For a Painter — whether abstract or figurative or somewhere in between — the edges of the painting are a very important thing.
The average viewer may not consider the edges of the painting, may never think at all in fact about the edges of the painting as they are primarily concerned with what is going on inside the painting.
Before the 20th century most paintings in the West provided a picture window through which one looked into the painting to see the unfolding drama, whether figures acting out some sort of scene on the battlefield or an interior drama in a Venetian ballroom.
The point is that one looked into the picture and did not consider the physicality of the canvas or the nature of the edges of the painting.
A viewer of an 18th century Dutch landscape painting with cows grazing on rolling green hills and a hawk flying above a dark and cloudy sky would scarcely be aware of the edges of that painting. In contrast, if someone were to graze that viewer with the edges of a sharp knife they would very quickly be aware of the edges of that knife.
The point being that when working on a rectangular canvas, which was the accepted structure and format in western painting for hundreds of years, the painter had to be concerned with the edges of the painting as paint was certainly applied to those four edges but also because the edges of the painting helped to define and focus on the drama occurring in the rest of the canvas.
In other words, the subject of the painting had to begin somewhere and end somewhere.
A figure placed on the far left of a canvas, perhaps holding his hat in his hand, would speak to a figure on the far right of the canvas, perhaps a young maiden in heavily modeled silk skirt. An artist who is not aware of the edges of the painting cannot be very convincing in presenting all that takes place inside the painting. The whole surface of the painting, top and bottom, left and right and all that is in the middle … all of this becomes the painting both in formal terms and narrative terms.
When did painters begin to focus on the edges of the painting?
When painters began to work more abstractly beginning with Picasso around 1909, they began to focus quite literally on the edges of the painting, as those edges now held as much if not more energy and presence as those areas in the rest of the canvas.
When Picasso pasted a piece of brown paper directly on to a Cubist drawing of 1912, he was quite aware of whether that piece of brown paper was touching the edge of the canvas or hovering one inch beyond the edge.
As the space between things in a painting is as important as those forms that are painted or drawn in a painting, these distances become quite important.
For me, I often begin a painting by painting on the edge of my canvas, and giving those edges some drama even before I have any idea of what will take place inside the canvas. This drama on the edges pulls the eye to outer boundaries of the painting and helps to establish the field of the canvas.
They move toward and back away. They sail to the edges and may even sail off of them, as the drama may unfold in a vaster space.