Old School New School, Drawing ©Margaret Stermer-Cox

Figure And Ground Relationships: How to Weave A Painting

Conversations About Figure and Ground

I remember conversations I had with my Dad* about composition.  Also, I remember the first time he talked to me about weaving the painting together as if it were a tapestry.  He said all the parts of the painting must fit together to create a whole.  And, yet, each part must be interesting and meaningful on its own.

Old School New School, Drawing ©Margaret Stermer-Cox

Because what Dad said was important to me, I have spent some time learning composition.  I don’t think one ever finishes; its an ongoing process.  One composition consideration that I’d like to talk about is the figure and ground relationship.  I think this is a natural topic to follow my previous post on value studies.

Say What?

OOPS!  Press pause!  I was typing away and thought to myself:  “Why should you care?  What’s the point?”  Good question.  Especially if you’re not an “artist”; or if you are an artist and prefer to go by intuition.

Think of learning a bit about design as sort of a game.  By learning a little, the experience you have while viewing a painting can be enriched and exciting.   The visual clues will help you understand the artists intent.

Figure and Ground Study 1 ©M Stermer-Cox


Press play.  Back to the figure and ground relationship.  The “figure” is my subject; the “ground” the background or environment within which the subject resides.  The figure is also known as the “positive” shape; the ground the “negative shape.  You may notice that I use “figure” and “subject”; they’re the same.

Figure and Ground Study 2 © M Stermer-Cox

There Are Always Options

If you look at the value studies I’ve included, you will notice that sometimes the background is light; sometimes its dark.  The same with the figure(s): sometimes light and sometimes dark.  Put another way, the figure is light against a dark ground.  Or the figure is dark and surrounded by a light ground.  These are relatively simple options.

There are other options such as: alternating light and dark.   I imagine that there are almost as many variations to alternating light and dark as there are number of shapes.  When I do an alternating light and dark pattern, I start with one shape and decide what value (light or dark) I want it to be.  Every other shape’s value relates to the first shape.

Figure and Ground Study 3 © M Stermer-Cox

Still Weaving

Wonderful.  Now we know that there are variations that artists compose with.  So, why?  Back to my tapestry analogy, the pattern of light and dark shapes as it relates to the figure and ground weaves the painting together.

Another important reason to think about the figure – ground relationship is mood of the composition.  The variations of light and dark influence mood.  A mostly dark composition might make you think of evening or winter, for example.  Like somber music, a somber background tells you something about the subject.  Maybe something serious is happening or about to happen.

On the other hand, a light, festive ground may tell a different story about the subject or figure.

Figure and Ground Study 4 © M Stermer-Cox

Properties of Light and Dark

There is another important factor about light and dark as it relates to the figure and ground that artists consider.  Light advances and dark retreats.

What?  This is two dimensional art.  Yes, but there is an optical illusion.  Look at a white shape completely surrounded by darkness.  The white shape seems to come toward the viewer.  The reverse: a dark shape completely surrounded by a light shape recedes.  Dark shapes can look like holes.

Examples of Figure and Ground Light and Dark

Back to Figure and Ground

Confusing?  Yes?  I have mixed in lights and darks; figure and grounds.  You thought I said I was talking about figure and ground.  It is hard separating them, but you could.  I was just thinking, you could have an all white painting; or an all black painting.  Both the subject and ground are the same value.  OH WAIT!  It’s been done.

The variations in lights and dark help us define the subject.  And, the subject needs to be seen in context with the ground.

Suggestions:  Look At Images in Advertising

And, when words won’t do, just have a look at paintings or graphic designs and let it soak in.  Have a look at advertising.  Check out cartoons.  Do you suppose graphic artists and cartoonists are masters of figure and ground relationships?  You bet!  You have to be to create eye catching, compelling images.

See Figure And Ground

So, now that you know one of the secrets to composing, you can join in on the fun!

And, that is the point.  Look. See. Enjoy. Be the painting!  🙂


*My Dad was artist John H. Stermer and his website is http://JohnStermer.com
Figure and Ground Study 5 © M Stermer-Cox


For more about figure and ground relationships, you might want to look at the following articles:

Artsy,  Decoding Artspeak: Figure and Ground.

Design Principles:  Space and The Figure Ground Relationship – Smashing Magazine.

And, the final painting I created:

Figure And Ground Relationship: Old School New School, SCx


6 thoughts on “Figure And Ground Relationships: How to Weave A Painting”

    1. Thank you Fred! I was wondering, how do you approach the subject with your college students? I remember when I started to understand negative shapes and ground; I wanted everything to be toned!

      Again, thank you for the comment; it means a lot!

  1. Peggy, this is a very strong commentary on value design! You should consider teaching this in workshops!!! Seriously! You have an extraordinary grasp of the subject. I find this to be one of the most difficult things to explain to wannabe painters. Three cheers for you!!!!

    1. Hi Mike, thank you for the comment! I think the big reason I don’t teach is, umm, here goes: CONFIDENCE! I will consider putting my thoughts down on paper and organizing a workshop. It could be exciting!

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