Friday, June 10, 2011


Earlier this year I had a chat with a local art critic who was kind of reviewing my work.  (I blogged about it here)  He looked at my work and said, "I see you like repoussoir."  I replied, "Well, not since High School..."

He stared at me blankly.

Thomas Fogarty,  Norman Rockwells composition teacher when he was attending the Art Students League advised, "Put something in the foreground of your pictures to make the viewer step over it and into the frame."  That is the definition of repoussoir.   (Don't ask me how to pronounce it!)

Artists are always trying to add depth to their two dimensional paintings.  Maybe using lineal perspective; you know, a road that narrows away to the vanishing point on the horizon, or atmospheric perspective; where a series of hills grow bluer as they recede into the distance.  Or maybe a combination of both.  Another device is to have something in the foreground that says, "I am close to you."  Then an object in the middle distance, and lastly, something farther off in the distance.  It's a typical tactic that can add depth to a composition, and something that I usually try to incorporate in my own paintings.  You see it all the time in landscape paintings and illustrations by the great old illustrators.

How many landscape paintings have you seen where the foreground is in shadow, and the rest of the scene is bathed in sunlight?  That's an example of repoussoir, like this painting by George Innes: 

Or how about this painting by Rockwell, Saying Grace--

You have to look past the figure on the left, and the table in front of you to see the little old lady and her grandson saying grace.  Remove him and that beautifully painted cup of coffee and the scene just flattens out with everyone the same distance away.  It would look like The Last Supper.  At the top of the page is a Tom Lovell painting where he uses the same motif. 

Speaking of the great Tom Lovell, here's another example

Same thing as with Norman-- The gentleman on the left has nothing to do with the main group in the middle.  He's only there to give a sense of space.

I did the same thing with the stool in the foreground of Diner:

I've passed up painting many a lobster boat scene, because the boat was just bobbing around in the water with nothing to identify it as being a certain distance away.  It would look like it was just floating in mid-air with nothing to ground it, as it were.  I'm way too anal to be satisfied with just portraying pretty objects with nice colors.  I have to have them occupy some kind of space.  Otherwise, to me it's not a whole scene, and I like my scenes whole.

Can a repoussoir be done wrong?  Can a match burn down a forest?  There's a fine line between invitation and barrier when it comes to foreground handling.  Like any good thing in life, if its done well, it's not noticed.  You don't want your repoussier to call attention to itself.  Having a ram-rod straight horizontal object occupy the entire bottom of you picture is a barrier.  But a few blades of grass jutting up into the bottom of a painting won't cut it, either.  It's a judgement call.

So the next time you're designing a picture, instead of saying, "what?"  Say, "Repoussoir" instead!



Susan Roux said...

Floating in midair with nothing to ground it. Is that what my latest ladies are doing? I used to use lots of repoussoir, though I didn't know there was a special name for placing things in the foreground.

Translated, it means an embossing tool. I guess it does make things go in and out...

MCGuilmet said...

Nice post. Good information...that you metioned...