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Edges In Painting

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

Recently I undertook a critical appraisal of my work (yes, even professionals need to continue developing). I realised that although I was happy with how I paint, I was maybe using a few too many hard edges and these were bringing my painting too much ‘into focus’. So why do we need to consider edges when painting? Edges help to create statements or illusion, depending on what you want to say. Think about writing for example. A witness statement catalogues every detail of an event to the point where fact dictates whether we need to use our imagination or not. A piece of poetry conveys an idea, tangles us up with metaphors, repetition and rhythm and leaves us to our own imagination. In painting, edges can do many things and depending on the medium, you might need to use different techniques.


Watercolour

Watercolour will naturally make hard edges when used wet on dry. If you work carefully or slowly, your painting is likely to contain mostly hard edges. These edges are the ‘witness statement’, telling the viewer everything truthfully and not engaging with their imagination. The problem here is that any slight waver from the truth has the viewer questioning your statement. Let’s take a building for example. You paint it carefully, brick by brick and you cover every architectural detail, except one window has slightly skewed perspective. That one detail leaps out as seeming ‘wrong’ and loses the trust of the viewer.


Hard edges are ‘focus’ edges and draw our attention, so you can use them to attract attention to one particular place in your painting. If you use hard edges everywhere, make sure your proportions and perspective are accurate.

A slightly ambiguous edge to use is the dry brush edge. Dry brush can be described as a brush mark catching the peaks of the paper surface but not the pits. Dry brush works well on cold pressed papers and very well on rough papers. Because the brush mark is broken, it half engages the viewer’s imagination as the brain connects the missing parts. Dry brush is a great way of hinting at details, rather than stating them.


A truly ambiguous edge is the wet into wet edge. This requires timing, patience and skill to control, but it is the ‘poetry’ of the painting world. Soft edges, blurry shapes and vague details help the viewer to read into your painting and make it more engaging. There are many ways of generating soft edges from wet into wet, wet against wet, softening with damp brushes and spraying, all of which have variables, depending on the paper type, ambient working temperature, angle of board, when and how you apply paint, how wet the paint is and so on. My general guide is to not add paint that is wetter than the wetness of the paper. For more information, you might wish to see my tutorial on watercolour edges.

Retired, watercolour on Canson Moulin du Roy Not surface paper 28 x 19cm.

In this painting of a very definite, hard edged object, I wanted to convey a sense of poetry. We still see the digger but for the majority of the detail the viewer is left to their own imagination.



Acrylic

Acrylic also generates many hard edges due to its consistency and fast drying rate. In a similar way to watercolour, hard and drag edges are fairly easy to achieve, whilst softer edges require planning and skill in execution. The art of physically blending edges can be assisted through the use of regular misting with a diffuser, using slow dry medium, using a matt medium and a little water, using higher volumes of paint and working in colder temperatures. If you are interested to find out more, checkout my tutorials page, where you will find some useful lessons in painting with acrylic.

Afternoon light, Faro. Acrylic on paper 25 x 18cm.

Fast working with juicy colour boosted with matt medium and water helped me generate blends and soft edges even in hot weather.



Oil

Oil paint is a joy for generating soft edges. By using a brush with gentle overlapping strokes, edges can be completely blurred, fused or slightly softened. This is like writing poetry and having the time to think it through, changing words and editing the flow. Be sure to plan your edges though as too much blending, changing and scraping off can lead to messy results.

Retired II, Oil on board 15 x 15cm

Through the use of oil paint it was easy to create soft edges, lose detail and blur sections. I created one or two hard edges to retain the focus of the viewer.



Balance in edges

To use edges successfully in your painting, think about what you want to say and how you might visually balance that, for example a painting consisting mainly of hard edges needs some soft edge to create visual harmony. Remember, this is like giving a statement with a few ambiguous areas to create questions.


A painting of soft edges needs some hard edges for contrast. This is like reading Shakespeare – you can sort of follow it and there are bits you truly understand, but most of it captures you in a world of mystique.


There is no great answer as to how you treat edges or how much of one type of edge you should use, except for the consideration of using one type as a dominating edge and another as a supporting contrast edge. Try it and let me know how you get on in the comments below.


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Helpful literary analogy there. I'm working in acrylics, and blending soft transitions is tricky! I am seeking realism, and am experiencing the challenge of how to elevate my paintings from plodding photographic reproduction to the artistic.

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Feroze  Antia
Feroze Antia
Jan 24, 2023

Beautifully written. Edges wet in wet are really difficult. I have recently used a wet/damp tissue over a hard edge to soften it. It seems to work fairly well. Sometimes I just obliterate part of the edge too. Thanks for these blogs. Much appreciated.

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David Milton Jones
David Milton Jones
Jan 22, 2023

Hello Paul, thanks for a very interesting post, made more interesting to me as I am currently working on a number of studies of the English 20th century artist, Roland Hilder, a great favorite of my mother's generation. He is a great believer in hard edges and his skies, far from the modern appetite for wet into wet, have really hard edges wrought from all those paints we are told to stay away from - sepia, lamp black (Yikes!). Anyway, just thought it was interesting to reflect on how fashions change. Myself, as a firm believer in soft edges in any context you'd care to name, but particularly watercolour, find it fascinating to paint using Hilder's style.


P.S. Looking forward…

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ptgart
ptgart
Jan 23, 2023
Replying to

Ah yes, he was a master - love his trees and clever use of black! I think he did a lot of illustrations for the Shell guides too.

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