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Sweet Mystery: Part One

(click on any painting to view larger)

If you are anything like me, you find it a bit irksome and tedious when people continually tell you things you already know. After all, we’re creative types. We want to be writing the book of our lives, not reading from it. This is an important point to remember when considering the people who will be viewing your paintings.

The viewer, like us, doesn’t want to be told what he already knows. He wants to be a participant. He wants to seek his own connection to the subject we’ve chosen to represent.

We representational artists are illusionists. With our paints and brushes, we attempt to approximate nature. We strive to fashion our subject in a convincing manner that closely mirrors the viewer’s normal visual reality.

I can now hear someone saying, “What the hell’s he talking about?”

Let me give you an example:

Take a second and look at some object in the room. You can clearly see its color, shape and form. Now, without taking your eyes off of that object, notice that everything else in the periphery of your vision is suggested and out of focus. This is the way the eye sees. It is totally unlike a camera, which (for the most part) records everything equally, in a non-selective manner.

So, in order for your painting to be convincing, it should be constructed in a way that closely represents the way a viewer would see the subject in real life. This requires a strong, well-crafted focal point (main actor), and supporting cast of semi, and out-of-focus players.  The true mystery of the painting lies in the “supporting cast”, where the viewer can truly become involved: connecting the dots (so to speak).

In last month’s newsletter (“Organizing Chaos” Nov. 2009), I used a brick wall as an example. We could, of course, choose to paint all of the bricks in the wall, thereby telling the viewer what he already knows. Or, we can paint a few bricks with preciseness and make a few general indications of other bricks, and let the viewer complete the wall for himself. Not only is this closer to the viewer’s visual reality, it allows the viewer to be a participant in the process.

One of the key factors in creating an illusion of visual reality is in the way we utilize our edges.

An obvious example would be a foggy day. All but the closest objects are hazy, soft-edged, and out-of-focus. Think of all that beautiful mystery in those indistinct, foggy areas. What great visual harmony!

Well, nature provides us with the same visual harmony on clear and sunny days as well. We just have to learn to see and utilize the edges that nature provides.

So what is an edge?

It is the border, or boundary line between two color shapes.  It can be hard, or soft, and all degrees in between. The hardness and softness of the edge determines how quickly our eyes  “transition” between the two color shapes. A very hard edge will produce a very slow transition, whereas, a very soft edge will allow for a quick and fluid transition. When you have two color shapes that are extremely close in color and value, so that they almost blend together (the boundary is indistinguishable), it is referred to as a “lost” edge.

The following example offers a host of edges, from hard, slow transitions, to completely “lost” edges. Especially note the light struck area of the sphere, and the area where the shaded side of the sphere meets its own shadow. The boundaries are faint, or non-existent. There’s some wonderful mystery there. You, the viewer, get to participate in the completions of the shape. The information I’ve withheld contributes to the visual poetry of the subject.

Edges are determined by a variety of factors. Spherical objects lend themselves to soft edges, while angular objects tend to have harder edges. The strength or weakness of the light source is a major factor in determining edge quality. Heavy atmosphere, like humidity and fog, will soften edges; rarified mountain air produces harder edges. The edges found in dim shadows will be obscured and mysterious, and on and on. The point is, Nature doesn’t lie. We, as representational artists, must learn to see and reproduce those edges accurately to lend verity to our paintings.

(Note: Photos are a great means to record data. However, as mentioned above, they are indiscriminate, and are unable to reproduce the subtleties available to the human eye. Learn to see from Nature, and use photos as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.)

Richard Schmid is a contemporary master. Few, if any, living artists understand, and utilize, edges more effectively than Richard. The following 9x12 oil study (“Exmoor Farmhouse – Devon”) is a great illustration of the principle of “edges”. When studying this painting, ask yourself: Where is the focal point? How was it established? What’s in focus and what’s not? Where is the essential detail? What’s lost? What’s found? Are the white, light-struck planes equal in value? Why or why not? Has he told me everything, or is he allowing me to participate in the process?


Throughout history, the masters of representational painting were full aware of the effects of edges. Although subjective, they utilized their effect to maximize the impact of their work, and impart a sense of visual reality to their subjects.

Although you can find innumerable examples, I’ve included a few paintings that are worth studying.

 “Girl in Purple Dress” – Nicolai Fechin

“La Ultima Parola”  - Giacomo Favretto

“ On a Bridge in a Park” – Ilya Repin

Next month I will talk about methods for seeing edges more clearly, and demonstrate some techniques for reproducing what you see.

Happy painting!