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In Painting, what does It Mean to "Dry Brush"?

By N. Phipps
Updated May 16, 2024
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Dry brush is a painting technique in which a small amount of paint is put on a dry paintbrush. No water or medium other than paint is used to wet the brush. This technique can be achieved with both water-based media, such as acrylic paint, tempura, or watercolor; and oil-based paint. However, dry brushing is most often used with watercolor paintings. It is not difficult to learn how to accomplish dry brushing techniques, but most people find it easier to experiment until comfortable using this method.

When using the dry brush method with water-based paints, the brush should be dry or somewhat damp prior to loading it with paint. It is then applied to a dry support or platform. In addition to paper, it is possible to dry brush on wood, plaster of Paris castings, papier-mâché, and other similar items. Dry brushing with watercolor is oftentimes used to create a scratchy, rough-textured appearance. In water paintings, dry brush techniques are employed most often on objects like foliage, bark, stones, clouds, etc.

With oil-based media, a similar dry brush technique is used. However, after loading the brush with paint, it should be squeezed dry of oil or solvent. The use of dry brushing with oil paint is often achieved while painting portraits. It is used to create highlights, and when applied over wet paint, creates smooth passages within the painting. Brushing or blending over wet strokes is usually not recommended, as it takes oil paint longer to dry and also requires great skill to implement this dry brush technique effectively.

For the most part, dry brushing is fairly simple; however, learning this technique takes practice. Generally, a stiff bristle brush works best. The brush is usually dipped about an inch or less into the paint media—just enough to dampen the brush. It should not become soaked or overly saturated. In fact, it normally helps to dab the paintbrush onto a paper towel or simply pick up only minimal color at a time.

Once the brush is prepared, it is basically skimmed across the paper. The harder it’s pressed, the more color results; however, dry brush strokes will gradually build up in color and texture. Color plays an important role in dry brushing. Depending on the object, it should be dry brushed with a contrast color that enhances the item. Typically, one uses a light contrast for a dark color or a dark contrast for a light color.

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Discussion Comments
By Engelbert — On May 22, 2011

@goldenmist - Synthetic brushes are fine to use also. The most important thing is that the brushes are flat and if you want to do precise details you're going to need a small brush, a brand new #1 or #2 would be ideal. You might need to replace these every so often because they tend to lose their edge. Of course you can also use bigger brushes to cover larger areas.

Another tip is to use a kneaded eraser for highlights. Don't forget that dry brushing isn't limited to portraiture either; it's great for blending lines and background details as well. It’s a very handy technique to learn if you want to be a painter.

By goldenmist — On May 20, 2011

I understand that a bristle brush will work best, but can I also use a synthetic brush? That's all I have to work with currently and I’m eager to try this out. The portraits I’ve seen using this method with oil-based paint are extremely realistic.

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