In The Girl at the Baggage Claim, Gish Jen develops the idea that a fundamental mythology or cultural ideology of Western (Europe/US, etc) is the Individual.  Doing it alone, singular success, the self-taught all are treated as praise-worthy.  By comparison, the Eastern culture believes in the support of the group (the village, the family, the traditions) as key behind any one individual’s success – the role of background is all important.

madrona in a wet forest, Caroline Buchanan

Nowhere was there a clearer example than in the responses of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka to their matches in the most recent Open. Serena was all “I” while Naomi deflected praise to her coaches, her family, all those behind her.

Let’s think about this in relationship to your handling of focus vs. background.

Gia’s painting of Carol in the sweet peas

What we often do, is what I refer to as “Yin-Yang.” The photo at the top of the post is typical.  Carol is “in” a field of sweet peas but she is aqua/white while the background is pink with the deep green at the top.

In Gia’s handling of this subject she unified Carol with her background by  painting them both with dots and using  the colors found in the background on the focus. This Carol, while still the focus, is “of” the surround.

Sometimes, in our obsession with our focus, artists leave the background out entirely or cover it with bland supporting color. This is particularly true of portraits and figure painting.

In this handling of 4 children from a vintage photo, (after 4 studies – analogous, complementary, lost and found, etc) Sally identified the telling shapes in her subjects and came up with this solution of “of the ground.”

You frequently find  your solutions in the studies.

photo: Catherine Buchanan

Jan P decided to use this photo of children from a school in Kenya that my daughter’s school supports. She did a value plan, simplifying and abstracting the background shapes. Then two color studies exploring the roles of violet and pink in her 3-hue plan (which I failed to photograph).

Her study of the kinds of browns in the heads is exquisite in itself. We are looking forward to the final version when she weaves the pattern of violet, pink, brown and white together – of the focus and of the ground.


Susan finds her answer through multiple quick studies, drawing with her brush.

Here are several of them. For now she abandoned the older Mexican woman with her cell phone.  There were at least 10 more of the market. Each pursues an idea.

The open air market  was unified by the orange tarps which shed their orange-filtered light onto the produce. These two example can’t capture where she is heading.


Meanwhile Mary worked on the patterns of raccoon and quail prints on the snow.  First she worked out how to create the patterns – working against the white ground of the paper.

Then considering the whole, she created this version where, although the patterns of raccoons and quail are still focal, they are part of the whole surface of pattern.

Eileen was able to find ways to allow the grays of the sky into the pilings, varying the values so that some of the pilings were darker than, some are lighter, some are of the atmosphere.

Dorcus used the color red to unify sky, barn, ground and wagon.

Jan R used multiple glazes and negative painting to create a background that moves in and out of the colors of the trees.

Using the textural pattern of foliage Cherry unified this forest scene in much the way that Mary had used her footprints to create a visual unity of ground and focus.

In this painting, Marcia took two figures who were part of a group dancing on the ferry (blacks, grays, whites) and by abstracting the background and using lost and found edges has created an atmosphere that has its own magic.

All  are great solutions of a concept that was just introduced Saturday morning.

I hope they make you think about the role of your backgrounds in contributing more to your composition and find ways to synthesize them with your focal areas?  I hope so.

Now, if we could only get the world powers to work together in a similar way!

Happy painting,