Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Lost Edges

Second Thoughts, 18 x 18 inches, oil on linen

This is one of my favorite paintings I've done recently. It took forever, too–though it may not look like it.

The background changed over a dozen times. I tried a very dark background, and a very light background, and a bunch of in-between values, and I flip-flopped a lot.

The figure itself (except the head) came together pretty quickly, mainly because I stayed within a "normal" color scheme. That is to say, the local colors of skin and dress are more or less what it was, and I did not emphasize the color of the light source nor use a subjective color theme.

I wanted her hands to be suggested and not rendered, so that took many tries of pushing paint around to make it look like I (almost) accidentally slapped paint on the right spot.  As nothing else in the painting is rendered tightly, the hands needed to fit that context too. But it's really hard to get the drawing right for a convincing gesture without resorting to noodling out each finger. I was very happy with the way they came out.

The head gave me a lot of trouble, too. I wanted to suggest anonymity and obscurity, as opposed to independent identity, which meant that I needed to paint it without much definition of actual features. 

Cropping the head where I did, is another way of not defining the identity of the figure. It has to do with creating mystery, and that means withholding information. If you know my work, you may have noticed that unless I'm specifically doing a head study, I don't paint facial features. I throw the face in the shadow, turn the head away from the viewer, abstracted it, or like in this case, chop it off and do all of the above.

This painting utilizes lost edges quite a bit. There are a lot of areas where one shape encroaches onto another, resulting in abstraction and simplification. If something doesn't need to be clearly defined, why define it? If there's a good reason – like separation of shapes creates two nice shapes rather than one boring shape, or may be it creates more tension, or it's a chance to use another color, or the painting just doesn't make sense without that separation– but there needs to be a reason for it. 

Wherever you see me lose an edge, you can be sure I've tried separating the shapes too. I may have gone back and forth between losing and keeping that edge several times. That's typical of how I work. I mean I just can't tell which is better until I see both ways. And even then, I may change my mind later as surrounding areas change as the painting develops.

One way to make losing edges less scary is to make sure your color harmony is working. In this painting, everything in light has yellows and reds in it, and everything in shadow leans toward violet. Even the brownish areas of the skin in shadow, and the dark red areas of the dress in shadow have blues in them. When two adjacent areas are not only close in value but also in color, connecting them to make one shape is a lot easier to pull off than if the colors are very different.

Two adjacent shapes being close in value is almost a given for a lost edge between them. They don't have to be exactly the same, but if they're very different, you can't connect them without having some sort of a gradation, which is more like a soft edge and not a lost edge.

The boldest lost edge in this painting is where I pulled in the background color into the girl's back. You can see I pulled the color also over the chest and the neck area. Though I didn't lose edges there, having the same colors there ties the whole area together, and helps to make sense of the foreign color in the area where we expect to see a normal skin color or that of the dress. 

The real key to pulling that off is to make it look absolutely intentional. If you're unsure or timid, it shows, and it'll look like you tried to fake it. You have to put it down like you mean it, even if you don't know what you're doing. As I always tell my students, paint like you're lying to a child.  Santa Claus? But of course he's real!

One more thing on edges. Very sharp edges are like accents, especially in a context where much of the painting is loose and brushy. I tried to use sharp edges strategically. Most of them, if paired with value contrast, help to lead the eye to the hands. Edges which are sharp but where values are close don't stand out so they don't demand attention from the viewer, but they do contribute to the sense of decisiveness and intention to the painting. But whether they're used as accents or not, they need to be used in conjunction with soft and lost edges to be meaningful. I'm only talking in the context of my paintings, of course. I can't make a broad statement like that and claim it to be true for all paintings.


  1. This painting is beautiful, and your description of the process was very helpful to me. So much so that I took notes so I would remember. ��

    1. Thank you Shelley! Glad it was helpful!

  2. Hi Terry, very nice painting! I like the way you are able to keep such a fresh paint quality in spite of working it so much. I also like your comments about acting like you know what you are doing even when you don't. True statement!

    1. Thanks Allen~! Yes, I use the example of people who don't know what they're talking about, but talk as if they do, and we believe them, every time!

  3. "Paint like you are lying to a child." I need to tape that up where I can be constantly reminded. The eyes are constantly returned to the hands in this painting, and they feel more completely rendered than they are. Nice deliberate work toward that end.

    1. Thanks Mitch! Happy to know the painting works as I intended :-D