Softening an Edge or Fading Out.

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 damp 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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Basic Watercolor Techniques You’ll Want to Learn.

Here are some basic watercolor techniques that every painter should strive to master.

*Painting a WASH is an important skill. Try to use a big enough brush to hold a good amount of paint. Mix a larger puddle of paint than you think you need so that you don’t run out and have to mix more in the middle of painting the wash. Start with color at one end of your paper and smoothly stroke across to the opposite edge. Your brush should hold enough paint to sweep from one side to the other without running out of pigment. If not, find a larger brush to use. There should be a damp bead of paint on the lower edge of the color you just put on your paper. Reload your brush fully with paint, and smoothly stroke across the page again, just touching your brush to the damp bead of your last stroke. This bead tells you your paint is still wet and helps prevent streaky washes.

*To paint a GRADED WASH, start with color at one end of the paper. Paint three to four long strokes, as above. Dip the brush in water, and wipe it gently on the side of your water container (so the brush is not too wet), then return to the wash and continue painting three to four strokes. Repeat, dipping the brush in the water and wiping gently before going back to the painting. What are you doing? Every time you dip and wipe your brush, you are reducing the pigment and water on your brush to gradually lighten the color of your wash. You are not trying to wash all the pigment out of your brush all at once, but instead are gradually diluting the pigment on your brush as you continue to paint down the paper.

* Blend two colors together to create GRADATION. Start by laying the first color about 3/4 of the way from one end toward the other in a wash. Right away, load your brush with your second color, and paint toward and over the first color 3/4 of the way. Reverse direction, and work back to where you started your second color WITHOUT lifting your brush. Move back and forth until the colors blend smoothly. The trick here is to not lift the brush from the paper once you begin blending.

*To MIX COLOR on your palette, dip into the lighter color first, then drop the darker color into the light color. Mix. It is not necessary to wash your brush every time you reach to get more color to add to the mixture. Doing so is wasteful and dilutes your mixture. Instead, just go to the color desired, and pick up some color with the dirty brush, then bring it back to the mixture. Any dirty palette wells can be cleaned later with a damp brush! It’s okay, however, to clean your brush when you want to use a single clean color or want to change to a new mixture of color.

*To mix CONCENTRATED DARK COLORS, mix as above, but DON’T keep adding water, because you dilute your mixture and will have difficulty achieving intense or dark combinations.

*Learn how to LIFT COLOR with a brush. Remember that you can lift wet paint from your paper as long as your brush is DRIER than the paint.

*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. Use a brush that is less wet than the painted area. DON’T reach into the painted area and drag color out! Also, be careful how close you get to the wet paint with your brush. You are trying to lay down a damp strip that will attract the wetter paint, so barely touch the edge of the paint. 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. 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, or flower petals.)

*Learn to LET THE PAINT AND WATER DO THE WORK. Don’t fight the paint or try to force it to do what you want it to. Learn the rules of how water behaves -(i.e., when two unequal bodies of moisture meet, the GREATER wetness will ALWAYS flow into the LESSER wetness). Learn to do nothing except watch what the paint and water can do without your help.

* Learn to see and paint NEGATIVE SHAPES. A negative shape is the background or shape AROUND an object, not the object itself. You essentially save the light shape (perhaps of trees in a forest) by painting around the tree trunks with a dark color. For trees, paint vertical strokes that represent the space  between tree trunks. Try to vary sizes, angles, and shapes of the dark lines, even making some of the light tree trunk shapes y-shaped to represent branches. When the paint on the paper is dry, use a slightly darker pigment to paint again but only in the dark spaces, and add even darker marks to define the space between more tree trunks deeper in the forest. It might help to lightly sketch these first. In the beginning, allow large spaces around a few shapes. If you leave too little space, it becomes difficult to paint meaningful shapes at deeper layers. Repeat the process for several layers. Slowly and gradually progress to darker layers of color. (There is no need to mix progressively darker puddles of paint here – use the same puddle for successive layers. Two layers will appear twice as dark as one, etc.) Negative shapes in a painting add variety, depth, interest, and a sense of reality to your image.

*Practice control of  BRUSH STROKES and techniques. As an artist, you want to paint with as few brush strokes as possible to preserve the freshness and clarity of your painting. Make your shapes with a single stroke as opposed to first outlining and then filling in with color (like a coloring book). Avoid cautious, tiny strokes with a too-small brush. Instead, try to use a larger brush than you think you need!

While many other techniques are useful, learning the ones described above will assure many a good painting. Thank you to artist and author Gordon MacKenzie for recommending many of the above ideas.