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.


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