Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Second Stay for Burchfield Penney Art Center Residency

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset:Cool
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

I'm just returned from another week at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, NY. This was my second stay as part of my being Artist-In-Residence there for this next year. It is a chance to do a lot of my own paintings all around Western New York State. This is the landscape where I was born and grew up- it's indelibly etched in my visual imagination. On a personal level it is deeply satisfying to me to paint here.

One of the places I'm painting is at Chestnut Ridge Park, south of Buffalo. It's a place that was an important source for Charles Burchfield's art. Above and below are two pastels I made about the vista there that looks north to Lake Erie.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset: Warm
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

Both are based on the vine charcoal drawing below that I made on location with my portable easel.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset
vine charcoal, 14 x 10 1/2", 2015

For many years I've adopted a method of working in a series - doing preparatory works in drawing media and in oil on a small scale before committing to creating a major painting. 

It takes time to let visual ideas percolate down to their essence and become clear in my mind's eye. Studying Burchfield's work during my last two stays at BPAC I realized that Burchfield devoted enormous energy to making preparatory drawings for his paintings.

While there I am slowly going through some of BPAC's extensive Archives. It contains an astonishing 20,000 Burchfield drawings. While some Burchfield paintings were rapidly painted and completed he often would take his time, working up to an idea very gradually. 

Here are two pieces that intrigued me. Both are very freely drawn studies he made as he was searching out how to present an idea in an upcoming painting. They're surprisingly large, about 15-18" across.

He took his time, circling around his idea sort of like a cat stalking its prey. Here he tries out two very different approaches to compose a gnarled tree and a small house- lighting the house first from the left above and then from the right in the drawing below. 

Whether these two particular drawings later led to one of his large watercolors I don't know. But they are telling evidence of his relentless searching for just the right forms to make his inner vision come to life. 

We see in Burchfield's paintings memorable spontaneity and the great trust he placed in his intuition to guide him.  Yet he made a veritable mountain of sketches and preparatory drawings. When he planted his ideas in a field it was only after he had waited until its soil was fully, and artfully, prepared.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Edward Hopper, French Impressionist?

Here's Edward Hopper's Pennsylvania Coal Town from the Butler Institute of American Art. I love the contrast of the deeply saturated yellow ocher house against the bright whites of the figure's sleeve. And the shadowy off-whites of the window curtains draw you in with a sense of mystery.

When people write about Hopper they so often turn to themes of emotional isolation and loneliness. They rarely talk about his color and his amazing gift for evoking the feeling of bright sunlight. Yet that's exactly what drew me to Hopper's work when I was starting out as a painter.

Hopper in his 20's went to live in Paris three times. He saw the work of the French Impressionists first hand. He liked what he saw- particularly the brilliance of the way they rendered sunlight with dazzling color. Above is a Hopper oil of Paris from 1907. It is a symphony of creamy yellows, whites and grays. 

One can't understand Hopper without giving his Impressionist-inspired love of light and color its due. What confuses people is that Hopper also loved solid volumes and crisp forms, while they think of French Impressionism as all buttery soft brushstrokes. Think late Monet like the famous waterlilies. 

But earlier in their careers the French Impressionists usually showed their fascination with light and color employing solid forms and crisp edges. That was the side of earlier Impressionism that Hopper picked up on and carried with him throughout his career.

Above is a photo I took during my last residency in Edward Hopper's studio in Truro, MA on Cape Cod. It is his painting room at the first light of dawn. Hopper designed the studio himself adding lots of windows all around. He used the place as a sort of observatory to study (and celebrate) the marvelous effects of  Cape Cod's light. 

Below is a painting I made standing in the studio's kitchen of the small table where Hopper and his wife Jo ate their lunch.   Hopper looked at this same sun-splashed wall daily, drinking in the chords of white contrasting the golds outdoors. One thing that helped me paint this painting was remembering standing in the Butler Institute and studying their Hopper Pennsylvania Coal Town. Hopper taught me how to see color.

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Kitchen, oil on panel, 12 x 16", 2014
part of After Hopper at Addison Art Gallery, Orleans, MA

Hopper wasn't a French Impressionist of course.  But underneath his hard edged severity was a man who generously offers up to us big helpings of extremely sensuous  color. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Burchfield Penney Residency Part III

Charles Burchfield, Early Spring Sunlight, watercolor, 1950
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY 

Later in July I'll be returning to the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, NY for my second stay as part of my Burchfield Residency at the museum.  

I'm well into my fourth decade of painting and I have a different style to my landscapes than Burchfield. But one of my strengths as an artist I feel has always been my willingness to learn from other artists. His work has been speaking to me for many years. What I'm finding is what he's telling me is something other than what I'd  anticipated. 

One of the first things I did at BPAC was to make a careful oil copy of the left hand section of Burchfield's watercolor Early Spring Sunlight that the museum brought out from their Permanent Collection. 

I wanted to make the copy to get some new ideas from of Burchfield's color choices, hoping to add to my usual color mixtures. Doing the copy reminded me how much I love the feel of bare branches disappearing up into the sky. My paintings of the last decade have tended towards solid masses of foliage shaped into clear silhouettes. I was reminded of something I've been missing and want to get back to.

 My oil copy of the left section of Charles Burchfield's
watercolor Early Spring Sunlight

The other major impression from my first BPAC visit came more from the hours I spent in the museum's extensive Archives. I poured over numerous pages of his handwritten journals and hundreds of his drawings. Looking through all this you start feeling Burchfield seemed to save everything. To carefully organize one's work and preserve it doesn't happen all by itself. It is a testament to the incredibly high value he placed on his past experiences. I think that's the big lesson I'm getting from Burchfield.

Returning from BPAC with all this in mind I was struck by an earlier painting of mine from a couple of decades ago. I dove into repainting it. I'm very happy with the results.

Philip Koch, High Trees, oil on panel, 28 x 21", 2015

I had intended to do all new work based on the studies I created while in Buffalo. And I will. But Burchfield's message to me was instead to look backward and see if I hadn't been in too much of a hurry to close the book on an earlier chapter of my life.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Burchfield Penney Residency Part II

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Earlier this month I was at the Burchfield Penney Art Center for my first visit as the Art Center's Artist In Residence. One of my goals with the Residency is to study the working process of Charles Burchfield, an artist I deeply admire, to nourish my own working methods with my paintings. 

BPAC is a treasure house of Burchfield's drawings. Tullis Johnson, Curator and Manager of BPAC's Burchfield Archives, kindly pulled out for me volumes of Burchfield's drawings to examine. It was amazing to cradle his drawings in my hands (I did wear cotton gloves).

Burchfield drew in widely contrasting styles. Most of the drawings I'm reproducing here are his tremendously impressive finished nature studies. Their delicacy and sureness of form made me think of Leonardo da Vinci.  

But most of his drawings were gesture studies- drawings made rapidly more with his whole arm than with just wrist and fingers.  Often I'd encounter four or five sheets of paper each with only a handful of lines coursing across his page.

First and foremost he was an artist who  expressed movement. For him the earth is full of living things- plants, clouds, and even his rocks and buildings seem to move, sigh and breath. That he could make movement so credible stems in large part from how he began his pieces- starting not with detail but with the most sweeping gesture of his arm across the page. 

Here's a perfect example below of his gestural style that I'm talking about. 

Charles Burchfield, conte compositional  study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield loved going back into older watercolors and expanding them by attaching additional panels. Here is a giant newsprint study (about 4' on a side) he made by placing it around his earlier watercolor and experimenting by adding gesturing shapes into the expanded new territory. 

We can see above that his first marks are tentative, he is feeling his way forward. Once satisfied he was heading in a good new direction he would proceed to attach substantial watercolor paper around the small original and start painting. One usually thinks of preparatory drawings for paintings as something the Old Masters did. Here's a modern master doing it too.

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield liked to draw with black conte (a chalk with a little bit of oil in it that keeps it from smearing too much on the paper) on newsprint paper. Typical on many of his drawings are the short notes he wrote to himself often recording colors he wanted to remember or a design idea he needed to reinforce.

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

I left my first week of the BPAC Residency with renewed appreciation for the act of drawing in the work of any painter. Interestingly in the last 20 years my own oil paintings have been based on carefully composed preparatory drawings. Doing them I'd always felt a little out of step with most contemporary artists who are more likely to just jump right in with their paintings.
I'm inspired by Burchfield's example. He makes me feel less alone.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Part I

Several months ago Scott Propeack, the Associate Director and Chief Curator of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York invited me to be the second Artist in Residence at the Art Center for the next year. I'm just returned from the first of what will be a half dozen visits to the museum between now and summer of 2016. 

In my opinion, Charles Burchfield is one of the best painters of the 20th century. Burchfield has been one of the main influences on my own paintings of the natural world. I'm honored to be given this  opportunity by the Burchfield Penney Art Center. 

As an artist I've a keen awareness that none of us is alone in our studios- rather through our work we're engaging in a conversation with key artists who have gone before us. Painting after all is a language. By studying those who spoke it exceptionally well, I know I can learn to tell my own story better. Burchfield's work is different in many ways from mine, yet I feel strongly the two of us are chewing on the same bone.

BPAC is something of a unique museum. In addition to having by far the largest collection of artwork by the internationally known watercolorist Burchfield, it also has a mission of exhibiting, documenting, and collecting the art of Western New York State. 

I was born and grew up in nearby Rochester where my parents had build a home right on the shore of Lake Ontario.  That chapter of my life, spent in the hilly and heavily forested lake shore left an indelible impact on my imagination. I didn't take up art until I left for college in Ohio. Ironically until starting the Burchfield Residency last week I'd never painted from the landscape that had made such a big impression on me as a youth.

In addition to painting on location in some of the same parts of the landscape where Burchfield worked, I'll be studying some of the thousands of examples of Burchfield's work in the museum's Permanent Collection and in its exhibitions (like the delightful  current show, A Resounding Roarthat traces the influence of sound on Burchfield's painting, organized by BPAC's Curator and Manager of Archives, Tullis Johnson).

I will spend time reading from Burchfield's voluminous personal journals and get to know first hand Burchfield's much less known work in the medium of drawing.

A conte on newsprint drawing by Burchfield from the
Burchfield Penney's Permanent Collection

Despite a threatening monsoon the evening I arrived (which I realized Burchfield would have loved) the weather cooperated beautifully. I worked out on location five days in a row and got a whole number of drawings and paintings started. Tullis Johnson had urged me to drive south from the city to Chestnut Ridge Park that sits on a glacial line of hills. In addition to miles of trails through the woods it afforded a striking panorama looking north to Lake Erie. I was captivated and did four different views of it.

Here I am starting to work on the above drawing and painting.

One of my key goals was to soak up the special character of the Northern landscape that had fired up Burchfield's visual imagination. As well I'm intrigued with the idea of studying Burchfield's painting methods more closely, especially with an eye towards how he used his patterns of dark and light and his personal color sense. I'll have more to say about this in my next blog post.

While at the museum I was able to use their first floor classroom as a painting studio for five days.  Here is a photo above I took at the end of my fifth day of working. I think you can tell by the number of pieces I produced I was excited to be starting.  

At the end of my first week of the Residency my head was full of new ideas and I am charged up with new energy. I'll have a lot to chew on in my next weeks back in my Baltimore studio. 

I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to the staff of the museum for being so generous with their time and  sharing with me their special insights into the work of one of America's best painters. I have a feeling this next year of working at the Burchfield Penney will be one of the most valuable of my life as an artist.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Koch Hopper Paitings to Addison Art Gallery

Philip Koch, Rooms by the Sea III, oil on panel,  8 2/3 x 13", 2014

Last week I sent three of my oils up to Addison Art Gallery in Orleans, MA on Cape Cod. They will be shown as part of the Gallery's two year long After Hopper project in conjunction with the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis, MA. 

Edward Hopper (with Jo Hopper in the background)
sitting in front of the Truro studio in a photo by Arnold Newman

In 1983 I began a long series of residencies in Edward Hopper's studio. He chose to build it high on the ridge of a sand dune overlooking Cape Cod Bay in S. Truro. The artist had scouted out the location in 1930 during his first extended stay on Cape Cod. He even lovingly painted the site that would later be home to his studio in his 1930 oil Hills, South Truro  pictured below (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art). It suited the reclusive Hopper perfectly as back then the Cape was a far lonelier place. 

My painting Rooms by the Sea III was painted on location in the large painting room Hopper reserved for himself ( he made his wife Jo, also an artist, paint in the small bedroom and kitchen).  The view is of the doorway leading to his bedroom on the left and on the right his Dutch door leading out towards the Bay. This is the same corner of his painting room that inspired his famous oil Rooms by the Sea shown below (now in the art museum at Yale).

The following oil was made looking through the other doorway into the bedroom- I had set up my easel in the kitchen and decided to focus on the wonderful rhythms of the three open doors. The light in the bedroom floods in from Hopper's huge painting room.

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Bedroom, Truro, MA, oil on
panel, 10 x 5", 2011

The most recent of the three oils at Addison Art Gallery is this oil below painted with my easel set up in the room where Hopper slept half of each year for 3 decades. It shows the two doors pictured in the background of the above painting seen from a different angle. 

In the distance at the right is the easel Hopper used. It's an ordinary wooden easel like one can buy today from any art supply store.  Its ordinariness belies the amazing work that was created on it. At the left is the view out the bedroom window that greeted Hopper each morning when he woke up.

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Bedroom & Easel,  oil on panel
7 x 10 1/2", 2015

I am often asked what I've discovered about Hopper by staying and working in his studio 15 separate times over the years. More than anything I've been struck by the unpretentious beauty of the studio and the sweeping views it afforded Hopper. Yet Hopper did almost no paintings of either the impressive immediate surroundings or of the studio itself. Instead he was committed to searching out subjects at a distance from the studio. He drove around the outer Cape a lot, always on high alert for just the right material to express his deep inner feeling. One reason Hopper painted so well was he kept looking longer, searching with a remarkably sharpened selectivity

Here's a photo my wife Alice snapped of me walking up the winding path that leads up to the studio from the beach far below. The path was made by Edward and Jo Hopper picking their way down the steep sides of their sand dune to reach the shore. All these years later Edward and Jo are gone, but the path remains.

Save the Date: 
Philip Koch talk at the Cape Cod Museum of Art

On Thursday, Sept. 3 I'll be giving a slide talk on Hopper's life on Cape Cod and my residencies in the Hopper studio. Here is a link for more information- http://www.addisonart.com/event/after-hopper-philip-koch-slide-talk/

Sunday, May 10, 2015

If Watercolor Doesn't Kill You It Will Make You Stronger, Part III: Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield drawing out of doors in the winter near Buffalo, NY
(All these images are courtesy the Burchfield Penney Art Center,  Buffalo, NY).

Last week I was the featured speaker at the Baltimore Watercolor Society's Annual Dinner. We had a great audience of 80 some people. I showed watercolors by Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper (OK, no surprise there) and Charles Burchfield. 

I saved Burchfield for last as I suspected he was the least well known of the three.  Several people approached me after the talk to say they'd never seen Burchfield's work before and wanted to know where to go to see more. (I recommend the Burchfield Penney Art Center's website which is where I obtained these images).

Deserted Miner's Home, 1918 Burchfield Penney Art Center

In his spooky Deserted Miner's Home the house and barn seem to almost scream out at us through gaping mouths. Yet nearly nightmarish drama is counter posed to an almost monochrome restraint throughout the rest of the painting. Burchfield is almost always like this- offering us something nearly over the top in each painting but always stopping just short of overdoing it. He is a master of balancing the conflicting needs for drama and for stability and making things plausible.

Charles Burchfield, Marshy Meadows, 1916,  Burchfield Penney Art Center

Burchfield's Marshy Meadows radically shifts gears between a spring-like green valley and a far distant hillside whose color palette belongs more to January. I think it's his skill in repeating the same rhythms with his brush through the whole painting that makes you accept his impossible color fantasy.

His watercolor Sleet Storm below is typically for Burchfield chock full of rooftops, snowdrifts and seemingly innumerable little branches. There is a constant artful adjustment going on through the painting as the artist kept changing the color of his trees, from black trunks, to a whole range of mid grey to white little branches. Think how overloaded the painting would have felt if he'd stayed with all dark tones for the trees. Once again, elegant restraint.

Charles Burchfield, Sleet Storm, 1920Burchfield Penney Art Center

Here's a totally wild painting from later in Burchfield's life.

Charles Burchfield, Wind Blown Asters, 1951, Burchfield
Penney Art Center

Populating his foreground are the most fantastical assortment of blossoms, butterfly wings and profoundly strange eye-like calligraphy at the left. It seems almost a menagerie.

But behind all this chaos a much more peaceful middle ground space restores peace to the picture. And the far distance is an expanse of unruffled smooth washes. In many ways spatially it's a very traditional panorama, but with Burchfield's signature imagination in full swing.

Unlike most watercolorists, Burchfield preferred to work in the studio with his paintings held vertically on an easel instead of laying them down nearly horizontal. When one sees his work in person one is struck that he mostly used a well-loaded brush to accomplish big free-flowing strokes. Curiously he almost never has accidental drips of color falling across his paintings. He had his brush handling down pat.

Below is an unfinished piece by the artist where he cut an earlier painting in half and was in the process of adding an additional panel to it at the left.

Charles Burchfield, Easter Morning in the Wood, Right Side,
Burchfield Penny Art Center

In the artist's day watercolors were modestly scaled things- rarely over 20" or so in width. Burchfield changed that. He loved nothing better than revisiting earlier watercolors by fixing adjoining sheets of paper to them, expanding their scale sometimes to the 40" or even 60". 

A consummate craftsman, he developed a technique of using a mat cutting tool to cut diagonal beveled edges on his sheets of watercolor paper so they could smoothly lie over and under each other. You have to stand very close to one of his watercolors to see just where these seams are.