How to paint edges in paintings

Create excitement and interest with edges…

An artist’s way of painting, is usually about composition, tone values, colour and manipulation. Manipulation, comes in many forms, from leaving a tree out of a landscape, to changing the placement of a leg in a figure drawing or changing or re-directing the light source of a subject. Manipulation also plays a visual role in softening or hardening edges, bending lines, changing shapes or adding things that shouldn’t be there.

Our brain often understands things that our eyes can’t see. For instance the side of a coffee cup in shadow, we know its there, but we can’t see it. This is brought about by ‘a lost shadow on the cup’, where its lost in the darkness of the shadow next to it, the brain knows this but the eyes can’t see it. It’s all very simple but also very complex. When making ideas and choices, what you may think is the right one, is not always the best one. Therefore experimentation and a lot of thought should be given to your final solution and destination.

The mastery of illusion in art is essential. This is made easier when you learn how to produce one of the three well known sorts of edges. There are basically three types, soft edges, hard edges and lost edges.

The definition of an edge is, an area where two colours or spaces meet, this can be in the form of a soft fuzzy and blended area, where it’s hard to see where one colour starts and the other one finishes, or a hard edge which demands great attention, is more than obvious and always grabs attention.

Lost edge
There are lost edges, this is where you can’t see where one colour or shade begins or ends. This creates flow and excitement in your artwork and is a very powerful tool when used properly. Here things often recede.

Soft edge
There are also soft edges where two colours meet and the adjoining line has been subtly joined and smoothed out. This is a more subtle version of the above lost edge, but is equally just as important and dramatic.

Hard edge
The third one is a hard edge where the division of two colours is sharp and clearly seen and defined, always demanding attention. These are usually found in the centre of interest in a painting or drawing. This definitely shows you where one thing starts and another one finishes.

If you wish to attract attention to a certain area in your painting, a hard edge will do the job, a soft edge on the other hand will give a smoother, softer appearance, which will tend to recede and leaves the brain to fill in the unconscious rest.

The choice of brushes to use for creating different edges are basically simple, soft brushes are the best choice, these are either made with animal or synthetic hair, stiff brushes, made of hog hair, will leave scratchy lines in the paint. Obviously the bigger the space you are painting, the bigger the brush you will need. You can also use your fingers in some situations but this is trial and error, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The finger or soft brush rule, also holds true if you are using pastels or charcoal.

There are various ways to join and blend colours together, below are a few examples.

Purple portrait of faces from the twenties
Here you can see not only lost edges where the fold of the dress disappears into the darkness but also soft edges where the arm turns from dark to light and also hard edges where the decoration of the dress demands attention. This is a simple example of what edges can do.

The following photos show what can be achieved with an even looser application of paint strokes. Catching the rough underlying paint or canvas structure with the flat side of a brush or pallet knife can work wonders. With semi dried paint applied thickly to your surface, coupled with contrasting colours which also play an important part in the finished visual effect, you are able to take the viewer on your own pictorial journey, using lost and found edges.

Contrasting colours always arouse a sense of tension and excitement, whereas neutral colours, whether they be dark or light, give a sense of serenity and calm.

Playing around with various colour palettes, whether they be neutral, monochromatic or contrasting colours is always fun and a great learning curve, try it!

Here is an example of rough and elaborate paint strokes applied to the edges of the teapot. This painting was painted in acrylic paint. The monochrome black and white of the painting makes the orange teabag stand out even more. The use of colour is dramatic. The contrast in colour remains a dominate feature in this painting which causes visual questions to be answered by the viewer. This effect can be achieved in any medium.

Use of edges
Not only the use of tone values, but the use of multiple edges in any painting is necessary, whether it be oil, acrylic, watercolour or pastel, when you want to convey calmness, serenity, mystery or intensity, these are what you should use. This not only provides depth but interest as well. This holds true for any painting, whether it be a still life, landscape, figure painting, portrait or seascape, all good paintings have edges, often multiple edges.

The viewers interest must be held long enough to appreciate what the artist meant when he made the painting and the pictorial story he is trying to tell. This is where edges can be utilized to great advantage. Overlapping colours can also cause diffusion and the softening of an edge, that will ultimately result in making a hard edge more acceptable to the eye.

It’s just magic, very cleaver and if you get it right, it takes your breath away!


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