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.

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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.

TIRE SWING PAINTING.jpg

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.

Tiny Waves series - crashing wave.jpeg

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.

VT Farm Snow Scene(166).jpg

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/.)

Winter Is Coming.jpg

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.

The End of the Day.jpg

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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