Monday, August 30, 2010

Mixing It Up

Philip Koch, The Sentinel, oil on panel, 28 x 42", 2010

I wanted to show you a little of my working process. Above and just below are two paintings I was working on just this morning. The Sentinel was begun a number of years ago from direct observation out in the town of Tomball, Texas (you may think I'm joking but I actually chose the location based on its name when I was looking at a map of the state. I confess my love of cats, including males, swayed me). I've moved back into the studio to finish the painting.

These days most of my moves come either from memory or my imagination. What I'm aiming at is a kind of painting that exists just a bit beyond the ordinary, as if perhaps I'm showing you the landscape as it might appear in one of your dreams.

Philip Koch, Northern Sky, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2", 2010

You'll notice the two paintings are radically different sizes. Northern Sky was completely invented in the studio with me imaging the a reverie of the day coming to a close. Painting from direct observation is hard I know well from the thirty plus years I worked that way exclusively. But inventing one's forms and colors out of one's head I find to be an even greater challenge. I only do it because I know no other way to get the results I desire.

It helps me enormously to work on one painting for a while and then set it aside to let my mind rest from all its strenuous imagining of how a scene might look. Instead I go and work on another painting for a length of time, and then set it aside as well.

Even when working on something else, in the back of our minds we keep chewing on the bone we started with the original painting. Our unconscious side needs time to mull things over. The advice to "sleep on it" contains a certain brilliance. When I return to a painting after a day or two, or even better longer, my hand seems to have a few good new ideas of its own.

Here's my studio late this afternoon, with Northern Sky up on the easel at the left with The Sentinel below it. At the right is another work in progress that has been part of my active rotation. It's 72 inches wide and employs a quite different palette than the other two paintings.

Switching from one to the other, and then to a third canvas keeps me going. I've never understood artists who insist on working on only one piece at a time. For me that would mean a less fertile frame of mind and would lead to painting a dull painting. Maybe for others it works, but an artist's job is to find how to play to his or her strengths. "Put it aside" is a watch phrase in my studio. It has served me well and I recommend it to others.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Davidson Galleries in Seattle

Philip Koch's White Light oil at Davidson Galleries in Seattle.

An old friend of mine (since my Cub Scout days!) was kind enough to send me some pictures he just took in Seattle's Davidson Galleries where I have one of my oils hanging in their August Landscape show. My friend became Robert Wetmore, MD (orthopedics) and has a practice in Waterbury, CT. Bob was out visiting his daughter Kate who's just had her first child. That's Kate with the new goods above. Congratulations!

Art galleries are a critical part of building the bridge between an artwork and a potential audience. As I haven't yet visited Davidson Galleries I was very happy to see some photos of it. It looks great. Here's an interior shot with my White Light in the distance. I like galleries like this that know how to present work in the right way- lots of breathing space between the artworks so the viewer can see them without distractions. High ceilings, freshly painted walls, and well-aimed lighting make a world of difference.

Sam Davidson has run the gallery for many years. He has a large inventory of works on paper and prints by both contemporary and historic artists as well as handling paintings and sculpture. Here's a link to his website.

Natural and Urban Landscapes runs through Aug. 28 at Davidson Galleries. Here's some of
the paintings in the show from six different artists from across the U.S.

Below is Dr. Wetmore himself (a.k.a Bob).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Philip Koch, The Voyage, oil, 18 x 18"

This is a small painting I made in preparation for a major studio oil. It's in a group exhibition Waterscapes at the Nichols Gallery in Barboursville, VA right now. I was looking at it on their website and really enjoyed seeing it again. It is I feel, an original painting.

This is an invented painting in the sense I dreamed everything up. But every aspect of it depended on the hours I've spent looking at boats, bays and shores, things that were prominent in my young life. And equally dependent on pouring over some work from artists who've gone before me.

I actually had an autobiographical idea in mind when I first started cooking this painting up. An image from my childhood that always stays with me is the little single sail cat boat my father bought when I was about eight. He took me sailing often and taught me how to navigate the thing on Lake Ontario. He was a slightly reclusive and profoundly taciturn man, and wasn't the sort to hang out with his kids. But he did find time to take me sailing with him and this meant the world to me. He died when I was thirteen, but the memory of that boat is tightly wrapped up with my strong longing for him. Naturally I had a storehouse full of emotions swirling around the idea for this painting I hoped to do.

But strong feelings don't tell you how they should be painted. That you have to come up with on your own. Fortunately, there is a language of painting that developed over the centuries for dealing with such thorny challenges. You can , and probably should, borrow a lot.

Let me focus on just one aspect of this composition- the way the boat feels like it is coming closer. Three basic tools I borrowed from art history help me make that sense of change and movement palpable.

First, the light shines into the painting from the right hand side of the picture. This provided me an excuse to cast long, roughly horizontal shadows across the water. At intervals, they divide up what would otherwise be a too continuous surface of the water. Just like the white yard lines drawn on a football field, they help the viewer measure his or her progress from back to front.

Second, I've employed the device of overlap. Look at the light sail of the boat reaching up and covering up just a bit of the dark shadow that falls across its wake. Or the way the vertical dark blue trees on the most distant island overlap the bluish highlight on the water in the very far background. Overlapping forms show you who is in front of who. Artists consciously have design the placement of their forms to build space this way. I really learned about this by looking at 17th century landscapes by Poussin and Claude Lorrain, neither one on my list of favorite artists, but great teachers nonetheless.

And the colors of the front, middle and back spaces are each distinct. It's warm up front. It's the opposite in back. This sort of exaggerated color shifting between the major planes in a painting is something I picked up from late Renaissance landscapes. But the vividness of my color choices depended more on my excitement at the intense colors of artists like the 20th century painter Georgia O'Keefe.

Painting is hard enough without reinventing the wheel. You are in the business of expressing some of the most elusive of thoughts and feelings. To do that you have to take advantage of some of the grammar and vocabulary of the artists of the past. It would be foolishly arrogant to think you can create a new language all on your own. And even if you could, no one else could understand what you were saying.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Looking Out, Looking In

Here I am in Acadia National Park in Maine getting ready to paint. I'm surveying the horizon to decide just what to include in the next picture.

And this is what greeted me this morning as I entered my studio. The night before I had been sorting out some oils on paper, deciding which to use as sources for new paintings.

These two photos reveal a lot about the creative process. First you go out and encounter the world. There's looking long and hard, and then mulling over what you've seen to pull out what's most significant. It's like human relationships- you meet hundreds and hundreds of people. You end up having something meaningful with only a handful of them. If you're lucky you've picked wisely and reap the benefits.

For a landscape painter, being outside is exhilarating but a little overwhelming too. It pours over you. But you make paintings and drawings out on location, catching what you can of the best ideas you find out there. I love to bring the small plein air pictures I make out side back to the studio and then put them away for awhile. Out of sight, I forget what it was I was thinking as I made them.

Then I bring a whole number of them back out to examine. I'm always surprised at how different they look to me once I've been away from them for a few weeks. By then I've gotten a fresh eye for them, seeing possibilities I'd overlooked when I first did them. You literally are given a second chance with each of them. Very often I'll go back into them, editing this and adjusting that, and almost always make them stronger.

Before I can get to mixing colors this morning I'll have to pick up all the works on my studio floor. But before I do that, I'll have made mental notes about who's going to be helping me get new ideas for paintings and who's headed back to my storage racks.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Coolest Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art Explained

Sanford Gifford, A Coming Storm, oil, painted during the Civil War

My wife Alice took off from her job at the mental hospital yesterday and drove up to Philadelphia with me (actually she did most of the driving, but as women statistically are safer drivers than men, this is as it should be). We were headed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art which since it's in such an old city and got a head start on building its collection has almost an embarrassment of riches. It's one of those museums where there's too much to look at closely.

We took in the Late Renoir show, which impressed me a lot. Renoir was terrific at paint handling. Unfortunately they don't like you to photograph temporary exhibits where they've borrowed work (I suspect mean-spirited Dobermans are ready to be unleashed at a moment's notice on anyone who tries it). But no matter, as their permanent collection galleries are brimming with great stuff.

As a kindness, I thought I'd talk about the best painting in the museum. I've picked it out for you and will offer the definitive explanation of it. Trust me I'm a professional.

Just kidding above. The whole notion of a "best" painting is silly. And any painting worth it's salt is so richly complex that you can talk about it for an hour and only touch its surface. There is no definitive explanation for a painting, or for life for that matter. You just experience it.

I can point out a few things Gifford does exceptionally well though. Looking at the first photo, notice how he creates with his overarching cloud a window that opens up into a much lighter and more cheerful world. He places us in one world and makes us look from it to another. It's a good example of how space can have an emotional component.

Here's a detail of the left front. See how he layers his trees into different levels, almost like stacking slices of bread upon each other. The light orange trees are over the large rock, the rock is over the tree covered hill at its right, and that hillside is over the sky.

Here's the upper left corner of the painting. Gifford uses a long gradation from light to dark and from warm to cool as you move from the right to the left through his sky. Gradations, especially subtle ones, are incredibly helpful to a painter to imply depth and movement in a painting. Get in the habit of searching for gradations. They're almost always helpful.

Also look at the variety of edges in the trees and the rocks. Clearly the artist wanted the great rock's peak to dominate this section of the painting, so he's subtly blurred the edges of the trees meeting the sky. That's good paint handling.

Here's the lower right side, with the dominant mountains sweeping upwards almost vertically.
That could have come off corny and flat, but he anchors them to a well developed foreground shore. The perhaps thousands of trees depicted here have been sculpted and simplified into a box-like volume as they near the shore. It has an almost horizontal top that catches a mid-toned light, and a wall-like side facing us that's all in shadow. You can bet Gifford had to invent some of this to make his world more firm and believable.

And finally in the upper right he shows us what it means to create an expressive silhouette. He's invented this little zig-zig shape at the far right of the dark clouds that is unexpected but totally convincing. Without it he probably felt his "window" opening into the light filled far distance would have been too predictable a shape- resembling either an almond or a vagina, depending on your preferences. I'll go with the latter.

Here's me, calmed and soothed, yet excited to get back to my studio. See what good art can do to you.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The "Nature" of Art

Went over to the Eastern Shore of Maryland on Friday and stopped in at one my favorite museums, the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD. Here's a picture of its main entrance. I'm not sure what the original building was built to be (meeting hall, church, school?), but its conversion to an art museum was beautifully done. I love the classy silhouettes of the old building. Hey, why shouldn't art come in an attractive package?

One thing I like to do some of the time is to look at art that is outside my usual realm. Brian Young, the Museum's Curator was giving a talk that afternoon on the Museum's recently acquired gift of 50 pieces of primarily minimal and conceptual art from the Vogel Collection. Brian is a real enthusiast for this branch of the tree of modern art, so I wanted to hear some of his stories about the art and how it found its way to the AAM. It is a very good thing to listen to people who have different ideas than the ones you hold. It shakes you up and freshens your thinking. And Brian's talk did that for me. Afterwards I headed out to go painting in the marvelous tidal marshes of the Eastern Shore.

I've always had a curious stance towards modernism. I began to study painting when minimalism was already an established fact along with all sorts of other questioning of what art-making was supposed to be about. Perhaps ironically for someone who ended up a landscape painter, my initial exploration in my first sculpture class was doing performance art (though in those days we called it "doing happenings").

My first year in painting I was looking to the wonderful bright hues in the work of the artist Mark Rothko and doing extremely minimal paintings. Actually I learned a lot from that period and its influence can still be seen in the colors I choose in my current work.

One thing I feel strongly is that for me, I am most creative when I have something outside myself to bounce my thoughts off of. I drove down to the nearby Blackwater Wildlife Refuge (no relation to the military contractors) and started nosing around.

Here's the finished piece I did that afternoon, Blackwater Refuge I, vine charcoal, 8 x 12".

Though I had come thinking to focus on the water and sea grasses, instead my eye was unexpectedly caught by the tree line back on the shore. The photo below shows what it was- two intriguingly shaped holes in the otherwise solid wall of foliage (they are just above my right hand). Their felicitous rhythm seemed completely counter to the sobriety of the long row of dark trees. Yet the two very different kinds of shapes, while contradictory, also complemented each other.

Painting uses visual means to grasp at complicated thoughts like that. In your own life aren't their people or situations where things that at first seem in opposition to each other can actually work together? My afternoon that day had been sort of like that- going to a lecture on conceptual art and then rushing out to create art that was more about the experience of looking than thinking. It all worked, and I had a great day.

Below is the happy artist with his completed drawing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lessons in Restraint from Edward Hopper

Here's an oil by the famous 2oth century American painter Edward Hopper, Road in Maine.

Hopper was a bold painter, famous for his strong lights and shadows. But his genius more often lay in how he held back from high contrasts. Just as you need silence to appreciate a loud noise, you need quiet passages to let the drama that is there have a weighty impact. Here are some examples of Hopper's elegant restraint.

First, it's a mostly yellow painting (though in the form of yellow ochre-greens). The sky has blue in it, but not that much. Hopper has held back on the amount and intensity of his blue to keep the emphasis on the ground. The blues in the sky are knocked back into a subordinate role. I can't tell you how many times I've seen less experienced landscape painters paint vibrantly colorful skies that compete with the ground they've painted. Here Hopper says he wants you to look at the ground.

He gives us two hillsides and a valley. Look at the top edges of both the close and far hills. Their silhouette against the sky and/or against the valley is a hard, sharp line. Hopper has carefully created an outer contour for each hill that is expressive. To make sure you notice them he's toned down the contrasts within the centers of each hill.

Hopper's grasses are wheat-colored, suggesting it's late in the season. Except for the cast shadows, the grasses hardly change in color. The foreground field is quite close to us, yet there aren't lots on individual strands of long grasses sticking up. In fact, there's none. What he does give us is a foreground where the strokes still show. In comparison, the farther field, almost the exact same color, has barely visible strokes. And the ones that do show suggest he's moving his brush horizontally, unlike the left-leaning diagonals in the foreground brushwork.

Wonderful details that add much to the painting are the three telephone poles. Hopper chose to make them partly yellow like his fields, but at a much lowered intensity. They read as almost white and accentuate the feeling of the color in the far field. Hold your finger over the largest pole and see how the surrounding yellows in the field seem heavier and less sensuous. And he's figured the wires hanging between each pole would be too fussy to include and eliminated them.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What do gold and silver taste like?

Most of us understand tasting food far better than how to experience art. You only know if you like a food by putting it on your tongue. Nobody puts all their trust in the flowery description printed in the menu. Imagine a tour at art museum where a well informed docent takes a eager group into a gallery and proceeds to tell them at length about the art work that will soon be hung on the gallery's bare walls. No matter how entertaining, it wouldn't be much of a tour.

What is a landscape painting? That two word phrase doesn't tell you much at all. You have to look before you decide whether a particular piece speaks to you or not. You simply have to "taste" it.

Let me show you two new oil paintings of mine- both with lots of water, islands, and sky. They're both horizontal compositions. And both are lit from the sky. Beyond that they depart radically from each other.

Above is Northern Sky, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2". It's intimate and it creamy and buttery as its violet clouds blur into the soft yellows of the sky. It's about casting one's gaze upwards. It's a reverie to the end of the day.

And here is Memorial, oil on panel, 18 x 36" and it's altogether different in feeling. It is cool in color. It is expansive both in spreading your eye's glance to the left and right hopping among all the islands and in pulling you up to see the soft glare of an unseen cool moon. It's a painting that is full of information about the solid forms of things. It has a mystery to it, but it's like a dream where everything remains in sharp focus.

Imagine if I had only told you about these two paintings instead of showing them to you. How little you would have to go on. One can learn a lot from an engaging and informed speaker or writer on art. But you can learn a hundred times more just quietly looking at a painting. Go ahead and go at art the same way you dig into a meal- taste the art with your eyes.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Trip to the Academy Art Museum, Easton, MD

Atrium Gallery of the Academy Art Museum

Drove down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland on Thursday. You cross the high suspended bridge over the Chesapeake Bay and descend into another world from the Washington-Baltimore sprawl. It's rural and flat and perfect for agriculture, which they do there big time.

I was headed to the town of Easton which boasts the Academy Art Museum, an impressive institution I've watched grow since I first started visiting in the early 1970's. Back then it was a community arts center that was starting to acquire the beginnings of a Permanent Collection, but was still rough hewn.

One of the reasons I went was to attend the Annual Member's BBQ and I was able to meet the new Director of the Museum, Erik Neil, PhD. Erik, as the letters after his name imply, is an art historian. He's former Director of the Heckscher Museum of Art on Long Island and prior to that had run the art galleries at Tulane University. Running any nonprofit in a recession is challenging, so I wish Erik and his staff the best in attracting support for this deserving Museum. (Any deep-pocketed readers of this blog should send the Academy Art Museum a check right away. When my own ship comes in I'll give them a least a couple of its lifeboats).

The Museum has an intriguing personality. On the one hand, the Eastern Shore is a real bastion of traditional art. The Museum has a long history of showing and collecting realist painting, and landscape painting in particular. But it also regularly shows work that is thoroughly modernist. This month they're opening a show of the fifty works they received as a gift from the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Foundation, a largely conceptual batch of work. Brian Young, the AAM's Curator has a special enthusiasm for such art and speaks articulately about its underlying themes. Hopefully he'll be permanently stationed in the galleries to explain it to any confused or bemused visitors during the show.

One of the other things that brought me down to the Museum last week was a little exhibit they have up of landscapes from their Permanent Collection that includes work by Eugene Leake and Henry Coe. Leake painted the oil above titled Young Trees on a Grey Summer Morning from 1974.

Leake was President of the Maryland Institute College of Art and was responsible for hiring me to come from the West Coast to join the faculty at MICA in 1973. He saw in my paintings a kindred spirit to his own, and as he was planning to retire to devote himself to his painting, he must have figured I could help keep the torch burning for his kind of painting at MICA after he was gone. Lord knows, I've been doing my best.

Leake was an unusual artist for the 1960's and '70's as he was devoted to direct observation of the landscape and would usually start and finish his often large oils out in the field. In the '70's I was 100% on the same path and to this day have a deep respect for that plein air tradition of painting. This particular Leake oil highlights some of Leake's strengths with brushwork. He creates four sphere-like trees in a row along a roadside and varies their color very little. Yet the closer two have a completely different character than the farther trees as he leaves them progressively more empty of foliage. The closest tree seems more made of empty spaces than leaves and still manages a noble solidity. That's hard to do.

My old friend the painter Henry Coe was one of the very first Directors of the AAM back in its infancy when it was called the Easton Academy of Art. His oil Lengthening Shadows from 1985 is a favorite of mine. Coe shows us his ability to establish very different intensities of shadows. Look at how sharp the shadow is in the foreground as the road plunges back into the space of the field. In comparison, the larger nearly horizontal shadow that stretches the entire width of the painting is just a touch lighter and more translucent. That selectivity is the stuff of strong painting. Also notice how the higher of the two clouds runs across the painting's surface exactly parallel to the top slightly diagonal edge of our big shadow on the field. It beautifully knits together sky and land.

Though it is a very modestly sized operation, the AAM is one of the very best conversions of an aging facility into a state of the art museum I've ever seen. Architecturally the building is a real beauty.

There is something undeniably fresh about a museum like this. Visiting such a place gives the viewer a chance to savor just a few dozen pieces of art and leave wanting to see more. I know there's a place for the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but bang-for-your-buck-wise, the smaller places can pack quite a punch. The AAMis always a fun visit and is worthy of our support.