Soft and lost to razor sharp and everything in between
One of the most important aspects of watercolor painting is the control of edges.
Every mark we place on our paper bears some kind of edge - from the hard contrasting edge of dark paint applied to dry paper, to the soft edge of pale pigment dragged across a wet wash. The adjustment and control of watercolor edges should become a subconscious action, executed immediately a mark is made. We are going to examine the variety of watercolor edges we can produce, adjustments we can make to these edges and the things that can go wrong.
The most common type of watercolor edge we can use is a simple hard edge. This is made by loading a brush with pigment and running it across dry paper. The pigment must be fluid enough to easily come off the brush. The only real problem making a clean, hard edge is if the brush is too dry and a fractured edge is produced. Hard watercolor edges attract maximum attention and are best used around our focal area or where detail and clarity are required.
Throughout the focal area of the painting above there are many hard edges to hold attention in this region. As the eye moves away from the focal area there are still a few hard edges, but the tonal contrast is reduced and they are surrounded by numerous softer edges, encouraging the eye to drift back to the clarity of the focal area.
This impact of this painting relies on the hard watercolor edges around the buildings contrasting with the soft, wet in wet, edges in the water and parts of the background. The softness and lack of detail provides relief to the busy, hard edged focal area.
Sometimes we need attention to be drawn towards one end of a mark. This is where softening an edge becomes an important skill. A hard edge is put down, then immediately, a clean damp brush is drawn along the part of the edge to be softened.
The dampness of the brush is critical here. Too wet and another hard edge, further out, will be created. Too dry and it will just lift pigment out of the hard edged mark. Sometimes a single stroke is enough, sometimes a couple of strokes will be needed to create the right amount of softness.
An old towel under your painting is handy for adjusting the moisture content of your brush. It makes controlling edges much easier.
The line of the distant blue mountains in the painting above employs a softened watercolor edge to push the mountains back into the distance. The softness of the mountain increases as the eye moves away from the focal point of the tower. This encourages the eye back up to the focal point. The loose marks in the foreground were put on as solid, hard edged marks then quickly modified and softened with a clean damp brush. The aim here is to create a subtle, interesting texture that draws the eye up to the focal area without becoming a distraction. Too many hard edges would make the area too visually demanding.
A soft watercolor edge can be made by painting wet in wet. This can be done by applying paint to a wet wash or, if the area you want the soft edge is dry, by first wetting it with clean water.
If you are painting a soft edge into a wet wash, make sure there is more pigment in the color you are applying than is in the underlying wash or obvious blooms will be created. If painting a soft watercolor edge onto an already dry wash, be sure the underlying wash is thoroughly dry.
Here the soft tree shapes on the left were all applied wet in wet then, once dried, contrasting fine rigger lines were added to tie this softer area with the focal area. The reflections in the water were painted onto a dry under wash then quickly softened on either side with a clean, damp brush. The same damp brush (a rough 1/2” bristle) was then dragged horizontally through the reflections in a couple of places.
A variegated edge is used to intermittently break and soften a hard edge that is attracting too much attention. The process is similar to softening a hard edge, but the edge is only softened in a few places to ease back the attention it draws. Varying the size and spacing of these softened areas helps the edge blend into the painting.
The distant mountain in this painting was applied as a solid, hard edged mark then broken and manipulated in a few places with a clean, damp brush. This process has to be carried out quickly as once the paint starts to dry, problems will arise. The river banks were also softened and broken in a similar manner.
A loose, rough edge can be made with the side of a bristle brush worked over the paper. These edges are useful for foliage, or where a contrast to hard or soft edges is needed.
I decided to break up the upper part of the buildings in the painting below to reduce detail and keep the eye down in the focal area. I used various mixtures of tinted white gouache and applied them roughly with a 1/2” bristle brush. Small patches of detail were left then parts of the rough edged marks were softened with a damp brush.
The process of making and adjusting watercolor edges is carried out right throughout the course of a painting. It becomes a subconscious act after a while - as soon as a mark is made it is immediately adjusted - almost without thinking about it.
If it is not adjusted straight away and is manipulated once it starts to dry all sorts of blooms and cauliflowers can be the result.
Edges are important elements in any painting. It is well worth considering the techniques involved in creating them and manipulating them so it becomes second nature and a part of your painting process.
Author: John Lovett