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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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. AWARENESS OF and ABILITY TO CONTROL the amount of wetness will determine whether an artist’s techniques will be successful. We may need to practice softening, and practice again!

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, avoid ‘blossoms’, 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.         

More specifically, 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 to make the paint edge soften. Once the paint begins to move and soften, make your strokes (with a clean damp brush) further and further away from the paint (to avoid creating a hard edge).

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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