A Painting Study in Depth and Focus (DI 9/10/16)

So, this illustration is me studying depth and focus in composition. In order to create the illusion of depth in a two dimensional painting, you have to keep the details low in the background and bring them in in the foreground, of which this is an extreme example. The plant in the foreground is sharp, with a good deal of detail, while the background is general shape and insinuation rather than actual fleshed out or detailed forms.

However, there's more to it than that. Note that dirt pile from which the foreground plant grows isn't very detailed, despite being in the foreground. There is some vague lighting, shading, and texture, but that's it. That's because I don't want the dirt to draw the eye; I want the plant to be the focus. With it being rendered (detailed) and it's lines being sharp, the viewer's eye immediately going to the plant, and the rest is absorbed peripherally.

That's still not all, though.  While this image is fine, as far as it goes, there are still more ways to add a greater sense of depth without detracting from the central focus of the foreground plant.  To do this,
I added a level of detail between the blurry, half-suggested shapes of the background and the sharp, distinct plant in the foreground. In this mid-ground, I have outlined specific bits of plants--leave, stems, etc.--and highlighted them, but still kept their forms somewhat vague. This brings the background foliage closer to the foreground plant, whereas--in the first image--the viewer interprets a gap between where the background foliage leaves off and where the foreground plant is growing.

Now it feels as if the plants in the background are closer to the foreground plant, although still now right up on it. Adding in too much in this middle ground stage can weaken the focus on the foreground plant, especially if I had added larger plants too close to the one I wish to focus on. Remember that, as things move toward the viewer, they become larger as well. Any grass in the background is too small to distinguish and so just becomes a blur of green texture, but in the middle ground plants that are probably a similar size to the one in the foreground are portrayed as only a fraction of the size. Our brains recognize this as meaning that these plants are farther away, and so having these comparative sized plants in an image helps to deepen the sense of depth within the painting.

To take the image still further, I added in darker "plant-y" outlines in the far foreground. These, too, are absorbed by the viewer, even though their eye basically skipped over them to focus on the central foreground plant. But this brings us to another interesting point! Even thought these plants are closer to the viewer, I blurred these dark outlines instead of making them hyper-sharp. While there is a general rule that what is closer to the viewer is sharper and more detailed, that isn't always the case.

The human eye (and brain) does not give equal detail to everything we see. If it did, we would have a hard time focusing in on any one object. When we do focus in on one thing, everything around it is given less detail. So, despite their placement in this image, the far foreground plants would not be sharp were the viewer to focus on our central foreground plant, and so the painting should mimic that. And, when it does, the focus on the foreground plant, and the depth of the image, is reinforced.

Additionally, there are some other interesting bits here for us to review. It is another general rule that, as things move away from the viewer, the become lighter. So, close objects in the foreground are painted with the darkest "values". Now, to understand values it's easiest to switch to greyscale. The darker the value of grey, the closer it is to black. Images are typically split into three "value" categories--background, midground, and foreground--with the background being the lightest and the foreground the darkest. However, this isn't always the case, and night scenes, scenes in enclosed spaces, etc. sometimes reverse this order, putting the lightest values in the foreground, and the darkest to the back. Either way, this separation of values helps the painter create the illusion of depth.

So, let's look at this painting in greyscale to see what we have. This is an area I struggle with. I paint in color (because I love color) and often forget to consider how this will translate to value and whether or not there will be a separation of value. But, as I explained, that separation is very important to the creation of depth within the image.

And, that's certainly true here. While we can still tell the foreground plant from the background, the values are still very similar. Can separating those values improve the image? Well, this is a study, and the point of it is to try new things, so... Let's find out!

[For my fellow Photoshop Geeks, here's a run down of what I did to tweak the values on an image that was already partially painted.
  • First, I made the image greyscale--without changing the actual image--by creating an adjustment hue/saturation/lightness layer and set the saturation to -100. 
  • Second, because I did not want my changes to affect the foreground or far foreground plants, I masked them out of the adjustment layer.
  • Third, because I don't want the adjustment to affect the light source (which should be the brightest/lightest part of the image), I masked out the moon and some of the highlights on the trees.
  • Fourth, I played with the saturation and lightness values (but didn't touch the hue!) until I got a result that I liked. Because I was focusing on the separation of values, I started by lowering the lightness and eventually settled on -75. I also wanted to separate the image by saturation, so I set the saturation to -50.
  • All the while, I continually turned the adjustment layer off, so that I could see how this affected the color image.]
Now, as you can see by comparing this image to the last greyscale image, you can see that the background is much darker, but I've also kept the moon and some of the background highlights at the same level, which means they are much brighter in this image. I didn't lighten them at all, just kept them at the same level while darkening everything else.

This separation of values does, indeed, pull the plant forward, at least in the greyscale. The plant is even more the focus of the image and the sense of depth is deepened... Except, it seem that we've also lost the suggestions of shape in the background. We can no longer make out the brushstrokes that might have been tree trunks and the foliage-like shapes that added texture to the image. Now, that might not be the same once we switch back to color, because greyscale is a reflection of value and color separations may still provide some texture. To find out, we have to switch back to our image in color.

Here, in the color version, we can see that there are still some suggestions, but the background is still largely lost. However, the separation in values is too valuable to simply revert back to the previous iteration. But there's nothing that says we can't add some of the detail back in. So, that's what I did. Note, however, that this has to be done carefully, so that we don't just wind up lightening the whole background all over again.

It's best to focus on adding back in a few larger elements, and to do so with broad strokes, so that we don't start over rendering the background, which would also make us lose focus on the foreground plant that we're trying to keep as the center of the viewer's attention.

I decided that adding back in some of the tree trunks would do the most good, since these are easily recognizable shapes, and since, without them, the tree tops look much more like clouds than tree tops! To combat that, I'm also going to add more green into the trees and further separate them from the sky, because this is a color change only, it won't affect the values of the image overall.

There! I think that's a real improvement. *nods* But now the plant doesn't hold the same amount of focus that it did in the earlier iterations. While it defintely stands out from the background, it doesn't have the same amount of visual interest. The rendering (detailing) I've done seems faded and the highlights/shadows don't feel as intense because there's a much wider range of value behind the plant.

I didn't make any changes to it, and so the background is much deeper and richer, but the foreground still has the same range as it always did.  In order to finish the image, we need to widen the range of values on the plant, i.e. intensify the highlights and shadows so that the plant can hold it's own again the rich background we've created.  Doing that will return the focus back to the plant, and make it not only stand out, but worthy of the focus we've created for it.

Additionally, the moon (which also hasn't changed) need a little work to fit in to the new background as well.  Making those changes gives us...

And here's the starting image again, just to help with comparing them...


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