Painting Buildings: How to Approach Edges

In part 1 of this blog we saw how representing a building exactly as it appears in real life can produce an unrealistic image. I mentioned how painting buildings with harsh, straight lines creates an uncomfortable image for the viewer, and suggested some techniques to compensate for this. When painting man-made structures and placing them in context, you’ll be faced with another problem: edges. In nature, unless something is moving, such as clouds, waterfalls and crashing seascape foam, all static objects have hard edges.

For example, in the macro world, when we see a row of evergreens behind another row, we can estimate how many yards back the second row is from the front row. Our brain interprets the field of depth in its own way. This sense of depth goes unquestioned, and it isn’t necessary to manipulate any edges to make things appear as if they’re receding. In a painting it’s a different ball game!

Photo reference for painting buildings

Photo reference

In photos and in the real world, buildings always have hard edges. If there’s foliage or a hill behind a building, they’ll also have hard edges. The planes occupied by these elements will compete. That’s why we need to manipulate the edges in the further plane–the one that’s behind the building–so the building appears to come forward and we regain the field of depth in an illusory way.

Grandma's Flower Garden (oil painting) by Johannes Vloothuis

Grandma’s Flower Garden (oil painting) by Johannes Vloothuis. Click here to “pin” this lesson to your art board on Pinterest.

Compare Grandma’s Flower Garden (above) with the reference photo (top). Even though the photo is more of a faithful version of the real-life scene, the photo seems more flat and two-dimensional than the painting. In the artistic rendering the contrast of soft-vs.-hard edges helps bring the houses forward. As a rule of thumb, I diffuse all edges behind man-made structures. This principle will apply to all mediums. In watercolor you would resort to a wet-into-wet paint application. If using oil or pastel, you can soften the edges to your heart’s content by smudging. With acrylics, you can scumble the contours by feathering the paint. This practice will also help to avoid a cut-out/pasted-on effect. ~J.V.

The Wheel No Longer Turns (watercolor painting) by Johannes Vloothuis

The Wheel No Longer Turns (watercolor painting) by Johannes Vloothuis

In The Wheel No longer Turns (above), practically the entire background was done on wet paper. The edges are soft because the pigment bled into the paper.

To learn more about painting buildings you can find “The Complete Essentials of Painting Buildings” and other video courses (some of which are on sale – download for only $5!) at NorthLightShop.com.


Johannes Vloothuis is a regular contributor at ArtistsNetwork.com and teaches online art classes with WetCanvas Live. To reach Vloothuis for these classes and to acquire teaching materials visit ImproveMyPaintings.com. Come back soon for his next blog post with more tips on how to paint.

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