Mysterious Backgrounds- Wichita Art Museum's Burchfield Hush Before the Storm

Burchfield Penney Art Center posted this Charles Burchfield watercolor today on their Facebook page. It's Hush Before the Storm from 1947 that's now in the Wichita Art Museum. What with the cheerful blossoms in the immediate foreground one might at first be tempted to see it as just a pretty picture and move on. But we're talking Burchfield and with him there's usually more going on.

I think one of the best pieces of advice I could give someone who wants to experience a painting more deeply would be for them to spend more time enjoying the painting's background.

What caught my eye in this Burchfield was the sky. The crazily active shapes in the trees could have monopolized the painting.  It would have made his idea too simple and we would grasp the composition too quickly. But the artist cleverly invents countering shapes in the sky that answer back to the noisy arches and angles in the trees. 

Very often I think master painters reveal themselves with the touch of their brush. Burchfield artfully lays in these parallel rows of little brushstrokes in his clouds. He makes a point to keep changing their direction as he moves around the sky. You don't know ahead of time which way they're going to move so you keep looking.

For me the slate gray color for the approaching storm clouds is the perfect foil for the warm greens in the front half of the painting. Burchfield wants you to look at his sky so he invests it with a host of little unexpected moves to seduce your eye. 

We'd better keep moving. Judging by the look of that sky it's going pour on us soon.


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