Measuring air

The Duchess © Samantha Groenestyn

The Duchess © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

Lately, some thinking about edges. The potency of the edge is a recent revelation to me. As Nelson (p. 133) begins his chapter titled Edge control and atmposhere, ‘Edges do not take care of themselves.’ Having worked a lot in gouache—a far more immediate and less forgiving medium than oils—and often from photographs, I’ve usually thought of an edge as no more than the end of one shape of colour and the beginning of another, and the meeting of these two creates a sharp and distinct boundary. I’ve left them to take care of themselves. In my transition to oils, I’ve found that working in this same way, as though my paint has dried almost as soon as I’ve laid it down, and thinking of discrete objects in my paintings, I’ve achieved an undesirably sharp result that tonal similarity cannot soften. So: the edges must be manipulated, but according to what rationale?

Nelson (p. 134) assuages me with the observation that ‘edges are spooky, a part of the painting that artists revere and dread, a zone of high-density intelligence which seems impossible to comprehend with eye and mind, let alone master with the hand.’ Far from being intuitive, or demanding any formulaic response, edges are indeed as difficult as I’ve discovered them to be, and require thought and intention. Blurring all edges indiscriminately creates an atmospheric mush, but introducing this softness and haze intelligently can coax some of this atmospheric quality into an otherwise firmly handled painting. Appealed to just right (like some fickle Greek god), the edge can give a painting the oxygen it needs to breathe.

This metaphor of breathing seems incredibly apt: my reading has led me to conclude that in considering edges one is constantly making reference to air, and the way it flows around subjects, and the way it carries light, the way it picks up leaves and stray locks of hair and the way it caresses and obscures things in the distance. Nelson (p. 139) plainly asserts that ‘all matters of edges relate to atmosphere.’ The edge, far from being the clear intersection of two separate forms, is a matter of space, stuffed full of air, and itself extended in the physical world. Our eyes witness the fluidity of edges in the physical world, the way they drift and roll and change shape with the slightest movement. The painter must not be satisfied with an ‘accurate’ linear representation of an object’s outline, but always have in her mind the three-dimensional extension of the thing, and how it sits in space, or, better, how space encapsulates it.

‘In representational work,’ Nelson (p. 133) elaborates, ‘the edges are intensely pregnant in their references to space. Especially among motives that curve, the edges designate the most complicated parts of the object.’ Information positively bulges at the edges, as vast tracts of physical substance are contracted when transferred to a two-dimensional representation. Rather than solidly ending, a substance approaches its limit—just as Zeno described Atalanta approaching the end of the race but never finishing by halving the distance at each interval, paradoxically creating infinite information at the cusp. Nelson (p. 134), in a feat of writerly brilliance, calls this ‘the perceptual asymptote.’ And one only has to imagine, as he asks us to, an arm as it curves away from sight, where what we see as an edge is in fact another side of the arm with just as much information as the side facing us. Add to this the way that light glances off this edge that is perpendicular to our vision, and into our eye, rather than bouncing in directly with the full gamut of information, and it’s clearer why the edge is so elusive to us.

Fortunately, we can look to the giants of the past to aid our deliberations. Nelson (p. 135) identifies a reasonably consistent approach in the old masters, who vary the edge according to the curvature at this limit. Put simply, if a fold of fabric turns sharply out of view, the edge is correspondingly crisp; if a meaty thigh folds broadly away from our eyes, its edge will be soft. ‘The edge is harbouring maybe 25 centimetres of skin in a seductive argument of concealment and revelation; the edge, which in spatial terms is like nothing, becomes a kind of mysterious synopsis of a much larger stretch of the anatomy; it embodies a kind of immanence for much skin which, in turn, contributes much to the immanence of the paint’ (p. 135).

Girl in a fur detail

My daily personal studies in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, have turned my mind to this question, as I gaze inquiringly at the likes of Titian. Two works I return to again and again are Girl in a fur and Nymph and shepherd, two of his gloriously atmospheric works that stand in marked contrast to the crisper, less arresting portraits. When one sees the gentle amalgam of skin and fur, one knows that the strange rough, fluffiness of edges is right. The fur-clad lady is serenely wrapped; she is an invitation to contemplate beauty, and there is nothing confronting or inelegant about her. After some time of admiring the beautiful interlocking triangles that her bare skin and fur cloak make, one notices her exposed breast, a beautiful plump, round thing whose edge is treated with such finesse that it melts into her arm. No crude outline could impregnate the edge of this globe with so much information, and at the same time install it as a small treasure to be discovered with time in a broader image with more dramatic things to arrest the eyes.


Similarly, Titian’s edges in the Nymph and shepherd are extravagantly hazy. A solid inch of fuzz seems to mark the division between flesh and background, but not obscuringly so. Even the bone-china pale expanse of leg of the nymph dissolves into the tar-black ground with such deftness! Titian has here used edges in conjunction with extreme tones to manipulate space in an alarmingly descriptive way. I looked on in amazement as I saw the sharp turn of the arm from the hip over her expansive lap, and the way her legs twisted over and away so convincingly, like a doona rolling off the far edge of a bed. There is nothing flat about this painting.

Titian nymph detail

Titian gives us some bold suggestions, and my investigations are by no means complete. Nelson keeps this chapter short; more of an introduction to the elusive art of edge control, not offering any firm ideas on where to begin. But he encourages us not to shy away from the practical and intellectual challenge before us. ‘The edge is intensely physical and, by metaphor, intensely intellectual,’ he (p. 142) argues. ‘It makes good sense that the theme is both technical and conceptual, both material based and atmospheric. The zone between matter and ideas is just the kind of edge that you would expect artists to work on.’

And so, perhaps a little hazier, but fortified with ideas, we begin to delve into that infinite, airy chasm between one form and another.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


3 thoughts on “Measuring air

  1. Pingback: The Duchess’s bookshelf of becoming super excellent | The Duchess

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