Artist Q & A: Drew Burnham

For his very highly anticipated upcoming solo exhibition, Vancouver-based artist Drew Burnham opens up about his deference to the needs of a painting, the process of mentally pulling himself back, and his deeply felt relationship with another artistic plane in a fascinating new artist Q & A. Drew Burnham Poetry of Place opens on July 22 and runs through August 3, 2023.

 Drew Burnham, Nicola. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 45.25 x 64 inches, 26 January 2021-22 October 2021

1.Your richly detailed images of forests and coastlines thrum with an incredible energy and sense of movement – they clearly indicate a very deep connection to and understanding of BC’s nature. When and how did this connection develop for you?

It was in 1968, in drawing class at UVic. A beautiful, fully formed image just slid into my awareness… then back out a second later. It was not an entirely new kind of image in that it followed in the figurative paths I had been working on in those days, but the thing is, it came with the feeling of it being given to me by some entity, with the added message that I had 'help' doing paintings now. A peculiar thing, I know, but that ‘relationship' has remained with me ever since, and is part of every day's work. Now, rather than a connection to or understanding of a subject, I have found there is a requirement that I almost 'be' the object being painted, to the point that I feel as if that object - the rock or tree or figure - is painting itself. In working that way, I find I am not in control of how much time a painting takes to complete, but I always love how the work turns out.

2. Your paintings require an incredibly significant amount of time and attention to complete. To what degree do you like to plan your approach to a painting, and how do you prepare for a typical day in the studio?

The first thing of each day is a good cup of Americano while staring at the painting, all the while slowly mentally 'erasing' myself so only a sort of spirit is left - a no-thing, an empty vessel ready to receive. That way, a drawing or painting can flow through me without being inhibited by me in its development: the painting grows on its own, using my paints, brushes, palette and body, I just watch. That goes on all day.

The artist's POV of his studio oil palette.

3.The paintings in your new exhibition are all titled using names of specific locations, as are the vast majority of your past canvases. Is it important to you to always reflect the spirit of a specific place in your work, as opposed to an imagined/amalgamated landscape?

In my experience, it is paramount that the essence existing in a place or subject be fully realized in an image for it to come alive. A title can easily colour, limit or steer how one sees a painting, thereby muddying an individual's personal experience of it. My preference is to keep the name simple and non-directive, so the painting is not tinged or tainted and the viewer gets their own unadulterated relationship to the subject on the canvas. In addition, I am often asked for the location of the subject in the paintings when the place name is not in the title.

Drew Burnham, Port Renfrew. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, October 2021-April 2022.

4. Your renderings of water always have a particularly magical quality – can you share a little about how you approach this formidable subject, with all its temperaments, guises and whims?

Thinking water an overused subject, for many years I would not use it in a painting. However, after much goading by Mrs. B., I gave in and utilized that long-dreaded subject. That one painting exposed me to the enormous possibilities of water. An incredible supply of rhythms, textures, colours, actions and depths, along with beauty galore, exists there. So much so, along with our living out here surrounded by ocean, that most of the paintings contain that treasure. The character and designs used to make the water are determined by the beat of the other parts of each particular painting, really contributing to the musicality of a completed image.

The artist's studio with his acrylic palette on the left and oil palette on the right, and his acrylic underpainting visible in the upper right corner of the canvas.

5. How do you feel your painting has evolved or developed over the years, and are there elements in the Poetry of Place works that represent newer territory for you?

Evolution in the work, or the course the paintings take to become complete, seems solely determined by the relationship of one brush stroke to the next - they must speak to each other aesthetically. Beyond that, each stroke has to sit well among all the other parts into which it is being placed. As such, the accuracy of the design of each stroke, the colour used, the life the stroke contains and the execution of the swish of the strokes, determine the evolution of the work. Now, beginning with a complex and free-flowing abstract acrylic under-painting, I use oils in variously transparent overlays - sometimes many layers - to paint in the image while allowing bits of the underpainting to show through. I continue until the last little request from the painting is done. It is my hope that the result is a richer, deeper image and a likewise fuller experience for viewers of these works.

The artist at work in his studio.

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