Edge Control For a More Nuanced Painting Approach
John painting in Big Cottonwood Canyon

This week’s article deals with the fourth painting tool in the “Artist’s Toolbox of Expression”: edge control. Think of these last two tools (edges and brushwork) as icing on the cake, because they are not altogether necessary, but are enhancements to an otherwise well-constructed painting.

Let me state that another way: If you paint a picture with good drawing, color, and values, you basically have everything you need to create a successful painting. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of artists who disregard edge control and have a very slick surface to their paintings and still pull off competent work that appeals to many people.

Others opt for paintings with hard edges everywhere — or do the complete opposite and have soft edges throughout their paintings. I’ve seen this many times and recognize that it works for them. This is a stylistic approach on the part of the individual painter; it’s not that they are necessarily unaware of edge control, but prefer, for whatever reason, to present a more stylized rendition.

It’s other artists I am addressing today, those who are just starting out and perhaps are unaware of this subject, along with seasoned artists who would like to explore edge control further when it comes to painting landscapes.

As you may have guessed, I am not a fan of disregarding edges, or paintings with only one type of edge. To anyone who plays an instrument, particularly guitar, this would be akin to playing only pentatonics all the time, as opposed to the full diatonic scale in addition. It can work very well in many musical situations, but not all of them.

How to paint landscapes: Edges and Brushwork
How to paint landscapes: Field study using various edge qualities.

In this sense, I prefer paintings that use the full range of expressive tools. I’m not here to knock anyone else’s work, and recognize the varied tastes of a larger cross section of artists; I guess that’s what makes the art world an interesting place. Besides, who needs an art scene where everyone does everything the same way? Enough said on that!

As I think about edge control, I am reminded that this concept was probably the last tool I learned about as an artist. Throughout all of my high school and college art classes, I don’t remember hearing the word “edge” once, at least as a separate concept! Quite frankly, I don’t think the topic ever came up until college, and then only in a roundabout way during figure drawing classes.

I’m sure my charcoal and oil instructors were aware of them, but never really spoke of their importance, except to point out transitions on things like skin tones that needed softening or to be made harder. The other possibility is, that I was just ignorant of them myself and glossed over the entire concept. Either way, I’m glad that I eventually learned of their importance, and will hopefully help those of you who are less aware to appreciate the wonderful possibilities that edge control can produce.

How to paint landscapes: Edges and Brushwork
How to paint landscapes: Internal and External edges.

To start out, I would like to define what is meant by an edge. An edge can be several things:

  1. The meeting place of two or more objects, colors, values, or masses. These are external edges.
  2. An area on the surface of an object that takes a directional turn away from, or into, the light source. This is an internal edge.

Examples of external edges:

The meeting place of a mountaintop and the sky

The outline of a tree against a background hill

Where a large boulder comes up against a pine tree in shadow

Examples of internal edges:

Where the mountainside dips and turns, with large and small undulations as the eye travels from the bottom to the summit

The internal ups and downs, ins and outs of the tree’s inner form, before the viewer’s gaze reaches its outer contour

The rolling movement of the rock form, with the many cracks and directional turns upon its surface

Due to the varied nature of the individual materials that make up these forms (mountains, trees, rocks), along with their differing local values and rate of directional turns, each will react differently to the effects of light and present varied types of edges as a result. Because of this, their edges, both external and internal, will sometimes be what is known as: hard, soft, lost, found, or broken.

To accomplish these edge nuances, artists use various types of brushwork — which, by the way, will be covered in the next segment of the Artist’s Toolbox. Check back for a further understanding of this expressive tool, available to the painter.

I’m going to start with hard edges first, because hard edges are not only the most powerful, but the edges that seem to give beginning painters the most trouble. And why are they the most troublesome? Well, because beginners overuse them without knowing it and wind up with every edge on the painting screaming for the same amount of attention!

Landscape studies for painting

So the next time an instructor tells you that your painting is too “edgy,” they are most likely not talking about an R rating or anything of that nature!

To avoid this problem, some artists will start their paintings with soft, mushy edges everywhere and then put in hard edges only where they want to focus the viewer’s attention the most. But this is just one method. The main thing to know about hard edges (as well as any other type of edge) is the why behind the edge in the first place. Awareness is everything!

There are really only two reasons for an edge of any flavor in your paintings, and they are:

  1. Nature dictates the type of edge you use.
  2. You have chosen a particular type of edge for artistic reasons.

Number two is simple: Just create edges of any type, wherever you want them and for any reason; this one is basically up to you! I’m not saying your choices will always work, only that it is your choice. Artistic selection is highly recommended, though.

Let me give you one example of a reason for artistic selection. Say you are painting a long ridge at the bottom of a mountain, and that long line starts to become a distraction. This is where a lost edge or two on that form helps to break the speed of the line and thereby keep it from grabbing the viewer’s eye so abrasively. This lost edge is not there because of a physical reality on the mountain itself, but as an artistic necessity.

Rule number one, on the other hand, is not going to be as simple. That’s because it’s a visual phenomenon, based on an understanding of light and how it behaves on objects in nature. This is where you need to do some study, through observation and contemplation. For instance, if a rock cliff makes a hard turn on a sharp edge and just behind that sharp edge is a stand of dark pine trees in shadow, guess what type of edge nature will dictate? Bingo, it’s most likely going to be hard. If a green, grassy, rolling hill makes a gradual turn on an overcast day and there is a dark brooding sky behind the hill, most likely we will not be dealing with a hard edge, but a soft or found or even lost edge where the two masses meet.

Related Article > The Plein Air Study That Launched a Big Winner

Keep in mind, also, that an edge can vary in quality as you follow the form from beginning to end. One part of it can be hard, while a little further away, the edge can become lost altogether. Be aware of these changes and paint accordingly.

I’m pretty sure that the last description gave the reader a mental picture of what those other three edges are, just remember they are not hard. Think of it this way: If you start with a lost edge and then the light changes enough that you can see the juncture between two forms, but not clearly, you have a soft edge. If the light gets a bit stronger and the two adjacent masses begin to separate in value, the edge might go from soft to found and possibly even broken, depending on the quality of the surface and intent of the artist. These descriptive words are basically just a continuum that describes the quality of different type edges: lost, soft, found, hard, and broken.

This understanding may seem a bit like splitting hairs, but rest assured that the artist who first recognizes these details and knows how to represent them in paint will be on the road to creating successful works of art filled with light and visual excitement.

At this point I can’t say too much more about edges, especially broken edges, without going into the realm of brushwork, which is reserved for next week. How edges are handled by artists, along with other uses of the brush, will be the last installment of this particular segment of tips for landscape painters.

In closing, let me suggest, that studying rocks will teach you a lot about edges. To do this, all you need is to get an interesting rock out of your garden that has a few hard angles and smooth areas. Prop it up on a table and just study it for a while! Try to understand what’s going on within the rock’s surface, as well as on the rock’s perimeter, where it meets another form. Think of how you would paint it and where you would make some edges hard, found, soft, or broken. More importantly, think about why these edges present the type of quality they each have. Furthermore, contemplate how you might adjust some of these edges for artistic purposes.

How to paint landscapes: Edges and Brushwork
How to paint landscapes: Edges on a tree demonstration.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but contemplation of this type, without the pressure of painting something, is one of the best methods I know of to study painting. Many artists often jump in before looking and wind up on the road to nowhere pretty fast. It’s the desire to hurry up and paint that often causes one to miss essential characteristics of a form due to a lack of real observation, which requires an almost meditative state of mind.

Slowing down to observe, might be the best artistic therapy an artist gets all day, or even all week. There is always time to paint, and the time taken to really observe the subject will be time well spent, which is more productive and rewarding in the end! Of course, after all that, paint it!

Hope to see you back soon, and as always, I would love to hear from you. Please leave your comments at the end of this article. Until then, cheers and happy painting!

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  1. I will never forget the moment when my teacher looked at my painting of flowers and with a inquestive look he said “Hm all hard edges.” At the time I had no idea what he was talking about but made it my quest to find out and what a difference it makes. Thank you for you article.
    Keep your brush wet,

  2. I think you articulated it well, and even as a seasoned artist, I came away with a better understanding of edges. This applies to watercolor as well as oil painting. However with watercolor it’s more of a timing issue.

  3. Love this back to basics info. I shared this with two more painting groups in our area! Contemplating a rock is a good exercise, especially if you have a strong light/lamp to cast shadow & get contrast.

  4. I’m glad to see by comments left here, e mails and private conversations, that there are a lot of artists out there, who are being helped by this series of articles. Thanks again for the feedback! John-

  5. You have a clear way of explaining your topic in each article I’ve read. Well done. I was reminded of a demo I saw by David Leffel where he paints an orange. Your eye goes straight to the hard edge where the orange meets the background. He then softens the edge and your eye goes to the inside of the orange. I now look forward to your thoughts on brushwork. Thanks, Ron

  6. Dear John, Thank you for writing these articles for us. I have some art background and in my younger days did some studio and outdoor painting(B.C. my knowledge of Plein Air Painting). I am now 78 and have continued to look back at these paintings and wonder what was missing in them, they did look right? Now I am beginning to understand thanks to your clear explanations and demonstrations in this series of articles. I am looking forward to the next ones. I found the September issue of PleinAir Magazine in my collection and looked up your article on “Warming the Colors of a Landscape” . It was not hard to find it since I had put a marker on the page with ” Pines and Rocks Above Twin Lakes” I wanted to do a painting with rocks in it and wanted to study your painting of them. Now I need to look for my own rock to study and paint. I also looked at your website. Your paintings exemplify how you have mastered the topics that you are sharing with us. Yours Truly,

  7. Very timely and eye opening article for me. I like the rock study exercise and will be trying it out in near future. Looking forward to the next article about brush strokes.

  8. Thank you John for your explanations of edges and the reminder to study rocks and objects more closely. It’s fascinating still to be learning everyday, even at my age of 74. Art has taught me to enjoy the scenery on those detours and I do so appreciate learning from you to remind me of that. Thanks again and stay safe. Shirley A from Kansas.

  9. Hi Shirley,
    Sorry for taking so long to respond. Thanks for your insightful comment. I love it when something I wrote strikes a chord with other artists. Take care, John-


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