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. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Two Sentence Lesson About How to Enjoy Art

Here it is:

At least once a day interrupt the usual mulling over of the details of your life and ask yourself "Of what is in front of me now, what is the thing my eyes most enjoy seeing." Then spend a focused moment enjoying it.

That's it. Here below is something I stopped to enjoy-



Philip Koch, White Thicket II, oil on canvas, 28 x 42 inches,
currently in Courthouse Gallery Fine Art's show of my work
running through July 21, 2017 in Ellsworth, Maine.

So much of what is said or written about art (including by me) tends toward long-windedness. We can trip over all the words. It's good to boil it all down to just what's essential.