Thursday, December 24, 2015

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Christmas Eve

The holidays are a time to get together with good old friends. My wife Alice and I decided to drive down to Washington, DC to our favorite museum. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) has an enormous and unrivaled permanent collection. We've visited it ever so many times that many of my "old friends" are to be found hanging on its walls. 

They have the best angel painting ever, Abott Henderson Thayer's Stevenson Memorial. Can't help myself, just love that painting for how  it sounds its contemplative and slightly melancholy mood. That's me soaking it up.

Here's an old friend, Edward Hopper, who people never think of as a celebratory artist. Here's his Ryder House, to me it's a stirring hymn to the brilliance of sunlight on a white wall. Its light seems to pulse with its own clear energy.

Look at how the artist pushes the highlights on the sunlit grasses down way darker than the whites on the house. He knows you can only give a few of your highlights star billing.

SAAM owns one of Hopper's most famous paintings, Cape Cod Morning. Here's my wife Alice checking out the painting.

I've always admired the pattern of the white siding on the house. It's crisp rhythm plays off so nicely against the soft foliage and grasses at the right hand side of the painting. Hopper was sensitive to the danger that these patterned lines could become too stiff or rigid.

Looking closely at the painting's upper left corner one can see how Hopper approached painting these rows of lines gradually, painting them in first softly with thin oil washes with very low contrast. 

Another old friend to me is Winslow Homer's oil High Cliffs, Coast of Maine. I find it a beautifully decisive painting. Homer is a master of giving us lots of detail without it getting in the way of the main story he wants to tell. Here he wanted us to zero in on the long fingers of white surf that jut up into the dark masses of rocks.

Even though the rocks fill up the majority of the painting, Homer relaxes the contrasts within them, keeping their highlights only a dark middle tone. His white water just sings out in high contrast against all this hard darkness.

Finally I want to finish with one of my favorite paintings by Thomas Cole, who more than anyone else helped landscape painting gain a vigorous footing in this country. Homer and Hopper to me come out of a tradition Cole helped start.

Never one to shirk from drama, Cole's piece is titled The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge from 1829. It's the earth washed clean after the great Biblical flood. With our year 2015 coming to an end it's a wonderful symbol for us to hold in mind. It's a painting that tells any of us fresh starts are possible.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Is Making Copies Too Old School?: Charles Burchfield

Philip Koch oil copy of the left 1/3 of Charles 
Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight from 1950.

I was documenting paintings in my studio this morning. Two pieces needed labeling that I made during my first two stays in Buffalo this year as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC). They were copies of my favorite sections of two of Charles Burchfield's watercolors from BPAC's Permanent Collection.

My claim to fame is I am the only human ever to directly make copies of Burchfield watercolors in oils (I tell this tongue in cheek). It's a dreadfully old school thing to do.  Burchfield Penney Art Center indulged my whim. They were trusting enough to set up first Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight (1950) and then his Early Spring (1966-67) on an easel for several days each for me to examine them and copy from them.

Charles Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight on BPAC's easel at left.
At right Koch's French easel with the beginning of his oil copy.

Art students not that long ago were expected as part of their training to copy the work of acknowledged masters as a core preparation to become artists in their own right. When the modernist revolution swept through the arts in the early 20th century daring innovation came to valued in painting. The worst fear was to be seen as just repeating someone else's formula.

Philip Koch copy of the  central section of Charles Burchfield's
watercolor Early Spring from 1966-67 

Visual art after all is a language, we learn it by absorbing the grammar that's been hammered out by the best of the artists who've gone down the road before us. Budding novelists pick up the tools to tell their own unique stories by reading the master writers of the past. Whether you want to discover what's expressive in shape and color or in artfully turned sentences you have to revel in the best of what's been done before.

In the make shift studio in BPAC's Classroom, Burchfield's Early 
Spring on the easel with Koch speaking to BPAC's docents in July.

Is there a danger of letting the art of the past influence us too much? Sure. There are all sorts of contemporary paintngs of young women lounging on the beach in what look like ball gowns stolen from the costume department of the film Gone With the Wind. I think of Coubet's quote "I swam in the river of tradition. The others drowned in it." Excessively boastful of course, but he makes a point we need to hold in mind. 

Art of the past is a lens for us to see our daily experience more clearly. Burchfield articulated his inner sensations to us on a very hight level. He'd be delighted if newer artists learn from his example and come closer to their own authentic voices.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Painting a House Edward Hopper Loved

Philip Koch, Turret House, Nyack, oil on panel, 9 x 12, 2015

I have been traveling to Buffalo, NY frequently this year as the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. While there I go painting in the some of the locations where Charles Burchfield found subjects for his landscapes. Burchfield loved nothing better than studying his immediate surroundings. An unassuming neighbor's house or an empty field could inspire him to paint poetic and universal images. 

Burchfield's example reminds me of his contemporary and friend Edward Hopper.  Like Burchfield, Hopper went looking for magic right in the old neighborhood. 

Over Thanksgiving I returned to Nyack, NY the town where Hopper was born and lived until he was nearly 30. The area around the Hopper family home (now the Edward Hopper House Art Center) is nestled along the banks of the Hudson River. Below is a house that particularly caught young Hopper's eye.

It is on Loveta Place, four blocks from Hopper's home on North Broadway. With an elaborate domed turret, it sits right on top of the river's edge. You could easily toss a coin out one of its windows and hear a splash as it hit the water.

Hopper as a boy loved to play down by the river and no doubt knew the house well. Years later he would return to borrow from this memory when in 1941 he painted his oil The Lee Shore.

Edward Hopper, The Lee Shore

The setting of The Lee Shore appears to be Cape Cod. Yet the precarious placement of the house right down at the waterline and the house's prominent turret clearly suggest Hopper was dreaming back to his boyhood days in Nyack.

Here below is my preliminary vine charcoal drawing with the house in the background.

A better view of my drawing. 

Philip Koch, Turret House, Nyack, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2015

Sometimes one's neighborhood can serve as the best Muse of all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

There is no camera around when I paint.

Here's my new painting Uncharted II, 30 x 40", oil on canvas. I'm letting it dry on my studio floor until it's ready for me to brush on a protective coat of picture varnish. 

It's a painting I made entirely from my imagination. A friend asked where it was done. I told them really nowhere- I wasn't so much after a location as a state of mind. 

When I'm painting there are no cameras or photographs around. That makes my process a little different than the big majority of realist painters today. It's ironic as my grandfather, John Capstaff, was the inventor of the world's first commercially available color film (Kodachrome).

I don't have anything against cameras, but to me the real subject of a painting is the vision an artist has on the inside. That's notoriously hard to photograph. The point of art is to emotionally stir the viewer. If they feel in a different place after they've looked at your work you've done your job. A good piece of art energizes the viewer, it takes them on a little journey. 

I work from either direct observation or from my memory. It's a deliciously slow process, far more time consuming than working from a camera. Relying just on your eyes and your imagination as you paint puts some extra slack in the reins. You end up wandering in directions you hadn't meant to go. Of course you go down some paths that turn our to be dead ends. You backtrack and try another way, and then another. 

Looking at one of my completed paintings I find 100% of the time my favorite things are things that I didn't realize I was doing when I was making the painting. That sort of wandering takes up a lot of time, but it's the only way I know to get to a place I've never been before. Hope you'll come along.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Wonderful (If Slightly Haunted) Houses at the Burchfield Penney Art Center

Here's a conte drawing by Charles Burchfield with a remarkably delicate touch. While it's heavily detailed the drawing seems light and airy, almost like Burchfield made the paper breath with life. 

I've been meaning to post these two photos I took of it last month when I was staying at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, NY as part of my being the Artist In Residence there for 2015-16. The piece is from the Art Center's Burchfield Archives and is really large- though I didn't measure it it's easlily well over four feet wide. Burchfield made it on several sheets of newsprint paper he had glued together.

Going through hundreds of Burchfield's drawings in the museum's Archives I periodically come across giant drawings like this one. I asked Nancy Weekly, BPAC's Head of Collections and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, about this. She felt Burchfield would sometimes make preparatory drawings at the same full scale he intended to use in some of his large watercolors. Some are detailed like this piece, others are just the simplest of gestures, sometimes only a few flowing lines. Nancy Weekly felt these were Burchfield's way of "warming up" to practice just the right sweep of his arm to give the sense of movement he wanted for his finished paintings.

I don't know if the above drawing ever led to a finished painting. This watercolor below by Burchfield, Old Houses in Winter, 27 3/4 x 43", 1929-41 from the Collection of the Swope Art Museum in Indiana gives an idea of where he might have been going with it.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Fresh Look: Burchfield and Me

Above is my vine charcoal drawing, Darkening Cove, 8x 12" and a freshly painted Darkening Cove oil, 24 x 36" I based on the earlier drawing.

When I was invited to be the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, NY for this year I imagined it would lead to some unexpected benefits. One I didn't foresee came from examining the museum's impressive holdings of Charles Burschfield's drawings. Burchfield did tons of drawings, many in preparation for his wildly imaginative paintings. His drawings made a deep impression on me..

Returning to my Baltimore studio from my October stay at BPAC  I was struck by a vine charcoal drawing I'd made back in 1997 of a tidal marsh near Edward Hopper's studio in Truro, MA. The drawing had led to an oil painting some years later. Fresh from the recent BPAC experience, my original drawing whispered at me to go back into the oil painting. With many freshly repainted passages, the oil has new wind in its sails. On Monday it will be headed to Button Gallery in Douglas, MI.

Here are some Burchfield drawings that I particularly enjoyed from the museum's Burchfield Archives:

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Going Painting with Charles Burchfield in New England

Philip Koch, Isle au Haut: Gold, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

As the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY (BPAC) for 2015-16 I've been pouring over Charles Burchfield's paintings as close hand. It's been influencing how I see. 

Working on my oil painting above this week I had in mind the yellow and gray color chords I enjoy so much in a watercolor by Burchfield like the one below.

Charles Burchfield, Sunshine During a Blizzard, watercolor, 1947-59

Last week I was in New Hampshire in the White Mountains. Previous trips to this area found me drawn to making vast panoramas of the most distant mountains. This time to my surprise it was close-up views of trees that grabbed me.

Philip Koch, vine charcoal drawing, 9 x 12", 2015

I find incredible lace-like rhythms in the New Hampshire forest.

Philip Koch, vine charcoal and white chalk drawing,
12 x 9" 2015

Even in this panoramic view below I ended up focusing less on the looming distant mountain in favor of the rising and falling movements of these spindly dark trees.

Philip Koch, vine charcoal and white chalk drawing
7 x 10 1/2", 2015

 Philip Koch, vine charcoal drawing, 10 1/2 x 14", 2015

As a young artist I made careful copies of 19th century painters like John Constable and John Frederick Kensett. Learned at lot. When I arrived at BPAC I wondered why not do that again.

Left: Charles Burchfield, Early Spring Sunlight
watercolor, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Buffalo, NY. Right: Koch copy in progress

Perhaps I am the only person ever to make copies in oil from original Burchfield watercolors. Above is my trusty French easel
set up to copy a section of Burchfield's big watercolor Early Spring Sunlight in one of the BPAC studios. 

In July when I returned to BPAC  I made a new copy,  painting the intricate center section of Burchfield's very late painting, Early Spring.

Charles Burchfield, Early Spring, watercolor, 1966-67
Burchfiield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Here I am last week working in New Hampshire on a vine charcoal drawing. Though I was working alone, it was far from solitary. In the back of my mind I was envisioning what Burchfield might have done with the state's marvelous northern forests.

Upcoming: Sunday, October 18, 2 p.m.
Three Masters of Watercolor: What Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Charles Burchfield Want to Say to Us Today
An illustrated talk at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY
Free with museum admission

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent: Painting Blackhead


In 2006 I first visited Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. The small island has earned a special place in American art history from  the steady stream of artists who followed the advice of their charismatic teacher Robert Henri to go there and paint. Two of the best to take the advice were Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent. Both spent important time early in the 20th century painting on the island. The commanding promontory Blackhead that stretches eastward out into the Atlantic inspired both of them make repeated paintings of it.


The first four images are all small oil studies Hopper made of Blackhead. The final four paintings are by Hopper's art school classmate Rockwell Kent. Though the temperament of their paintings differ, what the two shared was an almost obsessive willingness to create painting after painting of a motif that obviously fascinated them. There's a sort of driving youthful energy to their engagement with Blackhead. 


By their actions they seem to be saying that if you look long enough and hard enough important discoveries others have overlooked will reveal themselves to you.


When the art historian Eva J. Allen, PhD was organizing the eight venue traveling exhibition of my own paintings Unbroken Thread, she urged me to go to Monhegan and see the place that had inspired the artists from previous generations I so admired. So along with my wife Alice and my trusty French easel, I took the long ferry ride out to the island for a week of painting.



The first thing I did was to ask directions to Blackhead. It turns out to reach the overlook where Hopper and Kent painted one has to carry one's equipment over a long muddy and root-filled path through Monhegan's amazingly dense forest. At its end you climb over steep rocks before reaching the bluff from which they painted.
I made a note to myself that while I was 58, Hopper and Kent had dragged their heavy load of painting materials to the spot when they were young artists.



It turns out the view of Blackhead from this ledge is a tough view to paint. I was there midday and found the direction the sun was shining on the rocks generated few shadows and was poor for painting. Probably Hopper made the same discovery, as all four of his sunlight filled panels show he returned to paint there later in the afternoon.

Kent solved the problem another way, turning his focus more on the sea's white spray to add drama to his compositions. And his skies play a bigger role as well. All his paintings are enveloped in a foggy atmosphere.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Ghosts in the Closet

Charles Burchfield, Salem Bedroom Studio Feb. 21, 1917
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield Penney Art Center posted this Charles Burchfield watercolor on their Facebook page.

Who doesn't remember worrying as a young child about supposed ghosts or monsters waiting to creep out of your bedroom closet in the middle of the night. (Under my bed was full of them too). Leave it to Charles Burchfield to take this normal childhood terror and turn it into serious art. He took his childhood sensations with him into his adult life. Using his profound knowledge of painting and his good eye he gave these emotions permanent visual form. 

His painting above takes a cloth draped over a chair and seems to turn it into a ghost. In his hands the clothes hanging in the closet become creepy spectral accomplices. 

In August my wife Alice and I traveled from Baltimore to the Salem, OH family home where Burchfield grew up and began doing some of his most important early work. It is now the Burchfield Homestead Museum. Here below is a photo I took of the curved ceiling and the closet door depicted in Burchfield's watercolor. Fortunately the closet door was shut tight so we didn't have to worry about the ghosts.

Here's the door to the second floor bedroom again showing the curved ceiling.

What struck me most about the visit to the home where Burchfield did his early works was its very ordinariness. Yet at the many reproductions of Burchfield paintings hanging on the walls you find Burchfield put specific features of his home and the neighboring houses into many of his most fantastical paintings of his early period. His very local roots nourished his otherworldly visions.

In many ways his early works from this commonplace house remind all of us that there is magic right under our noses.

The staircase looking down to the first floor.

The back of the house. It is painted the same colors as it was in Burchfield's day. It the late afternoon sun it reminded me ever so much of a paiting by Burchfield's friend Edward Hopper.

As Burchfield is probably the only recognized American artist who did repeated images of decorated Christmas trees in his work, there is appropriately a tree on display. Here I am keeping the holiday tree company with the drawing I was making looking out a second floor window. 

My wife Alice taking in the display in one of the second floor bedrooms.