Life on the Edge

One of the most important tools a painter can learn to recognize and employ is the artistic placement of edges. All great representational painters past and present have employed masterful edges in their paintings and fully understood why and how to use them to create the illusion of three dimensions. To illustrate just one example, we have marked some of the hard and soft edges in the detail above from a panel of Joaquin Sorolla's Vision of Spain. It shows how he manipulated edges to build the sense of reality in his paintings. Notice the soft vs. hard edges and the kinds of brush strokes used to make them. Look how he often turns his forms not by value changes, but by varying the apparent softness of his edges within a shape as he changes color temperature. He painted this series of large canvases on location, en plein air. Magnifico!

Edges play an important part in establishing volume on the surface of a painting.
Edges play an important part in establishing volume on the surface of a painting.

Every object we see has a variety of edges, either sharp or blurry, bright or dull, and it is up to the artist to decide which edges the viewer should notice and which ones shall support that focus. If all edges are sharp and in focus in a painting, how are we to know what is important?  Simply put, the character of the edges, besides denoting the shape of things, can also lead the eye to them or away from them. Edges are also crucial to creating a sense of volume in forms. Fortunately we don't have to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, but simply follow these ten lessons of how to paint edges from the Masters:

The center of our vision sees in sharp focus. Focal points typically have sharp edges.

Sharp edges are higher contrast. Soft edges are lower contrast.

Peripheral vision is always in softer focus. Paint your peripheral elements with softer edges.

Strong light produces harder edges. 

Soft light produces softer edges. 

Edges appear softer when they are next to a similar color or value. 

Edges appear harder when they are next to colors that contrast sharply.

Clear air produces sharper edges. 

Edges become softer in distance. 

Movement produces softer edges.

If the subject of edges and how to use them is not already on your radar, we hope these guidelines will help to make your edges more expressive and effective. Keep painting!

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–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.