[Note: This post also appears on my personal blog, southeast main. Jay has persuaded me to cross-post as an efficiency matter. I find it changes my thinking to do it this way, which is a different, but also interesting, topic. Hi all — I’m glad to be back.]
I’m thinking about edges. I have a theory — or rather a “notion,” (which is a theory that is so diffuse it has no edges) — but anyway…..
My theory is that a lot of textile art maintains its textilishness via its edges. And this is in spite of the hand-dyed fabrics, surface design with fuzzy results, sheer fabrics, and other fuzzying techniques of contemporary textile artists. The edges of quilted art are often delineated by the quilting ; sometimes they are even more clearly portrayed with zigzag applique. Applique by itself lends itself to clean edges, as do commercial fabrics. Piecing fabric together gives a seam line, which makes an edge, even when the fabrics are close in color and value.
The clarity of edges in textiles tends to pull the textile toward something I think of as “good design” such as can be seen in magazine ads and hard-edged abstract art. This clarity has a certain appeal –it’s clean, not mushy, not sentimental. Clarity has a sureness of feel about it (which is probably why it’s so popular in advertisements). It’s also good for a certain kind of whimsicality, of child-like sensibility. The “faux representational” look in textile art often derives from its clear, often hard, edges.
Arabesque, 40″ x 40″, hand-dyed cottons and silk hanks, appliqued and machine quilted
However, contemporary painters, particularly representational painters, fuzz up their edges, even when to the eye it doesn’t appear like an obvious tactic. In the Guide to Landscape painting (one of those books I return to repeatedly) John Carlson speaks of masses reaching into the sky — say, buildings or trees.
“A dark mass seen at some distance, through this [dust and moisture-laden] air is more or less lightened according to the day and time of day. Especially is this noticeable when looking toward the light (as in the case of the window). Especially, too, is such a mass lighted at the edges touching the sky or light… It seems darker to the eye of the beginner, but if he paints it that way (darker), the light mass (sky) touching it, while being itself a light value will not seem to give off light rays.
This lack of light light is easily noticed if you try to paint a dark tree too dark against a brilliantly lighted sky. Your sky may be brilliant yellow or very light blue… but with your too-dark tree painted against it, it will not appear to radiate light. It becomes just black paint again light paint, but not light. The light not only lightens and simplifies such a tree, but seems to wrap itself around the edges in relief against it so that these, more than ever, lose their local color and much of their local value.”
Snow on the Palouse Plateau, Oil on board, 12 x 16″
My recent oil painting instructor, Jef, after he got tired of saying “more paint” to me, started saying, “Soften up those edges.” That’s when I went back to Carlson. And now I’m reading a whole chapter on edges in Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting .
Schmid is more analytic than Carlson, so he says the same thing but explains it more fully. Schmid says that edges appear the way they do for a variety of reasons. One reason is the inherent shape of things, like the differences between a sheet of paper or a fold of fabric — the fold will have a softer edge than the hard-edged paper. Another is the intrinsic (“local”) value and color of things — shapes that are similar in value or color will appear to have a softer transition between them than elements which contrast, even though the real (physical) edge is the same. A dark blue against a dark green will look softer than a dark blue against a bright orange.
Other reasons for differences in edges exist. For example, the nature of things– what they are made of — changes their edges. Clouds (and the rear ends of ducks) are softer than bricks, and their edges will be softer. Also the light — how strong, or weak, or diffused it is and the angle it is hitting the subject changes the nature of edges. [This is why painting books always tell you to set up your subjects with a stong light coming from a high angle; it makes the writing of the instructions much easier (I said that, not Schmid).]
Finally Schmid gives two other reasons for edges appearing different at different times — one is the atmosphere, which is most familiar in distant landscapes, fog, etc.; and the other is motion, which calls for soft edges (and patterns within the motion which have to be caught).
Of course, there’s rarely a single cause for the appearance of an edge. And edges, Schmid reminds us, are comparative creatures — they appear differently because of relationships one to the other.
Early Morning Trash Container, oil on board, 12 x 16″
I did the painting above about two years ago. Then I took Jef’s class, read Carlson and Schmid, and redid the painting. I’m still not sure I’ve caught the edges (and other things) but it is a lot better for the notions I’m accruing.
I can play around with photography and edges in terms of painting and textiles, but not in terms of photography-as-art. I wonder how the camera deals with edges. And I think of Jay’s foam-carved paintings and sculptures — he relies on that most sophisticated of instruments, our own eyes, to make the edges do whatever they will do. Or at least that’s my notion at the moment.
And a note about the Schmid book — it’s pricy, even in soft cover, but getting it from the author is less expensive than any I found elsewhere. Don’t trust Amazon on this one.