Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

May 24, 2014

Focus

This is a subject I am very much feeling my way with. Having been painting pictures for framing for a little while now and looking at a huge swathe of paintings by others I have come up against the issue of hardness or softness of edges. People talk a fair bit about the importance of edges and getting the mix of lost and found edges right, but no one talks a great deal about why this might be so.

If you stand before a scene in ordinary light then the edges of everything look pretty crisp. They even look crisp in fog! So why would we like blurry edges in paintings if we don’t have them in real life? Indeed can you think of anything other than a bank of fog that actually has a blurry edge? Some close too things have soft edges such as curved surfaces where one eye sees further round the curve than the other. This incidentally only happens on vertical or nearly so curved surfaces such as a cylinder sitting on its round end. If you rotate the cylinder to lie on its curved surface then the now horizontal edge will be sharp due to out eyes being side by side.

The other effect we see in photography is soft focus. Our eyes do it too. This is what is called depth of field. Depending on the light levels if we focus on a nearby object then the distant one will be soft and if we then focus on the distance the nearby object will in turn become blurred. The human eye does a different sort of soft focus in that objects in the centre of out attention will be sharp but those on the peripherally will be soft and ill defined. Try it your self, I am amazed at how amorphous even objects a little off the central axis become. It is a little hard to stop your eyes following your attention and moving!

How we actually take in the world is by scanning our surroundings in little darts and jumps called saccades. Our brains are not fast enough to process fast movement, if you try waving your fingers in front of your face you will find that they become blurred quite soon. So the eye moves in sudden jumps and pauses as it picks out information from our surroundings.

Yet another aspect of visual definition is specificity, so a tree will not usually be as visually defined as a person. If you did a picture with blurry people and sharp trees then people would find it a little odd. The same painting with blurry trees and defined people would however be quite unremarkable.

So as you see we have a quite a few reasons to be blurry in our paintings! This in turn makes softening and hardening of edges quite a powerful tool in the painter’s tool box. When I look at other painters and indeed myself I suspect people learn to use softening of edges in an empirical, this works, that doesn’t manner. Having thought it through a bit I think it might be exploited in quite a few interesting ways.

An extra layer of complexity is caused I think due to the fact that the same visual system is being used by the viewer of a painting as the painter. If the trees in a painting are soft then a viewer will appreciate mood and colour but not so much form or botanical detail (painters of course will admire the soft edges but they are just weird!) . The non painting eye will move on to whatever in the picture is more defined but the softer areas will still be supplying mood. It is immediately apparent to me that having things inappropriately over-defined in an area of a picture can be a distraction and weaken the overall impact.

I am of course talking about a certain type of picture, the impression of time, place and weather. People tend to confuse the different ways we can read a picture, so a detailed picture is inviting a different sort of looking and appreciation than an impression. They are not I feel better or worse per se. Indeed you could maybe mix the two if you were very clever.

Where I need to improve the control of focus is in my oil paintings. With watercolour I tend to use wet edges and so forth automatically, but with oils I have to think it through. Also with watercolours you are often working from the very amorphous to the definite as a matter of course. There it is that is the nature of painting there is always more to learn and deficiencies to make good! Enough complaining, a few drawings and paintings.

Tower Hill, London, watercolour

I am in a quandary with paper at present. Arches, my favourite paper has become very poor in quality of late. I have a couple of rolls which will keep me going a few years in the studio, but for painting en plein air I used the glued blocks. These alas have become very poorly sized as have the single sheets, making the washes dry dull and lifeless. The surface of the paper is not as tough as it should be either so lifting out becomes a risky process.

As an experiment I have bought some paper from the Ruscombe Mill in France. They make recreations of historical papers. So I bought a few sheets of David Cox and some Thomas Girtin types. The paper is much lighter in weight than we use now and must be stretched. Also it has more inclusions and is less white. I must admit I was slightly horrified at the uneven surface when I first unpacked it. None the less I stretched up some and took it out.

The one above is done on the David Cox. The paper contracts fiercely when stretched so I had to use my Artmate. As always when using a new paper you have to just dive in and I found it hard going at first. It doesn’t react well to wet into wet so washes must be laid cleanly and in one go. The scene above was done in around 45min and could have done with more careful drawing out. Altogether though it has quite a pleasant quality and now I know what it does well I can try and exploit its qualities. The paper is very very tough so lifting out is easy. Its weakness is that washes even when quite concentrated dry a little pale.

I did this sitting just by the Tower of London looking towards the city. 10in by 14in.

 

St Katherines Dock, London, watercolour

Second one of the day. It was a Wapping Group day so I sat near the Dickens Inn at St Katherines Dock. This is the Thomas Girtin paper. It is less white a sort of soft buff colour. Unlike the David Cox it took to wet into wet well as you can see by the softer feel. Also stronger tones were easier to achieve. All in all very pleasant to paint on, I shall be intrigued to try a larger painting as this one is only 5in by 10in. Strong whites will need to be painted in with body colour, which is of course just how Girtin often worked.

 

Spitalfields Market, London, drawing

The Brass Monkeys were at Spitalfields. We met at one of the cafes in the Market. While I drank my coffee and chatted I drew the passers by. I am going to try and add a little more character to the figures in my drawings to make them a little less architecty . Generic figures are OK but ones that tell a bit of a story are better I am beginning to think. 5in by 7in.

 

Spitalfields, London, Hawksmoor, drawing, pen

This is the view down Brush St to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christchurch. I had to hatch the sky later as no time to do on site. 7in by 9in. Here generic figures are fine as the church is the star.

 

Brush St, Spitalfields, London pen drawing, shop

A smaller pen sketch also in Brush St. Here I could have done with some more definitive types of people. 5in by 7in.

 

South Bank, Thames, London, pen and ink, Drawing

Sorry, yet more drawing… it is just a way of avoiding the oil paints maybe! Here I struggled to find something to make a picture of and abandoned two at the pencil stage. Then this confident young man walked past plainly on a mission unlike the dawdling tourists. I drew him in first and then built the rest of the picture around him. This is also on Ruscombe paper, quite resistant to draw on but gives a nice quality in the final result. This is the South Bank and another day out with the Wappers. 6in by 8in.

 

South Bank, Thames, London, Ice cream van, pen drawing

I am off to Florence for a painting trip so my next move was to go shopping to stock up on pens. I found this odd white pen which allowed hatching on the cream paper. Interesting effect, I shall be using it more. 6in by 8in.

 

Nude, Life drawing

A few life drawings to finish off. I was trying to keep things simple so just black and white.

 

nude, life drawing

I added red here and regretted it slightly.
Life drawing, nude

Last one, learnt my lesson and went back to black and white! Next post should be the glories of Florence…

4 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the clearest explanation of the way to think about edges that I’ve ever seen. Like you say, I’ve been admonished to have a mix of hard and soft, lost and found, hard and soft, and all the rest, but never understood what to do where. By talking about it in terms of depth of field and central vs. peripheral vision, I feel like I have a fighting chance to figure it out! (Love the ice cream truck, BTW.)

    Comment by Dewayne Matthews — May 25, 2014 @ 3:47 am

  2. Some of my favorite art is of the mid 20th century British rail posters.

    The design and color strategies are very thoughtful and, from what resources I have available can see an abundance of clean sharp edges everywhere. It seems to me as I study these posters they were very adept at arranging shapes and intensities to convey atmosphere and highlight the subject in place of, the importance of or reliance on, sharp or unsharp edges. (Malcolm Guest, NORMAN WILKINSON R.I….etc)

    The same goes for notable Japanese wood block printers. (Hiroshi Yoshida 1876-1950)

    Would you agree?

    Comment by Troy Kilgore — May 26, 2014 @ 4:09 am

  3. Hi Rob.
    Fantastic drawings and paintings. also the write up of lost and found. The way i see it Rob, Is that I don`t bother about whether it is lost or found, i paint what i see and if some parts of the painting is lost accidentally, good. Then i`m not a brilliant painter as you are. I saw the wappers new site and there you were receiving your tie, good on you mate. you are very formative in your blog, and i get a lot out of it. keep them coming Rob. All the best.
    Vic.

    Comment by Vic Errington — May 27, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

  4. Hi Troy, Yes indeed, I love the graphic quality of the travel posters of the period, though Norman Wilkinson had quite a different style for his landscape and marine oils and watercolours. I love Terence Cuneo’s railway posters too though they were far more painterly. The foundation for both is of course good design and drawing. I remember watching Cuneo drawing a Bentley engine and being amazed at how he put the shapes in with rapid confident areas of tone, only adding a few boundary lines at the very end.

    Comment by Rob Adams — May 31, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

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