This Rule Pushed Me Over the Edge

In a previous post I talked about rules and how they ultimately restrict you and make your work very repetitive. Please, if you haven’t done so, go back and read that one. If not, you may miss some context.

Repetition is the evil step child of rules. The technical term for this is boring. The point of being an artist is creativity. The death knell tolls when artists mimic themselves, consciously or not. I refer to this as the ” what would I do, if I were me” syndrome. It’s the twilight zone straddling personal style and self imitation.

A major pet peeve rule, for me, is the one pertaining to edges. It goes like this: Squint at your subject matter. Where you see high contrast, paint those edges sharply and where the values are close together, soften or blur those edges. I’m sure you’ve heard this one ad infinitum. Edge handling is the most misunderstood  term in the painters lexicon. Greatness and edge mastery are inexorably linked. This is but the first of many blog posts dedicated to the subject. Edge handling, at it’s best. has the potential to be poetically innovative while subtly enhancing the illusion of reality and orchestrating the movement of the viewer’s eye. Why throw away the potential for superior picture-making by adhering to some limiting dictum? Unfortunately, far to often, edges fall under the curse of the formulaic and heavy-handed.

I object to this rule for many reasons. It fuels robotic repetition. But the biggest problem for me is you can easily wind up with a sharp edge around the contour of your form. Since sharpness comes forward, the edge of the form will come to the front? If you want to create the illusion of depth and space in a painting, you need to understand visual perception. If the contour of a form has the sharpest edge, the form  flattens. Juxtapose a soft edge with a hard one and the hard edge comes forward. The softer of the two always recedes. Sharp edges on contours gives a photographic look because a camera has only one eye (the lens). Since we view the world through binocular vision contours of rounded objects appear softer. Photographs are intrinsically flat. So even though something is painted with vigor, the resulting painting will still have a photographic look.

On the other hand, if you want to have a painting that simulates illusionistic space, simulate human vision. In this example, a detail of a portrait painted of Herman Doomer by Rembrandt, you can see how the interior forms of the face are painted more sharply, and–as the form turns away–the edges become relatively softer. Compare the sharpness of his right eye and nose, with the softness of his right ear. Interestingly, look at the super hard edge on the contour of the cape he’s wearing, on his left shoulder, in the full image. (See top of article.) See how it comes forward. In later paintings this rarely happened. Even Rembrandt wasn’t hatched fully formed.

Until next time…


  1. Marvin . . . I’m lovin’ your discourse. Thanks. And, I’m following what you say about edges, and I’m hoping that, at some point, you’ll tell us how to do good edge work. The edges that vex me the most are those subtle ones. I have no trouble making the really soft edge, or the really hard edge. But, it’s that variety of edges in between these two extremes that give me fits. I know the “rule” (there’s that word again) about leaving all, or most of your edges soft, but over time, I find my edges getting tighter/harder. It’s a whole lot more difficult to go back and soften an edge than to make one hard. But those in-between edges, such as the one I perceive on the left edge (our right) of the face by Rembrandt appears to be one of those in-betweeners . . . harder than soft, but softer than hard . . . if that makes any sense. Love your posts, Marv . . . keep on keepin’ on.

    • Thanks for the comment Richard. I don’t know about me telling anyone how to good edge work. It boils down to intent, but that’s the subject of yet another post. I will, however, be pointing out some masterful examples. With regards to edge handling two great artists to follow are Bouguereau and Paxton.

  2. I have a question regarding the capturing of realistic skin tones. I was wondering if you had any advice for me. I can email you some of my portraits so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about. But when I paint a portrait, there’s no denying that it looks like the person, but it comes off as almost cartoonish. Any advice you can give would be appreciated.

    • Hi John,

      What you’re asking cannot be addressed as a simple answer. There certainly is no rule. These are the very issues I deal with during the course of a two week workshop. I cover so much information that people who repeat it two or three times swear they never heard certain aspects (they did) but as I said in one of my previous posts learning to paint realistically is one of the most difficult things a human can ever learn to do. In my workshop I cover a lot of technical points, but it’s the underlying context that’s the most important. If you want the real answer you’ll have to take a workshop or class with me. I also plan to one day do a book or DVD but I’m always too busy, so that will be a while. if enough people here express interest that could speed things up.

      That said, I’ll give you a couple of things to consider. Think like a sculptor. What you’re painting is a three dimentional form. Working from photos is harder than working from life. If the values are wrong the color is never going to look right. If the drawing is off the values will never look right. Human skin is translucent. If you paint it opaquely, it will never look real.

      I appreciate your frustration. It took me over 30 years to figure all this out for myself. I committed a tremendous amount of time and money, plus blood, sweat and tears to get to where I am today. I sacrificed a great deal, with no regrets, I would add. Anyone who wants to attain my level of skill should expect no less. I very generously give all my knowledge to those who are willing to devote their time and make a monetary commitment. I feel that if someone wants what I have to offer they will find a way to make it happen.

      • Mr. Mattelson, thank you so much for your kind remarks. I vigorously read your blogs like a crack addict. And, I agree that it’s well worth the money. For financial reasons, I will not be able to attend either one, but I’ve set aside an envelope to begin saving for one next year. I appreciate your time in these blogs, and I look forward to meeting you next year.

        Daniel Greene, Dean Paules, John Howard Sanden … you guys are my personal idols, and I aspire to obtain the career you have. And yes, if you were to put out a DVD, I’d be more than happy to purchase them.

  3. Jean Ingres says

    Rembrandt left the contour of the cape with a hard edge to keep the viewers eye in the picture and help lead the eye to the center of interest (the head). He broke a rule and sacrificed some form in the torso in order to lead the viewers eyes to the head.

    • Jean, I would respectfully disagree. I’ll post a self portrait he did 20 years later where the shoulder is handled differently. Of course we’ll never know for sure what he was thinking but I believe the self portrait is reasonable proof that he realized the error of his ways. By the way, any relation to the great French neoclassicist master?

  4. Jean Ingres says

    Rembrandt probably experimented with edges in different self portraits. Take a good look at this specific portrait and try to run your eyes from left to right off of the picture. You’ll see that the sharp edge of the contour on the drapery pulls your eyes back into the picture like a magnet. I’ve seen this same use of hard edges on draperies by many Old Dutch Masters. Look at some portraits by Frans Hals.

    I believe that if Rembrandt was adept at painting edges on a head he’d certainly understand the use of soft outside edges and their effects on the contour of a drapery. Even a master can miss something, but you also can’t underestimate them. You might also try putting the portrait into Photoshop and softening the edge yourself to see if the soft edge works better in this painting. I’m sure the soft edge will give the torso more form, but it won’t have the same magnetic effect of moving your eyes up to the head and keeping you in the picture. He sacrificed a pawn to improve the entire picture!

    • Love the pawn analogy. Permission to steal? I use sacrificing virgins to the Volcano God. I agree with almost all your observations, but I feel that the cape actually draws you away from the face. This edge is razor sharp. For me it doesn’t work. Have you had the opportunity to see it in person? This painting is part of my itinerary when I take my students to the Met. Many a student has questioned that edge, with no prodding from me. While we’re talking about said edges I’m a little baffled by the edge handling of the hats brim. The edge was given the same degree of sharpness around it’s circumference. I’m going to post the self portrait I mentioned earlier. See what you think.

      • Jean Ingres says

        Of course, steal away!

        I have seen the painting at the Met as well, but I’d have to go back to get a fresh look. I believe some of these paintings were meant to be viewed from a distance, so a photographic reproduction might not give us the proper perspective. If the edge doesn’t work for you in person than we may have reached that interesting grey area of subjectivity.

        From the photograph it appears that the brim of the hat gradually sharpens up as it gets closer to the head, which would work into the theory that he was experimenting with hard edges to lead our eyes to the center of interest. The areas of the hat that are further away look softer.

        I enjoy the debate and I’ll post some links to master portraits using edges in the same manner.

  5. Great discussion and debate about edges, Marvin. This post was very helpful and made me stop and think about a couple recent portraits I’ve done, not to mention, paintings I saw recently at the Rembrandt exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. And by the way… viewing your blog on my iPad is a wonderful way to enlarge your photo examples to really see deeply into the brushwork. Thanks for the posts and perspective. Details and examples like in today’s post are very useful.

  6. YES! This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately, but just haven’t been able to internally articulate. I’ve got a thing about edges… I’m still working it out. But anyway, this advice about squinting and finding hard edges, it just didn’t sit well with me and now I see why.

    It’s funny how simple the solution seems now that you’ve pointed it out.


  1. […] to in my discussion about Herman Doomer, with Jean Ingres. You can follow that discussion here. This self portrait was painted about 20 years later than Herman Doomer. Look at the edges on the […]

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