Moving on from Phil Metzger’s studies in atmospheric perspective, we now begin considering details and edges, and how they portray depth and dimension in a painting. Essentially, as with a photograph, areas of interest are generally in focus, and areas of lesser interest are out of focus. In painting, this becomes detail and edges – how much of each, where to use them, and why.
In Chapter 2 of The Art of Perspective: The Ultimate Guide for Artists in Every Medium, Metzger points out that in painting, perspective is portrayed (in addition to color) by the amount of detail and sharpness of edges. Areas which are not of interest, or further away, have less detail. Edges are softer. Areas of focus, whether in the foreground or middle ground, will have more detail and sharper edges. He begins this with a pencil sketch, with areas of light and dark, in between which are medium values. His drawing is wonderfully detailed and is done with hard, soft, and medium pencils on bristol board. I have no bristol, and worse, I cannot find my drawing pencils! Thus, I was stuck with a bit of old drawing paper and a #2 pencil. Nonetheless, his points were clear.
The depth of field is found in the values, details, and edges. Varying shades of graphite indicate if something is in front or in back of adjacent branches. The tree bits in the foreground are more detailed than the ones in the back. Light and dark work together to create depth, and medium tones help as well.
My drawing is quite lacking in much of what Metzger shows in his book, but the point is made: edges and detail indicate the point of interest. Additionally, by doing this study, I am beginning to realize the importance of value studies. I don’t like swatching for knitting, nor doing toiles for sewing, but in painting, I think the value studies are becoming more important if I want to improve my abilities in watercolor.
Now we move from pencil to paint. Metzger demonstrates his points about edges and detail with egg tempera and watercolor. Egg tempera is a natural for great detail, while watercolor is more suggestive. Even so, there are people who can paint incredibly detailed watercolors that look like photos – I am not one of them!
To emphasize his point about detail and edges, the exercise is to paint a still life apple and pear. They should be fairly detailed – mine are not especially so, but do show highlight and shadow areas. Then, this still life is cut out and set against different backgrounds.
I painted 3 backgrounds, which you can see below in the slide show. Click on each to see what I did. One of the backgrounds I used twice by flipping it; the red one I only used once, and the one with the stripes I did in two directions and then added texture to the stripes in the form of thin lines and chevrons.
1 background, flipped to be 2
Single use background
Stripes used flipped in two directions, then detail added in thin lines and chevrons
Below is my somewhat detailed study of a pear (with its stem) and an apple (also with its stem) on a lacy cloth laid over a darker surface.
After painting this, I cut out the lower part of the painting. I cut around the cloth, surface, and fruit – but I chopped off the pear stem in the process! From there, I affixed the cutout onto the first of the above three backgrounds.
This background is the most subtle of all of them. There is a sense of depth because the fruit and cloth have detail whereas the table and the background do not.
Using the same background flipped 180 degrees, we now get this painting.
The background of the above is more complex than the other; I feel as if I am seeing the fruit against an open sky. Consequently, I have a sense of the background more so than I do of the pear and apple. Good? Bad? It would depend on what I (the artist) want to express.
From here, we move into a bright red background.
Certainly here the background overwhelms the fruit. I think the apple pops rather nicely, but the pear is quite anemic. The red background is too much if the fruit is the picture’s focal point.
Next, the simpler striped background.
The stripes in the above painting are subtle enough not to destroy the focus of the fruit as subject matter. Additionally, the eye considers the foreground and background along with the middle ground, but the middle ground is more important than the others.
The same background, flipped over, is a bit more intense as the upper left looms over the fruit. Still, both are acceptable, but the first one is the better of the two.
Finally, I added thin lines and chevrons to the stripes.
Before you say “nice wallpaper!” let’s consider what occurs here. The fruit still is of interest, but the complexity of the background makes my eyes jump around – fruit, background, fruit, background. The foreground just vanishes and I don’t even look at it.
This was a totally fun set of exercises, especially the one with changing backgrounds. The pencil study, though, was an eye opener for me – those pencil value studies really are useful. Edgar Whitney also emphasized the importance of those value studies . . .
Okay, so here, what I learned was to see a painting a bit like a photograph. Areas of interest are focused upon with detail and edges. Areas of lesser interest have less detail and softer or more blurred edges. I did this with the edges of the cloth upon which the fruit sits – the fruit is the area of interest, so more detail and clearly defined edges. The cloth and surface upon which the fruit sit is softer and less detailed; the cloth has greater detail than the table, but less than the fruit.
Finally, the amount of detail in the background varies, and it has a direct affect on the fruit. The more detailed the background, the flatter and less 3-D the painting. And the less interest the viewer has in those delectable pieces of fruit!
Whew! It’s gonna take a bit for this to sink in . . .