All about edges in art and painting (with video)

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Edges in art and painting

Edges in art and painting are some of the most important aspects in an artist’s work. It may not seem obvious at first, but the edges that make up a painting creates a world of interest for the viewer. Edges are what bring depth, softness, hardness and everything in between. If all edges in a painting are the same, the result could be rather dull.

Here’s an overview of some different types of edges in art, so that you can start to use them in your own painting. Or, so that you can admire all the edges you see in paintings during your next museum visit!

How to Paint Edges Video Tutorial

For a visual example of how to paint edges in art and painting scroll to the bottom of this article. Where you will find a video tutorial demonstration of how I create edges in one of my paintings.

What exactly are edges?

Edges basically are the hard and soft areas you will see in a painting – they are most clearly seen at color and value transitions. So, when a strong dark color is up against a soft light color the edges will probably be hard and stark. However, when one soft color meets another soft color of equal value then the transition will be a soft edge.

We see edges in art and painting in the following situations:

Transitions of ColorWhere there is a strong color change the edge will be harder, and where there is a subtler color change the edges will be softer.

For example, if green turns into red – then the edge that you see between the two colors is probably a hard one. This makes sense as green and red are complementary colors and therefore completely opposite of one another. However, when you place two similar colors next to one another, the transition is much softer between the two colors. For example, if a reddish orange transitions into a red, then the edge will be much softer.

If a blue transitions into a purple, the edge will probably be considered a ‘medium’ type of edge. Blue and purple are different colors but much more similar and closer together on the color wheel than green and red are.

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Transitions of ValueWhere there is a stark value change the edge in the painting will be harder. In contrast, where there is a more minor value change the edges in the painting will be softer.

If a bright and light area of a painting meets a dark color, the edge between the two will be very hard. On the other hand, if two similar value shades meet, the edge between them will be quite soft. There are innumerable different edges in art that can come out of the varying degrees of values in a painting.

Seeing edges in paintings

Now, to make it practical let’s look at this detail of Vermeer’s ‘A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman‘. It is a great example of utilizing edges in painting. On the left side of the jug you will see a very hard edge because of the value differences between where the jug ends and the background begins. The left side of the jug is the brightest area of the painting, while the background is much darker in value. Therefore, a hard edge in the painting is created.

edges in painting, vermeer
Vermeer, A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman

The same can be said of the area where the man’s white collar ends and his black shirt starts, as another hard edge is created here. Also, in the background you will see where the frame meets the wall is between a soft edge and a hard edge. The value differences between these two areas are not as strong as the hard edged areas. Also, the color differences between the two areas help to create the edge in addition to the value difference.

On the right side of the jug you will see the lovely soft edge of the jug. The colors are very similar between where the jug ends and the ‘bluish’ background begins. Also, their values are nearly the same. Because they are so similar, the soft edge here is incredibly soft and nearly imperceptible.

If you roam around this piece you will notice all sorts of different edges that fall into every part of the spectrum. Vermeer in his painting techniques, was a master of many things. One of them being creating edges in painting! He is a great artist to look at when learning more about edges in art and painting.

Lost and found edges in painting

Just as illustrated above with the hard and soft edges, some of these edges can also be called and referred to as lost and found edges in painting. Take for example the very soft edge of the right side of the jug. The transition between the edge of the jug to the background is nearly nonexistent – that is you can barely tell where the edge of the jug stops and the background starts. Thus, moments like these can be referred to as a lost edges in painting. As your eye moves down the right side of the jug further towards the base, you will notice the lost edges reappear again. This is an example of a found edge. It was a lost edge but reappeared again.

When incorporating lost edges and found edges into your painting, it is a complete delight for the viewer. It leads your eye in and out of different areas of the painting, experiencing the transitions between one color to the next. As you paint, try to find these subtle transitions of where disappearing and reappearing edges meet. Learning how to incorporate edges in painting, is among the top tips that will help make a painting more realistic.

Creating space with edges in your art

Edges in art are incredibly important when it comes to creating a sense of space in your painting. When wanting to create deep space and have your eye expand far back toward the horizon you must have soft edges where the land and sky meet.

As you can see here in Corot’s ‘Bridge at Narni’ the edges between the mountains and the sky are very soft – they are the softest edges in the entire painting save for the clouds. Compare that to the foreground of the painting where we see sharp edges in the river where the water meets the dark green trees.

Corot. Edges in painting
Corot, Bridge at Narni

A rule of thumb is that sharp edges come forward, while soft edges recede back in space. If you want something to feel like it is in front, then create a strong value and or color difference. In landscape painting, this would typically occur at the foreground of the painting. If you want something to recede in space, then create a subtle color and or value difference.

Sharp edges and focal points

As our eyes go towards sharp edges first, sharp edges are used to create focal points in a painting. Take for example Jean-Simeon Chardin’s ‘Still Life With A Bottle, Glass, and Loaf’. Your eye probably immediately looked at the edge where the loaf of bread is set against the dark bottle. The loaf is very light in value while the bottle is dark. Therefore the edge between the two is quite stark and our eyes notice it first!

chardin. Edges in painting. Edges in Art
Chardin, Still Life with a Bottle, Glass, and Loaf

After looking at the bread and bottle edge, your eye then proceeds to go to the next sharpest area of the painting, until reaching the softest edge. This is a sign of a good painting – as your eye is led around the piece.

Put it into practice

Look around you and try to pick out the hardest and softest edge areas – and all the rest in between. Practice being able to identify clear edges right away. Then, bring all that you learned in this article to your painting. Doing this will add a completely new dimension to your work. The best part in learning about edges in art and painting, is that it is a never ending process. There is always more to be discovered.

I hope this article was helpful to you! How to paint fog and mist is a great way to practice soft edges and lost edges being found again. Other articles like, how to paint a still life and seascape painting tips for beginners, give practical application advice and opportunities to practice different types of edges in art and your painting. If you have any questions or comments I would love to hear from you in the comments section below!

Video Tutorial – How to Paint Edges

How to Paint Edges Tutorial | Still Life Oil Painting Time-Lapse “Succulent”

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Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life

Hi! I am Elisabeth

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