An online extra from The Artist’s Magazine! Edges can be hard or soft; contours can be closed or open. Learn how to vary edges and contours to give depth and resonance to your three-dimensional drawing.
By Juliette Aristides
An artist learning how to draw often draws only with closed lines (closed contours; hard edges), whereas artists who have spent time looking at master drawings and working on their own craft use a variety of edges. The possible range of edges—from crisp, defined edges (hard) to those that are diffuse (soft) and dissolved (lost)—forms a spectrum with an infinite number of gradations.
Why are such gradations important? Edges are visual clues that help guide the viewer’s eye; they tell the viewer how to decipher the image and how to travel through the picture plane. A sharply defined area, an area with a hard edge, tells the eye “look here.”
In this exercise in charcoal drawing, you’ll learn how to work on a still life with lost edges, which can help you establish a visual hierarchy in your work. A visual hierarchy means that one area (e.g., a focal point) will attract the eye first; other areas will lead the viewer’s eye around the composition. Follow the numbered steps below which coordinate with the drawings along the right side of your screen.
1. Thumbnail sketches (see above)
In these studies David Dwyer, a student in my classical atelier class at the Gage Academy of Art, created thumbnail sketches of an still life drawing arrangement I’d set up. The thumbnail sketches helped him determine his composition. Dwyer placed the arrangement within a rectangle, before he developed his drawing in charcoal. If you were to try this lesson, your first step would be to find elements and arrange them in a pleasing fashion so that at least one element would be in front of another. Then you’d do a number of small sketches that would help you understand the composition.
2. Line drawing (above)
The next step is to compose a line drawing in order to make sure the elements are in correct proportions. An accurate line drawing will also fix the spatial relationships among the various elements and between the elements and the ground.
3. Seeing in light and shadow (above)
The light is coming from the upper left to the lower right for this exercise. As the light cascades across the surface of the setup, it describes the topography of each object and its distance from the light source. At this stage, it’s necessary to squint in order to see in values; the next step is to “mass in” the general tonal shapes. Watch to see how some objects or shadows pass in front of one another. Paying attention to shadows and seeing the soft edges can help suggest depth of space.
4. Determining where forms can dissolve (above)
Now it’s time to take a good look at the setup as it’s defined by light and shadow. Which of the edges is sharpest? Which is softest? Use those extremes as a basis of comparison for all the gradations between. You’ll also have to assess at which point the value of the object becomes the same as the adjacent tones. Noting this can help you determine where the edge can be soft, allowing the forms to meld, to move between the figure and the ground. See the first image in the article for the finished charcoal still life drawing.
Softening the edges
Soft edges aren’t hard to create. When working on a charcoal drawing, you can use a stump, a paper towel or a clean watercolor brush. Sometimes these soft edges—called meldings or passages—will take place in the lighter areas, in the half-tone regions, and sometimes in the shadows.
A frequent contributor to The Artist’s Magazine, Juliette Aristides is a classically trained artist who teaches the Aristides Atelier program (www.aristidesatelier.com) at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle. Her most recent book is Lessons in Classical Drawing: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier (Crown Publishing Group, 2011).