Technical Insights from “Not Far from Home” #1

This is the first installment from the series of posts that will describe my thoughts and  technical insights from selected works included in our newly released book, “Not Far from Home”….Enjoy!

“Mr. Johnson”  pages 58-59  “A Study in Edges”

Often as I survey the model before me…I look for the one key visual aspect that initially catches my eye and make this the focus of my study as I strive to convey the inspiration.  This can include a desire to capture an elusive harmony so subtle and beautiful that its only real tangibility is a vibration in the heart or a chasing after a fleeting quality of light that lasts only moments.  Perhaps it is the lyrical rhythm of line that weaves through the subject so as to express continuity and harmony that words could never express or any myriad of aesthetic qualities that capture your eye.  In essence, these characteristics are variations of line, harmony, tone, color or edge. In this particular work, a study in edges was the focus as I strove to convey the power of the form and drama of the subject.

(I must mention at this point, that as a beginner,  I was a bit overwhelmed when I approached the subject and faced  the overload of problems to solve with so much to sort out at once. For my own sanity during the early stages of development, it was important to focus only on one thing at a time.  For instance, if edges were my main focus, I would not worry as much if I had all the color temperatures accurate or the tonal ranges in perfect order.  Of course, as you progress you must bring all of these together, but as a beginner, it is fruitful to not let discouragement take hold and tackle only what you can handle in manageable pieces.)

As I proceed to describe the way I handle edge treatment, I will show you what to look for in the subject to best discern what the actual edges are and how they should to be delineated in order to convey the accurate form that we literally see . The key to painting edges accurately is to truthfully observe how they look in there proper relation to each other and paint  that relationship. I realize that there are many theories on edge treatment that deal with the arbitrary hardening or softening of an edge to diminish or strengthen the design or better convey the emotion or mood, but these attributes of what edges can achieve will not be my emphasis here.

Before I set my brush to the canvas, I find it very important to take an assessment of the subject in terms of the extremes of value, color and edges and organize my thinking from the outset.  In this case, as edges were my focus, I squinted down at Mr. Johnson, and made a mental note of the hardest visible edges. (These are circled in red). Why do I squint???  If I don’t, everything appears to have a sameness of edge.  By gently closing my eyes about half way, the forms are simplified and the variety between hard and soft becomes more visibly evident.  This contrast between the hard and soft is critical to capture and is a powerful tool we must utilize.

You will notice in the circled areas that the edge quality is razor sharp in some spots.   This is how they looked when I was squinting down!  It is so important to paint these RAZOR sharp.  I could not notice the contrast between these hard edges and the softer edges with my eyes wide open.  For instance, observe the difference between the sharp edge circled between his eyes and the edges of his brow line as the eye sockets rounded up into the forehead or the hard edge of the hat visor compared to the softer edges on the cast shadow on the forehead from the hat. Another area of great edge contrast is on the area of the neck beneath the chin.  Notice the extremely sharp edge between the neck and shirt compared to the softer edges of the cast shadow of the chin on the neck.  Also, an area that I often see painted too hard by students is the edge quality of the transition between the top plane and the bottom plane of the nose. Observe the very soft quality of this turning form.  It is tempting to block in the forms with much vigor and strength and then leave it. We must not fail to take note of the subtle transitions to accentuate the turning of form and record it accordingly.

Early in my development, I would admire many of the broad brush painters and be seduced by the bold sweeping strokes and remember only them when rendering a head or figure.  Those “beauty strokes” as my friend Scott Christensen so aptly calls them, should not destroy the form or take away from the sensitivity to the subject.  What I failed to notice was the painstaking attention to the accurate rendering of the form beneath the bold surface quality.

So the next time you have a subject before you, carefully assess the subject, squint down and let the sharpest edges emerge. When beginning a work, establish the sharpest edges as early as you can in the painting so that you can use them to compare against.  THIS IS CRITICAL!  As you progress, hold on the sharpest edges as reference points and notice the how all of the other edge transitions relate to them in descending order.  It is this great contrast that will give your work new dimension!  And as my great teacher Bill Parks would say, “Keep smiling at your work, yourself and the model!”

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18 responses to “Technical Insights from “Not Far from Home” #1

  • Taaron Parsons

    Really great post, Dan. Thanks for being willing to share your knowledge with us. It’s particularly helpful to see those extreme close-ups paired with your thoughts. Looking forward to forthcoming insights.


  • Carolyn Walker Taylor

    Your article / lesson on edges was very helpful. I have to fit painting into a busy life. Though I do some commissioned work, I need to keep improving. Your exquisite paintings, in themselves, would serve as a lesson to many artists. However, I need and appreciate your concise explanations.

  • Masoud B

    Amazing explanation, full of important points. I was waiting for something like this, to hear Artist thought behind a painting. It is very instructive to see a painting with more detail and close ups.
    Good job Dan. You are always a pioneer.
    Hope to see more of these.


  • Susan Roux Haven’t updated my website in awhile…

    Your instructions are easily understood. I took my first portrait workshop from Don Hatfield last summer. It made me begin to look at planes, edges and transitions very differently. I like seeing your colors, your shapes and your edges in this close-up. All add up in opening the mind to new possibilities, new ways of looking at the things we paint. I like observing the slight value change in some of your adjacent strokes. They contribute greatly in defining the form, but could so easily be missed by the eye. Had I not taken Don’s workshop, I’m certain I wouldn’t have caught these subtleties.

    You have a very simplified approach and I can see why the so called beauty strokers might interpret light strokes as such. I understand what you mean about the right edges and transitions to identify the form. This is very helpful and I thank you for allowing us access to your teachings.

    I sit at a place of transition. My art has been visibly improving during this past year. I think a lot of it has to do with what you speak of here and also having a new perspective on what I’m trying to achieve. It’s difficult to put into words, but I’m referring to it as poetry. I never tried to paint that before and its proving to be a huge missing step in my work.

    Thanks again. I’m on a quest for improvement. Passion is turning into obsession and I feel my whole outlook on the painting process changing. Observation is half the battle. If you can’t see it, you can’t paint it. Your words and examples help me see it…

  • Kim Carlton

    I also love that I can see the canvas showing through, and the way you carefully conveyed the temperature shifts. Thanks for the extra zoom!

  • Susan Hogan Girard

    Dear Daniel, This book is out of print at lilidahl. Will it be available anytime soon? Great technical notes.

  • Laura

    You cease to amaze me with your generosity. As a student of yours I can say you ability to teach is remarkable and the best instruction I’ve had and now some reinforcement with your “Technical Insights”…wonderful!

    Too often I’ve tried to put that bold brushstroke down that, as you said, has nothing to support it, kind of like frosting a cake that hasn’t fully baked yet.

    Thanks Dan, I look forward to more lessons.


  • Wesh Landscape Artist Chris Chalk

    Hi Daniel, great post, very informative and useful. Although primarily a landscape artist I think your ‘edge’ pointers will crossover and be most helpful.


  • Kay Eaton

    This was a wonderful reinforcement of the lessons I learned in your workshop! Thank you so much for your kind and generous spirit in sharing your amazing talent! I love the circled areas where you point specifically to what you were talking about. Your descriptive writing makes the process so easy to understand. Thank you!

  • Lori Putnam

    Thank you so much for sharing all of this. You are one of my all-time favorite painters!

  • Venkush

    Beautiful work, always a fan of your works. Amazng artsit!

  • Don Hatfield

    Dan: Glad to see your growing presence in the social media–“…so let your light shine before men.”. With admiration–Don Hatfield

  • Todd

    Thanks a lot for the great paitning tips Dan! I just downloaded your new video from Artist Daily. I will watch it now. Much appreciated!

  • Catherine

    Do I hear an echo?
    Thanks Dan, for mentioning Bill Parks in your Technical Insights and giving credit where credit it due. He was a great teacher and is dearly missed in the art world and the hearts of many. As a former student of his at the American Academy of Art, I too had the blessing of being under his excellent tutelage. We kept in touch for many years and he continued to be a source of inspiration. From time to time he mentioned the new young, upcoming hopefuls in his classes and you were definitely one of them. He spoke very highly of your artistic talent. Bill Parks had a gift of not only teaching and bringing out the best in his students, but also of seeing beyond the raw talent. He would be very proud of all your accomplishments.
    Congratulations and best wishes for continued success,

  • Rajdev

    Hi Dan,

    I am a big fan of your art and teachings, the way you teach about detailed observation is superb. Is their any way I can buy your book in Australia?

    Thanks & cheers.

    • danielgerhartz

      Hi Rajdev
      Yes we do ship internationally and you can purchase the book in our store on our website. See the “Store” link and scroll down the page to the book.
      Thanks much for your interest !
      Enjoy the book and good luck with your art!

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