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Artist Community
Written by Jennifer Foster

One of the most important techniques that I have learned is one that applies to all media: charcoal, pencil, pastel, or paint. That technique is edge control. While there is a lot to be said on the subject of edge control—lost edges, found edges, and creating various edge textures—the most valuable tip that I have learned is to keep all your edges soft until the final stage of your work.

So why should you make an effort to retain soft edges while you work? After all, a variety of edges creates excitement in a piece, right?  Edges are descriptive, and suggest something about the shape and texture of the object—smooth or rough, round or square. The quality of an edge is also an important compositional element. Artists can use sharp edges to draw focus on an element of a piece, and soft edges to create transitions between areas in a piece of work.

But at the risk of sounding over-cautious, consider that if you’ve made an edge too hard early in a work—and particularly in an oil painting—it’s almost impossible to recover a soft edge. You can always make edges harder during the later stages of a work if necessary. If you make a practice of keeping your edges soft while you work, you can adjust the edges based on the needs of your painting in the final stages of the work.

Soft edges play an important role in creating a sense of perspective in your work. If you want to create a sense of depth or if you want to model form, soft edges are necessary. Essentially, soft edges create a sense that the edge of the object is moving away into the distance, beyond the viewer’s range of sight. Softening the outside edges of a rounded form will make it appear more three-dimensional. Hard edges create a sense that that the object itself has stopped and does not continue beyond the viewing plane.

To make this easier to conceptualize, imagine a portrait or a life drawing. A soft edge on a face or shoulder indicates that the object is rounded, and that it turns and moves away from the viewer. A hard edge announces a stop, and makes your figure look two-dimensional.

  The first sample, an oil painting, helps to illustrate this point. Look at the model’s right arm, which is further away from the viewer, on the left side of the canvas. In this example, the edge of the shoulder and arm are kept soft by slightly blending the paint together. The change is very subtle, but where the arm meets the background, the colour of the model’s skin is blended with the colour of the background to create a third tone. By blending these two colours together, I’ve created a tone that is mid-way between them. This tone acts as a kind of bridge to soften the contrast between the two colours, making the edge of the arm appear soft and rounded.
  In the second sample, a watercolour sketch, there are a variety of edges. Looking at the sketch, you can compare the edges and see the different effects of hard and soft edges. On the model’s right leg (on the left side of the paper) the edge is hard and definite; on the model’s left leg, the edge has been kept soft. Comparing the two edges, you can see that in the model’s left leg there is more of a sense of roundness—the soft edge suggests that the leg continues to curve and turn away from the viewer’s eye. On the model’s right leg, the hard edge does not suggest form in the same way that the left leg does.
  The final sample is a portrait in graphite. The internal edges—particularly those indicating the facial features—have been softened by blending tones together to create a sense of form on the face. Of particular importance is the softness of the lines around the mouth. Sometimes when you see portraits, these lines are depicted as firm edges, which disrupt the viewer’s sense of the face as a curved form and make the mouth area appear flat.

So, the next time you draw or paint, try keeping your edges soft until the final stage of your work. Then stand back and evaluate the piece as a whole and decide what kind of edges you need in order to create focus or model form. That approach will give you greater flexibility in your work.