Three Things I Learned from Copying Albert Bierstadt

Well, the copy of Albert Bierstadt’s “In the Sierras” I started for learning purposes almost a month ago is finished.  It was a valuable exercise, although not for all the reasons I’d expected, and I’d like to share some of the things I learned from it.


1.  White is a strong color in glazes.

Zinc white, while it’s translucent and labeled by Golden as having a low tinting strength, tends to dominate mixes. This isn’t to say that a large amount of glazing medium won’t overpower it and make the glaze as useless as weak tea; it certainly can, and several times during this exercise, it did. However, adding zinc white to a glaze seems to lighten colors more than adding titanium white to other paints in their pure form. This may not be true across the board in acrylics, or in oils, but it’s worth bearing in mind that with many things (including glazing medium, for that matter), too little is easier to correct than too much.

2.  Palette knives can be used for fine, random details such as foliage.

They’re not very elegant tools, and I tend to use them when I’m going for a rough, unfinished look, but when I first started putting the white and beige highlights on the leaves of the trees in the foreground, I was using a tiny brush, and getting round, unnatural-looking dots.  I decided to try something which I’ve read about John Constable doing, and apply these points of light using the tip of a palette knife.  I need to practice this technique more if I want to incorporate it into my own work, but I like the effect better than all those round dots.

3.  Just because you admire someone’s work doesn’t mean you should emulate them.

I do like the Hudson River School, and I’d like to be able to say that I’ve been influenced by artists like Bierstadt and Church.  However, I come from a very different background, and whether it’s because I’ve done so much of my painting alla prima, or because I made my glazes too thin, or just because I’m young…I really wasn’t expecting this piece to take as long as it did.  I mentioned in a previous post that I’d had a couple of painting sessions where the appearance of the work-in-progress didn’t seem to have changed all that much, and for that reason I started to get impatient.  Also, whether it was the original work or just the public-domain photo I was working from, the colors were very muted, and my copy turned out pretty gray. In spite of the yellows and browns, it seems cold.

A lower chroma can call attention to value contrasts and work very well for other reasons, and painting this way might help me balance out my tendency to make things too bright. However, I enjoy working with bright colors more. I’d rather go into the studio and sit or stand at my easel when there’s something eye-catching drawing me toward it. I get more satisfaction from covering a section of canvas with impasto textures or blocking out basic shapes than I do from laying down another thin veil over the background.

I guess what I’m getting at is that the feeling that I’m making progress is important to me. Painting isn’t always fun, and sometimes the techniques that will get the best results are less than enjoyable. That’s where discipline and audiobooks come in. However, in this case at least, forced work…looks forced.

It doesn’t always follow that a piece I enjoyed creating will turn out well, but I like to think there’s some kind of connection, which I might explore further. Any thoughts on this?


This novice artist welcomes comments and conversation, but please keep it polite. Inappropriate or offensive comments may be edited or deleted.

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