Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Where are the footlights?


In the comments after my last post, I was asked;

"I think I know what you mean by, "So don't stand trees, little guys, houses or whatever, on the frame." But would you explain a little more what you mean by:
"Throw those footlights, the beginning of the picture, out far enough that you don't have this problem. Foregrounds are tricky and the further from your feet yours begins, the easier it will be to make a convincing job of it."

Here are some recently discovered paintings of a Dutch artist buried up to his nose in a landscape. I will use those to explain what I mean.

Here is the tyro's field of vision, he intends to paint everything in his purview from the tips of his mottled brogans to the azure zenith! The lower line of his vision reaches the ground at his feet, this point is the footlights. Imagine if you and I were sitting in a theater perhaps twenty rows back from the stage. The stage represents for us the picture plane, that imaginary sheet of limpid glass between ourselves and the world, where world leaves off, and representation begins. Our tyro will fill his foreground with lots of stuff, often carefully observed and real close in.

This can be OK, and there are good paintings that do it, particularly studio paintings and Hudson River school work, often done from drawings made on location rather than painted on the location.

The problem arises when the viewer feels as if they must move their head on its stalk in order to apprehend your picture. That tends to make em uncomfortable, and also gives you the problem of representing the whole bottom third of your canvas with baroque little twisty twineys and whatnot. How much better then, to


The footlights are further from the half buried artist's eyes!
Now you are able to represent a world that appears larger and is more believably on the canvas. Your detail in the bottom third of the painting now has spacing between the elements and they are fewer. Of course we must pick and choose from natures offerings, the takings are better at this range.

Please now, turn to your pamphlets and see for yourselves the thousands of wonderful landscapes where this principle of establishing our FOOTLIGHTS somewhat further forward (than his been our natural inclination for so long,) has provided great landscape paintings. Surely, with so much, really too much, world before us to represent, we can spare the closest parts if it gains us a commensurate space for the larger view.


Philip Koch said...

The really remarkable thing about the recently discovered Dutch artist buried up to his nose was that he could paint at all. Everytime I've tried this I couldn't move my hands. Those crafty Dutch!

Couldn't agree more about the foreground and the nasty problems it so often creates for landscape painters. Rarely does a close up and detailed foreground syncronize with a far distance.

If there's somthing right in front of you that just looks fantastic, maybe what you really ought to do is do a separate canvas as a "nature study" of just the thing alone. Then do another canvas that's focusing on the middleground and far distance.

For me it was looking at lots of images of Inness, Dutch masters (not the buried guy), Winslow Homer, Friedrich, Hopper, etc. that opened my eyes to the richer possibilities of the forms farther in the distance.

Bill said...

I couldn't agree more. The analogy in photography is that of using a longer lens instead of a wide angle - it's actually quite difficult to pull off good wide angle photographs. My 50mm lens (which is actually equivalent to about the same field of view as a 75 mm lens on the old 35mm film cameras) always feels sort of restricting to me because it offers a pretty narrow range of view, and my tendency is to want the wider view, but I get more good photographs with it than I do with the wide angle zoom lens. It forces one to be more selective. It's important to apply that same discipline to selection and cropping when composing your landscape painting.

That said, there are cases where the wider view works brilliantly.

Clem Robins said...

didn't Corot say to begin your foreground fifty feet away?

Painting Tips and Tricks said...

Great art work! I like how you did the landscape! Thanks for sharing this!...Daniel

willek said...

Terrific post, Stape.

James Gunter said...

Thank you for this post! And thanks to those who provided the helpful comments! I'll be sure to leaf through my "pamphlets" and study those landscapes with this principle in mind.

So, our "Dutch artist buried up to his nose in a landscape" wears glasses, too?

Plein Air Gal said...

Great post! The foreground issue is something that I struggle with and part of the problem (for me - and maybe a lot of others) is also the fact that in reality the nearer foreground is not within our focal range and should actually be vague and fuzzy because when you focus on an object in the distance, what's close to you is NOT in focus ... but we tend to look at the close object (readjusting our focus on IT) in order to paint it and wind up putting in detail that shouldn't be there. Maybe that's the reason for Corot's "50 foot rule"? I'd love it if you could continue with more posts on this problem!

clarkola said...

Another related query-how to keep one eye on unity and one on details...how to get the whole impression (unity)without it turning into a blurry, post eye exam mush-world? To give JUST enough detail to guide the viewer over the footlights to see what's on the other side? But not SO much as to make it a "why bother"situation.
(My father used to answer a simple algebra question in such length and detail I had to stop asking)

Libby Fife said...

It sounds like you are suggesting to add details farther back (details of the foreground such as a leafy bush or rocks or something) and to generalize and edit out items closer to the bottom frame of the picture. Is this what you mean?

Stapeliad said...

Dear Stape,
It is possible that I am just not very smart because i have read this post slowly about 5 times and i am still confused, but I want to understand what you are saying.

I get what you mean about the foreground starting further away, that makes sense, but other than the angle drawn differently in the example painting, it is the same painting, I guess I am looking for an example of how it should look different to compare them. Perhaps I am just focusing on the wrong thing and missing the point and being dense, for that I sincerely apologize.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Close in foregrounds are a nuisance.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I never understood that photography stuff.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It might have been meters.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Painting etc.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

He was a customer of Von Leeuwenhoek.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Plein air;
My suggestion is that you not paint it rather than adjusting your focus and edges yet still represent the tips of your mottled brogans.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The footlights are the bottom lip of the frame.

Stapleton Kearns said...

No, I mean to begin your picture further away.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will soon discover another Dutch painting that will explain the idea more fully, I hope.

stapeliad said...

I get it now Stape, by brain clicked on finally, thanks!