Going Over The Edge
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - March, 1992
How to treat edges for greater vitality and dimension in your work.
For centuries, painters have used a whole vocabulary of hard and soft edges not only to achieve dimension, but to express their individual styles. Recognizing all the places edges play a role, and knowing how to manipulate them, will help you control the composition, dimensionality and mood of your work as well.
The best way to get to know edges and the possibilities they offer is to learn the different ways they can be handled. Then, it's simply a matter of tailoring these techniques to fit your particular style of painting.
Edges play several important roles in every drawing or painting. The shape of each object in Still Life with Pumpkins and Gourds (12x16), right, is defined with hard and firm contour edges. But all-hard edges can lead to a flat, pasted-on look, which I avoided by occasionally blurring the silhouettes between forms. I used soft edges for the upper right side of the smaller pumpkin and the left side of the apple (in front of the larger pumpkin). The softer edges used to define the inner forms of the objects help to suggest their roundness and give the piece added dimension.
THE FOUR EDGES
You can get dozens of different effects with essentially four types of edge treatments: hard, firm, soft and lost. Used in various combinations, these treatments can help emphasize the solidity of an object, unify a busy composition, heighten a mood, and even add new dimension to the expressiveness of your technique. But first, let's get down to the mechanics of controlling the hardness or softness of an edge.
Hard Edges. These are the most obvious and easiest type to paint or draw. Whatever your medium, you merely position one stroke crisply beside or on top of another. Hard edges are mostly found in areas of high contrast a dark tree or ship mast against a light sky, for example, or the highlight of an eye against the dark of the cornea.
Firm Edges. These are slightly less defined than hard edges. They're useful for painting secondary forms that require firmness yet need to be more subdued than the center of interest. The outline of a piece of drapery, rocks against similarly toned foliage or hardedged forms that play minor parts in the composition can all be handled with a firm edge.
To paint a firm edge, apply a stroke the same way you paint a hard edge, but while the pigment is still wet, blur the edge ever so slightly with a clean brush, tissue or palette knife (I use my thumb a lot) to reduce its sharpness. Be careful not to soften the boundary too much or it'll turn into a soft edge.
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Soft Edges. These are good for masses of leaves or bushes, the silhouette of hair against a backdrop or waves lapping onto a beach things that don't have a fixed edge in real life. Painting a soft edge is simply a matter of going softer with the technique used in painting a firm edge.
Lost Edges. These work well for clouds, smoke or other transient forms to suggest movement. They also give atmosphere to shadow passages. Using the same brush-and-soften technique explained above, your aim now is to completely obliterate any evidence of an edge. The result should be a soft gradation from light to dark.
Study the diagram at right to see how these four types of edges can be used in a painting.
INSIDE AND OUT
Edges are used to define not only the exterior surfaces of objects, but also the interior forms. You need different types of edges to capture the interplay between what's happening inside and outside an object. The leaves on a tree, the windows of a house or the features on a face are different from the contour or silhouette of these objects.
Examine the lost and found edges in the figure below, both in its outer contours and the forms contained within the contour. To appreciate how the combination of lost and found edges are working, imagine how cut out the silhouette of the figure would appear if the contour consisted only of hard edges, or how mushy the shape would look if only soft edges were employed; likewise with the inner forms.
Generally, shadows have a soft quality, whereas the lights and half-tones appear more convincing when handled crisply. Thus, in my sample figure, notice how the shadow passages of the face literally merge into the shadows of the hair, and how, except for the highlight in the right eye, both the eyes and sockets blend into the surrounding facial passages. Whereas the highlighted hair, right side of the face, necklace and right shoulder are made up of predominantly hard and firm edges.
Occasionally, you may want to stress the softness of an inner form, but, for pictorial purposes, keep the outer contour sharp and well defined. My painting of the pumpkins and gourds (above) required just such a solution. Here, a hard contour makes the shapes of the objects stand out against the background, yet their inner forms are soft in order to convey their roundness. The lesson here is that you must first decide what forms are to be featured, and then devise a tailor-made set of edges to display them.
If you compare my painting of the fishing wharf with the still life of pumpkins and gourds, you'll see that I used exactly opposite edge techniques to draw the viewer to their focal points. The hard edges used in the wharf scene (below) to paint both the inner forms and outer contours of the dock, buildings and boat draw attention to these forms because they contrast with the softer treatment of the water, reflections and background. On the other hand, except for their contours, the pumpkins and gourds are rendered with softer edges, yet still capture your attention because the background has been simplified. It's important to realize how the combination of edges can be manipulated to direct the viewer's attention.
||It's the variety of edges in Figure Study (24x18), left, that makes this sketch lifelike and convincing. Since the head and shoulders are the center of interest, I kept hard edges along the right side of this area. I gradually softened the edges as I moved down the torso, but sharply defined the lower arms to prevent them from blending into the skirt.
PLUMBING THE DEPTHS
Many painters achieve depth and atmosphere by using predominantly hard edges in the foreground and progressively softer forms from the middle ground to the background. But this doesn't mean you should paint everything in the front as hard-edged and everything in the back as fuzzy. Instead, work for a consistency of vision, almost as if the viewer were nearsighted. The changes should be gradual.
To avoid a map-like design, remember that some close edges can be soft, while a few accents of hardness in distant forms can be effective - both are visible in my painting of the wharf and boat. Ideally, an image should convey depth through subtle "interlacing" of lost and found edges, unifying the different masses rather than separating them.
Another way to develop a feeling for edges is to take an inventory of your preferences in paint handling. Perhaps you like the hard-edged look so popular with photorealists. Or maybe you favor the misty qualities of impressionism. You'll get still other effects with a palette knife or a combination of knife and brush. It's a good idea to experiment with the wide range of possibilities open to you before locking yourself into any one style.
Painting from life is probably the surest way to develop a personal feeling for edges. This is because you're put in direct contact with three-dimensional forms. What may appear flat and characterless in a photograph takes on depth and volume when seen from life. A row of buildings, for example, might dramatically recede back into space when observed firsthand; your whole method of handling edges could be based on that effect. The dimension of the same subject in a photograph would be flattened out. Trying to contrive a similarly convincing edge effect could become a nearly impossible task.
|In Port Clyde, Maine (14x18), I created a sense of distant fog through extensive use of soft and lost edges in the middle-ground trees and background. By contrast, the buildings, boat and dock are sharply defined. To keep the foreground rocks and mud from competing with these elements, I used primarily firm and soft edges, throwing in just a sprinkling of hard edges to indicate surface roughness. The three small, crisply painted figures give the picture a center of interest and a sense of scale.
Once the mechanics of handling edges are digested, you can begin exploring the more intangible aspects of the subject. In his classic book, Creative Illustration, Andrew Loomis wisely advises, "not only make use of obvious edge differences, but don't hesitate to alter an edge for purely artistic presentation." What this could mean is blurring edges to get rid of otherwise harsh or over-insistent passages, or firming up a soft silhouette if the shape is important to the composition of the subject. It could also mean letting your intuition take over and trusting that your impulsive decision to harden or soften an edge will result in a stronger picture.
When you're limited to only a two dimensional work surface, remember that any device that helps overcome that handicap is worth investigating. The savvy use of edges is a valuable skill to explore and perfect.