Monday, October 13, 2014

Painting in the White Mountains - Field Report

View of Crawford Notch from our base at the AMC Highland Center
The White Mountains, arguably the east coast's most "sublime and picturesque" terrain, have never ceased to fascinate lovers of the outdoors. So it makes sense that some of nature's most rapt admirers - landscape painters - are coming back as they once did to explore the Whites in their art.

The AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch.
A couple of weeks ago, six men and women joined me for a three-day beginners-welcome workshop at the AMC Highland Center, a wonderful, hotel-like lodge at the base of Crawford Notch in the White Mountain National Forest. . From Sunday till Tuesday all we did was get up in the morning, have an all-you-can-eat breakfast, and walk out the door, set up, and start painting. There were easy hikes to elevated viewpoints and a van at our disposal to take us anywhere in the Whites, but who needs them when everywhere you look there's a painting to be made? We'd break for lunch, paint until 4, and then we'd all meet at 6 for the gourmet dinners served family style complete with beer, wine, and freshly baked bread. 

Painting at the edge of Saco Lake, across the street from the Highland Center.

After dinner the first night I gave a slide talk on the history of White Mountain painting. The next day we painted from a different side of the lodge and that evening we watched Brush and Pen, Artists and Writers of the White Mountains, a documentary on White Mountain history, art, and literature.

The inaugural AMC Highland Center Crawford Notch Artist in Residency was an unqualified success. In a wonderful circularity, two of the participants in the first revival of the Crawford Notch residency - Lisa Shapliegh-Koepke and her mother Elizabeth - were actually descendants of the same Shapleigh family as was the site's original artist-in-residence Frank Henry Shapleigh. 

Frank Henry Shapleigh

Frank Henry Shapleigh's restored 19th century studio building, part of the Highland Center.

Frank Shapleigh was artist-in-residence for 16 years from 1877-1893 at the Crawford House, one of the grandest of the grand hotels, the abandoned hulk of which burned to the ground in 1977. 

Early engraving of the original Crawford House

The Crawford House in its heyday.

Crawford House in 1977, the summer before the fire.

At the age of 86, Elizabeth was an inspiration to us - despite using a walker to get around, she wasn't held back at all and painted with us in all of the locations (it's that easy to find spectacular scenery to paint within easy walking distance of the lodge).

The unstoppable Elizabeth Shapleigh (age 86).

My rendering of the gate of the Notch from Saco Lake.
On Tuesday afternoon, after the official close of the workshop, I hiked up 2,864' Mount Willard (the trailhead is right there). I invited folks from the workshop to join me and three took me up on it. I brought my paint kit so I could sketch the same view that Shapleigh famously painted.

Shapleigh's view from Mount Willard

My photo from roughly the same spot as Shapleigh's painting.

 The view was unbelievable and more than worth the effort of the hike, which wasn't all that bad actually, even with a 30-pound paint kit on my back. The sketch doesn't look like much, but it's got the information I need to build a study and then I can work from there on something larger.

My sketch of the valley of the Notch.

I was fascinated by this peak, and I still want to paint it.

This was nearby but we didn't end up painting it. Next time!
Burning Off, an 8" x 10" I painted from outside the Highland Center

I'm hoping the AMC Crawford Notch residency will become an institution of American plein air painting. The idea is to invite artists from all over the country - plein air painters, mostly - to spend a week in residence at the Highland Center. Each artist will conduct a painting workshop for a set portion of the week and is also encouraged to present an evening program, a talk or presentation, of some kind.

A White Mountain landscape, c. 2013, by contemporary painter Eric Koeppel. 

I think it's great that plein air painting is surging in popularity. The secret is out: oil painting is no longer the difficult, smelly, esoteric, highly specialized art it once seemed. With terabytes of free how-to videos and web texts online, getting started and learning the basics is the easiest it's ever been in the history of the world. It is only a matter of time before the rich history of American landscape painting again becomes common knowledge.

Who knows but a new era of White Mountain painting may even now be on its way?

THE CREW: (L-R) Volpe,  Carrie Masci, Ann Marie Corbett, Lisa Koepke, Elizabeth Shapleigh, Catherine Bickford, David Kimball

Monday, September 22, 2014

The White Mountains, Beautiful & Sublime

Early impressions of the majesty and drama of New Hampshire's White Mountains and the Catskills fired up artists' and the public's imagination and set American painting on its feet.

Thomas Doughty and Alvan Fisher were early artists to find beauty and majestic power the Whites.

Alvan Fisher, Crawford Notch, c. 1820s

Alvan Fisher, The Gate of the Notch from the House of Thomas Crawford

Alvan Fisher, Elephant's Head, Crawford Notch

Thomas Doughty, A Lake in the White Mountains

New York's Hudson River Valley was more accessible in the early 1800s, but a young Thomas Cole, a transplanted British-born landscape painter steeped in European Romanticism, was on the lookout for something more "sublime" than could be found in the picturesque Catskills. He got it in the form of a massive mudslide that wiped out the only settler family in Crawford Notch in 1826. 

Most of the nineteenth century art world thought of beauty in terms of three categories, the pastoral, the picturesque, and the sublime. The first two were about "pleasing the eye" and representing humanity in harmony with nature as a source of spiritual sustenance.

Thomas Cole, Catskill Creek, 1845

Claude Lorraine, Landscape with Merchants, c. 1650
Cole in the 1800s, as you can see from comparing the two paintings above, often repeated a European formula for landscape painting laid down by Claude Lorraine in the mid 1600s. Many of Claude's paintings are "pastoral" because they depict idealized scenes of classical rural life - shepherds, nymphs, pagan temples and benign characters from Romand and Greek literature. Cole painted "picturesquely" throughout his career. The Cole above is "picturesque" because of the bucolic, pleasing aspects of nature he presents in a harmonious way.)

The last of the three categories of natural beauty, the sublime, as articulated by English philosopher Edmund Burke, refers to the thrill and danger of confronting untamed Nature and its overwhelming forces such as thunderstorms, deep chasms, glacial rivers and voids - anything that reminds us that humanity is not in control.

The European Sublime: Salvator Rosa's 17th century depiction of a hermit in the wilderness.

The infamous landslide disaster that befell the Willey family was national news (at the time "national" meant pretty much the east coast to the Mississippi). It had spooky overtones too - although the family evacuated the homestead to shelter in a smaller structure, the thundering avalanche of rocks, trees, and tons of heavy earth hit a boulder in back of the house and split into two streams, leaving the Willey house untouched, only to flow together again and obliterate the shelter and the nine people within it. A Bible was found open at the table in the empty house, where the patriarch must have been reading aloud from Psalm 18: 

"The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice, hail stones and coals of fire... the foundation of the earth was [laid bare] in thy rebuke, Oh God."s

As a motif of the New World Sublime it was tailor made, and Cole came up to sketch the site as soon as he could. Europe had classical ruins, abandoned medieval abbeys and other emblems of humanity's smallness in the face of time and natural law, but America was too new for that kind of mythology. What it did have though was wilderness. Cole's depictions of the White Mountains wilderness, complete with symbolic summits and dead trees dwarfing tiny emblems of humanity, were a sensation. 
Thos. Cole, Autumn Landscape, Mount Chocorua, NH, 1828
On arriving at the location, Cole wrote the following: We now entered the Notch, and felt awestruck as we passed between the bare and rifted mountains. . . . The site of the Willie [sic] House standing with a little patch of green in the midst [of] the dread wilderness of desolation called to mind the horrors of that night. . . when these mountains were deluged and rocks and trees were hurled from their high places down the steep channelled sides of the mountains. . . .

Ten years later, his famous A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (1839) depicts the hotel that was built on the site two years after the slide.

Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839 
Here Cole has harmoniously married the beautiful and the terrible, the peaceful and the threatening, as evidenced most clearly in the two skies, one calm, the other stormy, and the inclusion of both hand-hewn tree stumps and naturally broken trees. 

Here's another example of White Mountain paintings that touches upon the sublime.

Jasper Cropsey, An Indian Summer Morning in the White Mountains, 1857
Blending to varying degrees the sublime and the picturesque in single paintings, Cole would become the father of the style of painting that would later be called the Hudson River School; the nation's top landscapists and many others followed to discover and sketch on many other painting sites in the Whites.

William Trost Richards, View in the White Mountains, 1866

John Frederick Kensett, A Reminiscence of the White Mountains

John Frederick Kensett, An October Day in the White Mountains, 1854

Close to 200 years later, the White Mountains still offer artists a sense of the primeval and the vast. Here in Eric Aho's 2008 "Blasted Tree" we get a contemporary painter's interpretation of the wilderness of the north, even down to the broken tree that here takes a central role.

Eric Aho, Blasted Tree, 50" x 70," oil on linen, 2008

White Mountain Workshop

I'll be teaching a three-day plein air workshop in the White Mountains, not far from the site of the Willey disaster in Crawford's Notch next week (Sunday - Wednesday, Sept 28-30). Want to come? You can register here.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Notes, Redux

Art can change your life
I'm convinced: that nagging feeling is correct - the one that tells you, "This can't be all there is."

Art is proof. It's a concrete portal to a renewed sense of real life, the promise of experiencing yourself and the life around you in a more authentic way. The problem is, in reality YOU are the portal, and art, like everything else, only reflects back what you bring to it. So what, exactly, is “real?”

Christopher Volpe, View from Laudholm Farm, York, ME

My practice tends to swing between abstraction and representation, which, unfortunately, are are often the terms in which I think of my work. Because every now and then I wake up and realize that it doesn't really matter - in reality, a painting is worthy (or not) for reasons other than style, technique, or artistic approach.

JMW Turner, Off Margate, c. 1850

The exhibition Turner and the Sea (which closed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts on Sept. 1) demonstrated to me (among other things), that contrary to the Modernist's battle cry, a great artist need not reject or shatter conventions to create lasting works of genius.

I think what's needed for truly good work is the determination to combine inherited conventions with personal vision but to put that vision first - to make technique subservient to a moment of authentically felt heightened emotional perception. In practice this means to use all the art you possess to serve a preexisting sensation rather than to dress up a conventional landscape with personal touches - to begin with the feeling, totally unsure of anything else, letting go of the question of whether or not you are about to make a good painting. This is my new plein-air rallying cry.

Christopher Volpe, Provincetown, Late August

I realize that the unspoken assumption behind these ideas is that the quality of a work of art depends as much on the depth and quality of the artist's self development (as a person) as upon his or her "talent," training, or technique (a trap for artists at any stage). 

But if this is true, the resulting work becomes more than just a picture; it becomes a reminder that options are open and that much more is possible.

Cezanne, Still Life with Apples

Fortunately or unfortunately, it ONLY becomes real in the process of painting! Despite such promises of transcendence, working out an artistic practice in your head is like wrestling with ghosts.

So you paint for the sake of painting, waiting for the magic. Maybe the more often the magic comes, the easier it becomes to summon it (one can hope!). 

Quite recently, I've been able, for brief interludes, to stop overthinking it and just keep painting. It's like sleepwalking - even if, inevitably (as Billy Joel says), you wake up with yourself.

Christopher Volpe, Summer, Rocky Pond

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Notes to Myself

The artist's job is to discover and cultivate an authentic relationship between self and nature (nature = "everything else").

Art INVENTS: spontaneity, discovery, creation.

Gustav Klimt, The Park

You can’t control what people think about your work, so stop trying to.

JMW Turner, Cilgerran Castle, Pembrokeshire

Q: "Are you a musician or do you just play the piano?" 

A: All you can do is play the piano until the day comes when, as you're watching your hands in motion, you look up and say, "Wow, I can really play the piano."

Sketch by Picasso (making friends with a sphinx?)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Notes On Technique


Technique is JUST technique. 

My favorite painting by Ad Reinhardt
Sometimes without realizing it, when the public admires a work of art, what they are admiring is the artist’s technique, not what the artist had to say or meant for them to grasp. To be fair, conversely quite a few artists without realizing it mistake mastering a technique for having something to say (I know because I myself have been guilty of this in the past).

Tiffany by Sarolla
The task of the artist is to find himself and to invent a special language for his personal expression. As Robert Henri taught, to “work both mind and body to the limit of endurance to find in himself whatever there is of value, to find his truest thoughts and find a means, the simplest, straightest, the most fit means to make record of them.”

A Glass of Water (2000) by Alex Kanevskey

The end of painting is “to express what you care for most by the simplest means that will avail you - your personality, your knowledge, your experience; whether you do it in work that takes years, or whether you do it, like Caran d’Ache, in the line of a few seconds.” - John La Farge. 
It seems that what’s most important in painting is the felt idea - a “vision” or strongly held conception will find or invent the technique needed for its expression. 

A still life by Susan J. Walp 
“The man who has something very definite to say and tries to force the medium to say it will learn how to draw.”  -Robert Henri

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive. Instead of establishing a vast stock of technical tricks, it would be far wiser to develop creative power …. by developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or the emotion which has moved you to expression.” -Robert Henri

Outdoor cafe at night by Robert Henri
“The real study of technique is not the acquirement of a vast stock of pat phrases, but rather the avoidance of such, and the creation of a phrase special to the idea. To accomplish this, one must first have the idea and then the active, inventive wit to make the specifying phrase. This places the idea prior to the technique as a cause for the latter, contrary to the academic idea, which is the reverse.”

Landscape sketch by Degas

“Those meek students, plodding away, afraid to use their intelligence lest they make mistakes, have a faith that after so much virtuous humble tint and line copying, years of it, the gift of imagination, the power to say things the world is in need of hearing for profit or pleasure and the special management of the medium, will be handed to them as a diploma is handed to a graduate.”- Robert Henri

All great artists invent their own technique anyway. They “find” the means, invent the techniques, that we later misguidedly canonize and take for the necessary “first things first” that must be learned before one can do anything meaningful in art. I think this is precisely not the case, and that it is actually fear of not possessing these techniques (that is, of making a “bad” picture or of being found to be “untalented”) which cripples the beginners’ ability to make successful paintings. 

Irish Coast by Robert Henri
“The man who becomes a master starts out by being master of such as he has, and the man who is master at any time of such as he has is at that time straining every faculty. What he leans then from his experience is fundamental, constructive, to the point. His wits are being used and are being formed into the habit of usage.” - Robert Henri

If this is true, then the good news is that, if could only get out of our own way, we already possess exactly those techniques needed to create our art - and I mean real art of lasting value. Do you think so? Or is this going too far?

Landscape by Cezanne
“Your ability to see is your tools of trade… Remember, when you hear people say they can see a thing but not do it that they cannot really see it. If they did, they could do it even if they put the paint on with their fingers.” - Charles Hawthorne