Friday, 15 August 2008

Painting on the edge - Part 2

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" - August 2008.

How to create soft and hard edges

The law of contrast applies to edges as it does for colours: the softer the surrounding, the crisper a hard edge will seem. In other words, to make an edge look harder, you can soften the ones around it. The edge will seem hard when you create a high contrast between the two planes it delineates. Contrast can be created with tones (dark against light), colours (complimentary colours, like green next to red) or temperature (warm against cool). Edges will appear soft if adjacent colours are close in tone colour or temperature.

The way to work with edges will depend on what technique you are using. For oil painting, I find easier to soften all edges first and then create few hard edges. You can always redefine edges at a later stage.

Working wet on wet will tend to produce soft edges as the paint you apply naturally blend with the underpainting. To create soft edges, blend the edge between two planes of colours with a brush, a rag or lose the edge by smudging the paint with your fingers. (You will be in good company as Leonardo da Vinci was blending with his fingers. If you do so, make sure that you clean your hand very well at the end of your painting session as some paints are toxic). A practical tip: don’t apply the paint too thickly or it will become difficult to control the degree of blending you want to achieve.

To create a smooth transition between two planes of colours, you can also mix separately the colours of the two planes and apply the paint on your canvas with a gap in between. Then, mix the two colours together to obtain a transitional tone and apply the new mixture in the gap.

If you need to create hard edges, you can use a small sable brush. This works well for calligraphic marks like tree branches. You can also do so with a painting knife. Some painting knives have a square end and are ideal to create hard edges of buildings for instance.

In watercolour, wet on wet technique will create soft edges as colours diffuse with water. For hard edges, wait until the paper is dry and paint wet on dry. This way, your marks will be crisp and well defined. Masking fluid is an easy way to create light shapes with hard edges.

Pitfalls when working with edges
Don’t assume that because an object has sharp edges, it should in all cases be represented in your work with hard edges. Observe, for instance how the sides of a mug in an even light blends into the background despite the fact that it has straight edges.

A common mistake in still life paintings is to have hard edges all around the main subject of the painting, in particular if the artist uses a dark background for dramatic effect. With hard edges all around, the subject will appear flat and stuck onto the background rather than protruding towards the viewer. Nature is not made of cut-out shapes and this is what you would get by using only hard edges.

In landscape painting, there are no hard edges where the sky meets the landscape itself. Because of the layers of air between yourself and the horizon, edges get softer the farther you go.

You are now well prepared to observe and recreate soft and hard edges in your work. In the end, it is a matter of balance and judgement. Too many soft edges and your painting will look inconsistent; too many hard edges and it will look unnatural and harsh. You need to find the right proportion by successive adjustments.

No comments: