The Value of a “Foil” in Art

By Susan Holland in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

From Wikipedia: A literary foil is a person in a story who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight various features of the main character’s personality, to throw the character of the protagonist into sharper focus. . .

Last Memorial Day weekend I was privileged to be one of three artists exhibiting work at another artist’s studio. In looking back at our exhibit, it seems to me that our host artist chose her fellow exhibitors very cleverly.

The host, whose studio was the location for the exhibit, is an accomplished sculptor in several media. Her work is delicate, complex, and very intensely detailed. She uses metal pieces and parts of cannibalized objects to put together mostly figurative sculptures that are dazzling and complicated and delightful, often with dark overtones that come through during the experience of her art.

There is a blizzard of color in her work, and reflections, and interactive parts that open with things to be found inside them. Some could even be compared to installations. . . just on a smaller scale.

She invited me, a more traditional painter, to show my paintings; and she invited another young printmaker, who had just graduated in art, to show his prints.

Most of my paintings are large and smooth and calm (very different from her sculpture). They claim space by bigness, and people stand back to look at the generous shapes and forms.

The young printmaker had a selection of medium and small framed works in muted colors, mostly black and white, and the subject matter was transition between death and the new experience beyond. A dear friend of hers had just passed away, and the work was done with skill and with a lot of emotional power.

What made this exhibit “pop” was the contrast between the three of us and our distinctive bodies of work. . .

The somberness and formality of the prints made the light-hearted works more amusing, and the large sizes and generous forms of the paintings made the delicate nature of the etchings and colorful metal work more engaging. You could almost hear the change in mood when the visitors entered each different room!

Not only that, but the exhibit was a profound success. People bought things, and asked about commissioning pieces. They signed the guest book enthusiastically, wanting more.

It takes a shrewd, seasoned artist to know how to put together a show that will do that. I was especially impressed by the ease of interaction between artists and viewers. . . everyone was comfortable, and none of us felt “upstaged” or “downstaged” by any other artist.

Our guests went from one room to another refreshed and ready to go back to rooms they had enjoyed before with a fresh eye.

Which brings me to my point: the value of a foil in art.

I first learned what a foil was in English Composition class at college. The term is not at the top of most dictionary definitions, and it usually applies to literature.

But as I found out, it also applies to painting exhibits—and individual paintings as well! Study your favorite paintings for smooth shapes against complex passages; sensitive line-work and soft texture against bold color; sparkling forms against deep darks; and for calm underlying shapes with exciting focus points.

Good art always has contrast: yin vs yang, black vs white. You will find this same concept in music, drama, literature, visual arts, and architecture.

Our three-artist open studio was astutely put together. We were in good hands with our hostess who knew our work and how it would fit together. We were each others’ foils, drawing attention to the things that made our artwork unique.

Inspired by the exhibit, I am newly resolved to enhance my use of foils in my own painting. And from here on out, I will be more aware of the company my paintings keep as they are exhibited as well.


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