Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Second Stay for Burchfield Penney Art Center Residency

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset:Cool
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

I'm just returned from another week at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, NY. This was my second stay as part of my being Artist-In-Residence there for this next year. It is a chance to do a lot of my own paintings all around Western New York State. This is the landscape where I was born and grew up- it's indelibly etched in my visual imagination. On a personal level it is deeply satisfying to me to paint here.

One of the places I'm painting is at Chestnut Ridge Park, south of Buffalo. It's a place that was an important source for Charles Burchfield's art. Above and below are two pastels I made about the vista there that looks north to Lake Erie.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset: Warm
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

Both are based on the vine charcoal drawing below that I made on location with my portable easel.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset
vine charcoal, 14 x 10 1/2", 2015

For many years I've adopted a method of working in a series - doing preparatory works in drawing media and in oil on a small scale before committing to creating a major painting. 

It takes time to let visual ideas percolate down to their essence and become clear in my mind's eye. Studying Burchfield's work during my last two stays at BPAC I realized that Burchfield devoted enormous energy to making preparatory drawings for his paintings.

While there I am slowly going through some of BPAC's extensive Archives. It contains an astonishing 20,000 Burchfield drawings. While some Burchfield paintings were rapidly painted and completed he often would take his time, working up to an idea very gradually. 

Here are two pieces that intrigued me. Both are very freely drawn studies he made as he was searching out how to present an idea in an upcoming painting. They're surprisingly large, about 15-18" across.

He took his time, circling around his idea sort of like a cat stalking its prey. Here he tries out two very different approaches to compose a gnarled tree and a small house- lighting the house first from the left above and then from the right in the drawing below. 

Whether these two particular drawings later led to one of his large watercolors I don't know. But they are telling evidence of his relentless searching for just the right forms to make his inner vision come to life. 

We see in Burchfield's paintings memorable spontaneity and the great trust he placed in his intuition to guide him.  Yet he made a veritable mountain of sketches and preparatory drawings. When he planted his ideas in a field it was only after he had waited until its soil was fully, and artfully, prepared.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Edward Hopper, French Impressionist?

Here's Edward Hopper's Pennsylvania Coal Town from the Butler Institute of American Art. I love the contrast of the deeply saturated yellow ocher house against the bright whites of the figure's sleeve. And the shadowy off-whites of the window curtains draw you in with a sense of mystery.

When people write about Hopper they so often turn to themes of emotional isolation and loneliness. They rarely talk about his color and his amazing gift for evoking the feeling of bright sunlight. Yet that's exactly what drew me to Hopper's work when I was starting out as a painter.

Hopper in his 20's went to live in Paris three times. He saw the work of the French Impressionists first hand. He liked what he saw- particularly the brilliance of the way they rendered sunlight with dazzling color. Above is a Hopper oil of Paris from 1907. It is a symphony of creamy yellows, whites and grays. 

One can't understand Hopper without giving his Impressionist-inspired love of light and color its due. What confuses people is that Hopper also loved solid volumes and crisp forms, while they think of French Impressionism as all buttery soft brushstrokes. Think late Monet like the famous waterlilies. 

But earlier in their careers the French Impressionists usually showed their fascination with light and color employing solid forms and crisp edges. That was the side of earlier Impressionism that Hopper picked up on and carried with him throughout his career.

Above is a photo I took during my last residency in Edward Hopper's studio in Truro, MA on Cape Cod. It is his painting room at the first light of dawn. Hopper designed the studio himself adding lots of windows all around. He used the place as a sort of observatory to study (and celebrate) the marvelous effects of  Cape Cod's light. 

Below is a painting I made standing in the studio's kitchen of the small table where Hopper and his wife Jo ate their lunch.   Hopper looked at this same sun-splashed wall daily, drinking in the chords of white contrasting the golds outdoors. One thing that helped me paint this painting was remembering standing in the Butler Institute and studying their Hopper Pennsylvania Coal Town. Hopper taught me how to see color.

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Kitchen, oil on panel, 12 x 16", 2014
part of After Hopper at Addison Art Gallery, Orleans, MA

Hopper wasn't a French Impressionist of course.  But underneath his hard edged severity was a man who generously offers up to us big helpings of extremely sensuous  color. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Burchfield Penney Residency Part III

Charles Burchfield, Early Spring Sunlight, watercolor, 1950
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY 

Later in July I'll be returning to the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, NY for my second stay as part of my Burchfield Residency at the museum.  

I'm well into my fourth decade of painting and I have a different style to my landscapes than Burchfield. But one of my strengths as an artist I feel has always been my willingness to learn from other artists. His work has been speaking to me for many years. What I'm finding is what he's telling me is something other than what I'd  anticipated. 

One of the first things I did at BPAC was to make a careful oil copy of the left hand section of Burchfield's watercolor Early Spring Sunlight that the museum brought out from their Permanent Collection. 

I wanted to make the copy to get some new ideas from of Burchfield's color choices, hoping to add to my usual color mixtures. Doing the copy reminded me how much I love the feel of bare branches disappearing up into the sky. My paintings of the last decade have tended towards solid masses of foliage shaped into clear silhouettes. I was reminded of something I've been missing and want to get back to.

 My oil copy of the left section of Charles Burchfield's
watercolor Early Spring Sunlight

The other major impression from my first BPAC visit came more from the hours I spent in the museum's extensive Archives. I poured over numerous pages of his handwritten journals and hundreds of his drawings. Looking through all this you start feeling Burchfield seemed to save everything. To carefully organize one's work and preserve it doesn't happen all by itself. It is a testament to the incredibly high value he placed on his past experiences. I think that's the big lesson I'm getting from Burchfield.

Returning from BPAC with all this in mind I was struck by an earlier painting of mine from a couple of decades ago. I dove into repainting it. I'm very happy with the results.

Philip Koch, High Trees, oil on panel, 28 x 21", 2015

I had intended to do all new work based on the studies I created while in Buffalo. And I will. But Burchfield's message to me was instead to look backward and see if I hadn't been in too much of a hurry to close the book on an earlier chapter of my life.