“Staffage” is a historical term for placing people and animals into landscapes. Like many time-worn conventions, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
The population of pictures — mainly views, architectural subjects, natural wonders and other general scenes — was once more widespread than it is now. In the 17th century, some Dutch painters actually employed other artists to put people in. Staffage was used as an aid to composition, a device to show scale, and an opportunity to enliven scenes. Figures were strategically placed, often holding a stick, cane, spear or gun, sometimes together with a lesser person, or a dog or other beast, or even pointing toward the picture’s centre of interest. Sometimes a jacket or coat brought colour surprise to a sombre landscape. The Impressionists gave themselves a choice — some went for it, others didn’t. These days some photographers dine out on girls in red shorts on foreground rocks. In current landscape painting, Nature is more likely to be unpopulated. This, of course, will change.
Some landscape painters, dead and alive, don’t do convincing figures. People are a tough order. But there’s more to it than that. With the rise of rugged individualism and the concept of “me first,” it is often the viewer who feels the need to supply the figure. Living in someone else’s world is not our style anymore. It’s not the wealthy lord in the big hat who gazes at the Sphinx, it’s us. The wonders of Egypt are now theoretically available to all. The idea of other people enjoying the architecture in Piazza San Marcos in Venice is more the business of illustration. Pennies drop silently in the minds of onlookers. Due to the widespread suspicion of sentiment, anecdote itself has become distrusted and suppressed.
Next time you think about putting in a figure or figures, think about what’s pulling you around. Early this morning I painted a tranquil lake in the Western Canadian foothills. I couldn’t prevent myself from putting a couple of guys and a dog out there in a yellow rowboat. The devil made me do it. I’ll never know whether I made the painting better or worse. Despite the modern plastic boat, this morning’s painting looks curiously old fashioned.
PS: “I’m done with girls on rocks.” (Maxfield Parrish, 1950)
Esoterica: I know it’s a bit to ask of many artists, but I’m a believer in understanding your “genre.” Genre means your kind or art, your style, your times. At first, the human body was the only subject matter worthy of paint. When the grand landscape showed up, figures, clothed and not, were reduced to accessories. Then the figure burst back to prominence and became the main subject again. These days, a lot of honour is being paid to the spirit of Nature herself, bereft of mankind and even the hand of man. Some sort of longing or wish, I’m thinking. Niagara Falls is her own subject again. A few more years and once more it’ll be the little guy going over her in a barrel.
by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA
Your letter was curiously timely. I am a muralist, and am finishing up a pastoral dining room mural. Today I painted the client couple in a canoe on a river on one wall of the mural, on the other wall I painted their two dogs and their children — the girl catching butterflies, and the little boy catching a fish. They were thrilled by the personal “staffage”! It is interesting that sheep, cows, even swans can give life to murals that otherwise are rather uninteresting, even if well painted. I have not added people to my canvas murals, but I think your people in the canoe are fabulous!
Humour in the details
by Petra Voegtle, Denmark
First of all — I like it. It adds a narrative element to the serenity of the landscape. Landscapes are often overwhelming in their beauty, to add people like these in a boat makes it more “humane,” showing that you can enjoy the beauty of an early morning without feeling that you are so inferior in the universe. You can take part without feeling guilty. The landscape is there to really see and enjoy. Carpe Diem would be my motto of a day such as this. Landscapes without people often emanate that feeling of being “untouchable” and “un-real.” People in a painting can take this down to earth again.
In one of my landscape paintings I added people to a magnificent landscape in order to make people step near and look at the details. It was supposed to add a little humorous element to the grandiosity of the scene. I painted the tiny couple of hikers with a magnifying glass and it was a lot of fun doing this. You would only recognize this couple if you stepped very near to the painting.
by Trish Booth, Cordova, NM, USA
I painted for years suffering comments such as, “but there are no PEOPLE in your paintings.” Of course not, my paintings are not about people but what we’ve imagined, what we’ve left, what we’ve created.
My paintings do not require people; I think that is too easy. My paintings are about what people have built or what they revere or what they may yet spoil. Lots more there, I think, than body language — available, so understood, so analyzed, and very, very tired. I prefer something a bit more cerebral and, hopefully, open to interpretation and even a bit mysterious.
A sense of humanity
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
Twenty five years ago when people looked at my landscapes they very often commented, “Why don’t you put a figure in it, or a house?” It happened so often that I began to think people were disturbed by pure landscape. It is a little too abstract for a figurative painting. A figure, animal or even a house or cottage give more than focus and a sense of scale. They give a sense of humanity, of belonging. Though I greatly admire Corot’s ability to paint a man in a landscape with a few simple strokes, I have continued, with a few exceptions, to paint people-less landscapes.
Ironically in the last couple days I have had the urge. I am painting in a series of gardens on a lake in China which are peopled with gardeners in blue shirts and round pointed straw hats. Two days ago I included a wooden boat rowed by a man with one big oar standing up in the traditional manner. I couldn’t resist.
A reflection of self
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
Why people? I started painting with people. Crazy, I know. It just happened. I had to do a lot of sketches to work out the forms. They are incredibly difficult. The articulation of elbows, knees, arms and especially hands can be incredible. I am now quite sure that they represented a very difficult stage in my life, when I was going through a huge transition — from running a successful business to becoming an artist. These portraits were raw, unadorned, full of emotion, powerful, proud, with a lot of dignity — and pain. For me, my people have always shown emotion. They are an expression of emotion. My own. It took me a while to see this, and to see what was going in my life when I did them.
Connecting with the viewer
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Now that you made me think about it, I have used figures in landscapes as a tool to provide the scale and relationship between the humans and the nature. Our emotional reaction to the scene can be altered by introducing a human presence. I see that this tool isn’t used very often but I wouldn’t call it old fashioned. Perhaps less explored. As a viewer, I feel that I take more ownership and responsibility for the landscape that contains people. I ask myself more questions rather than just analyze the scene. When I think back I find that it is easier for me to recall paintings by other artists if they contained a human figure. This is probably just a personal preference.
Undoing the staffage
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I couldn’t resist putting an image of your painting into Photoshop and removing the boat with its passengers. I then opened both the original and the altered image. As I clicked from one to another, it became very evident to me that by adding the yellow boat, you not only changed the composition, you changed the focal point. When I looked at the unpopulated landscape, the painting was all about the place: the time of day, the location of the scene, the peacefulness of the moment. In contrast, your original version made me think much more about the figures in the boat — were they heading out, or perhaps back into shore. If they were fishing, their dog must be trained well to keep quiet. What was the relationship between the two people — friends, grandparent and child? I don’t think it is a matter of wrong or right, it is more a matter of what was the artist’s intent.
One thing that one of my art professors once told me was that no matter how small a person is in a painting, or how simplified, they had better be done without flaw, because any figure instantly becomes the focal point. I feel my little experiment just reinforced that theory.
by Tom Disch, New York, NY, USA
Writers often have the same problem in reverse. They’ve got a lot of characters in situations they don’t want to be bothered depicting this is because they lack “landscape” skills. One thing Hemingway did really well (and Hardy too) was to create scenery for his characters that was neither too generic (table, window) nor too distracting (kitchen sink and all the dishes in it). Every detail should have some reason for being noticed. Often the necessity for this will lead not just to a better-furnished fiction but to a truer larger vision of the world. Might not staffage serve the same purpose?
People not timeless?
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
I have a friend who shows at a well-known gallery in a major city. Her gallery director actively discourages her from including people in her landscape paintings. He tells her he believes the work is more “universal” without the human presence. I suspect he believes that it is more saleable! I have heard corporate art consultants lay it out as well: if they can’t get large-scale abstract paintings in attractive colors, then they want large-scale landscapes devoid of people. This way they say that they can avoid offending people who may not like seeing other people of a certain race, or age, or dress style (which also dates over time of course!) This seems a little short-sighted, safety-conscious and sad to me. Art as corporate wallpaper. An example to ponder: how would we like Brueghal’s paintings without the people he includes? Yeah, their clothes certainly date them to a certain time period, but they are also as universal as all get-out.
Sentiment or fear?
by Jada Rowland, UK
Fear (which seems to be a dominating emotion these days) may, indeed, be at the bottom of this lack of people (‘staffage’ sounds too non-participatory for how I view people) in paintings of nature. One fear is that of humankind’s effect on nature. It seems that we are not, as was once thought by the Europeans who came to ‘conquer’ America, the keepers of the dominion but, rather, the destroyers. So there is a valid fear of the loss of the environment (and perhaps our survival as a species) and the desire to show what little still exists. Is this a desire to awake ‘feeling’ in ourselves or others about what we may lose? Or to make us feel ‘sentiment’ toward trees?
by Karen Cohen
The figures you added to the painting are small and non-specific. As a result, they are easily identified with if you’re the kind of person who is likely to be found in that boat, or someone who would might wish they could be. It would also appeal to those who yearn for the natural landscape but don’t expect or feel the need to have it all to themselves.
As to the technical merits of the painting, you trusted your instincts which I think were spot on. The little yellow boat and the orange reflection are contrapuntal to the blue patch of hills between the trees, and perfectly balances your color composition. However, as good as it is, your figures are not wearing yellow or orange shirts, so the reflection in the water is a mystery. The rest of the painting doesn’t tell me that magic or mysticism or spiritualism was your intent, so the orange reflections look out of synch.
Staffage needs proper placement
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA
I love the boat with the dog and people, placed in your painting. It gives it mystery. The angle of the boat and the dog on the end leads you into the painting. Also, I ask myself, where are they going? It gives the painting personality and it reminds me of the famous Winslow Homer’s Adirondack series.
I had a situation, when doing a commission for my brother-in-law. He wanted a painting for his wife of the place in Tahoe they loved to go to every summer. I did paint the painting with her husband in the boat on the water, not a large image, but a suggestion. When I was about to put the children on the shore, the painting could not handle it. It was too much and the painting became something else. I tried many times and finally I had to scrape it off. It was too much for the painting. It wasn’t about the children. If I put them in, it would become an illustration and tell a story. Painting is not about telling stories. It is about emotion and feeling. His wife wanted me to add the children in it. I told her I would paint her a different painting, but this one could not handle it. Not being an artist, I think she still didn’t understand.
Most popular image with figure
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland
One of my most popular paintings which became produced as a print had a figure walking along the beach. It wasn’t my favourite painting and I have always been surprised that it was liked so much and the print sold more than any of my other images. I did notice in your painting First light on Moose Lake that the figures in the boat became the centre piece of interest. What I did find interesting was the use of a strong yellow colour for the boat – the result being that one could not help but notice the boat. I do wonder that if you used a more subtle green or brown coloured boat the painting would have taken on a very different look. There will be many who will love this painting, it is full of life and colour and the imagery is that of a happy boating trip. I would say there are many who could identify with this activity of setting out across the great lake in a boat with their dog. I would also say there are many of us who would simply love to gaze at such a painting and wish that we were there!
Staffage steals spotlight
I learned that people, animals, and man-made objects, especially those of curious nature such as antiques, in that order, can certainly add a lot to a painting. In fact so much they will steal the spotlight from the center of interest. That being because they are so much more interesting and compelling than the myriad trees, rocks, and other common elements in a landscape. That said, I try to remember to keep these features within the center of interest and make them a part of it. If an old barn was my perceived center of interest, and I place a person walking down the road to the barn, I had better not place her away from the line of sight of the barn. Otherwise the viewer’s eyes might be darting left and right and cause enough discomfort to avoid further viewing.
As for your rowboat, are you testing us? Apart from placing the horizon line dead center, the left side of the painting is dark, overpopulated, and weighty. You were careful to place the figures in the line of sight of the most interesting portion of the painting, but the right side appears empty and out of balance. Since I am a watercolorist, when that happens, I take it to the paper cutter and remove a few inches from the right — fixes it right up! I’m certain you did it on purpose to see if we were paying attention. If not, my sincerest apologies as I am a long standing admirer.
Staffage is exclamation point!
by Carolyn Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA
First Light on Moose Lake is lovely, made more so by the exclamation point of staffage (meaning that the people, dog, boat, add interest, a little punch of color, and make the scene wonderful in its own right, that bit more exciting and dynamic). As for appearing old fashioned, your style, to my eye, in execution and palette, is modern realist, so although there is tradition in the inclusion of two men in a boat with retriever, the overall look is current. Kudos!
I enjoy both artist- and viewer-populated (imagination) landscapes and from time to time, people my landscape paintings. From a sales perspective, the practice has both helped and hindered.
Staffage gives meaning to landscape
by Jacquie Manning
I think of Varley who, pretty much the only one of the Group of Seven, painted lots of figures into his landscapes. What I particularly like about these was the way he integrated his figures into the landscape so they seemed to be part of that particular landscape. I think of him painting his wife Maud on the rocks of the shore; totally at one with the landscape she was standing in. Varley mirrored the colours and shapes of the surrounding landscape in the figure of Maud. To my mind, these paintings make the landscape much more dynamic. Winslow Homer placed grizzled men in rowboats in his amazing watercolours of the forest. To me, having figures in landscapes, cityscapes, whatever, gives meaning to the landscape itself. It says, “What exactly does this landscape say to me? What does this landscape have to do with me?” Homer’s dead deer draped over the bow of a boat may not particularly appeal to me but it does put into perspective the time and places Homer painted in and elicits a response from me, the viewer.
Enjoy the past comments below for Staffage…
Along the Banks of Rivers
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Mrs. Munn who wrote, “Perhaps you should have used a little red canoe with a lone occupant in a big hat…”
And also Sue Williams of Port Elizabeth, South Africa who wrote, “I think the yellow boat and occupants add a focal point and interest to the painting. I love the reflections and water surface you have in the painting.”
And also Sharon Cory of Winnipeg, MB, Canada who wrote, “It looks like a Ducks Unlimited print. Better without, I think.”
And also Chi Chi Singler of Seattle, WA, USA who wrote:,”I love the folks in the boat! Allows me to be there, in the same way characters in a play allow the audience to feel things they might not otherwise feel.”
And also Gail Hodgson of Kelown, BC, Canada who wrote, “It’s the ‘yellow’ boat that bugs my eye – I would prefer if the boat/trio were ‘barely there’ with subdued color.”
And also Katherine Harris of Bracciano, Italy who wrote, “You wrote ‘these days some photographers dine out on girls in red shorts sitting on rocks.’ Is that some Canadian slang? I’m American, but have lived in Italy for over 40 years, and am out of touch with current usage.”
And also Donna Clark of the UK who wrote, “However, I feel like the whole composition is lop-sided somehow. So much weight is on the left side of the canvas where the boat is. I would be interested in reading other’s and your response to the lopsidedness issue.”
And also Ted Pankowski of Woodinville, WA, USA who wrote, “You’re also lucky! It might have turned out corny. Let us all periodically thank the gods of painting!”
And also Lori Farmer of Brandon, MS, USA who wrote, “Robert, I’m glad the devil tempted you. The boat, people and dog are fine. They belong there. I can hear the dog panting, the guys talking about who’s going to catch the first, biggest and last fish, and I can hear the clunk of the oars on the side of the boat and as they plunge into the water. Well done.”
And also Richard Mason of Pittstown, NJ, USA who wrote, “If I was an impulse buyer I’d have to whip out the plastic and make the purchase, or just attempt to do one like it myself. Thanks for asking what I think.”
And also Jan Campbell of New Port Richey, FL, USA who wrote, “I have several oil paintings that my grandmother made in the ’50s. They are very nice pieces except for the fact that she didn’t prepare the canvas properly. They are starting to flake. Is there any way I can preserve them myself?”
And also Jim Larwill who wrote the poem,
First Light on Moose Lake
Figures in landscape, reflect this landscape,
soft oar echo soothing our struggles to paint
lakes pristine silent in golden slick nativity.
Beginnings mock this anticipation of our end:
barren wind frozen teeth swallows old-timer’s
dog seeing death, as we row away from shore.
Morning glow galvanizes a metallic moment,
where all at once the cobalt of oil dark water
shimmers sudden from a bright horizon flash.