Read the ‘kinda sort of’ first part of this blog here:
What’s the deal with edges?
We hear so much today about the importance of edges – why? How can I tell if my edges are working or not or if that’s why my paintings feel stiff – not natural?
Good question! I wish I had a definite ‘this is the rule about edges’ answer.
Actually, that’s not true – I’m glad there isn’t a rule or formula to follow when it comes to edges in our paintings – the lack of formulas and rules gives life-long fascination to the pursuit of excellence and mastery in painting.
John Singer Sargent, Jan Vermeer and Childe Hassam equally and masterfully enchanted viewers with the edges in their paintings while using distinctly different approaches.
While Sargent skillfully crafted the illusion of an object with a single virtuoso brushstroke, like a sun-drenched fence post or the turn of fabric in a dress, Childe Hassam created jewel like transitions between values and planes with patterned bits of color and optical blending as he placed vibrant hues side by side in a sparkling menagerie that magically transformed into rocks and water.
While Hassam’s strokes were intentionally obvious and open to the viewer, Jan Vermeer’s brilliance lay in his ability to disguise edge shifts through subtle value and color changes.
While in Washington DC in 2007, I found some of Vermeer’s work at one of the museums. I was mesmerized – I literally stood in front of two of his paintings for more than 2 hours while other visitors filed past me, studying the almost imperceptible form transitions he created using color and value.
None of us will ever truly ‘master oil painting’ – the nuances and variables are infinite, and, no denying it, we simply won’t live long enough to explore ‘infinity’. Fortunately, we don’t need to live forever to develop a sensitivity to edges in nature that will enliven the naturalism in our art.
What about modern ‘Masters’? What have they discovered to be the single best approach to edges that will help us become professional artists?
When I first saw C. W. Mundy’s work at the Denver Rotary Club Artists of America show in the early 90’s I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the lines that seemed to chop through his paintings.
In retrospect, I could have learned some early lessons about edge quality from what he was doing – if I hadn’t let myself get distracted by what I saw as a ‘tricky’ technique that I thought made the subject difficult to discern.
C. W. was on to something.
It’s been a while since I heard him describe his technique, but if memory serves me he would paint his scene to a basically finished state and then take a paper towel or palette knife and lightly flick or drag through the paint, breaking up edges throughout to craft a more engaging painting by inviting the viewer to explore, rather than spelling everything out and putting the viewer to sleep.
He was using his imagination to break away from his earlier tightly rendered sports illustrations and career that he said felt stifling and creatively restrictive. Notice the crisp edges everywhere.
Now he fills his work with beautifully sophisticated edges and he experiments with numerous approaches – always moving forward in his desire to enchant the viewer and himself.
Quang Ho insists his edge manipulation is never about forming a ‘style’ – for him it’s about surprises.
His work ranges from more traditionally executed still life oil paintings with subtle hard and soft edges to almost abstracted experiments in values and colors.
During his demo at the Plein Air Convention in San Diego he eloquently described the convergence of values and edges – some values and shapes contrast sharply to form hard edges while others transition gently with barely discernable edges or shifts in value.
He likened it to movie making – film clips edited to show abrupt scene changes is a hard edge scenario while clips that gently move from one scene to another is equivalent to a soft edge.
As the demo progressed he applied fairly thick paint to a landscape with trees and a small brook for about an hour. Then he said, ‘watch this’ and he dragged a hotel room card down from the top to the bottom of the painting, melting and scraping and blurring the colors like molten wax.
Quang Ho emphasized that shapes are the important element to give structure to our paintings, but values and edges breathe life and the feeling of reality into our work.
It becomes difficult to separate values and edges into separate categories because they are so intertwined.
Textures can affect edges as well – smooth or choppy water, bark on a tree, crisp or wispy clouds, dry curly, energetic hair compared with smooth velvety strands, chipped, angular broken rocks vs water softened pebbles – each descriptive word carries exciting possibilities for exploring vast ranging edges.
Notice in the painting above the loose quality of the yellow petals at the back of the upper left flowers.
What would happen if I tightened up the edges of those petals?
Let’s experiment in Photoshop and see.
If I had not seen the original painting I might not think they were too bad. I still have value changes and plenty of movement in the petals
To me though, they lack spirit and life – they just don’t feel natural.
Now, if the yellow flower was the primary focus of the painting, rather than the daisies, it might have worked to add some sharper edges to more of the petals.
Since I want the yellow flowers to flow to the back and play a supportive role I feel that the softer edges help push it farther into the distance, even though the depth in the painting is relatively limited.
Richard Schmid, a master of manipulating edges to help us feel and see what he experienced as he painted, taught succinctly that there are only three ways to imitate with pigments the edges we see in nature:
- By the extent of our blending of brushstrokes (softer edges) or a lack thereof (harder edges).
- By following in Childe Hassam’s or Vermeer’s footsteps and using intermediate colors to transition from one edge or value to another, rather than blending.
- Applying both blending and intermediate colors.
Experimenting with a variety of approaches will enhance our skill set and offer endless paths to realism and life in our paintings.
Part of the power of the exploration of edges comes in our realization of just how interconnected and harmonious nature’s elements are. A tree does not stand untouched – light, atmosphere, reflections, motion, colors – they bounce and intermingle.
A tree’s values and colors and edges – that which gives shape to the tree – are influenced and altered by all that exists around that tree.
Keeping that in mind will compel us to explore edges in earnest and observe how something as simple as a branch can move from hard to soft edges as values contrast and diminish or as a breeze shifts one limb in front of another, obscuring the form.