Living on the Edge - Why Edge Work is an Important Component in Creating Successful Painting

"7th Street Reflection" oil on 16" x 20" panel.
When I was a student I had a teacher tell me I was too caught up in painting "things." Unfortunately, he didn't stick around to explain his statement and it took me years to figure out what he was trying to tell me. Now I understand what he meant. He was talking about how I would loose sight of how every component of the painting process was working together because I was too caught up with making a tree look like a tree, a rock look like a rock and so on. One issue in particular that plagued me was edges. Carefully painted, precious edges. Untouched pristine edges. Boringly similar edges everywhere.

Placing two vastly different colors side by side can be intimidating. Questions run through your mind. Will these colors work together? Are they the right temperature? Is the value light or dark enough?

With all these questions running through your mind you begin to carefully fill in the empty space barely allowing one color to touch it's neighboring color. Then you evaluate and adjust and continue questioning your decisions.

You can get so caught up in this process that it's easy to completely forget about edges. As a result, the painting looks labored over, lacking life, a focal point, expression and joy (yeah, I know I said joy which sounds all warm and fuzzy, but it's true).

What should you do at this point? Well, if you're happy with how it looks then leave it alone, it is your painting after all. For myself, I'm never entirely happy with my paintings and this unhappiness I've since learned is a wonderful part of the painting process that helps spur me into action.

If you find yourself unsatisfied with your edges but intimidated by the thought of changing them because you're afraid of ruining your work, then I'd suggest softening or breaking up your edges that aren't in a focal area. Try softening colors that are side by side near the edges of your canvas first, it will be less intimidating. Then move inward closer to your focal point. Keep some hard edges in your focal area because they draw the eye to them. When you're done softening, take a look at the overall painting and put back any hard edges you feel the painting needs that you may have removed.

I like to flip my canvas upside down at this point, walk a few feet away and evaluate the edge relationships before I continue working.

Clouds, reflections, distant mountains and anything in the distance, can all benefit from soft or broken edges. If you're feeling really daring, see how far you can take it and break up most of the edges, you might be surprised at how much you can get away with and how much life has returned to your painting simply because you manipulated the edges.

Now go, paint on the edge!