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Setting The Stage With A Dark Foreground

by Lori Woodward on 6/1/2011 9:11:03 AM

Today's post is by Lori Woodward.  Lori earned a bachelor's degree in Art Education from the University of Arizona.  As a freelance writer for various art publications, she has written more than 60 published articles for  American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and International Artist Magazines since 1996. Her paintings, along with instructional articles, have been featured in Watercolor Magazine since 2007, and in American Artist's Highlights Issue, Step by Step 2011, with the article: "Moving into Acrylics".  Woodward has co-authored the book, "Watercolor Step by Step" a Walter Foster Publication, and authored a chapter for Calvin Goodman's "Art Marketing Handbook for the 21st Century".  She has been a member of the Putney Painters since 2004, a small invitational group of painters who are mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.


During the late 1990's, I studied during summers with Sondra Freckelton and Jack Beal. Sondra taught the most amazing watercolor class, in that she knew every property of watercolor materials and technique, her husband Jack instructed about composition principles. I attended 6 or so summers and came away with an incredibly valuable education.


In this blog, I'll demonstrate a compositional concept that Jack Beal taught each summer... what he called, "The Door Jamb". Essentially, it boils down to this: Using a darkened foreground causes the viewer's gaze to step over the foreground and into the middle and far ground.  Some instructors call this tool, a foil.  In any case, I think of it as a curtain at the side foreground or a dark step at the bottom of the painting - that sets the base of the stage for the more important areas farther away. Incidentally, after I learned about this from Jack, I began to notice this concept in paintings everywhere - in magazine articles, museums, and galleries.


Above: Two paintings by Edgar Payne, where he casts the foreground into shadow. This tool, "the door jamb" causes the viewer to gaze around or over the area at the side or bottom of the painting and into lighter elements in the distance.


The door jamb application has largely fallen out of use with living artists, but I have seen it used here and there by representational artists. It's not a trick or something to be used on every painting - It's just a tool, and even historically, artists used it... sometimes, but not all the time. I use it because I like the way it looks, and it makes rendering a detailed foreground less complex because when it's cast in shadow,  the values are tied closely together.


BELOW: #1 a plein air sketch I did in Putney VT - #2, Vermont Fields - by Lori Woodward, oil 12x18. The second painting is a re-designed interpretation of this scene. Here, I employed the door jamb look by making-up the foreground and placing it in shadow. This brings the viewer's attention to the lighter areas in the distant hills and accents the tree where its dark value meets the lighter distant hills.



Below: #1- plein air watercolor sketch.  #2 - Jordan Pond by Lori Woodward 10x15 acrylic. On the 2nd painting, I designed the painting with a dark foreground jamb on the left so that the mountains in the distance command the scene. The darkened door jamb makes a complex foreground less important than the farground.


BELOW: Rosy Dusk, by Harriet Winchester Pastel 12x18. A friend of mine, Harriet Winchester, used the door jamb tool in her painting below. Not only did she darken the trees on the left, but she also re-designed the painting by moving the distant mountain into view - over the stream. In reality, the mountain cannot be seen from this vantage point, but this is one of the ways artists can tell the visual story their way.



Rosy Dusk, by Harriet Winchester Pastel 12x18


Below: The two examples: #1 by NC Wyeth,The White Company,  and #2 by Vermeer, Officer and Laughting Girl,  both show how artists can form a door jamb (darkened foreground) with figures. Door Jambs work for other subjects as well as for landscapes.




There are many more examples I could have included here, but doing so would make this newsletter too "big" to download easily. Here are two more examples - BELOW: #1 by Frederick Mulhaupt, Hailing From Gloucester, and #2 by Henry Pember Smith, Gathering Wood. Squint at these paintings below and you'll clearly see the silhouette of the door jamb.





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Related Posts:

Painting in the Midday Sun

Warm Light Makes Cooler Shadows

Why Painting From Life Matters

Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration | Lori Woodward 

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mimi torchia boothby watercolors
my naivete is showing, but wow, that's a great idea! I will try it out on my next painting. thanks for the wonderful examples. It certainly improved the composition IMHO in the examples you showed.

Debbie Flood
I've been painting this way for a couple of years now. I never knew there was a term for it, or that it really existed as a tool!
It was something that worked with working out my composition and my light direction and source.
Thank you for my "giggle" of the day.(I mean that in the nicest way.)

Debbie Flood

jack white
This is a great topic and one all artists who paint should pay close attention to.

The old masters called this the threshold. Like the threshold of a door. This allows the visual ability to step over the threshold into the image. I think the reason the majority of plein air painters works look alike is the failure to include the threshold. Most of the time in nature this is not present. We have to force a cloud or tree shade into the image.

Being an ex-builder contractor I think the jamb is the vertical supports holding the door frame. If my memory is correct??? (smile) jack

Lori Woodward
Hi Jack... the "other Jack" calls it a door jamb, but I'm thinking that Jack Beal often sited it as a dark stand of trees or figure at the side of the foreground. He too showed how it forces the viewer to jump or walk over the shadow and into the posterior of the painting.

Jack, Threshold is probably a better word for the concept. Thanks for your contribution here Jack. I have seen Michael Godfrey use it recently - as well as Frank Serrano. It's amazing how adding a Threshold grabs attention.

Ateliers call it a "foil", but really, when I use that word, I can't think of anything but aluminum.
(big smile).

I've seen this device used very often in the Dutch old masters landscape paintings at the LA Museum of Art. Quite a good way to minimize the foreground and throw the interest to the middleground/background. Thanks for the good reminder.

Lori Woodward
That's right Karen... it does minimize the foreground! Because I enjoy detail, it's helped me to calm that area down.

Carol Schmauder
I have never heard of this technique. Thank you for presenting it here in this blog. I have noticed the application of this technique in some of the paintings I have seen in museums, and I think it is wonderful. It gives the painting more depth. Thank you for the article, Lori.

Debbie Flood
I hope no one was offended by my "giggle" comment. I was giggling for myself, having already been applying this way of painting.
Kind of like a "Yay, I got something right".
I wasn't giggling at the blog post or the importance of it.
I'm glad you wrote about it.

Happy painting everyone!


Kathy Mann
Just quickly glanced through my paintings to check where this concept could have been utilized and was surprised to find a few of them with "door jams". Off to the intention and knowledge! I really am appreciating these insightful articles, Lori!!

Tim Holton
Great tip! I would add the suggestion of extending the door jamb idea to the picture frame by urging folks to question the (dubious) gold frame convention for paintings. Darker hardwood frames are generally more suitable, in part for precisely the same reasons foreground shadow is so effective. The darker frame, which people sometimes worry will be somber, in a suitable, carefully considered, color and shade has the effect of a foil, spotlighting the picture by creating a shadow feel around the it. The natural wood also enhances the picture's motive of admiring and celebrating nature. My shop and gallery has had great success with this. I'm a craftsman who's built a business on reviving fine handcrafted hardwood frames, so this is inescapably self-promoting, but my career's built on the validity of this approach. Hope you'll have a look at what we've done with landscape paintings in hardwood frames, here: .

Sue Martin
Thank you, Lori, for this informative article. I've noticed this effect before but never knew what it was called. Nor did I think of re-composing any of my paintings using this tool. I can see how it could make a very positive difference.

Esther J. Williams
Lori, I just used this threshold introduction on a plein air painting last weekend. There was a strong, dark hedgerow in front of a hotel pool. I placed it in gingerly, thinking it may wreck that light feeling to the painting. It did, so I painted the pool the next time without it and now the painting has an incredible sense of light.

Hello Jack White
I think the reason the plein air painters do not like a threshold is because we have some predisposed thought to making a light path of entry into the painting. So a low value threshold across the bottom of the canvas blocks that entry in our view. I don`t know who initially came up with the idea of a path of entry, but a ton of plein air artists follow that criteria for judged shows, since we know the judges favor it. I just may buck the tradition from now.

Lori after seeing your examples, I see it looks fine, so I will try it again in a different way. I notice Edgar Payne uses lines to lead a viewer through the threshold and/or low value entry towards the light. Looking around my house at older paintings of mine, I find a couple of examples using a threshold similar to this. The trick is not to make it so obvious like a dark green hedgerow. Now what do I do with that silly painting? Sell it to a hotel guest for a good price!
Thank-you Lori

Laurie Finkelstein
Great post...the more tools in our arsenals the better!!! I really like the drama it produces in an otherwise mundane scene. This technique can easily cross over to abstracts to bring focus to a particular area in the painting.

Donna Robillard
Always open to learning new techniques, I like the "door jamb". It is amazing, from the examples you shared, how much of a difference it makes in the interest of the painting.

Bonnie Samuel
This is a terrific post, Lori-so helpful. Using this technique as in your examples really zings the work and sets the focus area so clearly.

Tim's explanation of why to use a darker wood frame than gold makes lots of sense for the same light affect as the dark in front door jam.

Deborah Younglao
This is a great technique, thank you for sharing it! I can see how well it works for landscapes and figures - really makes the painting more interesting. I'm wondering how I can translate it to my floral paintings. I often paint a close up of a single flower as opposed to a scene - can you direct me to any examples where a threshold is used in that type of painting? Thanks!

George De Chiara
Great topic Lori! I use this when I can. Like you said you don't want to use it on every painting. I've found this works well with still life paintings as well. It sort of stops the eye from falling off of the bottom of the painting.

Donald Fox
I applaud your post, Lori, not only for the technical reminder but also for the historical lesson. Though this compositional device may be new to some, it is in fact quite old as you show with the Vermeer example. As paintings became increasingly secular, especially during the 1600s, artists utilized compositions beyond frieze-like and tableau arrangements to represent more complex spatial representations. A lot can be learned from an inquisitive review of art history.

You're right, Jack, the jamb on windows and doors is the upright support; the lower horizontal support is the sill (also called the threshold of a door).

Barb Stachow
Thanks Lori, another great article. I had completely forgotten about this method of values placemecnt

Joanne Benson
Lori, Wondeful post and examples. I have used this technique a few times without realizing that is what I was doing. Thanks for all the wonderful examples.

Jo Allebach
This is such a wonderful way to get the painting to come alive. Seeing the technique from Old Masters shows how much we can gain by studying their work. Thanks for such an informative and interesting article.

Phyllis O'Shields
Wonederful reminder, I learned this early on called the "Threshold" use it in almost every oil and pastel painting. My challenge usually is the bright light in the tropical paintings that I create on site. Without using this technique I have no depth in the paintings. I really enjoy your articles and excellent use of examples.
Cheers Phyllis O'Shields O'Shields Fine Art

Thank you for sharing, I had never heard of this. I will start seeing how many times I see it used.

jo allebach
I am glad these articles come up from the past. It sure is a good reminder of how to make a better painting. I again looked at my paintings and can see where this technique has made them sucessful and without it it seems to lack "something".

Joan Hoffmann
The concept is there but the language is so vague. In the masters paintings, the foreground is "dark" but in the author's it is "cool" not dark.

Beth Burke
Just tried this on a landscape I was struggling with for a friend from her's brought it to life......thank you.......never thought of making a dark threshold/door jamb.......I thought I would have to add a lot of detailed grasses. Thanks again, it's a big help

Lori woodward
Thanks Beth! I'm so glad this was helpful.

and it was a helpful reminder to me, seeing this pop up again :D

Beth Burke
Thank you Lori. :)


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