How To Paint Soft & Hard Edges in Watercolor

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Understanding the different types of edges and controlling how you paint them is one of the most important techniques that you can learn in watercolor painting.

In this Post I will explain:

  • How to paint soft and hard edges in watercolor
  • Lost and found edges
  • Watercolor blending techniques
  • How to avoid blooms and backruns
  • Using soft and hard edges to paint clouds
  • How to use soft and hard edges in a watercolor seascape

What Kinds Of Edges Are There?

types of edges: lost, found, hard and soft

In my other life as a cartoonist, edges are not something I ever really need to worry about, because the convention in cartoons is to define every character and object with a black outline.

As painters trying to emulate the real world effects of light, a different approach is needed. We need to be much more aware of the edges of things, as objects in real life aren’t conveniently outlined in black for us.

There are four kinds of edge that we need to be aware of. The diagram above Illustrates them. Let’s go through them one by one.

Lost Edges

Lost edges occur when the colour and tone of an object so closely match it’s backdrop, that the edge seems to completely disappear. Take for example the painting below by John Singer Sargent. See how the edges of the snow covered mountains become one with the sky in places and then reappear.

John singer sargent watercolor mountain painting with lost and found edges

Found Edges

Found edges are essentially the opposite of lost edges. They occur when the color and tone of an object start to differ from the background and the edge starts to reappear ,

Hard Edges

A hard edge is an edge with distinct line of demarcation separating it from it’s background.

Soft Edges

A soft edge is an edge that blends out gradually from one tone and/or color into another.

How To Paint Soft And Hard Edges in Watercolor

To get a hard edge in watercolor all that needs to be done is to take a brush loaded with wet paint and paint it on to completely dry paper. As long as the paper isn’t too rough in texture, the paint should just go on smoothly and evenly and dry with a crisp hard edge.

Painting soft edges in watercolor presents a slightly greater challenge than a hard edge and there are a few different ways we can approach this.

Painting wet paint on to wet paper will cause the paint to spread and blend, creating large diffused soft edged blossoms of color. This is where the medium comes alive. It’s what we all love to see in watercolor but we can only get soft edges this way. What if we want to create a combination of hard and soft edges?

Softening Hard Edges

Hard edged shapes can be softened by painting back into the shape with a brush loaded with clean water but only while the paint is still wet.

Once watercolor paint dries, it becomes inert. In the pics below, the first example shows what happens when you go back to try and soften the edge of paint that has completely dried. Note the hard edged line that has formed like a tide mark as the water has flowed back into the shape and dried again.

In the second example however, the paint was still quite moist and so it was much easier to paint back into it with clean water and soften the edge.

Edge comparison with dry and wet paint

Another approach is to wet just the part of paper where the edge needs to soften, then start painting from the dry part of the paper into the wet part of the paper. As the the wet paint touches the wet paper it will start to diffuse. This is a technique I use quite often when painting clouds.

Painting Clouds With Hard & Soft Edges

“Paint” an area with just clean water. This where the main part of the cloud will be then I paint into the wet paper in places and avoid it in others. This creates a mixture of hard and soft edged shapes which is how clouds tend to look in real life.

How to paint soft and hard edges in watercolor clouds

The only problem with using this method to create soft edges is that watercolour will only flow where the paper is wet and no further. There is always the risk that another hard edge will be created if you allow the paint to flow all the way up to the edge of the line where the water stops.

How To Avoid Blooms In Watercolor

A brush loaded with too much water creates a bloom, or backrun

Blooms, cauliflowers and backruns (They’re all the same thing) can occur when painting into wet paint with a brush that contains a bit too much water.

To avoid blooms, keep a paper towel handy to dry your brush on. If you see a bloom starting to form, dry your brush on the towel and quickly use the “Thirsty” brush to soak up the excess water.

Let’s take a detailed look at a recent seascape painting that I did that could have been designed as a workout in creating hard and soft edges!

Using Hard & Soft Edges To Paint A Seascape

Materials List

Ultramarine Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Pthalo Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Cerulean Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
New Gamboge: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Burnt Sienna: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Burnt Umber : Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Alizarin Crimson: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Paynes Gray: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith

Brushes

No. 2 Squirrel Hair Mop Brush Buy from Amazon
No.4 Squirrel Hair Mop Brush Buy From Amazon

Synthetic Squirrel Flat Brush Buy From Amazon
1″ Hake Brush Buy from Amazon

Paper

Arches Watercolor Paper Block, Cold Press, 9″ x 12″, 140 pound Buy from Amazon

Miscellaneous

Misting spray bottle Buy from Amazon
Easy release painters masking tape
Buy from Amazon

Seascape reference photo
Final seascape painting

Steps 1 – 3

Soft and hard edges in a seascape steps 1-3

For this painting I wanted to create a much more dramatic and stormy appearance to the sky than in the photo but I also wanted the painting to have a warmth to it so even the coolest colors in the painting, i.e. the blues and greens have a warm bias to them.

For a detailed explanation on color bias take a look at the explanation of the Split Primaries palette on this post.

I used a Hake brush to thoroughly wet the sky. The Hake is perfect for this as it holds a lt of water.

To give the sky a feeling of warmth I decided to lay down a wash of very weak Burnt Sienna. Burnt Sienna strongly leans towards red and it contains a highly staining pigment. So it was essential to keep it subtle, enough to warm the sky but not so much that it became overpowering.

I wanted a very soft but brooding sky, so I decided to do it completely wet in to wet and have no hard edged clouds at all in the sky.

After the thin wash of Burnt Sienna, I added a few patches of Cerulean Blue It’s important to just let these colors run and blend naturally wet in to wet and avoid too much brushing as Cerulean Blue and Burnt Sienna can very quickly turn into an unpleasant muddy grey when mixed.

The dark storm clouds were painted with a mop brush using a strong warm grey mixed from Ultramarine, Paynes Grey and Alizarin Crimson.

Steps 4 – 6

Soft and hard edges in a seascape steps 4-6

I generally prefer to work from top to bottom so once the clouds were complete, and the painting was dry, It was time to add a very light wash of Burnt Umber for the sand in the bottom half. So now the top half of my painting is dry and the bottom half is wet.

For painting distant hills and mountain ranges a flat brush works particularly well though I used a mop brush here. The top edge of the headland, I chose to keep as a hard edge while the bottom edge gradually softens out into nothing, as I paint into the wet bottom half.

Steps 7 – 8

Soft and hard edges in a seascape steps 7-8

The bottom edge of the headland needed a little more assistance from a wet Hake in order to blend out completely. I then allowed the painting to dry completely once more.

Steps 9 -11

Soft and hard edges in a seascape steps 9-11

Working from light to dark often means working from background to foreground. It’s a methodical process of paint it – allow it to dry – paint another layer etc.

At this point, I can now paint the distant sand dune and soften out the bottom edge of that with the Hake Brush.

Steps 12 – 13

Soft and hard edges in a seascape steps 12-13

Where the sand meets the sea, there is a hard edge. Where the wet sand becomes dry sand there is a soft edge, so the process here was exactly the same as for the dunes and headland.

Wet sand reflects the sky which tends to give it a slightly purple hue so using my Ultramarine, Paynes Grey, Alizarin Crimson mix works quite well here. It echoes the background and helps to unify the painting.

Steps 14 – 15

Soft and hard edges in a seascape steps 14-15

The grassy sand dunes in the foreground have a hard edge on top. I used the mop brush again with a mixture of New Gamboge and Ultramarine.

Along the bottom edges where the grass blends into the sand there are a mixture of hard and soft edges, so I selectively softened some areas along this bottom edge with the Hake and left some areas alone.

Steps 16 – 20

Finally, I switched to a smaller bamboo brush for the finer details such as blades of grass and the broken lines of sea and surf were painted with Pthalo Blue.

Soft and hard edges in a seascape steps 16-19
Soft and hard edges in a seascape step 20

Watch The Video

That’s all for this post on edges. As an exercise. The next time you look at a subject that you want to paint, try and analyze what kinds of edges are present.

Watercolor is a medium that rewards economical brush strokes. So think about how you’re going to handle those edges, do they even need to be painted at all?

3 thoughts on “How To Paint Soft & Hard Edges in Watercolor”

  1. Thank you! This is really helpful. I am just beginning, and I appreciate your small steps of instruction.

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