sincerity had bowled me over.

As promised the next Monday an envelope arrived in my mailbox. In it was a ten dollar bill. The next week the same thing happened. And the following four weeks the same thing continued without interruption.

All these decades later I have sold hundreds of landscape paintings. Mostly they go to lawyers, physicians, and stockbrokers. But one of them always stands out in my mind as my favorite art collector. Her name is lost to me. But I do know that for many years she used to wear a wet white apron.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Photo Survey Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Exhibition

Here is a collection of photos from my current exhibition, The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD. The show opened with a spirited crowd on Friday, Nov. 7. I gave a slide presentation and gallery talk on Sunday, Nov. 16. The show continues through Feb. 22, 2015.

Normally on this blog I write commentary about my work and philosophy. Just for this time though I'd like to let the work speak for itself.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Above is the view of one of the walls in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' Bowman Gallery hung with my paintings for their show that opened last evening, The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch. The show will run in this Hagerstown, MD Museum through Feb. 22, 2015. Back in 1995 the Museum hung a smaller exhibit of my work in the same space. This new show included much more work and fills more of the Museum's galleries. Yet for me standing in the galleries last night I was struck with the sense I and my work were returning to an important chapter from my past. 

In fact one of my favorite paintings in the new show is titled Returning.

So often the world seems to bowl us over with a river of sensations. If we took in all of this deluge consciously we'd be completely overloaded.  I think we'd be unable to move. We had to evolve to be selective about what we notice.

Philip Koch, Returning, oil on canvas, 28 x 42", 2008

Instead most of what's going on around us and even inside of us remains outside of our awareness. We can become so distracted by the needs of the moment that we lose touch with big parts of ourselves. 

Who hasn't noticed how sometimes certain things or people just seem to thrust themselves into our emotional foreground. For example when I happened upon the red house that would become the subject for my painting Returning,  I realized a mysterious urge to go back and look at it again. And again after that. There was something about the scene that triggered a long buried memory of how I feel about things. 

I grew up in a remote house in a deep forest on the shore of northern Lake Ontario. As I think now of those early years the most  vivid image that come to me is the forceful presence of the old growth forest. Insanely unpredictable patterns of naked tree branches casting shadows onto the trunks of large trees. That image the surrounds every notable event of my childhood. 

We can't recall all of even the most important events of our early lives and gradually they sink below the surface of conscious memory. Yet they remain like smoldering embers of a still hot fire in our unconscious minds. They lay there dormant for years, warming the bedrock of who we really are.

I think at the heart of art is this recalling of these lost pieces of ourselves.

At one time my painting Returning had a prominent figure reaching to open the porch door. Yet somehow he seemed beside the point. I painted him out and let the foreground tree take center stage. And with that the painting sounded a deeper and more true note. I was putting the spotlight on the form that most aptly told the story the painting wanted to tell.

 Here's the painting as it looked last evening at the opening reception for Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition.

A painting that particularly grabs at you is doing you a favor. It is holding up a mirror to you to show you another side of your real nature. Perhaps my painting Returning will return to you something important you'd temporarily lost sight of.

Upcoming Slide and Gallery Talk:

Philip Koch will give a slide presentation and gallery talk on his painting career at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday, Nov. 16 at 2:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. All invited!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

My Art, My Celebrations

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

For much of the time we are absorbed by the little details of our lives. It is too easy to forget the mere fact of our being alive is completely extraordinary.

Yet to all of us come brief moments when the usual veil of confusion lifts. We suddenly grasp a connection between things that we'd thought unconnected. It's as if we begin hearing whispers of a previously secret conversation that has been going on all along. In moments like that we can feel a surge of gratitude. It would be foolish not celebrate the feeling. Seizing that and giving it a form we can share with others has been the task of artists through the ages.

Philip Koch, From Day to Night,  oil on canvas, 36 x 72"

Right now I am sitting in a room in my studio surrounded by my 32 paintings that will be headed out to Hagerstown, MD next week for my show at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. As I look over the pieces I fall back into thinking of the times when each was being painted. 

Like anyone, my own life has been a mixture of delights, contentment, as well as personal setbacks and losses. Maybe most of all I find what living looks and feels like is unexpected and surprising. Many people have commented that my paintings can have a moody and slightly other-worldly feel to them. I agree. 

Philip Koch, The Song of All Days, oil on panel, 36 x 72"

Yet I'd answer my works are truthful to how living in our world actually feels on the inside. It is not enough for a landscape to be merely pretty. To be really beautiful in any meaningful sense a painting has to have teeth, some touch of somberness, as well as a brilliant light and delicious sensuous colors. It has to exclaim at least a little bit that this living business is a completely wild ride.

Philip Koch, The Voyage, oil on canvas, 38 x 38"

Here are five of my oils that to me perhaps best express my sense about what art is supposed to be. These are some of my Celebrations.

Philip Koch, Equinox, oil on panel, 30 x 45"

The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch runs Nov. 8, 2014 - Feb. 22, 2015. On Friday, Nov. 7 there is a ticketed gala opening reception for the exhibition from 5 - 7 p.m. Museum members $15, non-members $20. The Museum requests an RSVP by Oct. 30. Call

On Sunday, Nov. 7 there will be a gallery talk and slide lecture with the artist at 2:30 p.m. Admission to the Museum is free.