Charles Burchfield's watercolor November Sun Emerging
Regular readers of this blog know of my interest (some would say obsession) with the work of the American watercolorist Charles Burchfield. This morning I awoke from a dream I had about the famous Western New York painter. I was showing some friends the studio Burchfield had used. Unlike his actual studio, the walls were gleaming white and were covered with subtle and distinctive abstract leaf designs (appropriate as before his painting career took off, Burchfield worked for years designing wall paper at a firm in Buffalo, NY).
We were seeking the special inner room where Burchfield made his paintings. We moved through a series of hallways that became progressively more narrow. I realized was going to have to crawl through a space so tight that I feared I would get stuck. Maybe Burchfield could fit through that space, but clearly I couldn't.
What a metaphor. It was saying I think you can love Burchfield's work, study it and learn from it, but you can't in the end successfully enter Burchfield's inner sanctum or be just like him.
Burchfield himself spoke highly of some of the teachers he had studying under at what is now the Cleveland Institute of Art (that I myself briefly attended). Yet Burchfield while learning much from his teachers valued his own personal experience so highly that his paintings bore the indelible stamp of his own personality.
Edward Hopper, Gas, oil on canvas
Burchfield's friend, Edward Hopper, was an enormous inspiration to me as a yound painter. Seeing his work made me change from painting abstractions to working as a realist. For many years I made paintings of the kind of houses I thought Hopper would have like to paint. To this day I am extremely proud of that more Hopper-like body of my work.
Hopper himself had studies with the charismatic teacher Robert Henri and learned a great deal from him. But he was to complain later that it took him a whole decade to "get over" Henri's undue influence. About 15 years ago I began to feel the stirrings of another voice that was urging me to move on into some unexplored new painting territory.
Philip Koch, The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas, 38 x 38, 2008
Most of my paintings moved more towards a brighter color palette and turned back toward the setting of the natural world. It was less a conscious decision and more of responding to an inner feeling.
The point of my Burchfield dream was that we have to maintain a careful balance when we approach the work of the artists from the past we are most attracted to. They are so good they could potentially pull you in like a moth to a flame. Nor do you want to turn away from the genuine insight and energy they achieved. It's just too much fun to look at and it has enormously important lessons to teach us.
Great figures like Burchfield and Hopper cast long shadows. We can spend long hours imbibing their work. But we honor their spirit best when we find ourselves stepping out from their shadows into light we discover for ourselves.