From the time of Winslow Homer, Maine’s bucolic summers have drawn legions of plein air painters (the phrase is French for “in the open air”) who set up their easels outdoors to capture the state’s spectacular landscapes. Martha Burkert started painting this way, but as the size of her canvases grew too large to handle outside, she had to develop a different method. “Originally, I would go out and do small sketches and then turn them into bigger paintings,” she says. Today, most of Burkert’s Maine paintings are created in her studio in Texas, where she and her husband live at least six months of the year. When they’re in Maine, the family cottage on Cousins Island is often full of visiting children and grandchildren, which is not conducive to spending uninterrupted hours at her easel. “I had to come up with a way of capturing the landscape without being there,” Burkert says. “I got to the point where I could go somewhere and sketch with a big fat Sharpie and take color notes. I don’t have any interest in capturing the landscape leaf by leaf, so I could take these quick shorthand sketches, and I can combine them, or pull them apart, and I bring those back to my studio in Dallas and I work on bigger pieces in the winter here.”
While Burkert’s process may have been driven by circumstance, it suits her relaxed style. “It gives me more freedom,” she says. “Although we have a lot of trees around our house in Texas, and if I’m having a little trouble I can look outside and say ‘Oh, the middle of that tree is really darker.’” She doesn’t paint Texas scenes, both because anything she would want to paint is a long way from her Dallas home, and because “there are a lot of good painters doing Texas landscapes,” she says. She doesn’t have to add that Maine is what holds her artist’s heart.
In her landscapes and still lifes, Burkert favors bold colors and elemental shapes. She paints Maine coastal scenes, but doesn’t add boats, lobster pots, or people, and her garden paintings are increasingly abstract. “But I do love a good piece of architecture,” she says. “I love the structure of it and how you can use it to be a focus point of light, or not.” She primarily works in oils, but “doesn’t do a lot of intricate layering in terms of glazing that some more realistic painters do.” She does layer colors to achieve certain effects, however. “I use a lot of rubber tipped chisel tools. I will lay down a translucent but bright color, and I will then chisel it away so that the underpainting comes through.”
Several years ago, Burkert began working in ceramics, and her pieces often find their way into her paintings as flower vases. “I flatten them; I make them a little cruder than they really are,” she says. She’s also begun experimenting with adding bits of Japanese paper, but it’s still too early to know where that will lead. “In life and in art I’m not a planner by nature,” Burkert says. I kind of like to see where things take me.”