One of the best ways to engage a viewer is with hard and soft edges. California painter Virgil Elliott explains a variety of Old Master illusions in his book Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques from the Renaissance to the Present. “The edges could be sharpened selectively,” he writes, “to call the viewer’s attention to an area of greater importance, or to describe an object whose edges were actually sharp, such as a starched collar, sword, or piece of paper.”
The idea, of course, is that the artist controls the viewer’s eye through selective focus. Interestingly, the use of soft focus came about with the Venetian School, particularly in the paintings of Titian. His use of portable canvas with its slubs and bumps, plus the nature of the newly popular oil media, invited the use of “short” paint and bristle brushes. In the prior Flemish School, “long” paint and soft brushes were more generally used on smooth grounds, producing somewhat consistently hard-edged effects.
Watching folks in a gallery as they demonstrate the fine art of museum dynamics, one notes that it’s often the soft blends that bring them in closer or cause them to stand back as they try to focus.
Elliott elegantly describes Titian’s use of glazes for dark areas, his wisdom of opaque lights and his scumbling for softening between. A glaze is a transparent wash over a lighter ground; a scumble is a lighter tone dragged over a darker one. “It was found,” writes Elliott, “that a scumble over a flesh tone would produce the same effect as powder on a woman’s face; that is, it made its texture appear softer.”
We’ve put some examples of both Elliott and Titian at the bottom of this letter. We’ve also given directions to find some of Elliott’s insightful studies online.
Every work of art presents an opportunity to tease an eye. Surprisingly, many artists either don’t know how to tease, or don’t care to. Minor or major gradations or soft transitions leading to sharp edges generally hold more visual interest than uniformly hard-edged renderings or overall amorphous softies. Driven by the need for maximum power and presence, artists working at the dawn of oil painting quickly grasped the idea of selective focus. The illusion is still freely available.
PS: “I am finally beginning to learn how to paint.” (Attributed to Titian at age 90, as quoted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, January 30, 2009, at Davos)
Esoterica: Titian (Tiziano Vecelli, 1485?-1576) was a life-long experimenter with the technique and psychology of painting. In a studio bumbling with protégés, he spent particular effort in the study of colour and its properties, changing his mind and direction often during his long life. He pioneered both transparent and semi-opaque glazes (semi-glazes), as well as scumbles and all manner of calculated softening. Apparently Titian neglected his drawing, leaving that job at times to assistants. Michelangelo thought Titian’s drawing was hopelessly flawed, and spread the idea around.
by R. A. Priddis, UK
A useful and readily available technique for imposing selective focus is to use the soft focus feature on any of the various photo-adjusting software suites. Photoshop and even archiving methods such as Picasa have the capacity to give a degree of soft focus and a movable center of sharper focus. Highly rendered and sharp-edged paintings moved to this facility can be tested to see how they might fare when judiciously softened. Furthermore, overly sharp reference photos can be played with to see just how mysterious and artistic they might become.
by Joel Carson Jones, Plymouth, PA, USA
In the painting “Starsail” I wanted the astronaut figure to stand front and center. In order to do this I carefully painted the background softer paying close attention to my edges while keeping the figure’s edges in a sharper focal range. In the painting “Confident Competitor,” I strove to capture the feelings of the static vs. motion. I painted the blue racecar very soft and minimized the contrast. This gave it a blurry motion-like quality which consequently forces the eye to look at the red car in the foreground which is much sharper and full of detail. Selective focus adds a great deal of interest and excitement to a work of art which may otherwise be dull and lifeless.
by Tim Tyler
Robert, I have often associated your writings with my old friend Virgil Elliott. I am glad to see his knowledge was made into a wonderful, lasting book. You both are kind and poetic in your style of sharing with artists vast stores of wisdom. Richard Schmid has this same sweet soul and also writes from the heart as do you two. I have long been moved by how open and warm painters can be. Van Gogh and Twatchman also wrote their earnest feelings and with as much beauty and more candor than Emily Dickson. I think you and Virgil are in good company.
Methods of the masters
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Selective focus is a valuable tool many don’t use, either because they are unaware of the technique or they haven’t learned the method. As for not caring, I can’t believe a painter would not use a technique if he/she were aware the process would make a better painting. The interesting part of your comment for me was that an artist wouldn’t care to “tease.” Edges are just one way to focus the viewer’s attention. I’m sure many artists may not be aware these old methods and techniques still apply today. In trying to be innovative, different or current, young artists think they need to reinvent ways to paint which is equivalent to swimming upstream. We would need two maybe three lifetimes to learn to paint if left to our own devices.
The painting process has already been invented and perfected. All we need to do is learn from the masters and use it to our best advantage. There are countless books and videos on this and other ways to guide the viewer. The only real changes have been in the tools and paints we now use which are better, safer and readily available.
Selective focus mimics natural sight
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
The concept of selective focus mimics the way our eyes work. It’s natural and makes paintings easy to look at. Our human eyes are not like the camera eye. Our eyes are so much more sophisticated. Hard edges attract our eye, while soft edges allow our eyes to easily move through them. A skilled painter can make great use of selective focus. Photorealism is harsh to me, like the visual bombardment I feel at a shopping mall. All that glass, chrome, reflections make me visually ill. Nature is soft. I am near sighted and often take off my glasses to get the soft, simplified view I prefer to see in my paintings. A hard edge or two go a long way and are all that is necessary.
What are ‘clean values’?
by Gary Hiscott, Wales, UK
One of my favorite ‘daily painting’ blogs is by Carol Marine. From other sites mentioning her name I have come across the phrase ‘clean values.’ I don’t think it refers to a life-style or being ‘determined not to swear.’ I understand the term ‘values’ as the black & white scale, but I don’t know what the ‘clean’ refers to. Her work is very clear, almost like stained glass in bright cleanness. I really love the jewel-like quality. Is this a clue perhaps? Who among the major artists used, if any, ‘clean values’? Can you throw any light on this term?
(RG note) Thanks, Gary. Carol Marine is a painter with the rare ability to get a sense of simple realism through the use of “correct” colour relationships. “Clean values” is a good name for what she does. If you look at Carol’s work, particularly her small daily sketches, you’ll see a minimum of drawing and a deadly eye for colour relationships. Even in her strongly monochromatic or analogous colour schemes, where adjacent areas are accepting the colour temperature of the nearby colour, there’s a refreshing purity. Really, those loose, clean-valued daily sketches she sells on eBay show the true wisdom of making small ones.
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by Steven Sweeney, Austin, TX, USA
Sometimes exaggeration is useful in making a point. I’ve been trying to decide whether examples of “tilt-shift” photography would help artists “see” the relative effect of hard and soft edges. Tilt-shift photography appears to be of miniature dioramas, but the subjects are in fact quite real and life-size. Shot from above, at a distance, but with a lens capturing but a narrow focal distance, these images leave no question as to where the viewer’s focus is going to be — it will be where the edges are hardest, hues most intense, and contrast the greatest.
(RG note) Thanks, Steven, and others who mentioned this. A handy gadget for achieving these sorts of effects is a small SLR attachment called a “Lensbaby.” It permits striking out-of-focus areas and short focal ranges. The relatively inexpensive product can also give areas of mild distortion. In addition to the standard Lensbaby, there is the “Muse” and the “Control Freak.” All good fun.
by Eloise Rogers, Albuquerque, NM, USA
I quit teaching middle school art in 1980 to follow my dream to paint and sell my paintings. I have a heap of paintings and paint 5 days a week. I loved voluntary graduation. I’ve painted alone except for 1 class a year. Top painters here have a critique group of about 20 (who win all the awards), and 2 groups formed after their teacher died. I like painting alone, but have been rejected from the 2 past shows I entered, while people who have painted for less than 6 years got 3 paintings in. I know it’s all subjective, however, it hurts. I don’t know how to improve my paintings other than just keep painting and critique my paintings the best I can. I am in a co-op group and a summer show, which are my only sales venues. I am not sure that I see my mistakes or how to improve.
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Wondering about a workshop
by Elaine Cohen
I am interested in attending an art retreat in Italy. I have been saving up for this trip for the last four years and have never been to Italy before so I want it to be a really great experience. Since I am travelling with my husband who is not an artist I thought Tjasa Iris’s workshop in Tuscany would work well. I am nervous about doing this as it is a first for us and wanted to know what you can tell me about her workshops. Have you received any feedback about them? How reliable is this? What happens if you have to cancel a trip or a workshop is cancelled? I would really appreciate any information you can provide before I sign up for this.
(RG note) Thanks, Elaine. Artists need to target workshops and instructors that might offer specific knowledge and material that connects with what they are currently developing. I don’t know anything about this particular workshop, but I invite anyone with experience or opinion to write to you regarding it. These are good times to add knowledge and build proficiency. Don’t be nervous. The Universe is friendly. Further, as the wise man said, “It’s better to be sorry for what you did than for what you didn’t do.”
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Interpreting the universal
by Mary Lapos, Danville, PA, USA
Well, as the great guru and 20th century Yogi Satchidananda said, “Truth is one, paths are many.” Even if every artist knew exactly the same ‘stuff,’ the outcomes would be different as the ‘idea’ passes through each sieve of individuality. Isn’t it wonderful?
acrylic painting, 16 x 12 inches
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 Marlen Muccio who wrote, “It is a privilege for me to be enrolled in the Cowdisley, e-mail group of which Virgil Elliott is the moderator.”
And also Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA, who wrote, “It’s not like Michelangelo had to spread the idea — it wasn’t hard to see.”