Edges and Boundaries

I am interested in edges, a reasonable pursuit for a painter. I look at different painters and how they handle the edges of forms. Some make edges that are crisp and clear, others that are soft but simple, others make edges that are atmospheric, complex and vague, still others where the paint itself and the texture of the brushstroke overtake the form altogether. It’s more than style.

van der Weyden, Sargent, Nerdrum, Ryden details


In the age of Photoshop, edges have become a fetish, drawing forth a whole arsenal of tools designed to make easier or better selections to define one form from another in a variety of image situations. The notion of edges in the digital world has become complicated. Enlarging a traditional photo eventually leads to the breakup of the image into grain clumping patterns, evidence that the image is still a physicality, a material reality. The digital image is dependent on the resolution of the input and the magnification the viewer uses, but in enlargement at some point it dissolves into softened pixel blocks, which are somehow entirely immaterial and which call into question the whole idea of an edge.

some of photoshop's selection tools


Children begin to draw by using line as they begin to learn words, to reinforce that things are separate from each other (and from their own self) and by depicting them that way, declaring a kind of mastery over them. Names equal outlines. But as we learn more sophisticated ideas of drawing, we discover that putting an outline around something is problematical. It creates more separation than we actually see and it flattens forms by creating contrast at the edge coming forward instead of going back.


We usually develop drawing before painting, at least in an art program, and so we struggle for a time trying to draw our paintings until we experience that leap of faith that takes us into the paint as a thing entirely its own and entirely compelling. Beginning painters do a drawing first then like a coloring book, try to paint within the lines, fearing to lose those boundaries that give them a sense of security. But later as they begin to find the heart of painting, they see edges as fluid, coming and going. The analogy I give them is that it is like the seashore. Part of our fascination with the shore is that the boundary is always changing, it is alive and it resonates with that quality in us. A painting with boundaries that have evolved organically that way is likely more inviting than one where the boundaries have been stiffly defended from the start.


I slip into substituting the word boundary. And that for me is where this takes a deeper course. I think a person manifests a certain sense of order consistently in their life. I often have students in my drawing class line themselves up one day after they have been together for a semester at least: at one end, the person who is most attached to order, at the other, the person least order oriented. Rarely do they have any trouble doing this themselves. They see it in everything from the condition of their art locker to the way they dress, to the nature of the work they put up for critique each week and much more. There is no judgment in it. It may be that they express the order they have grown up with, or it may be they create the order that they want or need psychologically. I see this same continuum driving around the neighborhood, looking at the yards people keep, the edging, the beds, the way things are stacked or stashed. I often think you could do a fair amount of personal counseling based solely on photos of people’s yards.

some details from yards near me

Certainly there is a craft issue in the degree of definition in paintings. Paintings done from photos or from life, paintings alla prima or by indirect layer and glazing approaches gravitate toward different kinds of edge treatment. But craft is always developing: you drag it behind you as you try to achieve your vision. Deeper still is the sense of order and the sense that there is a metaphysical struggle going on as a person explores expression and creates the environment to resonate with their sense of form or formlessness.

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