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All You Need to Know About Painting Edges

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Everything a painter needs to know to paint edges in a descriptive way and create good transitions between shapes that guide the eye of the viewer through the picture plane.

Everything a painter needs to know to paint edges in a descriptive way and create good transitions between shapes that guide the eye of the viewer through the picture plane.

Edges are created in a painting every time there is a transition between two shapes of color.

Edges Can Vary From Soft to Hard

In paintings, no matter what the style is (figurative or abstract), the paint creates an assortment of contiguous forms of various sizes, shapes, colors, and tones. The transitions from one shape to the other are interpreted by the viewer as borders or lines.

Think of where a vase ends and the background starts, where the land meets the sky, or the area where an egg turns from light to shadow. Those are all edges.

The challenge of the painter is to control all the transition areas and make them appropriately hard or soft. The softest edges are known as lost because they are so gradual that they make it impossible to tell where one shape ends and the next begins.

A Visualization of Edges From Lost to Sharp

Painters describe edges using terms like hard, soft, and lost, but there are several degrees of each.

Painters describe edges using terms like hard, soft, and lost, but there are several degrees of each.

Types of Edges

There are three kinds of edges in all mediums:

Hard Edges - Clearly Defined and in Focus

Techniques to create them:

  • Creating a strong juxtaposition between a dark and a light value.
  • Adding thick paint details with a brush or a palette knife, without blending.
  • Painting straight and clean lines.

Perfect for depicting:

  • Sharp and angular shapes.
  • A strong change in light and tone.
  • Center of attention, where all details are in focus.
Example of an hard-edge painting by Piet Mondriaan, 1939-1942 - Composition 10.

Example of an hard-edge painting by Piet Mondriaan, 1939-1942 - Composition 10.

Soft Edges - Noticeable but Unclear, Slightly Out of Focus

Techniques:

  • Blending wet paint where two areas meet, with a crisscross movement of a dry, clean brush. The smoother the blend between two colors, the softer the edge.
  • Creating a broken edge with a dry-brush technique.
  • Smearing a clean edge with a clean brush or a palette knife.
  • Adding a broken line of an intermediate color on each side of a clean edge.

Artists use soft edges to depict:

  • Distant trees and landscape elements.
  • Objects in the peripheral areas of a painting
  • Gradual shifts in color or tone.

Lost Edges - The Contour of Forms Is Very Subtle, With Little or No Definition

They are obtained by creating a gradual and soft transition between shapes, in a way that is hard to determine where one ends and the other starts.

Techniques:

  • Blending wet paint where two areas meet, with a crisscross movement of the brush.
  • Transition from one color by gradually adding the other color to the mix.
  • Paint an intermediate band of color that will visually mix and create the transition.

Painters use lost edges to create:

  • Edges of semi-transparent objects, like clouds
  • Sense of movement, like in running cars or water.
  • A transition between very similar color and value.

What Makes an Edge Occur?

Let’s talk about the seven main circumstances that determine the look of the edges in a particular picture. Usually, the appearance of an edge is due to a combination of multiple elements at work simultaneously.

Seven Reasons Why Edges Appear on a Subject

Let’s look at the seven main reasons why the edges of a particular subject appear soft or hard.

  1. Shape
  2. Tone and Color
  3. Material
  4. Light
  5. Atmosphere
  6. Motion
  7. Visual focus

Let's talk about each of them individually.

A summary of their effect is in the table below.

Seven Factors Influence How We See Edges

Table 1. Seven factors influence the edges we see, including the environment, the light, the shape, and the material of an object.

Influencing FactorSoft EdgesHard Edges

Shape

Round shapes

Angular shapes

Tone and Color

Similar tone and color

Contrasting tone and color

Material

Soft

Hard

Light

Weak or diffused light

Strong or direct light

Atmosphere

Fog, haze, smoke

Dry, clean air

Motion

Movement

Stillness

Visual Focus

Peripheral vision

Center of attention

Lots of soft and lost edges in this painting. Our eyes go towards the strongest contrast and the sharpest edges first. Sharp edges are used to create focal points in a painting. Claude Monet: Grand Canal Legion of Honor.

Lots of soft and lost edges in this painting. Our eyes go towards the strongest contrast and the sharpest edges first. Sharp edges are used to create focal points in a painting. Claude Monet: Grand Canal Legion of Honor.

1. Shape

The form of an object has a direct effect on how the surface’s color and tone shift. If something has a round shape, like folds of fabric or grassy hills, the edges will appear quite soft.

If the form of the object is angular or stiff, like in architectural structures and boxes, the edges will be hard.

2. Tone and Color

The transition between similar values and colors is always softer than the shift between contrasting values and colors.

For example, if two contiguous shapes are a blue vase and a green tablecloth with the same value, the edge between the two will be lost.

However, an illuminated white vase on a dark background will create a crisp edge.

3. Material

What the object is made of has a strong effect on how we see it and its edges.

Things that are soft and fluffy, like clouds, cotton balls, and kittens, have very soft edges. Hard materials, such as brick or wood structures, will show much harder edges.

Another painting by Claude Monet with lots of soft and lost edges. The sharpest edges, where the trees meet the sky, are still broken and soft. Monet- Branch of the Seine near Giverny

Another painting by Claude Monet with lots of soft and lost edges. The sharpest edges, where the trees meet the sky, are still broken and soft. Monet- Branch of the Seine near Giverny

4. Light

The strength and the angle of the light greatly affect the edges.

A strong, direct light will cast strong shadows and create hard transitions.

A weak or diffuse light creates softer edges.

5. Atmosphere

When we are looking at objects in the distance, the air creates some sort of a filter. This effect, called atmospheric perspective, is due to the moisture and the particles floating in the atmosphere.

In the presence of fog or a haze, the edges of distant objects will look softer. If the air is dry and clear, everything will appear sharper, even in the distance.

6. Motion

Things in motion become blurry. If you paint something with very sharp edges, it will appear as standing still or painted from a high-speed photo.

7. Visual Focus

Our eyes can't focus on one spot and the peripheral vision at the same time. When we stare at one area, everything else becomes gradually out-of-focus.

When painting, place the sharpest edges within or near the focal point. This way of rendering, with the focal point highly in focus, and everything else gradually getting blurry, is the most accurate in rendering a subject close to the way we see.

Video - How to Paint Edges

Learn to Recognize Edges by Practicing

Look around you, wherever you are, you can find different objects of many shapes and colors. Analyze the various edges that you see.

Find the softest transition of all, then locate the hardest. Use them as a comparison to rank edges in terms of hardness. For each one, ask yourself "Is it softer or harder?". This way you can identify and paint all the edges in between.

It helps to squint to see which ones disappear, making shapes blend into one another, and which ones stay visible. The latter will be the strongest.

Why Is Very Important to Squint While Painting

Squinting is the act of slightly closing your eyes and looking through your eye-lashes.

Doing so, you filter out the colors and the unnecessary details, and you simplify your subject.

Squinting allows you to notice:

  • Where things blend the most
  • Where they stand out distinctively
  • Which edges are hard, medium, or soft.

The Degrees of Squinting

  1. Eyes wide open – loads of details
  2. Eyes closed a tiny fraction – you start to simplify your subject, you see fewer details, some of the values start to merge, softer edges begin to be less clear.
  3. Close your eyes a bit more – Smaller shapes get absorbed into stronger ones, darker shapes lose their details.

Notice which elements do not lose their integrity, those will be your strong elements. The sharpest edge of all is the last one to disappear before you close your eyes.

Look at the pictures below:

Picture 1. If I wanted to paint this, I’d start by understanding what kind of value structure and edges there are in this landscape.

Picture 2. Squinting, the last edges to disappear are the ones of the tree against the light sky (1), so that would be where I locate my sharp edges, which will determine where the eye of the viewer would be first drawn to, my area of focus.

The first edges to disappear when squinting are the lost edges, and those are in the vegetation on the left and within the ground on the right (3). Soft edges are located in many parts of this scene, especially where the light meets the vegetation (2).

Let's Practice on a Painting

As our eyes go towards sharp edges first, sharp edges are used to create focal points in a painting. Take for example below from a painting by Willem Kalf, “Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate”.

Your eye probably immediately looked at the fabric on the left. The lemon is very light in value compared to its surroundings, so it stands out as well and makes your gaze move around the painting. Another strong contrast is on the edge of the golden ewer.

Lost edges are in the areas where the transition is between very similar tones. Like on the table, the vase in the back, and on some folds of the fabric, all barely visible in the shadow.

Soft edges are transitions from shapes that are different but pretty close in value.

Edge Analysis on a Painting

Kalf, Willem - Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate

Kalf, Willem - Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate

Edge analysis on Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate by Willem Kalf.

Edge analysis on Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate by Willem Kalf.

Make Your Edges Descriptive

We can most clearly detect the texture and form of an object—whether it's rough or smooth, round or square—at its outside edge or on its surface, where the shadow meets the light.

Therefore, you can effectively suggest the texture and form of an object by learning how to render its edges descriptively.

In Summary:

  • You see edges every time there is a change in object, plane, or color.
  • You describe edges using terms like hard, soft, and lost, but there are several degrees of each.
  • Several factors can have a powerful influence on the edges you see, including the environment, the light, the shape, and the material of an object.
  • Comparison is a helpful tool for ranking edges in terms of hardness.
  • Blending is the most common way of painting edges, but you could also use broken color, palette knives, or intermediate colors.
  • In most cases, you should place your hardest edges around the focal point.

Thi Inspiration for This Article

The inspiration about writing this article came while reading a book that I consider the bible of painting.

Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting by Richard Schmid, it includes a nice section on edges.

This book is quite expensive, but the fact that it's written by one of the greatest living master painters, makes it an amazing source of knowledge and inspiration.

If you have the chance, check it out.

There is also and Alla Prima II, but I have not read that one yet, it's on my to-do list.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Robie Benve

Comments

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 24, 2020:

Hi Peggy, thanks a lot for your feedback! I can see how it could come up on the google search of someone looking for wall painting tips... mmmhhh, I may have to tweak the title. Thanks so much, and happy painting, whatever surface you are working on. :)

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 24, 2020:

Thanks for showcasing these differences in painting works of art. Monet and other expert artists mastered these techniques. When I first read your title, it made me think of cutting a fine line when painting different colors on the walls and ceiling. I have done much of that in painting rooms of our home. Ha!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 24, 2020:

Thanks a lot Linda! I am a very strong supporter of the value of squinting, I often joke that all painters will stand out in an older crowd from the many wrinkles around their eyes due to years of squinting, ahah.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 23, 2020:

This is a very informative and interesting article. I especially like the section about the value of squinting. The article should be very useful for artists.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 23, 2020:

Thanks a lot Liz, I appreciate it. Monet is a favorite of mine too. :)

Liz Westwood from UK on November 23, 2020:

This is a very informative and well-structured article. I will certainly take more note of edges in future. I especially enjoyed the Monet paintings. He's a favourite of mine.