Staffage *

"Staffage" is a historical term for placing people and animals into landscapes. Like many time-worn conventions, there's more to it than meets the eye.

The populating of pictures--mainly views, architectural subjects, natural wonders and other general scenes--was once more widespread than it is now. 

In the 17th century, some Dutch painters actually employed other artists to put people in. Staffage was used as an aid to composition, a device to show scale, and an opportunity to enliven scenes. 

Gathering Wildflowers
20" x 20" Oil on Linen

Figures were strategically placed, often holding a stick, cane, spear or gun, sometimes together with a lesser person, or a dog or other beast, or even pointing toward the picture's center of interest. 

Detail from "Gathering Wildflowers" 
As you can see, the figure is not detailed. I consider them archetypes - in that everyone who has unexpectedly found wildflowers in a natural setting can relate.

Sometimes a jacket or coat brought a bit of colour to a sombre landscape. The Impressionists gave themselves a choice--some went for it, others didn't. 

These days some photographers dine out on girls in red shorts on foreground rocks. In current landscape painting, Nature is more likely to be unpopulated. This, of course, will change.

In the Hancock Garden
20" x 20" Oil on Linen 
When I was painting this I could almost "see" this figure walking in the garden - so I painted her in.

Many painters these days don't do figures because they can't. Actually, this was always true. People are a tough order. But there's more to it than that. With the rise of rugged individualism and the concept of "me first," it is often the viewer who feels the need to supply his own figure. 

Living in someone else's world is not our style anymore. It's not the wealthy lord in the big hat who gazes at the Sphinx, it's us. The wonders of Egypt are now theoretically available to all. 

The idea of other people enjoying the architecture in Piazza San Marcos in Venice is more the business of illustration. With the widespread suspicion of sentiment, anecdote itself has become distrusted and even suppressed.

"The Buck Stops Here"
8" x 10" Oil on Canvas
Once again, as I was painting this watering hole, I could not resist putting in the buck - hence the title.

Next time you think about putting in a figure or figures, think about what may be pulling you around. Early this morning I painted a tranquil lake in the Western Canadian foothills. I couldn't prevent myself from putting a couple of guys and a dog out there in a yellow rowboat.

Detail of "The Buck Stops Here"
Because of the small overall size of this painting (only 8" x 10" for pete's sake), this animal is verrrrry tiny. 

It was a technical nightmare to paint it so I cut a teenie-weenie little stencil out of a piece of tape and added it into the landscape that way. 

I usually don't have the patience for this sort of thing - but I was in an "icky picky-poo mood" at the time and, most importantly, I  had a brand-new exacto blade  handy.

The devil made me do it. I'm not sure if I made the painting better or worse. What do you think? To me it looks curiously old fashioned. We put the painting at the top of the current clickback so you can shoot it down if you feel like it.

PS: "I'm done with girls on rocks." (Maxfield Parrish, 1950)

* Except for my paintings posted here, the all the text in this color has been "lifted" from Robert Genn's Twice Weekly Letter of May 23, 2008. This is his website and you can sign up for his newsletter. Robert Genn full of interesting info on the the subject of art and best of all, his newsletter is free!

Also, I have been reminded to tell you that Staffage is available online along with artists' comments. The online versions of Robert Genn's newsletters are illustrated and enriched by many comments from artists worldwide. They can be accessed for free and do not require subscription to the email newsletter.

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