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HOW TO take your PAINTINGS to the next level

This post is the 2nd instalment of 3 on the topic of edges. To recap, we discussed how considering edges can immediately take the quality of your painting up a level.

This is a long one but I promise if you take the time to read it carefully it should really help your painting!

We took a brief look at what edges are, why they occur, and also the ways to go about painting them. Be sure to checkout the previous posts, listed below this one.


First off, why are edges so important? In simple terms, they are another way of creating contrast and variety within a painting, keeping it interesting and engaging for the viewer (even if the viewer is only you!).

If a musical arrangement was the same volume, tempo and tone throughout, with all the instruments given the same level of importance at all times, the music would likely end up uninteresting. We need changes of volume – quiet and loud periods – changes of tempo and rhythm, times when one instrument sings out over the rest, and other times when they gel in perfect harmony. A painting is exactly the same. Variety and contrast are powerful tools. We can have contrast and variation of light and shadow, dark and light (tonal values); contrasts and harmonies of colour, texture, lines and blocks of colour; shape, style, and size, brushstrokes and so on...and of course, we have contrast of edges. For example, paintings where all the edges are very defined and hard has a particular feel to it and often little depth or subtlety. Nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. Equally though, a painting where all the edges are soft and lost can leave us uninterested; the eye and mind wants at least a little something to grab and get stuck into. So a variation of edges, whilst not essential in creating a working painting, is wonderful tool, and a very powerful one!

Learning to manipulate and paint different edges can help us to move the viewer’s eye around a piece, telling the viewer where to look. Imagine the power and lure of a sharply focused, hard-edged area amid a painting that is predominately soft and lost!? Or vice versa.

Edges can be used to create depth, atmosphere and mood.

We can enhance or change the feeling of the light – sharp or hazy, bright or dull.

We can also use edges to meld and push together areas or shapes of similar or the same tonal value.

This creates large underlying patterns of luminosity and shadow in a painting – one of the keys to building strong compositions and creating that feeling of light which so many of us are chasing!

Whilst these may all sound like “advanced” topics. They are not!

Variation of edges will immediately give a more sophisticated and subtle feel to a painting, but the concept and execution of varying edges is very simple!

Of course, like so much of painting, practice and confidence help, but after teaching 100s if not 1000s of students over the last 10 plus years, I have found that simply talking about edges, and then encouraging students to start considering edges in their own work makes an immediate difference to their paintings!

I find consideration of edges in terms of tonal values to be of the most use in the type of representational painting we are discussing here.

As always, let’s boil it down to the simplest terminology and definitions.

We are really talking here about the transition between light and shadow:

  • Hard – this transition is very noticeable and defined

  • Lost – so subtle it is indistinct, i.e., There is no noticeable point in which we definitively move from one to the other

  • Soft – somewhere between hard and lost, i.e., a visible point of transition between the two, with varying degrees of softness

These edges occur as we move around the 3D form of an object, but they also occur from cast shadows – when an object casts a shadow on another.

Look at the sphere below where there is a very soft form – an indeterminate transition from light to shadow.

The cast shadow, however, is much harder edged – a very notable transition from light to shadow.

Notice how the cast shadow is sharper and darker near the object casting it, and softer and lighter as it moves away from the object?

This something to watch for and a great way to create a variety of edges, based on nature!

So straight away, we have form and cast shadows where we can look for a variety of edge. Start there.

Look for these and you will see them.

When you see them, paint them.

A subsequent stage is what I call SOFT shadows and HARD lights (this is not a new concept or phrase) and this is a system I use ALL the TIME!

There are absolutely no rules when it comes to edges, however, when I am first encouraging students to consider and use edges I recommend they start here because:

  • it is a simple system

  • it works

  • it can be easily and immediately applied

  • and gives great results

It is a great way to instil some confidence in varying edges, allowing students to explore and develop the idea of edges in their own way.

The basic idea is this.

When direct light hits an object or area, it generally creates sharp and hard edges. Of course, it can be more subtle than this based on the type of light and the type of object, but we really don’t need to get bogged down in that. Just remember that direct light exists, it is stronger than indirect light, and generally tends to create sharper edges and more definition – once you know this, you will look for it, you will see it, then you can paint it!

As we move into shadow areas there is still light, but it is bounced or reflected light, also called ambient light. Because this light has been bouncing around, it is much, much weaker (it loses strength every time it “bounces” off a surface). Therefore this bounced light can still illuminate the shadows but in a much softer way.

We may still be able to see some edges or definition but the tones are much closer together (less contrast) and the edges will be much softer, if not at times entirely lost.

These two naturally occurring phenomena lead us to the concept of hard lights and soft shadows.

Look at the examples below. I am constantly bearing in mind this simple but very powerful idea of soft shadows and hard lights.

The elephants above have large ares of shadow painted wet in wet creating this soft, blurry feeling in the shadows. Notice in contrast the sharper definition and harder lines where the light is hitting.

The above portrait pushes the idea of soft shadows and hard lights quite far! Look at the soft and indistinct feeling of the left eye socket (as we look at him).

We get a sense of the eye being there, and the structure, but it is fairly indistinct, and it joins into the shadow on the rest of face, in turn linking into the shadow of the hair, hat, beard and even down into his top.

Try squinting your eyes and this become even more apparent. As does the feeling of harder edges and more definition created by the strong direct light from the right of the painting.

Even in a more complex piece like the one above I am applying the same principles.

I think about the the side of the boats in shadow, and the shadow/reflection from them, as one big shape. This big shape is all in shadow and therefore I paint it in a much softer, fuzzier way (more wet in wet painting). We can softly see the transition from boat to water but it is not sharp and defined.

In contrast, the direct light is hitting the tops of the boats creates much sharper edges. I use the surrounding washes to trap the whites of the page and create these hard edges.

Hopefully you can see in all of the above images how considering this principle of hard lights, soft shadows, immediately creates contrast, variety, depth, atmosphere and a sense of light.

To summarise, yes, break this non-rule whenever you please; but if you ever are stuck or need a place to start, you can always come back to soft shadows and hard lights.

Know they exist. Look for them. See them. Paint them...

....go from there.

The above paintings are also great examples of shape melding.

Mentioned earlier, this is when objects or areas of similar or the same tonal value start to merge and meld together to create one large shape. This is easier to see if you squint or blur your eyes.

This is the approach I mention above in relation to the boats - the idea of the side of the boat, the reflection and shadow, becoming one large shape.

Shape melding is a powerful tool in painting to simplify even the most complex of scenes into just a handful of large shapes. You can use these to create strong and working compositions.

The leopard above also utilises the power of shape melding.

Squint your eyes, look beyond the colour, the spots and details, and see how the shadow on the side of the face, the shadow on the neck and chest, the shadow on the leg and also the back, all meld together to create one large shape of shadow.

This large shadow shape anchors the entire piece.

It creates a strong yet simple composition.

We can create strong patterns of light and shadow, which then underpin the structure of a painting and hold it together. This gives us the freedom to do whatever we please with colour, abstraction, brushstrokes, texture, special effects and so on; knowing all the time that the large shapes of similar tone are doing the hard work of holding it all together for us!

All of these Primary Principles I am mentioning will be covered in detail in the Watercolour Masterclass Series. If you are interested in some of the topics covered but not in all 4 courses, I would certainly recommend the first two courses, Primary Principle and Essential elements. It is in these two that we will be really diving deep into these concepts and looking at how to apply them to your own painting, whatever your current ability.

In the next post we will be talking about how to consider the relationship between your main subject and its setting or surroundings in terms of edges, and take a final look at the physical properties of watercolour in relation to this.

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