Working with only soft edges in the early stages is another way to prevent getting specific prematurely. Rex Brandt, among many other watercolorists, often painted wet-on-wet until he had decided where he wanted the viewer’s attention focused. Since hard edges describe specific forms, it makes sense to wait to include them until you know they serve your purposes. Just because your photo shows hard edges, or the part of the live scene you are looking at is in focus doesn’t mean that is how you must depict it in your interpretation.
Rex Brandt Evening’s Catch
In this painting Rex Brandt used hard edges very deliberately to direct the viewer’s eye. The big shapes had already been established as soft-edged washes before the relatively small and dark hard-edged strokes were added.
Of all the questions that help me keep my painting priorities straight, the most useful by far is
“What role does the part I’m about to paint play in the big picture?”
Often the area of primary interest in a painting is meant to be restricted to only part of the whole page. How the main variables are manipulated will determine the effectiveness of your intentions, as we can see in Rex Brandt’s painting, above. He has made definite choices about value, wetness and composition to reveal the relative roles of the different elements in his painting.
Take a long look at John Singer Sargent’s painting, below.
John Singer Sargent Muddy Alligators
If you were to cover the picture now and try describing the alligators, you would probably remember plenty of specific information, both in terms of content and form. But what could you say about those trees in the background? What is the part the trees play in the big picture? Definitely a supporting role. Clearly, Sargent knew who the stars of the show would be. He used value, edge quality, color temperature and composition to keep us focused on the reptiles.
When we are sitting in front of a scene, we automatically focus on each part we are about to interpret, and often proceed to paint them all in sharp detail. But Sargent seems to have kept his focus sharp on the alligators, even while he was painting the trees. You can literally do this, if you remember to ask about the relative roles of the elements of your subject.
To try it, close one eye and focus on your thumb at arm’s length. Stay focused there, and look at what is behind your thumb. It probably looks indistinct, like Sargent’s trees. Now focus on the background. Your thumb gets fuzzy. One more thing you’re in charge of.