GWA 23: Concepts Every Artist Should Know – Background vs Foreground

What could be more simple than background vs foreground? Here is a breakdown that goes beyond the basics: 

The background is what is set further from the eye in a composition, the foreground are the objects/subjects set at the front (closer to viewer) in a composition. 
Click here for an example.

In the above example, the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci, the Mona Lisa is in the foreground, while the sky, valleys, mountains, hills, and a river and a bridge are the backgrounds to the famous painting. 

While all this seems rudimentary, there is much more here than what meets the eye. There are many decisions involved in the process of presenting the background and foreground in a painting by the artist. (As a small tangent: this idea of diving deep into rudimentary, basic, foundational principles is what separates real masters from the pretty good artists.) So what decisions are involved in the background and foreground separation of a painting like the Mona Lisa? 

  • First, there is the decision of composition. Once a clear read is established between the background and foreground, the foreground should stand out, creating a shape distinct from the rest of the picture. This shape fitting inside the picture will dictate the composition and the compositional focus. Therefore, in setting the foreground and background, the composition is the central consideration.
  • Once the decision of composition is resolved, the clear read (separation) between the foreground and background becomes the focus. Da Vinci made deliberate decisions to separate the Mona Lisa’s silhouette from the backdrop. First, he created a separation in values, the background is painted with much lighter values than the foreground. There is also a separation of hues – the background appears with bluish tints, while the foreground shows through with warmer tones (Da Vinci painted in atmospheric perspective with the blues). If we look closer, there is also a separation of contrasts, the foreground (the Mona Lisa herself) is painted with brighter, more intense color choices. There is also a separation of shapes, the background contains many smaller shapes that are not set clear, the foreground consists of larger shapes that appear more clear. Finally, there is a separation of edges

    So what we have in the Mona Lisa is the artist going to great lengths to separate the background and foreground to establish a clear read and create depth in the painting. A clear read of what we are looking at is so important in every painting that Da Vinci employs multiple factors to create a distinct separation between the subject and the background.

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