Echinacea with bees

Echaneshia with bees, watercolor, 50×30 in., originally uploaded by ahtravis.

I don’t know whether anyone who viewed the Charles Burchfield exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC was inspired to go home and try to duplicate his method for enlarging paintings he had done 30 years before to creat a totally new vision of the original.  Well I did and it wasn’t easy.

Basically, in the 1960’s Burchfield took  watercolor paintings of his from the 1930s pasted new sheets around the original painting to enlarge and often completely change the original composition.  To accomplish this task he glued the original to a board, used a razor blade to bevel sheets of watercolor paper and glued the pieces beside the original to create a surface of the size and shape he needed.

“Oh, how neat!” I said to myself. I won’t need to use a razor blade, I have a mat cutter.  That should be easy.  I will glue the pieces to a standard size 1/3 in. foam board.

I chose a painting from this plein air season; I have only been painting for 9 years so I could not take a really old painting and rethink it.  I usually paint on 140 lb Arches paper and I used three full sheets of that paper to create the pieces needed to make the size I wanted.  Expensive.

I measured carefully and cut with the bevel mat cutter.  As I have often suspected the precision tools I own, a t-square and the mat cutter with the extra arm are not completely accurate and I cut and trimmed, trimmed and cut, trimmed some more and still everything was not exact.  To h… with it; I would just match the sides as well as I could and go on. I “glued” the pieces to the foam board with gesso and left it to dry.  When I came back the board had curled into a big U.  However, I solved that problem by nailing it with large headed nails to my worktable and began to paint.

Burchfield used several mediums to produce his enlarged paintings.  Charcoal, and sometimes pastel, were the drawing mediums but I believe he had to have relied heavily on the use of gouache to make the seams between paper pieces virtually disappear.  In my experiment I had to fill in with many layers of gouache applied with a rigger to drop the paint into the spaces.

I have enjoyed painting today but I think there has to be an easier way.  Why not just stretch watercolor paper on stretchers of the appropriate dimensions and start over with the original painting as a reference?  If I attempt this again that is what I will do.  However, I imagine the outcome will be less satisfying because anytime I try to recreate a painting in the same medium it lacks the life it had at its creation.  (Recreation in another medium becomes something else entirely)  The one positive outcome of the painting experiment of today is that the “new” whole is just as lively and the colors just as brilliant as the original piece.  I added the bees in honor of Burchfield because so many of his recreations included insects.

The photo above is less than perfect.  I have not removed the painting from my worktable so I made the photograph while standing on a tall, four legged stool, shooting down (see photo to the right).  The best of the many shots had the dark corner, probably my elbow.

The account of this process gleaned from Bruchfield’s documents and the museum show is found in Heat Waves In A Swamp; the paintings of Charles Burchfield, Los Angeles, Hammer Museum, 2009.

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