Henri Matisse On How to Use Color

Philip Koch, Red River, vine charcoal, 7 x 10 1/2, 2001

In 2001, just as soon as airplanes were allowed to fly again after the 9/11 attacks, I hopped on a flight to North Dakota. Entering the terminal in Fargo one was greeted by soldiers in camouflage uniforms holding automatic weapons (it looked like a paranoid scene out of The Handmaid's Tale).

Philip Koch, Red River Trilogy #1, pastel, 4 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, 2001

That Fall the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks was featuring a large painting of mine in their annual gala exhibition. My dad spent the first 4 years of his life in Grand Forks. He was by far my more nurturing and supportive parent. I only knew him for my first 12 years. I'd always wanted to visit his hometown, feeling it would be a way to connect with his memory. Going to this Museum exhibition was my chance to make the trip.

 Philip Koch, Red River Trilogy #2, pastel, 4 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, 2001

Fortunately the days I was there were surprisingly warm and still for November in a Northern Plains state. I took full advantage and did a series of drawings on the bank of the Red River where it flows through Grand Forks. I remember the gently flowing water and the warm sun cast me into a peaceful reverie. In a quietly satisfying way I felt a genuine connection to the place.

Philip Koch, Red River Trilogy #3, pastel, 4 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, 2001

Over the years I'm done thousands of charcoal drawings. I find the practice sustains me. For many years my paintings has been involved with vivid color. Drawing in black and white has reliably anchored my experiments. As I worked at the riverside on my drawings I remembered a story I'd been told in graduate school about the French painter Henri Matisse: 

A young art student approached the famous artist and said "Mr. Matisse, please tell me how I can learn to use color as wonderfully as you do." Matisse replies "You must go to the Louvre Museum and spend two years making copies of the Great Masters in charcoal as I did." The confused art student persists "But Mr. Matisse, I want to learn about color!". To which Matisse simply replies "You will."

 Philip Koch, Red River. November, vine charcoal, 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, 2001

Apocryphal or not, I've always loved that story. Matisse knew that color, as wonderful as it is, can be so slippery- that it can be maddeningly hard handle. To do something dramatic and energetic with color you need the vessel of clear shapes and definite dark and light changes to hold your colors in place. That's what his early studies in the Louvre had shown him.

Had Matisse been able to accompany me to that river bank in North Dakota I think he would have been happy to sit with me and draw. And as well I'm sure he would have been glad to tip his hat to the memory where my father's life began.


  1. There is another quote from Matisse, along these lines, as included in Jack Flamm's book Matisse On Art: "The colorist makes his presence known, even in a charcoal drawing!"


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