Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More about edges 2

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.


Sandra Galda said...

I just found your blog and am enjoying the instructive posts you have made. I will revisit! I belive I saw an awsome painting of yours at the Rockpost Art Association last fall. I do love your work of course! Would love to take your workshop but cant do August. Will watch for other scheduled workshops. Edges have been one of my concerns.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Thank you. Congratulations on your graduation from Harvard!Wow.
One of these days, I am going to go back and finish high school.
I have several people who have wanted to take a workshop and couldn't do August either. E-mail me.

Nicole Cardiff said...

That's a very interesting thought to soften all the edges and then selectively harden a few... I may have to give that a whirl the next time I'm experimenting.

Unknown said...

Thanks again for the clear instruction. I have just started oil painting (I've only done three simple still lifes so far), and have a question for you. What would you do to soften edges on simple still life setups, like a couple pieces of fruit that are mostly round? There is obviously no skeleton, or even overlapping forms to help me figure it out. On the latest one I did, I softened the bottom edge that melds into the cast shadow and left the top edge very sharp so that it looked more separate from the background. I thought I softened plenty, but after reading your post, I am guessing not.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Went to your web site


and saw your illustration work. Pretty cool. Now, there's a whole world I know nothing about. All of that CG stuff and science fiction illustration is huge and I have spent all of my time in the trad. painting world.
I see you went to Savannah. I was street painting down there with my friend t.m. Nicholas and we were banging out 30 by 40s on our Gloucester easels. We were slaying em.
The students of that art school walked by us all day long with their portfolios and didn't even bother to look at what we were doing.I found their lack of curiosity appalling.I bet you would have stopped and talked to us. Actually several students did.

Stapleton Kearns said...

e-mail me an image, I can't answer without looking at what you are making..remember to give me the dimensions you are painting..Stape

Unknown said...

Thank you so very much for sharing your knowledge of edges and brushwork! Although I was aware of edges, your fantastic explanation of handling them really drove it home.
I had become stuck in my work and I really needed a more in depth instruction on these two areas in order to overcome and create better art.