Edge handling is a fundamental skill of drawing and painting. I’d put it up there with drawing accuracy, values and colour as one of the most important skills of realist art.
The reason I place such importance on edge handling is the great potential it has for creating the illusion of depth.
Types of edges
Although I’ve seen some longer and more detailed lists of types of edges, I think that in practical terms, it all boils down to just three:
The most important thing to remember about edges is that, like values, it’s the relationships between them that matter. There are no absolute rules to learn about how hard or soft an edge should be. What matters is how soft or hard an edge is in relation to other edges.
It’s not about painting what you see, either. Perhaps more than any other aspect of painting, you can manipulate edges as you see fit. You have a pretty free reign to use edges as you like, accentuating hardness and softness (and obliterating them altogether) to create a more enhanced effect of depth.
I think part of the reason we can be so free with edges is related to how we see. When we look at something, we have a central area of focus and everything else in our peripheral vision is less distinct. I think that’s a large part of the reason why paintings with great variety of edges – and particularly a lot of soft edges away from the main subject – work so well. They mimic how we see more closely, and perhaps accentuate it.
Two simple studies
These two quick studies have been done from the same subject, at the same time. The first has been done with all hard edges, the second with variation in edges.
I’ve done them as simple value studies since it means we’re not distracted by colour.
This first study looks more flat. Whilst there are still life painters who deliberately work in this way, to me to feels less life-like.
Now here’s one with more variation of the edges:
In this second one, there is much more variation:
- The line where the background meets the ground behind the objects has been softened, having the effect of pushing it back and making it less obvious.
- The edges of the cast shadows get softer as then get further away from the objects that cast them. This at least mimics what we see in nature.
- Where the shadow side of the cube meets the background, the values were close enough to allow me to remove the edge completely and paint right across it. There is no edge there, although your mind may create it for you. This is a lost edge.
- Similarly, there is a point towards the top of the shadow side of the sphere where the edge disappears completely, another lost edge.
Which of these studies do you think has the most life, the most effect of depth?
Here’s a shot of the set up for this study, showing how I worked on both at the same time:
Free Webinar on Edge Handling
On Thursday 25th February, 2016, I gave a live demonstration of this study (or one very like it) where I showed how I go about softening the edges to varying degrees.
Here’s the replay:
I painted the same little study of a lemon twice, once with all hard edges and once with a variety of edges, to hopefully show how edge handling can create a greater feeling of depth.
Here too is a clearer (and colour-corrected) pic of the two studies at the point at which I left them at the end of the webinar:
If you find this interesting, and would like to think more deeply about how we perceive edges and how we may be able to manipulate them to create a greater feeling of depth in our pictures, I’d highly recommend reading Anthony Waichulis’ article on the perceptual function of edges.
Best wishes, and thanks for reading