All About Lost & Found Edges

Did you know?

That not many new students know the contrast of tone controls the perspective and dimension of objects in their paintings, or how the quality of edges can turn a mediocre painting into a masterpiece just by:

  1. Creating a 3D effect: In order to see form within paintings, from that of its surroundings, one has to be able to judge the difference and contrast of dark and light tones.
  2. Using lost and found edges: Controlling the quality of contour edges adds drama to your paintings and helps to settle objects comfortably within their surroundings.

 It’s a fact that without these two factors, a painting will mean nothing if people can’t distinguish what is actually in your paintings. All is not lost if you read on….

All you need to do is use strong contrast.

The strong darkness of the dry trees gives the watercolour depth.

What are ‘Lost and found’ edges?

Lost and found edges describe the quality or state of perimeters, ie outer contour edges of shapes, brushstrokes and planes.

Found-edges are sharp-edges or hard-edges. They happen when the paper is dry.

  • Neat detail has sharp-edges and outlines. Detailed things are seen as static.
  • Neat well-defined contour edges and brushstrokes are easily read.
  • If sharp-edges are overdone, your painting looks lifeless, contrived and stiff.
  • Sharp-edges convey an object has sharp edges, eg: knife blade, jagged rocks, etc.
  • Sharp-edged planes: Example mountain ranges. If the contour edge is sharp all along the mountain range, it isn’t natural. Perspectively, things in the distance are out of focus. You only find sharp edges where there is a distinct severe cliff face. Rolling hills have soft-edged contours.
  • If all the things in the painting are sharp-edged the painting looks stiff and contrived.

Lost-edges are soft blurred edges, that is blended contours and graduated auras between form and its immediate background. This happens when the paper is wet or damp.

Things that live grow and move:

Examples: grass, trees and washing on the line blow in the wind. The wings of flying birds are not easily seen because they are blurred. Therefore:

  • Soft-edges suggest movement, action and motion.
  • All moving things are blurred. Moving feet and bicycle wheels are blurred. You don’t even see the feet of people walking in the distance. This confirms that fewer brushstrokes say more.
  • Blurred contours also suggest that something is round, sphere shaped, like balls, eggs and rolling hills.
  • You create mood when you blur things.
  • Blurred areas imply smoke, mist and mystery.
  • Blurring suggest atmospheric dimension (aerial perspective).
  • Importantly, soft-edges stimulate our senses and create emotion.
All edges

The difference between lost and found edges.

All things have shadows.

The egg has a round contour, therefore its shadow edges are blurred.

How do you make lost and found edges?

  • You get lost-edges when your watercolour paper is wet or semi-wet.
  • You get clear found-edges when your watercolour paper is dry.

Where do you use lost and found edges?

  • Lost edges are generally used around the outer edges of your painting. Why, because this creates a tunnel effect, drawing the eye inwards, into the painting and towards the main point of interest.
  • Found-edges and strong contrast of tone are generally found at the main point of interest in the painting. Sharp contrast of tone attracts the eye, bringing the main subject into focus and giving it importance.

Why use contrast of tone?

If everything is neatly detailed at the same tone level throughout the painting, people can’t cipher what’s happening in your painting. There needs to be a big difference of tone at the main point of interest to distinguish its importance from that of the rest of the painting.

Variation of edges is important:

  • Sharp-edges make things look static, lifeless.
  • Sharp-edged objects stand out away from their surroundings. If you soften their outer contour edges they melt into place, settle nicely into their environment.
  • Blurred edges make it easier for the eye to travel over and through your painting. The perusing of the eye is not jarred from one form to another or from one plane to another.
  • Variation of edges is more appealing.
  • Blurred areas give the painting atmosphere and endless fascination.
  • Flower petals are delicate, so give them soft blurred edges. Unless of cause you want to draw attention to the main point of interest.
  • Textured things have ‘broken’ edges, intermittent contours.
  • Gradation of colour and tone along contour edges also softens an edge.
All along the edge.

Softening the edges of flower petals with gradation.

Here I did one flower at a time, from left to right.

  1. First the flower colour,
  2. Then wetted the contour edge of the flower with fresh clean water.
  3. Then I added an intermediate transitional colour to the wet contour edge.
  4. Then the green background was added to the right.
  5. I dropped in a little colour into the green background to suggest out of focus buds.
  6. Lastly I added the stamen and pistils to the flowers’ centers.

That is not all:

If you want to experience more, download the free books on watercolours on the page: Free Art Books.

Why Watch the Paper?

Watercolours are NOT difficult as most people seem to think:

  • All it takes is watching the state of your paper,
  • When to apply your brush,
  • Watching where you put your brush,
  • And how much liquid on your brush and paper.
  • How the quality of the paper makes a difference.
  • And lastly how to control the condition of your paper.
Watch the watercolour paper.

A5 watercolour: The old road to the homestead.

Watching the state of the paper:

It’s important to always watch the condition of your watercolour paper before applying paint:

  • Wet-in-wet: If your paper is too wet, you will get very blurry washes and vague shapes. Why? Because paint runs very easily on wet paper. Therefore things will only be blurred where you have pre-wet the paper.
  • Wet-in-dry: That is, wet brush on dry paper. When the paper is dry, you’ll get sharp-edged brushstrokes. Dry paper gives you sharp-edged detail.
  • But if you want soft-edged brushstrokes and contour edges, wait until the paper isn’t too wet or too dry. The stage of dampness depends on how blurred you require the result.
Remember the stage or state of wetness, dampness or dryness of your paper controls the condition of the effects you are trying to create.Waiting and judging for the right moment to apply your paint is called `timing’.

 Spreading your paint:

  • If you have trouble spreading your paint: It’s because you don’t have enough liquid on your brush, and the paper is too dry. If your brush is big and fully loaded (with water and paint) and your paper is wet, the easier the brush will flow over the paper.
  • Basically it’s the amount of liquid that controls any wash. That is: how much liquid there is on your brush and on the paper.
  • If the paper is dry and has textured tooth (rough surface), you will get a broken-colour-wash of colour. The reason why, is because paint only covers tips and not enough paint to fall into the hollows of the rough textured paper.
Watch how paint spreads over tooth.

What ‘tooth’ means and how paint spreads over the tooth on textured paper.

Timing of application:

It is just the matter of judging the state of your paper, whether the paper is dry, wet, damp or semi-dry, before you apply your brush:

  • If there is a pool of water (and paint) on your paper, mop it up quickly before you have a disaster.
  • If there too much liquid on your brush you’ll get `cabbage’ wash effects.
  • If your paper is wet, the paint will run very easily.
  • If the paper is shiny, it’s still wet.
  • If the paper is semi-glossy, it’s starting to dry.
  • If the paper is starting to go dull, it’s damp.
  • If the paper is matt, it’s dry.

 How to see the state of the paper:

I often get the question at this stage of instruction: “How do you see how glossy the paper is or not?”

If you are not seeing the difference, place your painting between you and the nearest window. It is easier to see this during the day.

The more you paint, the more you get your `timing’ right. No one can actually tell you what really occurs unless you observe and experience it for yourself.

Watch what you are doing: Be careful where you place your brush. Watch how your brush spreads its hairs. Don’t rush, watch how the paint spreads and blends.

 The quality of the paper:

  • Thin paper cockles and buckles badly. Pools of water collect in the valleys of the paper.
  • Wood-pulp paper, eg: blank newspaper, goes yellow in time.
  • Avoid acid-free paper, it goes yellow in time.
  • Hot pressed paper is very smooth. The paint sits in globules on its shiny surface.
  • Very absorbent types of paper suck up liquid too quickly, to make it easy to spread paint. You need more liquid to apply unbroken smooth washes.
  • Thick textured paper needs more liquid to fill in the valleys of the `tooth’. A damp brush catches only the tips of the tooth because there isn’t enough liquid on the brush to run into the tooth valleys of the paper’s texture.
  • On the other hand thick textured paper is perfect to make dappled segmented effects. First wet your paper and fully load your brush with segmented pigments.
  • Fine tooth, semi-absorbent cold-pressed paper gives you smooth blends and gradations. This creates beautiful atmospheric washes.
  • You need to practice often to learn how to handle Waka-sen and Jito-shi Japanese papers. Some artists use rice paper instead. I don’t think Japanese papers are available in South Africa.

Environment control:

Working out doors your paper gets dry quicker than if you were working indoors.

  • Place a piece of wet velt or dish-clothe on a light panelite board. The velt helps to keep your paper damp. The size of the board depends on the size of your watercolour paper. You don’t usually work with big sheets of paper when working outdoors. The wind is sure to give you opposition.
  • Spray or sponge your paper with water, both sides before starting to paint.
  • To hasten the drying time when working indoors, place your watercolour painting on a dry towel. This allows the air to circulate and dry your paper.
  • If you use a hair dryer to quicken the drying time, the paper buckles and the paint dries unevenly, especially if the paper is thin and of poor quality.
  • Controlling soft-edges: Say you are painting a bowl of flowers and want to keep the petal edges delicate. Soften the edges of the flower’s contour edge with a clean wet brush. And keep it somewhat wet until you get around to painting around it.


The best water to use for watercolours:

  • Very hard water is inclined to precipitate the pigment particles, ie hastens vapour to form solid deposits.
  • If you haven’t any soft water, try using rainwater or distilled water instead.

For more tips on watercolour, check out the free downloads of watercolour books.

See How Watercolour Paintings Evolve

  • Paintings evolve stage by stage, layer by layer.
  • Each layer is planned to get the best results.
  • Watercolours start with light washes of colour.
  • Tips on how and when to apply paint.
How watercolours evolve

This watercolour was painted, starting with the sky and trees.

Watercolour procedures:

With watercolours you work from light to dark. That is: you start with light washes of colour and with each additional layer of paint the painting gets darker and darker. So it is wise to control how many layers of paint you use and what you intend to do with each layer.

You can start with a light imprimatura undercoat or be selective of what area you wish to start painting in.

Imprimatura wash:

An imprimatura is an overall wash, first layer of paint that works as a background colour. It helps to link and unite all the objects within your composition. The tone-level and colour you choose for your imprimatura wash is important.

  • If the imprimatura wash is too dark, your painting will turn out dark and look depressing.
  • The colour you choose to use as our imprimatura wash is the overall undertone colour of the scene you wish to paint.
  • Imprimatura washes have an impact on how your painting is perceived. For example, if you use a light wash of raw sienna it will radiate up through the topcoats as through the sun is shining through your painting.
  • Imprimatura washes are usually warm colours. A cool colour will make you painting look cold and uninviting.
  • If your imprimatura wash is a complementary colour to the topcoats, the end result will be a grey picture, eg: Green over pink makes grey. So to keep your painting fresh be careful which colours you are using over others.
  • If your imprimatura wash is covered by another primary colour, the result will be a secondary colour, eg: Blue over yellow makes green.
How paintings evolve.

Example of starting with separate areas.

Examples of selective painting:

  • You generally start at the top of your watercolour paper and work down. That is, starting with the sky, then the background hills and lastly the foreground. This prevents smudging and the sky sets the overall tone level of the land below.
  • When painting clouds, you paint the blue of the sky first, leaving the white of the clouds. And while the paint is still wet soften the lower edges with a light grey underbelly. The tops of the clouds usually have sharper edges than the bottom edges.
  • If you are painting a bowl of flowers you generally start with the centre flowers and work outwards. Then paint in the background and vase. Lastly the foreground (table top).

Dry-to-dry procedure creates too much detail:

If you start with dry paper you’ll get neat sharp-edged brushstrokes. And once you have neat detail, it restricts creativity. It’s not so easy to soften or change anything later as most pigments stain the paper.

But, if you start with large wet blurred mass shapes, you can alter the shape of things somewhat. That is: soak up and blot paint or add paint as you wish. Working this way, working wet-in-wet, gives you more leeway for your paintings to evolve.

The wet-in-wet procedure:

  • Start by wetting (finely spraying) your paper with water before painting with colour. Wetting your paper allows your brush and paint to flow easier.
  • Add an imprimatura wash, or apply separate washes of colour that blur and create mass shapes on the wet paper.
  • As you work always watch the drying process, so as to know when to add (brush-in) more colour and shapes to build up the basic composition.
  • Also always watch your brush behaviour. So that you not only apply the brush to the right place, but how the hairs of your brush are spreading the paint on the paper. Should you level your brush horizontally or use the tip. Roll or twist your brush to make the right brushstroke shapes, etc.
  • As you add more colours, take time out to watch how the colours merge and blend. How are they interlacing with each other? Decide whether you should you tilt the paper and control where the liquid colours are running into or not? Warning: don’t interfere too much before the paint starts gelling and drying. If you leave it too late your painting will look tired and overworked.
  • Starting out with big undercoats and blurred mass shapes allows you to create atmospheric contours that are easier on the eye than sharp edges.
  • As you proceed you are defining shapes, until your painting is complete.


Before applying paint:

  • Always consider what your colour scheme you intend to use, before mixing your colours on you palette, so that you get the correct shade and tint. This saves many a dramatic mistake.
  • Always watch the consistency of your paint before applying it. Will the colour be too dark or too light? Is there too little or too much liquid on your brush?
  • What is the state of the paper? Do I want this application to blur in a wet spot or make a sharp-edged brushstroke in a dry area?

 While applying paint:

  • If you want to paint next to something and don’t want the colours to touch run and mingle, make sure the paint of the object concerned is dry before applying more paint next to it.

Planning your composition:

Because paintings evolve layer-by-layer, stage-by-stage it’s only obvious if we want our watercolour painting to be successful that we should plan the format of our paintings beforehand.

Unsuccessful watercolour paintings are generally due to starting out willy-nilly, impatiently adding more and more paint, hoping by chance the end result will be great.

If you plan your moves you’ll know what to do at any given moment. If you understand procedures and the constitution of your medium it reduces so many problems. You won’t have to force issues or make so many corrections later.

  • First take time to analyze and digest the scene you wish to paint.
  • Decide how you are going to compose the composition and how that will affect each layer of paint.
  • Whether you are going to start with an imprimatura or work selectively areas by area.
  • Investigate and think what possibilities there are. If you did this or that, what do you think will be the outcome?
  • What is the mood? What is the overall undertone colour?
  • What colour scheme should you use? How do the colours relate? Can I change the colours to make the colours more dramatic and vibrant?
  • What basic shapes are there? Take note of the main symbolic shapes, the flow of gestures and angles? How objects, forms and space relate to one another.
  • Sharp strong contrast of tone and colour shouldn’t be scattered all over your painting? That’s confusing. Where you place it is important. It should mainly be at the main paint of interest.
  • Be selective with detail. Simplify what you see and eliminates unnecessary detail. Where possible group small things together and make mass shapes out of them.
  • What possible bright highlight spots are there? If there is bright highlights, which ones do you need to use and retain the white of the paper? And if there are light fresh green leaves, start with a light green wash in that area and darken around them as you proceed to give them their mass shape.

For free downloads:

For more info, go to the page that has free manual books on painting watercolours.



Painting Space

  • Painting just objects without background is boring.
  • Consider the space in between painted objects filled with air.
  • And air is fill of energy!.
  • Atmospheric conditions give your paintings depth and create mood.
  • The emotional aspect of mood is what helps to sell your paintings.
Space is filled with energy.

A5 Watercolour: In the misty hilltops.

Just objects:

The general public sees things as objects, so it’s only natural that novices paint things as objects. And then when their endeavour doesn’t turnout as they hoped, they ask, “What is wrong with my painting? It looks childish. It doesn’t hold together some how! What’s missing?”

The environment between objects is important. It’s the condition of negative space between objects that controls the emotional impact of your paintings.

Negative space:

The space in between the objects is the environment in which the objects exist. How the negative space between the objects is painted is important.

  • The atmospheric condition within the space sets the mood of the painting.
  • The outline of objects fit like a jigsaw puzzle with the shapes of the negative areas. Consider: without the pieces of the negative space, the jigsaw picture is incomplete.
  • The outlines of the objects are the boundaries of the negative areas.

Filling open negative spaces:

Amateurs think every corner of a painting must be filled with something. For example, if there is an open space in the foreground, “Oh that area looks empty. I think I will fill it with a few rocks”.

Paintings shouldn’t be cluttered. If a painting is full of objects it becomes confusing, too much to absorb at one glance. There should be smooth open areas without detail so people can easily digest what is happening in the painting. What is important and what isn’t so important.

These open spaces are called `places of rest’:

Open uncluttered areas are restful compared with the dramatic impact of the main point of interest. Paintings are more appealing when there is about 20-45% open uncluttered spaces.

Energy of space:

When I say uncluttered, it doesn’t mean there is nothing there. The fact is space has atmosphere, and atmosphere is filled with energy. Consider radio wavelengths, etc that are in air! And how particles of dust make beautiful sunsets!

  • Energy and atmospheric depth is suggested by inter-blending soft washes of warm and cool colours.
  • Your paintings would be boring without atmospheric dimension. Atmospheric conditions give your paintings depth.

State of boundaries:

The state of these outline boundaries is important in the relationship between objects and their surroundings.

  • If objects have neat and clear contour edges, the object will stand out (alone) away from their background. Sharp contour edges drawn attention to the object. This is  partly done at the main point of interest.
  • If the outline of the objects are blurred and blend somewhat with its surroundings, the objects settle comfortably in their surroundings

Smooth transitions:

The melding relationship of the objects and their surroundings creates a smooth easy visual transition through your painting.

  • Gradation of colour and tone surrounding sharp-edged contours, eg: softening silhouettes with auras.
  • Radiation of auras around objects and within foliage pinholes against bight skies.
  • Dropping-in colours in previous washes, create blurred suggestions of things and colour variations of shadows.
That is what is so wonderful about watercolours. Watercolours make it possible to blend and merge colours and contours easily. You can create such gorgeous atmospheric vistas with watercolours, easier and better than any other medium. All it needs is a wet brush on wet paper. The amount of liquid depends on the effect you wish to create.

A lot about nothing:

Even though the open areas are non-descriptive, it can reveal out of focus objects, such as blurred grass and weeds blowing in the wind, suggestions of rocks and stones, etc. This type of out-of-focus area can be interesting, yet vague. The vagueness allows the eye to travel smoothly into and around the painting easily. Any detail and contrast there is, is there to catch, lead and direct the eye to the main point of interest.

Blurring of negative space.

A5 Watercolour: Flood of light through the mist.

Painting description:

The contrast of colours and temperature makes the painting exciting. The emphasis and contrast of tone is put on the trees and grass. In reality the basic format of the picture consists of only trees and grass! Even through the painting is filled with detail -the blurred areas counteract the busyness of the finer detail. The painting would have been even more complicated if a house, road or people had been added to the format.

MORE: You will find more on how to paint atmospheric watercolours on the page: Free art books. Just download the watercolour art book there, it’s a free download.

Power of Simplicity in Watercolours

Power of simplicity in watercolours:

  • The power of simple shapes and linear thrusts.
  • How they make your paintings more dramatic.
  • How simplifying your composition makes your watercolours more dynamic.
Power of simplicity

Power of simplicity in watercolours.

First the capability test:

Not all new art students bring their previous paintings for you to assess their dexterity skills. Without this evaluation, it’s prerequisite that their first lesson involves painting without first giving a demonstration or instruction.

Why? It is important that each person’s talent is recognised and they are given individual help according to their needs and abilities. If you start their lessons from the assessment point and take it from there, you can guide them in such a way that they can build their own personal style.

General results of the assessment:

  1. People tend to draw their composition with pencil before they paint. Often as not, they continue filling in all the details in the process with their pencil. Then when it comes time to paint, they fill in the colours like they were filling in a child’s colouring book. Conclusion: The fully drawn synopsis is too detailed. They haven’t learnt that a soft basic simple synopsis is all you need to build your painting on.
  2. If they don’t start with a pencil drawing, they are inclined to `draw’ the composition with a small thin brush on dry paper. Each component of the composition is ‘drawn’ separately and individually, without an imprimatura undercoat wash. Assumption: They can’t understand what is missing. What is wrong with their painting? Why doesn’t it jell? Conclusion: The linear painting is too detailed and has no atmospheric relationship to pull the components in the painting together.

Why start a painting with simple big mass shapes?

  • The simple dominant shapes are the basic foundation of your painting.
  • The small items and details are just your supporting cast.
  • Simplicity is the bones of your composition.
  • Detail clutter is distracting and confusing.
  • Eliminating detail at the beginning makes it easier to paint. You don’t have to fiddle around the details.
  • The less detail you have, the richer your picture.
  • Simplifying your composition strengthens your painting.
  • Dominant shapes give your paintings impact.
  • Simple structures have symbolic characteristic connotations like road signs. If the shapes are simple they are easy to ‘read’, thus giving them dynamic power.
Beauty is simplicity. Simplicity is born of knowledge. Simplicity speaks volumes. Simplicity has power. Simplicity is dramatic. Note: rich people don’t have cluttered homes. Their rooms are big and their decor simple.

Removing detail clutter:

When sizing up the scene you wish to paint, half-close your eyes. This cuts out the fine detail. It also conveys the basic tone levels and coloured areas, as simple mass shapes.

Seeing basic shapes and linear thrusts?

What are those basic shapes you see when your eye are have shut? For example, could you say that dark mass is a tree and the road zigzags back into the hills beyond?

Now open your eyes and look again at the tree. What is the basic shape of the tree? Is the outer contour shape of the tree’s canopy an umbrella shape? Or would you say the tree looks roundish, ‘bubbled’ or heart-shaped?

Now, which way does the trunk lean and which way do the branches twist? That is the linear thrust of the tree’s structure. Would you say these linear thrusts point into the painting? Do they directing the eye towards the main point of interest?

What is the flow of the hills and mountain’s contour outlines. How do they inter-flow? Is it pleasing?

These mass shape outlines and linear thrusts are your composition’s basic foundation synopsis.

So you see, breaking down what you see into simple basic shapes, makes it so much easier to select and orientate the components within your composition.

Examples of other symbolic mass shapes:

  • Cars and bicycles have round
  • House consists of squares, rectangles and triangle shapes.
  • Heads are ovoid (egg) shape.
  • Feet are basically wedge shapes.
  • Fir tree foliage is cone
  • Most vases and jugs have round bell shapes.

 Shadows shapes:

Some artists like to paint only the shadows. The areas that receive direct light they leave white. This also helps to reduce unnecessary detail. The shape of the shadow’s outline conveys the symbolic shape of the things in your paintings.

In order to see basic shadows, half-close your eyes again. Check out only the very dark and medium toned areas: these are your shadow areas. All light areas are left un-coloured.

Another way to simplify small stuff:

Is to group or link things:

  • Gather shadows into bulk shapes. Where possible leave out the fussy little bits. Then fill in the shadows’ centers with different colours according to the objects’ symbolic colour, by `dropping-in or charging’ it with cool shadow tints and shades in their local colours. The variation and gradation of colours in the shadows is what makes the painting so appealing.
  • Grouping similar tones and colours together is accepted as one unit or shape.
  • If you have a bare winter tree, don’t try to draw in every twig. Rather suggest the shape of the bare tree by first painting its overall aura form and then stroke-in a few selected twigs according to the aura form.
  • If you are painting loose fruit, for example cherries. Group them in a bowl or plate.If it’s tiny flowers, group them in floret clusters, with only a few details in the floret to show which type of flowers they are.
  • If there is loose scattered flowers, rather link or `string’ them along, so they flow gracefully through the design of your painting (without attaching stalks). Do this especially with white flowers, as white is inclined to make `holes’ in dark surroundings.
Power of grouping tiny flowers

Simple floret cluster.


Power of aura forms

How auras give bare trees form.

Life, movement and flow of linear lines:

Linear thrusts and contour lines are actually action lines. But in their simplicity they also give your composition foundation strength and visual direction.

  • Oblique lines (eg //) convey action.
  • Wavy Hogarthian lyric lines, eg: undulating mountain contours.
  • Choppy wavy lines (eg UU) Motion of sea and river currents.
  • Zigzags and S-bends, eg perspective of fence posts, pathways and bends in rivers and streams.
  • Whirly lines eg: vine tentacles
  • Curvy lines, eg: growth and flow of curly hair.

Simple free-flowing brushstrokes:

When there is less detail it is easier to apply quick flowing brushstrokes. The freedom to express yourself gives you the power to do your thing without restriction and frustration.

When you have simple shapes, you naturally start seeing the importance of using bigger brushes to fill big open areas. Thus your brushstrokes become more direct and the trust of your brushstrokes changes as you follow the curves and angles of the dominant shapes.

You’ll find you no longer need to use small brushes or make small fussy pats of paint. Also you’ll find large brushes force you to simplify your picture.

Why fuss and bother:

Simply use your creative power (we talked about before) to simplify your compositions and Walla, you have great watercolours!