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Defining Hard, Soft and Lost Edges In Your Paintings

by Lori Woodward on 1/4/2012 9:09:41 AM

Today's post is by Lori Woodward, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  She has been a member of the Putney Painters since 2004, a small invitational group of painters who are mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


View From The Trail, by Lori Woodward: oil on Linen, 12x12


The hardest edge in the painting above is where the small, light evergreen (just to your right of the middle) meets a dark background behind it. Although this edge does not incorporate a straight line, this area has the most contrast and appears as a crisp edge. If you squint way down and then open your eyelids slowly, the left edge of this young evergreen will appear first.


Although I painted this outdoors on a rainy day, where the values were mostly equal, I manipulated the contrast later in my studio to create a "landing place" for the viewer.

One of the easiest ways that artists can make their paintings look professional -- is when they have the knowledge and ability to manipulate and show variety with the edges of their subjects.
But where do you start? Is it enough to just make all the edges soft? Some artists do that, but I believe that the eye needs a landing place - where there is one hard, crisp edge. If the painting has all soft edges, or even all hard edges, the viewer's gaze is not directed by the artist.
As in movies, paintings need climaxes too. What I mean is that each composition needs to have an area in the painting where the eye lands. It's like a "landing page" in a website or blog... it's the place in the painting that attracts the most attention.
Nancy Guzik, Daniel Keys and Kyle Stuckey have given me permission to use images of their paintings for this post. 
Below: A recent floral painting by Nancy Guzik

Perhaps you're confused or wondering about where to start when deciding which edges to make hard and which to make softer. Well, if you work from life, the decision making process becomes simple and do-able. Just set up your still life, or model in a way that is pleasing to you -- make it simple enough for you to complete with the skill level you already have.
Use one light source whenever possible. Daniel Keys uses a daylight fluorescent bulb from the hardware store - which creates a cool light source. This makes painting with oil or any other opaque medium easier - because it creates cool whites/lights and warm shadows. Since white is the coolest color on the palette, every time you add white to a color to lighten it, it'll cool the resulting color considerably. If your "lights" are cool, and adding white makes them cooler, then half the work of matching color and temperature is done. But this subject is worthy of a separate post altogether. So let me move back to edges.

Roses and Hydrangeas - by Daniel Keys 16x24, oil on linen
Notice (above) which rose catches your attention - it's where your eye "lands". If you squint slightly at this painting, you'll see the upper right edge of the yellow rose show up more clearly than the rest of the painting. Why is this? Because Daniel created a hard edge where the light edge of the yellow rose joins the dark background. Not only is there a physically hard edge on this rose, but there is also great contrast (light against dark).
Below, I'll discuss why certain areas of your subject matter have hard edges. But before I do, I'd like you to do a little exercise. Next time you set up to paint  - whether it be a still life, portrait or landscape from life, ( Please do not do this from a photograph) set it up with one light source (preferably cool light - 5200 kelvin or higher). Then when it's all set up, close your eyes and very slowly open them so that you begin to see the shapes and edges of the objects.  (You can also do this with landscapes and portraiture).
Take note of which edge you see first. This is your hardest edge!
Please don't worry about where this hardest edge falls... just accept it for now. Don't worry about your composition - it is what it is! This post is to help you define your hardest edge. Hint: It will usually be where the lightest light is next to a fairly dark area.
Conversely, where your subject's objects join up with an adjacent area with similar values, there will be no hard edge... and many times close values create lost edges... those that disappear when you squint at your setup. The mark of a professional painting -- it has several lost edges.

Here is a small still life painting by Kyle Stuckey: Notice that the upper left edge of the teacup - where the dark, wooden box falls behind it displays the painting's sharpest and hardest edge. It is where the lightest light conjoins with a darker area behind it. The edges of white teacups often have hard edges, because they are not soft in real life physically, but this is especially true when there is a dark are behind the rim of the teacup.
Kyle was careful not to make any other area in the painting as light as the interior of the teacup. Notice that even the white areas of the tablecloth do not compete with the lightest light of the teacup... making that edge the landing area for the viewer's eye.
I hope this has been helpful and will make defining edges for your next painting experience a bit simpler.


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Topics: advice for artists | art education | FineArtViews | inspiration | Instruction | Lori Woodward | painting 

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Elizabeth B. Tucker
This is a great post . It really simplifies how we can learn to see as an artist and help to direct the viewers eye. It reminds me of 3 layers in landscaping: understory, middle plants and then tall. Each has to support the rest, but one has to be "king".

Barbara Reich
Your post is a beautiful reminder of the importance of edges. There are so many things for the artist to consider, and by making a point of paying attention to the different elements...possibly working on one element at a time until progress is made, improved paintings are surely to follow. Painting is a continuous learning experience and a bit of specific focus is a great way to move forward.
Barb Reich

Debra LePage
There is something about hard and soft edges that grabs the heart. These are beautiful examples, Lori.

Esther J. Williams
Enjoyed reading your explanation Lori! I agree with the lightest light against the darkest dark. Creating that soft edge gives poetry to the piece where the retina can rest. The harder edge can be considered as higher energy areas and the soft edges considered as low energy. Too much high energy can cause agitation on the retina. I want the eye to go to the high energy focal area, then lead the eye from the focal point with subtle lines, edges or shapes to throughout the remaining picture space. I do arrange the composition so that the center of focus is in or near one of the golden mean or the thirds section.

George De Chiara
Good point about the first edge you see is the hardest edge when opening your eyes. It's also helpful to remember that the lightest light, darkest dark and hardest edge are usually in the same area.

Donna Robillard
I liked your comment about the "landing place" that each painting should have. Enjoyed reading the article.

Lori Woodward
Thanks for your comments, everyone. One day after I'd been painting with the Putney Painters for about a year, fellow artist, Rosemary Ladd said to Richard Schmid... you ought to come over and look at what Lori painted.

Richard looked at it for about 10 seconds and said, "There are no soft edges." He's pretty nice to when he doesn't know you well, but if he does, he cuts right to the punch.

Yeah, I felt like crying.. I was feeling pretty proud of the painting, and it wasn't bad at all, but Richard wanted me to get sophisticated with edge control. That's when I started taking a longer look at my setup to discover which edges were truly hard. Then I played the rest down.

Personally, I like paintings that have hard edged realism more than those that are fuzzy all over, but I think the best compositions have a strategic combination of edges, hard, soft and lost... because that's what really happens in life.
I'm still working on this aspect of my paintings. I know it when I see it done well, but putting in my own work, well that's another story!

Esther J. Williams
Lori, I think "View From a Trail" is beautiful. It does have that easy on the eyes appearance on your edges. Bravo for you!
I think it is so hard to take a painting that is started outdoors and bring it into the studio to work on it a little more without ruining it. That is why I try to finish what I can onsite and be done with it. Yes, easier said than done. That is why we must paint as much as we can to develop a style and learn how to use the brushwork to create the lost and found edges.
Well, I better paint now.

Maria Hook
great article! we are having a discussion as to the "landing" spot" for the Nancy Guzik painting. Our thought is it is where the white lilies this correct?

Lori Woodward
Some paintings have an "all over pattern" rather than a center of interest. Nancy often uses a "connect the darks" pattern to lead the eye around the painting, and she repeats color throughout the design.

My eye goes to the hard edges of the pink tulips on the right/middle area, but it might be different for others - this painting does not have one hardest edge, but several hard edges... probably should have picked a different painting.

I wanted to use a painting she did of a little girl in a dress knitting. That painting of Nancy's definitely has one hardest edge - the white line of the bottom of her skirt. Go to West Wind Fine Art: and look at Nancy's paintings there.
Her work is just amazing!

Fay Terry
This article is helpful and is perhaps the best explanation of edges (and how to manage them) that I have EVER heard. I plan to put this to use tomorrow in my studio. I have never understood this concept and I think it will make a huge difference for me from now on. Thank you, Lori,for covering this so expertly in your article. I hope I get a chance to study with you sometime, you are obviously a great teacher.

Donald Fox
Lori, as usual your information is presented in a form that is easily transmissable to students. Contrast between hard and soft, light and dark is so important in most paintings. The examples you chose illustrate that clearly.

Lori Woodward
Thanks Fay and Donald... I truly appreciate your encouraging words.

Ann Munday
Thank you so much. I am a still learning watercolor painter and what you have shared is particularly of help to me. Thanks again.

Carol Schmauder
Thanks for this post, Lori. I always enjoy these articles where you share tips. I have always been a little confused about the soft edges and hard edges and where to use them. This article has cleared things up a lot for me.

Cinthia Griffin
Thanks for this timely advice ! I prefer doing still life more than landscapes, so this helps me w/ visual examples.

Lori Woodward
Thanks again to everyone who got back to me saying that this was a helpful lesson/post. It makes my day/week/year!

I have to also thank my artist friends who have willingly let me "borrow" their paintings as examples. If I had to paint every single example, these posts wouldn't get to you in a timely manner.

jo allebach
This was an extremely helpful article. It is explained so well. Thank you.

Sharon Weaver
The working of edges is one of the more subtle lessons and one that you explained well. If you can master this one our paintings jump to another level.


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