Charles Burchfield, The Big Tree, watercolor, circa 1920,
Portland Museum of Art (Maine).
A few days ago I was looking at the Portland Museum of Art's website and came across this painting from early in Charles Burchfield's career. Erin Damon, the Museum's Assistant Registrar, told me the Museum purchased the piece in 1998. Well, they got a really nice one!
The giant tree seems not only alive, it commands the surrounding field. It adeptly solves the challenges that come when an artist paints the colors of summer foliage. As commonplace as greens and yellow-greens are in that season, I know from my long experience as a landscape painter they're devilishly hard to make work in a painting. The way Burchfield tackles this teaches us a lot about the language of painting.
Burchfield doesn't worry about color in the beginning. Color probably is the most delightful aspect in painting, but by itself it tends to be formless. It needs a structure of shapes to hold it like a vessel. So usually he began his works with practiced drawing in black and white- concentrating on making believable shapes that surprise our eye. He was really good at that.
He imagines his giant tree as if it was a huge egg shape- at least the top 2/3 of one. Critically Burchfield interrupts that shape with irregularly placed holes in the foliage where we can see through the tree to the background. These interruptions are a surprising counter-rhythm to what could have been a too simple massive egg form.
The sunlight casts a gradation over the tree that the artist radically simplifies into 4 or 5 greens ranging from very warm yellow green to a cooler green in the shadows. He adds further unpredictable gestures with the half dozen darkest green accents. They follow a pattern your eye can't predict ahead of time, suggesting there's more to this tree's personality than we first thought.