Foreground, Midground, Background
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Mar 15th 2021

When making 2d or 3d environments, or a figure in an environment, having a solid foreground, midground and background is key to leading the eye through the frame, and to the focal point of the piece. This tutorial discusses a little bit about the different ways to go about lighting these environments from a high level compositional perspective. Most lighting schemes can be broken down into a few different types, and choosing the right type can really change the feel of the image.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.



The Basics

First off, if you haven't seen it yet, check out my Layers Of Light And Dark tutorial, which discusses how to use light and dark to create depth, to lead the eye, and to keep different layers separate from each other.



This tutorial is going to focus on the different types of lighting scenarios most commonly used. For the purpose of this tutorial, let's assume that the focal point (subject) of your image is always in the midground. Here's the three most common types I've noticed...
  1. Dark Foreground, Light Mid, Lightest Background (Due To Fog)
  2. Dark Foreground, Light Mid, Dark Background (Theater Spotlight Lighting)
  3. Dark Foreground, Dark Midground, Light Background (Great For silhouetting)


Dark Foreground, Light Midground, Lightest Background



This is the most common scenario in concept art. Stuff closest to camera is dark, possibly just silhouettes. Stuff in the Midground is light, and contains your subject. And stuff in the background is the lightest.



A few notes about this lighting scheme...


Here's an example of using this scheme in concept art. Notice the same dark close, light mid, lightest back from the photo of yosemite above.



Here's another one, notice the dark silhouetted foreground elements, then the midground is the tower on the left, which is reasonably clear, and then the furthest tower to the right, which is almost completely obscured by fog. The foreground and background elements add depth without taking focus away from the objects in the midground, since the close stuff is dark and the far stuff is foggy.



Works on the inside as well, if you have a big cavernous space like inside a giant factory...





Dark Foreground, Light Midground, Dark Background



So for this type, imagine a spotlight illuminating the middle ground.

A few notes about this lighting scheme...


Here's a shot from the Incredibles by Pixar. Note the plants close to camera are dark, the tree behind the characters is dark, and there's a spotlight through the tree canopy illuminating our two sleeping figures. This is also a good example of how the background doesn't have to be as dark as the foreground, just darker than the midground.


The Incredibles copyright Disney / Pixar





Dark Foreground, Dark Midground, Light Backgrounds



This is almost like the first type, except the midground is also dark.

A few notes about this lighting scheme...








Top And Bottom

As a final note, as well as depth, you can also base bright and dark on top and bottom of your frame. In fact, you can combine then two.

So this image for example of yosemite is both dark foreground / light mid / lightest background, AND its also Dark on the bottom and light on the top.



This is a very normal way to place your light and dark, since for most landscapes, the sky is usually the brightest thing, the land is the darkest thing, and the land is always below the sky.

But you can also invert it, and have a dark top with a light bottom. This will give you a more uneasy feeling, like you're in a cave, with things being under lit, and there's this big oppressive thing hovering over you, ready to fall and crush you...




ID4, Independence Day, copyright 20th Century Fox

Variations

Of course these 3 types are just the beginning. There are example of different types like bright foreground, medium midground and dark background. You can also do more than 3 distances, and have dark against light against dark, against light against dark. Nothing wrong with any of these, but the three types I mentioned are generally the ones I tend to see the most. It's also possible to have an image that's just midground and background with no foreground, you'd be limiting the potential depth in the image, but it certainly can be done.

If you want to get really good at analyzing these sorts of images, here's your final exam. Check out the website of Dylan Cole, he's a concept artist and matte painter and the current co-production designer of the Avatar sequels. And he's amazing at creating these sorts of environmental images. Visit his Avatar portfolio here: https://dylan-cole-j5dx.squarespace.com/avatar-1 and try and categorize all of the images on the page based on type 1, type 2 or type 3. Some are hybrids, and may fall into a couple of different categories, but many follow the basic rules of one of these types.

Conclusion

So next time you need to light a scene, or paint an environmental painting, start by choosing one of these 3 types, decide why that particular type is best for the type of image you're trying to make, and use it. I bet it will improve the final composition immensely.


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