A weak email signal wafts intermittently to Cortes Island on Canada’s west coast. Paul Bennett of Jasper, Alberta writes, “I wonder if you might consider giving some advice about edge treatments. I paint in acrylics but I’m sure the problem exists in most media. Getting a soft edge, for example, can be difficult, especially in the summer in dry climates.”
Thanks, Paul. Here at Hollyhock in an uncommon heat wave our workshoppers are asking the same question.
Sara and I are showing a lot of folks the three main types of edges. The most common and least desirable is where the edge of one colour comes up to and directly stops at the edge of another — a habit that seems hard-wired in the human psyche. After a certain age, kids tend to do it. Many adults never free themselves from it.
A second type of edgemanship is where one colour comes over another wet-into-wet, often picking up the softer transition that many painters desire. “Overshooting” and “cutting in” give opportunities to hold both soft and hard edges with the valuable device of negative shapes.
A third and often overlooked type of edgemanship is where one passage falls short of the area it approaches, leaving a space of whatever underpainting happens to lie below. These “edge-holidays” can be calculated to range from neutral toned to brightly coloured lapses of beguiling visual strength and interest.
Oversize brushes can give you a leg up in the blending department. Choose a brush that’s larger than you originally thought might be used. Wet-into-wet, big soft brushes give big soft edges.
No matter how you need to get your edges, a slippery imprimatura or ground coat is valuable. It may seem like a mere trifle, but any pre-lubed ground is more pleasant and potentially more expressive to work on. Many painters find dry and absorbent surfaces to be as odious as fingernails on blackboards.
For acrylic painters, the use of slow-drying colours, the spritzing of palettes, and drying retarder help with the soft touch. Volume of paint counts too — small amounts of paint from miserly palettes, when thinly spread, tend to dry quickly and make soft edging difficult. Here at Hollyhock, under the moving dapple of summer beachside sun and shadow, we learn to plan ahead. Great plein air paintings may include sunlight but are made in the shade.
PS: “Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.” (Michelangelo)
Esoterica: Another, more contrived, but nevertheless effective method is to systematically go over and soften up edge transitions in needy areas. This can be done by premixing interim colours and carefully feathering. When not being watched, I take my time with a sable brush to fuzzy up my hard-edged sins. Sometimes I can make things look like I know what I’m doing. “Turtur quoque blandiatur,” (Kjerkius Gennius, 36BC) “The turtle also has winning ways.”
by Ingrid Christensen, Calgary, AB, Canada
John Singer Sargent’s edges inspired me to switch from watercolour and become an oil painter. He treated each edge with painstaking variety and care, yet made it seem like an effortless sweep of the brush: weaving subject and background into each other, stopping short of the subject or cutting into it. To see his oil paintings is to see edges at their finest.
There are 4 comments for Sargent’s edges by Ingrid Christensen
Edge transitions with ‘interim’ colours
by Roxanne Naydan, State College, PA, USA
There’s a question regarding a point you cover in your discussion of handling edges that intrigues me. When suggesting going over and softening up edge transitions when needed, you say it might be done by premixing “interim” colours and carefully feathering. Are these different colors mixed by shifting hue, value and temperature or ones you’ve mixed by blending two adjacent colours you’ve previously laid down?
(RG note) Thanks, Roxanne. More of the latter than the former. Generally a good choice is something half way in tone value between the two areas. You may or may not want to keep to the same chroma. Often, heightening with a brighter tone of a different or slightly different colour will add interest and mystique to the transition.
Edges in watercolour
by Paul Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
I happen to be sitting at my cottage on the Canadian shore of the St Lawrence River. Since 7 am, with coffee in hand, I watch the morning reflections of dark tree masses and sky blending in a varied set of textures as light breezes skim the surface of the water. As a watercolorist, I sit and study as much as I do to be in the moment. Three textures are available only to the painter, and each time the brush touches the paper, we will create a texture. In most cases it’s at the edge. Soft, hard and rough are the three. Wet in wet gives soft with no effort. Hard comes from the surface that has little or no moisture content and gives maximum control on the edge. Rough texture requires a little more effort. Usually thought of as dry brush (dry paper touched by tube paint) it drags out unable to fill the tooth of the paper. Working instead in damp state, the paper can have minimal moisture content yet still yield the same effect. Minor tweaks of water on the brush will alter this textural effect. Every blob of color is a shape, and every shape has a texture. Choose one or the best combination that tells the story.
Edges of the canvas
by Marney Smithies, Delta, BC, Canada
While on the subject of edges: although I am speaking of the edge of the canvas, can you tell me what is the gallery accepted or normal method to finish an acrylic or oil painting? I have seen some of the thicker (1-1/2″) gallery wrapped canvas paintings where the painting continues on over the edge, somewhere something all together different is on the edge (such as dots in a color that tie in with the painting) and then some where the edge is just a solid color, either painted black or black tape is used sometimes. Is there a method that is more traditional?
(RG note) Thanks, Marney. Most galleries accept standard stretched canvasses and prefer them because they pop in and out of standard frames. I guess that makes them the more traditional. The thicker “gallery” frames, as they are sometimes called, are more difficult and expensive to frame, requiring greater depth of frame and tend to push the work further from the wall. The business of painting around the sides of these wide ones was started, as far as I know, by amateurs who wanted to save buying frames and wanted to do something interesting and decorative. The style has become quite the fashion and met with some success.
The dealer habit of wrapping black tape around edges, or painting them black has come about with the rise of “floater” frames — an attractive type of frame that lets the whole work be seen. After a while, some black tapes go stickier than the Alberta Tar Sands and are a hazard to get off. I discourage my dealers from taping paintings and offer to black paint them before shipping if they request it.
There are 3 comments for Edges of the canvas by Marney Smithies
The reds of Autumn
by Gerald Valois, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
Given that Autumn is fast approaching and the inspiration and desire to capture the fall colors is already gnawing at me, I was wondering if you had some advice (for a novice) on what you (or other readers) might recommend as some of the most appropriate colors or blends of colors to use to capture the full range of Fall colors for either the mid or eastern Canadian forests? Although I’ve done a few tries I feel that I’ve not been able to find the right combinations, particularly as it relates to the beautiful ‘reds’ found in places like southern Ontario, Cape Breton, Vermont, etc.
(RG note) Thanks, Gerald. This sort of question is impossible to answer. These judgments are dependent on so many variables — location, time of year, altitude, time of day, tree species, light conditions, foregrounds, backgrounds, reflected light, etc. Every artist needs to sit patiently at the feet of Nature in all Her moods and nuances and silently develop the skills to honour Her. There are no recipes for Autumn.
The wisdom of edges
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I work in oil but edges are a concern of every artist. The most important thing about edges is what they represent and the purpose you wish to achieve. If you wish to attract attention to an area, a sharp edge will draw the viewer’s eye, whereas a blurred edge will give a smoother transition. Round objects have a soft edge. The idea is the object doesn’t stop “at its edge” but continues around. This soft edge gives the viewer the impression of roundness. Edges where two colors meet can be softened by making the values similar or close where you don’t want focus. Contrarily making two colors dissimilar in value will draw the attention of the viewer. So while the methods may be different, the purpose and use of edges remain the same. I use softer edges on the parts of the picture where I don’t want to draw attention. Use blurred edges sparingly and with finesse. The tradition is there are three types of edges — soft, blurred and lost. I try and use all three wherever I can. It helps me move the viewer’s eye to places I want them to look.
There are 2 comments for The wisdom of edges by Rick Rotante
Edgemanship with oil sticks
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Reading your letter on edges made me reflect on my venture into oil sticks. I’ve made a lot of progress in making and using these sticks. One of the biggest plusses I have found with them is the ease and control you have in obtaining different edges. With just a finger here and there you can create effects that would be very difficult to achieve with brushes in oil or acrylic. I use hard foam ‘marshmallows’ sold at a craft store to further refine blending and creating some harder edges where I need them. Those aerial perspective tricks are a breeze in backgrounds. You can easily drag blue glazes or ‘pull down’ the sky into distant mountains etc. Using a brighter palette, I have found it is even difficult to obtain muddy color with the oil sticks. Working wet into wet, mysterious blends are easy to obtain. When I want bright color, I will heat the surface with a hair dryer and work in with the oil sticks. You end up ‘burning’ into the surface and replacing neutral with bright juicy color. It’s easy to carve in textures with various tools. My favorite is hard white ‘lollipop’ sticks I found at my handy craft store!
(RG note) Paul deMarrais makes particularly delicious oil sticks which he markets in sets. They are soft but not too soft. They are big but not too big. I got a set from him which I tried with delight and intend someday to become a master like him.
There are 3 comments for Edgemanship with oil sticks by Paul deMarrais
Letters on Facebook
by Sean McCann, Liverpool, England
I am an Irish artist, now residing in Liverpool, England. I have only recently been introduced to your paintings and your twice-weekly letters that I subscribe to. When I was in Canada in July I was delighted to see that you had compiled a book of all the letters from 1999-2009. I bought the book and I’m thoroughly enjoying reading these brilliant letters. I have started sharing your twice-weekly letters on my Facebook page. They always express an important point about some aspect of creativity. Thank you for the great wisdom.
(RG note) Thanks, Sean. See Sean’s excellent Facebook page Thoughts on Art. We welcome the use of these letters and other resources on the Painter’s Keys when re-posted on Facebook and other social media. When people ask to use the material we always like to go by and take a look. Some sites are truly great and of real use to artists. Thanks so much.
There are 2 comments for Letters on Facebook by Sean McCann
Enjoy the past comments below for Handling edges…
Featured Workshop: Michael Chesley Johnson
Spiritual orthodontics of adolescence
mixed media painting
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Gwen Ontiveros who wrote, “I have just recently discovered the profound effect edges have on the emotional impact of a painting. I love learning!”
And also Ngopo Ngusu of Lagos, Nigeria, who wrote, “I use all the same pointed brush and everything is nice and even.”
And also Jace Mattson who wrote, “I find that ‘stencil brushes’ are invaluable tools when blending colors to soften edges. They range in size from tiny to huge and they are almost always reasonably priced.”