Last August I did some traveling to see art.
As an artist I was determined to learn everything I could about the watercolorist Charles Burchfield. My destination was Salem, Ohio to visit the home where Burchfield grew up and began his life as an artist.
Burchfield and Edward Hopper both exhibited their paintings in the Frank Rehn Gallery in New York City. Though their styles of painting differed dramatically they became friends and deeply respected each other. Hopper, who rarely had a good word about another artist, even wrote an effusive essay for a show catalogue of Burchfield’s work.
As I drove west from my Baltimore studio, figuring Burchfield would approve, I stopped in Pittsburgh to see the exhibition of Hopper’s work the Carnegie Museum of Art had mounted.
Once there I found myself falling into Hopper’s canvas Sailing from 1911, one of the standouts in the Carnegie. It’s a sloop on the Hudson River where Hopper grew up. It was included in the historic 1913 Amory Show and was the first painting Hopper ever sold. He would have to wait another 10 long years before selling another of his paintings.
I’ve always found the painting remarkable for the way Hopper’s boat surges with such energy. Any moment it will have sailed out of our view altogether. Hopper had some tricks up his sleeve to emphasize that sense of movement.
Here’s the painting where I have removed the small dark flag Hopper put at the top of his mainsail. Compare the two versions of the painting. To me the original boat moves across the canvas with so much more force. That small dark spot at the top seems to propel the light sails towards the left and the whole boat seems to heel more from its visual impact.
Hopper’s painting has an emotional power because he was drawing on a subject he knew well. He had spent much of his childhood on the water. As a teenager he even built a small sailboat himself, but was only able to use it once as it leaked so badly.
I also grew up around small boats. While the other boys in my middle school classes were filling the margins of their notebooks with their sketches of race cars I was obsessed with the challenge of drawing the difficult curves of sails and hulls. I’ve loved this Hopper oil since I first saw it years ago. Clearly it was in the back of my mind when I painted The Reach III below.
This painting was born from two sources: a vine charcoal drawing of the shoreline I made during one of my fifteen residencies at Edward Hopper’s studio on Cape Cod along with my memories of sailing at night with my father years ago on Lake Ontario.
Philip Koch attended Oberlin College where he intended to become a Sociology major but a required art history class diverted him down the artist’s path. After early years painting abstractions he was persuaded by Edward Hopper’s work to become a realist painter. Though Koch is the grandson of the inventor of the first commercially available color film (Kodachrome) he prefers to work only from memory and direct observation. He is a senior professor at MICA. www.philipkoch.org