Taking It to the Edge

Want to get an edge over other artists by producing more convincing drawings? Then look to your edges, for the choices you make in treating them have a lot of influence over your artwork. From the hardest to the softest, there’s a wide variety of possibilities in how your edges are rendered, and applying the whole range effectively can make the difference between an adequate work and a truly impressive one. So let’s take a look at how to use these fundamental tools to give your drawings the look of real life.

The Hard Edge
Most edges in good works of art aren’t overtly evident unless we make an effort to see them. But the hardest edges are usually the most visible. Think of the paintings of Alex Katz and Roy Lichtenstein, for example, which usually feature large, flat areas with stylized figures. Or, more simply, think of the average comic strip. Most of the shapes are defined by sharp outlines. Perspective may be perceptible in these works, but the depth of field that most representational artists strive for isn’t an apparent goal.

So does that mean that realist artists should abandon hard edges altogether? Not at all. Often the forms of hard objects like boards and stones, and smooth objects like apples and eggs, are best rendered with hard edges. The same is true of human limbs where their bony structure is evident, such as bent elbows. In general, hard edges control and compartmentalize your view of a picture, and they usually attract the viewer’s attention, so they’re particularly useful around your center of interest.

Keep in mind, however, that hard edges don’t require sharp lines, as the drawing of the lightbulb below illustrates. Nature has very few distinct lines. A carefully measured relationship between lights and darks can make a more convincing hard edge than a drawn line, no matter what the drawing tool.

The Soft Edge
In works that strive for the illusion of depth, soft edges are one of the artist’s best tools. Their vagueness can create the impression that an object is textured and receding into the distance, and that there’s literally something on the other side. Objects in the far background of the picture, such as buildings, trees and mountains, call for softer edges.

Rough, pliable or extremely fine subjects are usually more convincing with soft, vague edges as well. Cotton balls, moss and snow are good examples. And if your picture involves objects in motion, remember that blurred edges are effective for conveying action, while sharp edges tend to stop a figure in its tracks.

While clearly drawn lines are often less preferable for creating a hard edge than techniques like contrasting values, textural definitions and the placement of forms, there may be times when a hard edge simply calls for a hard line. Soft edges, in contrast, are generally indistinct or vague, so sharp lines should be avoided. That’s one of the best ways to convey realistic texture.

The Lost Edge
To me, one of the most important methods of giving your work dimension is the use of lost edges. They’re not readily apparent, but their effectiveness is. The edges of the objects closest to the viewer are clearly defined, but farther back they become less so, to the point where some edges aren’t visible at all as the contrast between the object and its surroundings disappears. The result is an edge appearing to trail off into the distance or, when in the foreground, being overpowered by more prominent and sharply defined foreground elements. (The bottom drawing of flowers provides good examples of this visual phenomenon.)

Creating edges can be a tricky task in black and white, which often requires strong presentation of values, but with dry media, such as graphite and charcoal, a kneaded eraser or chamois skin is great for softening edges or removing them entirely. In color, your combined color and value choices can define your edges nicely, and scumbling with paint is a great way to soften them. Finally, keep in mind a few guidelines for the use of edges in general. First, the look of an edge varies with the medium and the tool you’re using, but the tools and the media aren’t made specifically for a certain type of edge. For example, edges created with a spatula are distinctly different from those created with a sable brush, yet an adept artist can create a good range of hard and soft edges with either instrument. Second, use your edges in coordination with other elements of the painting. Soft edges, for instance, tend to recede, so they can be combined with cool colors to make an object appear far away, whereas hard edges, which tend to jump out at the viewer, can be very effective in combination with warm colors.

And last, remember that your use of edges shouldn’t be based on any formulas or rules but on your own observations and senses. Most works will combine a variety of the three types of edges, so don’t become too reliant on whichever one you do best. No matter what you’re drawing or painting, take some time to concentrate on edges and how they interrelate, and you’ll see what great results they can give you.

After years of teaching workshops in the United States and abroad, Henry Fukuhara is now semi-retired in Santa Monica, California, where he continues to paint and teach. His work can be seen in museums and in private collections around the world. His paintings have been featured in numerous one-man and group shows, and have been featured in several books.

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