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Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Favorite Tips for Painting Foregrounds

'A Moment of Silence'            9x12             pastel            ©Karen Margulis
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I am often asked about handling foregrounds in a painting. How do we paint an interesting foreground without putting in too much?  Working from photos makes it even more challenging. We see all of the grasses and 'stuff' so it is hard to know how much to simplify.
Foregrounds in a landscape can give me fits.  I don't want to make the foreground too busy and detailed  or it might stop viewers from moving beyond it.  I want to invite viewers into the painting.  In my hesitation to put too much stuff up front, I am often left with a big boring foreground area. How much is too much?  It is a dilemma. But I have a few tips!

  • Plan the foreground area. I try to visualize what I want to happen in the foreground. How will I break up a big empty space? How will I arrange the elements?  How can I use these elements to lead the viewer through the painting?  If I wait and try to wing it I don't have as much success than if I had an idea of how I will treat it.  I sometimes like to block in a path of dark that will get covered up but will subtly move the eye back into the distance. Water and pathways can be designed to lead the viewer into the painting.
  • Less is More when it comes to grasses and flowers and other bushy stuff. Keep in mind that our brains will fill in the missing pieces if we suggest just a few. A few blades of grass or flowers placed in the right places are more effective than worrying about putting in every blade of grass. Be mindful of where you plant things. Avoid putting in random flowers. Put them where they add to the painting. Place your grass blades carefully....every mark needs a purpose. 
  • Let the underpainting do the work.  I love leaving the underpainting showing in the foreground. Letting this area stay a bit unfinished only helps to draw the eye into the inner part of the painting. The edges can be left unfinished.
  • Don't give up on a foreground that isn't working. Some of the foregrounds I am most pleased with come from the second or third attempt. If my foreground ends up too busy I will often brush it out or spray it with fixative or wet it and try again. This often gives me a textured look that suggests grassy stuff without having to paint them!  (I sprayed this demo with workable fixative)
Do you do anything special to deal with a boring foreground? I'd love to hear about it!

1 comment:

robertsloan2art said...

Oh this is wonderful!

I learned from Johannes Vloothuis to leave foregrounds a little vague and then one step into the painting to start creating detail. Your approach is fascinating! Funny about the random flowers. It feels as if I'm doing that but all the while, I'm aware of composition principles. I just don't verbalize them. I can see where they belong and put them in. It's like a distinct absence - needs violet flowers patch here, needs pinks at the edge of it, yellow way over here...

The other tip I got from Richard McKinley and that's using pointers. A single grass stem that leans or bends gracefully in toward the focal area, or along the path. Sometimes I place those deliberately and then add more "random" details until it "looks right."

It's personal process but I've never gotten used to brushing out, instead I tend to layer over - or leave it be and add something somewhere else that balances something that's not working. To me that feels like method - similar to the way that when I dance and get a back spasm, my next move will be a stretch that relieves it and I go on. I'm used to a sort of "play it as it lays" approach with almost everything, writing, dance, painting.

That habit made me good at finding the one detail that makes the stupid thing I just did shine and look great. While attempts at reworking look bad from lack of skill at reworking, moving forward without brushing out has saved everything I tried it on.