Painting Foregrounds

During the recent “Summer Snow” watercolor workshop, someone , or more accurately, several people expressed frustration with foregrounds. This is not uncommon. It rears its head at nearly every workshop. The biggest problem is that beginning artists (and many more seasoned ones) pose the question to themselves, “WHAT should I put in the foreground?” When they say “what’ they mean some nameable item – a fence, bushes, buckets, birds, etc. And therein lies the problem.  They should be thinking in terms of value patterns, directional lines, linked shapes that bring the viewer in instead of items.

Here are a few suggestions to overcome this problem. Think of the foreground as a kind of visual taxi service (without a talkative driver) that quietly picks the viewers up at the bottom and delivers them, in a less than direct route, to the main area of interest.  I say bottom, because for the most part we all seem to approach a painting from the bottom. Perhaps this is because we enter the world in front of us at the space in front of our feet and proceed upward toward the distance (at our eye level).  Since the painting offers us a glimpse into that world we enter it the same way.

Try turning the painting upside down and painting a sky using earth colors instead of blue. When I paint a sky I think of it as a movement that leads toward the center of interest. It does its job by making something else more important. So, if you paint a pattern of darker earth colors that sweep toward the center of interest like skies often do, you can turn it right side up after it dries and add a few detail, or in some cases leave it as is. I am including an example of this approach for your perusal.

A Sky painted with earthy colors in a downward sweeping pattern.

 Now turn it right side up and it appears different. The orientation can make a huge difference.


Now add the subject and Presto! Instant foreground.


If you are painting on site, look around you for shapes that would point toward the center of interest- a leaning fence post, a pattern of grasses or weeds,  or a fallen log for example. But choose them not for what they are, but for what they do or could do for your subject. Putting something in the foreground because it is there but simply draws attention to itself is a big mistake. It’s like hiring an actor for a play because he showed up for auditions and had no job. If he doesn’t help the production, don’t include him in your play. Remember, you are the director and everything out there is wanting a part in your play. Only hire the ones that are able to add to the production.   I am including a painting I did as a demo at a recent paint out. I dropped out a lot of fence, an entire building, and moved the leaning fence a little closer to the main area. In this case the movement of the fence really helped to bring the viewer in.

The fence and the waves of grass lead to the main subject.

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