Dry Brush Technique for Watercolor Paintings

Dry brush technique

One of the brush strokes most often missing in beginners’ watercolor paintings is the Dry Brush Technique. This is a shame as it can add a great deal of energy and interest to a painting. While my comments are primarily directed at watercolor (watercolour) artists many of the points can also apply to dry brush technique for gouache, ink, oil and acrylic works of art –  basically any fluid art medium.

The dry brush painting stroke creates a range of broken edges implying neither hard nor soft edges. It can be used to create a statement but leaves enough uncertainty to allow the viewer to add some of their own interpretation to a painting while still getting the general message.

Dry brush edges can add a great detail of variety to your painting. Some dry brush strokes can be hard edged on one side and broken on the other; something I find very useful when creating sparkle on water in seascapes and river paintings. They can be broken edged on both sides, a stroke I use when creating texture in clouds and on the sides of Venetian and other old buildings. By modifying the typical straight edged stroke to one with curves you can use it to quickly and easily create the impression of foliage in certain trees, like Australian gums, and fluffy clouds in the sky.

A dry brush stroke can start on a portion of your watercolor paper which is dry and lead into a wet area acting as a nice connection between a textured region of ground moving towards a shadowed or more dense area. This stroke can also start from a wet area of your painting and be dragged into a dry one.

Painting the foreground of green foliage in watercolor painting
Figure 1: Dry brush technique giving impression of distant masses of trees

Quick dry brush strokes can be made to represent breaking waves in a beach scene or textured areas of a road surface. One stroke and you’re done; in my view, nothing conveys confidence in a watercolor painting more than dry brush strokes placed in just the right spot.

Finished watercolor painting of simple beach scene
Figure 2: Dry brush technique to create breaking waves on beach

Another use of the dry brush technique is when painting palm trees, one quick stroke can create a trunk which has a hard edge on one side and a broken edge on the other.

Hawaiian sunset watercolor painting. Palm trees in front with sailing boat in distance.
Figure 3: Dry brush technique to create palm tree trunks with one brush stroke.

Dry brush technique does not necessarily mean that you have to use a brush with very little paint or water in it however. The variables you have to work with when painting a dry brush stroke are these:

1. The texture of your watercolor paper: is it rough, medium or smooth? It is much easier to create a dry brush stroke on rough paper, but it can be produced on any texture.

2. The speed of your brush movement determines how much of a dry brush effect you create: speed is more important the smoother the texture of your paper. If you are using very smooth paper you need to move the brush very fast to create this type of stroke.

3. How wet is the paper you are painting on? If your paper still has a shine on it then you cannot produce a dry brush stroke. It can only be produced on dry or maybe damp paper – though this requires a greater degree of skill as it can lead to a muddy work of art.

4. The angle of your brush and how hard you press: a brush held with the hairs parallel to your paper will create a different dry brush effect than one which uses the tip of your brush. The pressure you apply with also have an effect on your final dry brush result.

5. Finally the amount of watercolor paint as well as its consistency on your brush is important. This point works in conjunction with the points above. If you have a fully loaded (almost dripping) brush you have to move it quite fast to achieve a dry brush stroke. If you have less paint on the brush you may need to move the brush slower. If you are using smoother papers then you may need to reduce the amount of watercolor paint to get a creditable dry brush effect.

Points 1 to 5 above are all interrelated. You can’t have a single rule for creating a dry brush stroke with watercolor because all five factors have to be taken into account along with what statement you are trying to make with a particular brush stroke. Remember you are not just coloring in when you paint a watercolor painting – you are making some statement and the various edges you create are part of your language!

To me the most enjoyable watercolors are those that have the full range of watercolor artists’ painting edges within them. These edges include hard edged wet on dry strokes which imply definite statements effectively saying ‘Hey, this happens at just this spot in this way!” to soft wet on wet edges which leave a great deal up to the viewer to evaluate. The dry brush technique is equally as important as these other two brush techniques and including it in your work will help you create better and more interesting watercolor paintings.

Watercolor painting demonstration of boats and early morning rising mist

San Diego Harbor, Rising Mist

Watercolor painting Rising Mist boat painting by Joe Cartwright
Watercolor painting “Rising Mist” by Joe Cartwright

I have just loaded my latest watercolor demonstration painting. The painting is titled “Rising Mist” and is of an early morning scene on San Diego harbor with the mist rising. It is based on a photo my wife took a number of years ago as she was sailing out of the harbor on the way down to Mexico.

You can find the demonstration at this link: Rising Mist boat and sea watercolor demonstration

The demonstration takes you from the initial photographic inspiration, through how to draw boats and objects into the light, the initial wet on wet under wash, how to create a mist effect with watercolor paint, painting boat details and finishing with how to paint the reflections on the water.

If you would like to purchase a printable pdf copy of this demonstration which has larger images and no advertisements you can do so through my online store for US$1.00 or by clicking here:  [wp_eStore_add_to_cart id=15]

I hope you find it of interest and use!

Happy painting,


Joe Cartwright

Pen, Ink and Wash Demonstration

Pen and Ink Demo Video available for rent or purchase from Vimeo

I have just finished producing a Video of a demonstration of how to paint with Pen, Ink and Watercolor brush. If you would like to have a look at a speeded up version of the demonstration you can see it below.

The full version (45 min) of this video demonstration is avaliable as a paid download or view on Vimeo. It costs $2.99 for you to be able to view it as often as you like for 30 days or $5.99 for you to download a copy you can keep for as long as you like. All prices are in U.S. Dollars. This version can be found here: Rent or Buy this pen and ink techniques demonstration video.

Watercolor brushes – 10 things which will damage them

Caring for your watercolor brushes

I am often giving my students advice about what to do and not to do with their watercolor brushes so I thought I would see if I could create a list of 10 things which will damage a watercolor (watercolour)brush. It took a bit of thinking but here is my list which you may find helpful with the care of your brushes.

Do not leave watercolor brushes sitting in your water container
Figure 1: Do not leave you watercolor brushes sitting in your water container
  1. Leaving them sitting in your watercolor container while you paint or worse still all day. This will force the hairs of your watercolor brushes out of shape and also make the wood of your handle swell which could result in it loosening the ferrule (the metal bit that connects the brush hairs to the handle)with the result that the hairs can fall out or the wood could rot.
  2. Letting the paint dry on your brushes. The paint builds up down low near the ferrule which can be very hard to remove. Will cause the point on the brush to be lost.
  3. Storing wet brushes point up – this allows the water to settle in the ferrule causing the wood of your handle to swell which could result in it loosening the ferrule as in point 1 above.
  4. Storing wet brushes with the point bent. The brush will dry in this odd shape losing its point. Depending on the brush this may fix by itself when you rewet the brush but sometimes it just stays in this wrong shape. One thing that can do which sometimes fixes even this problem however is to dip the hairs of the brush in very hot water and then reestablish the point with your fingertips and let the brush dry while laying it flat – I have had success with this technique with squirrel hair brushes but may not help with others – try at own risk!
  5. Using them for acrylic or worse still oil painting. Just don’t do this. If you want to use your watercolor brushes for acrylic or oil painting then set some aside just for that. Once you use your brushes for oil or acrylic painting they will begin to lose their point. Any oil or turpentine residue on the brush will make it behave differently then you later try to use it with watercolor.
  6. Using your good watercolor brush for apply art masking liquid or frisket. This is probably the quickest way to ruin a good watercolor brush. Once the liquid latex in the masking fluid dries on your brush it is gone. Even if you use the right technique when using masking fluid in time the brush will still finally pick up the odd bit of latex which will ruin it. Save your old brushes or buy some cheap ones and use them for masking.
  7. Storing wet brushes in a sealed container. The fibers of your brush will go mouldy if you store them wet without adequate ventilation. It will also keep the wood of the handle inside the ferrule damp which can lead to rod and a loose ferulle and cracked paint on the brush handle.
  8. Don’t use a good watercolor brush for scrubbing out color. Just makes good sense, the scrubbing will break down the hairs and in time your brush will thin out. If you want them to last longer then don’t use them for this purpose.
  9. Using paint that is too dry. I find this especially when students try to paint with cheap paints that dry really hard. The extra rubbing you have to do to get color out of your dry paint will wear the brush down faster than normal. If my paints have been left to dry without a lid on my pallet for a few days (which rarely happens now days) I just give each paint well a little spray with my water spray bottle and leave them for about 15 minutes, this will make it much easier to lift out paint after that. I use Winsor and Newton tube water colors almost exclusively I find they re-liquefy very easily.

10. Trying to put the round plastic protector back on that sometimes comes with a brush. Just don’t try it! The protector that came with the brush was probably put on by a machine and if you try to do the same yourself you will most likely end up with hairs pushed out of shape permanently. I just throw the protector away once I get my new brush home.

So there you have my list of the 10 things which will damage watercolor brushes. No doubt there are others but the above are the main ones I have come across. Once you get a really nice watercolor brush it is well worth your while taking the extra effort to look after it as it should keep in good shape for many years. A good brush will help you paint your watercolors while a bad or damaged brush will hinder you.

Art Masking Fluid

Using art masking fluid with watercolor

What is art masking fluid and how is it used? Masking fluid is liquid latex, which is a natural rubber, though there are synthetic versions of it as well. As a watercolor artist it allows you to protect parts of your painting. It allows you to quickly paint over areas of your paper without having to try and paint around complex shapes. Masking fluid is used by Acrylic artists as well watercolor artists.

For this demonstration I am using Winsor and Newton’s Art Masking Fluid which I have been using for about 14 years without any problems.

What you need to apply art masking fluid

Here is a list of the tools you will need when applying masking fluid to your watercolor paper.

Equipment for applying art masking fluid
Figure 1: Masking fluid, water container and range of old watercolor brushes
  • Bottle of masking fluid, also known by various brand names.
  • A water container filled with about3/4” of water – for use with cleaning the latex from your brush
  • Old watercolor brushes, do not use your good brushes as any latex left in the brush will destroy their good point very quickly. I have a number of such brushes with varying shapes, one has quite a fine point (obtained over time as hairs have worn away) for masking narrow lines and shapes.
Concentrated dish washing liquid for use with art masking fluid
Figure 2: Concentrated dish washing liquid for use with art masking fluid
  • Dishwashing liquid.
Crepe eraser for remove dry art masking fluid
Figure 3: Crepe eraser for remove dry art masking fluid
  • Crepe eraser for removing the dry masking.

Steps for apply masking fluid

The first step after you have completed the drawing for your painting is to give your bottle of masking fluid a good shake. I do this about 15 minutes before I need to use it to allow all the bubbles thus generated to settle back down. Otherwise you get masking fluid up the side of your brush when you dip it into a half full bottle.

While waiting for the bubbles to settle down add some dishwashing liquid to the container you will use for cleaning the masking from your brush. Stir it all up so the liquid soap is dispersed evenly throughout the water.

Add some dishwashing liquid to water used to remove wet art masking fluid
Figure 4: Add some dish washing liquid to the water container
Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid in water and stir used to clean art masking fluid
Figure 5: Stir up the dish washing liquid

Start by dipping your brush into the soapy water. Drag the brush over the rim of the water container to remove some excess water and then dip it into the latex masking.

After dipping brush in soapy water pick up some art masking fluid
Figure 6: After dipping your brush into the soapy water dip it into the masking fluid

Now you can paint the masking fluid onto your dry paper over the areas you need to protect.

Paint art masking fluid directly onto dry paper
Figure 7: Paint the masking fluid onto your dry paper over the areas you want to protect

Between every one or two times that you pick up fresh masking liquid rinse the brush out in the soapy water. If you fail to do this the masking will start to dry on your brush and you will end up throwing it out!

Dip brush in soapy water before dipping into art masking fluid
Figure 8: Frequently clean you brush in the soapy water

Continue this procedure till you have finished applying the masking fluid to your watercolor painting.

Finish placing all your art masking fluid and let dry thoroughly
Figure 9: Continue applying masking fluid to the watercolor painting till finished

Let the masking fluid dry completely. Once dry you can lay your watercolor wash over the unprotected areas of your painting. In my case I have used the masking to protect the flowers and branches of my painting so I can easily lay in the background watercolor wash. The masking will protect the paper underneath from staining. However sometimes you may find you have missed a spot leaving you with a small patch of watercolor where it isn’t wanted. This will need to be removed with some light scrubbing after the masking is taken away.

Once art masking fluid is dry lay down your watercolor wash
Figure 10: After the masking is totally dry you can lay your watercolor wash

After your watercolor wash has totally dry (this is very important) then you can proceed to the next step of removing the masking. The easiest way to do this is to use a crepe eraser. You do not have to press very hard as the latex of the masking fluid seems to be attracted to the rubber of the eraser and comes off quite easily.

After the watercolor wash is totally dry you can remove the dry art masking fluid with a crepe eraser
Figure 11: After the watercolor wash is totally dry you can remove the dry art masking fluid with a crepe eraser

You now have the background done and can concentrate on the details in the areas which were protected.

After removing art masking fluid from watercolor painting
Figure 12: The painting with the dry art masking fluid removed

If you had left a gap in your masking now is the time to remove as much of the unwanted watercolor paint as possible with a barely damp stiff brush. You can also use this same brush to fix any edges that you feel are not correct or too sharp before proceeding to the next step.

Key points for using masking fluid with watercolor paper

Make sure you only apply masking fluid to watercolor paper which is totally dry. Do not apply it to wet or damp paper or the masking fluid will be absorbed into the paper and will damage it when you remove it. Also, it should not be used on soft sized paper – I use Arches watercolor paper which has plenty of sizing. Otherwise it could be absorbed into the paper fibres. If this happens it cannot be removed without damaging your paper.

Do not use it on soft sized watercolor paper. This means watercolor paper with very little sizing on it. I mainly use Arches paper and have never had any trouble with it. The problem with soft sized paper is that the masking may be absorbed by the paper and not be able to be removed properly without damage.

Clean you brush in the soapy water very frequently.

Don’t use your best watercolor brushes for applying masking fluid or they will be damaged.

Wait until the masking is fully dry before painting over it.

Wait until you watercolor wash is totally dry before removing the dry masking with a crepe eraser.

You can apply masking fluid over a dry area of watercolor wash before laying another wash. However a little of the watercolor being protected is likely to be lifted and may need to be reestablished anyway with more watercolor.

I only use masking when I really have to as it slows down the whole painting process rather than letting me get right into the painting – but there are times when it just must be used.

Hopefully this information will allow you to use art masking fluid successfully with your future watercolor and acrylic paintings.