lost and found edges in watercolor art

Why you Need Lost and Found (or Hard and Soft) Edges in Watercolor

I recently painted this watercolor sketch as a way to explain the concept of lost and found edges in watercolors. This is mostly a fancy name for “hard and soft edges”. But in art, “lost edges” are a special type of soft edge where two adjacent shapes appear to combine to become one big shape.

Good artists use a wide variety of edges in their paintings, ranging from sharp well defined edges to blurred and soft. Lost edges, like the ones in this painting, force the viewer to use their imagination to “fill in the blanks” of missing information.

In this article I'll explain all about edges in art, and the various watercolor techniques for painting and controlling edges. Edge control in watercolors can be a useful way to improve your artwork. 

(if you’d like to try this watercolor exercise for yourself you can download the worksheet for painting it here...)

lost and found edges watercolor exercise

If you’d like to try this watercolor exercise for yourself you can download the worksheet for painting it here...

The paints I used for this watercolor were the following Daniel Smith colors:


What are lost, found, hard, and soft edges in watercolor?


What is an edge?

An edge marks the boundary between one object or another, or from one surface to another.

Sometimes this boundary is clearly defined and you can see an obvious outline. This results in a hard edge (otherwise referred to in art as a found edge).

You can see some very hard edges in this painting, in particular where the oval shape inside the cup meets the bottom lip of the cup, the shaded part of the handle, or where the side of the cookie contrasts with the background.

At other times the boundary between two things is less well defined. The transition between one surface and another is blurred, resulting in a soft edge.

For example you can see soft edges on the underside of the cookies where they touch the shadow shape underneath.

If you take soft edges to the extreme, you get what artists call a lost edge. This is where shapes appear to merge together and you can’t really see where one shape ends and the other begins. The edge becomes so soft that it gets “lost”. You have to engage your imagination to understand where the real boundaries lie.

In this painting I deliberately “lost” the edge between the side of the white cup and the white background. By leaving this part of the paper untouched the surfaces appear to completely merge into each other. The same idea is used between the shaded side of the cup and the cast shadow. You can’t distinguish between shade and shadow and they become one whole shape.

How to Paint Lost and Found Edges in Watercolor


The first thing to note is that edges appear more pronounced when the difference in value is larger.

(Remember that in art, value is a term used to describe differences in lightness or darkness - light colors are referred to as “light toned” and dark colors are said to be “dark toned”).

watercolor value scale

In watercolors or any other art medium, edges occur when you create a difference in color and value.

Let’s use this painting as an example. The shading on the side of the cup fades out to a very light toned color. My paint was very diluted with a large amount of water, but you can still see a distinct edge where the brush stroke ends and the white paper begins. But because the white surface and the light colored paint are very close in value, this edge is not very noticeable.

watercolor edge with low difference in value

Now look at the difference in value between the coffee colored oval which was painted with a strong mix of paint, and the white paper. These highly contrasting values make this edge stand out much more.

watercolor edge with high difference in value

So in general, neighboring shapes of similar value tend to have less obvious edges.

But adjacent shapes with big differences in values have well defined edges.


Watercolor Techniques for Painting Edges


In watercolors  you need different techniques to produce hard edges compared to soft or lost edges.

Dry techniques are good for creating hard, “found edges”. 

You can paint sharp, crisp edges in watercolor using wet-on-dry brush techniques. This means painting with a damp brush directly onto a dry surface.

You can see this clearly when I paint the coffee inside the cup. Because the surface of the paper is dry, the edge of my brush marks are precise and sharp. This is typical of painting in wet-on-dry.

wet-on-dry for painting hard edges

On the other hand, wet techniques are good for smooth or lost edges. 

I painted the lost edge between the shaded part of the cup and the cast shadow by using a wet-on-wet technique. I pre-wet the paper using clear water before dropping in a light gray colored paint. 

wet-on-wet for painting lost edges

And to make soft edges like the ones at the edge of the cookie’s shadow, I used a blotted brush to progressively blend out the wet paint.

blending soft edges in watercolor


Painting Edges in Watercolor - Step by Step.


Let's have a look at how I painted this watercolor step by step. 

Start by sketching  a pencil outline onto watercolor paper then tape down the sheet onto a board.

Then pre-wet one side of the cup and the whole of the shadow side of the subjects with clear water.

Next, drop in a mixture of light gray paint to the shaded side of the cup and the cast shadow. Treat both areas as if they were one big shape. Because we're painting on a wet surface, the colored pigments diffuse nicely and create a soft blended edge. 

If you need to, blot your brush in rinse water and use this to blend out the sides of the shadow shape so that the gradient of color is evenly distributed and fades into the white of the paper.

Continue painting while the surface is still wet and drop in some brown color just above the cookies. This will help produce the impression that the cookies are reflected in the side of the cup. 

Do the same thing using a stronger valued gray paint above and below the cookies. Shadows and shading tend to be stronger at the point where two surfaces meet.

Add some more brown to the side of the cup. Vary your colors slightly to produce a more interesting end result. The way colors merge and diffuse during a wet-on-wet technique is one of the unique characteristics of watercolor.  

Add a gradient of gray to the inside wall of the cup. To do this, start with a stronger valued mixture, then rinse and blot your brush repeatedly to blend out the gray paint.

Now paint the oval coffee shape using a strong mix of brown. As you progress from left to right, dilute the paint mixture slightly so the color becomes lighter.

Before the coffee color dries, add some more brown brush strokes to the left hand side, where the coffee and shadow meet up. Try to blend together the coffee and shadow shapes to produce a lost edge.

step by step painting lost and found edges in watercolor


Now you can add some details to the handle. Paint using a wet-on-dry technique, using damp brush marks directly onto dry paper. This will give the handle a more detailed appearance.

Next you can turn your attention to the cookies. Paint both cookie shapes as if they were one single form. Start with a light valued brown color, and drop in some darker brown to the shaded parts of the cookies. Let the color diffuse into the damp surface.

When the underlying wash has dried, add some hard edges detail to the surface of the cookies. leave the paint to dry before moving on to the next stage.

Add a new layer of gray paint to build up the values of the shadows above and below the cookies and the inside corner of the cup. Then start adding some more textured details to the surface of the cookies with a warm brown color. Building up layers of paint like this is a watercolor technique known as glazing.

Let this layer of paint dry, and as a final touch mix up a very dark brown color and add some detailed shapes to represent the chocolate chips in the cookies and a few very dark texture lines.

To create the soft edge underneath the cookies, add a couple of brush strokes of warm brown paint to the bottom of the cookies themselves, and blend this color downwards towards the shadow.

step by step watercolor lost and found edges part 2

Using Lost and Found Edges in Art


I think the important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t always have to paint only hard well defined edges to represent your subjects.

Lost edges can also become a useful compositional tool.

Hard edges encourage the eye to focus. The hard edges of the oval coffee shape capture the eye and draw a person's attention. I would argue that this becomes the main focal point of the composition.

The cup itself exploits the idea of lost edges. You don’t actually need to see the edges of the cup to understand where the real boundaries should be. 

These soft, lost edges demand less attention and are the opposite of the well defined edges. By keeping the edges of the cup vague, lost edges help support the focus of your artwork.

A piece of art that uses lost edges can be more interesting than a well defined illustration. This is the beauty of using lost edges. Your artwork becomes a bit of a brain teaser. 

And our brains are extremely good at filling in this missing information.

edges and composition

I've started posting some of my tutorials on Youtube. If you'd like to watch this video, click here !

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