Foreground Detail, How Much is Enough?


I am wondering if you would be interested in discussing a specific topic that I have been thinking about? It has to do with detail suggestion in foregrounds...How do you determine how much is enough, especially pertaining to scaling up from small studies to larger canvases ( 30 x 40 and up). I've been giving others tons of assistance with their painting, but this one thing I needed, I couldn't find help on...


Let me begin by saying that I have developed what I call 'impact distances' for the relative sizes of paintings. That is, the distance from which a painting is expected to be viewed and make it's greatest impact on the viewer. Based on the idea that larger paintings are usually selected for larger rooms, with larger walls and higher ceilings, they also tend to be viewed from a further distance.

I do not like to see belabored art, especially in my own work. If the viewer wants to get 10 inches from my painting to see how something was handled, then that's fine, but I don't paint it to be appreciated from up close. Big paintings MUST 'work' from a distance that relays to the viewer a sense of impact from across a large room, say, where as a smaller piece can be comfortably viewed in a more intimate setting.

A rough guideline (because I haven't actually figured this out mathematically but more intuitively) would be to say that a painting that is 18x24 has an impact distance of 5-8 feet; 24x30 = 8-12 ft; 30x40 = 10-16 ft; 48x60 - 16-24 ft; and 60x72 = 22-36 ft. Obviously, everyone must determine these values for themselves based on what they feel they are trying to achieve in their work. But in a nutshell, once you feel that the emotional reaction you're getting from the impact distance works, then that is as far as I carry my detail.

With that said, I will give you a few hints on achieving these goals through mechanical means...

First of all, you need a studio space of sufficient size to allow you the ability to view your work at the distance demanded by its size. I literally wear a path in the carpet of my studio going back and forth, sometimes with only a few brush strokes between trips, so that I can maintain this principle. Now, my studio is 37 feet long, and I utilize it's entire length with my easel at one end and a sofa and recliner at the other. I'm sure this is considered a luxury to some, indeed it is; but this is not even enough distance when it comes to my largest works, and this is still an ideal impact distance, not the distance I expect someone will first see my painting from across a large hall, boardroom, office or what have you.

So, you don't have a 40 foot long studio? What can you do? As I am fond of's all done with mirrors. I consider mirrors to be critical in solving many of the problems painters come across in their work. Behind the sofa and recliner in my studio is a 5' high and 10' wide mirror. In the past, I have also used a mirror on hinges mounted to the side wall about 6-8 feet behind me, so that it can swing out from the wall and will be at an angle for viewing over my shoulder when seated. The reason I don't use this one any more is that I rarely sit down to paint. This is a good way to keep your work looser, too. You will paint much more tediously when you are comfortably sitting in front of your painting, rather that standing at arm's length.

A good mirror accomplishes many things...

When you are working in front of your painting, very small color adjustments look obvious enough. But if you move back to the impact distance (keep in mind we are speaking specifically about large canvases), you will probably not be able to tell where you were working. Mirrors tend to soften effects of light and color slightly. I use this to my advantage by assuming that if I can't see the changes I'm making in the mirror, then it isn't a strong enough reaction to be of any consequence when seen from my impact distance. Therefore, I tend to use a little bolder color, value and brush stroke than I might feel is necessary at first judgment. It also helps to save that carpet!

Finally, one last point that I make to everyone, no matter what aspect of painting they are discussing, is that painting out of doors from life is the single most important advancement technique that you have for furthering your development as an artist. I can't emphasize this last statement enough. I can't imagine learning the things about painting that I have discovered over the years in any other forum than hands on experience with nature. Too many artists spend their entire careers in a studio painting from memory, or photographs, or slides without stepping outside and working from life...and believe me, it shows in their work.

In the beginning it can be a challenge to come up with anything that you feel has any value as a final product. Chances are it will be years before you can effectively capture what you would like to see in a plein air painting. It took me two years before I felt comfortable putting a plein air painting in the galleries. But from the very first time you paint on location, you will begin to learn at a rate that you haven't experienced since your earliest years as an artist. Another professional artist that I know was discussing this with me a couple of years ago...that as an art student, before reaching any kind of professionalism; you learn and progress at a very quick rate. You see improvement in your work every few paintings. But after 20 years or so, you are finding only small advancements, searching for nuances in technique to improve your work. Well, if you have reached that plateau, then you will find that on location painting will open the flood gates once again. I feel that I learn something with EVERY painting done outdoors. You will find new color combinations that you would never try in the studio; you will paint faster to catch effects before they disappear; and you will learn to apply paint differently, with more deftness and style than ever before.

I'm sure you feel that I am rambling and have gotten off of the subject, but you WILL find answers to the question of foreground detail in large paintings, and answers to many other questions, by working on 8 x 10's in the field.

If you would like a narrower discussion of any part of this or another subject, please email me with your questions.

Wm. Scott Jennings

Follow these links to more fine art by Wm. Scott Jennings


Sign up for my newsletter