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Rembrandt and Lost and Found Edges

How using fewer brushstrokes and edges can make a stronger painting.

In my class; "Classical Training for Artists" which is a beginning painting class based on art history and contributions by major artists, we study the work of Rembrandt and his use of lost and found edges.

Edges are crucial in painting as they help to lead the eye around to the areas that are most important to the artist. For example, look at this amazing self portrait Rembrandt did in his 20's.

Notice how little detail you see in the face yet your eyes register that facial features

This is a great example of lost and found edges. Rembrandt did a great portrait of the light on his ear area-all found edges, and left his features in shadow and undefined-all lost edges, yet you clearly see that it is a portrait and can make out a likeness.

In his later works you can clearly see how he guides your eye through the composition with lost and found edges. Here's "Artist in his Studio" which brings the hard edges of an easel into sharp focus and the figure of the artist soft focus and lost in the background!

Seems like the light emanates from the canvas yet you can't even see it! Hard edges on the easel, soft edges on the artist!

To teach about lost and found edges, I start with a simple still life like a candle and a glass.

We then do a subtractive drawing of the still life using charcoal and paper. Subtractive drawing is where you cover the paper in charcoal (toning) then erase out the lights and add in the darks.

We then discuss the concept of lost and found edges and look at examples of Rembrandt and other artist's works. I ask people to go back to their value sketch and "lose three edges" that are not important to the painting. Usually the bottom of the candle, sides of the bottle or glass, etc. Sometimes we have to turn the lights out in the studio to see the candlelight without the glare of modern light.

Next we tone the canvas with raw umber thinned down with linseed oil or odorless mineral spirits, and use subtractive painting to "erase out" the lights in the shape of the candle. THe glass is temporarily removed from the still life.

The wiping out of the lights is an easy way for beginners to draw on the canvas, and it keeps the scene dark so it's easier to lose edges. Most beginner painters are afraid of darks and don't go dark enough, so this really gets people used to working with darker values.

Next we start painting the candle, adding in the middle values and lights.

Then we add in the top of the candle (warmer colors) and the flame.

At this point the candle is mostly painted, so the glass gets put back into the still life and we turn out the overhead studio lights, and study the glass bottle. How can you paint that bottle in 12 strokes or less? What edges are most important and what edges can be lost?

Lights go back on, and people have 12 strokes to paint the bottle (or wineglass) into place.

Here's a glass demo painted in 12 strokes

Here's a bottle demo painted in 12 strokes

The concept behind this is not really how few strokes it takes to paint the bottle or glass, but rather how few edges it takes to define the subjects. Most beginners think they need to outline everything and would immediately start to outline the glass. Instead, study your subject and realise that you can give the impression of a glass with just a few simple strokes. Thats really all that you need to make your point.

Using lost and found edges makes the difference between a good painting and a bad painting. The more conscious you are of your edges, the more you guide viewers through your work and make an impact.

Experiment with this idea and feel free to use the candle/glass exercise if you are up to the challenge. I'd love to see what you come up with so please post it!

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