Tory Glerum

I really didn’t think having to miss one painting class for the most important track meet of the season was a big deal. And not just because it was painting. I could have had French or AP Government or even physics that period and my coach still would have given me the little pink slip bearing the athletic director’s signature to excuse me from class. Nonetheless, the retired-sculptor-turned-high-school-art-teacher dressed in a turquoise carpenter suit and wearing flattened Sprite bottle caps as earrings was very personally offended, and I was forced to endure a lengthy speech about the fine arts department being taken advantage of when all I really needed was an explanation of the assignment I would be missing so that I could do it on my own. After finally telling me to go to the park, pick a scenic spot, and paint what I saw, she sent me out the door with a somewhat dilapidated set of acrylics and a canvas the size of a Post-It note. “Don’t forget to illustrate the foreground, middle ground, and background,” she shouted, not genially, after me.

As it turns out, I am very grateful to my teacher for those parting words of wisdom. Not only was I able to create a landscape painting that I am very proud of, but the terms have stuck with me through the years while all other art knowledge seems to have evaporated alongside verb conjugations and the names of United States war generals.

According to my mother, the art history minor, the three grounds are the most essential terms in the sphere of painting as an art form. Whether it’s a portrait, a still life, an action scene, or most notably, a landscape, every high-quality painting should contain a foreground, middle ground, and background, and high-quality observer should be able to point them out.

A landscape painting is the most basic example. Pretend you are the artist sitting behind an easel in the middle of scenic Colorado. The grassy field directly in the front of you is called the foreground, officially defined as the portion of the scene closest to the observer. Next comes the middle ground, or the focal point and center of the landscape, which is a flowing river with big, pink salmon jumping in and out of the white-crested waves. A brown bear is perched at the water’s edge, waiting hungrily to snatch a nonchalant fish for his midday meal. Reflected in the clearness of the river is the range of snow-topped mountains that linger in the background: the rear part of the landscape that appears distant to the observer and provides relief for the objects in the fore and middle grounds. In order to give his landscape depth, the artist must approach each ground separately and make sure that while the three parts co-exist, one does not overpower the other, and that they do not blend together into an indiscernible mass of color. He calls the painting A Midday Meal.

When the painting is finished and ready to be observed, it exists as a visual representation of a period of human life. On that day I missed painting class, my middle ground was an 800-meter race: two quick, energy-sucking laps around Danbury, Connecticut’s newly laid professional track. If I had to give that day a title, it would be something like Race Time or A Half-Mile Sprint. While I was running, however my attention was not completely focused on the action occurring at that very moment. I could not shake the encounter with my angry painting teacher that had occurred earlier that morning. The foreground of the recent past stood right in front of the middle ground of the present, providing some blockage.

The other distraction stood way ahead of me in the distance. Looming over my head, just like the gargantuan Rocky Mountain range, was the thought of winning that gold medal and helping to secure the championship title for my team. This not only relieved my mind of art-class related worries, but also my worn-out legs of some of their pain as I rounded that last corner and sprinted to the finish with a victory-seeking burst of adrenaline.

Celebrities interviewed in People magazine say that they are happy because they live completely in the moment. Frankly, I don’t believe them. The past cannot be forgotten nor the future ignored. The three should exist peacefully together, and if approached correctly, complement each other to create a deep and meaningful existence. A painting needs unity. But when the three grounds are not distinguishable entities, the artist has merely made a mess.