Any creative who’s trying to depict reality—whether an author, sculptor or painter—must try to master the art of illusion. One of the most useful tools an artist can use to produce this magic is the manipulation of edges. The dictionary definition of “edge” is the line where an object or area begins or ends: a border.
In the framework of a painting, the factors that determine how an edge should be handled are: the character of the object or area; the degree of value and color contrast that make up its surroundings; and its overall importance and placement within the composition.
The Four Types of Edges
In painting there are basically four types of edges: hard, firm, soft and lost.
- Hard edges appear razor sharp. They tend to turn up in areas of great contrast, solidify the appearance of an object, and demand attention.
- Firm edges are one step removed. They appear somewhat softer, while still retaining relative strength. They’re useful for painting areas that require a slightly lesser degree of importance than the center of interest.
- Soft edges are considerably fuzzier in appearance. The soft edge is useful for conveying textures, such as leaves and hair, as well as for indicating a sense of depth.
- Lost edges are a soft gradation between adjacent areas. They indicate movement and atmosphere, and allow an observer’s eye to slip from one area to another.
When you look at a scene, your perception of mass and depth is governed by your position to the objects within the scene, by their relationship to each other spatially, by the inherent size of the objects, by the position and reflective properties of the light source, and by the color tendencies. Since we’re not producing two offset images when painting,.
we have to rely on the perceived softness of an edge to translate the impression of bulk and depth upon a flat surface. The sharper the edge, the flatter the object will appear. As an instructor explained many years ago.