Foreground dyslexia


Dear Artist,

A Florida subscriber wrote about a problem common to landscape painters: “I paint in the impressionist style and the painting is breathtaking (my ego talking) — then I work on the foreground. If I give it too much detail it takes away from the focal point. If I don’t paint it in the style of the rest of the painting it looks like it doesn’t belong. If I tighten up on the overall details, all of a sudden the foreground is not detailed enough to match. And when I detail it more, it becomes obtrusive. I call the problem ‘Foreground Dyslexia.'”


“A View near Volterra” 1838
oil on canvas by
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796 – 1875)

This is something I’ve wrestled with, too. Here are a few useful gambits: First, make sure you properly identify what is to be the foreground. Even in abstract work, some elements are likely to be in the fore, others in the aft. Think of foreground as the primary frame for your subject matter. It’s the actor that gives depth to your vision. Try painting the foreground first and getting its design somewhat settled before you go into the main subject. Also, try loosening up or blurring the foreground. You know, in real life, when you look “out there,” the stuff “close up here” is out of focus. 


“Peasants Under the Trees at Dawn”
oil on canvas ca. 1840-45
by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot

Adding this convention gives a surprising reality to a painting. Nothing is as boring as when everything’s in equal focus. Tristram F. Rainey, an English painter living in Spain, was noted for his messy foregrounds. This habit helped his middle-grounds and backgrounds to sing. Something else: Start by thinking of your foregrounds as opportunities for eye-control. With devices like lineups, echoes, silhouettes and activation, you can start the viewer’s eye on the path of your choice.

Many of us worry. We fiddle. But things we think are a problem often aren’t. We’re not dyslexic at all. We just need to teach ourselves to put strokes down and leave them alone. You may be the only one who is aware of the true depravity of your faults. However, if your foregrounds seem to be consistently from another planet, try the simple act of painting alla prima (all at once). Be like a bee that works the whole garden. Move from flower to flower in cross-pollination.


“Cascade of Terni”
oil painting by
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot

Best regards,


PS: “I work on all parts of my painting at once, improving it very gently until I find that the effect is complete.” (Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot)

Esoterica: Corot also had the idea that the foreground ought to start 30 feet away. This is a tired old shibboleth. You can have anything you want in the foreground, and it can be as close as you want. As with the addition of the wide-angle lens to the photographer’s kit, there are new possibilities. It’s been my observation that eyes in the 21st Century are less conservative and more forgiving.

This letter was originally published as “Foreground dyslexia” on April 19, 2002.


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Earth Light Series by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, Idaho, USA

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by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, Idaho, USA


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