Of all the elements a painter must consider including subject, design, value and colour, perhaps the most often overlooked by beginners is the subtle art of edges. Edge variety is an important key to promoting viewer participation, inviting their minds to fill in the details mysteriously obscured by a lost edge.
The best painters do this so subtly we are not even aware our eyes are being lead through the canvas going from one sharp edge to the next. In this workshop we are going to look at the possibilities of edges and how they might enhance your work.
Why edges work
Our brains are very selective in the way we perceive things. We recognise objects first by their outer shape, their silhouette, and in low light conditions this is very useful indeed because it means we can quickly tell the difference between a sabertooth tiger or a friend wearing a furry jacket. We can also do this well from a great distance which is even more useful because it gives us time to run away. Sharp edges give us better shape recognition than soft edges so our brains are hardwired to seek out sharp edges first in every situation. Our eyes themselves have a very limited focal area, so much so that if you stare at the full stop at the end of this sentence you will notice everything a few inches beyond that becomes increasingly unfocused with softer edges.
When we have a variety of hard and soft edges in a painting we are making use of the way our eyes see and the way our brains tell us to see. Variety is also one of the biggest keys to making a painting more interesting and appealing to look at, so any way you look at it, edges are very important.
Where edges work
Where should you make soft or hard edges? Like everything that's a personal choice. Nature gives us some good suggestions however and she relies mostly on value. Where two similar values come together we can often see a soft edge, like where a form shadow meets a cast shadow or a light meets a light. Where two different values meet in contrast we can often see a sharp edge. Within shadowed areas there are usually a lot of soft edges and within light areas there are often a lot of sharp edges. Squinting at your scene will help you see the difference in edges.
You can choose to make any edge hard or soft though and often times I will soften an edge or part of an edge simply because I want more variation. Softening an edge can also help to make a form appear to roll away from you and add depth to a painting in that if your eyes are focusing on something in the foreground those objects further back in space with be out of focus and so have softer edges. We don't have the dimension of depth in a painting like we do with sculpture, so softening edges in the background or away from a focal area will help to trick the eye into believing there is actual depth in a painting. If you do have a centre of focus in your painting it's always good to save your sharpest edges for that area as that will help lead the eye there.
Making a sharp edge with paint is not difficult - it's what a brush or palette knife creates naturally when you first put paint on the canvas. There are a few different ways to soften an edge though:
1. The end of a brush stroke is usually quite soft as the brush lifts from the canvas. Using that to your advantage can save you from most reworking. For instance if you want a soft edge on the top of some grasses then brush upwards.
2. Painting into a previous layer of wet paint will give you the opportunity to soften edges as the paint mixes together on your brush and on the canvas. Beware of overdoing this when lights meet darks or cools meet warms though. That path is a muddy one.
3. Softly dry-brushing over a wet edge in any direction with a clean dry brush gives you great control over the quality of the edge. Soft bristled brushes work well but be careful to keep your brush clean and dry when doing this. One or two strokes will normally do the trick.
4. Finger painting. You can use your finger or any soft round object to smoosh the paint together on an edge BUT my good friend and painting mentor John Crump advises against this as you don't have as much control of edge quality as with a brush and a finger will tend to go through the paint layers into the canvas, creating a ridge in the paint and often making a line which needs to be softened again. I still do it sometimes (naughty) - depends how controlled you want to be.
5. For oil painters very thin paint with lots of thinners in it can be used in the base stages like watercolour washes which merge together making soft edges. These can be really beautiful areas of interesting paintwork. The trick is in leaving some of these areas showing in your finished painting if you want to work in that way. The same goes for acrylics and watercolours as well, except of course the thinner is then not oil based.
6. Lightly rubbing a rag or tissues over some areas of a wet painting can produce some interesting soft edges but of course it's very hard to control over small areas and you often need to repaint areas after doing this. Sometimes I do this when I'm totally frustrated with a painting and it often leads to good things, largely because you're then not being so precious about your painting.
7. Vigorously scratching a wet edge with the palette knife or back of a brush can produce an interestingly textured soft edge which from a distance works well and up close adds textural interest. That's for pretty loose painting.
Using the photos and video below make a painting or image in any medium and any size or shape. Feel free to use complete artistic license - move things around, add things, change colors - whatever it takes to make a beautiful work of art. Consider edges in your painting and how you can use them to enhance your work. Enjoy!
Click image to enlarge.
Videos are great for capturing things in motion. Play the videos full screen and take a 'screen shot' of the chicken grouping you like the most. Remember not to be restricted by the camera though.
Here's the general process I follow when painting in the studio:
1. Find a scene that moves me.
2. Find the visual concept for that scene. What's the big idea?
3. Draw or imagine the notan design. What's the dark/light design?
4. Paint or imagine a limited value study. Where will I place the main values?
5. Paint or imagine the colour study. Where will I place the main colours?
6. Paint the final painting. Dark to light, big to small, thin to thick.
Every good painting begins with a strong visual concept. This is something that beginners
usually miss completely because they are so concerned with trying to capture the
likeness of their subject.
Morning or Evening Light
Horizontal Movement, vertical counter-movement
Light Shape suspended amid darks
Light Shape moving against Dark Shape
Light Shape separating dark shape from mid-value shape
Eruption of fragmented shapes and colors
Note that they are concepts, not things. For example it's not a 'beautiful tree' or 'big
clouds'. A good painter begins with a strong visual concept to base a painting on. The
visual concept is usually suggested by the subject itself, especially in plein air painting,
but you can just as easily apply your own visual concept to the subject or even begin with
a visual concept in mind and find a subject to suit your idea. More often than not the
visual concept will be the very thing that you love most about the scene, the thing that
compels you to paint it, like the dramatic lighting or the strong colour or interesting
shapes. The important thing is to clearly understand this motivation at the very beginning
and write it down so you keep it in mind through the entire painting process.
Here are a few examples of some of my own paintings which began with a strong visual
Notan is a Japanese word
meaning the balance of light and dark. Using small notan designs is the best way I know
of to begin designing a painting. Most of the way we see our visual world is in terms of
light and dark patterns. Colour is really just the icing on the cake. Our brain recognizes
the silhouettes of objects first and needs very little other visual information to work with.
When I see a notan design I see the absolute core of a painting, the skeleton that
everything else is built on. Notan is a great way to sort out the placement of the major
masses before you dive into your painting. What I try to achieve with my small notan
designs is an interesting abstract design which expresses something about what I want to
say about my subject, or the 'visual concept'. To help with that I often write the visual
concept at the top of the page which sums up what I want to express in the painting. In
the case below I wrote 'Bold Shapes, Strong Contrast'. Then I went ahead and did a few
different notan designs.
We've looked at Visual Concept and Notan and the next step is to figure out the value
structure of your painting. We can see the value of a colour if we convert it to grayscale,
like in a black and white photo. Value gives us form. When everything is the same value,
like in a whiteout fog, we can't see anything. Your limited value study or studies will be based on your favorite notan design.
Goals for your limited value study:
1. Design a strong value structure from your scene based on your visual concept and your
2. Learn to see colour in terms of value.
3. Understand the principle of conserving your values. That is, practicing compressing the
entire visual range into 5 premixed values.
4. Explore the elements of your scene and how they relate to each other.
5. Explore the possibilities of variations in sharp and soft edges. How far can you push
these to help enhance your focal areas?
6. Keep a simplified value structure by keeping your pre-mixed values separate and don't
create large gradations. Soft edges yes, gradations no. Simpler is stronger. Don't mix
the values together on your palette either.
7. Paint from dark to light, big to small, thin to thick.
8. Use your palette knife if you wish.
9. Enjoy the freedom of using expressive brushwork without the worry of colour mixing.
Limited Value Study
For more information on notan and limited value studies please view the workshop video or refer to these earlier workshops: Workshop1 and Workshop2.
Painting a small colour study before getting to the final painting is a great step towards figuring out your colour scheme and ironing out any problems before you commit to a larger painting. Bigger painting, bigger mistakes. It's often easier and faster in the long run to correct those mistakes on a much smaller scale.
Original Photo by Lorna Allan
A completed painting showing notan design, limited value study and colour study as well as the gamut mask used for the colour design.
Here's a video explaining how to analyse colour and value with a colour checker:
Note: If you can't see the videos on this page (above) or on Youtube, I can't help with that sorry - there will be something wrong with your computer settings, but I'm no computer wiz. You would need to contact a computery person to fix that problem.
Gallery of the Month's Workshop Challenge Entries
"Chickens by the Barn", Oil on Board, 30x40cm by Julie Cross
Julie the design is pretty close to mine (which I thought was okay) but with a few adjustments which has left it a little off balance towards the right. Even in my painting the barn is a little too far to the right but yours has shuffled over a little further and it's lacking the large chicken in the left foreground to balance it out. Actually my chicken was a little too big, and yours seems to be a little too small compared, so between us we nearly got it right. I think you made a good choice in cropping the foreground a little too - mine could do with that.
You've handled the colour really well Julie - all those subtle grays are not easy to get right without the whole thing dissolving into mud. You've got variation in your warms and cools and enough punchy colour to be exciting but not garish - nicely done. The one small area I can see your colour falls over is in the foliage just above the shed - too much white has left this looking chalky and out of place. Other than that, really good colour.
Nice fluid brushwork and it's nice to see you trying out some rapid strokes in the foreground to achieve some grainy texture there. With all that bravura brushwork going on you did well to tighten up where it was needed, providing crisp detail to attract the eye to the shed. I do feel like it could do with a little more detail in the ground and grasses where the chickens are.
Not too bad in terms of realism. It's really just a few places letting you down like the lack of detail in the grasses and ground in the foreground and the fumbling of the trees in the background. Other than that, pretty barn good! Oh but my pun wasn't. :-)
Elfrida the overall design looks good to me - you've balanced it well with plenty of interesting chickens and the tree and the foreground shadow. Personally I would have moved the chickens up away from the bottom of the painting just a little more. Getting close to the edge of the canvas with key objects always makes me feel edgy if you'll excuse the pun. It's all a little heavy on the right too, especially considering the tilt of the land too so I think you could actually crop an inch or two off the left hand side and not loose anything important while balancing the composition a little.
The colour is attractive and punchy with some subtler grays threaded throughout. I would like to see the green in the background muted just a little and some larger dark spaces added there because to my eye it's jumping forward a little.
I find your brushwork really appealing in its fresh boldness and there are a few areas like some chickens and those leaning tractor tyres where you've really nailed it - fresh direct painting combined with accurate drawing, so, nicely done there. The details on the tractor could have done with a smaller brush and I noticed that your handling of the grass is the same in the foreground and background, that is, the brushstrokes are the same size which hinders the illusion of depth a bit. Squinting at your subject will help with that - paint what you see while you're squinting.
I'm pretty impressed with the realism of much of this painting. My favorite piece is the small white hen closest to us - beautiful! The least realistic portion is the ground plane which understandably is the trickiest part of the scene with its complex surface mottled by shadows. If you give the viewer some more clues as to the specific elements present there it will help a lot. For instance make the dirt slightly cooler than the grass, and make the grasses get smaller with less detail as they recede and have them cast small shadows onto the dirt. Be clear about the slope of each area of ground and how the grass sits on it. Overall it's a nice painting though and my comments are just picking out small things I would personally change. Great work!
"Scratching Out a Living", Oil on Canvas, 20x24" by Jim Delk
After a few changes in photoshop.
Hi Jim, you picked the most interesting angle of the shed to paint - one that I'm sure I'll paint later on too. I I just love those tractor wheels leaning on the side of the shed and the raking light across the old tin. There's nothing wrong with your design as far as I can see except for the path leading out the bottom right corner which I would raise up to run off the side or obscure with grasses. You could do with one or two other chickens as well to fill out the foreground.
The colour is a little bit haphazard but there are sections like the side and roof of the shed and the tractor wheels where you have done a really good job getting the colour relationships right. The biggest problem seems to me to be the similarity of all the values. I can't be sure whether or not this is due to the photography of your painting though because it does seem to be a fairly uniform loss of contrast overall which makes me think you've photographed surface shine. I took the liberty of adjusting the contrast and making a few other changes in photoshop to illustrate a few points.
I can see you're still learning (as am I) to put a brushstroke down and leave it alone. A lot of that comes from good drawing skills, which is built purely with practice. Most of your brushstrokes have been overworked. When I find myself doing this I try to make myself stop painting, look very hard at the shape of colour I want to paint with my brush, taking in its characteristics including where its edges are sharp or soft, consider how I can achieve it with one brushstroke, looking back and forth to measure the placement, hold my breath and place the stroke on the canvas.
With the exception of the side of the shed and the tractor tyres the few colour problems and unsure drawing detracts from the realism here, especially the confusion evident in the ground and grasses. I can see the problem you faced of mowing the grass and putting in the chickens was a big one so it was always going to be a stretch, but I think you could resolve it better given more time. The shadows from the chickens for instance are not making sense at the moment - they are too vertical which puts the ground plane in doubt. Personally I feel the shed is so interesting from this angle it barely needs anything in the foreground to flesh out the painting - perhaps just the hint of a path through the grass would do. I hope you enjoyed painting this one as much as I did Jim and I look forward to seeing how you deal with the next one.
I think you're right Bonnie, this angle is so interesting it doesn't need chickens or anything else for a complete painting. I think what it does need though is a little more space around the subject as shown in the photoshopped image.
I've made a few adjustments in the colour too because you lost a lot of saturation in overpainting with too much white in your mixtures.
Because of the scumbling technique you've used there's not a lot of visible brushwork to speak off although it's good to see you subduing the detail in the background and the technique you used for the grass seems to have worked really well to indicate grass without overdoing the detail. Although the brushwork is mostly hidden there's a unity in that which I find quite pleasing to my eye.
Realism is usually won or lost in the drawing and in this case your drawing is a bit wonky and you've lost form by scumbling too much light over your mid values. Could be worse, could be better, as always. I can see you've put in a lot of effort and have just ended up overworking the painting which is so easy to do. It's the effort which is the key those because that's the path to making your next painting even better, so, well done.
Casey there's something about this design that catches my eye. I don't know if it's because it's breaking a number of my own compositional 'rules' or because it actually works well. To me it looks very modern in that it ignores traditional conventions. Cutting off the side of the barn and placing the white chicken in the bottom corner drags the eye over to the edge but it's then pulled back by the starkly lit pillar of a tree on the right, so in that way it is really nicely balanced. It rubs me the wrong way and then smooths out my fur, reminding me of how the impressionists would sometimes abruptly crop their scenes to give the feeling of a quickly observed slice of life, or a snap shot, not contrived.
Such a stark contrast! You said your goal was to paint the light and you've certainly done that rather than getting stuck trying to carefully render bunch of chickens and I applaud you for that because it's an illusive goal that I'm aiming for myself.
There's a lot of variation and experimentation in there which I love to see. Only the tractor stands out to me as being a bit fumbled and the drawing has been a little lost there, but overall you've achieved painterly effects which seem to have been joyfully dashed on rather than laboured over, so well done.
From a distance this piece really comes together and considering the bravura brushwork that's quite some accomplishment. Great work!
Of all the elements a painter must consider including subject, design, value and colour, perhaps the most often overlooked by beginners is the subtle art of edges. The best painters do this so subtly we are not even aware our eyes are being lead through the canvas going from one sharp edge to the next. In this workshop we are going to look at the possibilities of edges and how they might enhance your work.
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