Monday, January 18, 2016

Casting LIght on Charles Burchfield's Rainy Night

Philip Koch, Upper Story: Sunlight, pastel, 5 1/2 x 11", 2016

One of the best things about my serving as the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) for this year is the opportunity to go and paint from some of the same areas Charles Burchfield used for his sources. I was up in Buffalo for the Residency last week.  

I went to downtown Buffalo and worked from a building that inspired one of his best known paintings, Rainy Night, below. Burchfield's painting to me is deliciously evocative of the moodiness of the city at night. I did several drawings of the building, beginning by making a drawing of it sheltered from the January winds in the Public Library directly across the street. 

Charles Burchfield, Rainy Night,  watercolor, 30 x 42", 1929-30
San Diego Museum of Art

Overall I  did six drawing, including my pastel of the building's elaborate mansard roof in yellows at the beginning of this post and this one below in cooler violets. I probably will be turning a least a couple of them into larger oil paintings.

Philip Koch, Upper Story: Twilight, pastel, 5 1/2 x 11", 2016

The pastels were based on this charcoal.

Philip Koch, Upper Story, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2016

And it in turn was done from this drawing of the entire structure.

Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Rainy Night Building, vine 
charcoal, 10 1/2 x 14", 2016

What inspired my turn to working from an urban subject was that Tullis Johnson, one of BPAC's Curators and the Manger of its Archives, showed me a box full of the preparatory studies Burchfield made to help him conceive of the composition for Rainy Night. I was hooked. Tullis told me where I could find the building Burchfield had worked from and off I went.

While at the Archives I photographed the following eight of Burchfield's preparatory studies.  

Burchfield would go to remarkable lengths to amass information about the details of the scene.  Yet in the end what I find most intriguing about his watercolor is how he orchestrates all the details into an overall whole. He's masterfully selective in picking out only a few of his details to become focal points in his composition. I wonder if this came out of his experiments on the watercolor itself as he slowly worked it towards its completion or whether he had made additional studies of the overall composition that I didn't see.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My Painting Hanging in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas 33 1/2 x 50"

Katherine Kunau, the new Associate Curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (CMRA) in Iowa contacted me last week to tell me her Museum has my painting Cape Cod Morning from their Permanent Collection hanging currently in their The Nation Travels-themed gallery. That sort of thing is sweet to hear. I had the good fortune to be invited to have my very first solo art museum exhibition at CRMA back in 1994, and this painting traveled to Iowa to be part of that. (CMRA by the way has amazing collections of Grant Wood and Marvin Cone paintings very worth seeing).

There's a funny story behind my painting. For many years I have been traveling to the outer tip of Cape Cod, MA. It was here where for three decades Edward Hopper lived half of each year and painted many of his most memorable works. Hopper was the chief influence on me as a young artist to change from abstraction to becoming a realist. I love the landscape of Cape Cod in its own right, but knowing it was also Hopper's favored terrain puts a special aura around it. The Hopper oil below, one of my personal favorites, inspired my choice of the title for my painting.

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Not far from Hopper's studio in Truro there's a building he would have frequently driven past on the Cape's main road, Route 6. For several years I had been admiring the dazzling patterns the morning light would cast on its walls. It would make a great painting I knew but the commotion from the heavy traffic had put me off from the task. I'd tried setting up my easel on the road's shoulder but it offered a viewpoint too low that cut off the bottom of the building.

Finally one summer I broke down and marched out to the narrow concrete median between the four lanes of traffic. Only 3 feet wide, it barely accommodated the spindly legs of my French easel. Trying to paint there was unsettling to put it mildly, but the view of the building was perfect. So for the next week I'd spend 2 precarious hours each morning working on my painting. Despite the cavalcade of noise from the traffic, it turned out really well. Returning to my Baltimore studio I went on to make the large version from it that's now in the Museum.

My practice is to make smaller oils out on location rather than to paint the landscape from photographs I have taken. It's far more time consuming, but I find I need the extra hours to discover what it is about a source I can use to make a painting that is beyond the ordinary. If you study something long enough, it will reveal itself to you in unexpected and often delightful ways.

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning on display in the Cedar Rapids
Museum of Art's The Nation Travels gallery. photo courtesy 
of the Museum

Painters who set themselves up to work in the middle of four lanes of heavy traffic also are setting themselves up for all sorts of responses from motorists startled to encounter an artist in the middle of their road. I was no exception. My favorite was the words hurled to me through one car's open window "It needs more 

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning on display in the Cedar Rapids
Museum of Art's The Nation Travels gallery. photo courtesy 
of the Museum

Friday, January 1, 2016

Getting Inspiration: National Gallery of Art

My wife Alice and I went down to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. yesterday. Alice always wants to be sure to visit here favorite painting by Vermeer of a woman weighing pearls. Love the way the diagonal that runs through the painting is echoed by the angle of Alice's hair falling over her shoulder. It seems to link her to the careful balancing of the scales going on in the painting. 

19th century artists took delight in studying the sky as in the above landscape by Caspar David Friedrich. There are hardly any works by this mysterious German romantic in the U.S. I love the way the sky seems to come down and wrap its cool light around the distant mountain.

Speaking of light from the sky, here's a Sanford Gifford oil where the sun struggles to burn through a silvery haze. It's a painting where the main story is the land's pinks and oranges elegantly dancing with the cool gray colors of the atmosphere. 

Gifford's paintings are part of the long tradition of artists seeing the landscape as a vehicle for creating a telling emotional expression. Here's the National Gallery's Rembrandt from 1648, The Mill, where he casts a poetic solemn stillness over the ebbing of the day's light. 

All was not always so peaceful in 17th century Holland. Here is Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast by the wonderfully named Rudolf Backhuysen. This stormy sea oil below may seem a little overwrought to some contemporary eyes, but it is a masterful contrasting of warm yellows against cool silver grays. 

Since being the Artist In Residence this year at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY I've been studying the watercolors of the 20th century American watercolorist Charles Burchfield. You could say I have Burchfield on the brain. Look at the silver gray and yellow color palette of the background in Backhuysen's tempest. Burchfield so often would base his paintings around a similar palette as in his snow scene below. This last one isn't at the National Gallery, but wouldn't it be fun to see it hanging next to their Backhuysen.

Here I am just back from visiting the museum painting on the big canvas in my studio. It's based on a small oil I made on location in the bedroom in Edward Hopper's studio in Truro, MA. The view  looks into Hopper's painting room. That's the easel Hopper used to paint some of his world famous oils in the distance.