Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Artist Avoids Being Trampled by Herds of Angry Moose

This is my easel at 7:30 this morning atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine.

As you can see the place is deserted. Funny thing about that is just a half hour before there were probably a hundred people there in the space of five minutes. All of them were there with cameras to snap a photo of the sunrise and then take off again. It was amazing in its spectacle (not the sunrise, the speed people were traveling). I'll have some more to say about this tomorrow, but right now I'm tired after a long day of traveling (including perhaps the fastest run through of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, ME in recorded history).

Suffice it to say the painting trip was great- lots of good weather and strong new work resulted.
I'm back home and need to call it a night. Will post some more images tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Heading North to Maine

Philip Koch, Arcadia II, oil on canvas, 30 x 40", 2008

This is a painting I'm very fond of- enough so I've tried out several variations exploring different chords of color for earth and sky. It is entirely done from my imagination, though none of it would have happened without Acadia National Park in Maine on Mt. Desert Island. Alice and I honeymooned there back in 1982 in early May (to our surprise we were greeted then by pockets of snow still clinging stubbornly to the shadows at the summit of Cadillac Mountain ). It's the highest spot on the East Coast, and I think my favorite place on the planet. It inspired many of America's finest landscape painters since the 19th century, among them Sanford Gifford and Frederick Church.

We're headed back there again tomorrow for a week of painting. Nowadays I do most of my painting from memory and from plein air vine charcoal drawings, though for 30 plus years before that I was a hard-core perceptual painter. Arcadia II was fashioned in the studio from a drawing I did, a fantasy inspired by Mt. Desert Island's Eagle Lake. I liked the idea of a mountain lake existing near the sea, but at a higher elevation.

I chose the title from the word arcadia, used to describe a poetic perfect landscape, that comes down to us from the ancient Greeks. This particular oil de-emphasizes the tallest mountain closest to us in favor of the the twin hump-shaped mountains in the sea. In the morning you can peer out at the Atlantic and see pure white reflections of the rising sun- full of glare but very beautiful. The time of day has been shifted to something more reminiscent of sunset. That's the kind of liberty painting grants to the artist and I figure sometimes such a stretch is called for. Right now this painting is down at Meredith Long & Company in Houston, considered by many the leading art gallery in Texas.

While I'm up there I'll also be working on nearby Deer Isle, home to the tiny town of Stonington where another of my galleries, Isalos Fine Art, is located. It's a beautiful gallery with an eclectic mix of contemporary artists. If anyone's up that way I recommend it highly.

I won't be doing any blog post until I return next Thursday. Should be able to show you some of the new work then. We're also staying in an inn that we picked because the owners have three cats that have the run of the place. If you're good, I'll probably post some photos of them as well (the cats, not the owners).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Rant and a Drawing Lesson

Philip Koch, Penobscot Bay, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 1998

Pictorial Unity. Such a dreadful, anemic sounding phrase my eyes are starting to glaze over just hearing it.

It is murder to put into words exactly what it is artist do when they paint or draw well. The reality behind the phrase pictorial unity though is red-hot with meaning. Any successful art piece marshalls its forces like a team of horses to pull the wagon in the same direction. I was looking at the latest Art in America magazine this morning had to wince. More than a few of the paintings, installations, etc. they reproduced tended to visually fall apart. To use a popular phrase, it's a pandemic. Attention artists! The pieces in your work are supposed to engage each other in a meaningful conversation, not ignore each other or try to out shout each other.

Why is this so? It's because life itself so often is a fractured experience that humans are drawn to art and music in the first place. We have the chaos part down pat, it's something else we're looking for when we turn to art. Even if harsh conflicts are the artists' subject, artists have to demonstrate they are in charge of the contrasts and disjunctions instead of being ruled by them.

Nor do we need a phony "unity" of overly homogenized, over-generalized forms. Too much unity and the piece becomes a bore. What's needed is a means to overcome centrifugal forces that turn so much contemporary art into a muddle. Here are two of my vine charcoal drawings that illustrate two ways of thinking about creating unity.

The first drawing, Penobscot Bay, uses what I call the bed of tones technique. It begins by covering the entire surface with vine charcoal and then rubbing it in with one's palm to produce an all over middle grey. Then using a variety of erasers, whites are pulled out of the greys. The beauty of this method is it always produces a unified drawing where an atmosphere wraps itself around every form.

But it comes with a danger- it can make the artist too cautious with a mechanically heavy atmosphere. The highlights can end up a bit too dark and the darks a touch too middle grey. With this method, watch out for dreary.

Philip Koch, Tall Pine, Otter Creek, vine charcoal, 9 x 9"

The second drawing, Tall Pines, Otter Creek, was done directly onto the paper's white surface. One can see the greater tendency of the forms to want to pull away from each other. To control this the artist has to be a little militant in enforcing their compositional ideas onto the drawing. In this example you can see how I've created a chain of darks that march across the middle of the composition from one side to the other. When I use this second method, I still try to use the bed of tones technique in at least a small section of the drawing.

Sometimes I use one of these methods to draw and sometimes the other. Switching back and forth keeps you on your toes. The same issue comes up in oil painting when one must choose to paint on a toned ground or on a pure white surface. Again I think it best to alternate between using both methods. Each has something different to teach us.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Noah's Ark

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Bedroom
vine charcoal, 13 x 6 1/2", 2006

Call me Noah. Had a flood in my basement several weeks ago. I store lots of paintings and art supplies down there. Fortunately I didn't lose a singe piece, partly because I had built racks to get everything up off the floor and partly because it's a walk out basement so the water starts to drain before it gets really deep. Now the whole basement is being re-done by an energetic if noisy crew, so I had to drag everything upstairs for a few weeks. Every room in my house looks like you're peering into the attic of someone's mad aunt Florence.

Funny thing is I'm loving it.

Anticipating moving artwork back into the re-done basement I'm reviewing my work, in many cases for the first time in years. It's a perfect chance to eliminate some pieces that just aren't my best. And I have found a few pieces that after the interval of years don't interest my eye enough to save. But the strongest impression I'm having is that I can take real pride at how much strong work I've done. So there is an indecent amount of self-administered back patting going on here.

Above is the on-site drawing I did standing in Edward Hopper's tiny kitchen staring through to his bedroom in his Cape Cod painting studio. Several posts back I showed the pastel drawing that came from this vine charcoal. I do the charcoal drawings on the elegantly soft Rives BFK paper. It has a velvet surface that adds a mysterious atmosphere to the charcoal drawings. Little things like that can add profound impact to a piece.

Philip Koch, Provincetown Dunes I, vine charcoal, 7 x 10 1/2"

The above drawing is from the very tip of Cape Cod where the land has an odd moonscape quality. Every location has it own unique rhythm to the roll of its rises and valleys. It pays a landscape artist to tune in to these peculiarities. Making a drawing of it is a way to examine it in depth, adding it to your tool box in case its forms are needed at some future point in your paintings.

Philip Koch, Land's End Inn, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 1998

Here's one of the pieces I hadn't seen in a long time and it greeted me as an old friend. The scene is the B&B of the same name up on its private hilltop in Provincetown, MA. The place is both lovely and bizarre at once. Most impressive of all are the slightly overgrown gardens surrounding the house. I made the decision to de-emphasize the architectural details like windows in favor of the aggressive shapes of the thicket of trees. It's a little spooky, just like the actual place.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dance Fever

This is my friend Lori Sappinton. Every Saturday morning I drive to a gym on the other side of town to take her Body Jam class. In her "normal" life Lori teaches elementary school and there I'm sure she's the very picture of decorum. In Body Jam it's a whole different story- loud, fast, sweaty, and a hell of a lot of fun.

It is a choreographed group dance class, a mix of hip hop, salsa, and god knows what else. Lori dons spandex and microphone and calls out the moves to about 40 people, demonstrating all the while up on a spotlighted stage. A small woman and slightly built, I have no doubt her muscled legs could kick anyone's head off should she feel it necessary.

Lori Sappington

She also is incredibly graceful, part natural talent and part years of dance training when she was young. I wasn't like that. As a boy I would have been laughed out of town had I ventured to take serious dance lessons. More than that I just wasn't comfortable enough in my own skin to dance in public. But time heals all sorts of wounds. I passed thirty and my level of self acceptance had risen enough to let me re-examine that and a bunch of other issues.

About two years ago I took Lori's Jam class for the first time. That she moved extraordinarily well was immediately obvious. More than that, I found the curious language Body Jam employed felt on a gut level a whole lot like painting. Up to a dozen individual moves are strung together into long sequences (by a choreographer in New Zealand named "Gandalf." The guy is inventive as all heck). The moves look good, at once intricate and elegant. There is a forcefulness expressed as well as a delicacy. As I've told my students, art is about getting opposites- the very subtle and the intensely dramatic- to stop fighting each other and instead work together.

Below is a vertical composition of mine not unlike the pose Lori the instructor is taking above.

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, oil on canvas,
55 x 44", 2007

Lori's body is thrusting away from its usual vertical pose with a focused and deliberate movement. She's talented in a way that let's her push herself into a shape you don't expect to see, but are glad to discover once you seen it. In my oil painting, I'm creating surprising gestures, in this case radically bending tree trunks, that nonetheless possess a believable authority. The art of both dance and painting lies in giving the viewer movements and shapes that, when done right, strike some inner bell deep down in our personality.

It ain't for nothing that every culture around the world in any century we look at has invented its own unique dance and art. Like the struggle for food or safety, something in us has a hunger for the forms and rhythms of dance and art. We can't explain the chemistry of it the way a biologist can describe the mechanisms of hunger, but it's just as elemental a longing.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Confession: I Don't Know What to Make of the West

Philip Koch, Recollection, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2000

Shortly after I started working seriously in soft pastels my wife and I took a week's trip out to Northern California to work from the landscape in Marin County. The work that resulted was good but something of a struggle for me to pull off working out on location.

In short, for someone who grew up back East, the West Coast always looks a little odd. Not that it isn't beautiful, it is and perhaps at its best too much so. But some part of me distrusts it as if what I am really seeing is a movie set. I worry my West Coast readers will be horrified by my confession- perhaps I'm not as open to new experiences as I like to think. One other problem for West Coast landscape painter (and again this is guaranteed to enrage somebody)- almost all the top landscape artists stayed back East and used it as the subject of their best work. As a modernist who relates to the 19th & early 20th century tradition of landscape painting, there is just more to think about art historically when one paints the East Coast.

This is one of my earliest large studio oils based on the plein air pastels I did there. It actually comes from a view from Mt. Tamalpais looking south at the fog that would roll into San Francisco Bay. In real life it was an amazing sight, but again I kept wondering if it wasn't a "special effect" from the film industry. The only solution I could come up with was to imagine a new background to replace San Francisco Bay- I substituted a shoreline that owes something to my memory of Irondequoit Bay near Rochester, NY, about a mile from where I grew up.
All this was worked out in a new pastel back in the studio- it's way easier to try it out on a small scale first before attempting a composition on a six foot wide scale.

Those who know my earlier blog posts know a key theme for me is childhood memory as a source for invention in painting. The beauty of it is that if an image can be recalled after many years it obviously is something to which you have attached a great deal of feeling. The other memories have just fallen away, lacking the emotional glue to stick to your psyche.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Magic Carpet for Would-Be Time Travelers

Philip Koch, Returning, oil on canvas, 28 x 42", 2009

Philip Koch, The Return, vine charcoal, 9 x 12"

Was looking for an image for today's post and on my alphabetical list found these two images with similar sounding titles. Each in their way is about coming home.

The top painting completed just this year was actually started some years back. It was painted from life on the same road where my oil Under the Moon was done (see 9/15/09- A Memorial to a Lonely Cat). Unlike that tall ghostly house, here was a diminutive house I could imagine myself wanting to come home to.

Only now writing about it do I realize how much it reminds me of a tiny house of roughly the same vintage in the woods in my hometown. I used to wait alone for the school bus there. At least in the earlier years of my public schooling an elderly couple lived there. The wife sometimes would come out and give me cookie and listen with interest to whatever I had on my mind. That and a genuine warm smile was all she offered, but that went a long way with me. Her husband died while I was still in elementary school and shortly after his wife fell, broke her hip, and died herself a few months later. After that the lights in the house stayed dark and the my wait for the school bus felt lonelier. When I discovered the red house used for Returning, a lot of the feeling it evoked in me must have traced back to the house in my childhood.

Does water have a memory? I'd like to think so for its travels more than rival our own. Stirred by the sun, evaporated up into the sky, carried god knows where by the wind. In time it falls back to earth and starts again its journey from small stream to larger. The vine charcoal drawing The Return, was done plein air in Truro, MA on Cape Cod. Down in the foreground valley a tributary of the little Pamet River winds south to join the main stream before the waters issue out into Cape Cod Bay. Though it's not visible in the drawing, Edward Hopper's painting studio would be a speck on the horizon.

I don't really think we all want to go home again. But for all of us there are palpable memories of qualities, personalities, moods of "back then" so special to us we'd love to magically drag them into our present. Painting often times is just a successful search to give form to these longings so we can convey something of how we're feeling to others. Painting in a sense is the magic carpet that makes this kind of time travel possible.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One of My Heroes

We all have (or had) parents. They gave us life and a heck of a lot of other things. My wife Alice the therapist likes to point out that one of their gifts to us is to fail us. Had our parents been able to meet all our needs, not one of us would have been emotionally able to leave the nest. And there are important things that would have stayed unlearned had we never left home.

Artists need a wealth of different talents. The ones usually checked off on everyone's list include an ability to draw, an eye for color, and a fabulous imagination. I'd like to proffer one additional talent- the ability to find heroes. I could have said teachers, but I mean something more than that. Sometimes we encounter the work of another artist that just pulls some hidden internal switch in us. You see their work and you feel a floodlight has been switched on revealing new terrain you just have to explore.

For me, my first mega art-hero was an American landscape painter John Frederick Kensett (1816 - 1872).

The Old Pine (images courtesy Art Renewal Center)

I'd never heard of Kensett until I reached Indiana University in the summer of 1970 to pursue my MFA degree in painting. Outside the school's art museum was a bookstall where I purchased a copy of an exhibition catalogue of one of the Museum's recent shows that contained three Kensett images. I was slowly being drawn to landscape imagery in my work anyway, but so far it had more surreal confections than actual landscapes. Kensett seemed different to me and provided a more than welcome shove in that direction. This guy had a double-whammy of a remarkably light atmospheric touch combined with a willingness to break out of old compositional rules.

Foggy Sky above has a delicious marriage of sharp edged clouds blending in with those with edges evaporating into thin air. I love the powerful restraint Kensett shows in using just one highlight in the rocks. So often artists seem to get lost when painting rocks, ending up with a pile of unrelated individual forms. Not this guy.

Eaton's Neck above might just be my favorite Kensett. The sculpting of the silhouette of land piercing the sea is just as good as it gets. While I was at Indiana University, the Museum let me set up my easel next to the very fine small Kensett oil in their Collection and paint a copy. For a young artist who had his painting beginnings imitating early Frank Stella, this was an eye opener in what subtlety and imperceptible gradations of color could do.

Is Kensett for everybody? No. But he opened an important door for me. I'd urge any painter to scour the work of those who've gone down the road before us. In their footsteps you'll find hints of the artist you are going to become on day.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Memorial to a Lonely Cat

Philip Koch, Under the Moon, oil on canvas, 24 x 36"

My bedroom faced the deep woods when I was a boy in Webster, NY, just outside of Rochester on the south shore of Lake Ontario. We'd get serious winter there every year and usually there was a deep snow blanket covering everything by mid-December. The snow would be illuminated by the moonlight, and as there were no other houses around it could seem as bright as a torch.

A very high pine tree rose on a ridge about a quarter mile off and at Christmas, some distant neighbors would string a handful of blue lights high up in the tree. They had an old string with only 5 working bulbs on it, but against the blackness, that seemed tremendously impressive . If I had to pick one memory of my childhood to stand for mysterious beauty, the sight of that lone set of lights in the winter night would nail it.

Years later I'd become a painter and lived in the (to me) deep South of Baltimore. But even here we get heavy snow sometimes. This old house was around the corner from where I lived. I'd pass it often. It was a survivor from an earlier time, now surrounded completely by a huge tract of modern suburban homes put up by a major corporate developer. Somehow the blandness of the new homes, aluminum siding and all, only heightened the soulfulness of this old house. As I painted the study for this picture (I did it in the afternoon) I realized no one seemed to ever come or go from this house. But I concluded it was inhabited after all, for each time I'd set up my easel, a cat would appear in the top window and watch me work.

Not long after I completed the oil study, the house burned completely to the ground. My first thought was to worry for the survival of that cat who'd been such a faithful observer of my working at the portable easel. It was a thought that would recur to me over time, more than I'd have liked. Maybe to tip my hat to that cat, I returned to the oil study and invented this nocturnal version. Of course the moonlight came from the woods out in back of my boyhood home along Lake Ontario. The cat, I know, is up hidden in the shadows in the topmost window, continuing her lonely vigil.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Philip Koch, Deer Isle, oil on panel, 36 x 72" 2008

This painting is going off tomorrow morning to the Maryland Institute College of Art's annual Faculty Exhibition. It's a large studio interpretation of a small plein air oil I did in Maine last summer (featured in my Sept. 2 post).

The Faculty Exhibition is always my favorite of MICA's shows, only partly because I'm often in it. It's got a bunch of traditional oil painters who are usually pretty darned good, and of course also a grab bag of video, conceptual, multimedia, etc. artists. All are stacked together in the galleries elbowing each other in hopes of grabbing the viewer's eye. It has all the decorum of an old fashioned circus sideshow but that's part of its charm.

Can artists of one medium or discipline be good teachers to a student artist who is pursuing a far different direction? My answer, based on listing in on many many group critiques over the years, is yes. Not that I haven't heard absolutely screwball ideas given to students by teachers. At least some of the white hairs on my scull sprouted after hearing what I thought to be terrible advice.

In my own education as a painter I had all sorts of instruction, most of it at least well-intentioned but some of it truly excellent. One of the best experiences of all was studying figure painting at the Art Students League of New York in the summer of 1969 with Rudolf Baranik.

Baranik was an interesting fellow. A Lithuanian immigrant, his socialist parents had been killed by the Nazi's during WWII. He himself was an abstract painter who had gained some notoriety for his series of anti-Vietnam war paintings called Napalm Elegy. They were grim images of children burned horribly by US bombs but done in an over all abstract expressionist vein that owed much to Ad Reinhart and Mark Rothko. In short, he wasn't an obvious choice to teach a traditional figure painting class.

I will never forget the first time he spoke to me about my paintings. I had painted a model resting her head on her hand at a table. Though African-American, she looked light against a dark back wall. He came by and told me to lighten the shadow under her arm and breast. I looked again at these spots on the actual model and they were dark as night. I wasted no time in pointing this out to Baranik. He smiled and slowly moved up close to the easel. Cupping his hands together just over the painting's head, he traced them down and to the outside forming a giant pyramid. "See the great composition your eye was drawn to. If you lighten up those two shadows, you'll keep them from interrupting the pyramid." Then just nodded and walked away.

I was more than skeptical as so far the painting was by far the most "realistic" figure I'd managed and I was loath to screw it up. But I cautiously started inching the shadows lighter and then, as it seemed to be working, lighter still. To my amazement, the woman in the painting took a deep breath and came to life. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I realized that this Baranik fellow had a heck of a good eye. His own paintings were far from the sort I wanted to paint, but his advice had put wind in my sails. He was teaching me that a painter has to approach his subject indirectly sometimes to get the painting's personality to come out and show itself. The majority of the critiques I received from him that summer involved not how to paint the figure but rather the back wall. I learned from all of it.

Some of my colleagues at MICA do work that confuses me, I confess, as perhaps mine does them. But I know that many of them possess an eye for painting. Some very good works come out of their classes. Being an art student is not without peril. Of course sometimes you will receive some pointless feedback on your work if not outright destructive suggestions. Learning to paint, like painting itself, is about sorting out what works for you and what doesn't. Might as well start sorting.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Artists Who Paint Often Fail to Apologize

Philip Koch, Out to Sea, Ogunquit, oil on panel, 5 x 10"

Went to a panel discussion yesterday and heard an art historian tell the audience that the 1960's saw the complete demise of painting. That sounded pretty bad, but what's more this remains unchanged up through today. What I wish she's said was that she herself just wasn't into painting. But no, we painters are apparently deluding ourselves if we continue with this outmoded vehicle.

Silly me.

I have a very different vision. It's of a towering oak. Over hundreds of years the tree has sunk roots deep into the ground. Its rough trunk rises up and branches out and then branches again. Way out on one upper branch are video artists, another limb holds performance artists, a third conceptual artists, and so it goes on, marching around the trees radiating arms. Sure enough, there I am on a big branch along with a bunch of other suspects- we're the painters. And should anyone care to look, we seem to be having at least as much fun as the artists clinging to the other branches.

Above is a painting I did from a monochrome charcoal drawing a little while back. I believe it to be a very fine painting. But more important, it could only have been painted in our time. Had it been painted in another time, it would have turned out looking differently. We are always going to need art that reflects the psyche of our times. Unless I'm delusional, I think I think I and my fellow painters do that just as well as the artists trying to tell their story employing other media. It's true we painters stumble often and sometimes fall flat on our faces, but have you counted the bruised knees of the video artists?

It's best if everyone takes a long hard look over the whole tree. Land on all the branches and try them out for yourself. If you find one you like best, you might build your nest there.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Persistence v.s. The Spark of Invention

Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2008\

When problems resolve quickly, who isn't pleased? When resolution comes but only after a long process, one is pleased but that's laced with a bit of gratitude too. That's the story of this painting. 

Begun in the late '90's the painting had a grey sky. It was, well, heavy looking. I tried all sorts of gymnastics with it but nothing really helped. So it went into my Banishment Room in the basement (described in my earlier post Hard Time in the Banishment Room).  A year or two passed and I hauled the canvas up to the easel room and put in a violet sky similar to one of my favorite soft pastel chalk's color (you get attached to individual chalks to turn to them often). The sky, with its new coloration looked much better and I put in clouds in strategic spots. So, much improved, but I still felt it wasn't right, so back it went into Banishment.

I was sitting having coffee at the breakfast table one morning, thinking of something else, when Down to the Bay called out to me. It was out on a release for good behavior from Banishment Room and up on its end in my dining room to save space. Seeing a long horizontal composition turned vertical is a really good idea- it makes everything hit you in a different way. What I saw was the painting in that form had too many points of interest competing with each other. A large white cloud I'd previously placed behind the dark hill at the far right in particular was pulling way too much attention over to that side of the piece. I removed it, and the painting now focused happily on the oranges of the foreground against the violet hue of the open sky.

What went into making this story was a lot more weighted toward the persistence end of the scale. It took several major pushes just to get the piece ready for me to finally notice what would at long last pull it together. I much prefer the spark of invention to strike early in the process, but you might as well will the tides to stop. What counts I think is finding a good idea to work on and then staying with it through all its necessary stages until it finally blossoms. 

My wife Alice likes to call me the most impatient person she knows (and she's not without grounds for making this accusation). But I've learned a working process for my studio that does an awfully good imitation of patience. It's how one prepares the kindling so the spark, when it finally decides to show up, has something to turn into flame.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Good Advice from Matisse

Philip Koch, Red Trees, pastel, 8 1/4 x 6 1/2"

Here's a drawing of particular importance to me- one of the first pastels drawings I ever did that satisfied me. It began as a vine charcoal drawing done on location just north of Houston where I was staying with the very fine landscape painter Chris Burkholder. It's a stand of trees just outside his house. Late in the winter afternoon the sky had taken on a subtle yellowish glow. Vine charcoal, so lovely for capturing form and atmosphere, is a bit out of its depth when it comes to color. Since color was so much a part of how I felt out in the field that afternoon, I decided to risk adding soft pastel on top of the charcoal.

There is no drawing medium that led to as many bad drawings as pastel- the stuff is like a drug and can take over a picture faster than you can snap your fingers. I wonder if the manufacturers secretly slip some kind of narcotic into it.

There's a story that years ago some art students approached Matisse and asked him to teach them to use brilliant color as he did. Matisse replied that they should do as he had done- go to the Louvre Museum and spend everyday for two years copying old master paintings and drawing using charcoal. His point was that one can't separate hue out from the shapes and tonalities on a painting. They have to be married, and it has to be a good marriage.

My graduate school experience was more positive than most. One of my teachers, James McGarrell was a surrealist oriented figure painter who used lavishly inventive color combinations drawn out of his head. One of the best singe things he told me was "If you get the tones right, any darned color will look good." Sure it's an overstatement, but a useful one.

I have a fantasy that we artists could be born with an on/off switch for our ability to see color. You could just hit the "desaturate" button on your neck and see how your idea presents just in monotone. If it looks good, click the color switch back on and go to town.

For me using pastel effectively means using it in combination with vine charcoal. The two media help each other out- the charcoal always calling for the restraint of greys and offering the beauty of effortless gradations of tone and the pastel always wanting to pour another cup of over-caffeinated coffee into the mix. They make a good team, each speaking to a different side of the artist's personality.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Going Wading

Here are two of my favorite Rembrandt's (both images courtesy of Art Renewal Center).

The above self portrait is in the Frick Museum in New York City. I used to go visit it a lot when I was a student at the Art Students League. The painting is of course an old fashioned notion of what a figure should look like, painted as it is in a full-blown northern baroque style. At the time I was in a figure painting class and none of my work looked anything like this in style (or of course in quality either, and then some).

But I could see in the Rembrandt a wonderous fusing of the forms with the emotion that quietly flows out from the painting. You get the sense you're seeing a moment of stillness from a man who has moved both his hands and his mind a great deal. There is a beautiful compositional device Rembrandt employs of running a red sash diagonally across his waist at exactly the same angle as his right upper arm, tying the movements together.

And above here is Hendrickje Bathing in a River, a piece of exceptional mood. Hendrickje seems lost in her own thoughts as she wades out into deeper water. This oil makes prodigious use of tonal changes. Rembrandt reserves brightest white for her robe, and lets the human forms gradually slide towards the enveloping darkness. As in the first Rembrandt, notice the way the left forearm runs exactly parallel with the part of Hendrickje's neckline that the artist reinforced with a black line. It was in looking at paintings like these that I began to see the artifice in painting. Cezanne said it well when he explained that art isn't nature but that it travels on a track that runs parallel to nature. (Probably his analogy made sense to me because I loved playing with my toy trains as a boy).

Below is a painting of mine from last year, and it couldn't be more different stylistically from the Rembrandts. Yet the way the tones are grouped together owes much to my studying the way Rembrandt used his darks and lights. Many of the detail in the painting owes much to the original pond where I painted the study in the Berkshire Mountains, the final arranging had to come back in the studio. There's an orange tree that seems to be emerging from the wall of dark green forest at the right side's middleground. In the back of my mind while I painted this was Hendrickje wading out from the dark shoreline into her river.

Philip Koch, Inland, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2008

The other key feature of my oil are the white tree trunks dancing in the foreground. They pose leaning sometimes together and sometimes in opposition to each other. The movements of the forms are the core of the painter's choreography. One learns it by practice of course, but also by watching it done by the masterful artists who have gone down the road before us. I had the good fortune to bump into this Rembrandt fellow. I think you'd like him.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Isabella, Cat and Art Instructor

This is Isabella. She's my neighbor Seanah's beautiful all-white cat. Here she is in my garden, just feet away from the bird feeder I fill every morning. She spends hours every day hiding in the bushes in my front yard. The welfare of the avian visitors to the bird feeder is low on her list. 

We artists can learn a great deal from animals. I've watched Isabella grow up from kittenhood. From the get-go she wanted to kill birds but her early attempts were comical. She'd lunge at everything that moved and despite being lightning fast, caught nothing. No doubt she had dreams of hunting conquest, but lacked the understanding to make them happen.

But she's nothing if not persistent and after years of trial and error, she's a changed cat. She's learned the art of concealment and above all, how to wait for the best opportunities before striking. Sometimes her teeth chatter in excitement as she spies potential prey, but otherwise she's got the patience of a zen master. Incredibly focused,  she tunes out all distractions. Most of all she waits until the birds come hopping within striking distance.. You can imagine her visualizing her leap and picturing exactly how far she can lunge in just one move. She knows her ability and works with it. Her dream of cat grandeur however remains intact.

Artists are all about having dreams. Our task is, like Isabella's, to work our own way through trial and error to concrete steps toward the vision we want to paint. Isabella's early dreams probably were to kill all the birds. Now she's shaved that down to just a select few. When I was a young artist I wanted to paint everything- abstractions, 3D canvases, portraits, social realist murals, and surrealism- all in the same week. Like kitten Isabella, my efforts weren't very fruitful.

Eventually things began to gel for me as the image of the sunlight gracing the forests and the sea took center stage in my imagination. It's been the central concern pretty much since the fall of 1970. You could say my choice of landscape painting is a tip of the hat to Isabella's selectivity. 

A painting can't be about everything. As you paint hundreds of shapes will demand your attention,  each tempting you to make it a focal point of the painting. But given enough time reflecting on the painting, you can sort through the opportunities and judge which are the best to spotlight for the viewer. Many times I've taken a break from the studio when I'm confused by a difficult passage. I go out and watch Isabella in the garden. She's usually at her post, waiting patiently and sorting through her possibilities.

Unexpected Sources of Creativity- Andi's Spinning Class

Philip Koch, October Sea, 5 x 7 1/2", 2009

I'm all wet.

It's sweat, honestly earned in this morning's spinning class. Spinning is a group exercise class with music at my gym. It takes place in a bunker like room with some 20 stationary bikes facing Andi Worthington, our teacher, on a spotlighted stage. Andi teaches exercise physiology at nearby Towson University- somehow that's a comfort as she barks out orders to her suffering troops. She also shouts out encouragement, and I need all of that I can get. The idea is to give a big hit of cardio-vascular exercise with as little stress on the joints as possible. Did I mention this class hurts?

For everyone, the sources of our creativity will always be mysterious and elusive. Often times I feel artists can get stuck in over-thinking their art. Art schools, universities, art museums and the like can inadvertently foster the idea that the essence of art can be grasped in hand and explained, usually at great length using long words. I don't think so. On the contrary, I'm convinced some of the activities we do "out in the world" bring us closer to our creative selves. 
I take Andi's spinning class twice a week because it keeps me healthy and because she makes it fun. But there's a deeper reason as well.

Sometimes I push myself too hard in spinning and get a little light headed and nauseous. Other times I've been too cautious and find myself with too much energy left at the end of class. The trick is to balance your capacity with the demands of the class. When it works you get a marvelous feeling of mastery and power. 

I confess to having a strange private fantasy during class- and it only happens when I'm really tuned in to my body. I'll suddenly get a second wind and start to feel stronger. I visualize an unseen creature rising up underneath me and me riding it like a bull at a rodeo. It tries to throw me off and I struggle to cling to its muscled and hairy back, taking its beastly power up into myself. I'm not nuts, this is just my personal way of visualizing a part of my personality that usually stays hidden in the shadows of the unconscious. Don't laugh, but I think of it as a giant buffalo. All of us are after all, animals. Animals live guided by their instincts far more than we. In our rush to become civilized and educated, we have forgotten some of our best skills. 

I like Andi's spinning class because it forces me to stop trying to be so analytical and thoughtful, and instead to turn around and shake the hand (or should I say furry hoof) of my half-buried animal instincts. We need those instincts. One of our primary jobs is to get re-acquainted with our instinctual and intuitive side. Why not in spinning class?

In the middle of a making a big painting you've got maybe 100 colors mixed on your palatte and easily 1000 shapes colliding with each other on the painting's surface. On the good days, you somehow manage to pull it all together, but if you're honest with yourself, you realize you don't know how you did it.

Countless times I've examined paintings I've done and smiled at some elegant compositional trick I've invented to get the painting to work. Then I realize with  a chill, "I didn't put that in there." Someone else did. It was my unconscious, who decided for what ever the reason to come join me in painting that day. She (I always think of it as a her) comes and helps me when she will. Other days she's won't come no matter how much I implore her- maybe she's out riding galloping buffalos. 

This is one of my color studies done out of the imagination in soft pastel on artist's sandpaper.
Working on a diminutive scale allows the color choices to happen fast, much faster than when I've oil painting, and this leads to me making some selections outside of my usual comfort zone. It's good to shake things up a bit once in a while in your studio. It's rumored buffalos are partial to pastels.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ten Secrets for the Painter (Short and To the Point)

Philip Koch, Sunset at Eagle Ridge, oil on panel
13 x 19 1/2",  2009

Why do we have art? I think for the same reasons we have music, dance, and even sports. Ostensibly not "practical" activities, they nonetheless fill a gap in our lives that our rational understanding isn't able to bridge. Art is something of a magic lantern to illuminate our path. Without its light, we'd stumble a lot more than we do. 

I often tell my students we artists are called upon to be magicians, but also to be practical magicians. For over 40 years I've been painting daily. From such a regimen, one learns of habits that routinely make the art better.  Make no mistake- art is profound and also profoundly elusive. It is usually good to talk at length about painting- exploring all the ins and outs that lead to understanding our vision.

Other times it's best to just cut to the chase.

Here's the list- it applies equally to drawing. All the advice comes with a 100% money-back guarantee. You'll notice that for a list of ten items, it runs a little long.

1. Look more than think.

2. Squint your eyes. 

3. Work standing up (unless the painting is less than 10" wide, only then can you work sitting 

4. Spend longer than you want to on the initial drawing. 

5. Walk away from a work in progress to see it from a great distance.

6. Look at your work upside down.

7. Look at your work in a big mirror.

8. Look at your work in the near dark.

9. Paint with brushes that are a little too large.

10. Love the surface you are working on. If you don't, find a better surface.

11. When you're really stuck on a piece, put it away for three days (no peeking). Work on 
a different painting instead.

12. Find a friend with a good eye and ask them about a painting you're unsure of. Listen to what they say. If it sounds convincing, try their advice. 

13. Even when you're mad at your work, treat it with tender respect.

14. Don't spend your energy beating yourself up.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Where to Shop for That Extra Talent

Philip Koch, Pamet River, Evening, pastel, 5 x 10", 2009

Philip Koch, Pamet River, Evening, pastel, 5 x 10", 2009

The biggest lesson I learned from my father was  what not to do with your life. He'd have been pleased by this.

My dad was an optical physicist and was hired by Eastman Kodak to run his own research projects. He loved the laboratory. Early on though his boss died and he was drafted by Kodak to stop his own research and instead become an administrator overseeing the work of the other scientists. He was miserable. By nature a dutiful person, probably to a fault, he had a wife and three children to support and stayed on in the post as the salary was too good to walk away from.

He survived by dreaming of what he'd do in his retirement. It would bring a large sailboat and long voyages. Before he was married he'd gone around the world on a "tramp steamer" as he called it. Though he wasn't a talkative man, if asked he'd tell me stories about his adventures on that trip.  I'd notice a rare spark steal into his eye. (My favorite story was the time when alone in a Borneo jungle he was confronted by a huge ape). He seriously speculated about sailing around the world. I knew there was a romantic soul to this guy, it just didn't come out much.

The dream of his retirement plan sustained him some, but at age 48 he contracted lung cancer and died the following year. Watching this unfold as a 12 year old boy, I realized Dad would have made very different choices had he to do things over again. And from that point on I resolved not to defer my dreams to a distant and uncertain future. I know he'd approve of my "impractical" career choice.

I got another big thing from my dad. He was extremely methodical. When I was 4 he decided we needed a coffee table and set about building one. He had had no woodworking experience previously but tinkered around with building elaborate jigs to hold a rented drill at just the right angle to make holes for the legs in the 2" think oak plank he had laminated together. It's a sensitive design and sturdy enough to survive a nuclear blast. My feet are resting on it now in my studio. Other than my paintings, it is my most treasured possession.

Watching the table come together as a boy I was convinced I was witnessing magic. He taught me a great lesson in how a vision in the mind's eye can be methodically brought into being with patience and some resourceful resolve. His self-taught workmanlike skills rubbed off on me and have saved my neck time after time with solving troublesome paintings.

Above are two pastels- small color studies I did from on of my vine charcoal landscapes. Often, I'll do two or three of the same design at once (a gesture to my dad's methodicalness) to experiment and see which chords of color work best. If you do two or three of them, one has to be the best. If you do only one, you're never sure.

In everyone's family there are relatives who may live only partially revealing hidden strengths. Reflect on them and see if you can't bring some of their strengths into your own life. My dad knew nothing of painting, but of all my close relatives, he taught me the most about being an artist.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Breakthrough Summer

Philip Koch, Evening Hillside, graphite and white pencil
7 1/2 x 13 7/8", 1971

You can go a long time just banging into things in the dark.

As an undergraduate art major at Oberlin College I made a ton of paintings and drawings, learned mountains of new ideas, and produced very few pieces I could be genuinely proud of. My first 9 months in graduate school at Indiana University pretty much continued this confusing pace.

Then events sharply pivoted, though even after all these decades I can't say exactly why. Perhaps imperceptibly the forces had been building up to the breaking point. In June 1971 the barn door burst open and out came the horses at full gallop. My work, all of a sudden, got good.

Always before a terminally impatient artist, I managed to slow myself down from my usual headlong-rush-method of painting. The passion burned as strong as ever but I found ways to temper and modulate it. A big part of the success was I finally accepted that the artists of the past could be an active source for contemporary painters. The above drawing was deeply indebted to John Frederick Kensett and John Constable, two 19th century painters who could draw in graphite like angels. I spent hours drinking in reproductions of their work in books from the University's Art Library.

Right now I'm cleaning up my studio from a flood (fortunately with lots of heavy lifting I saved all my paintings). But it meant moving work I haven't looked at in sometimes many years. This morning I came across this Evening Hillside. It brought a flood of its own of old memories.

The whole month previous to doing this drawing I had been feeling a new current starting to move through my oils. I didn't quite trust myself that it was actually happening. Sitting on the grass outside a dorm working up this drawing it just struck me "hey, I'm not imagining this, I am finally onto something in my work." Not that it's the piece I was most proud of from that year, but this was the moment I started to trust my instincts.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Little Personal Art History

My education happened in the Midwest.

Four years at Oberlin College in Ohio where I had gone to study to become a sociologist...I thought. Took a required art history class my first semester to get it out of the way and found to my surprise it was the only class whose lectures I looked forward to. They put you in a dark room and showed you picture- lots of 'em. Some were amazing. I took two studio classes my second semester, loved them and never looked back.

A year followed where I experimented with design and color, turning out a painting or two a day in rapid succession. My then girlfriend brought up a disturbing question however, "Phil shouldn't an artist learn how to draw?" My profs actually had given me a decent introduction to abstract design and color theory, but "drawing" in the traditional sense just wasn't on their horizon. After initial reluctance, I had to admit the girlfriend had a point. After all if I was going to be a great artist (no shame in aiming high) I figured I ought to learn everything about the craft.

So I started drawing anything and everything- plants, food, my shoes, and then increasingly the human figure. For two years while at Oberlin I organized a life drawing workshop, collecting money from participants to pay amateur models to pose for us for three hour sessions. One semester I had over fifty people sign up, an amazing number at a small college where traditional drawing was discouraged by the art department. It seemed to meet a need.

I moved on to Indiana University in Bloomington. After a few months of experimenting with some over-heated surrealist landscapes, one of the instructors there saw my work and said he thought I ought to try painting outside. I honestly have to laugh at it now, but at the time this seemed almost an indecent proposition. Maybe I even blushed. I'd never seen someone paint outdoors nor had I laid eyes on a portable easel. But I took a paintbox outside, used the lid to prop up the painting, sat on the ground and just began. Maybe there is an art god who looks over us, maybe not, but my first efforts were better than they had any right to be. Though I could see I had lots of rough edges, I knew I was finally onto something special.

Years later the Director of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa invited me to have a solo exhibition of my paintings. They had me come out for a week to paint during the show and sent me out to the Stone City, IA just northeast of Cedar Rapids. Grant Wood, a Cedar Rapids native had done much of his strong early work there. Above is his oil Young Corn. It's a beautiful painting. It and similar works by him I think are deeply impressive for the quiet drama he put into a gently rolling hillside.

I took a big lesson from this- art can take root in the subtle and easy-to-overlook. Keep your eyes open to the little surprises, slow down and look again, have faith in your ability to find meaningful pattern in even seemingly prosaic sources. For many East coast people Indiana and Iowa are synonymous with "plain" and ordinary. I can assure you they are anything but.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Except for the Lies, I Am Extremely Truthful

Philip Koch,  Deer Isle, oil on panel, 5 x 10", 2008

This was painted on location last summer up in Maine. Like all my paintings it is extremely truthful to how it felt to me as I stood before the source. In art, that's the only useful meaning truth has. 

In reality the left shore divided itself into three major planes (foreground, middleground, background) as if it had read from the same book I had back in school. So far so good.

The water at the right was another story. Usually when faced my open expanses of water, I just wait, knowing sooner or later a pattern will appear in the ripples that will provide a surprising but appropriate shape. Not this time. I painted on this for three days on and off and... nothing. I have a fallback for when the source won't cooperate. It is a large bag I carry with me full of memories of shapes and colors I've seen other places in nature or in other painter's work. It's heavy to carry in addition to my easel and the paints, but painters are nothing if not tough. You gradually collect great ideas and store them in this bag.

Rummage around near the bottom and pull out different shapes and try them on the offending passage in your painting. Just keep trying things on and eventually something will fit. This painting seemed to like adding three pyramid-shaped islands to fill the right side's void. Of course their color had to echo some of the hues found at the left side.

I was thinking today of our long ago ancestors, those brave souls who kept it together for all those eons before the invention of agriculture. They made a living by seeking out edible tree bark and roots. Now these were people who knew about searching. The ones that were good at it survived. As we go about filling our bag of good ideas, let's remember we carry the genes of these venerable old hunter-gatherers in us. Fill your bag carefully in their memory.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Digging Deep in the Crypt

Don't have much time today as I'm knee deep in re-organizing my studio. Had a request from one of my main art galleries to send them some images of works on paper, so I was reminiscing as I got the images together for them. I've been painting daily since 1966. That's a heck of a lot of history. Often you forget where you were. Here are a few paintings I hadn't looked at in some time that greeted me like old friends.

Above is a view of the Texas Hill Country done as an oil on paper just west of San Antonio from the early '90's. It's a dry, rolling ranching country, cut up by cattle fences everywhere. This painting is about the tightly squeezed intervals between the forms and the counter-contrasting light and dark forms. I like the way I have a mostly light painting with a band of warm-colored darks running from one side to the other as a middleground.

This is also an oil on paper of the Texas Hill Country, though this one is painted way later in the day (can't you just feel that). It uses the very long shadows of just before sunset to plunge the whole background into cool shadow. The background is like a dark trampoline to bounce the light foreground up to the front of the space.

This is an oil on paper from the late '80's. It painted from the hotel balcony where my wife and I were staying during one of her professional conferences in Louisville. That's the Ohio River with an amazing number of old bridges crossing its span. I was delighted with the view and the strange and narrow stone bridge abutments rising up out of the water like beautiful sculptures. Eakins painted similar bridges accompanying his rowers up in Philadelphia.

Lastly here's a final oil on paper from the early '80's. It's simply called Three Tree Trunks and shows the edge of the woods next to the parking lot where I used to live. It was built above an old Copper Mine near Baltimore, and the metallic soil favored short bent pines. They can be the most elegant of trees with their unexpected poses.