On the Edge


One of the most exciting aspects of a good painting tends also to be one of the most overlooked: edges. The majority of painters seem to be well aware of the importance of good draftsmanship, composition, sense of color and perhaps value. However, the concept of edges too often seems the forgotten virtue. But a painting without a consideration for edges is like a cake without icing or a bride without jewelry. In fact, a painting without carefully planned edges is perhaps less than these things; in addition to a beautiful feature, edges can aid in storytelling and composition — directing the viewers’ eyes to the salient aspects of an image and sharing the artist’s vision in a magical way.

In the above painting, by Zhao Ming Wu, notice the contrast of hard and soft edges to the woman’s figure. Follow the contour of the form and observe what are called lost-and-found edges — edges which come and go. Make note of how the hard edges draw your attention. The human eye is specially designed to hone in on hard, well-defined edges, particularly when those edges denote a sharp transition in value. A painter can use the four types of edges — hard, soft, lost, and found — to her advantage, by choosing to save those hard edges for the focal points of the image.

At first, giving up on uniformly hard edges can be more challenging than one might expect. After all, many realist painters spend a great deal of time practicing their ability to faithfully copy their subject. But after some practice, one starts to notice which edges can be softened or lost altogether. For example, in the above painting, the contour of the knee and thigh is completely missing. The only clue to the leg’s form is the shift in color temperature from the bed sheets to the body. If that contour had instead been painted with a hard edge, it would have been a distraction, pulling the eye from the more interesting parts of the image. With these soft, missing edges, we find our eyes dancing around the painting — the shoulder, the rear, the hand, and feet. How would it feel if painted any other way?

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