How to Paint Edges: The Second Fundamental of Art

Evolve's Four Fundamentals of Art: Values, Painting Edges, Perception, Color

Learning how to paint edges is the second fundamental of art taught in the Evolve Artist method.

The second fundamental in the Evolve Artist program is learning how to paint edges. Without edges, we're stuck with making flat art. When we learn how to paint edges, we can create the illusion of form and depth.

Learning how to paint edges help create the illusion of form and depth in this image.

The edges in this image help create the illusion of form and depth.

This complex drawing of Carpeaux's sculpture is made up of values and edges.

This charcoal drawing of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's sculpture is made up of values and edges.

This charcoal drawing is made up of only two things: values and edges. With a solid understanding of values and knowing how to paint edges, you can create incredibly realistic art. At Evolve Artist, we show people the path to making realistic paintings. 

Edges in art are determined by how softly or sharply one value transitions into another.

An edge is determined by how softly or sharply one value transitions to another.

What Are Edges?

Before we define edges, we need to know what values are. Values are how light or how dark something is (Click HERE to read our post on Values, the first fundamental of art). An edge is how softly or sharply one value transitions to another.

Image of snowman has values but looks flat without edges.

This image of a snowman has values but looks flat without edges.

Look at the image above. It has all its values, but why does it still look flat? Without edges, there isn't a clear explanation of the three-dimensional form of the object that you're looking at. However, with edges, that illusion of form and depth becomes lifelike. 

Learning how to paint edges adds form and depth to this image of a snowman.

With edges, this image comes to life with form and depth.

How Do Edges Create Form?

So how do you create form using edges? First, you need to get your values right based on light and shadow. So if you haven't already, stop and read this post on values, the first fundamental of art, and then come back here to continue. 

Edges have an infinite range from sharp to soft shown in this gradient of white to black.

Edges have an infinite range from sharp to soft.

In the same way that values have an infinite range between light and dark, edges also have an infinite range between razor sharpness and butter-smooth gradients. To get started, we only need two edges: sharp and soft. Remember, in pursuit of mastery, we want to simplify, not overcomplicate. So when it's this simple, when there are just two edges, we can't just copy what we see. We have to create form based on our understanding of the fundamentals of art. 

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist - Picasso

Artists need to know the rules in order to break them, according to Picasso.

With a true understanding of the fundamentals of art, you can “learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist,” as spoken by Picasso himself. That's what the Evolve Program was made for. 

Cast and Form Shadows

So, how do we determine which edges should be sharp and which should be soft? First, we must be able to tell the difference between a cast and a form shadow.

What are cast and form shadows? To put it simply, a cast shadow occurs when there's something that's directly blocking the light from shining on an object. A cast shadow creates edges by the value of one object bumping up against another object. 

The sharp edge in this image is created by the shadow cast by the sphere.

The sharp edges in this image are created by the shadow cast by the sphere onto the table.

A form shadow occurs when the light hitting an object gradually drops away, fading into shadow. Form shadows result from edges that are created by the light and shadow meeting each other. 

The soft edges on the sphere are created by light hitting its form.

This soft edge is created from the shadow made by the the form of the sphere.

Edges are created where the light meets the shadow in this image of a sphere on a table.

Edges are created where the light meets the shadow.

How to Paint Edges to Capture Form

As you can see, form is created in the edges where the light meets the shadow. As you are learning, begin by making all your form shadows soft and all your cast shadows sharp.

Locating the form and cast shadows on this sphere is the first step to capture form using edges.

To capture form using edges, start by locating the form and cast shadows.

What happens if we reverse this, making the form shadows sharp and the cast shadows soft? Here's an example: 

Reversed edges on the sphere depict a misunderstanding of shadows, looking unrealistic.

A misunderstanding of form and cast shadows can result in an unrealistic image.

Yikes! However, most people wouldn't make this mistake with a simple image like a sphere. It gets a little more complicated with a more detailed subject. For example, take a look at this portrait:

Complex images such as this portrait can make finding and labelling shadows more challenging.

Complex images can make finding and labelling shadows more challenging.

Look at how many form shadows and cast shadows there are in this face. This is why it is very important to tell the difference between form and cast shadows. Here’s another example to help us understand: 

Form shadows on a sphere occur where the light recedes from 100% to 0%

Form shadows occur as the form of an object recedes from the light.

Imagine that there is 100% of the light source shining on the left side of the sphere, and then as the sphere is turning in form away from the light, there's a smaller and smaller percentage of light that can bounce off of it. 

Cast shadows occur where the sphere blocks the light.

Cast shadows occur when an object blocks the light.

However, with a cast shadow, you have either 0% of the light or 100% of the light on the object. Because of this, cast shadows are relatively sharp because the light can't bend around the object that's directly in the way. 

Form shadows are soft and cast shadows are sharp.

Simply put, form shadows are soft and cast shadows are sharp.

Form shadows, on the other hand, are softer because the light is gradually dropping off into shadow. This is how you create form using edges. 

Snowman image with soft form shadows and sharp cast shadows brings image to life

Soft form shadows and sharp cast shadows bring this image to life.

Once you block in your values, the next step is to determine whether or not each edge is a cast or form shadow. Then, make the edge sharp or soft accordingly. 

How to Paint Edges to Create Depth

Evolve head instructor Piper with her studio dog, Simo.

Head instructor at Evolve, Piper Talladay, with her studio dog Simo.

Meet Simo, the studio dog of Piper Talladay, the head instructor at Evolve Artist. If you look at Simo's snout, you'll see that it's super sharp. You can see all the detail at the front, and then all of the edges get softer and softer as they recede into the distance. 

Seen in Simo the studio dog's snout, sharp edges pull forward and soft edges push back

Simo’s detailed snout shows how edges get softer as they recede into the distance.

When we're looking around and our eyes focus on something, it becomes sharp and in focus. Similarly, when we're making realistic art, the things that are sharp and in focus are what our eyes are going to naturally gravitate towards. Having a sharp edge is going to create this effect as if an object is coming forward because it's grabbing our attention. If you focus on the sharp edge, you can see that peripherally, the things directly behind it are blurry and out of focus. 

Hand in focus shows how sharp edges pull forward and soft edges push back

If you hold your hand up to your face, you’ll see how sharp edges pull forward and soft edges push back.

From this, we can see that sharp edges pull forward and soft edges push back. If you want to pull something forward using edges, you can make it relatively sharp, and if you want to push something further back, you can make it relatively soft. Here's another example:

When learning how to paint edges, keep front edges sharp and back edges soft

As a starting point, keep front edges sharp and back edges soft.

So for this table, the front edge is sharp because it's in front, and the back edge is soft. This way we keep it simple, especially as we’re learning the fundamentals. 

Edges is the second fundamental of art

Edges are the second of Evolve’s Four Fundamentals of Art.

Conclusion

So there's your crash course in edges, the second fundamental in the Evolve Artist method. If you want to read more of these posts, please subscribe to our blog or YouTube channel or follow us on Instagram. And if you are serious about wanting pro-level art skills, then check out Evolve Artist. We have a program that is designed for you.

Happy painting!


This post is Part 2 of our Fundamentals of Art series. See the first post on values HERE.

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