Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Painting on the edge - Part 1

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine"– July 2008.

The form of an object results from different factors: colour, value, light, atmosphere, temperature and edges. Some of these factors influence each other.

Soft and hard edges are essential tools in building a cohesive painting and creating the sense of space and perspective. Taking care of edges will make a dramatic difference to your paintings. They are often overlooked because they seem less important than colour or composition but, unless you get them right, your painting will not come together and drive the eyes of the spectator where you want to lead them.

Edges are the frontier where one shape meets another. Two pairs of adjectives are often associated with the word “edge” in painting books and articles: “hard edges” opposed to “soft edges” on the one hand and “found edges” opposed to “lost edges” on the other hand. These expressions are close but not necessarily interchangeable. A lost edge is generally a soft edge but the reverse is not always true. These terms are explicit enough not to require any explanation. If you want to see lost edges in action, look at still life paintings from the Dutch school and see how the dark side of the composition disappears in the shadow of the background.

As always, observation is essential and you should study nature to find soft and hard edges. Lost edges occur in the shadow but you will also find them in the light: intense sunlight will “eat” the edges of an object, like the summer sun shinning through foliage.

Atmosphere influences edges. If you paint during a foggy day, edges will be blurred and soft. By contrast, in sunny weather, the sun around noon will create more hard edges.

You will also observe that edges get softer the farther you look. Leonardo da Vinci described in his notebook how edges get softer with distance, due to atmospheric perspective: “In the distance the boundaries of bodies which are of similar colour are the first to be lost, when the boundary of one is on the top of the other, like that of the boundary of one oak tree on top of another similar oak. At the next stage of distance the boundaries of bodies of moderately different colour are lost when one above the other, such as green, such as is to say, trees, against cultivated land of walls or broken mountains or stones. Finally are lost the boundaries of bodies which have borders of dark against light or light against dark.”

The function of hard and soft edges

  • Hard edges will draw attention by their sharpness because the eye (and the brain) is used to only see sharp edges of the area we focus on. Everything in the periphery fades and, being out of focus, loses its sharpness. So try to keep your hard edges in the centre of attention, around the focus point. Does that mean that you can only have hard edges in one place in your painting? No, but you should plan where you put them and hard edges should drive the eyes of the viewer towards the path you want them to follow. The human eye can only focus on one thing at a time and to avoid having the eye of your spectator wandering aimlessly, you need to limit the number of hard edges and place them with care. Hard edges distributed at random will just create distraction and confusion.
  • As already mentioned, in nature, edges will appear softer with distance. The farther an object is, the softer its edges are. You can imply distance in you painting by creating atmospheric perspective. Softening edges in the background is one way to imply distance. Soft edges will make an object recede; hard edges will bring it forward.

  • Use edges to suggest the physical properties of the objects you are painting. For instance, a leafy bush has a rounded form and wrinkled edges best rendered with soft edges.
  • Edges contribute to the mood of a painting or areas of a painting not only at the level of the elements composing your work but also at the scale of individual marks. Brushwork also relies on edges. Sharp and decided marks convey energy and excitement; softer strokes express reserve and quietness. Soft edges will also bring mystery areas for your viewer to explore, leaving room for their imagination.
  • Soft edges create a smooth transition between different elements in your painting and therefore help to make your composition look like a whole. Hard edges will become the few landmarks on the unified backdrop of your painting.

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