Painting the Spirit of the Landscape

Erik Koeppel revives an American tradition
June 18, 2013 Updated: July 22, 2013

Last year, painter Erik Koeppel left New York City’s big art scene behind. He moved to a small town surrounded by the picturesque White Mountain National Forest. Yet far from disappearing from the art market’s radar, he is becoming better known as art lovers and collectors find their way to his secluded New Hampshire studio. 

This is a surprise to the young artist, who, in looking to the past for inspiration, took a bold step from the norm in today’s art world. 

Koeppel speaks in long, thoughtful sentences. He is a contemplative person, a thinker. He discusses the great thinkers in history, Plato and Socrates. He talks about the great artists of the past, the mastery of their art and the different ages they lived in. He speaks about the beauty and the level of their endeavors. 

To keep his mind clear and focused on painting in the style of the masters of the past, he limits his exposure to all the fast track media we are pummeled with daily. He does not watch TV. He limits his time on the computer. Painting comes first every day before other tasks are addressed. He is living in a wild place slowing down to the speed of nature, immersing himself in the rhythm and mood of the subject he paints. 

Rejecting ‘Contemporary Art’

The group Koeppel most identifies with in style and content is the Hudson River School. This group of landscape painters, active in the mid-19th century, had an aesthetic vision influenced by a romantic perspective of the American landscape; where humans and nature coexisted peacefully. 

As the American wilderness was being rapidly lost to settlement, Hudson River School artists set out to capture images of the remaining undeveloped lands. This group of artists believed that nature in all of its varied moods was a manifestation of God. They traveled and often painted in the Catskills, the Adirondack Mountains, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the wilderness of Maine.

Koeppel received a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2002. 

“At that school I butted heads a lot,” he said. “I found a lot of people who said that what I wanted to do was too nostalgic or sentimental for a time of art … that no longer represents our culture today.”

“I believe in God,” he said. “Our spiritual experience is predominately with nature—I think that it would be very easy to say that most of the greatest art that human beings have created deal with spiritual thinking. … Inevitably that search for truth is revealing of a unifying principle. Either the universe is just a swirling of atoms or there is an order in it, and that order is beautiful.” 

Koeppel went on to earn a MFA in 2004 at the New York Academy of Art and continued working in New York until 2011. During this period he participated in the Hudson River Fellowship, a summer program developed by American realist painter Jacob Collins, founder of New York City’s acclaimed Grand Central Academy, where he now serves as instructor. 

The fellowship requires hundreds of hours of careful study of nature in the field. The program intends to provide a transformative process for the artist that can help lead to a stronger connection to nature. 

Inside the Landscape

When on location, Koeppel closely observes the landscape, making drawings and notes of weather conditions and elements, which help him create small oil studies of cloud formations and mountain vistas. In his studio, these studies aid in the creation of larger paintings. 

His work is often shown in exhibitions along with the masterpieces of the Hudson River School. Koeppel labors hard and long at his craft, continually improving his skills. 

“As opposed to focusing on career and saying to myself, ‘I’m going to really do every thing I can to get my work out there’… I really focused on making the paintings I really wanted to make,” he said.

Beauty is at the core of Koeppel’s work. He paints tranquil, lazy summer days and raging thunderstorms with curtains of rain racing across the scene. The skies are expansive, the mountains are magnificent, and the light is soft and golden. 

“These visual objects have this power to affect us with the greatness of human potential and this knowledge that there is a higher sense of beauty out there that we can strive for,” he said.

“That’s what I wanted to make art about. And I think that those ideas are enduring and will continue to be as long as human beings continue to be what they are.”

Erik Koeppel shares Hudson River School painters’ working methods in a 9.5-hourlong teaching DVD that was released last year. Koeppel is also a winner in the recent Art Renewal Center International Salon Competition.

Mary Byrom is an artist working in New England.