Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Edges in a Sargent

I am going to do another rerun today, but I had written a post long ago that related well to what I am talking about. This is from the earliest days of the blog and many of you may not have read it anyway.

Painters worry a lot about edges. An edge is, of course, where one area of color or form meets another. The Sargent above is a great example of masterful handling of edges. Lets take a closer look.

The jawline of this head goes from hard to soft, and back again repeatedly. Look at point A. that hard edge shows where the the malar bone sits close to the surface and creates the bony cage protecting the eye. I know, you thought because I was a landscape painter, I knew nothing of the figure didn't you? I can paint a better landscape because I spent a great deal of time in front of the figure. If you want to paint anything well, you should too.

The line of the cheek runs downward and softens till at B it disappears and is lost against the background.The line again hardens up, bringing the chin out in front of the line of the cheek, and in front of the neck below it. After the edge passes C it softens into the shadow and is lost at D. The head comes forward from the soft distance and hardens up as it comes closer to you. That is an over simplification, but that is the rough idea.

Each of these changes in softness of edge describe something that is going on in the form. Often where the form turns gradually an artist will use a soft edge. Often in portraits or a figure, a hard edge is used where a bone sits close to the surface. Point E is a hard line and the two points F and G are soft. F to keep the hairline subordinated to the face and unobtrusive and G to drop the back of the head back and into the "distance".

Notice how Sargent has taken that hoop earring in and out of view. Those are called lost and found edges. Sargent is particularly known for this sort of handling. He has also used a selectively hard edge to show the forms about the eye emerging into the light from the shadow filled socket. Look at how squared off and planar the upper lids are. That is a demonstration of structure and how to get it. He has expressed the planes as simply as they can be shown.

Here we return to a variation of an ongoing theme in this blog. Which is this:

These edges were designed and installed into this painting.

They are based somewhat on what the artist saw in front of him. However they also are used to describe the anatomy and the way some forms sit in front of other forms, or disappear into the shadow and drop away from the viewer. There are visible hard and soft edges in nature. But you can copy that model in front of you as carefully as you want and you will never get edge quality like this. The edges are expressive because they have been expressed, not discovered.

Whenever you have an artist using bravura (flashy ) brushwork, look for an interplay of hard and soft edges. Artists who are into brushwork pay very close attention to their edges.

What happens when you paint all of your edges hard? This is what you get. Nasty, and brutal.


billspaintingmn said...

Expressive is impressive.
Hard or soft, lost or found
I need to go over the edges.
Stape! As I begin to "see" I
also need to know how to translate
that, or install that into the painting.
This has been a week of posts from you that I'm excited to experiment with, Thank You!

Mark Heng said...

"Nasty and Brutal"!
Glad to see someone nailing their colors so firmly to the mast...

Antonin Passemard said...

"These edges were designed and installed into this painting." are some very very wise word. Because of your explanations my eye start to get use to the designs and I am able to impose it to nature.
You have some impressive teaching skills !
Thanks Stape !

janice skivington said...

I have been taking another life drawing class and your words on the lost and found edges sunk right in. Thanks for putting things right there where I can remember them as I work.

Mike Thompson said...

Everyone talks about edges, but no one shows you how to make them so they don't end up looking like skid marks from the local cesspool cleaner's truck meeting a manure hauler on a blind curve. Would it be possible to do a series of detailed demos that reveal the ''tricks of the trade''? On these oh so cold winter evenings I've been curled up on the sofa with a number of high powered textbooks on painting and ''how to make proper edges'' is like some sort of secret handshake all the authors know but are forbidden from revealing to us mere mortals. Or do we just have to pay our dues with 30 years of full time painting to blunder into this key skill?

Kyle V Thomas said...


Edge quality is learned through practice and observation. It can rely on common values, color temperature, hue, and brushstroke quality. It isn't really a specific technique, but more a way to describe form and space. Look to the masters and then Practice, practice, practice. It's a beautiful thing.

Kyle V Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kyle V Thomas said...


Great analysis of the edges. There is rhythm that's created with the soft and hard, lost and found edges. Do you think this becomes an instinct as a painter matures and excels at the craft?
As long as I live, art will always amaze me.

Mike Thompson said...


That is exactly my point. I haven't got 30 years left to figure it out on my own from scratch. You can read whole rooms full of books that teach you how to choose a palette of colors or mix colors or stretch canvases or choose a good brush so you can get going and do it yourself. But when it comes to edges, most books do the equivalent of the following: ''Don't make your hairline like painter number two. Make your hairline like Sargent.''

OK, why not add a few detailed examples such as ''Here is how I make my hairline like Sargent so it isn't nasty and brutal like that other guy's and doesn't look like a smelly accident and it won't take you 30 years to figure it out yourself.''

The other beef I have with these 'how to' books and articles (not this blog) is they show you a beautiful finished picture and THEN they paint an entirely new one from scratch to show you the details of 'how it is done' but nothing you want to look at is the same as what they showed you in the beginning because it isn't the same painting. This is the equivalent of giving directions by saying ''Turn left where Joe's old barn used to be''.

I didn't mean to be so fussy, but, if edges are so darned important why are they taught by the ''You're on your own, Kid'' technique. And, Stape, this is one of those 3000 fundamental questions I should have asked about on the Cape last year but didn't. The other day I was fussing over an old painting of mine where the edges are all nasty and brutal and so edges are on my mind this week because, frankly, that painting is nasty and brutal.

You were casting about for a book on painting you could write that would set you apart from the crowd. Make it on edges and I'll toss in the title for free - ''The Painter's Edge'' by the world's edgiest painter, Stapleton Kearns.

alotter said...

You dare to denigrate Picasso! How thrilling! Is Picasso appreciation a matter of taste, or is he actually great at another artistic essential (obviously not edges)? If so, what? And how come he is allowed to shift and change his way of painting while the current successful artists complain about being required to stick with their proven popular way of painting. (not me, yet--I'm still looking for my way)

M said...

I agree with Mike and I love that you said that about Picasso, I have always HATED him!!

But I agree that a lot of painting instruction falls short. They seem to skip crucial steps! Oh well, that's why I'm still studying.

Stephanie Berry said...

Isn't this the Gertrude Stein portrait that someone said it didn't look like her and Picasso replied "She will!"?

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

"I will never lie to you"....Jimmy Carter

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Mike; Read the links in tonight's post and see if that doesn't do it, tell me and let me know what you want to see. I will do a post on that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Nice explanation.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is probably forbidden to dump on Picasso, I do like a few of them but he is for my grandad.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am always looking for suggestions. Spell out what you want to know and I will try to write about it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes that is Gertrude Stein. I don't like her either!

Barbara said...

This was a stark illustration of the point about edges. I sort of got it before, but now I can remember these faces forever - they can be my good edge muse and my bad edge muse. Thank you.