Oil Painting: David Koch: Using Photoshop to Create Ageless Paintings

11 Aug 2008

Koch Blue Bonnet oilUtah artist David Koch likes to bring elements of his state’s pioneer past into his computer-aided compositions.

by Linda S. Price

Koch Crossing The Sweetwater oil
Crossing The Sweetwater
2002, oil on linen,
55 x 44. Collection
Walt and Katie Gasser.

Until David Koch won a competition to paint two 8'-x-10' murals for The House of Representatives Chambers in the Utah State Capitol building, the largest canvas he’d ever worked on was 40" x 60". “I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was not much different than painting a 16"-x-20" canvas,” he says. “I just used bigger brushes and more paint.” For the competition, the legislature chose the subjects to be depicted—both scenes from the state’s history—and gave the artists a month to come up with the concepts and sketches. Koch thoroughly researched the topics and posed models in costume to recreate the events, which he claims gave him the competitive edge. Then he worked with digital images and Photoshop to develop the final composition.

After stretching the large canvas on a custom-made frame, the artist laid out a grid and carefully drew from the Photoshop image. Once the drawing was complete, the artist started painting in one spot and worked outward, using his 24"-x-30" oil sketches, rather than the computer image, for color reference. In total, the project took about five months, with a few interspersed breaks to provide paintings to keep his galleries happy.

The artist admits that he probably put in more details than were necessary, especially for two murals destined to hang 30 feet above the chamber. But he realized the scenes would be viewed by generations of legislators, and he wanted his paintings, to be not only decorative but also inspiring, uplifting, and motivating for the lawmakers. In fact, Koch often includes symbolic meaning in his work and does many religious paintings as well as what he calls “pioneer pieces,” which depict scenes of the Mormon migration. The artist is currently working on a scene of a wagon train with a towering thundercloud bearing down. Besides providing a dramatic contrast between light and dark, the artist says the scene echoes the story in the book of Exodus, where a pillar of a cloud leads the Israelites out of captivity and toward the Promised Land.

Koch Hope Shining Brightly oil
Hope Shining Brightly
2006, oil on linen,
40 x 30. Collection Corey and Lisa Willis.

Koch also paints portraits with a historical context, and many of his portrait commissions are of children. “If I paint them in jeans and T-shirts the portrait becomes dated,” he explains. “If I can introduce a costume from the past, it becomes timeless.” Most clients come to him with a preconceived idea of the portrait they want, usually a superficial one. However, as he talks to them, he discovers what elements he can interject into the portrait to give it deeper personal meaning, even if it is only a subtly suggested background location. “I want people to say, ‘That’s a great piece of art’ rather than, ‘That’s a great portrait,’” he says.

Time constraints make working from photographs a necessity for the artist, but he explains that he’s painted enough from life that he can compensate for the deficiencies of photographs, such as the shadows that are too dark, the light areas that are blown out and don’t provide enough detail, and the midtones—actually the richest in color—that appear dead. Aware that the camera can’t record all the subtle color variations the eye sees, Koch occasionally paints from a black-and-white image and pushes the colors in the desired direction. The artist also takes digital photos that he then manipulates with Photoshop, and he’s enthusiastic about the program, particularly from the standpoint of composition. “It speeds up the process,” he says. “I can look at 10 different options quickly, combine images, move them around, and tweak them until the composition is right. As a result, my compositions are better.” It also allows him to show his clients the exact composition they will be getting in their portraits. The artist paints from the image on his laptop computer screen so he is able to zoom in and see details. Because he devotes so much time to making certain his composition is right, Koch alters little on his canvas. If the scene is complex, he may grid the canvas. When he’s doing a commissioned portrait, achieving a likeness is essential, so he spends more time in the drawing phase. The drawing on the canvas may be done with graphite, charcoal, or thin paint.

Koch Silver Reef oil
Silver Reef
2007, oil on linen,
30 x 60. Collection State Branch of Southern Utah (Hurricane Bank).

Although most of Koch’s portraits are done from photographs, many of the artist’s landscapes are done en plein air. Even when creating larger studio paintings, he works from on-site sketches as well as photos. Then, instead of using a computer, he usually creates his composition with thumbnail sketches, starting with a few key directional lines. Even though he uses photos for reference, he’s careful to compensate for their shortcomings and not get hung up on details. “I like to paint as loosely as I can and still have it read,” he explains. Koch also paints still lifes, which he sets up in his studio. “Painting from life is the best teacher, and it’s hard to beat the lessons learned by painting a small, simple still life,” he says.

The artist paints alla prima, explaining that he likes to put the paint on thick and push it around. “I want to see immediate results,” he explains. “That’s what excites me. Maybe that’s why I don’t glaze lots of layers—because I don’t have the patience.” Although at times Koch will block in an entire painting to determine how dark or light he can go with the piece, most frequently he begins by completing the focal point and establishing the lightest lights and darkest darks.

Koch Blue Bonnet oil
Blue Bonnet
2004, oil on linen,
12 x 9. Collection Brian and Jana Watts.

Koch teaches two workshops a year in which he incorporates what he calls those “a-ha!” moments of discovery from his own artistic experience. His basic concept is simple: The key elements of good art are shape, color, and edges, and each of these concepts contains subcategories. Under “shape” are such categories as composition—defined as the unequal distribution of shapes—and drawing—the accurate placement of the correct shapes. Value and temperature are two examples of the subcategories under “color,” and Koch points out that in almost all cases, value is more important than color. Edges, he says, may seem like a small thing, but they are what make your painting come together and read as a whole. He goes on to explain that it’s the variety in these elements—shapes, edges, textures, and value—that provides the spark that makes a painting exciting. Color, however, is different because if there is too much color variety in a painting it becomes a hodgepodge that doesn’t hold together. “My preference is to have a painting go predominantly in one color direction,” he says. “Otherwise it’s too broken up.”

The artist’s palette is fairly simple and consists of titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange yellow, cadmium red light, Venetian red, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, sap green, burnt umber, and raw sienna. All are either from Utrecht or Vasari Classic Artists’ Oil Colors. His paintings tend toward the earth tones, and he grays down his colors by using complements. For instance, he puts red in his greens—Venetian red and raw sienna added to sap green—to neutralize them. This means that even a slight shift can, by contrast, make the colors sing. The only time Koch uses any medium is when the paint on his palette gets too stiff, then he adds paint thinner or Liquin. He likes to paint on oil-primed linen, preferably double primed, because it is less absorbent than latex-primed canvas. Although he does use various surface textures, most of his work is done on smooth, tighter-toothed surfaces. He prefers flat bristle brushes, which help give his style its angular feel, and he frequently uses painting knives to exploit thick versus thin paint application, a technique that helps achieve the variety that provides interest and dimension to the painting.

Koch By Small and Simple Things oil Koch Paper Boxes and Bits of String oil
By Small and Simple Things...
2006, oil on linen,
28 x 30. Collection Jon and Shauna Robertson.
Paper Boxes and Bits of String
2001, oil on linen,
30 x 24. Collection Margaret Barton.

In summing up his feelings on creating art, Koch says, “I believe that artists are made, not born. Granted, it comes easier to some people than others. But, if you practice, you will improve. All the elements of good painting are possible to learn. But I hate to give hard-and-fast rules because some artist will come along, break them, and do it marvelously.”

About the Artist
David Koch always enjoyed art-related subjects in school but didn’t realize being an artist was a legitimate profession. It wasn’t until his second year at Utah State University, in Logan, that he took an art class for fun and it dawned on him that art offered a career path. He enrolled in the university’s illustration program, although after graduation he went into the graphic- design field. Believing it would allow him more time to pursue his own painting, Koch eventually turned to freelancing, which resulted in even longer hours. After a few years, and with some local galleries selling his art fairly regularly, he took the plunge and devoted himself to fine art full time. Even though he admits there are still some financially difficult times, he claims he can’t imagine doing anything else with his life. “It’s a privilege to pursue something I have a passion for as a career,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like work, although there is lots of hard work involved.” Koch is a member of Plein Air Painters of Utah and is represented by the Kneeland Gallery, in Ketchum, Idaho; The Mission Gallery, in St. George, Utah; Apple Frame Gallery, in Bountiful, Utah; and Williams Fine Art, in Salt Lake City. For more information on the artist, visit his website at www.davidkochartist.com.

Linda S. Price is an artist, writer, and editor living on Long Island, New York.


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