Friday, February 28, 2014

Edward Hopper v.s. Thomas Kinkade- Who's The Painter of Light ?

Edward Hopper, Rooms for Tourists, oil, 1945

An oil painting by Thomas Kinkade

One of the best reasons to look at art is it teaches us how to enjoy our eyes. Paintings are always lessons in seeing. Really good paintings simply help you have a lot more fun. 

Thomas Kinkade, probably one of the best known American artists and certainly one of the best marketed, passed away in the spring of 2012. Kinkade called himself "The Painter of Light", a slogan that had a certain ring to it. Kinkade's ubiquitous images are likely some of the first paintings most Americans were likely to have stumbled across. But if one keeps looking, there are probably other artists who have a great deal more to say to us about painting light with real authenticity.

Longtime readers of this blog won't be surprised if I offer Edward Hopper as an alternative. Comparing the two landscapes above is revealing of some of the deeper essentials of painting. 

If painting is primarily about seeing who can report on the most facts, I think the Kinkade wins the race to pile up the most details.
To me though art delivers meaning by telling us how things feel rather than just what we are looking at. Hopper's work to me isn't as sweetly reassuring, but instead offers a little surprise in what he selects to show us. And select he does, leaving out most of the essential facts so they won't distract us.

Color wise, Kinkade has intense versions of yellow, orange, red, blue green and a blue violet. It's a bit like an insecure cook adding a dash of every spice in the kitchen hoping to ramp up tonight's dinner. The Hopper in comparison narrows down its hues to mostly greys, yellows and greens. The painter has a confidence that he can do a lot employing fewer but better chosen tools.

For one example, look at the role Hopper assigns to the color white. The sides of the house are a warm yellow-white that he contrasts against the strikingly cool white of the illuminated sign. Playing with subtle gradations of warm and cool within a color can provide a quiet and dignified expressiveness. It makes you feel you're seeing details that aren't even there. 

Lastly, Hopper's Rooms for Tourists, embraces the night to make what light he does give us have a dramatic story to tell. A few key forms are pushed forward into our attention- the cool illuminated sign, the inviting parlor we glimpse through the big window. But everything else is pushed back towards the shadows, making us wonder a bit about these other less described spaces. There's a little touch of mystery to Hopper's night. Hopper I think more than most painters grasped the expressive power of light and shadow. He understood that it is the interplay of light and dark that lend each other their true meaning. 

Hopper shared with us both what he found beautiful (very often the effects of light) with what he found unexpected and sometimes even a little unsettling in the world. I think he was saying to us that we are meant to pay attention, that living fully doesn't mean closing one's eyes to what isn't anticipated or to what doesn't make us immediately comfortable. Always in a Hopper there is a magical richness of color or a drama to the light. But also we find composition designed to shake us up a little to make sure we open our eyes good and wide.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Winslow Homer's Gentle Push

Winslow Homer, The Trapper, oil on canvas, 19 x 29 1/2", 1870,
Colby College Museum of Art. This oil likely served as a 
preparatory canvas for the larger oil below.

Winslow Homer, An Adirondack Lake, oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 36 1/4", 
1870, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle.

Cover of exhibition catalogue for the 1970 show The American Scene 
featuringa detail from the Henry Art Gallery's version of Homer's painting. 

Today is Winslow Homer's birthday (Am. 1836 - 1910). I was reminded of this by the Colby College Museum of Art's Facebook post wishing that old master of American Realism the best this afternoon. Accompanying their good wishes was the painting at the top, The Trapper, from their Collection that Homer painted in 1870.  It probably served as a preparation for a larger work Homer painted expanding on the subject that's now in the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. (I had the good fortune to tour the impressive and recently expanded Colby Museum last summer and got to see The Trapper in the flesh).

Way back in 1970 I graduated as a studio art major from Oberlin College in Ohio, packed my odd collection of student paintings in a van and drove over to the adjoining state to spend the next two years in Bloomington at Indiana University in their MFA Painting Program. I arrived there passionate to do some serious painting with no real direction at all. I actually did a number of canvases of what I imagined the surfaces of undiscovered planets might look like (as it turned out, I had little idea myself and the paintings were pretty unconvincing).

The Indiana University Art Museum had a small bookshop. Browsing the stacks of books my eye was caught by the figure of a tall man holding an even taller paddle. I had stumbled upon the catalogue for a show that had concluded at the Museum only months before I had arrived- The American Scene 1820 - 1900 organized by Louis Hawes, an art historian at Indiana University in honor of the school's Sesquicentennial. Though I missed the show, the catalogue's 144 pages of black and white photographs of Hudson River School and American Impressionist paintings drew me in and held me. This was a branch of the art world I knew almost nothing about.

Here were images that seemed painted by artists who had fallen in love with their subjects. Their embrace of the natural world seemed so straight from the heart and utterly lacking in any ironic stance. Most of all, so many of the paintings reminded me ever so much of the wooded hillsides of northern Lake Ontario where I had lived from four until I was eighteen. Maybe I was a little homesick, but these paintings hit home in a way my surrealist inspired imaginary planet paintings never would. 

The worn cover of Hawes' exhibition catalogue should give you a clue I didn't let the book out of my sight for months. It gave me that last little shove needed to start me down the landscape painting path I've followed the last 42 years. Louis Hawes is gone now, perhaps joining Winslow Homer up in art heaven. To each of them I'd like to say a heartfelt thanks.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Which is More Important: Color or Drawing?

    Philip Koch, Morning: Acadia, vine charcoal, 10 1/2 x 14", 2013

My title asked a trick question. One for which there is no answer.

To me there's more connection than separation between drawing and painting. Drawing implies leaving a great deal of the surface of the paper exposed, while painting suggests covering over most or all of the ground of paper or canvas. I usually tell my painting students that "painting is mostly drawing," It is an exaggeration I know, but it does get their attention.

The most magical thing about painting for me is of course color, as it is for most of us. But color is so powerfully fluid and multifaceted that it can easily elude us. A painting that is only about color would be like trying to get a drink in a parched desert without a cup.  You need a vessel.  Drawing in a great set of shapes "holds" the colors in place for your eyes to drink them in. 

Shapes, and by that I mean the flat silhouettes that are the building blocks of drawing and painting, need to come first. They are a little easier grasp and hold in mind. I think of them as a hand railing to help negotiate the slippery terrain you enter when juggling dozens of colors.

And color is opinionated!  The colors call out for adjustments of your original drawing ideas- this shape must be made larger, that one asks that you soften its bottom edge and sharpen its top. As I work in color I always find changing a color also means adjusting a shape. Color and drawing insist on working hand in hand.

Following are three drawings I did over the course of several years. The first was done with my portable easel set up on the beach just below Edward Hopper's studio in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod Bay.

Philip Koch, Truro Beach, vine charcoal, 8 x 12", 2005

Working from that charcoal drawing, I made two pastels. Look at how the focus and the proportions change in each of them. 

Philip Koch, Cape Dunes, pastel, 5 x 7 1/2", 2009

Philip Koch, Study for The Reach, pastel, 5 x 7 1/2"

Exploring an idea with a series of color pastel drawings is my way of learning what it is I'm after. The second of the two preceding pastels formed the basis of one of my favorite major oils below.

Philip Koch, The Reach IV, oil on linen, 40 x 60", 2011 
at George Billis Gallery, New York

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jo Hopper and Charles Burchfield

Above is an oil portrait of Jo Hopper painted by her husband Edward. I love its direct and concentrated energy and absolutely masterful design. As introverted and silent as Edward Hopper was, Jo was famously gregarious and scrappy. She had been an actress as well as an art student in her earlier days before marrying Edward. The two of them had a complicated decades long relationship, by turns closely intimate and other times explosive to the point of violence. It was Jo's initiative that really jump started Edward's rise to art stardom. Unfortunately her career as a painter lagged badly after her marriage, a source of long simmering resentment for her.

I was reading through the journals of the painter Charles Burchfield (Am. 1893-1967) and ran across his entry for March 6 - 12, 1939 with its amusing observation from Burchfield about the Hoppers.  Jo's painting had just been rejected from an exhibtion for which Edward had served on the selection panel-

I stopped in to see Hopper.  Mrs. Hopper was there and as usual monopolized the conversation. Her grievance that day was that Hopper, according to her, had not only not voted for her picture at Richmond, but had failed to try to influence the other jurors in its favor. God help the artist who is married to another artist."

Charles Burchfield

As a committed landscape painter myself, I've had the remarkable good fortune to have been given unprecedented access to the studio the Hoppers built on Cape Cod in S. Truro, MA in 1934. Edward designed the place himself down to the last nail. The Hopper's used an inheritance Jo received from one of her aunts to fund the construction. They would live there for the following three decades for half of each year. Many of the most famous Edward Hopper paintings were made within its walls.

Set on a high sand dune with unobstructed views of Cape Cod Bay and the rolling sandy hills of Truro, it proved a key ingredient in deepening Edward's imagination and painter's vision in the second half of his life. 

Edward was generous with the studio's space for painting, devoting fully half the building's square footage to the giant painting room. An impressive high ceiling and an imposing ten foot tall window assures it is always filled with beautiful north light. It's a painter's dream.

By contrast, Edward insisted it would bother him if Jo were to paint in "his" painting room. He insisted Jo do her painting in their small kitchen, a very unfortunate working space from my (and Jo's) point of view. Here's my wife Alice drinking her morning coffee in the kitchen at the little table where Jo and Edward would eat their breakfast.

In her early days,  Jo knew some of the major players in the art world. One of the most prominent teachers and painters of the day, Robert Henri, painted the above portrait of Jo titled The Art Student. 

Edward Hopper died in 1967 and Jo followed him within 9 months. They left essentially everything to the Whitney Museum of American Art, including the very large number of unsold paintings Edward had in his studio (despite his enormous popularity, Hopper didn't sell anywhere near everything he painted), and a large number of Jo's paintings. The Whitney's Curator at the time, Lloyd Goodrich, promptly threw out Jo's work, considering it unworthy of the museum's Collection. By contrast, he held onto literally thousands of paintings and works on paper by Edward.

I've always been curious about Jo's paintings- were they so inferior that Goodrich was right to trash them? We'll never have a full answer. But even if they weren't visually that powerful, many of them would have at very least provided a treasure of detail about the surroundings, daily routines, and painting travels of the Hopper's. Through them we would have understood the Hopper's world better. 

So Jo is known to us now primarily as the model for all the female figures in Hopper's work done since they married (she insisted he not work from another female model from then on). Above is one of the Edward's nude studies of her, and below a sensitive portrait drawing.

One of Edward's watercolors done on a trip out West, Jo Painting.

Jo and Edward together in their earlier days. 

Fortunately some little seen work by Jo Hopper is going to be the focus of a new exhibition at the Edward Hopper House Art Center
in Nyack, NY April 19 - June 15. For anyone curious about this woman painter who was married to Edward Hopper for decades, this is a rare opportunity. How much was she the victim of the male dominated art world of her day? And just how good a painter was she? I'm intrigued to see for myself.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Charles Burchfield's Dream About Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, Sugar Maple, watercolor, 1936

Two artists I look at a lot are Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper. Their work intrigues and delights my eyes. But just as important studying their art has made me a far stronger painter.
Unlike taciturn Hopper, Burchfield prodigiously kept journals throughout his life. His writing is often poetic and sometimes shows surprising candor.

Burchfield recorded a dream he had about Hopper in his journal from July 28, 1947. (The two were friends, showing for years together at New York's Frank Rehn Galleries. Despite the major differences in their painting styles, each deeply respected the other's work).

Here's what Burchfield  wrote-

Of being in a wood, and coming upon a picture by Hopper which he had just completed (It seemed as if he he was "summering"in the woods and had rented a small portion of it, to which he confined himself- There were several large oaks surrounding a small clearing). The picture I thought was superbly done, and made all that I had been doing lately seem weak by comparison. The scene he depicted was a narrow forest glade at late afternoon with the almost level rays of the sun filtering through, to illumine leafy branches here & there. Awake, I no longer can recall the details that made this such a remarkable picture, but I now realize it was not a typical Hopper picture, but a subject I might be more likely to do.

I had to smile at Burchfield's uncertainty about the quality of his own work. Self doubt is the price of admission for any artist who aims high. It keeps one from too quickly accepting whatever happens in one's painting as being the best one can do. Self criticism like this can lead to producing terrific art, as so many of Burchfield's remarkable watercolors attest. But on a feeling level, this trait is unnerving. With this dream Burchfield is paying his dues.

Charles Burchfield, Dawn in the Early Spring, watercolor, 1946-66

Why does Burchfield envision this "superbly done" painting as being done by someone else? I think it's an admission of how inaccessible one's talent and insight sometimes can be for a painter. Despite their being friends, Hopper was personally and artistically a very different person than Burchfield. To Burchfield Hopper was something of the "other" and always remained a bit unknowable. 

Through his dream Burchfield is in a way confessing he doesn't fully understand his own talent. Can't you sense Burchfield's frustration waking from this dream and realizing his imagined Hopper was doing a superior job on one of Burchfield's signature subjects.

Despite that, Burchfield soldiered on through both his periods of confusion and of inspired productivity. His talents included knowing how to replentish himself, sustain his enthusiasm, and persevere. We are lucky he knew himself so well.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Edward Hopper's Legacy: Taking His Eyes Seriously

Hopper, House on Middle Street, Gloucester, watercolor, 1924
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH

The Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY has asked me to be part of the program at their Annual Spring Benefit on Sunday, May 4. There will be tours, music and sparkling wine. I'm going to give a short talk on Hopper's legacy and how he has influenced me and other artists since his time. 

The setting of Hopper House will do a lot of the talking for me. 

Hopper, far more than many prominent artists of his generation, found his ideas in his immediate surroundings. The Hopper House Art Center, his boyhood home where he lived until he was approaching 30, in many ways was one of the key influences on how he saw the world. Above is one of his watercolors from the Currier Museum of Art. With its rhythm of irregular highlights and shuttered windows it's brimming with quirky personality. I believe that's in part because Hopper was open to seeing its potential as it so resembles the house he grew up in.

Hopper expressed himself by looking out at the world. He made his art so powerful by exercising the utmost selectivity as to what he would paint. 

For all of us, 95% of what we see we pretty much dismiss. But a select few of the things around us are different and strike a chord in our inner, emotional side. A legendarily silent man, Hopper found himself able to express his inner life through painting. He became most powerful when he based his extremely poetic interpretations on the best of what he could see in his immediate surroundings.

In Hopper's day the modernist revolution was sweeping thought the art world. Probably the one realist painter who managed to be well regarded by all corners of the art world, modernist and traditional, was Hopper. He kept the faith with direct observation of the world as a key tool for art making. And his example gave encouragement to artists who would follow. Artists like me, who was tying myself in knots in my early years trying to make abstract paintings that I could believe in. When I discovered Hopper's work, I found the excitement, and I should add the courage, to swim against the tide and try another way.

Hopper kept alive a tradition from the artists who had gone down the road before him- searching through the mountain of all the different ways things can appear for just the most meaningful subject. One of the best examples of an artist who influenced Hopper was Winslow Homer (Am. 1836-1910), represented below by another elegantly poetic watercolor from the Currier Museum of Art's collection.

Winslow Homer, Fishwives, watercolor, 1883, Currier Museum
of Art, Manchester, NH

This Homer watercolor suits my point about how central looking is to our emotions, both in art in and in our personal lives. The three women above stand against the blustery winds staring out to sea, probably hoping for their loved ones' safe return. Homer makes you feel it with them. He saw such scenes when he lived in Britain in a poor fishing village for a year. Etched into his mind, such an image was a springboard for this moving painting.

Hopper House Art Center was kind enough to let me come and paint in several of its rooms. Here I am in Hopper's 2nd floor bedroom in the summer of 2012 working on my oil Sun in an Empty Room II.  

Initial plans for the May 4 Benefit are for me to give a short talk on Hopper's art and influence standing right in this same room. Really, there could be no better setting.