Observations on the edge


This is a posting from ten years ago and is eternally relevant.


In my nefarious travels through virtual space I have been summarizing what other artists are saying about the use and benefits of edges in paintings.

Here is a distillation:

One of the keys to good edges is variety.
Edges clarify and unify a composition and affect how the painting is read.
Edges have a role in defining shapes at their boundaries.
Too many distinct edges can stiffen and isolate/disconnect the subject from the background.
A few sharp edges focuses the viewer on the subject and anchors the center of interest. Our eyes are comfortable with this normal view.
Edges can be soft or blended with a smooth transition, lending depth and harmony.
Edges can be lost (+shape is the same value as the –shape).
Edges can be broken, with an abrupt path. 
Edges can be inquiring, acknowledging and emphasizing small variations on the perimeter. 
Edges can have a close value (perhaps a warm and cool version of the same hue), for example, showing distance effects on two parts of a same colored wall. 
Shadow or soft edges can ground objects and avoid a floating appearance.

Any additions to these guidelines?




  • It's always fascinating when you find a painter who throws your understanding of a concept for a loop. When it comes to the concept of edges, Uglow's work is really something else and if he were tasked with adding something to this list, what would he add, I wonder.
  • Thanks Denis for your analysis of edges, something I personally struggle with.  Seems every single thing I paint needs help with edges.  I have saved this information and will no doubt go back and review it many, many times.
  • edited July 8

    The best edge is no edge. 
    I like your list but don't understand this line.  'Best'? Hard edges are often a focal point and important for the painting. Soft edges are also important. I do like lost edges, but aren't the best edges whatever is needed? Everything else is great - just the sort of guides to both follow because they are helpful and sometimes ignore because you know why. 
    Some thoughts drawn from David Leffel:
    * Edges help the painter convey the illusion of a three-dimensional form on a flat canvas.
    * All objects have inside and outside edges. Inside edges of an object is wherever the plane or form changes direction. Outside edge is where form begins or ends. It faces the source of the light.
    * The eye will automatically focus on the cleanest, sharpest thing it sees.
    * A hard edge where an object meets a background will be a strong place of focus - yet the focal point is away from the edge, that is, inside the material. So you have to get rid of that hard edge as a place of focus and give the eye a new focal point on the three dimensional object. You can soften the edge by dragging two layers of wet paint together (eg, light & shadow), blending the edges.
    * A soft edge shows continuity. The softer the edge, the duller the look. A hard edge shows ending. The harder the edge, the more riveting your painting is in that area.
  • Abstraction

    Yes, ‘the best edge is no edge’ was a bold statement to set the stage for a discussion about using lines instead of values for an edge.

    I have been attending life drawing classes for some years and noticed how ‘locked in’ artists with pencils become. When I give them some charcoal or chalk the first complaint is that they can’t get the lines fine enough.

    example; Ryder and Huston, both masters in life drawing, sometimes spoil a beautiful piece of work with dark lines:

    Lines all down the right hand side

    Ryder has more flagrant examples in that book of heavy lined edges.


  • edited July 8
    dencal, do you also look at Michelangelo or Fechin and think they are ‘locked in’?
  • edited July 8
    Edges are difficult.  I guess, if we follow Mark's teaching,  we Just paint the edges as we see them. If it doesn't look right then we've made the edges to hard, too soft, or they shouldn't be there. I think David Leffel is right about edges.  They define the form.  But as @dencal said, edges should never be lines. Lines might be useful in drawing but they are the worst way to render edges in painting realism. We can do a fine line drawing, and colour it in, being careful to not go over our lines, but what do we end up with? A coloured-in drawing. Rather than lines, edges are best rendered by a change (hard or soft)  in value or colour. We don't see lines when we look at a face or a still life or a landscape. We see change in value or colour.

    Even though I know this is so,  I still struggle with avoiding those damned lines. My instinct is to draw a line between forms. But that is not what is there. 
  • Seems there are no hard and fast rules especially if we "paint what we see."  Seems I've heard an oil painting artist say the same thing that "no edge is the best edge" but cannot for the life remember who it was.  One of the Mark Carder's "What is Wrong with My Painting" videos talks a lot about edges and it seems the particular artist he is critiquing uses hard edges, which is probably just her style of painting.  She does some really great paintings:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgRjxvZyxU8&t=17s
  • Never say never. Many masters have lines in their work (Van dyck et al)

    They are usually hatching lines to bring up the chroma & add texture without overkill.
    Or they are used to simulate movement.
    Or a dark line along one edge of a big shape in order to push back that shape without having to make the whole shape too dark.

  • NotACat
    dencal, do you also look at Michelangelo or Fechin and think they are ‘locked in’?



  • Abstraction

    Love these wipe off monochromes. Done a few. I found this method to be simple, freeing and allowing a lot of creative freedom in composition and value creation.

    The overall context to this examination of edges is to push a tonalist approach and to abandon a linear basis for drawing and painting. Tone not line and draw/paint from the shoulder.

  • Folks

    Key Takeaways

    • We see edges whenever there is a change in object, plane or color.
    • We describe edges using terms like hard, soft and lost. But, be aware that these terms are limited in describing all the intricacies of edges.
    • The environment, among other factors, can have a powerful influence on the edges we see. Edges on a subject will seem much harder under the clear, midday sun than on a foggy morning.
    • Comparison is an effective tool for ranking edges in terms of hardness.
    • Edges provide an incredible amount of information about the subject, so make sure you are providing the right information.
    • Blending is the most common way of painting edges, but you could also use broken color, palette knives or intermediate colors.
    • In most cases, you should place your hardest edges around the focal point.



  • That is a beautiful monochrome, @Abstraction
  • @Dencal - thanks for your distillation on edges. For people just starting out in drawing or painting, I think edges help them figure out the objects. Later, as we learn more and have more confidence, that is when all your points about edges really come into action.

    Since many here on DMP are self-taught, the idea of not using a hard edge to define the object can be intimidating. 

    If an object has a shiny, hard surface, the reflected light will have clearly defined edges in real life; meaning that the two adjacent areas have noticeably different colors or values, How we choose to paint these edges can be different. 

    Constable's beautiful landscapes have lots and lots of well-defined edges. I have spent many hours staring at Wivenhoe Park in the US NGA. 
  • Desertsky

    Wivenhoe Park has well defined edges by values not lines.

    By way of balance let me say I love Martina Shapiro and Roy Lichtenstein, both use steroid boosted black lines as edges. I have painted studies of their work because I love the graphic abstract power that those images possess.

    Edges can be in many varieties, hard, soft, lost, broken etc chosen to best represent the object’s form under the prevailing conditions. Just so long as it is not a dark outline.

  • It seems to me, based on looking at various how to art books, that before the 1990s, most were written by illustrators. I think that they were predisposed to use hard edges and lines. Lots of lines. 
  • folks

    I know you are all on edge waiting for the low down on painting edges. Here ‘tis…


    Jensen carves out a cow from a black canvas with large brushes using a mass drawing technique and no linework. 

    Loose. Creative. Free. Expressive —————> ARTISTIC

  • That was an interesting video @dencal,

    For me the end result was like I was seeing a cow through a rain soaked window pane.
  • CBGCBG -
    edited August 3
    MichaelD said:
    That was an interesting video @dencal,

    For me the end result was like I was seeing a cow through a rain soaked window pane.
    You've made a breakthrough of your own MichaelD!

    The centuries old mystery/conundrum of how not to make edges solved: 

    Place a rain soaked pane of glass between you and your reference/still life. 


  • edited August 4
    That was interesting, @dencal.  I like the painterly looseness and expressive quality of the brushwork. I like the edges.  I think it takes a bit of courage to approach painting realism like he does - you need big brushes and you need to be prepared to make mistakes - but where it works, it looks great. Thanks for the video.  :)
  • Folks

    Ian Roberts demonstrates the power of edges.


  • edited September 9
    "The tendency is to overtell, to not leave enough for the imagination of the viewer..." "In losing edges we pull the viewer in, because they have to fill in... give them a few hints and they can fill in a lot."
    Lost edges in particular are rare but create powerful atmosphere...
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