Ten Fun Things To Liven Up Your Art!

Don’t know what to paint? Disappointed in your last paintings and feeling inadequate? Bored with your art? Need some inspiration? Craving some creative calm? Try something new!

Here are a few things to excite you and help you change your art up:

1.) Invest in a new brush! But, don’t buy just any old brush. As a watercolorist, it’s so much easier to paint well with a decent brush! Here is my new favorite brand. Give yourself a boost with an ESCODA Versatil brush, a SYNTHETIC brush designed to have the attributes of a natural kolinsky. These brushes hold a lot of water, have a firm spring, a sharp point, plus durability. A size #10 pointed round sells for about $20 (on dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Nothing makes play more fun than a new toy! What a treat!

2.) Take an actual (or virtual!!!) trip to a museum to get inspired. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, Belgium, currently has a Jan van Eyck exhibit up ( through April 30, 2020) entitled “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution”. While the actual exhibit is closed until April 5, zoomable images can be found at closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be and on their Van Eyck page.

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What art did you enjoy looking at? What did you especially like? Can you borrow some ideas about technique, treatment of light, or use of color to adapt to your own paintings? Track done another museum you’d like to check out. Look at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions), The Worcester Art Museum (https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/), or The Wadworth Atheneum Museum of Art (https://www.thewadsworth.org/), for example.

3.) Try a new brand of watercolor paper. Make sure it is ARTIST GRADE 100% cotton fiber (NOT cellulose), such as Arches, Waterford, Fabriano, Lanaquarelle, or Indigo Handmade. Most of these brands can be found online (dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Remember that you can sometimes buy an assortment of different papers, or a pad or block of a different brand – you needn’t buy full sheets. I recently got some Indigo paper from amazon.com and am looking forward to giving it a try. These papers made of cotton absorb paint much more evenly and make it easier to paint well! They are definitely worth any extra cost. Experiment!

4.) Find some inspiration by buying yourself a new or used watercolor book to immerse yourself in. Learn about all the critical ingredients that turn paintings into art with Joseph Zbukvic’s Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor or Thomas W. Shaller’s Architect of Light: Watercolor Paintings By a Master. Or look into the amazing John Singer Sargent: Watercolors (https://www.amazon.com/John-Singer-Sargent-Erica-Hirshler/dp/0878467912/ref=sr_1_6?crid=2FWU61E1CBLTR&keywords=john+singer+sargent+books&qid=1585064924&sprefix=%2Caps%2C162&sr=8-6). Looking to shake things up? Try Mark Mehaffey’s Creative Watercolor Workshop. Or, if you’re a beginner, check out Watercolour For Starters by Paul Talbot-Greaves, Let’s Get Started by Jack Reid, or Painting For The Absolute and Utter Beginner by Claire Watson Garcia.

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5.) Gift yourself a new tube of watercolor paint in a color you might like but do not have. Wouldn’t Daniel Smith’s Lavender be beautiful? Try a tube of Cobalt Teal Blue, Quinacridone Gold, or Bloodstone. Fun!

6.) Look at your paints in a new way by arranging them in a round palette (see robax.com) in a color wheel format. To learn how much easier color mixing can be with a color wheel format read my recent blog post Color Choices For a Circular Palette, published 2/11/20, https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/02/11/color-choices-for-a-circular-palette/.

7.) Sign up for a watercolor workshop with a talented artist. Now is the time to plan! Get a couple of your friends to go with you, if you want, and make a day of it. I’m really looking forward to a Robert J. O’Brien workshop with two of my friends at New England School of Fine Art, Worcester, MA., http://www.nesfa-worcester.com/index.html, entitled ‘The New England Landscape’, on May 30, 2020.

8.) Or perhaps you’d enjoy taking an online workshop. Many artists offer online instruction. I have been developing several online art workshops that will be available in the near future. Stay tuned for news, or contact me to express interest. In the meantime, look at the offerings from artists Angela Fehr, Rebecca Rhodes, Anna Mason, or Birgit O’Connor. Courses are also available from Artist Network, https://www.artistsnetwork.com/, or Art Tutor, https://www.arttutor.com/classes. Some classes can also be found for free at jerrysartarama.com. And finally, YouTube has many free videos on watercolor technique.

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9.) Find yourself a new piece of art equipment to help you paint better and LEARN TO USE IT. A gray scale or value scale, for example, can help you create more dynamic and effective paintings by improving your light and dark contrast. Don’t know what a gray scale is? Read my blog post Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?, posted 5/21/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/, for more information.

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10.) Finally, try something NEW or BREAK SOME RULES! Don’t take things too seriously. Paint with some unexpected colors, or unusual color combinations. Add some complementary colors that you don’t actually see in your reference image to add interest to your painting. Or zoom in close to your subject to crop out unnecessary details. Change your viewpoint in your picture to either raise or lower the horizon line. Try looking down on your subject, e.g. painting a lake looking down from a cliff. Alter the mood in your painting, perhaps creating a more somber, dark, heavy, moody image. Or try charging your colors ON your paper (see the watercolors of John Singer Sargent, especially his images of sunlight on stone, one of which is below) to add life to your picture and prevent a flat lifeless wash. Or exaggerate your lights and darks. Above all, focus on the PROCESS of painting without worrying about (or even considering) the result.

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Choose one of the ten above suggestions to try – begin with the one that excites you most. Then try another – just keep painting or thinking about your art. Strive to keep calm through your creativity. And ENJOY your painting!

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Painting… With Attitude!

TECHNIQUE. 

Learning and practicing your watercolor TECHNIQUES until they become second nature will help you attain painting success. A little knowledge is helpful, as well. Get to know the ELEMENTS OF DESIGN (color, line, value, shape, and form) to create the effects you want. (See my blog posts Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/401, posted 10/16/2018, and Creating Form and Space In A Painting, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/390, posted 9/18/2018, for additional information about design elements.)

MINDSET OR ATTITUDE.

While technique and design elements need to be mastered, an artist’s mindset (or attitude) has a huge effect on every aspect of painting! Whatever emotions an artist is experiencing can often be observed in their painting. Uncertainty and fear can come across through tentative, uncertain brush strokes or pale, washed out colors. A creator in a rush can be sloppy and less than observant. A tense artist trying to control their pigment paints a stiff, tight picture, while a confident painter creates with a bolder, looser stroke. In many ways, painting echoes and reflects each artist’s attitudes and emotions.

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Sometimes the hardest thing to master about watercolor painting is our own mindset or attitude toward our painting. So what is an effective mindset for an artist to have? How might a painter think about the process of painting?

DON’T LET FEAR CONTROL YOU.

Try not to let fear of making mistakes or looking foolish hold you back. Everyone makes mistakes – that’s how we learn. No one will think less of you if you have difficulties. Don’t hesitate to paint – just begin taking action. Start! Everyone can learn to improve their painting!

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AVOID JUDGING.

Strive to not put yourself down. Show compassion and encouragement to yourself instead of judging and criticizing your efforts. None of us will ever paint a perfect picture. Give yourself credit for being brave enough to paint!

 

BE OPEN TO THE PAINTING PROCESS.

Make an effort to be open-minded. We don’t always know what will happen next in art (or in life). And that’s okay! Your painting may go in a direction you don’t intend or expect it to go. It may take longer than you expect for your skills to improve. You don’t always have complete control when painting in watercolor – trying to force watercolor paint to do your bidding instead of flowing with it can cause frustration. Trust the process.

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PERSEVERE.

Stay optimistic. Keep trying. There will be ups and downs during the learning process – learning (like a baby’s growth) seems to move in spurts, or a spiral. A discouraged painter will tend to avoid their art and be less likely to practice and improve. Persevere.

ENJOY YOUR PAINTING.

Try to find something you like in each painting you work on. Make time to paint what interests and excites you. Be inspired. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. Play! You’ll be more likely to continue with painting.

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EXPERIMENT.

Eventually, as you become more practiced in technique, you will become more relaxed when painting, and able to experiment. You will become better able to plan and respond to your painting as it develops. Your goal is to listen to your own reactions to your work and adapt to what is happening on the paper, without panic or self-criticism.

Remember to paint what interests you and pleases you. Play! To read more about how painting can be affected by attitude, see my blog post I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But I Don’t Have The Talent (7/20/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/07/20/ive-always-wanted-to-paint-watercolors-but-dont-have-the-talent/.

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Why Does It Matter If My Paint Is Transparent Or Opaque…As Long As I Like The Color?

Knowing a paint’s attributes puts you a step ahead as an artist. By being familiar with whether a pigment is transparent or opaque, staining or non-staining, saturated or unsaturated, for instance, you will begin to be able to predict how the paint will behave. Understanding your pigments is an important step in getting the results you want and in being successful as a painter.

TRANSPARENT VS. OPAQUE:

A TRANSPARENT color maintains its luminosity or brightness because it allows the white of the watercolor paper to reflect back through the paint to the viewer’s eye. Since a transparent color lets light through, it is possible to create the illusion of a ‘glow’ of light in a painting.

 

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Apple Blossoms – You can see the first layers of color through the transparent pigments.

In contrast, an OPAQUE watercolor pigment blocks the light and prevents luminosity. While thinning an opaque color can make it somewhat more transparent, it will then lose intensity (strength). In general, you cannot see the white of the paper through an opaque paint. The more opaque a color is, the more it blocks the white of the paper, particularly if it is layered.

STAINING VS. NON-STAINING TRANSPARENTS:

If you plan to glaze one color on top of another color to create optical color mixing, use transparent colors. If you want to create the effects of light and produce a ‘glow’, use a paled, transparent color.

Be aware that there are both STAINING and NON-STAINING transparent colors.

STAINING TRANSPARENT pigments, such as Indian yellow, Phthalo/Winsor Blue, Phthalo/Winsor Green, Prussian Blue/AntwerpBlue, Phthalo Violet, are bold and intense. They are NOT easily lifted. Because they are transparent, they will NOT produce mud IF mixed with other transparent  colors. Mixed full strength, they create rich darks.

NON-STAINING TRANSPARENT pigments, such as Permanent Rose, Aureolin Yellow, Viridian, or Cobalt Blue, on the other hand, are delicate and can be lifted easily. They are ideal for glazing, layering, or mixing a transparent gray from primary colors.

Still other pigments, like Lemon Yellow, Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Cobalt Violet, Sap Green, or Ultramarine Blue, are LOW-STAINING and transparent to semi-transparent. Intensity of these colors is average, and they can be partially lifted.

If you wish to lift one color of a mixture and reveal a second color underneath (e.g. by blotting out clouds or scraping paint back to create rock texture or a tree trunk), then combine a staining pigment with a non-staining pigment.

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Stormy Hills – Opaque pigments do not allow earlier color layers to show through.

OPAQUE colors tend to be less bright, although semi-opaque pigments, such as Cadmium Red, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Yellow, or Cadmium Lemon, can be somewhat luminous when thinned or diluted. The opaque earth colors, like Indian Red, Light Red, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Sepia, Indigo, or Cerulean Blue, are often LOW-STAINING and UNSATURATED (not a vivid bright). Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna, earth colors, are a bit unusual in that they can be transparent. Remember that adding an opaque color to a paint mixture or layering with an opaque pigment will make creating ‘muddy’ color more likely. Further, if you begin a painting with opaque color, you’ll probably lose the effect of light.

CREATE A COLOR CHART TO DETERMINE TRANSPARENCY:

Transparency and opaqueness of paint pigments can vary quite a bit by manufacturer. For example, Raw Sienna ranges from yellow to orange to brown depending on the company that formulates it. So, get to know the specific paints YOU have on your palette by creating a color chart. First, draw a line with a black permanent marker (or waterproof India ink). Allow to dry. Paint swatches of medium dark paint over the black line. Transparent colors won’t cover the black line. Opaque colors will. Staining colors will look dark.

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Two Color Chart examples.

IN SUMMARY:

Most organic or synthetic paints are transparent, while earth colors tend to be semi-opaque or opaque. The transparent pigments are the most versatile type of watercolor. They remain transparent when mixed with other transparent colors. Opaque colors, on the other hand, DO NOT mix well with other opaques. Try to combine opaque paints only with a transparent color or colors, if possible, to avoid mixing muddy colors. Or, best of all, use an opaque pigment by itself to show off its best attributes.

Get to know the paints on your palette. As Jean Dobie states in Making Color Sing, “To paint glowing, vibrant watercolors, you must become familiar with your pigments’ personalities.”

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I Guess We’ve All Made Painting Mistakes!

Joe Garcia in The Watercolor Bible puts it well when he says “A common misconception about watercolor is that it’s one of the most difficult mediums to use because you cannot correct mistakes.” In fact, you CAN often correct or adjust mistakes in watercolor painting! You can lift colors, blot, scrub, scrape, change values by lifting or glazing, even adjust a composition.

One of the simplest techniques to correct a mistake involves BLOTTING AND LIFTING wet paint. If while you’re painting you accidentally smudge or paint over an area you intended to keep white, quickly blot up the wet paint with a paper towel or tissue. As long as you have not painted with a staining pigment, the color will lift.

(Suggestion: Become aware of which paints on your palette are considered staining. Common staining colors that cannot be easily lifted include Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, some of the Sap Greens, Gamboge, Permanent Rose, Prussian Blue.)

Another technique used to alter wet paint is using a THIRSTY BRUSH to remove some color from your painting, e.g., to lighten a wash, create a highlight, or lift out clouds. The painted surface should be damp, with the shine just about to go dull. A ‘thirsty’ brush has been moistened but squeezed nearly dry before the brush is moved over the moist painted surface. After each lifting stroke with a thirsty brush, wipe the brush clean to remove wetness and lifted paint from the brush, before continuing to lift.

If your paint has dried, WETTING AND LIFTING can remove areas of dark color. A staining color will require a stiffer brush and stronger scrubbing to lift any color. Use a very wet brush to wet the area where paint will be lifted.

Work in small areas to loosen and lift paint, before moving and moistening a new spot. SCRUB until the water loosens the dried pigment. Quickly blot to absorb the liquid with a paper towel or tissue, removing the loosened pigment along with the water. Do not let the loosened color remain on the scrubbed surface. It can be reabsorbed by the damaged paper fibers and not be able to be lifted again. Be sure to have a wet enough brush when using this technique – using just a damp brush may rough up the paper and scrub the paint deeper into the paper. A slight variation to the above scrub and blot technique would be WIPING OFF COLOR with a paper towel or tissue.

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Mountain Stream, scrubbing and lifting.

SCRAPING can help you recover a lost highlight or create sparkle. You can scrape with a variety of tools (for different effects), either before your applied paint dries or after. Create tree trunks; for example, scrape wet paint with a palette knife or hard brush handle. Scraping can form dark marks on wet paint as the paint flows into the scrape. Or, on less wet but still damp paint, scrape in lighter marks as paint is pushed away from the scraping.

 

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Red Canoe, scraping and lifting.

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Waves, scratching and scraping.

Rocks can be highlighted and textured with a knife or palette knife by scraping and pushing damp paint. An X-acto knife can scrape dried paint to reclaim highlights, generate sparkle on water, or repair unsuccessful dry brush work. Keep in mind that scraping can damage paper, so it should be one of the last adjustments made to your painting. (Sandpaper can also remove pigment and bring back the white of the paper, although it also damages the paper.)

Hazel Soan, in The Essence of Watercolour, maintains that errors in “light-toned early washes are NOT a problem. As soon as darker tones are employed the eye is distracted from the pale tones.” Soan goes on to suggest that sometimes you can reclaim your watercolor by disguising or DISTRACTING from a mistake. Add a dark-toned accent nearby the error, such as some grasses or reeds, “to distract the eye away from the problem.”

OPAQUE colors, if not overdone, can be used to cover some painting mistakes or recreate lost highlights. Edges can be redrawn with an opaque color. Titanium White, full strength, can hide a mistake against white paper, while a matching opaque color can reclaim a colored background.

Too many layers of paint will eventually destroy transparency. So, to preserve transparency, consider GLAZING to improve color harmony. Tame overly bright colors, make shadows interesting, or even enliven dull dark color by glazing with a TRANSPARENT pigment. When glazing, make sure the surface of the paper is thoroughly dry. To calm bright colors, choose a transparent NON-STAINING pigment and apply quickly (without scrubbing). To rescue dull, dark colors, use transparent STAINING pigments (such as Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, or Phthalo Green) for glazing. As Jean Dobie explains in Making Color Sing, “turn an error into an asset!”

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Apple Blossoms, background glazing.

By accentuating some areas of your painting and playing down other sections, perhaps by glazing or lifting, you can improve your focal point or center of interest. If a picture lacks a strong focal point or the center of interest is too weak, increase contrast of lights and darks between your focal point and the background. If your center of interest is too broad, choose a smaller area, strengthen color and contrast here, then darken or soften the surrounding sections to make the focal point stand out.

Try not to rush to correct all your painting mistakes. It is sometimes best to evaluate your work near the end of the painting process when you can see how one area affects or supports the other sections of a picture. While many mistakes can be corrected or improved, at times it can be best to start a picture over. Try to learn from any blunder. With experience you will become confident about what you can correct as well as knowing when you probably should begin anew. Don’t get discouraged – becoming frustrated or giving up could be the worst mistakes of all.

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Painting…On the Edge.

If you are a painter, or just enjoy looking at paintings, you cannot avoid edges. Every shape in a painting has an edge, boundary, or margin that provides information about the subject. By altering the characteristics of edges, you can make clear what is most important in your painting.

As a painter, it is important to use the appropriate edges to pass along accurate information to your viewer. The right type of edge makes your subject recognizable. For example, a rock, house, or boat should have mainly hard edges, while a cloud, fog, or smoke should have primarily soft edges. Edges can suggest a sharp transition or soft blending. While each object can be essentially hard- or soft-edged, there should always be some variation in edge treatment in each shape or object to add variety and interest. While clouds will be predominantly soft, a few hard edges will attract the viewer’s eye and encourage a closer look.

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Edges can also create distance and separation between objects in a picture. For instance, a hard-edged object will appear separated from and in front of what is painted near it, suggesting space. On the other hand, a soft-edged object tends to blend in, to appear to touch, be close to, or be surrounded by nearby shapes.

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TYPES OF EDGES.

There are a variety of different edge characteristics. Try to include many kinds of edges in each of your paintings!

HARD, abrupt, or sharp edges stop the movement of your eye. Your eye focuses on the hard edge and moves along the line’s edge, hopefully, to the most interesting part of the picture. ROUGH edges also attract attention, particularly if value contrast (light and dark) is high. An OVERLAPPED edge is a variation of the hard edge. To create an overlapped edge, paint a shape and let it dry. Paint another nearby shape by just overlapping the previous edge to create a small section of a third color and a transitional edge.

A SOFT, faded, or blurred edge allows the eye to easily move from one shape right over the edge to another shape. Soft edges can suggest movement or allow the viewer to imagine and interpret parts of a picture. A LOST edge is a variation of a soft edge, where the edge or boundary of an object can’t be seen although the viewer knows it must be there based on other parts of the painting. A BROKEN edge, or lost-and-found edge, keeps a painting from being static; the edge appears and disappears.

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HOW TO PAINT EDGES.

To paint a HARD edge, make a stroke of paint on DRY paper and let the paint dry. ROUGH edges are painted on dry paper with somewhat thicker paint. By using the side of the brush, paint skips over the bumps in the paper (similar to a dry-brush mark).

In contrast, a SOFT edge is created by painting on WET paper (wet-in-wet). The degree of moisture on the paper affects how soft the edge will be. The wetter the paper, the more the paint will soften and dissipate. A soft edge can also be made by charging or painting one color next to a second color. (See my related blog post published June 4, 2019, “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Color On Watercolor Paper”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/charge-ahead-and-mingle-blending-color-on-watercolor-paper/.) Or form a soft edge by applying paint, then softening the edge with a damp brush, while the paint is still wet. If the paint has dried before you soften, you can still run a damp brush along the edge of the paint, but let the wetness soften the paint briefly before gently tickling the edge to get the edge paint to start to soften. It’s much easier to soften BEFORE paint dries, however. (See my related blog post published October 23, 2018, “Softening An Edge or Fading Out”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/.)

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HOW TO PLAN YOUR EDGES.

How can you decide which edges should be painted with a hard edge, or soft, or rough, or lost? Why can’t you just make all the edges hard and detailed? I encourage you to go beyond copying every detail of a reference. Instead, improve your painting by thinking ahead and planning edges before you begin painting. If you are going to paint from a reference photo or from real life, SQUINT your eyes so that you can better see values and simplify the important details in your scene.

Decide on your painting’s center of interest. Your focus will generally be painted as the area having higher value contrast and harder edges. As you squint, you should also look for areas where there is lower value contrast and probably softer or lost edges. Try never to decide on your edge treatment without squinting and thinking about VALUES. Remember that light and the light source affect how you see edges. Make a note to help you remember! Direct or bright light will form harder, sharper edges, even lost edges in extremely bright light. Shadowed areas, distant objects, or darkness will suggest softer, perhaps lost edges, with less detail.

Strive to NOT have only hard edges! INVENT some lost edges if you have to. In other words, don’t define or detail every boundary. Plan where you’ll need to lose some edges. When drawing, you could leave out some lines entirely where you would like to lose an edge. Plan for each shape in a painting to have VARIED edges, not totally hard or totally soft.

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IN SUMMARY.

Edges provide much information about a subject. As an artist, you can provide the viewer with the correct information by using appropriate edges. A few  of the things that edges can tell you about are how strong the light is and from what direction it is coming, what the weather is, what the center of interest is in a painting, and distances of objects from the viewer.

To avoid a rigid painting, vary your edges! Remember that hard boundaries indicate the importance of an object in your picture. A hard edge stops the eye and directs the viewer to follow the edge. Value contrast also makes a hard edge more obvious. Yet, too many hard edges and too much detail can be confusing and monotonous. By varying edges, you create interesting things to look at and you encourage the viewer’s gaze to wander and flow from one part of your picture to another. Have many kinds of edges in a painting. The greater the variety of edge treatments, the more interesting your painting is to look at!

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