Philip Koch, The Reach, oil on panel, 24 x 36", 2010
There's a half-sensed image that starts calling to you before you begin a new painting. It comes part from one's immediate experience and part from long buried memories that for reasons of their own have begun to stir again.
Years ago during one of my stays at Edward Hopper's studio in Truro, MA, I walked south along his beach on Cape Cod Bay. There was an amazingly beautiful rhythm to the tops of the sand dunes and I wanted to see them close up. As I walked further I was startled to come across a seal that just died and now lay high up the beach where the high tide had deposited her. I say just died because she seemed perfectly intact, really more like she was sleeping than permanently still. What struck me was how beautiful she was, with a rich coat of multicolored fur and the most delicate eyelashes and whiskers.
Though it was a brilliantly sunny afternoon, the stillness of the seal and the quiet of a deserted beach in early October turned the tone of shore in a more somber direction. I found myself thinking of times I'd spent long ago on another shore. My dad used to like to take me sailing at night. As a boy it always frightened me just a little, but he seemed to know what he was doing and I took comfort in that. It was dark and mysterious. He said little so usually it was very very quiet. Just us and the wind. Thinking of all this that afternoon on Cape Cod, I knew all this would be coming together to make a major painting somewhere down the line.
This oil The Reach is an imagined painting. The title is a nautical term that means one's sails are trimmed to catch a wind that comes at you from the side of the boat rather than when you're striving to sail more closely into the wind. It's a course that's easy and fast. Every sailor probably likes the reach best of all.
I did a vine charcoal drawing of those dunes I was telling you about on the same walk when I met the seal. Over the last few months I'd been working on a medium sized oil based on that drawing . Somehow the frieze like row of dunes that worked so well on a small scale didn't provide enough surprise when expanded to 36" wide. I changed the color of the sky and the sand several dozen times but the rhythm of the shapes stayed stubbornly mechanical in feeling.
Reaching back into my childhood memories, I combined that with the times I'd gone sailing at night on Lake Ontario outside Rochester where I grew up. I figured the boats mast and sails could inject an abrupt break to the overly predictable row of dunes. I could see immediately adding the boat was the right way to go.
Often times when you change one thing, it sends a ripple through everything else. With the boat as a new focal point, the dunes seemed too tall, so I sliced out large sections of dune tops with a lowered sky. Gradually it grew to become more about the movement of the boat reaching out to sea under a larger, brooding night sky. It's a painting that at least for me reaches from today in my studio, to a few years ago on a beach on Cape Cod, to five decades ago on a very small boat on a large dark sea.