This Santa Barbara acrylic painter backs up her passionate views on land stewardship with an equally intense approach to painting the landscapes she loves.
by Bob Bahr
She is a calm, thoughtful person away from the canvas, but when she is painting, she is enthusiastic—even aggressive. And she seeks to instill this vigor in her students, who seem eager to catch the spirit. “Don’t butter your bread!” Burtt said during a workshop last May in Big Sur, California. “Treat your brush like a sword. Attack the canvas. Say, ‘Today, I’m going to be in charge.’”
|The view along Highway 1 in Big Sur.|
Many plein air painters have an admirable fearlessness to them. It’s practically a prerequisite for a job that inevitably subjects one to the natural elements. Additionally, the scene on view before a plein air painter is almost assuredly fleeting, so the painter must be bold and paint with a sense of urgency. Burtt perfectly exemplifies the fearlessness of the plein air painter. One day of the weeklong workshop, the class set up in the parking lot of a marine pollution studies lab, a facility run by the California Department of Fish & Game that’s located on the rocky seashore in Big Sur. By midmorning, most of the workshop participants had surrendered to the high winds scouring the coast, packing it in after their weighted-down easels had blown over several times. But later in the afternoon, when the wind picked up even more to reach peak gusts of almost 25 mph, Burtt set up in one of the windiest (and most scenically advantageous) spots and began to paint the surf crashing against the rocks. Her canvas flapped violently in the wind and her brush hand was repeatedly pushed into the canvas by rogue gusts. She persevered, occasionally muttering little comments about the weather that one might more typically use in response to the surprising and inconvenient actions of a willful puppy. Her painting was coming along beautifully, and her students, some of whom were watching from the shelter of their cars, were appropriately awed. At one point, Burtt asked the students standing around her to line up behind her to create a windbreak, and they stood in a row like defenders blocking a free kick in a soccer game. It helped a little.
Her disregard for the wind and cold was impressive, but more impressive was the major alteration she made in her painting, nearly 80 percent through the process. In the bottom center of the painting, she had depicted part of the shoreline. But she felt it closed in the composition and broke the simple rhythm of the scene. She was at a stage where some students would call the work finished, but Burtt loaded her big brush with a healthy dollop of titanium white and boldly eliminated the offending outcropping. The students howled in surprise. And then when she painted in the water, they were delighted. That night at dinner, Topic No. 1 among the workshop participants was Burtt’s fearless destruction of nearly a sixth of her painting very late in her process, and the substantial improvement this change made in her painting. “There’s nothing you can do that you can’t undo,” the artist replied when asked about the decision later.
|Plein air painting on the ranch.|
This is a lesson that Burtt taught by example several times over the week. Mountains she had blocked in were eliminated or reduced to mere suggestions. On another canvas, dashed strokes representing colorful vegetation suddenly became simply massed shapes. During another demonstration, she moved a post from where it appeared in the actual scene to where she wanted it in her composition; then, a carefully rendered shadow was replaced by a more dramatic one that appeared late in the painting session (seemingly violating the cardinal rule of not chasing the light).
Burtt says acrylic paints are particularly well suited to these kinds of major adjustments because they dry so quickly—especially outside. “Acrylics allow spontaneity and flexibility,” she says. “Keep painting until you are satisfied. That’s the best thing about acrylics—you can paint something 23 times on the same canvas until you get it right.” Because she values the fast drying time of acrylics, she only uses a spray bottle on the paint in her tackle box—never on her canvas or her palette. “The whole point of using acrylics is that I want the paint to dry right away,” says Burtt. “If I squirt the canvas, that’s counterproductive. I don’t squirt the palette because I want to keep my colors clean—and because I don’t want to have to wait for anything.”
|Shed and Fence, Brazil Ranch
by Marcia Burtt, 2005, acrylic on panel,
12 x 16. Collection the artist.
On the first day of the workshop, Burtt emphasized the proper tools and setup for plein air painting and discussed technique and materials. She buys canvas that is mounted onto Fome-Cor panels to make them stiff, yet lightweight. She advocates the use of high-quality acrylic paints—never student-grade paints or hues of any kind. An obvious difference in Burtt’s materials from most painters’ is her use of a fishing tackle box.
At the start of the Big Sur workshop, participants had the chance to purchase an inexpensive ($12) Plano tackle box that fit her requirements. The various compartments of the tackle box allow the artist to squirt different colors in each area, sequenced as one would arrange colors on a palette. Burtt highly recommends tackle boxes that have molded compartments, as opposed to the ones with tabs that slide into place to form compartments. She also suggests that artists buy one that has a groove on the top half of the cover for a tighter seal. The greatest benefit of using such a tackle box is that acrylic paints dry very slowly in them, and one doesn’t have to squirt additional paint into the compartments during the heat of painting. The paint will stay moist and usable during lunch breaks if the box is closed up, and Burtt asserts that she has successfully used acrylic paint that has been squirted into the tackle box two months prior. She recommends that enough paint be squeezed into the compartments to last through three or four painting sessions. Also, because of the plastic nature of acrylic paint, the tackle box can be well cleaned every few months if left to dry as is. The plastic tackle box is lightweight and its design keeps the paint organized and instantly ready to use. Burtt rests her tackle box just above knee-high on an inexpensive, plastic folding table designed for patios and picnics. She doesn’t use the box as a palette—she splits a piece of Fome-Cor down the middle and tapes it back together, forming a hinge so the palette will fit in the drawer of her half-size French easel. Burtt uses a palette such as this one for several months until the buildup of paint makes it too heavy for easy use.
|The Student's Work|
|These student works tend to depict the shed and fence as objects surrounded by background; a more dynamic approach would focus on relationships of objects to one another and to the edges of the canvas.|
The rest of Burtt’s materials would be considered fairly traditional. She suggests that students paint on large panels and start with large brushes, but more important to her is that artists understand that their choices in materials have an enormous impact on their art. “If you have a big brush in your hand, you’re going to see big shapes,” she says. “If you have a pencil in your hand, you will see lines. If you have enough colors on your palette, you will see more colors. I really believe that if you have a limited range of colors, you will see a limited amount of color in the landscape. It’s human nature.” Despite what that quote may imply, the materials list for Burtt’s Big Sur workshop did not include an extensive list of colors. Nor did it espouse a strategically limited palette. “Everyone who works with a limited palette likes what they do, and if you use a limited palette, yes, your paintings will be very harmonious,” comments Burtt. “But it won’t have the full range of colors that actually exist in the scene.” The instructor stipulated a few mandatory colors, suggested a few more, and left the students free to add any additional paints they wanted.
Rules make painting easier. Rules mean less thinking, less uncertainty. Burtt doesn’t like rules.
“Don’t think of color wheels. Don’t think of values. Don’t think of warm versus cool. Don’t think of color names,” Burtt said. “Look at your colors and your palette, and use the color that is closest to what you see. Make it as intuitive as possible.” One participant made a suggestion to a fellow student that Burtt immediately incorporated into her set of advice during the workshop: Let your brush talk. “Go with what comes from you,” she added, after repeating that slogan to another participant. “Use your first take on things, not rules or advice you’ve heard. Follow your unique vision.” This emphasis on the intuitive, on taking a chance on an internal vision instead of rote instruction, was just another manifestation of Burtt’s fearlessness. The participants seemed to incorporate the advice as much as they could. Relying on one’s intuition should put less pressure on an artist, not more. One loses the comfort and guidance of rules, but is left free to explore. “I think a lot of people approach painting as work,” she says. “If I did, I would quit painting. Think of it as play, as fooling around, as creating big shapes.”
Burtt’s process can be boiled down into two actions: Look and paint. Or, more accurately, look, look again, then paint. “People look twice at a stop sign,” she points out. “Look twice at the scene you are painting. It’s like that carpenter’s rule: ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ In painting, it’s ‘Look twice, paint once.’ People have so much fun painting that they forget to look away from their canvases. It’s quite a natural thing to do, to focus mostly on one’s own canvas, and it’s all right. But the painting is not going to look like what’s in front of you.”
Of course, the notion of painting intuitively is much easier if your skill level is high, as is Burtt’s. The artist’s drawing ability is formidable enough to earn her the nickname Dead-Eye Burtt among some of her artist friends. But this skill doesn’t mean that every line is perfect. In fact, Burtt often fixes drawing problems as she is painting. Her skill allows her to see the problem and find an easy solution. During the workshop, she put this talent to work as she walked around the easels of her students, grabbing their brushes and (with permission) laying down two or three lines that corrected drawing problems and set the paintings off in a promising direction.
Burtt sketches her own compositions loosely with a brush. “If I make a detailed drawing, I put my heart into the drawing, and then I don’t want to cover it up,” she says. “Or, once I have my paints out, I will see the scene completely different, and I’ll cover the drawing up anyway.” Her sketches are, not surprisingly, very bold. “Pretend that everything is made out of straight lines,” she said. “Draw with bold lines. Stop with the wispy stuff, the dabs. Make strong lines with lots of pigment.” Burtt interprets the landscape in a fashion that is somewhat collaborative and somewhat dominating. “You cannot deny the strength of the abstract beauty of what you are seeing, the composition. Your job is to pull that out of the particular landscape—or impose the structure and shapes upon it. I see it as pulling it out, but I’m sure that others think I impose it. The fact is, when you paint en plein air, you are forced to impose meaning, enforce simplicity, edit, create order from the massive amount of information in front of you,” she said. When Burtt has found a location, she moves her easel here and there, adjusting its placement by inches in some cases, until the view suits her. She says she’s trying to find the rhythm.
Burtt explains, “I think that rhythm is composition, and value is all that matters in creating this rhythm. Humans want to impose order and see patterns in things. A scene appeals to you because you sense something in it—a pattern, a rhythm. Everything out there seems to be random, and sensing rhythm is my way of seeing a relationship among things. I’m trying to impose my own view of the relationship of things so they seem to have an internal structure.”
The actual process of putting paint on canvas is of lesser concern to her. “I don’t think about brushwork that much. It’s just getting that paint on there,” Burtt says. “Think of it as a piece of paint that you want to put on the canvas. Break yourself from thinking about what the subject is. Place little separate pieces of just the right shape and value on your canvas, like placing little pieces of mosaic. Personally, I think of it as more like big pieces of color, almost like pieces of paper, that I am placing on the canvas.” Burtt also suggests scumbling over an existing color with a different one, with strokes perpendicular to the orientation of the shape being painted. “It gives the area a vigor—there’s an actual vigor that you will feel as you’re putting the strokes on.” Not surprising, this devoted plein air painter does not promote the use of photography. “If you must use a photograph or slide, turn it upside down,” she advises. “That way, you will not be seeing specific objects. You will not see a tree—you will see the color, or the rhythm, of the tree that you are drawn to.”
Burtt states that less than 10 percent of her painting is done in the studio; she resists the urge to unduly tinker with her plein air work. “I’ll look at my paintings while I’m talking on the phone, and later make a list,” she says, “and I’ll only do what’s on the list. I try not to diddle with them.” Success for her is feeling a connection to the scene and painting that connection. “I like to dive in and be in that place. A lot of times I feel that my brush is touching a particular hill. I’ve had that experience of painting something from a distance and then later driving through it, and it’s a very odd feeling, like I’m driving through something that I’ve just created.”
Painting to Preserve
Land Burtt feels so connected to the landscapes she paints that she is compelled to actively protect them. She’s found a way to do this through a California organization of artists she joined nearly 20 years ago called The Oak Group and, more recently, through an organization she helped found called SCAPE. Through exhibitions with these groups, Burtt sells paintings of preserved or endangered places and splits the money from the sales 50/50 between a conservation organization and herself. Surprisingly, her galleries don’t object. “They understand what it’s about,” says Burtt. Not everyone does. It may seem ludicrous that an artist could become fully immersed in a landscape and not grow attached it. The obvious next step is to protect these lands. But few actively do.
“In all walks of life, people don’t realize the power they have,” Burtt says. “They haven’t thought about the ‘what if’s,’ they don’t realize that they can take a small step and preserve the space. They are into their careers, they are into themselves. It’s not easy to think about the meaning of what you are doing, or even what you are eating, for that matter.”
The Oak Group has sponsored more than 60 shows since its creation and raised more than $1 million for open spaces, as administered by The Nature Conservancy, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, and other groups. A recent show on Santa Cruz Island raised more than $54,000 in gross sales.
“For me, it’s a matter of trying to stem the onslaught of development,” says Burtt. “It’s always possible to pave over and develop an area, but once you pave over it, you can’t go back.”
Bob Bahr is the managing editor of Workshop.