Nature morte, technique de peinture: bords durs et doux

This still life painting technique is explained and demonstrated by Michael Chesley Johnson. For more information on painting hard and soft edges, see his Brushing Up article in the October 2015 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

3 Muses (oil on panel, 12x9) by Michael Chesley Johnson

3 Muses (oil on panel, 12×9) by Michael Chesley Johnson

Painting a still life gives you plenty of opportunity for manipulating edges—a valuable still life painting technique. Ideally, a piece in this genre should be full of soft and lost edges with just a few hard edges to steer the eye around the painting.


1. Photograph of setup.

1. The setup

1. In the photograph of my setup, you can readily see where edges are soft or lost. The bottle seems to dissolve into the background, and its edges become lost. The bottle’s labels and cap get darker as they turn away from the light, and their edges become softer. The ceramic mermaid, the bottle label and the incense burner all have hard edges. The very hardest edges are around the lightest values of the mermaid and the reflected highlights on the bottle.


2. Lighting of still life setup

2. Lighting of still life setup

2. I control my edges in the setup with proper lighting. First I enclose the setup within a partial cardboard box in order to shield the elements from ambient light. A single-point source of light illuminates the setup from the right.


3. Still life painting technique: block-in

3. Block-in

3. I block in my large, simple shapes with the average value and color of each. I purposely keep all my edges soft and fuzzy, because I plan to sharpen them later (the sharper edges you see are all artifacts of the tools I used to place them—a knife edge for the incense stick; the tip of my brush handle for the incense burner; and a Colour Shaper (a small silicone blade on a brush handle) to place the mermaid; These I’ll soften selectively later).


4. Still life painting technique: determine sharp edges

4. Determine sharp edges

4. I bring the painting up to the next level by making my darks more solid, adjusting the drawing and deciding which edges I will keep sharp. Accordingly, I sharpen the edge of the bottle label that’s closest to the viewer; I add and soften the bit of smoke drifting away from the incense stick. I added sharp, pointed reflective highlights to the bottle, and “edgy” highlights to the edge of the incense burner and the mermaid. I’ve also add a tiny dot of yellow-orange, sharply laid, where the ember glows at the tip of the incense stick.


3 Muses (oil on panel, XxXX) by Michael Chesley Johnson

3 Muses (oil on panel, 12×9) by Michael Chesley Johnson

5. To finish the painting, I play with the depiction of cloth beneath my setup, removing a hard-edged shadow that I felt prevented the viewer from entering the painting. I harden the edge of the shadow directly beneath the mermaid, preferring to use that as the lead-in for the eye to 3 Muses (oil on panel, 12×9).

Learn More About this Still Life Painting Technique

  • Three-Dimensional” drawing demo: using hard and soft edges online article by juliette aristides>
  • Painting” demo: how to use hard and soft edges online article by jane jones>
  • Still Lifes: Essential Lessons for Oil, Watercolor and Pastel Painting (digital magazine)
  • Visual Concepts in Still Life With Sherrie McGraw (DVD—Watch the preview!)


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