Why “Fuzzy Edges”

In painting, control of edges is an advanced technique. If all of your edges are sharp — as they were before DaVinci invented chiaroscuro — you have figure, you have ground (the space around the figure), and the two are so separate that the figure looks like a cut-out against the ground. DaVinci figured out that if you place your figure in the dark and then dissolve one edge of your figure into the surrounding shadow, your figure looks more at one with the space. And so the study of transitions within western painting began. It can get a lot more complicated and subtle, what with reflected light and reflected colors and glare. But ultimately, the manipulation of edges has to do with the concept of division or unity. It is a visual explication of a worldview.

It is about me and not-me, you and not-you. It is about the theory of Otherness, or the theory of Unity. Your relationship to an edge is your relationship to the whole Universe.


After DaVinci, Raphael came up with a formula of tonal progression that leads from light to dark to reflected light, and this formula became ubiquitous in academic painting, but the reflected light on the far edge maintained the edge’s sharpness. Advances in edge transitions came from the people who discarded the formula. For instance, you can see edge work in Ingres where sometimes he uses a hard edge to indicate bones near the surface and a soft edge to indicate soft flesh going backwards in the z-plane, but even within a single painting, the formula isn’t hard and fast. The technique of manipulating hard vs soft edges has as much to do with leading the eye as it does with the anatomical nature of the form being portrayed. That’s why the manipulation of edges is an advanced technique: there is no formula. But there is a philosophical implication, and you get a visceral sense of this when you soften an edge.

If you’re painting in oils, you literally drag the paint from ground into the figure, or vice-versa. In this dragging, you destroy the border between figure and ground. And this is tricky. If you destroy all the edges, then you can find yourself lost in an amorphous blur. Something, somewhere on the picture plane, must be sharp, to give you a sense of your bearings. So say, in this Whistler, we have a few points of light, picked out against shadows, in an otherwise amorphous blur, and because of those sharp points of light, we know where we are.

james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-nocturne-grey-and-silverWe are living right now in a time of polarization, in which Us and Them have been set out with sharp edges. There is no mixing. Yet the polarization is artificial. You and I, we may have our differences, but we also have our similarities. We may agree, for instance, about problems, but we may differ about solutions because we entertain different narratives about how we got here.

My work raises questions about our internal narratives. There will — and there should be — hard edges we will not violate, edges in our lives that define our integrity and identity. But there should also be soft edges where we can hear and respect each other and recognize our commonality. Places where the division between you and me disappears.

For me, the act of painting is the act of crossing over to the Other. It is method acting, without an audience. I paint when I see that the Other has something to teach me, and the only way I can learn that lesson is to become the Other, for the space of time I am painting. When I was young I painted political Others. Then I painted animal Others, mostly because I enjoyed hanging out with the animals. Now I am painting plant Others, because it’s hard and it’s fun, and I’d like to bring people along with me. My paintings are bridges to meet with Others. They are records of journeys, footprints in the snow, and an invitation to you to come with me, so you too can see the cool things I saw when I was there, in a deer, in another person, in a tree.


Shelah Horvitz is a fine artist living in Massachusetts and Maine. Since she was trained as a writer as well as an artist, she uses this WordPress blog for ideas that need words. You can see more of her artwork at http://www.shelahhorvitz.com


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