What kind of edge does this form need?
Sometimes the subject matter of what you are about to paint will tell you whether the edges of the form should be hard or soft, but there are no rules about this. Clouds often appear to have soft edges, for example, but you can paint perfectly acceptable clouds with only hard edges. You can search long and hard in most of Edward Hopper’s watercolors and never see a soft-edged cloud.
More often, it is the focal point of the picture that determines how wet the paper and the brush need to be in any given area. Hard edges are assertive. They tend to describe distinct forms, while soft edges merge with the field on which they have been applied.
In Familiar Rock, we are encouraged to see the trees on the foreground headland as individual forms, while on the hillside in the background we are meant to see the forest as a whole.
Soft edges tend to describe a subject in general terms, while hard edges are usually more specific. Consider the role that the particular area you are about to paint is meant to play in the big picture before deciding whether your paper should be wet or dry. How much attention do you want the viewer to pay here?
It is often appropriate to imply complexity in a subject rather than to specify it. Too much specific information leads to a confusing picture, where the viewer’s eye is pulled in several directions at once. If your pictures tend to lack clarity and cohesiveness, consider holding off on the hard edges until you know where you really want them. As a preliminary study, try blocking in the lights and the middle values all wet-on-wet. By the time you’re ready for the darks, you will probably have a good basis for deciding where you want to focus attention. See how the picture “reads” if you only make hard edges in that center of interest.
For homework, make a very simple version of your choice of image using only soft edges or only hard edges. When the study is finished, ask yourself where you wish there were the other kind of edges. In your imagination, decide where the most meaningful strokes would go if you were limited to only a few, say, three or four.
If you have time, make both an all soft edged study and an all hard edged one. By then you'll be ready to make a very well informed painting.