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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What I Learned from My Ink Wash Drawings

Philip Koch, The Trees, sepia, 30 x 42", 1985

All of us are on a long journey. Who we are today is the product of sometimes amazingly contradictory influences. For an artist every medium they employ offers them a different lesson. 

I was in my painting storage room organizing work for my upcoming solo exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts (Nov. 8, 2014 - Feb. 22, 2015).  I stumbled upon four of my large ink wash drawings, snugly resting in the painting racks. That was enough to spin me off into reminiscing how they played a decisive role in my growth as a painter.

A little history:  When I first began painting I was attracted to the geometric abstractions of the 1960's and painted with big flat shapes of intense acrylic colors. As I reached grad school at Indiana University I unexpectedly fell in love with the University Art Museum's 19th century landscape paintings. They propelled me into a darkly moody world, with me painting in oil over canvases first covered in a deep umber brown. Here's my oil Fall at Lake Lemon, 16 x 20" from 1971 as an example. The hills and trees are mostly middle-toned to dark, with smaller light accents providing the contrasts. For much of the next decade this was my default method.

In the mid 1980's I started looking once again at the quick wash drawings Rembrandt used to make with sepia colored ink. I was struck by the beautiful overall lightness of his drawings. They seemed to be infused with a sun-filled mist. Here's a Rembrandt ink wash drawing from the 1650's.

I resolved it was time for me to try my hand at some large scale wash drawings.

Philip Koch, Daybreak II, sepia,, 28 x 42" 1985

Work on paper has a sensibility all its own. Especially when working in transparent washes, it most often it coaxes the paintings to be tonally lighter. Using just a few small dark accents can suffice to inject contrast. 

Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, sepia, 22 x 44", 1986

What was so helpful to me in doing these works on paper was how it reoriented my thinking about what the overall tone of my oil paintings could and should be. 

Philip Koch, Summer III, sepia, 31 x 41 1/2", 1985

The tonal habits I acquired by working in ink washes gradually transitioned in the '90's into another work on paper medium, vine charcoal. Like ink wash, it's unrivaled for its sense of light and shadow and for wrapping an image up in a blanket of atmosphere. 

I focus so much on drawing as it's central to how I build my oil paintings. But it was my work in ink wash that opened my eyes to how to really use vine charcoal.

Philip Koch, Old Railway, Truro, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 1998.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

How Did Edward Hopper Make a Watercolor? (Updated)

I was staying and working in the studio Edward Hopper designed and had built on Cape Cod in Truro, MA for my15th residency a week and a half ago. Above you can see Hopper's easel where for 30 years he produced many of his most famous paintings. The three windows look out from a great height over Cape Cod Bay. In a word: inspiring.

Hopper first gained wide acclaim through his watercolors. Most of them were done at a fairly large scale on cold press 140 lbs. watercolor paper (that's a medium weight subtly textured paper). To keep his watercolor paper from buckling as it became wet as he painted on it, Hopper would prepare the paper ahead of time by stretching. On the easel in the photo above is a piece of watercolor paper stretched by Hopper that is patiently waiting for him to return and paint on it. 

 Here's a close up of the front side of the prepared paper. Over the years it has sagged a little from its original smooth completely flat state.

Hopper first soaked his watercolor paper in water and carefully wrapped it over simple wooden stretcher bars (identical to the commercially produced stretcher bars painters use now). Today's artists would use a staple gun, but Hopper fastened his paper down with old fashioned thumb tacks all around the its four sides. Anyone who has dropped a dry sponge in water and seen it dramatically expand in size can visualize how Hopper's watercolor paper had swelled as he wet it.

As the paper dried it would shrink to a completely flat and drum-tight surface. 

Hopper loved nothing better than working outdoors in direct sunlight which probably accounts for his ability to render a palpable intensity when he painted the highlighted areas in his paintings. But he disliked it when the light would shine though his only semi-opaque watercolor paper from the backside, throwing off his judgment of his darks and lights. 

He solved the problem by tacking several pages of the sports section from an old edition of the New York Times. Previously I'd failed to find the date on the tattered newspapers. My friend Bonnie Clause, the author of Edward Hopper in Vermont, did some very resourceful research by entering phrases she saw in the photo into the NYTimes archives and established that the sports pages backing date from Sept. 19, 1948.  

Here's my own French easel set up in the large painting room with Hopper's easel in the far corner.

Below is one of my vine charcoal drawings of Hopper's easel holding  this stretched watercolor paper in the corner of the room. Normally I cover most of my drawings' surface with broad areas of shadowy tones. But I liked the simple rhythms of the shapes of the easel and Hopper's chair and decided to leave the piece as more a basic line drawing.

Here's a concluding picture of me going back to painting in oils. This is in the adjoining bedroom, with a view through the door at the left of Hopper's big painting room. (You can see the small oil on my easel in my previous blog post). 


A number of paintings, pastels, and vine charcoal drawings I've made in Hopper's studio will be included in The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD Nov. 8, 2014 - Feb, 22, 2015.

Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY (Hopper's childhood home) will show additional paintings I've made in Hopper's studio in their solo exhibit of my work Feb. 14 - April 12, 2015.

Friday, October 3, 2014

15th Edward Hopper Studio Residency

 I am just returned from my fifteenth residency in Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio on Cape Cod. Had great weather, got a lot of good new painting done, and have a ton of good new photos of the studio. Above is me lounging in front of Hopper's 10' tall studio window last week. 

And below is my wife Alice standing in the doorway of Hopper's bedroom and looking out into Hopper's big painting room. 

Here's another photo that gives a sense of the scale of Hopper's ten foot tall north-facing studio window. It bathes the entire painting room in bright unchanging light all day long, regardless of whether it's overcast or sunny. This was taken at the very end of the day.

When Hopper designed the studio and had it built in 1934, the window was covered with dozens of small panes of glass supported by a network of thin metal strips. It looked really cool, but over the years the weight of the glass caused the window to sag and eventually the glass panes started breaking. The present owners had to replace the window and now its wide open sheets of hard plastic. I miss the look and feel it used to have but I understand why the move had to be taken.

Here's a shot also from the end of a clear day last week that I took through the window screens in the Hopper studio's kitchen. You can see the shadowed silhouette of the studio on the far hillside, just above Hopper's small white garage.

Here's one of the paintings I made with my easel set up in Hopper's small bedroom. What attracted me was the brilliance of the late afternoon sunlight playing over the studio's white walls. The view looks out over Cape Cod Bay to the left, in the middle is one of the two small closets Hopper shared with his wife Jo, and on the right a door opens to his large painting room. In the distance is the easel Hopper used for three decades in that room. Some of his most famous paintings happened on that easel.

Since I work from direct observation instead of from photographs, I love a medium like vine charcoal for the way it allows me to move quickly to nail down the shifting patterns of sunlight and shadows as they sweep over the subject. 

Here is Truro Studio: Kitchen Doors, vine charcoal, 12 x 9", 2014. On the far left is the opening to the incredibly steep stairs down to Hopper's basement. In the distance is the studio's kitchen with early morning sunlight blasting in. The window in the center is right over the kitchen sink. Hopper must have often stared out of it towards the sea as he rinsed out his coffee cup.