Watercolors can be simplified into 3 basic edges soft, medium and sharp.  And the tricky edge… is of course the in between one.  Come on and I’ll explain a few fast beginner pointers that will help!

3 edges watercolor, soft, hard edges, debiriley.com
3 Edges in Watercolor -soft, hard, medium

Watercolor – Soft edges,  Medium edges, Hard edges

Why should we care about watercolor edges?  What is the relevance? These 3 edges are key factors in creating depth and smooth transitions in our backgrounds, middlegrounds, and our foregrounds. These are simple, foundation watercolor basics. 


Watercolor Edges and the Beginner-

Watercolor is filled with peaks and valleys. Quantum leaps ahead and stale plateaus. For all of us.

But for the beginner, it seems like a never ending slog uphill at times!   Controlling the water on the brush and the paper is perhaps the biggest dilemma. The edges just seem out of control.

But, by Practicing these 3 edges – in series, and serious repetition –  I assure you will help you to achieve the quantum leaps you’re hoping for.


Soft Edges

Smoke and Fire image was begun wet in wet background, with only a tiny bit being harder edged.   Painted on Yupo paper.

Lunar Black, Quincacridone Sienna, Daniel Smith watercolors, debiriley.com
Smoke and Fire


Soft blurred, out of focus edges create the illusion of the objects receding into the distance, thus you create more depth and perspective with this technique.

This watercolor edge is often underused. Perhaps because of the sequencing and timing issues. If you try to paint more very sloppy wet paint into this as its going dry,  you discover – disaster and mud.    Thus, many abandon the wet in wet technique too early.



You will always create a soft, blurred edge when you apply paint to a very wet paper surface. Many times I use the wet in wet technique for this purpose, especially for skies.

Wet the paper, all over. Double check it in the light.  Touch the wet receptive paper with the fully loaded brush tip and allow that paint to flood in, onto the paper by itself, without manhandling it.


Generally,  in the backgrounds.  On occasion, elsewhere as called for by the subject being painting.




Hard Edges

Blue Bottles were an exercise in watercolor hard edges, painted on a totally dry paper.

drawing ideas, drawing with a wet brush, debiriley.com
Bottles in Blue


The nearer the object is to you, the more in focus and sharper the edges will appear. Creating hard, sharp edges creates the illusion of nearness and depth.



Hard, sharp, crisp lined edges will always be created when you paint upon a perfectly dry paper.  If it is dry paper,  the edges will be sharp and hard.



So ideally, we wish to have progressively sharper edges as they advance to the foreground. Meaning,  you need to have the background softer in order to have that latitude to work with.

Generally,  an object at the base, say the bottom of a bucket or rock,  will appear to be softer edged.  The top of that object will appear to be sharper and harder edged.

It is a good ‘habit’ to get into as a beginner, to follow these guides, in the beginning.


Creating the soft and hard edges are actually very easy to do. Beginners normally compensate by painting with hard edges only, due to the control they have with those edges; but often resulting in the loss of adequate depth and perspective.

Because, we generally need all  3 edges to make the image have better depth and perspective.   Creating all 3 edges gives the image a fighting chance for success. Its much more of a hit and miss if you only use 1 edge.




Medium Edges

Both Hillside images were created using the watercolor medium edge technique. Waiting…til the paper was just right. Then, the brush load was also – just right.   Another Goldilocks, yes?

soft Edges in Watercolor, debiriley.com
Burnt Hillside


This watercolor medium edge isn’t sharp and hard,  but neither is it soft, out of focus.

It’s  In Between!

Its a transition edge,  that allows the eye to smoothly, wander from the background to the foreground and vice versa.

Without jarring or rough discordant ‘bouncing’ along.



The Medium edge creates the Bridge between the distances and the planes of space within your painting.

This edge is a perfect edge for many middleground objects and shapes.


The ‘in between’ edge, is really the trickiest edge to master, taking the longest time and effort to get the hang of.

But,  practicing on scrap paper,   a simple brushstroke on ‘just damp’ paper in repetition for a few days will quickly show you how to get it right.

Repetition of the process,  is the key to its mastery. Cold Press paper is my suggestion for this as well.



The watercolor paper is at the ‘just damp’ stage.

Not dry, not sloppy wet.   Damp, as if you had just dampened or prewet a blouse to iron….  close enough analogy.

It must be damp all over, with no dry spots.  Definitely no puddles or pools of water.

If the paper or the paint, has a slight satin sheen to it…. that right there… is just about Perfect!!


Your brush.  Can not have a lot of wet, sloppy, dripping paint on it!!   It will need paint, but the paint needs to be on the slightly,  drier side.  With NO drips coming off the brush.

Proceed to take the brush and stroke it across the damp paper to see what type of edge was created.   Was the paper too wet?  Too dry?    Was the brush too wet?   Too dry?

Change those factors and repeat, until you become more at ease with the medium edge.


ultramarine blue hill watercolor, soft edges, debiriley.com
Blue Hill


None of these watercolor landscapes images were large; all were 5×7 or smaller.  Nice little practice sizes that were easy to deal with, very quick to do in a series and in repetitions.


My mind in each was set not on perfection, but on “Just do it and move on to the next. You are practicing. Not trying for a framed image. It is an exercise today.  Now, move along!”

Perhaps, by reiterating the fact several times,  that it is indeed Just An Exercise….  you also might loosen up and be a tad bit freer.

More relaxed and enjoy the process more.