Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What I Learned from My Ink Wash Drawings

Philip Koch, The Trees, sepia, 30 x 42", 1985

All of us are on a long journey. Who we are today is the product of sometimes amazingly contradictory influences. For an artist every medium they employ offers them a different lesson. 

I was in my painting storage room organizing work for my upcoming solo exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts (Nov. 8, 2014 - Feb. 22, 2015).  I stumbled upon four of my large ink wash drawings, snugly resting in the painting racks. That was enough to spin me off into reminiscing how they played a decisive role in my growth as a painter.

A little history:  When I first began painting I was attracted to the geometric abstractions of the 1960's and painted with big flat shapes of intense acrylic colors. As I reached grad school at Indiana University I unexpectedly fell in love with the University Art Museum's 19th century landscape paintings. They propelled me into a darkly moody world, with me painting in oil over canvases first covered in a deep umber brown. Here's my oil Fall at Lake Lemon, 16 x 20" from 1971 as an example. The hills and trees are mostly middle-toned to dark, with smaller light accents providing the contrasts. For much of the next decade this was my default method.

In the mid 1980's I started looking once again at the quick wash drawings Rembrandt used to make with sepia colored ink. I was struck by the beautiful overall lightness of his drawings. They seemed to be infused with a sun-filled mist. Here's a Rembrandt ink wash drawing from the 1650's.

I resolved it was time for me to try my hand at some large scale wash drawings.

Philip Koch, Daybreak II, sepia,, 28 x 42" 1985

Work on paper has a sensibility all its own. Especially when working in transparent washes, it most often it coaxes the paintings to be tonally lighter. Using just a few small dark accents can suffice to inject contrast. 

Philip Koch, Down to the Bay, sepia, 22 x 44", 1986

What was so helpful to me in doing these works on paper was how it reoriented my thinking about what the overall tone of my oil paintings could and should be. 

Philip Koch, Summer III, sepia, 31 x 41 1/2", 1985

The tonal habits I acquired by working in ink washes gradually transitioned in the '90's into another work on paper medium, vine charcoal. Like ink wash, it's unrivaled for its sense of light and shadow and for wrapping an image up in a blanket of atmosphere. 

I focus so much on drawing as it's central to how I build my oil paintings. But it was my work in ink wash that opened my eyes to how to really use vine charcoal.

Philip Koch, Old Railway, Truro, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 1998.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

How Did Edward Hopper Make a Watercolor? (Updated)

I was staying and working in the studio Edward Hopper designed and had built on Cape Cod in Truro, MA for my15th residency a week and a half ago. Above you can see Hopper's easel where for 30 years he produced many of his most famous paintings. The three windows look out from a great height over Cape Cod Bay. In a word: inspiring.

Hopper first gained wide acclaim through his watercolors. Most of them were done at a fairly large scale on cold press 140 lbs. watercolor paper (that's a medium weight subtly textured paper). To keep his watercolor paper from buckling as it became wet as he painted on it, Hopper would prepare the paper ahead of time by stretching. On the easel in the photo above is a piece of watercolor paper stretched by Hopper that is patiently waiting for him to return and paint on it. 

 Here's a close up of the front side of the prepared paper. Over the years it has sagged a little from its original smooth completely flat state.

Hopper first soaked his watercolor paper in water and carefully wrapped it over simple wooden stretcher bars (identical to the commercially produced stretcher bars painters use now). Today's artists would use a staple gun, but Hopper fastened his paper down with old fashioned thumb tacks all around the its four sides. Anyone who has dropped a dry sponge in water and seen it dramatically expand in size can visualize how Hopper's watercolor paper had swelled as he wet it.

As the paper dried it would shrink to a completely flat and drum-tight surface. 

Hopper loved nothing better than working outdoors in direct sunlight which probably accounts for his ability to render a palpable intensity when he painted the highlighted areas in his paintings. But he disliked it when the light would shine though his only semi-opaque watercolor paper from the backside, throwing off his judgment of his darks and lights. 

He solved the problem by tacking several pages of the sports section from an old edition of the New York Times. Previously I'd failed to find the date on the tattered newspapers. My friend Bonnie Clause, the author of Edward Hopper in Vermont, did some very resourceful research by entering phrases she saw in the photo into the NYTimes archives and established that the sports pages backing date from Sept. 19, 1948.  

Here's my own French easel set up in the large painting room with Hopper's easel in the far corner.

Below is one of my vine charcoal drawings of Hopper's easel holding  this stretched watercolor paper in the corner of the room. Normally I cover most of my drawings' surface with broad areas of shadowy tones. But I liked the simple rhythms of the shapes of the easel and Hopper's chair and decided to leave the piece as more a basic line drawing.

Here's a concluding picture of me going back to painting in oils. This is in the adjoining bedroom, with a view through the door at the left of Hopper's big painting room. (You can see the small oil on my easel in my previous blog post). 


A number of paintings, pastels, and vine charcoal drawings I've made in Hopper's studio will be included in The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD Nov. 8, 2014 - Feb, 22, 2015.

Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY (Hopper's childhood home) will show additional paintings I've made in Hopper's studio in their solo exhibit of my work Feb. 14 - April 12, 2015.

Friday, October 3, 2014

15th Edward Hopper Studio Residency

 I am just returned from my fifteenth residency in Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio on Cape Cod. Had great weather, got a lot of good new painting done, and have a ton of good new photos of the studio. Above is me lounging in front of Hopper's 10' tall studio window last week. 

And below is my wife Alice standing in the doorway of Hopper's bedroom and looking out into Hopper's big painting room. 

Here's another photo that gives a sense of the scale of Hopper's ten foot tall north-facing studio window. It bathes the entire painting room in bright unchanging light all day long, regardless of whether it's overcast or sunny. This was taken at the very end of the day.

When Hopper designed the studio and had it built in 1934, the window was covered with dozens of small panes of glass supported by a network of thin metal strips. It looked really cool, but over the years the weight of the glass caused the window to sag and eventually the glass panes started breaking. The present owners had to replace the window and now its wide open sheets of hard plastic. I miss the look and feel it used to have but I understand why the move had to be taken.

Here's a shot also from the end of a clear day last week that I took through the window screens in the Hopper studio's kitchen. You can see the shadowed silhouette of the studio on the far hillside, just above Hopper's small white garage.

Here's one of the paintings I made with my easel set up in Hopper's small bedroom. What attracted me was the brilliance of the late afternoon sunlight playing over the studio's white walls. The view looks out over Cape Cod Bay to the left, in the middle is one of the two small closets Hopper shared with his wife Jo, and on the right a door opens to his large painting room. In the distance is the easel Hopper used for three decades in that room. Some of his most famous paintings happened on that easel.

Since I work from direct observation instead of from photographs, I love a medium like vine charcoal for the way it allows me to move quickly to nail down the shifting patterns of sunlight and shadows as they sweep over the subject. 

Here is Truro Studio: Kitchen Doors, vine charcoal, 12 x 9", 2014. On the far left is the opening to the incredibly steep stairs down to Hopper's basement. In the distance is the studio's kitchen with early morning sunlight blasting in. The window in the center is right over the kitchen sink. Hopper must have often stared out of it towards the sea as he rinsed out his coffee cup.

Friday, September 19, 2014

More Background on my Upcoming Exhibit at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD is holding The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch Nov. 8, 2014 - Feb. 22, 2015. It will include some 35 oil paintings, pastels, and vine charcoal drawings spanning the 1980's to today. Here's a second collection of the notes I wrote for some of the wall labels for the paintings that will be in the show (you can read my first posting of these notes here).

Stone City Barns, oil on canvas, 24 x 48”, 1991-2011

Koch’s first solo exhibition at an art museum occurred in 1991 when the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa invited him to show in their galleries. While there Koch to traveled to nearby Stone City, IA where the famous American Regionalist painter Grant Wood used to conduct a summer painting school. The elegance of the 19th century barns in Stone City charmed Koch into breaking his personal vow “to never paint a red barn.”

Shadows on the House, oil on panel, 9 ¾ x 8 ¾”, 1982.

The earliest painting in the exhibition, this oil reflects Koch’s interest in the work of the American artist Edward Hopper. Famous for his straightforward views of sunlight and long shadows falling on architecture, Hopper’s paintings were the primary impulse behind Koch’s decision early in his career to switch from painting abstractions to working in a realist direction.


From Day to Night, pastel, 7 ½ x 15”, 2002

Koch’s largest paintings are done in his Baltimore studio and are usually based on smaller preparatory works on paper. This pastel helped Koch better understand the color scheme he employed in the large oil of the same title included in this exhibition.

West from Monhegan,  vine charcoal, 9 x 12”, 2006

Despite being the grandson of the inventor of Kodachrome  film, Philip Koch never uses photography to help him make his art. Instead he prefers to work from memory and from charcoal drawings he makes on location. “Art is mostly about what you leave out” explains Koch, “ A slow medium like drawing charcoal affords me more time to discover what a painting needs and what must be discarded.”

 The Easel, Truro Studio, pastel, 6 x 7 ½”, 1998

Over the years Koch has been fortunate to given unprecedented access to the private house that is the former studio of the famous American realist painter Edward Hopper in Truro, MA on Cape Cod. As Hopper was the largest influence on Koch when he was a young artist, the opportunity to stay in work in Hopper’s studio has been deeply inspiring. This is the easel Hopper used to paint in the studio in a pastel drawing Koch made during one of his residencies.

Edward Hopper’s Parlor, Nyack, oil on panel, 10 x 7 ½”, 2012

The Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY, Hopper’s birthplace and boyhood home, invited Koch to come and paint in the rooms where Hopper grew up. This oil was painted in Hopper’s living room with its oversized French doors. The oils Sun in an Empty Room and Sun in an Empty Room: Orange, also included in this exhibition were painted in the 2nd floor room where Hopper was born and that served as his bedroom where he lived until he was nearly 30.

Friday, September 12, 2014

New Interview About Philip Koch's Paintings

Here is a short interview on my paintings that was posted yesterday on the website for Beard's chain of framing stores in the Pacific Northwest (link to the interview on Beard's website)

Interview with Artist 

Philip Koch

At Beard's Framing, we enjoy bringing you information and insight on art. This is the first of a new series of posts, where we conduct interviews with artists to share their knowledge and perspectives on art. This interview is with painter Philip Koch.
Beard's Framing: Can you tell me a little about yourself?
Philip Koch: I'm a former abstract painter who early in my career discovered the work of Edward Hopper. That alone inspired me to change to working in a realist direction. Since 1983 I have had unprecedented access to the privately owned Hopper studio on Cape Cod. This Fall I will enjoy my 15th residency staying and working in his studio.
While in my MFA Program in Painting at Indiana University I began painting outdoors in oil, making smaller plein air studies and large studio oil. While my earlier work was more naturalistic, in the last 15 years my paintings have evolved in a more romantic and some say "otherworldly" direction. My paintings are represented in New York by the George Billis Gallery. This Nov. - Feb. the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Maryland will hold a solo exhibition of my work. 14 American art museums have my paintings in their Permanent Collections.
I am a senior professor at MICA in Baltimore.

BF: What made you decide to start a blog? What do you enjoy about the blogging process?
PK: After painting for over 45 years I have learned a great deal about what makes a painting work. I enjoy teaching and sharing my ideas with others. A blog about art is an extension of that.

BF: What are some of your artistic influences?
PK: When I first started out I loved Mark Rothkoís big and simple color paintings and imitated them. Looking back I think that was a great place to begin to study color. After a couple of years Edward Hopper, who I think is the best painter of brilliant sunlight ever, tapped me on the shoulder and inspired me to seriously work on my drawing skills and become a realist painter. For some other heroes I would list Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent (who was a classmate of Hopper in art school) and Hopperís friend Charles Burchfield.
'Magenta, Black, Green on Orange' by Mark Rothko, 'Road in Maine' by Edward Hopper
BF: Looking through your portfolio, you draw a lot of landscapes. Why do you often choose this subject matter?
PK: In most ways I feel a subject matter chooses you, not the other way around. It is less a decision than a feeling. Painting the landscape felt like I was trying on a new pair of shoes that fit perfectly. My landscape work started innocently enough when one of my teachers in grad school suggested I might try painting outside. My first day out on location with my easel I was hooked. If one is going to paint truly well oneís subject matter has to ìclickî with that mysterious side of us where our deepest creativity dwells. I grew up in a remote heavily forested section of the shoreline along Lake Ontario in upstate New York. There werenít many other children around to play with so I spent an enormous amount of time entertaining myself in the woods. It the natural world came to feel like home.

BF: Tell me about one of your works you're particularly proud of.
PK: A new painting I am especially happy with is Uncharted II, now at the Art Essex Gallery in Essex, CT. It was done entirely from memory and invention. As a boy growing up in snow country near Rochester, NY, deep winter snows were frequent and always left a vivid impression on me. A heavy coating of white seems to transform even a neighborhood you know intimately well into something mysterious that beckons you to explore it. I wanted to make a painting about that feeling.

Uncharted II, oil on panel, 18 x 24", 2014
As sort of a side project over the years I have been doing a long running series of paintings of the interior of Hopperís little seen Truro, MA painting studio where he lived and worked with his wife Jo for 6 months of every year for some three decades. Here is a recent painting of the small table where the Hopperís would eat their breakfast:

Truro Studio Kitchen, oil on panel, 12 x 16", 2013
Philip Koch can be found at philipkoch.org and on his blog at philipkochpaintings.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Upcoming Exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

I have been getting my upcoming exhibition together that will be at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD.  The Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch runs Nov. 8, 2014 - Feb. 22, 2015. As part of this I've compiled some notes we may use on some of the wall labels for a few of the paintings. Here are a few examples.

The Song of All Days, oil on panel, 36 x 72”, 2008 (the painting above).
Painted just as he was turning 60, Koch thought of this painting as a recollection and celebration of all the times he had spent painting surrounded by nature. He explained “I have the best office in the world.”

Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 30 x 40”, 2011
Many of the 19th century farms in the Eastern U.S. have failed, allowing the cleared land to revert to deep forest. Often the only relief from the darkness of their foliage canopy comes from the light that falls on small forest pools like this one. This painting was done entirely from imagination and the memory of the forest pools where Koch played as a boy.

Ascension, oil on panel, 40 x 32”, 2008
Koch’s wife Alice suggested the theme for this painting when she accidentally glimpsed one of Koch landscapes in a mirror. The mirror’s oblique angle turned that painting’s horizontal expanse into a vertical format that suggested a rising up movement instead of the back and forth feeling associated with most panoramas.

The Voyage, oil on canvas, 38 x 38”, 2000.
Philip Koch fell in love with the romantic landscape paintings of the 19th century American artists of the Hudson River School such as Thomas Cole. While the tasks of 21st century landscape painters is different than that of artists 150 years ago, Koch intended this oil partly as homage to Cole's famous series of paintings The Voyage of Life. The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts’ Permanent Collection is particularly rich in this area and includes one of Cole’s oil studies for The Voyage of Life.