Saturday, June 22, 2013

Focus - Hard Edges, Soft Edges

Sharp edges everywhere

I had a reader write:  "Why do you, and so many other expert painters, blur everything so much?   Maybe that's not the right word.  Why don't you include some sharp edges?"

Usually, my paintings end up with too many hard edges, and I have to take pains to soften a few.   When softening, you do run the risk of softening too much.  Oversoftening can lead to a painting that looks like a birthday cake that's fallen off the table and smeared all the frosting.

On the other hand, too many hard edges - or all hard edges - will give a painting an unreal, photographic appearance.  Everything in the painting becomes important. The eye doesn't see the world this way.  Except for the point your eye focusses on, everything at the periphery is soft-edged.

But let's step back a bit and talk about contrast.  Value contrast, or the pairing of light and dark, is just one kind of contrast.  There are many kinds:  thick and thin, opaque and transparent, rich and dull, warm and cool and, of course, edge contrast of hard and soft.  Our eyes are drawn to areas of contrast.  With skillful use of contrast, the artist can guide the viewer's eye to important areas and, ultimately, to the center of interest.  A few hard edges well-placed can help make a painting work.  (Of course, other contrast pairs can be used instead to push the focus elsewhere.  But that's another blog post.)

I should add that, in landscape painting, edges should always be softer on distant objects.  The more air light travels through, especially if the air is laden with humidity or dust, the more diffuse things appear.  Still, if my center of interest is in the middle ground, I keep edges in the foreground softer than the edges around my center of interest.

There are two ways of building a painting with edge contrast.   You can start the painting with all soft edges and add a few hard edges at the end.  Or, you can start the painting with hard edges and then soften the ones that don't support your center of interest.  If I'm not clear on my focus and just want to get the painting going, I'll take the all-soft route.  But, if I have a vision of the final design, I'll start off with hard edges and then soften a few as needed.  It really doesn't matter which way you go - just so long as you remember that edge contrast is crucial.

To illustrate the concept, I give you three images.  At the top of this post is a photo with everything very sharp.  In the two photos below, I've played with the edges.  In the first one, I've made the boat on the left sharp and everything else a little soft.  In the second, I've moved the focus to the boat on the right.  It should be immediately obvious in each photo which boat I want to emphasize.

Sharp edges on left boat

Sharp edges on right boat


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