How to Be influenced by a Master Artist

Charles Burchfield, The Constant Leaf, watercolor,
1960, Burchfield Penney Art Center

What do you do as an artist when you're excited about the work of a really famous artist?  Should you start working in their style?  

Over the last two years I've been serving as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. I've held several thousand of his drawings from their Burchfield Archives in my hands and studied them for all they're worth. One can learn so much from absorbing the methods of the best who have gone before us- but it's tricky.

detail from The Constant Leaf

Probably it's Burchfield's unusual calligraphy-like details that first catches our eye, as in the detail above. It's an idiosyncratic handwriting he injects into all his work. In the The Constant Leaf at the top the explosion of patterns in the foliage is a classic example. But a longer look at the painting I think reveals another side to Burchfield's vision- his uncanny talent at making the entire surface of his painting contribute to its expressive power.  

Burchfield's areas of heavy patterns (the foliage, tree trunk and vertical shoots in the foreground) are balanced off by an almost completely empty snow covered yard.  He wants to stimulate us but also give our eyes a place to rest. If anything should be imitated in Burchfield it is on this deeper level of composing the entire painting. It would be missing the larger point to superficially adopt his highly stylized handwriting.

For me what I want to take from Burchfield is not the eccentricities of his very personal style but his brilliance of orchestrating all the parts of his paintings to complement each other. Here's a new painting of my own- a view of a sycamore covered hillside. Like Burchfield, I most love the forest when the trees branches themselves take front and center.

Philip Koch, Late Autumn Sun, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches,

Here was a sea of highlighted white branches. All had the wonderful staccato-like rhythms so typical of those trees- too much for the eye to take in. To compensate I pushed all the distant trees into a darker reddish tone, letting the spotlight fall only on one foreground tree. To calm things down further I put in a slowly curving paved road in the foreground. 


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