watercolor drybrush

by Ottorino de Lucchi

Drybrush is for more contemplative works (as compared with watercolor, n.d.r.), or when a work arrives at a profound emotional stage. "I use a smaller brush, dip into the color, splay out the bristles, squeeze out a good deal of the moisture and color with my fingers so that only a very small amount of paint is left." Drybrush is layer upon layer — a definite "weaving process."

— Thomas Hoving, Andrew Wyeth

Watercolor drybrush is an unconventional artistic technique. It creates unique painting effects that are not produced by other methods. It requires practice and skill and a good deal of patience, perseverance and inclination to experiment .

I will explain the drybrush techniques that I developed by studying the works of Andrew Wyeth, a master of drybrush methods, that I had the opportunity to see in the original. Hence, what I am presenting is a kind of personal technique that may not be approved by academicians or other artists.

In essence, watercolor drybrush uses an oil brush technique with watercolor paints. The painter works with amounts of paint comparable to that used with the oil technique and proceeds to build up the painting the way oil painters do. I deem drybrush paintings to have superior brilliance: they appear with more vivid colors, higher color saturation and overall a better contrast of light and dark.

Watercolor paint offers several significant advantages over acrylic or oil paint. The watercolor vehicle does not polymerize when it dries, so the paint can be rewetted and reused. This allows the painter to reuse paint left on the palette and permits easier cleaning, a longer life of brushes and removal of adventitious spots and losses. Furthermore, water is the most easily available solvent, safe, non odorous and non flammable.

Drybrush paintings are even more durable than oil paintings as the binder (gum arabic) dries with no chemical transformations while the oil binder (linseed oil) undergoes polymerisation while drying promoted by oxygen and light. Such reaction basically never stops leading to a slow deterioration.

To counterbalance the high number of pros, there are a few cons. First, although watercolor paints contain relatively less binder (gum arabic), and there is a higher concentration of pigment and higher color purity, this does not necessarily mean the colors are more brilliant. In oil or acrylic painting, the pigment is surrounded by the vehicle, and this reduces the light scattering from the surface of the pigment particles that can make the color appear dull and faded. When watercolors are applied in the normal way, the binder sinks into the paper as the paint dries and the pigment particles are left naked on the paper, which increases the scattering of the incident light and results in an opaque appearance. However, the drybrush technique helps to counter this effect because the paint is applied at a very high concentration.

Another drawback is that the reversibility of watercolor paints creates a difficulty in working layer upon layer because the lower layer can dissolve when a new layer is applied. Later I will explain how these drawbacks can be overcome.

drybrush materials

I start with the choice of materials necessary to produce a good drybrush painting and explain the important considerations behind each choice, in case you must, or wish, to substitute different materials.

Choice of Support. The choice of the support is very important. The wrong choice of paper is the most common cause of a failure. Personally, I deem the choice of support critical to the success of a drybrush painting.

The most important feature is that the paper support can absorb water without warping or cockling. For this reason, heavy paper stock (600 grams per square meter) or board, rather than lighter sheets, are recommended.

The second important feature is that the support should be able to withstand masking glue or latex resists, and to hold up under scraping or lifting operations with erasers, sandpaper, razors etc. Watercolor paper is generally too delicate; however hot pressed paper has been compressed during manufacturing and hence has improved strength and higher resistance to abrasion. You must be able to rely on the paper and know exactly its limits, i.e. how far you can go before spoiling it. You should not be afraid of damaging the paper. Andrew Wyeth masterpieces show scratches and holes that demonstrate he did not care much about the finish of his drybrush watercolors. The final result must drive your choices and justifies any kind of tool or stratagem.

The third feature is that the paper must be archival quality, acid free, buffered and containing no lignin. Even a slight lignin content can cause the support to yellow and become brittle with time or exposure to light. Remember that paper is molecularly exactly the same substance (cellulose) as linen canvas, and hence the belief that canvas is more resistant and durable than paper is false.

In my own paintings, I use Schoeller 4R (dick rauh) or 4G (dick glatt) boards (1360 gsm). There is no need of any special treatment before use, though I have noticed that when you paint over a part which was washed and wiped with a paper towel it behaves differently and it is easier to get a uniform paint layer.

The texture or finish of the paper depends on the work one wants to carry out and the paint textures or images one wants to create. If the subject is wood, leaves, grass or rough textured objects then a rough or cold pressed paper is preferable, while a hot pressed paper is better for portraits, skin, metals or bright lucid surfaces such as fruits.

It is good to wash the paper before using it. This operation partially dissolves the surface sizing and slightly raises the tooth of the paper, and removes any dirt. This gives better painting results and an easier performance. It also helps the support to remain flat after the painting is complete. I soak the paper with a broad brush, wait a little and then wipe with a paper towel the excess of water.

I usually use boards that do not need stretching. I may add that today the maximum size of the Schoeller boards is 51x73 cm. Years ago the double size 73x102 cm was available. If you need a larger surface you may buy the 4G or 4R paper available in larger sizes and glue the paper on wood or canvas.

Choice of Paints. Watercolor paints packaged in tubes are preferable to dry pan paints because the color is already moistened to the right consistency. I use mostly Winsor & Newton but also Maimeri, Talens and Lukas. The early layers are Maimeri because of the lower cost and the bigger tubes. Beside the quantity, I like the Maimeri permanent green yellowish (PY97+PG36), golden lake (quinacridone gold, PO49) and avignon orange (quinacridone maroon, PR206), and the burnt green earth (PY155+PR176+PBk7) and especially the indian yellow (PY65) of Lukas. My ivory black (PBk7) is Lukas: no other blacks perform in the same way. Talens paints are also convenient and transparent, though Winsor & Newton are from my view point the best (except a few). (Unfortunately, other brands are not readily available in Italy.)

Pan paints can be used but they rapidly dry out, display a small surface area, and can become discolored by other paints. As such they are not as practical and I do not recommend them. I find the problem with pans is that they are usually contained in boxes where they stay too close to each other and display such a small surface that when you use a large brush you get the close pans mixed up with the tints. It is also difficult to get the right amount of paint, i.e. when they are dry is too little, when they are wet is too much.

Depending on the manufacturer, watercolor paints react differently when a new layer is painted on top of them. This depends on the paint ingredients, especially the type of plasticizers used (glycerine, methyl cellulose, etc.). Another feature that depends on the manufacturer's formulation is the tendency of the dried paint to crack if it is applied in very thick layers — although, in more than a decade of drybrush painting, I never encountered this in my paintings.

To use the paints you will need a good palette. This must have room enough to distribute your colors and a white surface that allows you to see them as they would appear when applied. However, mixing colors on the palette, except for a few cases, should be avoided. A visibly superior color effect is obtained by applying pure paint colors layer upon layer. Convenience mixtures, made of two or more pigments mixed by the manufacturer, are acceptable; but if a choice can be made, chose single pigment paints. Purer constitutions are always more vivid, clean and bright than those in convenience mixtures.

Choice of Brushes. Synthetic brushes used for other techniques (oil, acrylic) are good for drybrush also. I use many different brands of brushes. A few of them are so old that the brand label has discolored. Most importantly they need to be flat. The very small ones #1 and 2 must be replaced frequently because after a while they lose their edge. I use especially #2, 6 or 8, 12 and 20 flats. For very large areas I have also brushes 40 and even a 60! The shape of the brush must be flat but possibly somewhat rounded at the edges.

Brushes are the most common tool for transferring paint to paper, but any other instrument may be good as well, especially for the texturing effects it can create. Paper, fabric or sponges are alternative tools. For example, Kleenex tissues or a piece of paper towel are very useful to partially blot or emboss wet paint onto the painting, to obtain a rough paint texture to represent wood, old concrete, the bark of a tree, etc. To make the texture, just moisten the tissue using a spray bottle, crumple it up (or not) to obtain the desired texture, touch the tissue to the paint and then apply to your painting! A somewhat important issue may arise is that some brands of tissues or paper towels have a tendency to break apart when wet or leave a residue of paper lint. Here is just a question of trial and error.

the drybrush technique

I now describe the steps in making a painting with my drybrush method. This should be sufficient to get you started in the right direction, but patient practice is necessary to achieve the most satisfactory results.

Pencil Underdrawing. Pencil drawing is often an essential step in the preparation of a drybrush but is not as essential as one might believe. It depends on the type of work that one wants to perform. Very detailed and precise works require an accurate drawing but often the pencil marks are visible in the finished painting and one has to decide at the outset whether this is acceptable. I personally do not dislike it and in several of my paintings the underdrawing is visible. Water and paint may cancel your drawing beneath and you must always be careful not to cancel it completely. When it become too faint refresh the drawing with the pencil so that it does not get lost.

I use a graphite pencil H. Softer graphites would dirty the painting, while harder pencils would not be visible.

Drybrush Method. The basic drybrush method is rather simple. I basically sit on a chair with a blower on the left and the palette plus water, water sprayer, brushes and so on the right. I hold the board on my knees.


To start a painting, I squeeze raw paint from the tube onto the palette. I wet a brush in water, wait until the bristles are thoroughly soaked, then shake out the excess water; just enough water should remain in the brush to dilute the paint slightly and to make the brush easier to rinse. (Shake out excess water in the same way each time the brush is rinsed.) Then draw the moist brush over the paint and apply the paint to the paper holding the blower with the left hand. If the paint has the correct consistency it will lie flat on the paper and dry within a few seconds. If there is too much water in the brush the paint will form a wet bead on the paper, which can dissolve paint already on the paper; or the bead may be scattered or pushed across the paper by the current of air from the blower. The light source (illumination) should come from above and one side, so that you can easily see the difference between wet (reflective) and dry (nonreflective) paint. You must apply the second stroke only after the first stroke is dry. Rough paper makes this step somewhat easier, though is more delicate in other steps.

The quantity of water in the brush is mostly a question of practice. Dipping the brush in a very small amount of water (a few drops from a cup or jar of pure water), only using flat brushes, and using an air blower to dry the paint quickly are the three essential hints. Do not worry about diluting the paint a little too much. It is better to work with paint that is too diluted rather than too thick. Thus, you reach the right consistency by applying layer upon layer. Not much difference occurs by applying 100 or 110 layers! The paper texture is always visible, and emerges later when removing or lifting the paint, which produces different effects.

A thick paint or heavy brush strokes are to be avoided. Remember that the porosity of the support is critical, as the paper must quickly absorb water and the paint should dry within a few seconds. Any paint layer that is already on the paper will also absorb water so that there is no limit to the number of paint layers that can be applied. To shorten the drying time, you can add 1 part ethanol to 4 parts water when you dilute the paints, though this stratagem is not necessary when you reach some skill. Depending on the quality of your tap water, it might also be wise to use distilled (demineralised) water, just to avoid whitish mineral deposits or rings in deep colors.

Apply the paint in small quick strokes, and change the direction of the brush to produce the desired tint and consistency. If you work carefully, and with a little practice, you will be able to apply a uniform layer on the first attempt. If a paint stroke is too strong and stands out in your painting after the paint has dried, you have at least three ways to solve the problem: (1) continue patiently to add diluted paint or even plain water, which little by little dissolves the stroke underneath and makes your paint layer uniform; (2) use an eraser (the pink or white type, not a kneadable eraser) on the dry surface (never use an eraser on paint that is not completely dry!) and continue your painting before; or (3) use a moist paper and touch it softly to the edges of the stroke, then smooth out irregularities with dilute paint. Each treatment gives slightly different results. Only experience will tell you which one is the right one at the relevant moment.

It is of utmost importance to apply the new layers of paint at the correct tempo and consistency (dilution with water). As already said, paint that is applied too slowly or with too much water will irremediably damage the layer below, and often the colors will blend and produce a dull dirty appearance. With a little practice one finds the right painting tempo.

Hair dryers or hot air blowers significantly help at this stage of the work. I hold the blower in the left hand, set at the minimum speed to produce a warm (not hot) air flow; then I hold the painting at the right inclination to the light source so that I can see from the surface reflection when the paint has dried.

Especially at the beginning, use masking films (those used for airbrush works, e.g. Friskette, or any other type) to isolate your area of work. Sometimes paints will dissolve or bleed along the edges, and this is especially visible between a dark and a light paint. Such problems can be prevented by using masking tape to cover the edge, or can be corrected by gently scraping the bleed with the edge of a razor blade or craft knife. Bleeding is also minimized by brushing from inside a color area toward the edge, rather than starting the stroke at the edge and brushing into the color area.

The belief that drybrush does not take advantage of the transparent quality of watercolor washes is incorrect. To produce mixed colors, use transparent colors in the layers on top, or apply the paint in small strokes so that the layers underneath show through. In fact, there is more color show through in drybrush than in oil painting, and a colored background can have a strong impact on the final appearance. The sequence in which the paint layers are applied should follow the simple and obvious rule — opaque colors (usually light valued colors) first and transparent colors on top. One starts with the opaque cadmium or other synthetic inorganic pigments, and ends up with the transparent colors made from synthetic organic dyes. I like cadmium yellow (PY35) as the foundation or base layer because it makes the reds, greens and browns applied on top appear brighter. Yellow ochre (PY43) is a good foundation layer for paintings of woods, barks and meadows.

The most common method is the direct application of the color on the board; but an alternate method is to remove the paint by scraping, rewetting or lifting. This is difficult with other kinds of paint but not with watercolors. You can obtain different texture effects by wetting with moist paper, fabrics, sponges or splashing a little water with a hard brush as well. Furthermore, useful textures can be created with wax crayons or other media available from any art store. The variety of effects is thus larger and the number of ways to reach a convincing effect makes painting easier and more rewarding.

Here are some final hints. Start with simple subjects and paint at the natural size (i.e. an apple of the size of the apple). Work comfortably and relaxed. Take care of the illumination, chair and of any aspect that might you feel better. You must rely on the fact that you will be able to face any problem and overcome any difficulty. Do not be impatient: I find that a standard painting (about 25x50cm) needs 30 hrs or more of work. Drybrush is the opposite of watercolor, where speed is a desirable quality.

Finishing the Painting. The painting can be finished with a coating of a completely transparent paint to give the old flavour to furniture or other objects. The common practice to use bitumen to give an older appearance with a yellowish appearance. A higher saturation of tints can be obtained using quinacridone gold or similar very transparent laquers. The quinacridone gold hue (PY150) by Winsor & Newton works sufficiently, Maimeri quinacridone gold (still available) is somewhat greenish and I like it too, also the Winsor & Newton green gold (PY129) is very nice! They must be applied carefully with the brush towards the end of the work. They are simple to be laid down because they are very transparent.


Ottorino's web site

The use of a varnish to cover the particles to a flat surface results in a bright, lucid effect. Dammar varnish is a non polymerisable material, fully lipophilic, completely insoluble in water while completely soluble in lipophylic solvents as e.g. white spirits, volatile hydrocarbons, turpentine natural and non. It can be applied to watercolor drybrush to eliminate the opaque feature of the artwork and bring all colors to their maximum saturation. Dammar varnish also seals the surface of the painting so well that you can splash water on it without damage. For this reason, a framing cover of glass or acrylic plastic is not necessary.

Last but not least, if you have any second thoughts, changes can be made after removing the Dammar varnish with turpentine or any hydrocarbon solvents without causing undesired effects on the painting below.

some painting examples

In this section I will briefly describe how a few of my paintings were made, focusing on the choice of paints and the order in which parts of the painting were done.

self portrait (2006)

This is a drybrush painting on G4 (glatt) Schoeller board (25.5x51 cm). Here the skin and fabric were rendered mostly by laying the paint into moist paper and then reinforcing the lights by lifting completely dried paint with a rubber eraser. The hairs were done with a stiff brush. The skin is mostly a mixture of yellow ochres, burnt sienna, quinacridone gold, quinacridone red and perylene maroon (all Winsor & Newton). The hair was done with Talens burnt umber and van dyck brown. The black background is Lukas ivory black.

winter morning (2006)

This drybrush was done on R4 (rough) Schoeller board (25.5x73 cm). The wood box was obtained mostly with the ochers (W&N) and raw umber (Lukas) mainly with the moist paper method. The yellowish effects come out of indian yellow (Lukas) and quinacridone gold (Maimeri). The blue is cerulean blue (W&N) plus raw umber (Lukas). Splashing and rubbing was necessary to obtain the corn envelops. The corn grains are out of cadmium yellow (Maimeri), Winsor yellow, Winsor orange, burnt sienna (W&N) and indian yellow (Lukas). To obtain the grains first I painted the corn homogeneously laying layer upon layer the colors and then with the brush I took out the paint in the shape of the grains.

easter noon (2006)

Drybrush on G4 Schoeller board (36.5x51 cm). The bread is done of ochers, burnt sienna, Winsor orange and perylene maroon (W&N) with the moist paper method followed by eraser and blade scraping to obtain the lights. The table was obtained painting first the wood (ochres, burnt sienna, burnt umber, van dyck brown (Talens) and eventually laying the cerulean blue and cobalt turquoise (W&N) plus raw umber (Lukas). At the very end the blue paint was removed here and there and at the borders of the drawing, showing the wood painted beneath. The paper is made of ochres, burnt sienna and perylene maroon (W&N). The antique flavour was obtained with a final glaze of quinacridone gold and green gold (W&N).