Research Point: Distinguishing background and foreground

We are still at Painting I chapter 4: Painting in Three Dimensions, so I’d like to look at perspective in terms of colour saturation.

Evelyn Dunbar: A 1944 Pastoral, Land Girls Pruning at East Malling

Above is a painting by Evelyn Dunbar that seems to be inspired by Dutch paintings (lots of detail, delicate colours), like that of Pieter Brueghel below, or medieval book illuminations. I quite like the idea of showing a piece of daily life, where people work together. I made some cuts/zoom of the picture and prefer the version (below) without the frame that adds details like gardening tools and fruits of the harvest. Even the large figure shown from the back is not necessary. I’d prefer a calm frame with a busy picture.

Evelyn Dunbar: A 1944 Pastoral, Land Girls Pruning at East Malling (Detail)

Pieter Brueghel the Younger: Spring

What is apparent in Dunbar in a mild version, Brueghel exaggerates much more: the colour saturation difference of foreground and background. I usually only notice it with landscapes that have some mountains in the back, of which I know they are green, yet they appear grey – especially in Hong Kong with all the hazy dirt in the air.

Brueghel in his Spring separates the foreground from the background by lighting up the background/using more washed out colours than the foreground, which has much more contrast and saturated colours. Interestingly the sheep shearing in middle right is treated like the foreground while the gardening woman in the same pane on the left treated as background (washed out colours/less contrast). It automatically leads the eye into that direction.

Also the hue of the background is rather blueish, while we see more red and ockers in the foreground. In terms of colour theory that should bring the foreground forward in itself.

Grimani Breviary: The Month of June (1490-1510), Illumination on parchment, 280x215mm, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice

The medieval Book of Hours illumination above does the same with the castle in the background.

…. straighter/saturated colours with more contrast in foreground and lighter colours/a washed out effect for background create a depth of field. The composition can help too – for example in all 3 pictures there is a path connecting the foreground to the background and the figures are arranged in the different panes, and as such have a different size.

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