Thursday, January 25, 2018

Foreground Design

Like these mountains?  Good luck with that foreground!

When painting the landscape, one encounters three situations:  vistas, where you couldn’t possibly throw a rock far enough to hit your subject; middle-ground scenes, where you stand a fair chance; and close-ups, where you don’t have enough room to even swing your arm.   Each of these situations has its own design problem.  In this post, let’s start with the vista.

In the vista, the foreground is the stumbling block.  We just want to step over it and get to the area we’re most interested in, such as the “purple mountains’ majesty.”  With the foreground, it’s tempting to treat it as an afterthought.  Maybe we just throw in a bush or rock and move on to the beauty of the mountains in the distance.  But unless you’re going to crop out the foreground altogether, its mere presence makes it part of the overall design, like it or not.  You have to give it as much care and consideration as you do the mountain view.

Different mountain range and better foreground.  But it's still pretty amorphous.
Some foregrounds design themselves.  You might have a road or a creek that provides a lead-in for the eye.  (Think of Edgar Payne’s “S” template.) Others have large, dark trees that make a pleasing arrangement.  (Think of his “steelyard” template, where dark shapes on the left balance dark shapes on the right.)  But some have just a seemingly-chaotic scattering of little clumps of weeds or rocks.  If you aren’t provided with a natural lead-in or a pleasing arrangement of trees, you must take charge and rearrange things to create a design the supports the painting.

This is a case where a value sketch can help—but make sure you figure out your design before committing it in paint.

I've painted that mountain ranges in the above two photos countless times.  The foreground is always challenging.  Sometimes, changing your viewpoint will help, but sometimes not.  In that case, you have to design the foreground.  Below are two paintings I did over time that show a couple of different possibilities.  Maybe it's still not perfect, but I will go back to paint them again!

Munds Mountain Morning 16x20 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Munds Wagon Trail 12x24 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

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