Foreground dyslexia


Dear Artist,

Mel Zeoli of Florida wrote, “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.’ ”

Thanks for that, Mel. This is something that 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 that is “close up here” is out of focus. Adding this convention gives a surprising reality to a painting. Nothing is as boring as when everything’s in equal focus. Tristan 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 are worry-warts. We fiddle. But things we think are bad, 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.

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.

The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.


by Susan von Borstel, Garden Valley, California, USA

“With devices like lineups, echoes, silhouettes and activation you can start the viewer’s eye on the path of your choice.” Where can I find out more about these devices?

(RG note) Lineups: Lines and edges in compositional elements can be picked up in other parts of the painting. A simple way to do this is to lay a curved or straight edge across strong elements in order to find out where they might be carried on in other areas. If it’s overdone your work will look like the ‘twenties fashion of “Vorticism” or moderne in the ’30s art deco sense. If subtle, your compositions will become stronger.

Echoes: Shapes formed in one area are repeated in different sizes and configurations in others. This can also be blatant or subtle. If subtle they give a unity and an implied harmony to the design and composition. They can be quite unconscious. Further, they can be in negative or positive space, and they can be partially implied.

Silhouettes: How valuable is the silhouette. It sets the mind in motion to contrive the inner complexity of the motif. Used as a foil it can offset and contrast the more form-filled areas of your work. While adding mystery and paucity, silhouettes, by the calculated manipulation of their edges, can be used to echo and sculpt other compositional elements.

Activation: Think of activation as stepping stones for the eye. Leaves on a branch, lilies on a pond, cloudlets across a sky contrive to take the eye on a chase. If you place them in a somewhat circular way or curve them back in on themselves you will keep your viewer’s eye on your work, within your picture plane, rather than off to the work of the guy next door.

These and other devices can arrive quite automatically and without conscious planning. They can also be identified, thought out, and put in as a desired effect. Both are valid approaches.


Ban them
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada


by Jane Champagne

Foregrounds should be banned — at least until the painter is capable of deciding whether to paint a foreground, middle ground, or background painting — good old rule of thirds. Once that decision is made, focus on the chosen “ground,” leave the rest out of focus, or less focused, and the problem solves itself. It is astonishing how many students stick in a foreground half the size of the painting, just because they think they “should” — then wonder what’s wrong. If only the elements of composition were taught in art classes.


Warm them up
by Jack Wahl, Tucson, AZ, USA

If you also make the colors come forward by slightly warming them and with a few small hard edges in lead-in areas, it helps give more depth without taking anything away from the focal point.


Foregrounds looming
by Sandra Bierman, Boulder, Colorado, USA


by Sandra Bierman

My foregrounds are always large looming figures, but the backgrounds are usually outdoor vague backdrops to enhance my figures. One of the works I am doing now has a large Mexican woman grinding corn on a stone. The background is the loose, lush Hawaiian influence. It seems to go well with the Mexican corn grinder to make an interesting and vibrant painting. Yet, intellectually, it makes no sense. How do you feel about that? Also, I find that beginning a painting is most fun and exciting. It is suddenly there — to be finished. The finishing details are often like the interior carpentry of building a house. It takes more time and care. However, I have to remind myself to step away, work on something else or take a break, so that I can see it fresh, before overworking it or getting caught up in doing something that can diminish the whole. Also, when I get stuck on what to do next, I can suddenly see what it is asking for, after I have been away from it for a while. When we blindly keep working, we sometimes do less, not more.


Foreground elements
by Bill Kerr

Snow is a great solution to ongoing foreground chores. Water works too and of course the pond at Giverny will fit nicely into impressionist themes. Foregrounds can be a burden and when I put them down and take a mental break I will seek the uniform foreground. I was in a bit of a foreground frenzy when your last letter arrived. Finally a largish landscape of a portion of the Fraser Canyon was spruced up with some foreground fireweed. The fireweed of varying heights framed the bottom of the picture as did the Canyon walls for the river and what with its complimentary colour distracted the eye from the general ground cover growth while becoming a worthy element of the picture.


Copyright problem
by Marjorie

When is it legal to sell another person’s painting? For example, I have been told: If the painter that you copy from has been dead for over 50 years. As long as you change 10% of your painting. As long as you put the artist’s name on the painting. For example: “Joe Smith, after Rembrandt,” etc. Your help would be appreciated. This can also be a problem when a person is learning and they learn from another artist’s painting.

(RG note) This question comes along about every three months and there are two sides to it. One is the legal side. The other is the moral side. Your figures for the legal side are correct. There are some exceptions, of course, such as where the family or heirs of an artist’s copyright decides to renew or keep renewing copyright protection after the 50 year automatic copyright. With regard to the moral side — I don’t have a problem with copying work for the purpose of learning and growing. I just don’t believe in entering closely copied work into shows or competitions, or selling it. Once before, when this question came in I asked my friend Joe Blodgett to answer — knowing that he was even more adamant than myself. Here’s what he wrote:

“The artist whose work you copy and which you wish to sell should have been dead for 1580 years. If you are not sure when he or she died then don’t paint it and definitely don’t sell it. This sort of thing could make things difficult for you in Painter’s Heaven. You could be up to your neck in raw umber for an eternity. How do you know what 10% is? Could “The Last Supper” be adequately changed by taking out one-point-two of the apostles? Could you paint the “Second to Last Supper”? What if your name was Da Vinci? ‘George Da Vinci after Leonardo Da Vinci’ ?”


Canvas addition
Chris Bourseau, Bensenville, IL, USA

I have an oil painting in need of more canvas. Specifically, there is a 42 x 46 inch canvas, completely finished, in need of about 6 inches of length and 10 inches of width of new canvas needed for presentation. I would allow approximately 2 inches around for a new stretcher, giving a 48 by 48 inch final presentation. Would you advise simply adhering the smaller piece onto a larger piece that is at final size? Or, can you patch into it, to conserve weight and canvas? Should I lap the ends, or try butting the canvas? I plan on using oil sizing for the adhesive. Any assistance you could provide would be welcome.

(RG note) This is another difficult one. I’m presuming the problem is that you want to join on and extend the canvas — with or without new painting on the extra bits. Surprisingly there are lots of examples of artists doing this—mainly for compositional reasons that they didn’t anticipate when starting out. Sargent, Velasquez, Monet, etc. In the good old days they used to butt and sew with the selvedge tucked behind. I’d be inclined to cut sharply and butt, while laying an acrylic glued strip to the back. You might also consider stitching with linen thread on either side of the cut. This is not “invisible mending.” I have to say that I get a kick out of seeing pieces sewed onto historical paintings. It helps me realize even more that the masters were not always flawless in their initial thinking. Needless to say, if you attempt any of this you will have to remove the canvas from the current stretcher and then re-stretch to the final size.


The kitchen sink
by Suzette Boulais

For such a philosophical fellow as you are, this question may seem rather small, yet to me, it’s something I must contend with. I use the medium of acrylics and I have ruined my upstairs kitchen sink — I’ve used Comet and Bleach on it (it’s a white sink, the material bathtubs are made out of) — and it now has unremoveable stains in it. Do you recommend stainless steel sinks? If so, I’m thinking of putting in a new one, as the one I’ve got now looks like total hell.

(RG note) The unsightliness that you are seeing and feeling may be slightly offset in a positive way in that it will quietly alert visitors to your upstairs kitchen that you are in the art business. If there is no one but you who sees the sink then you have no choice but to switch to stainless steel. I know of no chemical that will deep-clean acrylic-stained porcelain. Whitestrips?


by Tania Bourne

I was in a lot of painting clubs, but now have dropped all but one. That is still a learning experience. However, I have become tied up in the administration of the one I am still in. Next season will be worse (like totally in charge). I am concerned this will take away from painting time, which is already scarce, since I’m still a working gal. (I have several largish commissions to honor.) How much does an artist “owe”? How much should we feel obligated to “give back”? I don’t want to be selfish; neither do I want to spend time “helping” if the sacrifice costs my artistic advancement.

(RG note) Clubs are for people who enjoy clubs. Fellowship and a sense of community are important for some, and art clubs and associations fill this need. Guilt and a sense of obligation need not enter the equation. You need not feel bad about your situation. I think artists should approach clubs for what they get out of them. And when they get it, they should drop the club. There are plenty of ways of giving back to the community without attending meetings. A good way to operate is to remain on the roster, receive the bulletins, and show up when there is something you think might be valuable. I know it’s often difficult for art clubs to keep vital executives. But they always welcome a smiling face. A previous letter and a range of correspondence on the subject of clubs is at


Lighten up
by Chili, Whistler, BC. Canada

I have recently been commissioned to do a large piece of local scenery. I have run into a snag with my painting, I work in acrylics, and was wondering if you could offer up some advice. I have made my sky too dark and was wondering if you knew of a technique with washes or glazes that could help to lighten the sky.

(RG note) Try glazing with titanium white — well thinned with water and medium. This can be done, but it often doesn’t work too well. Being acrylic it’s easier to remix and repaint the sky in the colour you want. Try to look at this as a way to “improve” the painting, rather than to “fix” the sky. “An inconvenience is an unrecognized opportunity.” (Confucius)






“Foreground Interest” Sara Genn


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