Dry Brush Technique

I was recently asked to write about dry brush technique for a book to be published in the UK. Some of this piece may be published with one of these two paintings.

Nurse #4 800“Nurse #4″ (11 x 14” acrylic on canvas panel) SOLD

Nurse #5 800“Nurse #5″ (11 x 14” acrylic on canvas panel) $100 USD plus shipping

I paint on canvas panels and use dry brush to give contour to areas on the face where gradation from light to dark will give a sense of depth. So, on the side of the face (along the hair and jaw line) the outside of the brush intends to create a more solid line while the paint of the inside of the brush – where I need the contour – intends to sit on the protruding weave of the canvas. To achieve this, I use more pressure on the dark side of the brush which may be a chiselled wedge or a ‘distressed’ flat brush between ½ and 1 inch. Where the brush doesn’t get into the depth of the canvas remains a lighter colour and in this way, the overall affect replicates a shading technique that, in drawing for instance, might be accomplished by crosshatching or smudging to make gradations of lightness.

If I’m not successful in getting the variation of lightness I want with the dark paint, I might go back in with the light colour of the face, and come at it from the other side. For me, dry brush is achieved in a variety of ways. Sometimes the brush itself has not gone into water prior to loading it with paint, or paint on a brush already in play is removed by dragging it across a clean surface – a plate or a cloth – so I can get a sense of how much paint will come off on the canvas. I use the latter mostly for delicate areas like the curve of the eyeball. Other times, a brush I’m actually working with on the surface of the painting may run out of paint, and I decide to continue pushing it around, knowing its predisposition in the moment. I utilize the canvas surface, the weft and the warp of the fabric, to replicate the fabric of clothing, in this case her cap and uniform. The most pronounced dry brush work here is the decorative detail around the cap (the black line) which intends to give it contour, allowing the dry brush to be at its weakest point where the most light hits the cap, where it bends. I did this near the end of the painting, once I’d established how much light was going to be on the face. I frequently use a dry brush on clothing because the weave of the canvas creates a degree of believability replicating the fabric of clothes. I tend to use dry brush here to introduce a different amount of realism (greater or lesser) than I’ve achieved in the face in terms of light or focus. In these cases I create conflicting information in the brain, asking the viewer to choose which reality it believes. It’s like how complementary colours vibrate. I find two degrees or more of realism instigate a mental struggle that wants to settle on the dominant realism. I don’t like to get too clever with this in the way that a lot of contemporary painting combines abstraction and realism as part of an illusion. Or maybe I’m well beyond trickery, because I don’t want the viewer to consciously notice this is what I’m doing; creating conflicting degrees of realism to heighten engagement with the viewer.

When I’m using dry brush to deal with the intensity of realism, I watch carefully what very small amounts of paint do to the overall affect in terms of bringing it into a particular plane of realism. This requires a kind of looking where I take in the whole of the painting while adding very subtle definition as opposed to believing certain areas should be a specific colour or darkness. I think about the pattern the paint on the canvas in terms of pixels, recognizing that because my work is exhibited online, the dry brush effect may translate as pixels or screened dots in traditional printing. Many times after adding dry brush I find I need to adjust the intensity of the main features on the faces – the nostrils, the highlight in the iris and the line between the lips, especially.

A trick I learned from an episode of that famous forger’s reality TV show was something John Singer Sargent did regularly. He used a more solid line on one side of the subject and a softer line on the other. I usually go for the harder line on the right fortified with a slightly more intense colour, which is sometimes a darker colour than the left, and I might choose to use a dry brush to make the left side softer.

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