Thursday, April 14, 2016

Intermediate Watercolor 4/14/16 Hard edges or soft?

When we look at something we almost always bring it into sharp focus. You are focusing on this print right now, for example. While you're reading, notice that the rest of the room beyond your lap is out of focus. And when you focus on the background the writing on this page is way out of focus.

The fact is, we spend all of our time with most of our view out of focus, but we tend to paint as if everything is sharp and hard-edged. That's because whatever we are about to paint gets our best attention, which means it is brought into sharp focus. No wonder so many paintings suffer from too many hard edges. The gods are toying with us.

Most of us are old enough to remember when cameras required that we decide what was going to be in focus. That is a lot like what we need to do with our realist paintings. One way or another, we need to separate shapes from each other to suggest that there is space between them. Contrasting hard and soft edges is a very effective way to do this, if we remember that what we see when we focus on a particular shape or area is not necessarily how we should paint it.

This placement of hard and soft edges is obvious in its purpose, and relatively traditional. The foreground is in focus and the background is not. The result is easy to understand. This is not to say that every painting should be organized like this. Just because a shape is in the foreground doesn't mean it should be in focus. You have to make a decision based on your main purpose. 

Alvaro Castagnet

Alvaro has left the bottom two thirds of this painting soft-edged, saving his hard edges for the figures in the far middle ground. Why do you think he chose to do that? 

Soft edges are not only about space. They can also be used to make a complex surface feel cohesive. Look again at the water scene, above. The distant hillside is covered with trees, but our attention is directed to the forest as a whole, rather than the individual components.

The profile edges of each of the major shapes in this scene are all hard, but most of what happens within the shapes is soft-edged. This makes it possible to see the shapes as one thing while suggesting that the surfaces are lively and complex. Hard edges describe separation, like the mill buildings silhouetted against the sky, and distinct transitions, like where planes change which direction they face. Soft edges describe areas that are attached to each other, and subtle transitions, like where a rounded shape turns toward the light.

Here are a couple of images that display a clear separation between fore ground and background. See what happens when you make hard and soft edges to focus the viewer's attention.

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