Saturday, August 30, 2014

Looking Back

Philip Koch, Near the Yale Farm, oil on canvas, 24 x 36, 1992 Private collection.

A project to get my 35mm slides of my earlier paintings scanned and catalogued is underway. As the images come back to me there are a lot of pleasant surprises. More than anything I'm amazed at how many paintings I was producing over all those years. You can see the beginnings of the project on the "Earlier Works" page of my website.

Above is a studio painting I made based on an oil study I painted in Norfolk, CT in the Litchfield Hills. I painted there frequently, staying at the cottage of an old college friend. It's a heavily forested area, but the silvan gloom is wonderfully punctuated by the stands of white birch. And rows of delicately pristine ferns line all the back roads. My focus in painting this was inventing a rhythm of highlights and shadows that would organize the incredibly crowded forest into a deep space that beckons the view to enter in.

Philip Koch, Farm at Craddock Lane, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 1991. Private collection

One of the ways I get ideas for paintings is just driving around and keeping my eyes open. This field far to the northwest of my home in Baltimore caught my eye late in the summer of because of the gorgeous yellow ochres of the crop. (The farmer came out to see what I was doing once I had my French easel set up, which was great because I wanted to know what his beautifully-hued crop was.  It's rye). 

Late summer days in the Midatlantic are often hazy, and that was in full effect, making the far distant planes recede into cooler grays. I was also fortunate that the crop was being harvested, providing my foreground field with the arc-shaped paths of the harvesting tractor at the left. Always the challenge when painting natural forms is to discover the hidden geometry underlying the foliage and grasses. In this case a John Deere tractor was a huge help.

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 36 x 54", 1994, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, IA

There's a funny story attached to this painting. It's a view of a house   just off Rte. 6 on Cape Cod in Wellfleet. Rte. 6 is now a four lane road that runs up the spine of the Cape and is heavily traveled in the summer. I had been spying this scene as a source for several years and finally decided to tackle it. Trouble was when I scouted out locations to set up my French easel, the shoulders of the road were so low that the bottom section of the yellow house was obscured. And it was the all those yellows that I was after. 

I finally decided to set up on a four foot wide traffic island in the middle of the four lanes of traffic. The view was great, but the setting in the morning rush hour (yes, even Cape Cod has rush hour) was next to unnerving. I spent 3 or 4 mornings precariously camped out like this getting disbelieving stares from a lot of motorists.  It wasn't without some humor though. On the last day I worked on the piece a guy in an old pick up rolled down his window and yelled out "needs more green." I actually stepped back and considered his advice for a moment before deciding I liked my interpretation better.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Drawing: A Shared Compass Between Me and Charles Burchfield

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, vine charcoal, 12 x 9", 2006

It makes sense to have heroes, to enjoy the work of great artists, study it, even become best friends with it. One of the painters I have learned the most from is Charles Burchfield. I grew up in Burchfield country (Western New York State) and always felt a special kinship with his nature paintings. We both work left handed, (few people realize how big a factor that is in giving a drawing or painting its distinctive personality).

I was recently discussing with a friend why I choose to make charcoal drawings in such great numbers considering I am primarily an oil painter. Musing on this I began comparing my practice to that of Burchfield, who also made countless drawings. If you go to Burchfield Penney Art Center's online pages of Burchfield's drawings  they have 1408 of them posted! 

Much as I love Burchfield's work, I don't draw or paint the way he did. Yet I feel in his work a hint of some hard-to-define energy that I sense in the landscape. That he could convey this so expressively is an incredible achievement. Given that my personality is very different than his, I have to come at that mysterious energy of nature from a different direction. Yet looking at his work, despite how different it is from my own, gives me an extra push as I work my way down my path.

Above is a drawing I began as I was starting to dream up a new composition. It's in vine charcoal, a medium prized for how easy it is to smear it and for being easy to erase. My drawings begin by moving the dry black charcoal dust this way and that until an image begins to form that excites my eye. 

You have to coax the idea into being. Flexible vine charcoal for me works better than anything else to grab a hold of the new idea when it's still fleeting and tentative and make something solid and substantial out of it.

Here below is the large oil on canvas I painted from the idea I first worked out in the drawing.

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, oil on canvas, 55 x 44" 
private collection

Below is one of several preparatory drawings Burchfield made for his major watercolor that follows.

Charles Burchfield, Study for the White Wings of September, conte, 11 x 17", 1960, gift of the Burchfield Foundation to the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

He didn't work in vine charcoal as I do, instead preferring to draw with more linear media like conte crayons or charcoal pencils. And he tended to do far more quick drawings on the same theme until the idea would crystallize in his mind.

Charles Burchfield, White Wings of September,  watercolor, 47 5/8 x 53 1/4", 1960 -66, 
San Diego Museum of Art

Here's the preparatory drawing I made for one of my most visionary compositions. In the back of my mind I imagined that if any of us could sail like this bird over the events of our lives what an amazing spectacle would unfold before us. This was the first of several drawings I made, each one becoming gradually more clearly defined as I zeroed in on my concept.

Philip Koch, Equinox, vine charcoal, 8 x 12", 2008

Here's the final oil version.

Philip Koch, Equinox, oil on panel, 30 x 45", 2008

This is one of the sketches Burchfield made around the theme of a turbulent stormy sky with rays of sun breaking through a crack in the clouds. You can sense him feeling his way forward, trying to find the shapes and points of emphasis he would need to bring his idea to life.

Charles Burchfield, Sketch for December Storm #4, conte, 13 x 19 1/2", circa 1941,
Burchfield Penney Art Center, gift of the artist

Here's his final version in his large watercolor.

Charles Burchfield, December Storm,  watercolor, 40 1/2 x 56", 1941-1960

Monday, August 11, 2014

My Edward Hopper Talk at Norman Rockwell Museum Part III

Here are the concluding 20 photos from my July 31talk Inside Edward Hopper's World: A Contemporary Painter's View at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. You can read the first two installments of the presentation here and here.

Above was the painting that first introduced me to Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, now in Yale's art museum. I was a teenager mostly interested in girls when I spied it in my parents' Time magazine. "Now THAT'S a painting!" I thought. Little did I suspect years later I would be privileged to have residencies in the privately owned Hopper studio on Cape Cod and stand and look right at the same doorways that had fired Hopper's imagination. Here's a photo I took of the source for the painting.

Notice how Hopper moves the door from attaching on the right side of the door frame to the left side. Also he stretches the proportions of the wall, and most remarkably, shines direct sunlight on a wall that in reality faces due north and remains always in shadow. The artist's imagination is prodded by what he sees in reality, but he was willing to radically change things to heighten the expressive power of his painting.

Here is my own painting done on location in the studio, Edward Hopper's Rooms by the Sea, II, oil on panel, 18 x 27", 2004. It's a far more accurate version of the studio's spaces. My wife Alice sits on Hopper's bed.

And my pastel drawing done standing in front of the same source, 
The Easel, Truro Studio, 6 x 7 1/2".

A photo of Alice standing in the studio's huge painting room under the light of the 10' north window. (In Hopper's day the floor wasn't painted with alternating stripes).

A close up of Hopper's easel with his yardstick hanging on a hook at its side. He used it as a mahlstick (a painter's stick) to steady his hand when painting details. The easel is nothing special (it's a run of the mill Anco brand easel- you can buy an identical one from your local art supply store). While his tools were ordinary, Hopper went on to paint on this easel works that were anything but. 

Hopper and his wife Jo would usually stay in their Truro studio through the end of October and faced lots of chilly weather. No doubt the Hopper's spent a lot of time with a fire going in the painting room. Alice demonstrates. The bookcase at the left was built after Hopper's days.

Famous for discovering meaning in the ordinary, Hopper often achieved poetic statements by raising telephone poles up to contrast his skies. Here for example is his oil Route 6, Eastham, now in the Swope Art Museum in Indiana.

I made a painting in the early '90's during one of my stays in the Hopper studio of the long power lines mimicking the curves in the dirt access road to the studio. It is Edward Hopper's Road, 40 x 60", now in the Permanent Collection of the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, IN. Here is Brian Byrn, their Curator with my oil. 

 One day when I was painting near the studio a man who was a neighbor of Hopper's came out and told me an ironic story about the power lines along this road. For the first years after the Hopper's built their studio in 1934 there was no electrical power in the neighborhood. Eventually the power company agreed to install power lines to the houses along the road.

For an extra fee they offered to bury the lines instead of stringing them from poles. Hopper, known for his many elegant paintings of telephone poles, pressured his neighbors to pony up the extra money to bury the lines. Despite his heated protests, no one else wanted to pay and in the poles went, except for one house on the road, Edward Hopper's

Here's a photo of the last telephone pole before one hits Hopper's property. The wires come in from the main road from the right, snake their way down the pole and plunge underground, proceeding the final hundred yards to the left to Hopper's studio. This whole story strikes me as showing Hopper as a complex, and a contradictory, man. In a way it makes him more interesting.

The first light of dawn entering the painting room.

One of the only two photos I've ever seen of Hopper in his Truro studio. His wife Jo in back.

This is one of the last paintings Hopper completed in the Truro studio. You see his him working on it above and here it is below, Sun in an Empty Room, oil, 1963.

That same sense of sparse beauty in this view from the small bedroom looking into the painting room with its over sized north window.

Here I am with my French easel set up in Hopper's bedroom (wedged in between the two singe beds actually) working on a drawing.

I was making this vine charcoal drawing of the door to one of the two small closets in the bedroom.  It's a negotiation between architectural detail and the brilliance of the afternoon sunlight. Always there is the question of what to emphasize and what to leave out.

One of the paintings Hopper did of the area near his studio, Cape Cod Afternoon, shows his affection for the unexpected point of view. These barns could have seemed a chaotic  jumble, but Hopper finds a way to celebrate their complexity. It is a wonderful example of how Hopper was frequently a surprisingly lush colorist. I'm always amazed how often writing about his work focuses on loneliness or alienation yet rarely touches on how sensuous his color and paint handling can be. 

This is the view Hopper would have looked at rinsing out his coffee cup in the kitchen sink- Cape Cod Bay peeking over rolling dunes. The sunlight steaming in through his windows confronts you at every turn in the studio. No wonder it played such a key role in his paintings.

The studio from the top of Hopper's driveway. The ocean is just over the far ridge.

There is an intimate connection between between Hopper's surroundings and his moody and evocative paintings. It seems clear his studio and its surroundings fed his creative vision.  Using images of the outside world he made paintings that put you on a journey through your own emotional inner world.

I will be traveling to the Truro, MA studio for my 15th residency this Fall. Some of the new work I do while there will be on display in a solo exhibition at Hopper's boyhood home, the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY in February & March of 2015.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Part II of my Talk on Hopper at Norman Rockwell Museum

Here's Part II of the photos and notes from the slide talk I gave at the Norman Rockwell Museum on July 31. My topic was Edward Hopper on Cape Cod as part of the Museum's program for their current exhibit The Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator (through Oct. 26). You can read Part One here. Stephanie Plunkett, the Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Museum just yesterday sent me the above photo of some of the audience at the presentation.

One of the major lessons I've absorbed from my residencies in  Hopper's studio is how relentlessly particular Hopper was in selecting a source for one of his paintings.  Hopper wanted to present us with the unexpected but significant thing. I told the audience he must have walked a lot, searching out just the best possible subjects and points from which to view them. Here I am below returning from painting on the beach down below Hopper's studio. It's a long way up from the water and my portable easel is heavy, but I figure I'd better practice what I preach.

Here is the path Hopper would take that winds its way through the undulating dunes down to the beach on Cape Cod Bay. This photo shows the dunes with only very short ground cover- typical of how much of the Cape looked in Hopper's time. It was far more wide open and surreal looking. Nowadays in most places the Cape is dramatically reforesting itself.

This photo taken down at the shoreline shows how Hopper situated his studio high up on an 80' dune, offering dramatic open vistas in all directions. To me it seemed like he wanted to design the place to be his observatory from which he could study the world. Through its windows one literally catches the very first and the very last rays of the day's sun

The kitchen door through which one enters the studio from its driveway. At this diminutive table and chairs Hopper and his wife Jo would eat their breakfast.

My wife Alice demonstrating, drinking her morning coffee.

For some reason we always stop and buy bananas on our way to stay at the Hopper studio. It's become a ritual. They always look so at home on their table.

To maximize the space available for his studio's painting room, Hopper designed the rest of the studio with surprisingly small rooms for the kitchen, bath, and bedroom. This is my oil painting Truro Studio Kitchen, 12 x 16", 2013. To get this view I set up my French easel in the middle of the kitchen floor. It took up almost the entire open space of the little room.

Turning 180 degrees from where I painted the above oil of the table, below is a pastel drawing looking from the middle of the kitchen into Hopper's small bedroom. 

One of the things I learned early on from studying Hopper's work is how subtly leaning or bending a vertical edge can add an expressiveness to inanimate things like doors and windows. I've enjoyed doing so here. The illuminated middle doorway opens into Hopper's painting room. The far door is to one of the two tiny closets Hopper shared with his wife Jo. The Hopper's owned few clothes by today's standards.

Below is Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen II, oil on panel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2014, done from a vine charcoal drawing I made standing in Hopper's cavernous painting room and looking back into the kitchen. The window is over the kitchen sink.

I am always struck when I'm staying at the Hopper studio by the drama of some of its views. Here's just outside Hopper's door, looking off toward the southwest. It's a view that many landscape painters would love to paint. As convenient as it was, it wasn't unique enough for Hopper's very personal vision. He never painted it.

Here's a last photo of the studio seen from the southeast in the morning sun. You can see how the bushes and trees that had been cut down in the years before Hopper came to the Cape are continuing to grow taller once again. Cape Cod is still lovely, offering its slightly strange beauty that so attracted Hopper's eye. But it physically has changed since Hopper's day.

These photos and notes from my July 31 talk will conclude with a third post sometime this coming weekend.

Monday, August 4, 2014

My Edward Hopper Talk at Norman Rockwell Museum, Part 1

Stephanie Plunkett, the Deptuy Director and Chief Curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA invited me to give a talk on July 31 about Edward Hopper as part of the impressive exhibition she organized, Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator (through Oct. 26, 2014). Here I am standing in the middle of the exhibition in front of the Museum's wall-sized mural of Hopper's famous oil Early Sunday Morning. 

We had a great and enthusiastic turnout for the talk. Someone who wasn't able to make it to Stockbridge asked me if I would post the slides I used in my talk and re-tell some of the points I made. As I showed 48 images, I'll break the presentation up into three installments.

Hopper had to support himself for two decades by doing illustration work for magazines until his painting career really took off. The exhibition shows Hopper was a skillful illustrator.

My talk started by comparing Hopper's oil Cape Cod Evening  with two of his illustrations. In this oil you get a sense that Hopper loved to present details, but you always know which details he liked best. In his illustration work, that's not always the case. I also picked this oil to start with as it shows Hopper's penchant for giving us the unexpected. How many other paintings are you likely to see where the humans get upstaged by a Collie?

His monochrome drawing shows the sense of light and shadow we know from Hopper's oils.  But unlike his paintings, Hopper only focuses on the center of his page (probably at the insistence of his publishers).

In his Tavern Topics cover he fills in the entire frame of his composition and playfully abstracts the shapes of his background. Unlike his paintings, light and shadow only happen in the foreground.

I picked the oil below by Hopper because it was the most story telling of his paintings. Exactly what's going on we're not sure, but Hopper loads his foreground with feeling by focusing our attention on the strong blast of late afternoon sun and dramatic shadow.

Hopper's Cape Cod Morning shows him framing the space around his figure and playing up the contrast of an inside space against the out of doors. He imbues each of these spaces with their own distinct personality.

Here's Hopper sitting in front of the studio in S. Truro, MA that he designed and had built using his wife Jo's inheritance (Jo's in the background).

We value Hopper because he saw with such fresh eyes. I believe one of the attractions of Cape Cod for him was it had largely been untouched by earlier painters (unlike the well-painted coast of Maine). His mantra seemed to be: find the overlooked but important thing. Wanting seculsion he picked the then very remote shores of S. Truro to build the studio he occupied for the next three decades (see white arrow). 

To reach Hopper's studio you travel down a winding overgrown dirt road.

Here's the studio sitting atop the ridgeline of the last sand dunes before you hit Cape Cod Bay, seen from the top of his sandy driveway. Note the rise at the far left side of the photo.

This is a painting I made during my 1st residency at the studio in 1983. Then the shrubs and trees were shorter, now they've grown so tall they largely obscure this view.

Here's Hopper's oil from 1930, Hills, South Truro that's now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Compare the silhouette of the dune in the upper right of the his painting with the outlines in the above two illustrations. You realize Hopper had fallen in love with this particular spot and would choose it to build his studio four years later. I feel his oil is sort of a "love letter" to the place. The arrow below marks the exact location that would hold the studio.

If you advanced closer to the above dunes and turned your gaze 90 degrees to the left, this is what you would have seen in 1931 when Hopper painted his wonderful oil The Camel's Hump now in the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY. He set up his easel right where his driveway stands today.

Sadly the distinctive "Camel's Hump" dune was destroyed some years later when an overeager developer bulldozed it away to dig a foundation for a new beach house. He had failed to secure building permits and was halted by the city fathers, but only after obliterating what had been a local landmark, and Truro's most famous piece of topography. 

Here's the studio in the early morning sun. Lovely isn't it. Years ago I had started showing my own landscape paintings in an art gallery in nearby Wellfleet. The owners of the Hopper studio came in and bought two of my oils. They kindly invited me to come tour the studio and ended up inviting me to come and stay and paint in the studio. It was ironic as Hopper had been the big influence on me as a young painter. After two years of painting abstractions when I first began, seeing Hopper's amazing evocations of dramatic sun and the poetry of his shadows persuaded me to drop what I was doing and begin working as a realist. 

The steps leading up to the studio-

The view out the 10' tall north facing window in the studio's painting room.

Hopper's easel next to the north window.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from staying in his studio was how particular Hopper was about what he painted. The panoramic views out the window in the above photos would have suited 9 out of 10 Cape Cod painters just fine. Not Hopper. He didn't bother with this view- to him it wasn't unique enough, didn't carry enough unexpected cargo. Instead he kept walking, searching widely for just the right source for his paintings.

With that in mind I dragged my French easel down the long path to Hopper's beach and made this vine charcoal drawing of the huge dune Hopper looked at each day. As heavy as my easel is, the point of view is so much more revealing about what is special about the Cape landscape.

Here I am in October of 2012 during my last residency at the studio, with the dune depicted in the previous photo at my back. I'm standing and grinning on the deck the current owners of the studio built. In Hopper's day a short series of steps took you right down to stand in the sand.

To be continued Wed., August 6.