Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Should Artists Paint Directly from Life Anymore?

John Singer Sargent, An Out of Doors Sketch, oil

Friday night I drove down to the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD to hear Peter Trippi, the Editor of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, who had just judged the paintings that came in from the Plein Air Easton event. He spoke about each of his selections for prizes. But he also addressed bigger concerns from the point of view of an enthusiast of observational realism in painting. He argued against the misconception that painting by direct observation of nature produces nothing more than a photograph-like copying of reality.

Academy Art Museum, Easton, MD

As a someone committed to "painting from life" for over four decades I know it has changed the way I look at the world. Try an experiment: stare closely at a photo. Then raise your gaze and look out a window at perhaps the cars on the street outside. What you see through the panes of glass is overwhelming to the eye. You're now taking in tens or hundreds of times the number of "pixels" of visual information than you saw in the photo.

To make sense of it, your brain has no choice but to take in only a small fraction of the mountain of information out there. And here's where the creativity comes in- no two people are going to notice the same features. One can pretty much copy in paint what one sees in a photograph. But when painting by observing real life one has left the realm of just reporting and entered the more mysterious, and challenging, terrain of interpretation

 Here are two highly inventive paintings based at least in part on direct observation. First a Winslow Homer watercolor from 1874 of a man fishing in a small boat. It's fascinating to see Homer swim through the torrent of possibilities and show us only a few favored ideas.

He had become fascinated with the silhouette of the man's head and shoulders and focuses the viewers' eyes there. The playful ripples, so enjoyable in the immediate foreground, are banished from the water on the far side of the skiff. Homer wisely didn't want to distract you from tracing the outer contours of the fisherman. He's also deleted almost all details and folds in the man's jacket. 

Here's another boat painting by (OK, no surprise here to you regular readers of my blog) Edward Hopper.

It's  Dories at Ogunquit from 1914. To paint it Hopper wedged himself down between the rocks of this narrow cove, yet he all but glosses over their particulars as it's the boats and far distance he wants to tell the story.

Direct observation in painting offers no guarantee as the mountains of less than successful realist paintings attest. But in other hands, like Homer's and Hopper's, working from their direct experiences of nature took them to a place more selective, more subjective, and more personal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Deep Water

Philip Koch, Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 16 x 20", 2012

My father died just as I was turning thirteen. It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  I remember him as tall and quiet, physically very strong, thoughtful, and always kind to me. When he was around I felt OK. My mother sadly had enough of her own struggles that she just didn't have it in her to be very supportive. But in his own way my father made up for that. In his presence I felt held up and safe, and after he died my family moved into painful new territory.  I hung onto that memory of how my dad made me feel as if it was a life raft. 

Where I live we have a pool and for the last half dozen years I've been taking my granddaughter Nora and now her younger sister Maya swimming with me. When she was two and three, Nora would cling tightly to me as I carried her around the 3' depth of the pool's shallows. Bit by bit she learned to dog paddle and tread water.  Still much of our pool time consisted of me carrying her around on my back like I was some kind of over sized seahorse. We made a game of it we both enjoyed  Now she swims better than I do and races around the pool's deep waters. To see her grow like this is a wonderful feeling. So is her justifiable pride in what she's learned.

Her sister Maya, two years younger, naturally is a more modest swimmer. Up until now she has had me carry her as I would stand in the waist deep end of the pool. Two weeks ago she managed to dog paddle her way to pass the pivotal "Deep Water Test" administered by our Life Guard and has joined her big sister in the pool's deep end.

But Maya tires quickly and reverts to clinging to my shoulders like we did in previous seasons. Back then I held her up effortlessly while sanding upright with my feet firmly planted on bottom. But now we're in deep water and I have to vigorously tread water to keep us above the surface. Not the strongest swimmer in the world, it's a bit of a stretch for me to hold her up.

Honestly I don't think Maya has noticed the difference- she just knows I do the same old job of supporting her as I always did. I've thought about telling her that sometimes she inadvertently comes close to pulling me under, but I haven't said anything to her.

I think I like too much the illusion that there's always going to be someone there to hold her up. She'll find out for herself how at best this can only be a sometimes thing. I just want to keep that "everything is safe" feeling playing in her head a little longer. If I'm honest I think really it's my need I'm trying to meet.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Claude Monet and Me

Here is one of my new paintings, White Mountains: Cool Sky,  oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10". It is based on the drawing below, White Mountains, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2014, that I made on location last month up in northern New Hampshire. 

For about 30 years most of my painting was done camped out in the field with my portable easel and my oil pigments. It was an unbeatable experience in deepening how I see and extending the range of color chords I can employ. I am very proud of the paintings I made this way.

Eventually though I confronted the fact that working in oil right in front of my sources often made me too conservative. After all, much of the time nature's colors can be restrained and understated. Nature has a way of pulling you in and I often erred on the side of being too faithful to everything I was seeing. I wanted more slack in the reins to explore additional color options than just what I was seeing directly in front of my easel.  

So I hit on the idea of working in oil on paintings I would make back in my studio based on finished drawings I would do on location. One advantage of this way of proceeding is it allows me to experiment more with alternative worlds of color. 

Above is another new painting based on that same vine charcoal drawing. This one is White Mountains: Warm Sky, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2014.

As I have matured as a painter I've come to see more and more that art for me is more about how I paint an idea rather than just what that idea is. The three versions above are from the same scene. Yet in each the personality of the composition's main actors, the sky, the dark mountain, and foreground trees, seem to read their lines with a different inflection. And an overall feeling results that's distinctly different in each landscape. 

One of the reasons I tried this way of working in the first place was the example of Claude Monet, the French Impressionist. He was fascinated at how the same forms would totally transform as he viewed them at different times of day and under varying weather conditions. Below are two of his haystack series painted from precisely the same spot but giving us profoundly different interpretations.

Monet was said to have sometimes hauled a wheelbarrow loaded with canvases out into the field so he could work for a few minutes on one canvas, switch to another as the light changed, and then switch again. I hope the story is true as it's such a good image I carry in my head of what he must have looked like.

Much as I love Monet, my methods are different than what he was up to. But his example serves as a reminder to all of us. Our job as artists is to be a little relentless- search out the best tools and ways of working that allow you to hone in on just the best of what you want to say to your viewer. For me this has meant taking the act of drawing more seriously as a source for my painting. Ironically, spending extra time working in a black and white medium like vine charcoal gives me more freedom to try more adventurous things with color.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

My Dream Last Night of Charles Burchfield

       Charles Burchfield's watercolor November Sun Emerging

Regular readers of this blog know of my interest (some would say obsession) with the work of the American watercolorist Charles Burchfield. This morning I awoke from a dream I had about the famous Western New York painter.  I was showing some friends the studio Burchfield had used. Unlike his actual studio, the walls were gleaming white and were covered with subtle and distinctive abstract leaf designs (appropriate as before his painting career took off, Burchfield worked for years designing wall paper at a firm in Buffalo, NY).

We were seeking the special inner room where Burchfield made his paintings. We moved through a series of hallways that became progressively more narrow.  I realized was going to have to crawl through a space so tight that I feared I would get stuck.  Maybe Burchfield could fit through that space, but clearly I couldn't.

What a metaphor. It was saying I think you can love Burchfield's work, study it and learn from it, but you can't in the end successfully enter Burchfield's inner sanctum or be just like him. 

Burchfield himself spoke highly of some of the teachers he had studying under at what is now the Cleveland Institute of Art (that I myself briefly attended). Yet Burchfield while learning much from his teachers valued his own personal experience so highly that his paintings bore the indelible stamp of his own personality. 

Edward Hopper, Gas,  oil on canvas

Burchfield's friend, Edward Hopper, was an enormous inspiration to me as a yound painter. Seeing his work made me change from painting abstractions to working as a realist. For many years I made paintings of the kind of houses I thought Hopper would have like to paint. To this day I am extremely proud of that more Hopper-like body of my work. 

Hopper himself had studies with the charismatic teacher Robert Henri and learned a great deal from him. But he was to complain later that it took him a whole decade to "get over" Henri's undue influence. About 15 years ago I began to feel the stirrings of another voice that was urging me to move on into some unexplored new painting territory. 

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

Most of my paintings moved more towards a brighter color palette and turned back toward the setting of the natural world. It was less a conscious decision and more of responding to an inner feeling. 

The point of my Burchfield dream was that we have to maintain a careful balance when we approach the work of the artists from the past we are most attracted to. They are so good they could potentially pull you in like a moth to a flame. Nor do you want to turn away from the genuine insight and energy they achieved. It's just too much fun to look at and it has enormously important lessons to teach us. 

Great figures like Burchfield and Hopper cast long shadows. We can spend long hours imbibing their work. But we honor their spirit best when we find ourselves stepping out from their shadows into light we discover for ourselves.