Handling edges

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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.”   Sargent’s edges by Ingrid Christensen, Calgary, AB, Canada  

“Downward Gaze”
original painting
by Ingrid Christensen

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
From: Bev Beresh — Aug 24, 2012

Beautiful painting! I am a real fan of your work.

From: Rochelle Mayer — Aug 24, 2012

I agree, this oil painting is outstanding.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Aug 24, 2012

The edges give her life…so nice.

From: Maxine Price — Aug 24, 2012

This is a beautiful painting!

  Edge transitions with ‘interim’ colours by Roxanne Naydan, State College, PA, USA  

“Hazy Summer Afternoon”
original painting
by Roxanne Naydan

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  

photo of the St Lawrence River

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  

watercolour painting
by Marney Smithies

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
From: Patricia Warren — Aug 23, 2012

I LIKE!!!!

From: Shirley Peters — Aug 23, 2012

At recent art school, this was discussed. The teacher was against: saying a painting is 2 dimensional, and the edges should be left alone, ready for the collector to frame. We students all preferred painted edges. In my opinion, framing makes large works too heavy, and modern home walls cannot always support them. I worry that one of my works might fall on someone’s head!

From: Odette Venuti — Aug 24, 2012

When a painting continues over and around the edge of a canvas, it looks like the artist should have bought a larger canvas.

  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  

“At the Milliners”
original painting
by Rick Rotante

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
From: Jean McDavitt — Aug 27, 2012

Beautiful painting. Great colour palette.

From: Ken Flitton — Aug 28, 2012

Super painting !! Love it.

  Edgemanship with oil sticks by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“Golden Daylilies”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

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
From: Anna H. — Aug 23, 2012

I absolutely love this painting! Whatever you’re doing, it works!!!

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Aug 24, 2012

I like that painting and knowing about your oil sticks is a good thing. My question is, can they mix with other media besides turpentine (even the odor free type). With my breathing/health issues, I can no longer deal with turpentine.

From: Helen Opie — Aug 27, 2012

Susan: I also cannot breathe most solvents, Liquin being the most rapid knock-down for me. You can work with oil sticks and walnut oil; put an underlayer of walnut oil over the whole surface and you have a slick surface that the sticks glide onto and you can moosh about to make softer edges. I am not sensitive to the sticks themselves, but some people are; try to use someone else’s first. If you get to Nova Scotia, I’ll give you some working time.

  Letters on Facebook by Sean McCann, Liverpool, England  

original painting
by Sean McCann

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
From: Anna H. — Aug 23, 2012

Mmmmm, the water looks so wet! Love it!

From: Sandy Donn — Aug 24, 2012

I will say again, my Facebook friend, I love this painting!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Handling edges

From: Marvin Humphrey — Aug 20, 2012

SFUMATO. This is basic. Most of what we see is soft-edged. Lubrication (medium), ample paint, and larger brushes for blending are essential for tactile, attractive paintings. Hard edges are great for sign painting.

From: Faith — Aug 20, 2012

Cosmetic sponges or even very fine natural sponges get splendid results in any wet medium. You can use them either to apply the paint or to blend (on the canvas or paper). In my experience no brush can emulate the delicacy of a sponge. In cosmetic departments they usually have little boxes of sponges cut pie-shaped. The edges of those little sponges can also be used to create hard edges. You can, of course, cut your own from any sponge that doesn’t have big holes, but they have their uses too, so don’t cling on desperately to a paintbrush if it’s doing more harm than good!

From: Gary — Aug 21, 2012
From: Gary L — Aug 21, 2012

Scumbling, dry brush and stippling are also techniques that can break up edges. These techniques provide variety and interest to an otherwise flat painting but they can be hard on brushes. When painting more impressionistic landscapes, I like to combine the use of fluid washes with scumbling effects on pastel board. Pastel board has a lot of tooth that facilitates scumbling with acrylic paints, and the effects can be marvelous.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Aug 21, 2012
From: Dwight — Aug 21, 2012

The ultimate answer to soft edges (and hard ones too when you want that) is watercolor. Not that any of you will change. It’s great fun though!!

From: Susan Holland — Aug 21, 2012

Value plays a big part in edges. Disappearing edges happen, even with a different colored areas, when the value is close. Like the opposite appearance of light against dark, which makes a sharp edge sharper. It’s the drawing of an egg phenomenon!

From: Jackie Knott — Aug 21, 2012

I work in oils and like to take a dry brush, wet it slightly with medium, and draw the brush lightly and equally over the hard edge. It softens the line to where it isn’t distracting. Applying more pressure in some areas and less in others gives a thinner or thicker break, which is more interesting than a uniform line. Be sure to have enough paint on the canvas you don’t “lift” the paint off.

From: John Marshall — Aug 21, 2012

Some of the best edges are ones that disappear completely–lost edges. They evoke unsullied mystery and encourage the viewer to participate in the creative act.

From: Anonymous — Aug 21, 2012
From: Anonymous — Aug 21, 2012
From: John A. Scott — Aug 21, 2012

Re handling edges and specifically “edge holidays” see Tom Thomson’s great paintings of the Algonquin Wilderness. Bright orange from the underpainting (Or maybe it was the peachcrate he painted it on) show through at the edges between sky and trees. Marvelous paintings.

From: Elihu — Aug 21, 2012

If soft edges are of prime importance, go back to good old oils.

From: Dakota Mitchell — Aug 21, 2012

I recently read about an acrylic paint called Interactive. They say it can be reworked by wetting it. This may be of value with edge control. I have not tried it myself. If anyone has, let me know your thoughts on the product.

From: Wendy Weaver — Aug 21, 2012

Flew from Toronto to attend a class for Absolute Beginners at Hollyhock in 1992 taught by a wonderful woman named Nora Blank, a prof at the Emily Carr. She and the place itself were so supportive, I have painted ever since. Can’t remember if she said anything about edges, but do remember she encouraged people to “Go further”. Still her voice in my head pushes me on.

From: Patsy — Aug 21, 2012

I’m wondering if there’s an easier/better way to paint the sides of canvases. They seem to look streaky despite going over and over them. I’m using acrylics. Thanks

From: Catherine Stock — Aug 21, 2012

In my five day watercolour basics class, I focus on washes on Monday, tone on Tuesday, texture on Wednesday, form/composition/integers on Thursday, and edges on Friday, when we do a flower composition. Each day builds up on what we have already covered, but Friday is always the most difficult for my students, because drawing skills are needed to define flowers by their delicate edges.

From: Barbara St Jacques — Aug 21, 2012

Thank you for this information. I am a “line” person, and know that a softer edge is more natural. I have always used oils, but am now working in acrylics. Your tips are very timely for me. ps. I have a question: when painting a portrait with the subject wearing a very wide brimmed hat, how does one treat the brow and especially the eye area that is almost totally lost in the darkness of the shading of the hat brim? When I look at the photo, I cannot see detail in that area; however, when I look up close at the photo in strong light, I can see the shape of the eye more clearly. Any suggestions? Thank you.

From: Gwen Ontiveros — Aug 21, 2012

Only recently discovered acrylics and find my key to soft edges is a plastic bottle that sprays a fine mist. I just mist where I want the soft edge and I have it.

From: Janice Muir — Aug 21, 2012

I paint in NorthernNew Mexico, USA in the mountains. This year has been dry, dry and hotter than usual. I was never satisfied with regular acrylics. For several years now I have been painting with Golden Open Acrylics. They dry slower than the regular acrylics but faster than oils. Clean up is with water. Plein air painting is now possible here without lugging turps etc. I always look forward to your “letters”. I have frequently used some of the quotes in the art classes I teach. Thank you.

From: Gail Caduff-Nash — Aug 21, 2012

Helen VanWyk, an artist i like to learn from on PBS, always calls it “poopsydoo” when she wiggles edges together. A mentor of mine talked about “lost & found” edges, where you might have a harder edge drifting off into fuzziness, making your subject look more real. And I thought, at first, that you were going to discuss the EDGES of the painting! Whether to continue around on a gallery wrap, or not. How to handle wet paintings. I was wrong.

From: Judith Madsen — Aug 22, 2012

Slippery is the word and the most important – the background colour is nice, but on some canvases – the quin gold/burnt orange – set it up so that it is easier to work on. Did you know pennies in between the acrylic paper and sponge/blue toweling, of your tray keeps the mold away…or a drop of ammonia in the water?

From: Gail Shepley — Aug 22, 2012

I guess I will forever hold onto my teaching instincts as I would like to add that acrylic is a plastic and so has a certain amount of time to play with it and in a way is a type of miniscule sculptural material and can be held in a slower dry with glazes, mediums, water, etc., it can be scuffed and scraped and sponged at various drying stages (smooth creamy, sticky, etc.) to create various edges and layering.

From: Earnest Ward — Aug 22, 2012

Every 2 year-old is hardwired with a need to express themselves (to convey their take on the world around them) visually. They do it naturally before they even learn to read and write. They do it on paper if they have it – or walls, fences, sidewalks. And it’s only later that (sadly) our culture “teaches” them to stop.

From: Kitty Wallis — Aug 22, 2012

Thank you for your generous letters. I enjoy reading them and have shared many with my students. The clicks site is useful, well organized and full of more insights than can be absorbed.

From: Mike Barr — Aug 23, 2012

I think that artists that are really concerned with blending and soft edges should think about using oils and not acrylics. Acrylics are akin to watercolours in that they are best used confidently and quickly. A common fault with painters using acrylics as Robert has already pointed out is that they use megre amounts of paint on the palette. I have seen demonstrating artist with minimal amounts of paint on the palette too. Use dollops of the stuff, use plent of water or medium and get it on the canvas in luscious amounts. Handling edges in this mode is a lot easier! cheers Mike Barr

From: Laurel Alanna McBrine — Aug 24, 2012

An elegant way to soften edges with either oils or acrylics is to use an intermediate tone along the edge – this can add color too!

From: Pat in New Mexico — Aug 24, 2012

I work in oils and struggle to get a smooth finish. I hate to see a painting full of lumps, bumps and ridges. I find myself looking at them and not the work as a whole. Distracting and detracting.

From: gail Mcdaniel — Aug 24, 2012

I have been enjoying and promoting your newsletter for years. Even though I am primarily a watercolor artist and instructor, so many subjects you cover are of great interest and inspirational to and for all painters In your last letter concerning ‘Edges’, you failed to mention watercolor! With this medium the most gorgeous edges can be accomplished. As I teach my students in their artistic endeavors to practice painting in watercolor we call it GOOD EDGE QUALITY which refers to a variety of’ Edges’, some hard and some soft. The edges where two colors run together or intermingle we call a BRIDGE OF COLOR. Remember you did mention oil and acrylic, so we watercolor artists and instructors just wanted our two seconds of fame.

From: Cyril Satorsky — Aug 24, 2012

I’ve been following the discussion about hard and soft edges and I cant see what conclusions or revelations are being reached for (if any ). It’s clear that “modern” painters have employed and included just about every kind of mark both intended and accidental in their paintings (and beyond) Picasso and Matisse are the most outstanding examples of of “adventure” in the handling of paint – brushes, palette knives, fingers and whatever are employed. Even Rembrandt was most subtle in shifting from hard edges to soft edges and sometimes using the other end of the brush to articulate the paint. I don’t think its possible these days to establish some kind of fixed idea about this, so much has come to us via innovative and inventive artists (in all the arts) that I believe its a case of “whatever” works, plus skill, taste, fine thought, true “vision” and artistic marksmanship.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — Aug 25, 2012
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Spiritual orthodontics of adolescence

mixed media painting by Monique Jarry, Montreal, QC, Canada

  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.”