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Art Masterclass   

                      September 2010

Each month presents a feature from either The Artist or its sister publication, Leisure Painter.     

Art masterclass            

From The Artist, the monthly magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters, giving practical instruction in painting and drawing in watercolour, pastels and oils, as well as news of art events, exhibitions and competitions open to leisure artists;   


How to Paint Foregrounds

David Bellamy

Often the most accident prone time in the development of a painting comes after spending hours on the main features, then having to tackle the foreground. The last thing you want to do is spoil a pleasing work with a badly painted or over-worked foreground.

Farm near Landshipping, by David Bellamy

Farm near Landshipping
by David Bellamy


Hill farm



Hill Farm (detail), watercolour on Saunders Waterford 140lb NOT paper,
7x11in. (18x28cm).
This foreground shows an example in the use of broken colour with a few blobs of paint here and there.

It is tempting to add a little bit more detail to create a sense of depth, fill in an empty bit or add a feature to balance the composition, but when do you stop?

There is no recipe to ensure an ideal foreground that fits all compositions: indeed, how boring that would be! For the less experienced artist, though, by reducing the various types of foreground to a basic four possibilities,

it will help to make your choice easier. Obviously between these different types of foregrounds, the degree of variation is infinitesimal, but they will offer you a sound structure on which to base your compositions.



The easiest type of foreground to paint is the simple one, although it is usually the hardest to leave alone. Apart from leaving the paper white, the ultimate in simplicity is a flat wash of colour. This, however, can be supplemented with an overlaid wash of broken colour, perhaps some spatter and a few dabs of paint to suggest a leadin to the centre of interest. Resist the urge to fill the foreground with spikes of grass, endless fence-posts or boulders. If you feel such urges coming on it might be a good idea to paint two versions of the same scene: one in the simple manner and the other with your detailed response. By comparing the two versions you will learn a lot about foreground treatment. Hill Farm (above) is a good example of the simple approach, which is ideal when you have a detailed focal point in the middle distance.

FEATURES that benefit a foreground

Here are a few suggestions of features that can often enhance a foreground, and are useful if you are short of detail or need to substitute something for an ugly feature:

  • Puddles – especially if an object can be reflected in them.
  • Tracks, paths, river or lane leading to the focal point, even if intermittent.
  • Ropes, chains, seaweed or sandy/muddy channels leading up to a boat.
  • Flowers, plants, bushes, reeds, bracken, boulders, rocks.
  • Shadows cast across the foreground.
  • Pheasants, geese, chickens, cats, dogs and small beasts preferably of a species common to the location



Norfolk Wetlands, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 140lb NOT paper, 81⁄4x121⁄4in. (21x31cm). This example of a detailed foreground limits the actual detail to one side, and has the effect of creating a sense of space by pushing the trees further into the picture. Foreground detail is fine so long as it is not overworked.

Norfolk Wetlands

Strong detail with dark tones and warm colours in the foreground is an excellent way to suggest a sense of depth in a landscape painting, but take care to avoid over-working. Many artists enjoy highly detailed work and it is not my intention to inhibit this enjoyment, particularly as many simply wish to paint for themselves or their families. Studies of plants, flowers, wildlife and many other subjects benefit from the detailed approach, but, in a landscape painting, while such features can enhance a foreground, an excess of this can detract from the overall composition. Paintings need quiet areas and if everything is too busy there will be little sense of calm or tranquillity. How far you take this matter of detail therefore depends on your individual feeling. Negative detail that detracts from any composition often manifests itself in the form of fences, walls and hedgerows strung right across the foreground, thus creating a barrier between the viewer and the centre of interest. Even a gate, unless it is open, does not alleviate this. In Norfolk Wetlands (above) this type of detail covers only half the foreground. Fences, walls and hedgerows can, however, act as useful leadins towards a centre of interest provided they are not over elaborate. Plants, flowers, bushes, rocks, water and small boats can punctuate the foreground with sufficient detail to work well, while trees to one side can form a frame to a focal point in the middle distance. Birds such as pheasants, geese or chickens can add considerable interest and colour, although I tend to push larger animals further into the composition to support the centre of interest. Detail can be useful in the foreground, but is best not overdone.

Afon Claerwen




Afon Claerwen, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 140lb NOT paper, 71⁄2x51⁄2in. (19x14cm). In this small watercolour I vignetted the stones and pebbles so that they tail off in the immediate foreground, a useful method if there is a lot of repetitive detail in the foreground.


The third type of foreground is the vignette. This device is often employed in foregrounds where there is a vast amount of repetitive detail such as grasses, reeds, pebbles, scree, massed wild flowers and so on. One method I use in watercolour is to paint a certain amount of the detail then, once it has dried, gently sponge off the extremities with clean water and a natural sponge. This fades out some of the outer detail in an attractive manner. A second approach is to suggest some of the detail - pebbles, for instance - and gradually as you work further down the paper in the foreground put in less pebbles until, rather like a tail, you only have one or two depicted at the bottom, possibly even detached from the rest. A weak wash, perhaps fading out at the edges, can also enhance the effect and introduce a little variation into the foreground without overlabouring. This I have done with Afon Claerwen (above).



When there is a lot of ugly clutter in the foreground of a scene I sometimes use a semi-abstract method. I found, for example, when working on industrial subjects such as coal mines (below) that much of this clutter comprised all manner of assorted rubbish, including old bedsteads and a kitchen sink! The answer is to suggest shapes based on industrial objects or natural forms without being specific. You can introduce strong or different colours, running them into one another, perhaps with some brush spatter. As with normal foreground detail, try not to overdo it. Keep parts of the foreground relatively free of detail. An abstracted suggestion of half a tractor tyre, painted bright green and emerging from loosely defined undergrowth, can have strong appeal when thoughtfully designed. I hope these methods give you food for thought when working out your next composition. And if you are unsure about whether the painting is finished or not, then put it away for a few days, and look afresh at it with a cut mount surrounding it. As for that extra bit of detail in the foreground – if in doubt, leave it out!

Taff Merthyr Colliery Taff Merthyr Colliery, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 140lb NOT paper, 8x7in. (20x18cm). A river runs into the picture but, on this occasion, I decided to play it down and highlight the massive pile of rubbish on the left bank. By making it semi-abstract with a suggestion of industrial detritus, it is in keeping with the subject. I scraped paint diagonally down with a piece of card, pressed a shampoo bottle top coated with red and blue paint into the immediate foreground, and then drew in further suggested detail with a No. 4 brush. The warmer colours contrast the sombre mood of the background pitheads


Tranquil evening on the Cleddau


Tranquil Evening on the Cleddau, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 140lb NOT paper, 8x12in. (20.5x30.5cm). Here I tweaked the foreground to suit the composition with two devices I commonly find useful. The first is to create a little inlet of water to act as a lead-in to the centre of interest, a tactic that can be effective with lakes, the sea or broad rivers. Secondly, the addition of a weed-hung post adds a sense of balance on the left-hand side as well as breaking up the foreground shoreline. Neither of these features were present in this position, but they are common along the river in places.


DEMONSTRATION Farm near Landshipping

The original sketch from which I worked showed absolutely no detail in the foreground. I see no point in drawing featureless areas and prefer to create my own. So before beginning to paint, I decided to place a puddle in the foreground, but waited until the latter stages of the painting before deciding precisely where to place it. I deliberately chose a sheet of Saunders Waterford 140lb Rough paper to
emphasise the ragged edges to the clouds.




Saunders Waterford
140lb Rough 7x9in. (18x23cm)


Cobalt blue
Naples yellow
Raw sienna
French ultramarine
Cadmium red
Light red
Burnt umber
Raw umber



step 1


1. Draw the features with a 3B pencil.
2. Brush cobalt blue across the paper, working round the cloud shapes. By adding water to the mix, the blue in the outer parts of the sky will become less intense.
3. Apply Naples yellow to the lower sky and bring raw sienna down into the field.
4. Leave to dry




step 2STEP TWO

1. Lay a mix of French ultramarine and cadmium red to suggest the distant trees and darker righthand cloud.
2. Run raw sienna into the lower part of the wash, and light red around the house.
3. Paint the trunk and main branches of the tall tree using French ultramarine with burnt umber, fading it a little at the bottom of the trunk.
4. Use a fine brush, such as a rigger, and the same mixture for the fine branches.
5. Paint the roof with French ultramarine and cadmium red.




1. Add the mass of trees on the right with the same French ultramarine and burnt umber mixture, then lay weak French ultramarine and cadmium red over the upper parts to suggest the mass of twigs and branches.
2. For the hedgerows, use raw sienna, burnt umber and some light red in places.
3. Draw the puddle, positioning it so as to reflect the tree.
4. Lay raw sienna across the field, avoiding the puddle.




1. Render fence posts and hedge detail with French ultramarine and burnt umber.
2. Wash clear water over the puddle and drop in the dark trunk reflection. Then, where the puddle recedes towards the house, add a weak French ultramarine and cadmium red mix to bring in some tonal variation to the water.
3. Apply broken colour in the form of raw umber to the field, and the dark puddle surrounds with French ultramarine and burnt umber.
4. Finish the foreground with some spatter from the same mixture.




Leisure Painter





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