With Jan Burns, it’s all about layers. In some ways, this is obvious in her work, currently featured at the Vienna Arts Society gallery: collages like “The Water’s Edge” have gesso, gel and acrylic paint; the delicate-looking “Where the Sidewalk Ends” has sheets of transparent paper piled on top of each other; a huge watercolor needed “layer after layer after layer after layer of color,” Burns said, to achieve the deep hue she wanted. But more than the media in her paintings, Burns employs the layers of her experience and background in art history.
A native of California, Burns studied art at the University of California, at the Davis and Berkeley campuses. “It was an exciting time to be there,” she said. “I was attracted to art, and had very, very good teachers.” At the same time, Burns knew she needed a more practical focus, and got an elementary teaching certification. She taught for five years and then took time off to raise children, but education is still something Burns relies on: she was strongly influenced by several art teachers. “The knowledge that goes with the whole development of Western art … helps a person to expand their interest,” she said.
Burns speaks of “a debt” that she owes to one of her college professors, who instilled in her a sense of appreciation for art that transcended style and subject. “Even though he was an abstract impressionist, he could get just as excited about a Renaissance painting as he could about an abstract impressionist painting,” she said. Trying to continue her own education on the breadth and variety of art, she tries to take advantage of traveling art exhibits visiting the Washington, D.C. area.
She has also studied with artists in this area, including Brenda Belfield of Reston, who may be best known for having created 60 of the National Cathedral’s stained glass windows. Burns said Belfield helped push her to try new things in her art: bigger canvases, different media. Burns also worked with Skip Lawrence, a watercolor artist in Maryland. “He taught with the idea that you look at composition first,” she said. It is a lesson she usually follows when painting, because she feels composition is her weakest point.
“Composition is more of a mental place, color palette is more emotional,” Burns explains. She said she tends to use warmer colors. Although the bulk of her work has been with watercolor, lately she has become more partial to acrylic paint, as well as collage. “Working with so many different media is a new thing with me,” she said, but she is usually drawn to one type when she begins a piece: “it’s a mood.”
BURNS LIKES TO PAINT when she is fresh and energetic; “the best time is morning,” she noted. She has a studio in the basement of her home, and her goal is to paint a bit every day; like any other skill, it can get rusty if not used. “If you don’t practice [there will be] subtle differences in the way you handle the brush, handle the paint.” When she is painting, Burns stays focused: “I get absorbed,” she said. “I really don’t notice what’s going on around me.”
She said she usually works on one primary project, but also has some paintings – “stacks,” she laughs – that she puts aside to take up again later. “I have some, especially the collages, that I’ve worked on for years,” she said. “I’ve learned not to frame them right away,” she added. “You have to reach a sense of completeness … personal satisfaction is part of it too.”
When a piece is finished is therefore a moveable goal, and dependent on a communication Burns feels a viewer has with a piece of art. “I have this idea, a painting is never complete until it’s hung on a wall and has been seen by someone else,” she said. Like the artistic process, the viewing process is built on experiences. The artist puts a little of herself into the painting, but so does the viewer. “We both bring different experiences to it, and sometimes they really jive.”
Viewers can see if they are able to jive with Burns’ “Pushing the Boundaries” collection at the Vienna Arts Society gallery, 513 Maple Ave. W, Vienna, through Saturday, April 12. Visit www.viennaartssociety.org.