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Creating Distance in Landscapes: Foreground, Middle Ground, & Background

by | Mar 1, 2022 | Art Lessons | 0 comments

This month’s blogs post are all on the theme of creating distance in landscape painting. In painting we have these magical (okay, totally not magic, but feels like it!) ways of creating 3D space on a 2D surface. This week we are starting with the basics. Many paintings, especially landscapes, have three sections in them: Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background.

In this post, I will describe things they way they are generally… please remember that the art police aren’t coming to get you if you break these rules. Lots of fun paintings do play with the rules. I like to tell my students, “You learn the rules so that you can decide which ones you want to break.”

How a Landscape Painting is Organized

The background is at the top of the page, and the foreground at the bottom. If you imagine standing outside, the part of the landscape that is closest to you is at your feet. This is the same way we organize a painting because it is how we see the world.

Common Aspects of the Different Areas

The foreground is going to have:

  • The most details
  • The most contrast (darkest darks)
  • The most saturated colors
  • The warmest colors (Warm colors advance, cool colors recede)
  • Larger objects/subjects

Middle ground is going to have:

  • Something to help you understand scale. (A person, a tree, a house…)
  • Less contrast than the foreground
  • A bit more blue-shifted light
  • Objects may appear flatter since they have less details
  • Often a similar object as in the foreground, but less detailed and smaller.

Background is going to have:

  • Usually going to have sky
  • Almost always lighter in value than the land
  • Very far off places need to have more muter (more white & blue added to the colors used in the foreground or middle ground). We will go into this more later in the post about Atmospheric Perspective.


Let’s look at all of this in a painting. 

landscape painting showing foreground middle ground and background
Albert Bierstadt, Lake Lucerne, 1858. 72 inches x 120 inches. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.71503.html

Can you tell what is in the foreground? I see the rocky landscape, small flowers, a dirt road. This leads towards dark trees. There are people camping out there with a small campfire going. (I provided the link to the image if you want to zoom in, the National Gallery of Art’s website allows you too. Which is very helpful on a large painting like this one.) How much detail can you see? Quite a bit! The fern has individual fronds, there are flowers blooming, and the rocks have lots of texture. How about contrast? Lots – look a a rock. It goes from light to dark. Compare the colors to the background sky. They are much more saturated in the foreground. 

Let’s explore the middle ground. Objects are smaller. Look how small the road is now. This scale change is a great way to create more distance. How about value changes? Not as much as the foreground. The drastic darks have given away to more even light. And, then the mountains climb up. I’d make the case that the beginning of those mountains are in the middle ground. 

There is a slow transition to the background in the mountains. It can be hard to draw a line and say “here is middle, here is the back.” And that is okay. Nature is like that, too. Compare the color of the mountains farthest away. There is so much sky color in them that they blend in. Color and value-wise, those mountains have more in common with the sky than the foreground! 

Practice Ideas

Draw out a few thumbnail sketches (small sketches with no details). Make sure each sketch has a foreground, middle ground, and background.  Try adding the same subject matter to the foreground and middle ground. What had to change to show where in the pictorial plane they are located?

Look at your favorite paintings (or any paintings!): 

  • Is there a foreground, middle ground, and background?
  • Try looking at something aside from landscapes. How is this applied to a still life, for example?

Do you have any favorite paintings that break these rules? Why do you think the artist did that?