Friday, June 19, 2015

Burchfield Penney Residency Part II

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Earlier this month I was at the Burchfield Penney Art Center for my first visit as the Art Center's Artist In Residence. One of my goals with the Residency is to study the working process of Charles Burchfield, an artist I deeply admire, to nourish my own working methods with my paintings. 

BPAC is a treasure house of Burchfield's drawings. Tullis Johnson, Curator and Manager of BPAC's Burchfield Archives, kindly pulled out for me volumes of Burchfield's drawings to examine. It was amazing to cradle his drawings in my hands (I did wear cotton gloves).

Burchfield drew in widely contrasting styles. Most of the drawings I'm reproducing here are his tremendously impressive finished nature studies. Their delicacy and sureness of form made me think of Leonardo da Vinci.  

But most of his drawings were gesture studies- drawings made rapidly more with his whole arm than with just wrist and fingers.  Often I'd encounter four or five sheets of paper each with only a handful of lines coursing across his page.

First and foremost he was an artist who  expressed movement. For him the earth is full of living things- plants, clouds, and even his rocks and buildings seem to move, sigh and breath. That he could make movement so credible stems in large part from how he began his pieces- starting not with detail but with the most sweeping gesture of his arm across the page. 

Here's a perfect example below of his gestural style that I'm talking about. 

Charles Burchfield, conte compositional  study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield loved going back into older watercolors and expanding them by attaching additional panels. Here is a giant newsprint study (about 4' on a side) he made by placing it around his earlier watercolor and experimenting by adding gesturing shapes into the expanded new territory. 

We can see above that his first marks are tentative, he is feeling his way forward. Once satisfied he was heading in a good new direction he would proceed to attach substantial watercolor paper around the small original and start painting. One usually thinks of preparatory drawings for paintings as something the Old Masters did. Here's a modern master doing it too.

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield liked to draw with black conte (a chalk with a little bit of oil in it that keeps it from smearing too much on the paper) on newsprint paper. Typical on many of his drawings are the short notes he wrote to himself often recording colors he wanted to remember or a design idea he needed to reinforce.

Charles Burchfield, conte nature study, Burchfield Penney
Art Center, Buffalo, NY

I left my first week of the BPAC Residency with renewed appreciation for the act of drawing in the work of any painter. Interestingly in the last 20 years my own oil paintings have been based on carefully composed preparatory drawings. Doing them I'd always felt a little out of step with most contemporary artists who are more likely to just jump right in with their paintings.
I'm inspired by Burchfield's example. He makes me feel less alone.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Part I

Several months ago Scott Propeack, the Associate Director and Chief Curator of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York invited me to be the second Artist in Residence at the Art Center for the next year. I'm just returned from the first of what will be a half dozen visits to the museum between now and summer of 2016. 

In my opinion, Charles Burchfield is one of the best painters of the 20th century. Burchfield has been one of the main influences on my own paintings of the natural world. I'm honored to be given this  opportunity by the Burchfield Penney Art Center. 

As an artist I've a keen awareness that none of us is alone in our studios- rather through our work we're engaging in a conversation with key artists who have gone before us. Painting after all is a language. By studying those who spoke it exceptionally well, I know I can learn to tell my own story better. Burchfield's work is different in many ways from mine, yet I feel strongly the two of us are chewing on the same bone.

BPAC is something of a unique museum. In addition to having by far the largest collection of artwork by the internationally known watercolorist Burchfield, it also has a mission of exhibiting, documenting, and collecting the art of Western New York State. 

I was born and grew up in nearby Rochester where my parents had build a home right on the shore of Lake Ontario.  That chapter of my life, spent in the hilly and heavily forested lake shore left an indelible impact on my imagination. I didn't take up art until I left for college in Ohio. Ironically until starting the Burchfield Residency last week I'd never painted from the landscape that had made such a big impression on me as a youth.

In addition to painting on location in some of the same parts of the landscape where Burchfield worked, I'll be studying some of the thousands of examples of Burchfield's work in the museum's Permanent Collection and in its exhibitions (like the delightful  current show, A Resounding Roarthat traces the influence of sound on Burchfield's painting, organized by BPAC's Curator and Manager of Archives, Tullis Johnson).

I will spend time reading from Burchfield's voluminous personal journals and get to know first hand Burchfield's much less known work in the medium of drawing.

A conte on newsprint drawing by Burchfield from the
Burchfield Penney's Permanent Collection

Despite a threatening monsoon the evening I arrived (which I realized Burchfield would have loved) the weather cooperated beautifully. I worked out on location five days in a row and got a whole number of drawings and paintings started. Tullis Johnson had urged me to drive south from the city to Chestnut Ridge Park that sits on a glacial line of hills. In addition to miles of trails through the woods it afforded a striking panorama looking north to Lake Erie. I was captivated and did four different views of it.

Here I am starting to work on the above drawing and painting.

One of my key goals was to soak up the special character of the Northern landscape that had fired up Burchfield's visual imagination. As well I'm intrigued with the idea of studying Burchfield's painting methods more closely, especially with an eye towards how he used his patterns of dark and light and his personal color sense. I'll have more to say about this in my next blog post.

While at the museum I was able to use their first floor classroom as a painting studio for five days.  Here is a photo above I took at the end of my fifth day of working. I think you can tell by the number of pieces I produced I was excited to be starting.  

At the end of my first week of the Residency my head was full of new ideas and I am charged up with new energy. I'll have a lot to chew on in my next weeks back in my Baltimore studio. 

I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to the staff of the museum for being so generous with their time and  sharing with me their special insights into the work of one of America's best painters. I have a feeling this next year of working at the Burchfield Penney will be one of the most valuable of my life as an artist.