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Perception of Edges – The Five Basic Skills of Drawing – Part 1

Edges
Image courtesy of Martin Moucha

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the Five Basic Skills of Drawing.

If you want to improve the accuracy and realism of your artwork, be it drawing, painting, sculpture, whatever, the best thing you can do is study the basic principles of drawing.

In her classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards defines the five basic skills of drawing as:

  1. The Perception of Edges
  2. The Perception of Spaces
  3. The Perception of relationships
  4. The Perception of lights and shadows
  5. The Perception of the Whole, or Gestalt

Let’s take a look at the first of those skills – The Perception of Edges – and see how it can help improve our drawing.

What is an Edge?

In drawing, an edge is a boundary that separates two areas.

We are all introduced to the concept of edges in drawing from an early age, when we draw lines to make simple shapes to represent people, houses etc.

Simple Line Drawing

A simple line drawing - Each line is a boundary (or edge) between two areas

The problem is, when viewing reality, very few edges actually appear as a solid line, like you would get from drawing a line with a pencil. Edges vary in their sharpness from very soft to very sharp, and we need to pay attention to that in order to achieve a realistic drawing.

Sharp vs. soft edges

Look at the range of softness to sharpness in the edges of this drawing

Of course, much of the realism is achieved through the use of value (light and shadow), which we will come to later. The accurate representation of lights and darks creates the illusion of depth which makes a drawing look realistic.

But even a drawing with perfectly accurate values will not look as convincing if all of the edges are equally sharp.

So what determines the sharpness or softness of an edge?

Sharp edges can be found in areas of high contrast, such as the sharp edge indicated above where the dark eyebrow meets the light skin . They are commonly found in cast shadows caused by strong, direct light, such as the shadow under the nose in the image above.

Soft edges are found on gentle curved forms, such as the cheek, and areas of low contrast, such as the edge where the hair meets the background. Soft edges are often seen when the light is not as harsh.

Creating focus through edges

We can use this knowledge of sharp and soft edges to create a more convincing illusion of depth, by softening certain edges to make them appear out of focus.

In reality, when we focus on a person’s face at talking distance, for example, only the area we are looking directly at will be in focus. The rest of the face is seen in our peripheral vision and will be slightly out of focus.

We can recreate this sense of focus to some extent in our drawings and paintings, by drawing sharp edges in the area we want as the focal point, and softening edges in the surrounding areas.

Soften Edges to Lose Focus

Hard edges create a focal point in the face, while the shoulder recedes into the background.

Look at the hard edge in the image above, where the light side of the face meets the dark hat, compared to the soft edge of the shoulder on the right, which blurs into the background, so that our eye is drawn to the face and not the shoulder.

Start paying more attention to the edges when you draw and paint. Don’t just draw everything as a solid outline, but look for sharp edges and soft edges, and think about what you want the viewer to focus on in your drawing.

Next time we will look at the perception of spaces. To make sure you don’t miss it, you can subscribe to email updates below.

If you have any questions about edges, please leave a comment below.

5 Comments on Perception of Edges – The Five Basic Skills of Drawing – Part 1

  1. Emma says:

    This is a drawing of me! And I can testify to it’s accuracy. But on a more serious note, this is really good advice for a beginner artist like myself. I am hoping my life drawings improve as a result of paying more attention to the soft and sharp edges – funny how it seems so obvious once someone points out what to do :-)

  2. Annie Andre says:

    I have that book “Drawing on the right side of the brain” and love it. I ‘m looking forward to this series of yours. I am a wannabe drawer and find sketching very soothing but then get disgusted at my stick figures.

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