Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Andrew Wyeth





Yesterday my wife Alice and I drove up to see the two Andrew Wyeth shows near us at the Brandywine River Museum in Chads Ford, PA and the Somerville Manning Gallery in nearby Greenville, DE.

The Brandywine Museum show, Andrew Wyeth in Retrospect, marks the 100th anniversary of Wyeth's birth. Audrey Lewis of the Brandywine Museum co-curated the exhibition, borrowing important Wyeth works from across the country.

I was awed by what I saw. Wyeth has a quiet but insistent power to his imagination. He used "traditional" country and farm imagery but always found ways to show us the unexpected.




For many viewers Wyeth's ability to render painstakingly detailed surfaces is the big takeaway. And impressive it is. For me though, as a realist painter who eschews minute details, what really struck me throughout the show was Wyeth's masterful sense of design- the way he realized expressive power by leaving things out. 

The early watercolor Coming Storm (above) from 1938, done before the artist adopted his more detailed way of working in the medium of tempera paint, shows how much he could express using only the most broad and detail-free strokes. ( I apologize for the reflections on some of my photos).






Here's Hoffman's Slough, a tempera from 1947, a masterpiece of leaving things out if there ever was one. In this and other paintings Wyeth plays off areas of relative emptiness against a few carefully chosen focal points that lead our eye around the space of the painting.




A few years ago we took advantage of the tours the Brandywine Museum runs to Andrew Wyeth's studio and to that of his father, N. C. Wyeth, just up the hill. One of my favorite paintings in the show was this watercolor Andrew Wyeth made of his father's studio in the snow, North Light, done late in his career in 1984. The painting starts out telling us all about the delicate lattice work in the upper panes of arched window, but as soon as Wyeth felt he'd said enough  the rest of the window gradually dissolves into a mist of blown snow. It's so well done it's mesmerizing.




In a watercolor from 1959, Willard, we see Wyeth feeling his way as he gradually carved out the space in back of his model with the lightest touches of wash. I love the tiny spot of empty white paper he left untouched in the top half of the painting.





Almost at the end of the show is Crow Tree from just two years before the artist's death, a painting that especially grabbed me. With my own paintings of the forest, I've so often been drawn to the solemn elegance of trees that have died. They can stand for years  shorn of their leaves, fully revealing the rhythms of their almost sculpted branches. What a pleasure to see Wyeth turning his eye to a similar theme.

A few miles from the Brandywine Museum the Somerville Manning Gallery has mounted a large and wonderful companion exhibition of Andrew Wyeth watercolors. Highly recommended! The Somerville Manning show has been extended to run through September 9. Here's a photo of the Gallery. 


Somerville Manning Gallery, a few miles downstream on the
Brandywine River from the Brandywine River Museum.

Brandywine Museum's exhibition continues through September 17.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Painting's Problems Are Just Like Life's Problems: What to Do

Edward Hopper, The Camel's Hump, oil on canvas, 1930
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY. This
painting was made the first summer Hopper spent on
Cape Cod. He worked from the spot where four years
later he would build the painting studio he would live 
in for the next 30 years. It's my favorite Hopper 
landscape

Yesterday I was finishing a painting of a tree in a large painting I began last week. The session started out well. In my mind's eye I could see the tree looming magnificently above me in a brilliant morning light. Incredibly rich yet somehow elementally simple.

As I pushed further, layering the brushstrokes to evoke the wonderful volume and intricate surface thousands of glistening leaves make. But it began to go wrong. The commanding personality of the tree melted away into an undistinguished mass of oily dots.

An inner voice told me to put down my brush and get out of the studio before I made things worse. I've learned to listen for that voice.

After dinner I went back into my studio to look at the remains of my tree. Somehow my confusion of earlier in the day lifted and I could see the problem- I had lost the distinctive silhouette that had worked so well in my initial drawing of the tree. Clear-eyed again, I re-drew the outer contours of the tree in a few bold strokes. Going back into the tree, this time with a far more restrained hand, I added a far fewer number of details. Presto...

It's a mystery why sometimes our vision becomes obscured. 
It happens in painting and in real life. Just as mysterious is why these clouds of confusion lift again when they do. 

There is an art to painting and an art to living. On our good days some inner intuition rises within us and tells us we know what we're doing and to act decisively. And it can tell us when the way forward yet isn't clear yet and the best course is to wait. The "art" part of this is learning to hear that whispering inner voice. 
We start by listening for it, a lot.

P.S. The painting above isn't the one I described. I think it's bad luck to post a photo of a painting I'm working on and to write about how the painting is going. I think I heard a whisper to that effect.




Thursday, July 20, 2017

Big New John Sloan Show at Delaware Art Museum


Delaware Art Museum (DAM) in Wilmington, DE is organizing the first large scale exhibition in some years of the paintings of the famous Ashcan School artist John Sloan (Am. 1871-1951). The DAM has the larges collection of the artist's work and a significant Sloan archive. 

Here's a large detail of one of the paintings the exhibition's Curator, Heather Campbell Coyle, is planning to include in the  show- Blonde Nude with Orange, Blue Couch painted around 1917. I think it's one of Sloan's best examples of what he could do with color. He knew how to use it to enliven one of the most difficult subjects to paint- skin. Look at the shadows in the detail below.




Determined to avoid monotony of color, Sloan carefully painted the shadows on the buttock and on the bottom knee with relatively cooler colors. Contrasting them, the woman's upper knee slides toward a warmer orange as our eye moves into that shadow. It works beautifully.

Here's another detail-


I'm grateful that wasn't my arm that Sloan asked to hold up the fruit- I can feel his poor model's deltoid starting to scream. Nonetheless, the silhouette of her extended arm creates such an arresting shape. Sloan wants to be sure our eye sees this so he paints the immediately surrounding blue cloth a more contrasting darker and brighter blue. Also notice how her biceps and triceps are a cooler hue that gradually becomes warmer as we travel from her shoulder to her wrist. It's his way of making the whole journey interesting.

I first got interested in Sloan in 1969 when I studied figure painting  at the Art Students League of New York. It was a good class and I learned a lot. But my fondest memory was discovering a small framed photograph hanging on the classroom wall. Peering out through the dusty picture glass was John Sloan sometime in the '30's or '40's posing with his own painting class that he had taught in the very same room. I remember thinking, "God this is great, I must be in the right place!"

An American Journey: The Art of John Sloan runs from Oct. 21, 2017 to Jan. 28, 2018.

P.S. Delaware Art Museum has asked me to give a gallery talk during the show: Artists on Art: John Sloan from an Artist's Perspective on Sunday, Dec. 3,  at 2:30 p.m. I will pick a few paintings from the exhibition and talk about the color and compositional moves Sloan chose to make them visually come to life. All welcome.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Painting the Alley by Charles Burchfield's House

Charles Burchfield, Yellow Afterglow, July 31
1916, watercolor, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Buffalo, NY
Every morning Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) does a great job of posting a different painting by Charles Burchfield on their Facebook page. They pair it with a selection from the many journals the artist kept throughout his life. This morning's post of the above painting particularly caught my eye. Done in 1916 when Burchfield was living in his family home, it is almost undoubtedly a view of the alley just west of his house at 867 E. 4th Street in Salem, OH. 

A big part of Burchfield's talent was he knew to zero in on the subjects that most stimulated his creativity- the immediate surroundings of his boyhood home. It, and similar subjects, were to occupy him for the rest of his life.

Two summer's ago at the urging of BPAC's Curators my wife and I drove from Baltimore to spend two days exploring Salem. Below is a major oil I made in my studio based on two successive drawings of Burchfield's home.


Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Salem Home, oil on canvas
32 x 64 inches, 2016.

Burchfield made dozens of paintings of his house and yard. His home is art historically one of the most important structures in the country. Despite arriving during a heatwave we had a magical visit there. With my easel set up in the alley he had painted I made the vine charcoal drawing below of his house (the slightly blurry look of the drawing was partly due to my drawing hand sweating- as I said, it was hot).

Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Salem Home, vine charcoal,
6 1/2 x 13 inches, 2015


As I worked later in my studio on my large oil version of that drawing's composition I began to feel the trees in the background encroached too much on his house. Below is a second drawing I made from the first, exploring a more open space surrounding the house. It worked best imagining the scene as it could look in the winter months. Burchfield's paintings often celebrated the change of seasons, so I figured this was a very appropriate adaptation.

Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Salem Home II, vine charcoal,
7 x 14 inches, 2016


P.S. Burchfield's boyhood home is now the Burchfield Homestead Museum and is open to the public weekends during the summer months. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Two Sentence Lesson About How to Enjoy Art

Here it is:

At least once a day interrupt the usual mulling over of the details of your life and ask yourself "Of what is in front of me now, what is the thing my eyes most enjoy seeing." Then spend a focused moment enjoying it.

That's it. Here below is something I stopped to enjoy-



Philip Koch, White Thicket II, oil on canvas, 28 x 42 inches,
currently in Courthouse Gallery Fine Art's show of my work
running through July 21, 2017 in Ellsworth, Maine.

So much of what is said or written about art (including by me) tends toward long-windedness. We can trip over all the words. It's good to boil it all down to just what's essential.



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Mining the Burchfield Archives


Charles Burchfield, drawing (undated)  panoramic view of 
Gardenville, NY Catholic church steeple, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Charles Burchfield's expressiveness grew out of his highly-trained eye.  I am convinced his life-long habit of making drawings, lots of them, sharpened his remarkable imagination. He knew his art depended on an empathetic responsiveness and a finely-tuned selectivity. By making drawings he strengthened these attributes. His 20,000+ drawings  at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) attest to the seriousness he attached to his task.



Philip Koch,  Gardenville, NY, vine charcoal, 9 x 12 inches, 2015
This is the same church Burchfield drew in the illustration at the 
beginning of this post. Ironically it was the fist artwork I made 
when I began my Residency at BPAC.


The vast majority of his drawings in the Archives are quick studies, often done in rapid succession from the same source. Clearly he valued these drawings as he saved an enormous number of them. Drawing for him was a key that unlocked his artistic vision.




Two drawings by Charles Burchfield from 1918 of simple 
houses in his hometown of Salem, OH. Burchfield Penney
Art Center. The twisting and bending of the houses is pure
Burchfield.

My own methods of drawing lean toward making more finished drawings than Burchfield did. He was primarily interested in working in line.  I have a additional interest in light and shadow and choose the medium of soft vine charcoal for its ability to quickly build up broad fields of darks and lights. 





Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Home: Salem, OH, vine charcoal,
6 1/2 x 13 inches, 2015. I drew this standing in the backyard of 
Burchfield's Salem home.




An undated drawing by Burchfield of the rolling
 landscape surrounding a gorge south of Buffalo.
Burchfield Penney Art Center.



 Philip Koch, East Aurora, vine charcoal, 7 x 14 inches, 2015.
I made this drawing looking across an undulating field 
in the countryside near the town of East Aurora, an area
south of Buffalo that was a frequent subject for Burchfield.



I am just returned from spending another week at the BPAC as part of my Burchfield Residency. In addition to examining the Archives and the museum's exhibitions, I spent more time out in the fields south of Buffalo painting. 

Much of the work I produced over the last two years will be on display in an exhibition at the museum scheduled to open in April 2018.






Monday, May 22, 2017

Thomas Cole Drawing at Princeton & Burchfield Drawings in Buffalo

-

Last weekend I did some time traveling. Or so it seemed. 

I took a trip with the Baltimore Museum of Art's Prints, Drawings and Photographs Society to the Princeton University Art Museum. Upon entering the Museum's galleries I fell almost immediately into an unassuming drawing by one of the great old masters of American painting, Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painters. Titled simply Rocks, Trees, and Dog, Cole made it out probably while out on one of his nature hikes in 1846, just two years before his untimely death. 

As I looked at it I had the sensation that old as it was, it could have been drawn by Charles Burchfield (Am. 1893- 1967) whose drawings I've been studying the last couple of years in the Archives at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. 

Modest as Cole's drawing is in scale, it has a lot to say-playing eloquently with themes of solidity and permanence v.s. forms that are delicate, and almost immaterial. Best of all he makes both of these qualities seem equally important and mutually dependent on each other. 




Charles Burchfield, untitled, 1915, ink and graphite, Burchfield
Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY


Burchfield had the spirit of early 20th century modernism in his bones. Yet he shared with his predecessor Cole a deep love of wandering through the forest and recording his delights and discoveries. Both of these artists drew with a sharp eye and a palpable love for the forms of the natural world. 


Charles Burchfield, Study for the White Wings of September,
conte, circa 1960, Burchfield Penney Art Center



It's surprising how similar the feeling of these drawings can be, made as they are by artists so separated by time. 

There is an intriguing thread of continuity that runs through American landscape painting. Each generation of sees a little differently. And each has their own particular contribution to make to that long chain of art. I imagine art history like a beaded necklace that winds its way through time. Each artist adds their own take on what it looks and feels like to be alive in their time.  Some of those "beads" shine a little more brightly than others. And sometimes the light from one ends up reflecting on another's contribution from far later on in the chain. The jewels of drawing made by Cole and Burchfield can shine with a special luster. 



Charles Burchfield, Thistles, charcoal, 1961, Burchfield Penney
Art Center

P.S. This wasn't my first trip to the Princeton Art Museum as I have a family connection through my dad's brother. My uncle Robert A. Koch was an art historian at Princeton for many years. His specialty was Northern Renaissance painting and prints. In 1949 he was appointed Assistant Director of the Museum and later served as the faculty curator of prints. He retired from Princeton in 1990.



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Did Charles Burchfield Lie About Color?


When you've grown up in Western New York State as I did you know Spring comes late. Down here in Baltimore all our leaves have fully sprung forth for the year. It's downright green everywhere.

As I was driving yesterday I got to musing about this superabundance of the color green for us landscape painters. Nature's green hues are great for enabling photosynthesis. But the blunt truth for artists is it is almost impossible to paint the colors you see in the forest truthfully and end up with a painting with any life to it. 

Burchfield Penney Art Center just this morning posted the above Charles Burchfield watercolor, Maytime in the Woods, 40 x 33 inches, 1948-1963 on their Facebook page. It's one heck of a stunning painting. 

Seeing it forcefully reminded me of how realist painters, including Charles Burchfield, have to make art that talks about the internal experience. We can't simply report on the literal facts of what we have seen. As he did in so many of his paintings, in Maytime in the Woods Burchfield chose to work with a limited palette of hues- predominately silvery grays, yellows and brown.  

I believe this is how he envisioned his painting in his mind's eye as he worked. When it came to structuring his paintings, he had no choice but to transpose reality's hues into the colors he knew he could really work with. One of the engines that drive his paintings is the way he contrasts vibrant saturated yellows against the cool restraint of his grays. It's a combination he used masterfully over and over again.

Art takes us to a special place where feeling is intensified. Burchfield willingly altered the colors he saw out in the world because he knew doing so would open doors for his viewers to feel the world more deeply. His was not the literal world- he painted a landscape of the mind, and of the heart.



Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Seven Things Charles Burchfield Wants You to Know



A deeply thoughtful man, Charles Burchfield, through the example he set with his studio practice, had a lot to say. This is on my mind as next month I'll be returning to spend another week in Buffalo, NY as part of my Burchfield Residency at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. I thought it would be useful to summarize some of what I've learned from this artist. 

Here goes:

1. Value where you are. Trust that there is meaning in your immediate surroundings. Burchfield realized after only a brief stay in New York City that his creativity had always been most stimulated by close proximity to nature. The big city for him would have been a bad career move.

2. Prepare yourself for insight. He was constantly studying the world through the thousands of drawings he left us. When he got a good new idea it found its way onto drawing paper fast.

3. Be patient.  He knew often brilliance comes to us only slowly. There's no better example than Burchfield of a painter willing to work on a image for many months or years until he developed his idea to its final form.

4. Revisit your earlier achievements. Re-evalutate your path. In the last decades of his life after a long period of working more as a realist he rediscovered much of the visionary energies that had animated the paintings he'd made as a young man. He wasn't one to say "been there, done that." Instead he reached back to mine some of the sources that had propelled him forward as a youth.

5. Life's Potholes Don't Have to be Insurmountable. Reading selections from Burchfield's writings there a numerous journal entries where the artist poignantly reveals his sense of defeat and despair. Yet he made it through them and would return to his productive life.

6. Find a Way of Working that Fits Who You Are. The way other people do things might not work for you. For example almost all watercolorists work with their painting surface held nearly horizontal to keep the fluid pigment from dripping uncontrollably. Yet Burchfield found he painted in his studio better when his watercolor's surface was vertical. It was an odd way to work. Here he is with a brush in one hand and a sponge in the other, ready to catch the any unwanted dripping wet pigment.




7. Be Passionate. Burchfield wasn't afraid to have strong emotions. His embrace of the winds and sounds of nature was fervent. While outwardly polite, his feelings about what he didn't like could be extremely pointed.  In one of his private journals there's a withering description of a pretentious art museum director blathering about the "genius" of some Abstract Expressionist paintings Burchfield had no use for.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mansard Roofs I Have Loved




Philip Koch, Mansard Roof, oil on canvas, 22 x 44 inches, 2017

Last Thursday evening I put the final touches on my latest painting (above). Then on Friday morning I viewed an Edward Hopper painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent exhibition that reminded me how Hopper's influence has often steered me in my choices of what to paint. 

When I was a kid I'd see these mansard roofs in the old sections of downtown Rochester, NY and wondered about them- they seemed radically different than the California-modern house I was growing up in. To my young eyes they were unfathomably old and mysteriously exotic. But even then I had to admit they created a more striking silhouette against the sky than more ordinary buildings.

My painting stemmed from some drawings I made on location in Buffalo, NY as part of my being Artist in Residence at Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC). Tullis Johnson, one of BPAC's Curators told me that the building Charles Burchfield had used as the centerpiece of his famous watercolor Rainy Night was still intact in downtown Buffalo. So on a frigid January afternoon I hurried down to see the old structure. It was too windy to work outside but I was able to make sustained charcoal drawings of it through the windows of the adjacent Public Library branch.




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


Burchfield's painting deftly used the low hanging clouds to catch the strange greenish glow that reflects up from the city's lights. But the looming shadowed building itself has a eerie personality. It seems likely Burchfield chose this building not for its age but for how its network of interlaced shapes would provide his painting with a deepened note of emotion.



Edward Hopper, Haskell's House, watercolor, 13 1/2 x 19 1/2 
inches, 1924, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Kathleen Foster, the Curator at the Philadelphia Museum who organized the American Watercolor show writes in her catalogue essay about Hopper's choice to paint subjects that were some 50  years old even in his time. "Hopper had no nostalgic agenda. Attracted by the complex sculpture of the the house, its dark and light patterns of window and sunlight, he simply enjoyed confronting the quirky palimpsest of the American landscape."

The American Watercolor exhibition continues through May 14, 2017.

P.S. You can see a selection of the preparatory drawings made by both me and by Charles Burchfield from the building in Buffalo at my earlier blog post.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Vanishing Sand Dune- Edward Hopper and Me


Philip Koch, From the Camel's Hump, oil on canvas, 42 x 72 
inches, 1983, private collection

I painted this large oil from a small plein air painting I made during my very first stay in Edward Hopper's former studio in S. Truro, MA.  The view is looking south at a panorama of Cape Cod Bay. The light is just after dawn. In the foreground is a strange feature- it's the hole in the ground where the distinctive dune pictured below once rose up. It was something of a landmark in Truro, known as the Camel's Hump.


Edward Hopper, The Camel's Hump, oil on canvas, 1931
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY

That natural feature caught Hopper's eye during the second summer he and his wife Jo stayed on the Cape. He waited until the late afternoon's slanting light emphasized the dunes impressive volumes. To my eye it is one of his finest paintings and a keystone of the Permanent Collection of the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY.

Unfortunately an over-eager contractor bulldozed the distinctive dune away to build the foundation for a new house. He had neglected to get the necessary building permits so construction was stopped. But the damage was done.

Hopper's viewpoint for his painting was beside the driveway that would be put in a couple years later when in 1934 he and Jo built the studio where they would live half of each year for the next three decades.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Saved from a Cloud of Stinging Beasts!



Philip Koch, Dune at Paine Hollow, oil on panel, 13 x 26 inches, 1984

There is a very funny story associated with this oil. I was up on Cape Cod in June of 1984 painting in the Paine Hollow area of S. Wellfleet, working from a tidal inlet off of Cape Cod Bay. Things were going well for the first hour or so when the wind shifted and a cloud of tiny black flies descended on me. I toughed it out for another 10 minutes but the swarm overwhelmed me and I raced back to the car with my painting. When I got back to the rental cottage I looked in horror at the wet painting’s surface which was covered with the tiny bodies of the insects.

I asked my daughters if they’d like the job of removing the bugs if I paid them a penny for each insect. They were young enough that to them this was serious money. Armed with palette knives they began meticulously picking off the critters. They were taking their task very seriously so I left them to it and took a shower to get the remaining bugs off of me.  About a half hour later they proudly came and found me, announcing I owed each of them $3.00. It would have been more they explained, but that they felt bad for me- after each of them had reached 300 carcasses they threw in the remaining 64 bugs for free.

The painting survived surprisingly well, having only hundreds of tiny white scrape marks where each bug had been removed. As the paint was still wet I carefully smoothed over as many of these marks as I could without destroying the overall brushwork. The piece ended up with a surface that was slightly more agitated than usual but I liked how that reminded me of the whole experience.