Burns holds a place of importance within American art, as a founding member of the Salmagundi Club in 1871, where he closely associated with Winslow Homer, Fred Church, Howard Pyle and George Inness, among many others. Burns and these other leading artists worked as illustrators for the important publications of Harper's, Scribner's and others periodicals of the times.
A chance encounter with artist William Bradford on the Canadian whaling steamer PANTHER in 1869, bound for the Arctic, led burns to the profession. He studied at Bradford's side, and then formally took courses at the National Academy of Design under John George Brown. He continued to live the mariner's life, traveling extensively, and creating illustrations of the sea's might.
Burns exhibited fine art oils at the National Academy from 1875 to 1898, and at the Brooklyn Art Association. While the illustration work paid the bills, his fine art portrayals of the ocean's strength and the vivid characters who plied their trades upon it, himself included, are what mark his career.