Art Term Tuesday: Foreground, Middle Ground, Background

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

When reading about a work of art, be it on a label or in a book, you’ll often find the writer discussing the artwork’s composition, or layout. Have you ever wondered how writers know where to begin when discussing a work of art? With the figures? With the surroundings? With the symbols? What if it’s non-representational, or abstract? There is actually a safe rule of thumb when figuring out where to start looking at a work of art, whether representational or not, and there are three steps: foreground, middle ground, and background.

Foreground is the part of the view or composition that is nearest to the observer, especially in a picture or photograph; in other words, it’s going to be the part of the painting, print, photograph, or drawing that is closest to you or appears the largest. Middle ground is the space naturally occurring between the foreground and background; essentially, it’s the middle part of our composition. Finally we have the background, the area or scenery behind the main object of contemplation, especially when perceived as a framework for it. This will be the part of the composition that looks like it’s furthest away from your eye. Let’s investigate these terms visually:

Our first work, an 1851 landscape painting by George Winter titled Scene on the Wabash, gives us a straightforward template for observing foreground, middle ground, and background. Upon first glance we can see that the objects closest to us are the shoreline, which takes up most of the bottom of the painting, and the trees making up the edge of a forest to our right. It creates a frame that leads us to the middle ground via the tree arching towards the left from the riverbank. This tree points the eye to a visually smaller tree standing high above its surroundings on our left. While we can tell that it’s a tall tree, Winter has created a sense of depth by making the tree look smaller than its counterparts on our right. The middle ground also encompasses the small islands in the center of the river, as they’re on the same horizontal plane as our tree. The background is seen behind this tree and the islands, and is comprised of a distant shoreline of trees and the sky. While we can use our visual cue of smaller trees in the distance to tell us that it’s the background, Winter has also employed another tool: atmospheric perspective. This means that he has given areas of the painting that are further in the distance a blueish hue, much like we would observe when looking at the natural horizon in the outside world.

George Winter, American, b. England, 1810-1876. Scene on the Wabash. Oil on canvas, 1851. Gift of the E.M. DeFrees Collection, 1952.11. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

We can see how relatively simple it can be to use foreground, middle ground, and background in a representational work of art, but can it be used to decipher an abstract work of art? Yes it can. While we may not be able to pick apart what exactly an artist is portraying in their work, we can still utilize our tools in a compositional sense. We’ll look at two examples of varying abstraction, Engron’s Untitled and Bock-Tobolski’s Time Feeling.

Take a look at Mae Alice Engron’s painting, Untitled, below. This works resembles looking through a telescope or pipe, and the entire foreground creates a dark frame around a central circle. We can tell that this is the foreground and not the background (as many negative space areas tend to be) because the drips coming down the front center come from deeper within the composition, which appears to be a small hill or mound above the bottom of the circle. Within this circle we have the entire middle and background. What looks like an abstract house on a hill surrounded by blue tendrils makes up our middle ground, and it dominates the composition when juxtaposed with the darkness of the foreground. The background is understated in comparison, as it’s simply pale yellows and oranges behind our drippy, cobweb covered house on a hill. This painting is interesting as it shows us how the different levels of a composition can interact with and overlap one another, as seen with the drips protruding from the middle ground to the foreground, rather than simply receding into space as with Winter’s landscape.

Mae Alice Engron, American, 1933-2007. Untitled. Oil on canvas, 20th century. Purchase with funds provided by the June E. Enoch Collection Fund, 2020.183. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Our second abstract work, Marilyn Bock-Tobolski’s ink on paper Good Time Feeling, poses more of a challenge. At first glance, below, you may think that the darker swaths of ink are our top layer, or foreground – I certainly did at first! Upon closer inspection, however, we see that the solid, bare areas around it are in fact the foreground, and the darker areas of ink are the background. The way Bock-Tobolski has constructed this work is reminiscent of when you wipe fog or steam from a window or mirror – the condensation is the top layer, which is wiped away to reveal the reflection beneath. So, if we continue with our foggy mirror or window metaphor, that’s what we first have with our solid, bare spaces on the composition – the “condensation” on the top of our composition. We’ve also already discussed the background as the black swaths of ink, revealed when the top layer is wiped away. But that leaves us with the middle ground – where could that possibly be in this aggressively abstract composition? The middle ground in fact lives as the droplets of black and dripping areas of remaining condensation in the wiped areas. While these sections contain elements of both the foreground and background, they are what bridges the two disparate areas of foreground and middle ground and truly give this work of art depth. Through the black droplets we can see glimpses of more background, and in the dripping areas of white we can see where only partial areas were wiped clean. Even though we may not know what we’re looking at, we can still decipher how Bock-Tobolski put together their composition to find visual depth and movement.

Marilyn Bock-Tobolski, American, b. 1941. Good Time Feeling. Ink on paper. Purchase with funds provided by the Weatherhead Foundation, 1974.40. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The next time you’re looking at a work of art, perhaps you’ll feel more confident in not only deciphering what the composition objectively holds, but perhaps even discussing how the artist has portrayed it. All you need to do is start with the foreground in the front and follow the artwork to its middle ground and into its background.

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