Thursday, May 18, 2017

Did Charles Burchfield Lie About Color?


When you've grown up in Western New York State as I did you know Spring comes late. Down here in Baltimore all our leaves have fully sprung forth for the year. It's downright green everywhere.

As I was driving yesterday I got to musing about this superabundance of the color green for us landscape painters. Nature's green hues are great for enabling photosynthesis. But the blunt truth for artists is it is almost impossible to paint the colors you see in the forest truthfully and end up with a painting with any life to it. 

Burchfield Penney Art Center just this morning posted the above Charles Burchfield watercolor, Maytime in the Woods, 40 x 33 inches, 1948-1963 on their Facebook page. It's one heck of a stunning painting. 

Seeing it forcefully reminded me of how realist painters, including Charles Burchfield, have to make art that talks about the internal experience. We can't simply report on the literal facts of what we have seen. As he did in so many of his paintings, in Maytime in the Woods Burchfield chose to work with a limited palette of hues- predominately silvery grays, yellows and brown.  

I believe this is how he envisioned his painting in his mind's eye as he worked. When it came to structuring his paintings, he had no choice but to transpose reality's hues into the colors he knew he could really work with. One of the engines that drive his paintings is the way he contrasts vibrant saturated yellows against the cool restraint of his grays. It's a combination he used masterfully over and over again.

Art takes us to a special place where feeling is intensified. Burchfield willingly altered the colors he saw out in the world because he knew doing so would open doors for his viewers to feel the world more deeply. His was not the literal world- he painted a landscape of the mind, and of the heart.



3 comments:

  1. I love the way your mind thinks. Great observation.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Interesting ideas, Phil. I agree that Burchfield's cadmium yellow often conveys a more metaphysical presence than reality. It suggested the sun's warmth reawakening the woods and ground flora. I have found his myriad shades of green to be an attempt to reflect the subtle changes during a season. He tried to be true to the moment, often putting away a painting if conditions had changed only to finish it when similar weather conditions reminded him of the original scene. As you know, I fully believe that Burchfield painted sensory experiences of nature, not photographically realistic nature--and for me, his contain the greater truth.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nancy thanks so much for your comment (having your presence here really classes up my blog!).

    ReplyDelete