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Thinking about Dry Brush Portraits

April 15, 2019
Quick dry brush sketch using leftover watercolor paint and a little bit of white gouache, at the end of a painting session. 300 lb. hot press Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper, approximately 5 x 7 inches.

One of my favorite things to do is to paint with watercolor in a dry brush fashion.

What does that mean?

Dry brush means that there is relatively little water on your brush. You move the pigment carrying brush across the paper and the brush picks up the texture of the paper. 

For the best results in texture the washes you’ve already put on the paper previously have dried. If your previous washes are still wet, or moist and you apply a dry brush the paint will soften on application as it hits the wet paper. This leads to a different but still interesting and useful texture.

Even when you’re working on hot press watercolor paper like I did for this sketch, texture will emerge when you use use dry brush.

Texture will be impacted not only by the dryness of your paint application but also the texture of a previous paint application. (But an even more pronounced texture will be possible by dragging a brush over cold press or rough textured paper.)

Experiment with different ways to hold your brush. Drag it along the surface of your paper or board so that the body of the brush touches your surface. The flatter the angle at which the brush meets the paper surface, the more drag, the more the brush stroke will break up.

For this sketch I used a couple different sizes of flats.

Look at the full image for today. Notice at the top right there are light dry strokes. Here the paint was very dilute so a tint was laid down, but the brush was still dry so the individual hairs and sections of the brush pulled apart creating those wide sections of parallel lines.

Detail of today’s sketch.

In the detail above you can see that a dry brush moved across the surface with very little pressure deposits a lovely broken brown line under the brim of the hat. A previous, wetter stroke with blue paint gives a continuous tone. When that paint is dry an additional dry brush stroke in a different variation of that blue breaks up the color of the earlier wash. The brown paint stroke goes on last, creating more broken coloring over all the previous washes.

Think about applying a wash, like the background violet, and then when it’s dry, going in with another color (an analogous blue was used here) over that surface to expose the original color only in glimpses.

I think the resultant speckling creates a love shimmer of color on the surface of the sketch.

This is also a great way to get texture and depth into the fur or feathers of an animal.

More Tips for Working with Flats

Have a range of flats and filberts (my favorite brush) on hand so you can change scale with your strokes.

Remember flat brushes can make great straight lines if you turn them on their corner or flat edge and drag.

You can also dab with the corner of the flat brush as I did in the corner of the eyes, but that’s getting pretty clumpy. I  probably needed to get a round out at that point. Just don’t rule it out. Maybe just a smaller size of flat?

Don’t forget you can suck water out of a brush by holding a corner of a paper towel against the ferrule of the brush. This tends to leave the paint at the tip of the brush at the saturation level you want it.

Now go use that leftover paint.

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