Chardin, Return from the Market
Learning to use soft edges was very important when I was studying with Ives Gammell back in the 70's. Why do I say soft edges and not hard edges? Well, because hard edges are the norm. You will get hard edges without trying or thinking about it. Almost all amateur painters have them. Softened edges are a nicety of drawing that seem never to occur to the uninitiated. I remember when I was instructed about edges, thinking "how come nobody told me that in art school?"
The painters of the Boston school of which Ives Gammell was a fossil, were often recognizable for their control of edges. They nearly made a fetish of it. I think to some extent it came from idolizing John Sargent. But many of those artists were trained in Paris in the late 19th century by men who also stressed the importance of edges.
In the evening as my dinner cooked on the DC current hotplate with the cloth covered cord from
about WWI, I would sit with my painting in my lap, and using a small sable flat, soften the edges. I did this not looking at the subject I was painting . I just softened every edge. This did a number of things for my painting.
Most importantly it assured that I had softened my edges. It was really hard for me to get the idea and this enforced it. I remember thinking I had done it, and having Ives come in and berate me for my hard edges. He would soften a few of them and I would see he was right. I thought I had but....
I could the next day, harden up a few select edges as needed. It is a safe assumption that you are painting with edges that are too hard. If you just soften them all, you will be surprised by how often a painting will come together. There is a phenomenon that goes on here. When you soften a few of your edges you realize that all of your edges look too hard in comparison. Because you had them all as hard as razors they didn't individually look too hard. Soften a few and that fault jumps out at you.
There is another thing to be gained from keeping those edges soft at least until you are well into a painting. If you put something down with a hard edge, the temptation is to believe it is more accurate than it actually is. It sure as hell looks authoritative. A line stated more softly "admits" to being a little approximate, and you won't treat it as sacred. As other parts of your painting become more "right" you will be willing to go back and correct this fuzzy line.
Another thing softening my edges did for a painting was to give it more unity. The eye "slid" more easily about the image without the hard edges seizing our attention to each separate area rather than allowing us to apprehend the entire image.. Remember me telling you in an earlier post that the most important quality a painting can have is unity of effect. That is, the painting is one single image on the canvas, rather than a dozen separate images each clamoring for our attention.
This softening edges discussion leads me to another quick point I want to make. The beginner complains that oil paints dry so slowly. The pro knows that the advantage of oil paints is that they dry slowly. The long "open"time gives you the ability to manipulate your paint while it is on the canvas. but before it has dried. This is one of the reasons I don't like acrylic paint. The rapid drying time means that you can't return later to a passage and soften it up, so that it takes its proper place in the larger tableau. So if you are at a point where, although you have been working in acrylic, but you have been considering switching to oils this is a good reason to do it. And quit wearing polyester while you're at it.
Tomorrow I will discuss some different ways of getting softened edges, or actually, a variety of edges in your paintings.