Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If Watercolor Doesn't Kill You It Will Make You Stronger- Part 1 Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer 1836-1910

Next month I've been asked to deliver a slide talk at the annual dinner of the Baltimore Watercolor Society. My title for the talk is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it's an acknowledgement that watercolor can be the trickiest of painting media. But my big point will be that seeing the work of some previous masters of this delicate medium teaches how to enjoy our eyes on a deeper more satisfying level. 

Three of the most important American watercolorists are Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield.

Let's start with Winslow Homer, who is photographed above wearing a natty three-piece suit that I bet he never wore to paint in. 

Homer's watercolor Stowing Sail, (1903, Art Institute of Chicago) was the first painting I ever saw. My parents had a framed print of it hanging over our sofa. I distinctly remember as a 3 year old connoisseur I used to lie on the carpet and study it. I figured it wasn't very good. 

Obviously, I thought, if Homer was a better artist he would have managed to paint in more of the missing details. What my young eyes missed was that Homer was using the watercolor medium with  broad and straightforward strokes intentionally. That's a kind of handling that the medium encourages. Watercolor was helping him practice the art of distilling his idea down to essentials. 

Here's Homer's Girl with Daisies. Even when doing the most stereotypical subject matter there's always something unexpected the artist can pull out for us. Here the artist avoids a too-ordinary presentation with a forcefully asymmetrical field, crowding all but a handful of his white blossoms into just one tightly-packed corner.

Homer was said to have advised other artists to never paint a blue sky. In his watercolor Rowing Home below he seems to take that suggestion to the water's surface as well.

Homer's watercolor Old Friends below reminds us painters to pay as much attention to what is next to our main forms. Here he makes
the tree trunk feel massive by pushing it forward with empty white areas of sky. 

Finally let's return to Stowing Sail. 

It's a masterpiece of curving rhythms that flow through the hull of both the rowboat and the big sloop. They're easier to see with the image upside-down. 

In the middle of these curves the ship's mast leans dramatically to the right. Homer gets his sailor to lean just the same angle, drawing him more tightly into a visual conversation with the rigging.

He does the same with the oar the sailor has put aside, mimicking  the angle of the ship's wooden boom at the top  of the detail below.

Winslow Homer left us over a hundred years ago. But more than any other 19th century American watercolorist, his work still speaks to us with forceful emotion. He realized studying the artists that had gone before him could make him a better artist. His paintings are the gift he left us that make us better as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Listening to One's Paintings

Philip Koch, The Reach, oil on panel, 10 x 15, 2015

Sometimes things take a while to unfold. 

I've always found I do well when I've let time pass and return to paintings weeks or months after I've made them to see how I can understand them differently. Often they seem to softly call me back and whisper in my ear about changes they think will make them more clear and focused. Usually when I listen to them things get better.

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Parlor, Nyack,  oil 
on panel, 12 x 9", 2015

I've been working happily in my studio the last few weeks on a focused project of revisiting some oils from last year and adjusting their colors. Lights and middle tones are getting some new emphasis.

Philip Koch, Sonnet I,  oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Here are a few from the group I've been working on. Some of them will serve as the basis for some new large studio oils.

Philip Koch, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Philip Koch, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6 1/2  x 13", 2015

Philip Koch, Still Pine,  oil on panel, 12 x 12", 2015

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Southern Inspiration for Some Northern Paintings

Philip Koch, From Day to Night,  oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Sometimes the Muse just comes and whispers in your ear with her blessings and her marching orders. Happened to me last month.

My wife and I had taken a few days to tour Virginia. We hit  the Nichols Gallery in Barboursville that carries my paintings and visited several Art Museums (that's me with an Edward Hopper at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk below). The Chryler was new to us and was a big surprise. I had no idea of its amazing Permanent Collection. Came back full of energy and determination to do a whole lot of new paintings.

A driving trip to visit new art museums can blow some cobwebs out of one's head. And we had a ball. 

My painting at the top of this post is a re-imagining of the Penobscot Bay in Maine, one of my favorite painting themes. There's something about the coast of Maine that feels like I've stepped out of time. When I paint it I often fall in to a fantasy that I'm painting the beginning of the world. So it is here.

Philip Koch, Mountains: Rust, oil on panel, 10 x 15", 2015

The last few years I've also been spending considerable time in the mountains of the Northeast- the Adirondacks, the Green and White Mountain ranges, and mountains of Maine. Above is a new studio invention based on on my mental mountain climbing.

And below is a view from half way up the tallest mountain on the East Coast of the US, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine. I thought the colors turned out to suggest the most peaceful feeling of morning.

Philip Koch, Frenchman's Bay, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

These panoramas depict deep, deep spaces, though they're modestly scaled paintings. I like trying out new ideas on this scale- it makes me more adventurous and more willing to try a new color I'm not used to. Right now I'm working on a 72" version of the painting at the top of this post. Hopefully in a few weeks I can introduce you to her.