Showing posts from October, 2009

An Argument in Art School

Following this Rembrandt ink wash landscape are three more of his amazing drawings.
Back in the late 1960's I was a studio art major at Oberlin College. There were only three artists on the faculty, and of those only one could have been called an effective teacher and a good artist, Paul Arnold, a printmaker. I had the good fortune to be able to augment the limited art instruction. I spend the entire summers of '68 and - '69 living in New York City. I went to the art museums over and over again, my eyes drinking up all the delicious lessons on their walls.
And I went full time to the Art Student's League of New York, one of the country's most venerable art schools. It was pretty good too. I made hundreds of drawings from the model and did my first figure paintings in oil.

What was marvelous was for the first time I was around other art students with more experience than I had, and in some cases a desire equal to mine to plunge deep into painting and try hard make some…

Tiny Big Spaces

Philip Koch, Passage Color Harmonies I & II, pastel on artist's sandpaper, each 5 1/2 x 8 1/4", 2008 I'll frame these two panels together as a diptych.
Sailboats. When I was a kid my dad never once played catch with me. Instead he bought a small sailboat and taught me to sail. I was allowed at an astonishingly early age to take the boat out by myself on the unprotected waters of Lake Ontario. Simultaneously proud and more than a little intimidated to be the "captain of my own ship" at such a tender age, the image of a lone small sailboat summons up in me a host of emotion- adventurous excitement tempered with background notes of anxiety.
For many years I was primarily a plein air oil painter. But my landscapes increasingly have come to represent more a state of mind than an actual place. As part of this evolution, in the last decade most of my larger pieces are done back in the studio from drawings.
To do this with real authority an artist has to explore this …

Unbroken Thread Show at College of Southern Maryland

Here are some photographs taken yesterday at the opening reception for the College of Southern Maryland's Hungerford Art Gallery exhibition of the nationally traveling show Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch. It is on display in La Plata, MD through November 15, 2009. Below is Barbara Stephanic, Ph.D., an art historian who teaches at the College before the reception began.

The Gallery, located off the lobby of the College's theater in its Fine Arts Center is modest in size and could only accommodate half of the work originally selected for in the show. Nonetheless, the Gallery has large glass windows that allow visitors excellent lines of sight to take in even the largest works in the show. Normally big oils don't show this well in smaller spaces, so I was delighted with the arrangement. We are showing large oils and small works on paper side by side. Work shows beautifully in Hungerford Gallery's space. In total we had about 50 people come to the opening an artis…

Why Artists Have Exhibitions

Philip Koch, Night in the Mountains, pastel, 9 x 12", 1999
The above is a pastel done from a plein air vine charcoal drawing I did at Lake Megunticook just outside Camden, Maine. Though it rained steadily for much of the time I was there, it was still possible to gather the impressive silhouettes of the lakes and mountains that Maine offers up so well. It meant also that from the get go I had to imagine a light and shadow situation more vivid and helpful than that supplied by the elements. I've developed a habit of drawing when necessary from the front seat of a rental car that has served me well on quite a few painting trips to New England.
If you're serious about painting, you can't let nasty weather stop you. In fact, it's part of the adventure of trying to make paintings about the out of doors. All the painters I most admire worked their way through the challenge of bad weather. When I have an exhibition of my work, part of what I am showing off is my ability t…

The Day I Became a Landscape Painter

Philip Koch, Looking South, oil on canvas, 18 x 36", 2006
Something that used to be a staple of American painting, the vast landscape panorama, had its heyday back in the mid 19th century. At that time the subject attracted the finest talents to mastering its challenge. Then fashions changed and more closed in views, where the far distance is reachable, came to predominate. Actually I love both kinds of landscape painting.
But if I had to choose (sort of a Sophie's Choice nightmare for painters) I'd have to say my heart is with the deep spaced paintings. It's not a rational choice, its more about where do I feel most deeply at home.
One of the highest purposes of being an artist is the task of noticing what's commonly going unnoticed by most people, and then finding a fresh way to present it to let people see what they're missing. In particular, those elusive qualities of meaning and beauty, so often get lost to us in the details and stresses pressed upon us by …

A Gift from my Sister in Canada

This is an oil by one of my favorite painters, the 20th century Canadian Lawren Harris. You don't see much of his work down here in the US, and that is a shame. He was one of a whole number of painters who absorbed some of the lessons of modernism in the early years of the last century. But while open to modernist thinkng, they were also committed plein air landscape painters. Calling themselves "The Group of Seven" they seem to catch a wave of Canadian nationalism and found broad acceptance in their own country.
The reason I'm aware of them at all is because my sister Kathy moved to Toronto in the late '60's and started sending me postcards of her favorite of the "7", Harris. At first I didn't care much for his work. In those years I was much more of a committed naturalist and valued layered surfaces and intricate textures.

Harris seemed a bit too geometric and simplistic, but my sister kept on sending a card or two a year and darn if the guy di…

Looking Out, Looking Back

Philip Koch, Fall at Lake Lemon, oil on canvas, 16 x 19", 1971

Philip Koch, Birches in the Forest, oil on canvas, 20 x 30", 1985
More reminiscing as I put paintings back into my just renovated storage room in my new basement (Maya Angelou and George Clooney are rumored to be planning to attend the official dedication ceremony I'm planning for later in the week).
These two paintings are both from earlier decades in my career. The first was painted during my first year in graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington. I had been doing a series of surreal landscape paintings without using any photos for reference nor any direct observation . One day one of the painting faculty at Indiana, Barry Gealt, stuck his head in the door to my studio one afternoon, looked over the work for a moment, and then amicably said "Why don't you try painting outside sometime. I think you'd really like it." Then in a flash he excused himself and disappeared down the hall.…

A Good Artist Has More Than One Way of Working

Philip Koch, Cathedral, oil on canvas, 42 x 54"
Above is a large painting done in my studio from a smaller plein air oil.

Philip Koch, Blackbird's Pond III, oil on panel, 13 1/2 x 18"
And above is an on location painting, pretty much started and finished outside on the portable easel.
These two paintings show the opposing tendencies in the two different ways of working. Both however are deeply indebted to direct observation of reality. As I often tell my students, reality (or "nature" as they used to say in the good old days) has a four and a half billion year head start on us. No wonder it is more evolved than any one of us . Inevitably there is something happening outside that is more inventive and evocative than anything one can summon up out of one's imagination. The trick is to keep one's eyes open to find it.
Cathedral is about selection, thoughtful consideration and gradual refinement. You can say a lot in a large studio painting and its success dep…

Artists and Nurses Saving Lives

Philip Koch, Beneath the Pine, oil on panel, 21 x 28", 2007
There are two stories here I want to interweave.
I have a cold and I'm moving a tad slower than usual. My basement art storage room flooded two months ago and my kind neighbor Seanah volunteered to let me store some of my larger paintings in her basement while a construction crew renovated my entire bottom floor. At 1:30 this morning I'd been asleep for several hours when the phone rang. It was Seanah telling me now her basement was flooding from the torrential rains we've been having since Thursday along the east coast. So, prying my groaning body out from the sheets, I hopped into my clothes and spent an hour moving the art work in her house to higher ground and safety. I'm afraid my paintings are feeling like Hurricane Katrina refugees.
The good news is the workers just finished my new basement and I can now move the art back into its new improved home. I've been carrying the work into the new stora…

Speculating: Why I Paint So Many Islands

Philip Koch, The Violet Whisper, oil on canvas, 30 x40" 2003
Artists frequently return to paint the same theme again and again. Me, I seem to do islands.
Last night I had a nightmare about a hunter bleeding a captive deer to death. In the dream I want to rescue the deer but am unable, feeling impotent and terrified. Danger and loss are tough topics for any of us. And anything that offers escape from them is a balm for one's heart. It's also a crucial theme in art.
As a landscape painter, I've always been puzzled by my own lack of interest in painting the wide open sea. Or large waves crashing on the rocks. It's a theme that fascinated one of our best painters, Winslow Homer. As a boy there was a Homer watercolor print in our living room and he was the first painter I could identify by name. But I seem to want none of Homer's bursting waves.
The week I turned four we moved to a new house my father had built on the shore of Lake Ontario outside of Rochester, NY. My d…

An Old Friend

Philip Koch, After the Storm III, oil on canvas, 45 x 90" 1986
Migrating geese.
You'd be awakened by the noise of hundreds of them flying over my boyhood home on the south shore of Lake Ontario, just east of Rochester, NY. They'd come through twice a year heading up to Canada and then back south in the fall. By the time I was six or seven I realized this was proof the world was both larger and stranger than the adults were letting on. How on earth did they find there way. Why didn't they just find a nice place and stay put?
One of the big reasons people make paintings is to savor ideas and memories that get lodged in their mind. When I try to recall the feeling of being a young boy, I think of myself craning my neck up to watch the flocks heading out over the water and disappearing into the distance. It seemed impossibly beautiful and completely exhilarating.
Years later at the urging of a painter friend from graduate school I went painting in Wellfleet, MA on Cape Cod f…

Behind the Scenes Hanging an Exhibition

The paintings for the next installment of my national traveling exhibition Unbroken Thread were delivered today to the Hungerford Gallery at the College of Southern Maryland in La Plata, MD. The show was organized originally by the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, MD, next door to College Park and will be traveling around the country until 2011. Here's the work being spotted for placement on the Gallery's walls. Above is the oil Equinox.

This is Larry Chappelear a faculty member in the College's Art Department who is in charge of the crew that does the actual hanging. Larry is a fine painter himself and started teaching at the College of Southern Maryland in 1973, the same year I began teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art. He is standing in front of the large oil The Song of All Days.

Finally here are two large oils, The Birches of Maine on the left and Ascension on the right. In the center is a page taken from my sketchbook where I did some …

Dancing at a Wedding

I myself started out as an abstract painter in the late 1960's. This was a good thing as I couldn't yet draw very well but still wanted to at least get started learning the language of painting. My first year painting I probably pumped out some 80 colorful abstract canvases. I learned a lot in the process. To this day some of the color combinations I most enjoy came from what I discovered that first year.
After a while I wanted to add something more to the mix. It seemed reality outside my studio beckoned to me and I started a serious, years-long program of teaching myself to draw the human figure. It was hard work but terribly exciting to me. The very tall stack of drawings of the nude I produced made it possible for me to be the painter I am today. But also valuable I know were the early abstract experiments I did. They weren't great paintings, but they let an inexperienced teenager feel he was embarking on a great journey.
One of the painters I've always admired wor…

More Art Lessons from the Four Legged Master

Edward Hopper, Gas, oil on canvas

Isabella hiding in flower pot in my garden 9/10/09
Above are examples of high and low art (I'll leave it to the viewer to decide which is which). In the earlier post this week "Why Insight Is More Like a Cat Than a Dog" I ask how an artist gets good ideas. Yesterday I was walking out of my house to go to a wedding and ran across the acknowledged master of these deeper questions, my neighbor's cat Isabella.
She usually hides behind the tree that holds up my bird feeder. But recently she's taken to skulking in my neighbor's flower pot in her quest for little bird canapes. She does it for hours on end. If she's patient enough and keeps her eyes open it works. The other masterpiece pictured above is by Edward Hopper. It depicts a gas station at dusk on the old route 6 highway that threads up the forested middle of Cape Cod. Hopper drove an old Buick and, gas guzzler that it no doubt was, refueling it gave him time to day drea…

Starving Artists? No Thanks

Thomas Hart Benton, Hades, oil
Here's a painting where the American 20th century artist Benton explores the old Persephone myth. It's one of those stories people invented to try to make sense of the whole notion of creativity. How can anybody make something seemingly out of nothing- whether you're talking about creating a child, a painting, a piece of amazing music. And when the creative flow stops, how come? We've been trying to figure this puzzle out for centuries. Centuries from now, humans will still be scratching their head.
"Starving Artists."
How did we get so used to that awful phrase? Anthropologists tell us that every human society ever discovered has left us at least some evidence of its own developed and sustained visual art tradition. When you think about the more immediate challenges to their survival those peoples had to face (running away from lions for one) this is nothing less than amazing. Like it or not, visual art is right at the core of who…

Why Insight Is More Like a Cat Than a Dog

Philip Koch, Bend in the Road, oil on canvas, 42 x 50" 1983
Somewhere the Muse has a sack of good ideas. Capricious as ever, she takes them out one at a time and hides them here and there just to see who's sharp enough to find them. For the artist the question is where to look.
Maybe the worst thing to do is confront a big, blank white canvas and try to will oneself to come up with something. Insight is more like a cat than a dog. It doesn't come when called.
I've noticed a phenomenon over the years that the idea you are looking for is found when your not looking for it. Instead it comes when you're doing something else. For many years I was a serious runner who exalted in physically exhausting myself for the endorphin rush that follows. Running is great for day dreaming On my old jogging route one afternoon I was lost in though when I noticed one particular bend in the road just looked fantastic. Something about the rhythm of intervals between the trees and the tele…

Working My Way Forward Step by Step

Philip Koch, Two Islands Mt. Desert: Green, pastel, 5 x 10",

Phililp Koch, Two Islands Mt. Desert, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2009
Long day today and I still need to do some drawing, so this will be brief. Wanted to show you one of the things I'm working on right now. Above is a new studio color study I'm doing based on the charcoal drawing below it that I drew on location up on Mt. Desert Island in Maine last week. It is one of several pastels I'm doing experimenting with different color combinations for the sky, water, etc.
One thing I find helpful is to do the initial color explorations on a slightly smaller scale than the original charcoal drawings. I can work faster in the pastels that way and am more likely to try out color combinations that are new to me. If the color versions were any bigger, I'm get caught up in trying to get them "right" the first time. One can die from an excess of caution. Keeping them small short circuits this tendency…

Sometimes Not Knowing is Better

Philip Koch, Bend in the Pond, 55 x 44" Collection University of Maryland University College
People turn to visual art because it gives concrete form to something elusive yet important. We want to see the tangible evidence that, like ourselves, other people too have sensed the romance and drama that stirs within all of us. Art does this and thereby makes us feel less alone.
This is a piece that is several years older. It was painted from a plein air oil that was 25 x 20", a touch larger than my usual practice outside. It is from an old mill pond up in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts that powered a sawmill back in the 19th century. The remains of the old wooden waterwheel lay in the woods not a hundred feet from where I stood painting. As the small oil was larger than usual it took me several days to complete it. Next to where I stood was a rowboat and waiting oars. I imagined as a reward for finishing the painting I'd take it for a spin and explore the far side of …

Three Different Kinds of Work Cooking in My Studio

Philip Koch, Acadia, oil on panel, 8 x 9", 2009
Just returned from the Maine painting trip, I took a look at a small oil I started way back in 1982 on my honeymoon with Alice in Acadia National Park. It looked good to me but just a touch too subtle. Breaking all personal records for going back into older pieces to repaint them, I went in and added new color choices.
I know there are some artists who feel art from previous decades has its own unique voice and shouldn't be tampered with. Yet I have learned so much about painting in the intervening years. They almost always get stronger when I go back in- probably about 95% of the time. In a perfect world we'd all know just what to do from the get go. In this world I welcome insights, even ones that come in late.

Philip Koch, Night Moon II, pastel, 8 x 10", 2009
This is a new pastel drawing I did from memory (regular readers may recall the vine charcoal drawing I posted a couple of weeks ago upon which this is based). Thi…

It's the 21st Century. Do We Need Landscapes?

Philip Koch, Passage IV, oil on panel, 18 x 24", 2006
Last week I spent the biggest part of each day painting in what felt like the middle of nowhere (Acadia National Park and Deer Isle in Maine). It is as vivid a hit of nature as one can get on the east coast of the US. This has a way of shaking up you up, very pleasantly too. Thoughts of receipts piled on my messy desk and upcoming committee meetings fall away leaving one feeling they've just awakened into a different world. At such time the thought "This is where we came from" cycles through my mind.
Our earth is some four and a half billion years old. Relatively quickly it spawned simple forms of life. With luck and time these evolved into the plants and animals we see today. It's one heck of a story when you think about it. We humans in a real sense are the eyes and ears through which our mother planet can consider herself. We visual artists have to take care of the "eyes" part.
Turn on the TV or…

More Images from Maine and Mountain Lions

Philip Koch, First Light:Deer Isle, vine charcoal, 7 x 14" 2009
Above is the view from the Pilgrim's Inn where we stayed last week in the tiny village of Deer Isle, Maine. The Inn itself is beautiful but can't hold a candle to its setting on Mill Pond. I arose before dawn one morning and was set up with my easel as the first rays of the sun hit the far shore. Except for the fishermen, no one else is ever around at a time like this. So often the angle of the earliest light combines with the previous night's mist to create something that looks as if it was as if out of a dream. We'll be going back to Deer Isle I am sure for more painting.
When I first arrived and unpacked I realized to my horror I'd left my box of vine charcoal back in my studio in Baltimore. Fortunately we were able to grab a computer and locate an art supply store in Ellsworth, a good hour away. This did nothing to improve my mood, but we blasted off to reach the place just minutes before closing…