A few days ago, one of my students asked me if I had posted anything new to my blog lately. My answer was no, I hadn’t, because my 50th entry, written back in July, seemed like a good place to end. But these words were scarcely out of my mouth when I realized they weren’t entirely true, for no matter how scattershot my approach to blogging about art-making has been, I’ve always known that there were a handful of things that were so important, I would be compelled to write about them eventually. Moreover, I would never really consider my (written) work to be done until I had. So here we go…
In painting, we speak about “edges,” which are the places where things – shapes, colors, values – meet. For example, at this very moment, I’m scrutinizing a postcard reproduction of an Éduoard Manet still life that is push-pinned to my studio bulletin board: A crystal vase holds a modest bouquet of one clematis & some pink carnations. Along certain sections of the sides of the vase, where its color meets the color of the background, there is a crisp, distinct delineation between the two; we know exactly where the vase ends & the background begins (or the reverse, I suppose.) This reassuring, unequivocal boundary between vase & background is an example of a “hard edge.”
Along other portions of the rectangular vase, though, Manet has intentionally made the boundary between its sides & the background less clear-cut. These imprecise, ambiguous boundaries are called “soft edges.”
Now when a soft edge melts entirely away into whatever is next to it, it’s called a “lost edge.” And sure enough, Manet has painted these too: There are small areas where the side of the vase is implied but where, in fact, it dissolves completely into the background (or conversely, where the background invades the side of the vase) & we are left wondering which is which.
Why are edges so important that I came out of blog retirement to write about them? Because they have enormous expressive potential. Hard edges call attention to themselves, catching the viewer’s eye & slowing it down. Soft edges suggest space around objects & speed the viewer’s eye along. By simplifying visual information, lost edges provide a place for the viewer’s eye to rest. Hard edges flatten things out, soft edges indicate three-dimensionality & lost edges create unity. Hard edges suggest stability, soft edges suggest movement & lost edges suggest intrigue.
Well, I could go on forever, but you get the point: Exploiting what we know about edges can increase the eloquence of our paintings… & that is reason enough to give them a blog post of their own.
(Dedicated to DeeDee G., whose thoughtful question motivated this post.)