Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Honeymoon Painting





Philip Koch, Thicket, oil on panel, 14 x 21 inches, 2017



Some of my new paintings go way back. This one actually started in 1982. Alice and I got married that year in the rain in our backyard with a female justice of the peace. Right after the ceremony we flew to Maine for our honeymoon. I'd never been to Mount Desert but Alice had and she insisted I'd love it. Boy was she right.


Wandering in the woods near the Island's distinctive towering cliff named The Precipice I fell in love with this stand of young white birches. Worked from it for three afternoons and made a wonderful small oil. Later that summer I painted a large version of the composition in my studio. But before I had time to really enjoy either oil, the small version went to a collector and the large canvas entered the Permanent Collection of the Butler Institute of American Art. 

Great as this was, I missed the paintings. Sometimes that happens. But in this case the image of these birches would stubbornly drift back to me repeatedly over following years. Maybe there was something special about those young trees that seemed so full of promise- you couldn't ask for a better symbol for the hopefulness of that first week of my marriage.

Many years later in 2014 I broke down and made another version closely related to the original plein air study. Then just two days ago I went back into that new version to fix "just one detail" and ended up repainting virtually the entire surface with lighter and brighter hues. I just needed for it to be right. And I love how it turned out.

I'm keeping the original title Thicket, but in my mind it's the honeymoon painting.




Friday, September 15, 2017

If Plants Could Talk...


Charles Burchfield, Sultry Moon, watercolor, 1959

Burchfield Penney Art Center's Facebook page is worth following. Every morning without fail they post a new painting by Charles Burchfield along with a selection of his writing from his journals. Seeing what they are offering up is one of the high points of my mornings.

Sultry Moon above was their pick this morning. It was new to me and as I looked at it the phrase "If plants could talk..." went through my mind. Burchfield is a very different kind of landscape painter than I am, but one thing I admire in his work is how remarkably animated his forms are. Much of the energy he injects into his paintings is built out of his mastery of brushstrokes. This guy knew what he was doing. 

Just to say two things about his mark-making:

-You never know ahead of time what direction his brushstrokes are going to take as he paints his forms. Always he's surprising us. Unconsciously that makes us want to keep looking.

-He beautifully orchestrates the intensity of his marks. In Sultry Moon, compare the high-contrast staccato brushstrokes in the foreground plants (are they dandelions?) and the trees with the ever-so-softly gradated strokes that populate the empty sky. His judgment about when to hit it hard or when to softly whisper his ideas is just terrific. 




Sunday, August 27, 2017

How to Be influenced by a Master Artist



Charles Burchfield, The Constant Leaf, watercolor,
1960, Burchfield Penney Art Center

What do you do as an artist when you're excited about the work of a really famous artist?  Should you start working in their style?  

Over the last two years I've been serving as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. I've held several thousand of his drawings from their Burchfield Archives in my hands and studied them for all they're worth. One can learn so much from absorbing the methods of the best who have gone before us- but it's tricky.



detail from The Constant Leaf

Probably it's Burchfield's unusual calligraphy-like details that first catches our eye, as in the detail above. It's an idiosyncratic handwriting he injects into all his work. In the The Constant Leaf at the top the explosion of patterns in the foliage is a classic example. But a longer look at the painting I think reveals another side to Burchfield's vision- his uncanny talent at making the entire surface of his painting contribute to its expressive power.  

Burchfield's areas of heavy patterns (the foliage, tree trunk and vertical shoots in the foreground) are balanced off by an almost completely empty snow covered yard.  He wants to stimulate us but also give our eyes a place to rest. If anything should be imitated in Burchfield it is on this deeper level of composing the entire painting. It would be missing the larger point to superficially adopt his highly stylized handwriting.

For me what I want to take from Burchfield is not the eccentricities of his very personal style but his brilliance of orchestrating all the parts of his paintings to complement each other. Here's a new painting of my own- a view of a sycamore covered hillside. Like Burchfield, I most love the forest when the trees branches themselves take front and center.



Philip Koch, Late Autumn Sun, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches,
2017.

Here was a sea of highlighted white branches. All had the wonderful staccato-like rhythms so typical of those trees- too much for the eye to take in. To compensate I pushed all the distant trees into a darker reddish tone, letting the spotlight fall only on one foreground tree. To calm things down further I put in a slowly curving paved road in the foreground. 





Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Andrew Wyeth





Yesterday my wife Alice and I drove up to see the two Andrew Wyeth shows near us at the Brandywine River Museum in Chads Ford, PA and the Somerville Manning Gallery in nearby Greenville, DE.

The Brandywine Museum show, Andrew Wyeth in Retrospect, marks the 100th anniversary of Wyeth's birth. Audrey Lewis of the Brandywine Museum co-curated the exhibition, borrowing important Wyeth works from across the country.

I was awed by what I saw. Wyeth has a quiet but insistent power to his imagination. He used "traditional" country and farm imagery but always found ways to show us the unexpected.




For many viewers Wyeth's ability to render painstakingly detailed surfaces is the big takeaway. And impressive it is. For me though, as a realist painter who eschews minute details, what really struck me throughout the show was Wyeth's masterful sense of design- the way he realized expressive power by leaving things out. 

The early watercolor Coming Storm (above) from 1938, done before the artist adopted his more detailed way of working in the medium of tempera paint, shows how much he could express using only the most broad and detail-free strokes. ( I apologize for the reflections on some of my photos).






Here's Hoffman's Slough, a tempera from 1947, a masterpiece of leaving things out if there ever was one. In this and other paintings Wyeth plays off areas of relative emptiness against a few carefully chosen focal points that lead our eye around the space of the painting.




A few years ago we took advantage of the tours the Brandywine Museum runs to Andrew Wyeth's studio and to that of his father, N. C. Wyeth, just up the hill. One of my favorite paintings in the show was this watercolor Andrew Wyeth made of his father's studio in the snow, North Light, done late in his career in 1984. The painting starts out telling us all about the delicate lattice work in the upper panes of arched window, but as soon as Wyeth felt he'd said enough  the rest of the window gradually dissolves into a mist of blown snow. It's so well done it's mesmerizing.




In a watercolor from 1959, Willard, we see Wyeth feeling his way as he gradually carved out the space in back of his model with the lightest touches of wash. I love the tiny spot of empty white paper he left untouched in the top half of the painting.





Almost at the end of the show is Crow Tree from just two years before the artist's death, a painting that especially grabbed me. With my own paintings of the forest, I've so often been drawn to the solemn elegance of trees that have died. They can stand for years  shorn of their leaves, fully revealing the rhythms of their almost sculpted branches. What a pleasure to see Wyeth turning his eye to a similar theme.

A few miles from the Brandywine Museum the Somerville Manning Gallery has mounted a large and wonderful companion exhibition of Andrew Wyeth watercolors. Highly recommended! The Somerville Manning show has been extended to run through September 9. Here's a photo of the Gallery. 


Somerville Manning Gallery, a few miles downstream on the
Brandywine River from the Brandywine River Museum.

Brandywine Museum's exhibition continues through September 17.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Painting's Problems Are Just Like Life's Problems: What to Do

Edward Hopper, The Camel's Hump, oil on canvas, 1930
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY. This
painting was made the first summer Hopper spent on
Cape Cod. He worked from the spot where four years
later he would build the painting studio he would live 
in for the next 30 years. It's my favorite Hopper 
landscape

Yesterday I was finishing a painting of a tree in a large painting I began last week. The session started out well. In my mind's eye I could see the tree looming magnificently above me in a brilliant morning light. Incredibly rich yet somehow elementally simple.

As I pushed further, layering the brushstrokes to evoke the wonderful volume and intricate surface thousands of glistening leaves make. But it began to go wrong. The commanding personality of the tree melted away into an undistinguished mass of oily dots.

An inner voice told me to put down my brush and get out of the studio before I made things worse. I've learned to listen for that voice.

After dinner I went back into my studio to look at the remains of my tree. Somehow my confusion of earlier in the day lifted and I could see the problem- I had lost the distinctive silhouette that had worked so well in my initial drawing of the tree. Clear-eyed again, I re-drew the outer contours of the tree in a few bold strokes. Going back into the tree, this time with a far more restrained hand, I added a far fewer number of details. Presto...

It's a mystery why sometimes our vision becomes obscured. 
It happens in painting and in real life. Just as mysterious is why these clouds of confusion lift again when they do. 

There is an art to painting and an art to living. On our good days some inner intuition rises within us and tells us we know what we're doing and to act decisively. And it can tell us when the way forward yet isn't clear yet and the best course is to wait. The "art" part of this is learning to hear that whispering inner voice. 
We start by listening for it, a lot.

P.S. The painting above isn't the one I described. I think it's bad luck to post a photo of a painting I'm working on and to write about how the painting is going. I think I heard a whisper to that effect.




Thursday, July 20, 2017

Big New John Sloan Show at Delaware Art Museum


Delaware Art Museum (DAM) in Wilmington, DE is organizing the first large scale exhibition in some years of the paintings of the famous Ashcan School artist John Sloan (Am. 1871-1951). The DAM has the larges collection of the artist's work and a significant Sloan archive. 

Here's a large detail of one of the paintings the exhibition's Curator, Heather Campbell Coyle, is planning to include in the  show- Blonde Nude with Orange, Blue Couch painted around 1917. I think it's one of Sloan's best examples of what he could do with color. He knew how to use it to enliven one of the most difficult subjects to paint- skin. Look at the shadows in the detail below.




Determined to avoid monotony of color, Sloan carefully painted the shadows on the buttock and on the bottom knee with relatively cooler colors. Contrasting them, the woman's upper knee slides toward a warmer orange as our eye moves into that shadow. It works beautifully.

Here's another detail-


I'm grateful that wasn't my arm that Sloan asked to hold up the fruit- I can feel his poor model's deltoid starting to scream. Nonetheless, the silhouette of her extended arm creates such an arresting shape. Sloan wants to be sure our eye sees this so he paints the immediately surrounding blue cloth a more contrasting darker and brighter blue. Also notice how her biceps and triceps are a cooler hue that gradually becomes warmer as we travel from her shoulder to her wrist. It's his way of making the whole journey interesting.

I first got interested in Sloan in 1969 when I studied figure painting  at the Art Students League of New York. It was a good class and I learned a lot. But my fondest memory was discovering a small framed photograph hanging on the classroom wall. Peering out through the dusty picture glass was John Sloan sometime in the '30's or '40's posing with his own painting class that he had taught in the very same room. I remember thinking, "God this is great, I must be in the right place!"

An American Journey: The Art of John Sloan runs from Oct. 21, 2017 to Jan. 28, 2018.

P.S. Delaware Art Museum has asked me to give a gallery talk during the show: Artists on Art: John Sloan from an Artist's Perspective on Sunday, Dec. 3,  at 2:30 p.m. I will pick a few paintings from the exhibition and talk about the color and compositional moves Sloan chose to make them visually come to life. All welcome.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Painting the Alley by Charles Burchfield's House

Charles Burchfield, Yellow Afterglow, July 31
1916, watercolor, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Buffalo, NY
Every morning Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) does a great job of posting a different painting by Charles Burchfield on their Facebook page. They pair it with a selection from the many journals the artist kept throughout his life. This morning's post of the above painting particularly caught my eye. Done in 1916 when Burchfield was living in his family home, it is almost undoubtedly a view of the alley just west of his house at 867 E. 4th Street in Salem, OH. 

A big part of Burchfield's talent was he knew to zero in on the subjects that most stimulated his creativity- the immediate surroundings of his boyhood home. It, and similar subjects, were to occupy him for the rest of his life.

Two summer's ago at the urging of BPAC's Curators my wife and I drove from Baltimore to spend two days exploring Salem. Below is a major oil I made in my studio based on two successive drawings of Burchfield's home.


Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Salem Home, oil on canvas
32 x 64 inches, 2016.

Burchfield made dozens of paintings of his house and yard. His home is art historically one of the most important structures in the country. Despite arriving during a heatwave we had a magical visit there. With my easel set up in the alley he had painted I made the vine charcoal drawing below of his house (the slightly blurry look of the drawing was partly due to my drawing hand sweating- as I said, it was hot).

Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Salem Home, vine charcoal,
6 1/2 x 13 inches, 2015


As I worked later in my studio on my large oil version of that drawing's composition I began to feel the trees in the background encroached too much on his house. Below is a second drawing I made from the first, exploring a more open space surrounding the house. It worked best imagining the scene as it could look in the winter months. Burchfield's paintings often celebrated the change of seasons, so I figured this was a very appropriate adaptation.

Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Salem Home II, vine charcoal,
7 x 14 inches, 2016


P.S. Burchfield's boyhood home is now the Burchfield Homestead Museum and is open to the public weekends during the summer months.