Know Your Edges!

Edge quality in a painting is important! Proper use of edges helps to direct the viewer’s eye toward your chosen center of interest. An edge is the border between shapes, the transition from one shape to another, where contrast occurs between shapes. By adjusting the degree of contrast along the edges of shapes in a painting (in addition to the contrasts of value and color), an artist can control eye movement and focus. Edges also suggest the mood or atmosphere of a subject. A hazy, humid picture might have many soft, fuzzy edges, and generate a mellow feel. Or a painting of a cold, crisp winter day might have numerous numerous hard edges.

Soft, Hard, Lost Edges – ‘Flowing Forward’ Watercolor

When we talk about an edge in painting we mean how it appears to the eye. Keep in mind that an edge in a painting may NOT be just an actual physical edge (like the side of a tree trunk, building, or rock). An edge can also be the transition between sunlight and shadow, between wet sand and dry sand, between a ripple and calm water. 

Types Of Edges And How To Paint Them.

There are, in fact, several types of edges. A good artist tries to incorporate, in each painting, as many of the types as possible to create variation and interest. A HARD edge forms a clear, crisp, abrupt transition between shapes. The contrast of a hard edge will attract the viewer’s eye; perfect to use at the focal point or between light and dark areas. Some hard edges are good in a painting, but using only hard edges will result in a flat image without depth (e.g. as in a woodcut). Hard edges are painted on DRY watercolor paper.

Hard, Soft, Lost Edges – ‘Red Bumpers’ Watercolor

In contrast, an infinite variety of SOFT edges exist. Softer, less-defined edges are used to de-emphasize, and are useful in the background or distance, within a shadow, or when you want a shape to recede further toward the background. Soft edges are gentle and a bit blurred; perfect when painting fog, haze, or mist.

The relative wetness of PAPER and brush will determine finished softness of the edge and the extent of the spread of the watercolor pigment. Try to learn to judge the wetness of your paper by observing the amount of sheen. More shine means more wetness, less suggests a damp or drying paper. It is also good to test the result you want to achieve on a test sheet/practice paper (made of the SAME kind of paper you’re actually painting on to approximate similar results). 

Soft and Hard Edges – ‘Swamp View’ Watercolor

Keep in mind that controlling edge quality has as much to do with the dryness of the BRUSH as with how wet the paper is. A brush overloaded with paint will lessen your control and may flood an area in your painting, whereas a brush with too little wetness will not allow the paint to move easily. Further, when the brush becomes wetter than the paper (from added water or wet paint) you will be in danger of creating an uncontrollable ‘cauliflower’, ‘run back’ or ‘blossom’ in your painting.

A LOST AND FOUND edge is a broken or interrupted edge that will tie the shapes to the background or other objects in the painting. It will connect shapes, allowing them to partially flow into one another.

Varied Edges – ‘Barn Interior’ Watercolor

A LOST edge is an edge that has disappeared. One shape has merged into another, as in a dark shadow. When the values of touching shapes are the same, the edge between them tends to vanish, whether soft or hard, even when there is a color change. Lost edges force the viewer to invent any missing information, and can be quite interesting. By creating shapes of equal values, you will be able to merge edges. In other words, nearby shapes of similar value tend to have less obvious edges. But adjacent shapes with more value contrast will have edges that are well defined.

Lost, Hard, Soft Edges – ‘Red Geranium’ Watercolor

When To Use Different Edges.

Sometimes the subject matter of a painting will tell you whether edges should be hard or soft, but no rules apply. Think about placing hard edges at your center of interest, where you want the viewer to look, then de-emphasize other less important areas with softer edges. Soft edges describe a subject in more general terms, while hard edges provide more detailed and specific information. It might be appropriate to paint a soft object, like a teddy bear, with soft edges. A cut glass crystal bowl, however, will have numerous hard edges. Distant objects often are painted with softer edges, while closer components could have harder edges.  Make choices about your desired mood for the painting, deciding what types of edges are appropriate in the same way you choose your values and colors. For instance, an evening painting might be low key, painted with mostly cool colors but some contrasting warm colors, and a lot of soft or lost and found edges along with a few hard edges for emphasis.

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you in my newsletter. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf., that you can download and print.

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). Try NOT to ‘color’! 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.