In the world of watercolour, most will have heard of the infamous “wet-on-wet” technique, where you wet your paper before dropping paint in. This allows for soft edges and blends, as the paint is allowed to flow freely on top of the watery surface.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the humble “dry-on-dry” technique, also known as the dry brush technique. In this blog post, we’ll explore a little more about this technique, and how to maximise its potential.

The Method

So how do you perform the dry brush technique? It’s pretty simple: first, mix a paint colour on your palette as you normally would. Then, wipe your brush on a paper towel until most of the liquid is gone.

It should still be damp, but not dripping with paint. Finally, lightly apply your brush to your paper, and if the brushstroke looks streaky and dry, you’ve got it!

Water control is key here, even more so than when using the wet-in-wet technique, because if your brush is too dry, you won’t get anything on your paper. If it’s slightly too wet, then the streaking won’t happen.

If you’re finding it difficult to consistently get a dry brush effect, here are a few tips:

  1. Use cold press paper, as the textured surface makes it easier for little white “holes” to appear.
  2. Splay the bristles of your paintbrush, or use a fan or flat brush. You may want to use your cheaper brushes for this, as it may damage the bristles so they don’t come to a point anymore.
  3. Use a synthetic brush, as natural-hair brushes often retain water too well to produce a dry brush effect (plus you don’t want to ruin them, as they’re more expensive!).
  4. Use an old paintbrush, where the bristles don’t come to a point anymore for an even more enhanced dry brush effect
  5. Use a brush that has very thick and stiff bristles. Funnily enough, they’re often the cheap, bad-quality brushes that work best with the dry brush technique.
  6. Paint quickly. The lighter and faster your brushstrokes are, the more likely it is to create this dry effect, even if your brush has a little too much paint on it.
  7. Paint using the belly of your brush rather than its tip. This is because gravity tends to pull most of the paint to your brush’s tip, so use the middle area for a drier effect.

Once you’re comfortable and able to consistently produce the streaky dry brush look, you can try your hand at painting these subjects that seem to be made for this technique!

Rocky Mountains

The first thing you can try painting is some rocky mountains or even The Rocky Mountains. Alternatively, large boulders work too. The key here is to follow the contouring of the rocks and to use the dry brush technique in the rockiest areas while reserving a regular painting technique for trees and snow (if there are any).

Some especially good examples of this technique are Chinese paintings of mountain landscapes, where mountains have very unique rock formations. I’ve even seen paintings where just the dry brush technique has been used to express the beauty of these mountains!

Tip: If you’re not a fan of rocks, you can apply the same principles, but for a tree instead. The contouring idea will be similar, but your brushstrokes will be more varied than the rocks, as trees tend to have more twists and turns in them. The width of the trunk and branches will also vary a lot more than rocks.

Sparkling Water

Another great application of this is for painting a shimmery surface, which is kind of ironic considering that its surface is very smooth compared to rocks. This is pretty easy to paint – just gently brush a light blue colour in a horizontal direction, allowing the white of the paper to show through for the lightest of areas.

The part of the water that isn’t shimmering can be in deeper shades of blue and green, while the sky and/or skyline should also be painted to contrast with the white areas.

Fluffy Fur

Fur can also have a dry brush look to them, plus it’s easier to paint fur this way than having to paint every individual strand. For this, use the dry brush technique at the very end, and follow the direction the fur goes. They may overlap or curve in different directions, so similar to the contouring of rocks, you’ll need to pay a little more attention to get the right “feel”.

Tip: Since lighter colours don’t show up when layering in watercolour, you could consider doing your dry brush highlights in white gouache paint. Just make sure that you do this last.

A Versatile Texture

In the end, using the dry brush technique is a way to add texture to your painting. It’s also quick and easy to use, once you get the hang of it! 

So if you’re finding that your regular paintings are missing just a little something, why not try adding a dry brush effect to them? It contrasts well with other techniques, so it’s worth giving it a try.

You could even experiment on different types of paper,e with different paintbrushes, or even with different paints! It’s just up to you and your imagination.

What other subjects do you think would work with the dry brush technique? Do you have a favourite way to add texture to your painting? Let us know in the comments below!

Additionally, if you’re curious and want to learn more about the art process, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. Whether you’re a beginner or a long-time artist, we’ll notify you of all the latest happenings with Etchr!

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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