Soft edges


Dear Artist,

Sometimes it’s a good idea to cruise your work to see if a few soft edges might improve things. Gradated transitions, both broad and narrow, especially around the periphery of paintings, can go a long way toward a convincing sense of reality (if desired) and a professional touch. Further, they make your harder edges, particularly those near a painting’s focus, do their job more effectively. Softness is also useful in obfuscating difficult or poorly drawn passages. There’s wisdom in the world of fuzz.

Soft technique comes naturally to some. For others, the soft-hard push-pull has to be worked at. Oil makes soft effects easier than acrylic, but it’s still possible in acrylic. Watercolour-flow wet-into-wet is pure magic. The type of support is important as well. All media are not equal at being soft.

While feathered edges and soft transitions can give the feeling of speed and painterly freshness, achieving these effects can be time-consuming and fiddly. There are several ways to get softer edges. Big soft brushes are the pro’s choice. While sometimes difficult to control, big brushes allow petering pigment to skip and lessen. Fan brushes also have a lot of fans. Some tired old brushes are worth their weight in gold. Another method is to pummel or circumambulate with a hard stubby brush (almost like the application of a stencil) in somewhat dry application over dry under-painting. When all else fails, a delicate sable can tease softness into being.

Many painters, completely in tune with the value of softness, forget that colour change is also valuable in transitional areas. Gradating up or down the colour wheel — say from red to orange or green to yellow — adds additional zing and deliciousness. Attention to this sort of “aura thinking,” especially in abstract work, can raise things from dreadfully dull to electrifying.

Painters also do well to look at airbrush art. Here, effective compositions can be achieved with only soft gradations and sensitive edges. Not that you necessarily want the slickness of airbrush, but the medium shows the possibilities. The human mind delights in soft mystery. Constant sharpness goes a long way toward killing mystery and is responsible for more dead paintings than this world dreams of.

Best regards,


PS: “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” (Voltaire)

Esoterica: While accurate description is paramount for some artists, keep in mind that art also needs to be seductive. Softness is the gentle handmaid of seduction. Knowing when to be gentle is part of the art. “The eye and soul are caressed in the contemplation of form and colour,” said the American instructor and author John F. Carlson. “The subtle changes of colour over a surface are transitions like music and are intangible in their reaction upon us. There is an immediate sensual appeal.”


Contrasts and transitions
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA


“Three Rowboats I”
acrylic on canvas, 29 x 35 inches
by Jack Dickerson

Excellent advice, although this sounds far too general, considering the hundreds of things one must think about when painting… It seems to me that painting is all about contrasts and transitions — and the variations of those: thick/thin, soft/hard, light/dark, red/green, blue/orange, texture/no texture, definition/vagueness, sharp transitions/soft blends, positive/negative, etc. I spend a lot of time working on these and the dozens of other contrasts. When they are successful — that is in harmony — I find everything flows. And the opposite too; when they are out of sync, it is a struggle.

There are 2 comments for Contrasts and transitions by Jack Dickerson

From: Georgia Larsen — Oct 12, 2008

Love Jack’s paintings! In fact, I’m trying to get him to trade a few to cover his wife’s business (Kate Dickerson Design) debts for the products she ordered from my small company but never paid for. Guess we’ll be taking her to court instead.

From: Malini — Sep 23, 2012

Lovely of you, Georgia


Planned painting
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Myakka River Palms”
oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
by Linda Blondheim

One of the big problems I see in emerging artists’ work is a sameness of brushwork throughout a painting. Depending on their style, it is often all hard-edged or all soft-edged with no crisp clean color value or edgework. I think many artists have trouble deciding where the area of interest should be. Rather than taking the time to do a few studies and work through their subject, they start right into a large painting, not knowing what to do with it. I do many studies to prepare myself for a larger painting. I want to have a plan.


Does this sound like a formula?
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA


“Morning in Newlyn”
oil on canvas, 9 x 12 inches
by Liz Reday

Now I’ve read in many art books that it’s vital to have a combination of hard and soft edges, but apart from using the hard edges to emphasize the focal point and the soft edges to play back-up, is there any other reason? Or is it just that the eye revels in the difference, like the combination of thin shadows and impasto highlights? Or is this all starting to sound like a formula? If too many people paint by the book with lightest light/darkest dark and hardest edge for the focal point, won’t all the pictures start to look the same, or is that already happening in some landscape and Western art? Another tip that I’ve actually found really helpful is holding off from using white for as long as possible in the early stages of a painting so that the darks are firmly and very thinly established; hard to do for someone who loves delicious layers of brush textures.


Softening acrylics
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA


“Breakfast Time”
acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 inches
by Brad Greek

I’ve found that to achieve with acrylics a great gradation and/or soft edges is to spray the wet paint with a water spray bottle while having the canvas flat. You can rotate the canvas around to let the paints run into each other as well. I also soften edges with paper towels. Then after I get the background the way I feel it needs to be, I’ll cut in the focal point with a palette knife. It’s been a pretty good combination. I just finished reading a book loaned to me called Oil Painting: The Workshop Experience by Ted Goerschner with Lewis Barrett Lehrman, that focuses exactly on what you are talking about here.




Tools for sharp lines
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA


“Multiple self-portraits”
pastel painting, 36 x 48 inches
by John Fitzsimmons

I like to use various tools to scratch and scrape the paint away. This works especially well on panels but also on canvas, the paint can be dry or wet. I have a small screw driver that I ground down to a sharp spade shape, perfect for fine lines. I also use a tri lobe plate scraper like etchers use — this has a very sharp point and edges. I use the scribe to make sharp outlines, contour lines, cross hatch in lighter areas and to diffuse edges. Those sharp, intense lines are very useful.



Without hesitation
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA


“Eastern White Pine”
pastel on canvas
by Nikki Coulombe

I would like to add to your roster of softening techniques. It’d be great to always have foresight to be able to use paint perfectly in the first place, but a stiff fibre pad used for dish-scrubbing works wonders with acrylics to level out paint build-up, even if it has been dry for weeks. Acrylics can become notoriously shiny, slippery, and give paintings a fake look and feeling if paint is caked on too soon. We can be too hesitant while painting sometimes, so knowing that the surface can be brought back to almost new (within reason) offers a little more freedom and work time, so less fear of making mistakes. Frame of mind while working makes a huge difference in the results. Scrub-pads work perfectly for misty and sunlit scenes too. I’m using mainly Oil Pastels recently, but have found that this idea of building up then removing material works well no matter what the medium is, rather than continually adding to it as we are accustomed to do: soften and remove using eraser with graphite and dry pastels, scraping tool and mineral spirits remove oil pastels, scrub-pad and damp cloths with acrylics, and rags, palette knife or spirits while oils are fresh. Eastern White Pine, oil pastel, was done using pottery scraping tool and fingernails to remove excess, softening and at the same time adding texture.


Soft edges in watercolour
by Tony Kampwerth, Knoxville, TN, USA


original watercolour
by Tony Kampwerth

In watercolour, soft edges are an important “happening.” The beautiful contrast to hard edges, makes the hard edge objects stand out in the painting. Also, in watercolour, the effect of “lost and found edges,” as Edgar Whitney described them, makes a visually perceived edge in expressing shapes. I paint a lot of mountain stream paintings in the Smoky Mountains that presents a real challenge. I have found that using soft edges contrasted with hard edges can give a feeling of motion of the water around rocks.


Edges and Passion
by Mary Aslin, Laguna Beach, CA, USA


pastel on archival paper
13 x 10 inches
by Mary Aslin

Edges are extremely significant… and the way they are accentuated or softened has everything to do with the passion of the artist and what he or she is trying to say. A focus on edges, in addition to value, forces the artist to plumb deep and reckon with the inspiration that drove him or her to paint the thing in the first place and to keep from getting lost in over-rendering. My students want to “paint loose.” What they are really saying is that they want to know which edges to soften. That is something that I can’t teach. What I can ask, though, is about their subject matter and the specific elements of a scene that makes their hearts beat fast, to plan their compositions accordingly and then to focus on stronger values and edges in the area of passion, subduing those areas that serve as supporting actors to their own personal message. And that, I believe, is ultimately what separates art from craft.

There is 1 comment for Edges and Passion by Mary Aslin

From: Lauren Shenk Fouts — Oct 08, 2012

Marvelous “re-imagining” of the subject/concept of soft and hard edges.


Mystery over materiality
by Jan Blencowe, Clinton, CT, USA


“A quiet place”
acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Jan Blencowe

As an artist I crave the mysterious, spiritual even, quality that soft edges bring to a work. Pursuing that sensual softness has occupied several years’ worth of paintings. It’s a difficult thing to achieve and an even more difficult concept to pass on to my students, many of whom cling to the notion that they must render every detail with pristine accuracy to show that they know how to make something look “real.” In fact what is “real” is more a matter of what is inside us and a masterful painting coyly hints at that reality causing it to well up in the viewer, materialize for a moment and then evaporate on the breeze leaving the lingering impression that what we’ve always suspected is true, that there is a beauty around us that transcends the mere material universe. Soft edges can create the sublime and should be a tool in the toolbox of every artist who strives to capture the transcendent on canvas.


Softening threads and colored pencils
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA

I spend more time softening edges, colors, values than the actual laying in of the original color. When using either colored pencils, or threads, there is a constant changing of threads (or pencils) to build layers giving the illusion of distance and shadow as well as a third dimension. There is more time and work spent in these areas and many hours, as well as undoing threads to start again or maybe trash it. I second your thought on “time consuming and fiddly” but worth while for the unexpected effect.


Klimt and fuzz
by George Bloch


“Gustav Klimt: Landscapes”
by Stephan Koja

Gustav Klimt used a combination of hard edges and soft transitions. Looking closely at his figurative work, you see distinct lines where he took delight in drawing and got it right; in passages where he was less sure he allowed fuzz to carry the day. The landscapes show even more arbitrary softness, without abandoning those linear, repetitious, decorative motifs. This is most evident in his flowers, which mirror the symbolic forms that fill out his portraits.

(RG note) Thanks, George. For those interested in Klimt’s effects using telescopes, opera glasses, view finders, photos and telephotography see Gustav Klimt Landscapes, edited by Stephan Koja. Well illustrated, it contains essays and research by seven Klimt authorities, and while the print is pretty small and the text for the most part is by non-artists, it’s loaded with valuable, historical stuff of concern to practicing painters.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Soft edges



From: Richard Olderman — Feb 16, 2008

The fox to the Little Prince…”it is only with the heart one sees rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

From: Mary Smith — Feb 17, 2008

I am an art teacher and have got myself in a difficult dilemma. I have allowed my students to use the projector to project their portraits onto canvas. They have produced amazing paintings and this is because I have taught them how to paint technically, the projector did not teach them to do that, the projector was just a tool to give them a quick start. My department however disagree and feel my students have “Cheated” which I feel is ludicrous!!! I now feel that I am in a difficult situation because I feel they are very old fashioned and stuck in their ways and I need advice on how to persuade them that the students have not cheated. The board AQA fully support me and say it is a tool to enlarge, any suggestions on how I can put my argument forward to my department? I will be very greatful. Mary

From: GB Ross — Feb 18, 2008

I used to make about six or seven thumbnails before painting the bigger canvas. Now I do it in half the time with the aid of Photoshop. Taking advantage of available technology is not cheating.. Stick by your guns

From: Alicia Chimento — Feb 18, 2008

Having viewed the Gustav Klimt exhibition today at the Neue Gallery in Manhattan, all I can say is . . . awesome. Soft edges, yes, hard edges, yes, but his combination of edges, form, color, and pattern work so incredibly well together. I left there inspired to work as he did – with passion, and, clarity & mystery at the same time. A beautiful show in an elegant venue; get there if you can!

From: Liz — Feb 19, 2008

I am sure that the great artists of the past – Leonardo da Vinci especially – would have used any technology available. He would have used a digital camera had it been invented, he certainly would have used projection. Drawing up is the easy bit in painting – deciding where to place it, how to crop, composition, actually painting – all of these things are a minefield of decisions. If projecting gets us there faster, all the better. We use calculators to add and subtract in maths – no one expects us to do mental arithmetic any more, this is not considered cheating. A projector is a tool, so is a brush, do they also expect your students to paint with their fingers?

From: Angela Treat Lyon — Feb 19, 2008
From: Betty Newcomer — Feb 19, 2008

I have done it all as far as using a projector, grids, and digital to help with the proportions, however, since my training was with the Famous Artists Course in Illustration, I have found a great deal more satisfaction in free hand drawing. It is looser, softer and I know it is mine alone! Make a few drawings of the subject after studying the proportions, and you will be so proud of yourself and Artwork! No guilt feelings either. Hand and eye co-ordination and it just comes from you with a spirit that copying doesn’t get.

From: Anonymous — Feb 19, 2008

Projecting is to a Graphic Artist as Freeform Drawing is to a Fine Artist. Which do you want to be?

From: Sharon McKenna — Feb 19, 2008

I see the projector issue as something that should be dealt with in the course outline. If drawing, perspective, values, etc. are not part of the course and you are aiming to teach brush control and colour mixing, you are on firmer ground having your students use a projector.

From: Janet Badger — Feb 19, 2008

For Mary: Did the students make a sketch from their portrait photographs first, or from the live subject? This will put the image into their minds and hands and help them with the painting. Having done that, I see no reason why not to project the photograph onto the canvas for a bare outline in order to have a correct starting point.

From: Cyndie Katz — Feb 19, 2008

Mary, my favorite instructor from Mexico (very traditional) used to ask me: do you want to draw, or do you want to paint? There is no cheating, he said, when it comes to how to get your image on your canvas — projection, tracing, etc. — all should be allowed. Particularly in a classroom setting where time is of the essence. Otherwise students might spend all their time trying to get their drawings accurate and never get to the painting which sounds like the place you were trying to get them. Learning projection methods is also valuable. Not to say that drawing isn’t an important skill for artists. It’s just not always necessary for making a fine painting.

From: R. M. Anitta Trotter — Feb 19, 2008

Some wood carvers insist on using only manual tools for all work. They say using a power tool is “cheating”. However, others say the great carvers of the past who were very busy had apprentices who did the roughing out for them. This is a manual power tool, in a sense. Power tools help in the grunt work of stock removal for those of us with hands weakened by age. The finishing work I do is all done using hand tools. A local portrait artist uses copying in order to get the details just right. He says a millimeter difference in a line on the face can make the person look like someone else. His clients prefer their portraits to look exactly like them, rather than almost like them. So is it cheating? Or is it working smart?

From: Stephen Filarsky — Feb 19, 2008

“Projecting is to a Graphic Artist as Freeform Drawing is to a Fine Artist. Which do you want to be?” What a load of “Bull Hockey”. The “Creativity Police” are back with what is “Artistically Correct”. My God! She used the “P word”. Please don’t make such statements and hide behind “anonymous”.

From: Jane Brenner — Feb 19, 2008

Mary, why not, just this once, let your students use the projector for a very very short limited time, just to get the summary of shapes and positions down. The eye/hand skill is so precious — don’t let anything diminish the encouragement of it.

From: Tina Steele Lindsey — Feb 19, 2008

I am afraid I am going to step on some toes here. I think the use of projectors is limiting a person from mastering drawing technique. Part of being an artist is drawing, and honing that skill is what separates the good from the great. I am especially sensitive to this issue when it comes to portraiture. I wonder how many artists who do portraits actually tell their clients they are going to project a photo image onto a canvas before painting. If they are not, there is a reason, they don’t want the client knowing. If you are being upfront with the client, then wonderful. Maybe the client doesn’t care, they just want a good portrait, but I would wager all who use projectors truly inside wish it were not necessary for them to do so.

From: Jane Champagne — Feb 19, 2008

Mary, did your students trace the projected image? If so, they are copying, not creating, and I would agree with Tina — as well, they are being deprived of the joy of drawing. If you want to paint a photographically realistic portrait, fine, but if you want to paint an original, avoid projectors.

From: Marsha Stopa — Feb 19, 2008

Mary, I’m not going to jump into the right or wrong debate. I like the idea of finding articles that showed the use of “camera obscura,” but that may not resolve your situation. May I offer a suggestion? Perhaps you could have your students use the projected-image painting as the first in a series, and then have them create a series of additional pieces in which they use ONLY the painting they created as source material, no photographs or anything else. Perhaps it could be a series of 10 smaller paintings, in the same or different medium, in which they use the first painting as the reference for the first two paintings, then generate a new painting solely from the last one painted. You may also set a time limit on the smaller series paintings; here I’m thinking of Robert’s recent post on painting fast. By the way, I got this idea from Kevin Macpherson’s recent book, “Landscape Painting, Inside and Out.” He suggests painting from photographs in this manner to get artists away from “copying” and into translating their own images and impressions from the reference material. Perhaps you can blend both sides of the debate and make the students the winners? Best of luck to you.

From: Tatjana M-P — Feb 19, 2008

One thing that nobody mentioned yet is that camera introduces distortions, and even more for the people who are not pro photographers. If the artist using reference photos doesn’t know or notice the distortions, they end up on the painting. The masters who used camera obscura were proficient with the rules of perspective and knew how to make corrections where needed. The distortions can be especially visible in portraits done by straight tracing of photos. They do look exactly like the person on the photo, but the small distortions, excessive details or lack of form where it is essential do the damage. Artists can overcome this relying on their experience, but I doubt that students can.

From: Sarah — Feb 19, 2008

I’m not against projectors, but I can’t use them myself….I find if I don’t paint plein air, my paintings turn out very flat.Art is about expression. If an artist is willing to put themselves out there and try and sell a piece of art (which has such a strong connection to their soul) then who cares how they made the art. Everybody needs a little help expressing themselves sometimes.

From: Janet Badger — Feb 19, 2008

I agree that the human face is so difficult to capture, even a millimeter difference in the placement of an eye, a nose, the corner of the mouth, can mean the difference between a likeness and a “near miss”. I had my own portrait sketched by a street artist in Moscow once. He struggled for an hour, til the sun went down! Then he tossed off a five-minute portrait of my husband. We went home with a double portrait, of my husband with Another Woman!!! If someone wants to pay you to paint their portrait, do whatever it takes to get that likeness.

From: Keith — Feb 19, 2008

I wonder if Michelangelo worried that he had to use live models, draw them out, then copy them to full size on a large piece of paper, then run a perforating wheel around the significant lines, tape the paper to the surface he was working on, pounce the perforated holes with powdered chalk or charcoal, then remove the paper and retrace the lines with his brush. He might have thought a truly great artist could just climb up on the scaffold and paint. I wonder if he was embarrassed about using assistants to do some of this?

From: P. W. Brown — Feb 19, 2008

MARY! Read your comment on using a projector in an art class. Tell your colleagues that they do not know much about art practice or art history. The camera obscura was widely used, historically. Almost certainly by Vermeer (a lens grinder by trade) Likely by Carravaggio. Michelangelo transferred his Sistine Chapel drawings to the ceiling. The photo realists projected. Andy Warhol, Rauchenberg, etc, used direct photo processes. I, too, teach art. I teach many transfer techniques, tracing, projection, carbon paper transfers, the xerox machine. I have found that tracing improves drawing skills. You can offer your colleagues a conundrum. Have your students make a 3×5 inch drawing. Enlarge it on a machine. Have the students transfer the drawing in a larger size. Is that “cheating”? I, too, have caught flak regarding this issue. The arguments are always bogus, and have something to do with suffering artists. I want my kids to understand that technology bows at the feet of the creative people, for creative people create metaphors. My kids make collages with magazine images. They are challenged to make combinations of people, animals and plants with machines, and buildings. The collage is traced, transferred and made into a painting. Hey, kid! You are a Surrealist. Introduction to Surrealism. You are just using the tools of the trade. This is not just a quick way to make an image, it is a quick way to teach drawing, and metaphor. Hey, ask your colleagues if they still use a computer or a quill pen?

From: Mary Sims-Morey — Feb 21, 2008

I think using a projector is fine, if the lesson is to learn how to mix colours and handle paint. However, I do very much believe, that developing one’s hand-eye coordination and “seeing” skills is more important, in the development of an artist. Painting IS drawing, and if one cannot create an image without the aid of a projector, then they have not learned how to see. It is possible to develop one’s seeing ability so well, that they can even do portraits, and “see” that millimeter difference in the placement of an eye or other feature, and then make the correction. I would worry about young artists especially, who are still developing their sighting abilities, in relying on a projector such that it becomes a crutch. I agree that photos distort, and painting from life is the best situation, when possible. I would tell your department that using the projector in this instance was for an exercise in colour and handling paint, and that students will also do exercises in drawing and seeing.

From: Mary — Sep 30, 2012

I am having difficulty blurring the edges of the sun in my sunset picture can someone help.







Nancy O’Dea

oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Bernard Poulin, Kelowna, BC, 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 Kate Hoekstra who wrote, “Achieving soft edges on flesh can be done by dragging a semi dry brush, loaded with a reddish tone, along the edges. Just inside this edge, doing the same with a light tone of the background creates a nice, life-like rounding.”

And also Leslie Tejada of Corvallis, OR, USA who wrote, “It may seem like an obvious solution, but why not paint, in good strong light, paintings which look like your current ones in half-light?”




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