Edges are important in oil painting. There are “soft edges”. There are “hard edges”. There are “firm edges”, and there are “lost edges.” Knowing the differences between them, knowing when to use them, and most of all knowing how to create them are important skills for landscape painters.
Edge-handling is addressed early on in the Mood and Atmosphere painting book I’m following as part of my 100-day creative adventure. Author Carolyn Lewis explains that “if edges are handled well, the image will be convincing.”
As always, I like to begin my studies with definitions.
- HARD EDGES indicate abrupt transitions from one shape or one color to another. These edges and their stark contrasts will typically be the area of strongest interest in the painting, in other words, the focal point.
- FIRM EDGES are still hard, but of lesser importance in the painting.
- SOFT EDGES indicate gradual, smooth transitions between colors or shapes.
- LOST EDGES are SOFT EDGES, but so soft that you can’t actually see them.
Several different factors affect how we see edges in the world around us.
- When colors are close together — such as different colors in clouds or colors in grassy fields — we’re seeing soft edges. Objects with markedly different colors or shapes — rocks or different structures — will have hard edges.
- Light affects edges. Bright sunlight creates stronger, harder edges. On cloudy or overcast days, the light is diffused, resulting in softer edges. Moonlight generally creates softer images.
- Distance affects edges, as well. As elements recede into the background, their edges become much softer, sometimes even disappearing into lost edges.
- Movement creates softer edges. Think of the moving water of a waterfall, or the motion of a bird in flight. When movement is visible, the edges of the objects will be softer.
In order to paint edges properly, we need to understand them, and most of all, I think, we need to actually view them in nature. We need to see with our own eyes how different a scene appears on a sunny afternoon or a foggy morning.
Right now, though, the temperature here is about 5 degrees Fahrenheit, there’s snow on the ground, and the wind chill makes the air bitterly cold. Going outdoors is not anything I plan to be doing for a while. When spring comes, I’ll happily go hiking through the woods again, but for now my studies of edges will be confined to reading books and viewing online illustrations.
This morning I did a quick oil study to practice creating soft edges. I was not happy with the results.
Some of the edges in my reflections — those on the right — look about right, but overall I think creating soft edges is something I definitely need more practice with. I do love paintings with soft edges, so this is an ability I hope to develop.
Another definite mistake in this painting was the placement of the horizon line. It’s much higher than it should have been, resulting in an almost half-and-half split between land and sky. We all know that’s a “no-no” in landscape drawing and painting, but even though I try to avoid it, sometimes, once I start laying on paint, my compositions change a bit. My horizon lines don’t always stay where I put them!
And what about a focal point? Since I’m using primarily soft edges, where and how have I attempted to create any real focal point with strong contrast? Good question! I used harder edges for the central tree, and that brings up another problem. Yep, I’m got my “presumed” focal point right in the middle of the canvas. While I have used harder edges on the trunk of the tree, I don’t have good contrast between light and dark. Obviously I could do more to draw the viewer’s eye to that point in the painting.
One thing I should note here. Although I followed basically the same procedure as I did with my first 100-day “assignment”, this painting was done on a canvas panel that was toned with gray gesso, not coral. This might be why I’m not as happy with the colors of this painting even though I used essentially the same colors as with the previous one.
Despite the compositional errors and my struggles with creating the soft edges, I feel that this painting is helping me move toward a better understanding of how to convey mood and atmosphere in landscape art.
In this painting I see a quiet morning, and I feel a sense of hope. But maybe that’s just coming from my own personal narrative as I paint. I hope you like the painting. I hope I’m learning. I hope I’ll see improvement day by day.