Saturday, May 17, 2008

Illuminated Foreground

The traditional rules of composition are passed down from teacher to student like commandments, and it’s a healthy exercise to question them from time to time. One old rule among landscape painters is to place the foreground in shadow.

Frank Wootton (1914-1998) strictly follows the convention. The shadow gives the viewer something to step over, and it makes the light in the middle distance seem more brilliant. In European and American landscape painting, this device has become so commonplace that most landscape painters do it without a second thought.

What happens if you do the exact opposite of the rule? What if you put the immediate foreground in light, load it with detail, and then throw the middle distance into shadow?

A few painters in 19th Century Russia followed the unusual practice of illuminating the foreground rather than darkening it. Ivan Shiskin (1832-1898) presents a vista of an oak in a wide valley. But we begin the journey into the picture on our hands and knees like a child, inspecting a lovingly detailed miniature landscape of weeds and grasses.

One of Shishkin’s students, Fiodor Vasilyev (1850-1873), used a similar device in his masterpiece "Wet Meadow," said to be painted from memory just before his untimely death. The cheerfully lit foreground lends added power to the stormy passage in the distance.

More on Shishkin at Olga's Gallery, link.
Fyodor Vasilyev on Wikipedia, link.


Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Flipping rules on their heads is fun. I sometimes like to reverse the "warm in the foreground, cool in the background" rule.

Rich said...

I'm working up a painting that does something else: Foreground in shadow, middle and back ground in light, big cow straddling the shadow/light line. I'd like to know if you think it works (still in progress):


Andrew said...

I don't know if it was just the style that was in vogue at the time for the Russians, but both of those paintings give off an almost magical quality to them, like it's a little unreal to see a shadow on the ground before you. I'd be curious to see if any painters from other nations attempted this as well, to see if it has the same effect.

jeff said...

If I may add 2 more painters, Thomas Moran, this one is a beauty for light affect:

Inness is another, I like how in this one he uses a band of shadow in middle to lead to the affect in the tree and the sky with a a secondary affect on the ground plain.

one more:

jeff said...

I mentioned Lopez Garcia, this youtube film of him setting up to paint in his yard is very interesting.

check out how he uses white caulking to draw a reference line on his garden wall. He also puts in spikes to mark where his feet should go.

James Gurney said...

Jeff, thanks for that Garcia YouTube link, with all the plumb lines and marking off. I don't see how the Henry Miller related to the video, though.

As far as other painters, I think some of the American followers of Ruskin, like Aaron Draper Shattuck were experimenting with the brightly lit detailed foreground. Drew, I agree that it gives a weird, magical effect.

JP said...

I was just painting today (again at Alum Rock...) and thinking about rules of painting and how I needed more experimentation.

I think the Russians are a much overlooked group of talented artists that I missed out on when I was in school. I recently discovered Ilya Repin and was truly astounded. Later, a Russian co-worker brought be a book called "Russian Impressionism" that was filled with some of the the most breathtaking art I have ever seen. Unfortunately it's out of print and goes for over $600 now!

jeff said...

Yeah I did not get the Henry Miller thing at all, I turned off the sound.
I loved how he was not happy with the height and dug himself a little ditch to lower his vantage point. I also found it interesting how he marked the tree.

There is another video of Garcia with a friend talking about the painting, he's explaining his process. It's in Spanish of course.