How to Create a Good Figure Ground Relationship in Your Art and Painting

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Figure ground relationship

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The figure ground relationship in a painting is very crucial and important. Though you might be wondering what is a figure ground relationship?

In art and design, figure ground relationship is the relationship between an object or figure and its background. It is a way to separate or meld together objects with its background.

Figure ground relationship example in a painting by Chardin
A figure ground relationship in painting is all about making the subject matter part of the background and foreground areas in a painting.

The background part of a painting is just as important as the main subject. All too often we think of the background as an afterthought. The way in which we relate the background and foreground areas to the main subject matter can make or break the painting.

When done correctly, figure ground relationships can create an immense amount of depth and interest in a painting.

How to create the figure ground relationship (video) tutorial

The video directly below, will take you through the process of a still life painting of an orange. Showing you how to make a good figure ground relationship throughout the entire process of your painting!

Assess your subject’s surroundings

In order to create good figure ground relationships in a painting. It is important to pay attention to where there is contrast or similarity between the figure and its background. You want to make the subject matter feel like it is connected and a part of the background area. It is important to think about the subject and background/ foreground as a whole.

Color relationships

Continue to compare and contrast color spots with one another right from the beginning in order to create a strong figure ground relationships.

Color is a HUGE consideration when it comes to creating a good figure ground relationship. Compare and contrast your subject with the background at all times. It helps to paint the background at the same time as your main subject so that you develop them both together. You can get very detailed examples of this in my figure ground relationship video tutorial.

Color reflections

Look out for areas where colors are reflecting onto other areas such as this orange reflecting onto the brown foreground.

Color is bouncing off of your main subject as well as the background and foreground areas. For example, in this orange still life painting tutorial we see how the color of the orange is reflecting onto the foreground area. All colors in a painting are relating to one another in some way. It is very important to be sensitive to and paint the areas where you notice color reflecting on certain areas.

Edges and Value

This orange still life painting is a great example of the shadow areas blending in with the background while the light value area stands out.

Value is the most important aspect of creating a good figure ground relationship in your painting. It allows you to make your subject matter stand out from or blend into the background. It is best to start with strong values right at the beginning of your painting.

Examples of good figure ground relationships

portrait painting sketch by William Merritt Chase with a strong figure ground relationship
In this sketch by William Merritt Chase we see clearly see how color spots were used to create a strong figure ground relationship

In figure ground relationships, the figure is often the focal point and main subject of the painting or artwork. The figure will be more detailed, visible, and stand out to viewers compared to the background area. However, there are areas of the main subject that will blend in with the background.

For example, in this portrait below by William Merrit Chase we see areas of her hair that are very similar in value and color to the background. Those particular areas blend in with the background. Other areas stand out such as the contour of her neck and hairline on the left side.

Painting by William Merritt Chase showing a strong figure ground relationship
In this portrait painting by William Merritt Chase you can see how the figure is a strong part of the background but at the same time is separate from it as well. Notice the areas where the figure blends into the background and the areas where the sitter stands out.

We also see the woman’s black shawl (from the painting above) blend into the background as the two colors are very similar in value. The figure feels like it is a natural part of the background and fits in because of the areas that blend in with the background and also stand out from the background. Every time you paint a main subject and background area you want to ask yourself what areas of the main subject blend in and which stand out against the background. 

Figure Ground Relationships in multi subject painting

Figure ground relationship is just as relevant with a multi subject paintings as well. In this still life painting below by Chardin we can see how multiple subjects in the painting have a very good figure ground relationship.

Still life painting with good figure ground relationship
In this painting you will notice how figure ground relationships are just as important in multi subject paintings. Fruit,Jug and a Glass (c. 1726-1728)
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (French, 1699 – 1779)

We see how certain areas stand out from the background while other areas blend into the background. Therefore, it feels like the subjects belong where they are situated in the painting.

Figure ground relationship tips for your own painting

It is important to apply the lessons in this article to your own painting so you can start to create strong figure ground relationships in your own work.

The best way to learn how to directly apply a good figure ground relationship to your own painting is by painting along with my figure ground video tutorial.

Always compare colors

Think in terms of ‘spots of color’ while you paint and continually compare and contrast colors with one another. This will heighten your sensitivity to color and help you to create a good figure ground relationship in your painting.

Take a step back

Take a step back from your painting to see how the figure ground relationships are working in your piece.

It helps to get a different perspective on your painting to see if a good figure ground relationship is happening in your work. Take a step back to look at your painting as a whole – this will help you to see if your subject matter feels like it’s part of the background and foreground.

Also, seeing your painting on a smaller format, as a photo on your phone for example, can also be very helpful.

Keep practicing!

As you paint, keep all of the things discussed in this article and figure ground relationship video tutorial in mind. The more you implement them the more they will become natural to your painting process. With practice your paintings will start to have a strong figure ground relationship.


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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    4 thoughts on “How to Create a Good Figure Ground Relationship in Your Art and Painting”

    1. Helena Saldanha

      Dear Prof. Elisabeth
      I enjoyed your lesson very much and I fully agree with the assumptions you have made.
      It’s always a pleasure for me to listen to your lessons. Thank you very much and please accept my regards
      Helena Saldanha

    2. Hi Elizabeth, thank you for this timely article. Just this week I did a still life painting with a dark background. (A relatively new thing for me.). One side of the object, a vase, was virtually indiscernible from the background as it blended in. The other side stood out from the background in the same way as you reference in your article. And the object reflected light onto the foreground. I had never heard of the figure ground relationship, being a novice at painting, and was just copying another artist’s work for practice. Your lesson articulated the observational skills I was trying to develop whilst also encouraging me to look more critically at the relationship between the object and the foreground and background so that it looks like it exists in that space.
      Thank you.

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