Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), detail.
What is a sharp? There are many answers, each specific to one of our senses (the same is true for the opposite – soft). Foods, like some cheeses, can taste sharp. Roadkill can smell sharp. A musical note can sound sharp. The edge of a razor can feel sharp. The edge between two distinct forms can look sharp. In all cases, the concept of sharpness is relative. Equally important is that in all cases sharpness is not ever-present.
At times two senses combine to inform the definition. For example, the aforementioned razor’s edge can both feel sharp and look sharp. The opposite can also be true. Depending upon the lighting and your focus, the edge of an egg can look sharp even though you know it would not feel sharp.
That is why many artists use the terms lost and found instead of soft and sharp. ‘Lost’ and ‘found’ more accurately describe visual appearance without any of the tactile aspects. That is important because artists draw or paint appearances.
The appearance of sharpness is often the result of contrast; the most obvious example being a checkerboard. Each edge of each square is found. In other words, they are clearly seen (assuming the board is viewed directly as opposed to on an angle as in Vermeer’s painting below). The contrast in question is of value, though color and tactile contrast can also produce a visually sharp or found edge.
Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (1667), detail.
The higher the contrast between two areas the more diverse is their appearance. Hence our perception of sharpness where those areas visually meet. Conversely, that edge will appear more soft or lost when the contrast is lower.
Where your focus is also affects your perception of an edge’s sharpness. The primary reason is distance, which can be in any direction 360 degrees from your focus point. This means that a found edge will appear more lost the farther away it is from your center of focus.
That’s true, even for the sharp edge of a razor.
Try it for yourself. Take two razor blades, or anything else that clearly has a physically sharp edge, and place the blades side-to-side about a foot apart. Stand back a few feet and focus on the edge of one of the blades. Once you have your focus and without shifting it, try to pay attention to the appearance of the other blade using your peripheral vision.
I’ve had to digitally edit this photo to make it appear the way our eyes see.
Both blades exist on the same plane, therefore the camera has them both in sharp focus.
You’ll also have noticed that whatever you’re focusing on is, well, in focus. In other words, as you shift your gaze your focus point shifts with it. So when you switch your focus to each blade it appears slightly sharper than the other.
That skill, by the way, does take some practice. But if you ever intend to take your artwork to the highest level of impressionistic seeing, it’s a skill you’ll need to hone. There are numerous articles on this site which explain it. Among them:
This Ain’t Hollywood. Or is it?
The next time you watch a drama pay attention to how the director uses focus in the shots. At times the focus is near and at other times the focus is distant. When two people are talking, the focus may slowly shift from one to the other and back. The director is using focus to direct our attention. Still photographers do the same thing for the same reasons.1
As artists we have use of a similar tool. That tool is our eye. And to be blunt, most artists for the last hundred years or so have made limited use of it. Perhaps you haven’t as well?
Paint all things in relation to the focus.
William McGregor Paxton
As I alluded to earlier our eyes focus on points in space. Conversely, a camera’s focus is on planes in space (which is why I had to digitally soften the blade on the left in the photo above). And while it’s true that both operations take place in three-dimensions, the difference between point and plane focus is profound.
I’m oversimplifying a bit, but point focusing as our eyes do it progressively blurs the scene in all directions from the point of focus. Plane focusing, as a camera does it, only blurs the scene in front of and behind the focused plane. Everything in that focused plane is in the same focus.
It is therefore self-evident that a real life scene as viewed with your eye alone is perceived differently than one which is first filtered through the lens of a camera.
Computer animators and computer graphic artists who attempt to make their creations look like real life are fixated on something called edge falloff, which describes the way in which edges appear lost. In both the physical and the digital worlds it’s all about the angle and amount of light received on the edge in question.
Further complicating things is that edges in nature are not uniform.
Any edge will not only be sharper and/or softer than others, its degree of either might vary along its course. One section of the edge may be distinctly found whereas another area of it might be quite lost.
The fixation on falloff should be a major concern for traditional artists as well. The more control an artist has over edges, the more lifelike their creations will seem.
Velazquez, The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra (1645), detail.
More Lost Than You Think
We often paint what we know more than what we actually perceive. Why? Because of cognitive bias. A razor’s edge is tactilely sharp and our minds tell us so. Therefore, we paint it sharp regardless of how it actually appears to us at the moment.
But edges often appear more lost than you think they are. It is therefore good practice to slightly soften most of them, at least initially, however found you see them. Then, as the artwork nears completion, you can more accurately turn your edges in relation to the whole as based upon your focus point.
Proceeding with the idea that edges are generally more lost than you think avoids the tendency of making your edges unnaturally sharp. Another help is observing the hierarchy of the edges in the scene, beginning with the sharpest sharp and then representing it slightly more lost.
But don’t misunderstand. I am not saying “when in doubt, blur”.
Rather, my point is that representing nature in a uniform sharpness is unnatural (regardless of what the photos from your iPhone may show). Better is to observe their hierarchy, assume you’re overstating the sharps, and then back off a bit.
Here, There, and In the Air
I’ve yet to mention the factor of atmosphere. The air between you and what you’re looking at is not an empty void. As I am writing this there are large forest fires 1500 miles from where I live. The smoke in the atmosphere from those fires noticeably filters my view of the sun and sky. It also slightly tints the value and hue of the trees I see in the near distance. Worse, the powers that be suggest that I skip my run today because the air quality is so poor.
That situation, of course, is an extreme.
Nevertheless, it demonstrates an effect that usually goes unnoticed during a normal day. Air is not entirely clear and the more of it between you and your subject the more lost the subject’s edges will appear. This is true at a mile away, and whether noticed or not it is also true at ten feet away.
Easier Said Than Seen
One of the great problems for many artists is the trap of piecemeal seeing. The article referenced here deals primarily with shape, but the problem is even more difficult to avoid when it comes to edges. It is such because we’re wired to look directly at any area we’re painting rather than compare all areas to the chosen focus point.
Here again the key is maintaining the observed hierarchy. If you paint two edges to the same degree of sharpness, make sure you actually saw them that way. While it is possible, odds are you did not.
Gabriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter (1665), detail.
Observe how Metsu orchestrates his edges in the detail shown above. They’re simply brilliant!
Easier Said Than Done
Both lost and found edges take concerted effort to create. It is rarely if ever as simple as just laying down a stroke and leaving it. You need to intentionally create your edges rather than doing them accidentally.
Most proper edges are made by turning them, even some of the sharpest ones2. ‘Turning’ is done by lightly brushing along the edge, perhaps with a brush that simply has some medium on it.
The problem lays in the width of the edge.
The transition of found edges is by definition narrow. When brushing along them you may inadvertently change their shape. On the other hand, lost edge transitions are usually wide. That width leaves a lot of room for shape, value, and hue errors.
The Eyes Have It
Representing the scene in front of you in the way you choose to have your eye focus on it gives you the ability to direct your viewer’s eye. You can visually tell them where to look first, second, etc., all based upon how you represent the edges in the scene. As an example, your directions might pull them into an area, then out from it and over to somewhere else.
That power is nullified when you give everything within your painting an equally sharp focus.3 Doing that gives the viewer control over where and how they look at your painting. But is that really what you want?
Like a movie director, it’s your job to lead the viewer.
Look to the Little Dutch Masters
The last time I saw Mr. Lack he gave me a profound piece of advice: “Look to the little Dutch masters,” he said. Those masters were artists like Vermeer and Metsu. They, along with Velazquez, were the ones who truly knew how to see and to represent what they saw in the way they saw it.
When you’re in a city that has a Vermeer, Metsu, or a later Velazquez, spend some serious time observing how they handled their edges. Get as close to the painting as you dare. The symphony of edges in those little Dutch master paintings are wonders, regardless of what’s being represented. If the painting is a Velazquez, you’re eye will likely not be able to resolve what it’s seeing when very close. That’s a good thing. But as you retreat, all will progressively resolve until you reach a point on the floor that’s very near the distance at which he stood when doing the painting.
If you’re unable to see paintings like that in person, that’s ok. It’s true that some aspects are lost in photographs of them, but you’ll still get the idea if the scan is detailed enough.
1 The ability of a camera to focus as described is due to a combination of factors: primarily the focal length of the lens and its aperture. You might be able to use the camera on your smartphone to do something similar, but it’s limited.
2 Unless your style is based upon distinctly separate brush strokes.
3 Photographic sources (especially smartphone images due to their deep depth of field) promote that effect because many who use them simply copy what they see in the photo.