Drawing: A Shared Compass Between Me and Charles Burchfield

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, vine charcoal, 12 x 9", 2006

It makes sense to have heroes, to enjoy the work of great artists, study it, even become best friends with it. One of the painters I have learned the most from is Charles Burchfield. I grew up in Burchfield country (Western New York State) and always felt a special kinship with his nature paintings. We both work left handed, (few people realize how big a factor that is in giving a drawing or painting its distinctive personality).

I was recently discussing with a friend why I choose to make charcoal drawings in such great numbers considering I am primarily an oil painter. Musing on this I began comparing my practice to that of Burchfield, who also made countless drawings. If you go to Burchfield Penney Art Center's online pages of Burchfield's drawings  they have 1408 of them posted! 

Much as I love Burchfield's work, I don't draw or paint the way he did. Yet I feel in his work a hint of some hard-to-define energy that I sense in the landscape. That he could convey this so expressively is an incredible achievement. Given that my personality is very different than his, I have to come at that mysterious energy of nature from a different direction. Yet looking at his work, despite how different it is from my own, gives me an extra push as I work my way down my path.

Above is a drawing I began as I was starting to dream up a new composition. It's in vine charcoal, a medium prized for how easy it is to smear it and for being easy to erase. My drawings begin by moving the dry black charcoal dust this way and that until an image begins to form that excites my eye. 

You have to coax the idea into being. Flexible vine charcoal for me works better than anything else to grab a hold of the new idea when it's still fleeting and tentative and make something solid and substantial out of it.

Here below is the large oil on canvas I painted from the idea I first worked out in the drawing.

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, oil on canvas, 55 x 44" 
private collection

Below is one of several preparatory drawings Burchfield made for his major watercolor that follows.

Charles Burchfield, Study for the White Wings of September, conte, 11 x 17", 1960, gift of the Burchfield Foundation to the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

He didn't work in vine charcoal as I do, instead preferring to draw with more linear media like conte crayons or charcoal pencils. And he tended to do far more quick drawings on the same theme until the idea would crystallize in his mind.

Charles Burchfield, White Wings of September,  watercolor, 47 5/8 x 53 1/4", 1960 -66, 
San Diego Museum of Art

Here's the preparatory drawing I made for one of my most visionary compositions. In the back of my mind I imagined that if any of us could sail like this bird over the events of our lives what an amazing spectacle would unfold before us. This was the first of several drawings I made, each one becoming gradually more clearly defined as I zeroed in on my concept.

Philip Koch, Equinox, vine charcoal, 8 x 12", 2008

Here's the final oil version.

Philip Koch, Equinox, oil on panel, 30 x 45", 2008

This is one of the sketches Burchfield made around the theme of a turbulent stormy sky with rays of sun breaking through a crack in the clouds. You can sense him feeling his way forward, trying to find the shapes and points of emphasis he would need to bring his idea to life.

Charles Burchfield, Sketch for December Storm #4, conte, 13 x 19 1/2", circa 1941,
Burchfield Penney Art Center, gift of the artist

Here's his final version in his large watercolor.

Charles Burchfield, December Storm,  watercolor, 40 1/2 x 56", 1941-1960


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