Even experienced watercolor artists may have some gaps in their skill set. One basic watercolor painting skill that every painter should have under control is FADING OUT a color, also called SOFTENING AN EDGE.  (See other “Basic Watercolor Techniques You’ll Want To Learn”, my blog post dated September 11, 2018,  for a quick review of what you may want to be sure to include in your painting repertoire.)

The most important prerequisite to understanding how to soften an edge is learning that different degrees of wetness exist. In watercolor painting, these differences in wetness determine the effect a painter gets and whether a painter’s efforts create the desired effect. WETNESS is the basis for most techniques in watercolor. With too little water, the paint will not move easily, whereas with too much water, a painter will not have much control of the paint. Whether an artist’s techniques work or not will depend on the artist’s AWARENESS OF and ABILITY TO CONTROL the amount of wetness employed.

Many beginning watercolor students have quite a bit of trouble understanding how to judge wetness and its effects in watercolor painting. While experience helps you to learn how to control wetness,  even experienced painters need to follow the laws of physics. If painters try to fight the law of hydrodynamics and force the water to do their bidding, they will struggle! This rule is fairly straightforward, but it is not to be disregarded. Simply put, greater wetness ALWAYS flows into lesser wetness. It doesn’t matter where or when. For example, paint or water will flow OFF a brush onto a surface if the brush is WETTER than the surface. Paint or water will flow from the surface onto the brush if the brush is DRIER than the surface. There will not be much flow at all if the two areas are of similar wetness. There will be flow only if one area is much wetter than the other. Use this knowledge to control your edges in painting and to soften an edge or fade out color.

The technique called “softening an edge” or pulling out or fading out color uses a brush that is damp and LESS WET than the painted area to be softened. When softening an edge, you are not actually moving any paint. You are using water to encourage the paint to move on its own. Painters try to put just the right amount of wetness (not too much or too little) in the right spot at the right time to allow the paint to ‘sigh’ into the wetness. The dampness makes a path for the paint to soften into. You want to produce a smooth, graded effect.         

FADING OUT or SOFTENING AN EDGE is done by running a damp brush along the edge of a painted shape while the painted area is still wet. This approach works best if the paint area is very wet (just painted) and the brush is less wet (just damp). With the clean damp brush, dampened with very clean water, try to lay a line of dampness down just barely touching the edge of the paint. DON’T reach into the painted area and drag color out! You are trying to lay down a damp strip that will attract the wetter paint, so barely touch the edge of the paint. If you go too far into the paint with your brush,  your brush will act like a sponge, soaking up and spreading the paint around – not your intention. It may take several passes of the damp brush in order to moisten the paper enough. Once the paint begins to move, make your strokes further and further away from the paint.

What kind of brush is best for softening or fading out an edge? Natural fiber brushes are much better for softening than synthetics, because synthetic brushes are less able to hold a large amount of water AND have a tendency to release all of the water they hold at once. A synthetic brush will tend to dump too much moisture at first, leaving the right amount partway, then having little moisture left and running out toward the end of trying to soften a large area. The result can be a blossom at the beginning of softening, nice fading out toward the center, and no change in an edge at the end of a stroke with a synthetic brush.

It is best to get to fading or softening quickly, because as the paint dries, it is less likely to move easily, less likely to flow. (This technique is somewhat different from painting wet-in-wet or wet-in-damp, although both produce soft edges. ‘Softening an edge’ allows the artist more control in the sense that one side of the paint stroke is preserved as a hard edge while the other side is softened – perfect for rock crevices, folds in fabric, a snow bank, rolling surf, or flower petals.)

Soft edges convey distance.

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Soft edges create a sense of movement. 

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Soft edges suggest depth and shape. 

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5 Comments

  1. Great article Lee on a subject that is sometimes difficult to grasp and even tougher to put into practice at times. Beautiful paintings of examples of soft edges.

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      1. Thank you Lee! I can’t take full credit as it was a tutorial on Anna Masons Online school, but I am learning by doing. Hopefully I can apply what I learn to my own work. The lights, darks and midtones are quite a challenge to “see” in a photograph, even the black and white photos. I really enjoy reading your blog. You have a lot of great things to say. I wish your studio was a bit closer as I would take lessons from you. We are both in MA but I’m in the western part of the state.

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      2. I think you SHOULD take credit for your beautiful cherries! YOU painted them, even though you may have had some guidance. You are right though that different tones can be tricky to distinguish when you’re on your own. Keep at it!

        I appreciate your desire to take lessons with me and regret also that the distance is too great. Perhaps at some point I can put together some online classes for teaching those who live too far from my studio. What do you think?

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