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Composition: Edges

Introduction

Shapes are the fundamental element of design. Shapes have numerous attributes: lines or edges, angles, proportions, positions in space, tonal value, texture, and color. The edges of the shapes are the topic of this discussion.

Types of Edges and Their Characteristics

Edges are of two basic types: those you can see and those you can't see. The edges you can see can be divided into hard, firm, soft, and rough. The edges you can't see are referred to as "lost edges." In some cases, an edge will disappear and then reappear a short distance away; these are called "lost and found edges."


  • Hard edges are well-defined, definite, crisp, sharp and clear. There is a strong sense of where one shape ends and another begins.
  • Firm edges are slightly less defined than hard edges.
  • Soft edges are still visible, but they are fuzzy, indistinct, blurred, feathered, less well-defined, less definite. It is still obvious where the shape ends, but soft edges blend slightly into the adjacent shape.
  • Rough edges are broken and ragged.
  • Lost edges are undefined; they completely disappear. Instead of a discernible edge, there is a gradual transition from one value or one color to another. The edge is completely obliterated.

How Edges Are Used in a Composition

Not knowing that all these different types of edges exist, beginners tend to paint everything with hard edges. The trees in the foreground have hard edges. The trees in the middle ground have hard edges. The tree masses in the distance have hard edges. The mountains far away have hard edges.

More skilled artists remember to apply the principle of repetition with variation. Paintings are usually more interesting when they contain a variety of edges, with one of them dominating. A predominantly hard-edged painting can be enhanced by adding a few soft edges. In the same way, hard edges provide contrast in a soft-edged painting.

Tom Lynch has good advice for the aspiring artist: "Stop every couple of inches when you're painting and check your edges. If you don't have variety in the edge you've just put down, do something to alter it. Use your brush, a sponge, a tissue or a few dots of water--anything that will bring a change to some part of that edge."

Edges create areas where you want the viewer to look and other areas where you do not want them to look.

Hard edges attract the eye. As the eye moves across a painting, it stops at hard edges and then moves along its length.

Soft edges, on the other hand, do not attract or stop the eye. Instead, the eye moves effortlessly across the soft edge to the next shape.

Leave edges hard in areas where you want the viewer's eye to stop, and soften edges in areas where you want the viewer's eye to keep moving. Use hard edges in and around the primary area of interest, and use soft edges for less important areas of the painting. Use soft edges to create restful areas and to create pathways through the painting.

Firm edges are 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 hard-edged forms that play minor parts in the composition can all be handled with a firm edge.

Edges define the nature of the shape below. A hard edge along the top of a rock defines the hardness of the rock shape below. A soft edge at the bottom of a rock defines the ground or grass that lies below. A rough or broken edge at the base of a rock defines the water that is flowing by.

Edges create shapes and add form to the shapes. Hard edges define the contour of the shape and abrupt, angular plane changes within the shape. Soft edges suggest volume and roundness.

Atmospheric (aerial) perspective creates a sense of depth in a painting. Edges help define a shape's position in space. The eye perceives hard-edged objects as being nearer and soft-edged objects are being further away. Hard edges tend to bring the shape forward. Firm edges are perceived as being behind and further away than the hard edges. Soft edges cause the shape to recede even further into the distance.

Rough or broken edges can be used to suggest sparkle on water, foliage in trees, or texture on tree trunks and rocks or the surface of a road. They can also be used to create the impression of movement. A single broken stroke is often used to paint a palm frond.

Lost edges can be used to suggest movement or transient forms such as smoke and clouds. They can also be used to create a variety of misty, atmospheric effects.

In addition, edges can be altered for purely artistic reasons. Non-strategic areas of the painting may be softened for no other reason than to focus the viewer's eye somewhere else. Edges that are hard in nature may be softened or broken in the painting because they appeal more to the artist.

How to Create Each Type of Edge

The key to creating a variety of edges is managing three types of wetness: the wetness of the paper, the wetness or consistency of the paint, and the wetness of the brush. As wet paper dries, it goes through several stages: Puddle or Pool, Glossy Sheen, Satin Sheen, Moist Matte, Cool Matte, and Dry. [For more information on this topic, see stagesofdrying.pdf.] The amount of water in the brush can be described as Dripping, Saturated, Damp, and Squeezed Dry.The consistency of the paint depends on how much water is in the mixture. The paint can be Watery, Creamy, Pasty, or Raw (straight from the tube).

One way of determining when you have moved from a watery to a creamy paint consistency is to use the "dot" method of Julie Cohn. Continue adding paint to a watery mixture until wiping the brush through it leaves white streaks on the palette. Then press the loaded brush into the center of the area with white streaks. If the dot created retains its shape, the mixture is thick enough to be called a dot mixture.


Ways to Create Hard edges

  1. Create a puddle of paint that has a watery consistency by placing 6 drops of water in one of the mixing areas of the palette. Dab a dripping brush onto a sponge or paper towel to make it a saturated brush. Lightly stroke dry paint in one of the paint wells one or two times and mix the paint with the drops of water. On dry paper, paint a square approximately 1" x 1". Paint the square with another layer of the same mixture. Tilt the paper until a bead of paint just appears. Remove this bead with a damp brush. Lay the paper flat and let dry. NOTES: If the bead is not removed, the excess paint will migrate to the edges of the shape and leave a dark line. If the paper is tilted too much, too much paint will drain from the top.
  2. Create a puddle of paint that has a creamy consistency by placing 6 drops of water in one of the mixing areas of the palette. (Use an eye dropper, pipette, or water bottle. Dab a dripping brush onto a sponge or paper towel to make it a saturated brush. Lightly stroke dry paint in one of the paint wells and mix the paint with the drops of water. Continue adding paint in this manner until you have a creamy ("dot") mixture. On dry paper, paint a square approximately 1" x 1". Paint the square with another layer of the same mixture. Tilt the paper until a bead of paint just appears. Remove this bead with a damp brush. Lay the paper flat and let dry.
  3. Hard edges can be created with the help of various types of masking tools. A shape can be masked out with tape, frisket film, masking fluid, or the "fall-out" from a stencil. There are two parts to a stencil: the shape you cut out (the "fall-out") and the hole that is left. Once the mask is in place, you can paint the area around it. When the paint dries and the mask is removed, the shape that remains will have a hard edge.
  4. Rather than masking out a shape, you can also mask around a shape. Once the area around a shape is covered, you can paint the exposed area. If the area is already painted, you can lift paint with a stiff brush, a sponge, or Mr Clean's Magic Eraser.
  5. Wet the interior of a shape almost up to the pencil line. Load the brush with paint that has a creamy consistency, and paint right up to the pencil line. The stroke will be wet paint on dry paper along the pencil line, resulting in a hard edge.. The interior portion of the stroke will be wet paint on wet paper, so it will result in a soft edge that fades toward the center of the shape. (This technique is frequently used by Birgit O-Connor.)

Ways to Create Soft Edges

Soft edges can be painted directly by managing the amount of water in the brush, on the paper, and in the paint, or soft edges can be made from previously painted hard edges.

  1. "Creamy on Moist." On dry paper, paint a square approximately 3" x 3" with clear water. Add a second layer of water and set the paper aside to allow it to soak in. Create a puddle of paint that has a creamy ("dot") consistency. When the wet paper has progressed from Puddle to Glossy Sheen to Satin Sheen, apply the creamy paint to a square approximately 1" x 1". The combination of creamy paint and moist paper will cause the paint to retain its shape, but the edges will be soft. NOTE: To test the wetness of the paper, place a small dab of the creamy paint mixture in the center of the area where the painted square will be. If the paint diffuses too far and too quickly, wait a few minutes until the paint dries a little more. Then paint the square.
  2. "Push Back." Create a puddle of paint that has a creamy ("dot") consistency. On dry paper, paint a square approximately 1" x 1". Paint the square with another layer of the same mixture. Tilt the paper until a bead of paint just appears. Remove this bead with a damp brush. With a clean damp brush, gently push the paint from the lower edge towards the center of the shape. With each stroke, wipe the paint that has been lifted on a sponge or paper towel. The "push back" needs to happen before the edge has time to settle into the paper. Once it has begun to settle, it will form a hard edge that will have to be removed.
  3. "Lift from Interior." With a saturated brush and paint that has a creamy ("dot") consistency, paint a 1" x 1" square on dry paper. Add a second layer of paint. Take off the bead. Lay flat. With a saturated brush, lift paint from the center of the shape.
  4. "Join Paint and Water." Create a puddle of paint that has a creamy ("dot") consistency. On dry paper, paint a square approximately 1" x 1". Paint the square with another layer of the same mixture. Tilt the paper until a bead of paint just appears. Wet the area below the square with clear water, leaving a gap between the water and the bead of paint. When you have finished wetting the area below the square, connect the paint and the clear water with a brush stroke of clear water.
  5. "Add Paint to Bead of Water." This is the reverse of number 4 above. Incline your painting board slightly, so that the paint tends to flow downward. Apply water to the top part of the shape. There should be enough water in the area to create a bead at the bottom. Now, add paint to the lower part of the shape. Paint up to the bead of clear water. When the paint encounters the bead of clear water, the paint will be drawn upward, creating the soft edge of a graded wash. (This is one of the ways Jack Reid paints snow.)
  6. "Stroke Wet Edge." Create a puddle of paint that has a creamy ("dot") consistency. On dry paper, paint a square approximately 1" x 1". Paint the square with another layer of the same mixture. Tilt the paper until a bead of paint just appears. Remove the bead with a damp brush. While the hard edges are still wet, use a damp brush filled with clean water and stroke once along the edge.
  7. Variations: 1. Use several shorter strokes parallel to the edge. 2. Use short zigzag strokes that pull paint from the edge and then push it back in again. Continue this zigzag motion from top to bottom along the edge. Then, without stopping, reverse course and zigzag back to the top.
  8. "Add Water to Bead of Paint." Incline your painting board slightly, so that the paint tends to flow downward. Apply wet paint to the upper portion of a dry area to be painted, allowing a bead to form at the lower edge of the painted area. Rinse your brush in clean water. With your brush fully loaded with clean water, stroke the bead at the bottom of the painted area and stroke the wet brush back and forth over the rest of the lower area. (This is the way Quinten Gregory creates mist in the valleys of mountains. Paint the top part of a mountain, then flood the lower portion with clean water.)
  9. "Puddle and pull." Rinse your brush in clean water and touch your dripping brush to a paint rag, sponge, or paper towel to remove some of the excess water, making it a "saturated brush." With a moderate amount of water still in the brush, stroke the edge of the wet paint and pull the paint away. This technique creates a mini graded wash and is referred to by several names: Puddle and Pull, Pulling Out, and Pulling Off. NOTE: Do not go too far into the paint or else the damp brush will act like a sponge and soak up the paint. Do not try to spread the paint. Your objective is not to physically move the paint but to create a path of water that will attract the paint. This works best if the paint area is very wet and the brush is less wet or just damp. (This is the way Jan Kunz paints flower petals.)
  10. "Charge." Pre-wet the entire shape, beyond where the soft edge will be created. Wait a few minutes while the water soaks into the paper. Touch one edge of the wet area with a brush loaded with paint. If the area is very wet, the paint will move quickly across the area. If the area is still wet but has lost its sheen, the paint will not move as rapidly and it will not move as far. Where the paint stops moving part way across the wet shape a soft edge will form. (This is how Jody Bergsma paints each of the shapes in her paintings.)
  11. "Prime." Wet the entire area you want to work on, allowing the water to extend past the edge you need to be soft. Let this wash be absorbed until it is almost dry (slightly cool to the touch). Re-dampen only the area you wish to be pigmented. Gently stroke your paint-loaded brush along the edge you want to remain soft, then fill in the rest of the area to be painted. As the paper is slightly damp past this edge, the pigmented wash will gently blend into the damp area, giving a soft edge. (Susan Harrison-Tustain uses this technique extensively in her painting.)
  12. "Wet, Blot, Rub." After a painted area has dried, re-wet a small area with clear water, and let it soak in for 20 seconds. Blot the area without rubbing. Then rub vigorously with a terry cloth towel. Rub lightly to remove a little paint. Rub harder and longer to remove a lot. (This is how Tom Lynch lifts a variety of shapes.)
  13. "Blot." Paint an area such as a sky. While the paint is still wet, lightly blot with a facial tissue. NOTE: Pressing down harder will result in a hard edge. Blotting while the paint is still too wet will result in the paint flowing back into the blotted area. (This is how Gerald Brommer creates clouds and the highlights on rocks.)
  14. "Double-load." Dip one corner of a flat brush in paint, and dip the other corner in clean water. When a stroke of paint and water is laid down, the water and paint will mix, forming a soft edge.
  15. "Push Water." Paint the upper part of a shape. Wet the lower area, leaving a gap between the water and the paint. With a clean brush, push water up into the paint. (This is one way Tom Lynch creates fog at the base of mountains.) This is similar to number 4 above, but rather than allowing the paint to flow down into the wet area, the water is actively pushed up into the paint.
  16. "Smear." After the painted area has lost its sheen, smear an edge with your finger.
  17. "Glaze." Soften an edge by glazing over it or next to it with a transitional color or value. For example, if there is a hard edge between a black and a white area, glaze over the edge with a gray. (This technique was common among Flemish and Dutch painters like Rembrandt as well as modern painters like John Salminen.)
  18. "Spray." Use a spray bottle filled with clean water to soften an edge while it is still wet. After a hard edge has dried, a trigger spray bottle can be used to blast off the paint along the edge. Mop up the loosened paint with a tissue, cloth or sponge. A spray bottle filled with paint can soften an edge by creating an irregular pattern of dots that breaks up the hard edge. The spray bottle can be used with or without a shield.
  19. "Sponge." Convert a hard edge to a soft edge by sponging it off.
  20. "Scrub." The basic steps are isolate, moisten, scrub, and blot. Isolate the area with tape, template or stencil. Moisten the area and wait a few seconds. Gently scrub the area with a moist stiff brush (oil painter's bristle brush, Fritch Scrubber, toothbrush, or a Loew-Cornell Fabric Dye Flat that is designed for painting on fabric. Avoid using your good painting brushes for scrubbing. their soft bristles and fine tips can be worn down easily). Finally, blot the area to remove the loosened pigment. (Scrubbing can be used to soften hard edges left after dried masking fluid has been removed. The technique can also be used on the edge before the dry masking fluid has been removed).
  21. "Swab." Dampen a cotton swab (Q-tip), tap it on a sponge, cloth or paper towel to remove some of the water, then gently scrub the hard edge until it softens. Blot up the paint that has been dislodged.
  22. "Erase." Use a hard rubber, abrasive eraser like a typewriter eraser to remove some pigment along an edge.
  23. "Incline." Paint a wet shape on dry paper. Incline the support board so that paint will draw away from the top and settle at the bottom. The top edge will be still be hard, but it will be light enough to appear soft. The amount of incline will determine how much paint flows from the top.

Ways to Create Firm Edges

  1. On dry paper, paint a square approximately 3" x 3" with clear water. Add a second layer of water and set the paper aside to allow it to soak in. Create a puddle of paint that has a creamy ("dot") consistency. When the wet area has just lost its sheen and entered the "moist matte" state, paint a square approximately 1" x 1". The combination of creamy paint and moist paper will cause the paint to retain its shape, but the edges will be firm. NOTE: The difference between creating firm and soft edges with this technique will be the moistness of the paper and the consistency of the paint. Thinner paint and wetter paper will result in soft edges. Thicker paint and drier paper will result in firm edges.
  2. Apply a hard edge, then while the pigment is still wet, blur the edge slightly with a clean brush, tissue, sponge or finger to reduce its sharpness. Be careful not to soften the boundary too much or it will turn into a soft edge.

Ways to Create Rough or broken Edges

  1. Rough or broken edges can be accomplished with a rigger, a flat brush, a round brush, oil painter's bristle brush or a palette knife. Creating rough or broken edges requires attention to several variables: the amount of water in the brush, the consistency of the paint, the texture of the paper, the part of the brush used, the angle of the brush to the paper, and the speed that the brush is drawn across the paper.
  2. Rough edges can be created with a brush loaded with wet, juicy paint or with a paint mixture that has very little water. (Mix thick, dry paint on the palette or load a brush with wet paint and then remove the excess moisture by squeezing the bristles near the ferrule with a paper towel.)
  3. Rough or broken edges are easiest to create on rough paper, but they can also be created on cold press paper. They can be created with the tip of the brush, with the side of a flat or with the belly of a round brush. The brush can be perpendicular to the paper or horizontal. The stroke can be slow or fast, but the smoother the paper, the faster the stroke needs to be.
  4. Strokes can be created that has a rough edge on one side and a hard edge on the other. Strokes can be created that start with hard edges and end with broken edges. The reverse is also true; a stroke can start with broken edges and end with hard edges. A broken-edged stroke can start on dry paper and lead into a wet area, or the stroke can start in a wet area and be dragged out into a dry area.
  5. A dry, hard edge can be converted to a broken edge in several ways: scumbling over it with a rather dry brush. crossing over it with other lines or other shapes, and by passing over it with sandpaper.

The key to success in laying down broken strokes is how these variables are applied and combined. For example, if you have a brush saturated with watery or light creamy paint, you will have to move it rapidly across the paper. If you have very little water in the paint, you can move slower. If you are using rough paper, you won't have to move as fast as you would over cold press paper.

In all cases, it is important not to dab at your paper but to lightly move the brush over its textured surface.


Ways to Create Lost Edges

  1. Apply paint to one edge of the shape. Load a brush with clear water, stroke along the lower edge of the wet paint, encouraging the paint to follow the wet brush. This is similar to the "puddle and pull" method for creating soft edges, but if enough water is used the edge completely disappears. This is the way Terry Madden creates many of his backgrounds.
  2. Wet both sides of the paper and lay it on a smooth, non-absorbent surface such as plexiglas or gatorboard. While the paper is still shiny wet, pour, charge, or drop in paint. Tip the support board back and forth to encourage the paint to move until the edge disappears.
  3. Wet the region to be painted with a saturated brush. Add a second layer of water, to create a "puddle or domed pool" of water. Drop in two or more colors. Tilt the support back and forth. The colors will blend into one another with no discernible edge between them.
  4. Paint a hard-edged shape on a "glossy sheen" or "satin sheen" surface. Tilt the support slightly. Lose the lower edge by flooding the area below the edge with a saturated brush loaded with clear water.


© 2009 Scott Brown. Website design by Clarion Design.