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.
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
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
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
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
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.
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
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
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.
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
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
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
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
Mystery over materiality
by Jan Blencowe, Clinton, CT, USA
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 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, its loaded with valuable, historical stuff of concern to practicing painters.
Enjoy the past comments below for Soft edges…
oil painting, 24 x 30 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 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?”