Hard and soft edges: painting terms

In my Skillshare class, "Abstract Art with a Twist," I use the terms "hard edges" and "loose" or "soft edges."

These terms can be confusing and can vary somewhat based on the medium you choose.  I wanted to share a bit with you about these definitions so you will feel more confident in understanding them and in using them yourselves.


You can paint with hard edges, where the strokes are completely finished and defined.  If you squint and stand a few feet from your work, these contrasting areas will stand out quicker than any other area in your painting.  Allowing a coat to dry, and then painting the next application will help you achieve this effect faster.

Hard edge can refer to brushwork, but can also summarize an entire style of modern painting.  This style features contrasting colors next to each other.  The artist would "finish" each pure color area with finished brushstrokes that were strong and final.  This style is often found in abstract painting and is easy to achieve in the acrylic medium.


Sometimes I use "soft" and "loose" interchangeably.  Generally, I'm referring to your choice to mix paints on the surface of the canvas instead of allowing contrasting colors to stand alone.

You can paint with soft edges.  In acrylics, you achieve this technique by painting wet-on-wet because you can mix the wet colors together on the canvas.  You must work fast, because acrylics have a quick drying time.  If you are working in watercolors, you can achieve this effect easily, and you have a little more time to play on the surface of the paper.  Oils also have a much slower paint-drying time, so you have more time to investigate soft edges in this medium.

You can associate blending colors with soft edges.


Sometimes artists talk about "loose painting" with references to Impressionism.  What they are saying is that the artist (example:  Claude Monet) used loose brushwork to give an impression rather than a 100% faithful representation of what he saw.  When you hear an instructor tell you to "keep your brushwork loose" or to "loosen up," this is the spirit of what they are saying.

When I refer to loose work in my video presentation, I generally mean leaving a brushstroke open or less defined.  If you paint digitally at all, you understand the difference between closed and open strokes.  For those who do not paint digitally, I have mapped out some terms in Kandinsky's "Several Circles" painting from 1926, which is now in the Guggenheim Museum.

Here is another artist's view on soft and hard edges.  He even further defines lost and found edges, and he uses the mediums of pencil and of oil paints.

I hope this helps you at least a little bit in understanding what artists mean when they talk about these terms.  Please let me know if you have any questions, and happy painting!



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