Look at the work of Claude Lorrain and Turner. Write notes on how those artists divide their landscapes into foreground, middle ground and background.
Landscape with Apollo Guarding the Herds of Admetus and Mercury stealing them
This image shows me that defining foreground, middle ground and background is not simply a case of dividing the picture up using horizontal lines.
Foreground: the seated figure.
Middle ground: the figure herding with the cattle and the tall trees, also the bridge.
Background: the castle on the left, the indistinct row of trees and the hills/mountains in the far distance.
The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba
This is a little trickier to analyse:
Foreground: figures in the boat and on the bank at the immediate front of the picture and the column / building on the left.
Middle ground: the building on the right with people on the stepped quayside, as well as the boat moored alongside the steps.
Background: The remaining indistinct boat and the turreted bridge / tower and distant trees.
It’s interesting to note that foreground, middle ground and background do not necessarily each use up one third of the picture plane. I guess that much will depend on where the artist chooses to place the horizon line and whether taller foreground objects are used. Having said that, each of the divisions do seem to represent roughly a third of the picture in this instance.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775‑1851)
This is an interesting exercise as Turner’s work became increasingly suffused with light and less distinct as he progressed, so perhaps analysing an earlier and later work is the best approach here.
The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl
Foreground: the light on the ground, foliage at the front and area of glowing light immediately behind the foliage.
Middle ground: the figure and the trees.
Background: the mountains, cliff, building, quayside etc.
The Sun of Venice Going to Sea
Foreground: the rippling water and reflection of the boat.
Middle ground: The three boats, including the sail of the centre one.
Background: Indistinct outlines of the buildings of Venice in the far distance.
Learning / observations from this exercise
- Even quite abstract work often has some form of more detailed foreground, less detailed middle ground and indistinct background.
- Foreground, middle ground and background do not necessarily each use up one third of the picture plane.
- Foreground, middle ground and background are not simply divisions of a picture using horizontal lines.
- Foreground can be things like rippling waves, textured earth, light reflecting off the ground, etc.
- The main focus of the picture is not always part of the more detailed foreground. Use of a foreground, middle ground etc, is a device to help create a sense of distance, not a way of telling the viewer what the main object is.
I got more from this exercise than I anticipated at the outset!