by Robert Genn March 27, 2009 Dear Rodney, One of the best ways to engage a viewer is with hard and soft edges. California painter Virgil Elliott explains a variety of Old Master illusions in his book "Traditional Oil Painting, Advanced Techniques from the Renaissance to the Present." "The edges could be sharpened selectively," he writes, "to call the viewer's attention to an area of greater importance, or to describe an object whose edges were actually sharp, such as a starched collar, sword, or piece of paper." The idea, of course, is that the artist controls the viewer's eye through selective focus. Interestingly, the use of soft focus came about with the Venetian School, particularly in the paintings of Titian. His use of portable canvas with its slubs and bumps, plus the nature of the newly popular oil media, invited the use of "short" paint and bristle brushes. In the prior Flemish School, "long" paint and soft brushes were more generally used on smooth grounds, producing somewhat consistently hard-edged effects. Watching folks in a gallery, as they demonstrate the fine art of museum dynamics, one notes that it's often the soft blends that bring them in closer or cause them to stand back as they try to focus. Elliott elegantly describes Titian's use of glazes for dark areas, his wisdom of opaque lights and his scumbling for softening between. A glaze is a transparent wash over a lighter ground; a scumble is a lighter tone dragged over a darker one. "It was found," writes Elliott, "that a scumble over a flesh tone would produce the same effect as powder on a woman's face; that is, it made its texture appear softer." Every work of art presents an opportunity to tease an eye. Surprisingly, many artists either don't know how to tease, or don't care to. Minor or major gradations or soft transitions leading to sharp edges generally hold more visual interest than uniformly hard-edged renderings or overall amorphous softies. Driven by the need for maximum power and presence, artists working at the dawn of oil painting quickly grasped the idea of selective focus. The illusion is still freely available. Best regards, Robert PS: "I am finally beginning to learn how to paint." (Attributed to Titian at age 90, as quoted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, January 30, 2009, at Davos) Esoterica: Titian (Tiziano Vecelli, 1485?-1576) was a life-long experimenter with the technique and psychology of painting. In a studio bumbling with protégés, he spent particular effort in the study of colour and its properties, changing his mind and direction often during his long life. He pioneered both transparent and semi-opaque glazes (semi-glazes), as well as scumbles and all manner of calculated softening. Apparently Titian neglected his drawing, leaving that job at times to assistants. Michelangelo thought Titian's drawing was hopelessly flawed, and spread the idea around.