John Burton recently posted a photo of the abstract beginning for one of his paintings. It was much admired. When we asked him how an abstract start is important to his process, and his thoughts on why he continues to tighter completion, it was as if he’d been waiting for someone to ask.
Lead Image: The painting in progress that John Burton posted on Facebook while it was still in an abstract state
Burton explains that he feels he’s undergoing a metamorphosis, that his approach to art is changing, that he is changing. “I am in the throes of asking that question about abstraction right now,” he says. “Full abstraction, for the most part, misses for me, personally. Hyper-real representational work does as well, so I am at a loss for an answer. But I’m going to start talking about my process more, even if it’s to the point of people witnessing my transformation. I’m trying to figure it out as I go. And everything that I aspire to is growth as an artist.
“I’m looking for the proportion of shapes and movement through the painting at that stage without relying on clues of subject matter — or not letting that get in the way. My goal is to make the painting work in its placement of shape and color before it gets anything else.”
Burton goes on, “Let me start by sharing when I believe that I have a successful abstraction to base my painting. I am looking for interesting and pleasing color harmonies complemented by good space division on the canvas. In other words, I want beautiful proportion of color and value. Think of a tropical fish. It is not beautiful just because of its colors. It is beautiful because our creator has a perfect sense of color proportion.
“Shapes — I have changed in many ways in the last few years. One way that has helped my paintings immensely is that I have stopped referring to myself as a painter, but instead I am a ‘shape maker.’ This has been developed as I learned more about what I love most in the great artwork that has come before me. It is usually space division.
“The other way that has shaped me is, I no longer think of my workplace as an art studio. It has become my laboratory (including the lab coat). I go out in the field to gather information, but my studio is where I grow as an artist through much experimentation. This may sound like just a change in words, but to me it has changed my focus and direction. I enjoy the thought of being somewhat of a mad scientist exploring shape and color to its greatest conclusion.”
At one time, Burton concentrated on the human figure. His switch to primarily painting landscapes was a major change. Here’s why he made that left turn: “The colors in nature, the subtle harmony, are so much more exciting than anything I could create myself,” he says. “It’s important to me that I’m basing it on something actually in nature. And I’m also a man of faith, so for me, God’s harmonies are so much better than what I can do. Mine would be trite and lacking the sophistication that there is in nature. I think right now I feel like I am undergoing such transformation in my painting career. I posted an image of a butterfly on Facebook for that reason. Whatever direction I grow, it needs to be organic. Everything has to happen in a certain order. Nothing could be artificial. I’m simply relying a lot more on what is important to me, which is color and design.”
Burton continues, “The interesting direction in all this is that I think in the end a painting is a form of communication, and the point for me is if it gets too abstracted, it lacks that communication. However, if you were able to make an abstract painting that communicates — that’s different, that’s great. My belief is that painting is a form of communication, and when it stops communicating and needs a curator or notecard next to the work to tell you what you are looking at, it has failed. However, in my mind, as I grow in a certain lunacy in paint, I am developing a sensitivity so that a large purple shape vanquishing a red shape to the dark abyss of the canvas could indeed be a story. But as I mentioned, I can only see this happening in my work in an authentic way. Tomorrow I may not be who I am today, but I still must base it all on design, color, and handling the craft of painting to the best of my abilities.”
He loves abstraction, at least in certain applications and stages, but don’t look for Burton to be the next Rothko, or even Diebenkorn. “If my work had a more abstract quality, it would have to come from the thought that I had made a complete statement,” he says, “rather than thinking it would be easier, deceiving, or, worst of all, because I thought it would be popular — I never want to chase that always-moving target. I had a brilliant teacher in art school named Huihan Lui, who said, ‘The point you stop in a painting shows the limit of your knowledge.’ So today, I will paint until the point that I do not know how to say more.”