Looking Up Yosemite Valley • Albert Bierstadt, 1865-1867
It's all too easy to lose sight of the forest, for all the bewitching detail of the trees....
When you begin a painting, are you able to clear all the enchantment of detail from your vision? Are you able to see the subject of your painting in its essential shapes, in its large simple forms of light and dark and color?
Albert Bierstadt's monumental painting Looking Up Yosemite Valley (links to a larger image) makes a great test case. There are details of people and horses; of trees and fallen logs; of rocks and mountain crags, of water and a waterfall. Are you able to look at this painting and, while enjoying the marvelous detail, still see the big picture?
Why is it important to see the big picture? If the big shapes of your composition work, the details within them will follow. And if the big shapes of your composition don't work, no amount of beautifully painted detail will make it work anyway.
Two simple things can really help you do this well: the first of those is drawing thumbnail sketches (and that really means small). Practicing by drawing thumbnail sketches of great paintings helps you discover the big picture. You will see how the big shapes in these paintings make them work.
Thumbnail sketch of Albert Bierstadt's Looking Up Yosemite Valley
© 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls
In a thumbnail sketch, you reduce the composition to its essential shapes (and values, if you are including them). That's when you can see most clearly - does it work? If not, what would make it work better? Seeing this in the work of other artists – such as Albert Bierstadt – helps you see this for yourself, in your own work.
Here's another link to a large image of Looking Up Yosemite Valley, so you can try it for yourself.
Ready for more? Albert Bierstadt Gallery is Wikipedia's gallery of a considerable collection of Bierstadt's paintings – plenty for you to have fun with. Remember, keep it quick, small, and simple. Enjoy!