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Landscapes of Light and Dark: Swedish Watercolorist Bjorn Bernstrom

Natalie Jablonski

The watercolor artist Bjorn Bernstrom is well-known in his native Sweden for his landscape paintings.  Yet his style is somewhat different from traditional watercolor methods.   

It’s October when the trees outside are bursting with color, and Bjorn Bernstrom is painting an early autumn scene of a road curving into bright trees. A circle of students watches with rapt attention as he creates the trees with short stabbing motions of his brush. 

“What’s the difference between the way you paint and traditional watercolor technique?" I ask him.

"Well at least what I’ve heard…I think I use more pigments in my painting, stronger…I also like to use effects that in traditional watercolor are forbidden, or mistakes.  Like blooms or bleeds for backgrounds that often are called mistakes.  But I enjoy using them for bushes and trees and horizons."

Credit Matthew Rethaber / WXPR News
In a painting demo, Bernstrom rapidly creates a scene of a road curving into autumn trees.

I ask, "So kind of taking advantage of the way the water pools and can work on the page?"

"Yeah, that’s correct.  Letting the water and the colors work more than I work…or am the master.  The water is the master, or the painting, and you follow what happens."

To fill in the trees in his painting, Bernstrom mixes a shade of moody shade of green from yellow and black.  He says when it comes to the color green, he never uses premixed ones, because he finds them too bright, even unnatural.  One of his students, Judy Miller from Phelps, says Bernstrom’s color choices are somewhat of a challenge to traditionalists.

“He uses a much darker palette than I do," she explains. "I kind of went from doing lots of flowers and florals and stuff - but he does things from a different approach.  And that then broadens what you might try and do for yourself.”

"Well I’m Scandanavian," says Bernstrom in response. 

"Is that because of the landscape in Sweden?"

"Oh absolutely, I’m sure, and the mentality," he replies. "We have long dark periods.  But we also have the northern lights and we have strong, cool light in Sweden.  We don’t have that warm bright light like you have in Arizona.  So it’s a different lightning in Scandanavia.  And the mood of people I think – we are a bit…like that.”

Despite the darker hues, Bernstrom’s paintings seem to share a sort of glow.  He says the scenes that strike him are the ones with a quality of light that seems almost mystic. 

Credit Matthew Rethaber / WXPR News

"And I seldom use people in it, or figures, because if you put a figure into a road painting, then the focus is on that figure," says Bernstrom. "You think, what is he doing?  You don’t think about the forest and the rest of it.  But if you paint without figures, your mind starts to work a lot more, think about what happened here…then the whole painting tells a story.”

A story that could take place in Bernstrom’s faraway native Sweden…or right here on the landscape of rural Wisconsin.  

Bjorn Bernstrom's work will be on display at the Land O' Lakes Area Artisans (LOLA) gallery during a reception on 11/21 from 3 - 5 p.m., and all day on 11/22.  

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