Monday, May 16, 2011


Is there such a thing as background?  Or is everything really foreground?

Illustrator Robert Heindel once said about his hero Bernie Fuchs, "Look at the things he does.  Who else would paint a tree with the sun behind it?  I would never attempt it."

But a painting of a tree with the sun behind it is also a painting of the sun with a tree in front of it.  Your eye has no choice but to start with either tree or sun, but truth shimmers back and forth between them.

Winslow Homer understood this well: that the distinction between tree and sun, and between foreground and background, and between me and you, is obliterated in the fullness of time:


Tom said...

Nice paintings David

MORAN said...

Interesting comparison of the two approaches. I prefer the Homer but there's no doubt both are brilliant.

Donald Pittenger said...

Perhaps it's my congenital sloth, but I've yet to stumble across a usefully detailed explanation of the technique Fuchs used in the paintings above. I saw a few of that ilk a few years back at a gallery in Carmel, California, but even having done that, I still wasn't quite sure how he managed the various effects.

An amazing artist, that Fuchs.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- I have seen a number of Fuchs' pictures from that era, and it seems to me that he employs the full complement of mature artist's tools to achieve those marvelous results. Lifting a series of oil washes to achieve that stained glass glow is only one part of the process. He also applies opaque paint using a wide variety of brushes, he scratches out lines with a sharp tool, and draws into the painting with charcoal and other tools.

There was a period in the 1970s and 80s where there were hundreds of Fuchs wannabes who thought they could follow the Fuchs "formula" by projecting a photograph on a surface and mechanically lifting oil washes. It never worked. If Fuchs hadn't spent years mastering old fashioned drawing, if he hadn't painted thousands of paintings the old fashioned way by hand, using casein and gouache, he would never have been able to summon up the range of effects necessary to achieve the results he wanted.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- Thanks. The pictures are definitely the best part of this job.

MORAN-- yup, I'm a big Homer fan too. These may be two different approaches, but both Fuchs and Homer deconstruct light through trees in a way that displays their abstract designs.

António Araújo said...

David, thank you for these...wonderful, humbling stuff...

Anonymous said...

Your words sound pretty but there will always be negative space to a picture that is less important than the positive space.

I agree about Fuchs. He was one of my favorite illustrators.


António Araújo said...

> Lifting a series of oil washes to >achieve that stained glass glow is >only one part of the process.

People put too much emphasis on the magic of materials - it doesn't quite hold water when you see the effect survives the reproduction (on screen or print) quite well - so you could do it pixel by pixel, in principle.

>(...)projecting a photograph on a >surface and mechanically lifting >oil washes

Your eyes and brain can see in a gamut that your materials can't supply, which means that if you want to simulate a nature scene of high contrast or rich color you have to compensate by toning down some areas in favour of others to somehow trick the brain (that "somehow" is the hard part!) into seeing the contrast without the range. Copying from a projection won't work because the photograph has already lost the high-contrast data...that you wouldn't be able to reproduce directly anyway! It's really all about finding the combinations of specks that will fool the old neurons, or, as you often remark, it's all about the choices you make.

raphael said...

wow, that fuchs is breathtaking!

re background/foreground: well, it goes without saying that you cant paint a something without having some not-that-something around it, whether its empty page or a scenic background.
"a tree in front of the sun" wont be such if the sun is not there, and if its there, its something you can look at and elevate to the main course of your consciousness.

id still say that there is merit to foreground and background as terms - at the very least for the immediate spatial sensation of a few picture elements jumping out to the front and other elements making a concerted step back.

that i can choose to look at subordinated, or even implied elements, more befits the term "focal area", imho. the same co-dependency like fore-/background applies, without getting things mixed up with spatiality.

to me, it looks a bit like the relation between main and side dish. the best steak cant hinder you from taking a conscious bite of the potatoes you ordered with it and savour them on their own merit. if they can stand that test, all the better for the chef :)
no matter the quality of the side dish, its still not the main. the meal as a whole will profit from a good side dish, though, and its the mark of a good chef not to be good at the main dishes only and skimp on the sides.

Laurence John said...

"But a painting of a tree with the sun behind it is also a painting of the sun with a tree in front of it"

i thought you were going to say " also a painting of a tree with the sun in front of it" which is often how these dappled light effects were achieved. it always evokes a 1900 turn of the century mood whenever i see it done (and they did it a LOT in the 70s).

David Apatoff said...

Antonio Araujo wrote, "it's all about the choices you make."

People who don't understand the roles of photography in the production of art mistakenly think that a photograph makes the choices for the artist. As you state so articulately, that is not necessarily so.

borky said...

"a painting of a tree with the sun behind it is also a painting of the sun with a tree in front of it. Your eye has no choice but to start with either tree or sun, but truth shimmers back and forth between them."

Actually, like that eye-tricking picture which invite you to see the beautiful young heiress or her hideous crone of a guardian, I make it almost a point of honour to see both at the same time.

If that 'vase' or 'two men facing each other' image were really a picture of a vase with two men either side of it most people'd have no difficulty seeing all three at the same time.

Ditto sun behind tree, tree in front of sun.

Saying all that, thank you for ravishing my eyes with these exquisite images.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- that probably would have been a better way to express it. (Next time I am going to consult you before I post.)

raphael wrote, "you can't paint a something without having some not-that-something around it, whether its empty page or a scenic background."

Agreed, but even if we start out focusing on the "something" due to its placement in the picture, or its color or shape or the significance of its content, eventually when we are done looking at the "something" for a while, our eyes flow back to the "not-that-something around it" and for that period, however brief, the "not-that-something around it" takes on primary status. The speed with which your eye oscillates back and forth between the something and the not-that-something around it is one of the signature characteristics of a piece.

David Apatoff said...

borky-- one of the reasons I like painting and drawing is that, unlike movies, literature, music or most other art forms, you can see a picture in one immediate impression and absorb it at once, before exploring it sequentially. So part of me sympathizes with your statement that "I make it almost a point of honour to see both at the same time." Having said that, I question how long you can sustain that approach before your eyes begin to go back and forth. Our eyes may be physically capable of seeing that much space in one glimpse, but our brains won't let us go deeper without discriminating between elements.

In a previous century, a French author wrote a clever meditation about how tragic it was that nature had constructed us in such a way that we must start with one breast ahead of the other. I think he acknowledged that we could see both breasts simultaneously, but nevertheless felt that when it came to seriously appreciating and enjoying them, we were forced to select one before the other.

Anonymous said...

I really like how the light shines through these drawings, it looks almost real!

Alexis Barattin said...

"But a painting of a tree with the sun behind it is also a painting of the sun with a tree in front of it"

Beautiful phrase! Inspiring post. Thank you.

Laurie said...

A child's drawing of a tree with the sun behind it (or the sun with a tree in front of it) would likely be a light-colored disk with a dark stick-like tree intersecting it - quite different from what Fuchs has achieved. What he paints so masterfully is the effect of sunlight, something the Impressionists and others explored extensively. It takes art to show us what we are not even aware we are perceiving.

Abbey said...

Those paintings were beautifully made and mesmerizing.

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Unknown said...

Hi David,

Do you know where a high resolution image of that Bernie Fuchs painting (with the tree and fishermen) can be found? Also looking for other images of his paintings. I know he was primarily a commercial artist but still it is amazing that in this age of "" and various digital repositories there are almost no good reproductions of his work available. He was a brilliant artist, very inspiring.

Thank you,