Thursday, 10 May 2012

Elephant No. 221: Drybrush Painting

I came across this technique online a few weeks ago, and tucked it away in the back of my mind to try sometime. The artist whose work caught my attention says that this is the perfect medium for street artists, because you can create a lifelike portrait in minutes.

I'm assuming he means that you can create a lifelike portrait in minutes once you've actually gotten good at this particular technique, but I'm going to give it a try anyway.

Drybrush, as the name implies, involves using a relatively dry brush to create a painting. If you use a water-based medium such as watercolour, acrylic paint, ink or gouache, the brush should be squeezed free of water, then loaded with a thick, relatively dry paint. If using oils, any solvents or oils should be squeezed out of the brush before the brush is loaded with thick oil paint. The surface should also be dry, and the brushstrokes are generally supposed to be firm and confident. In my case, I guess we'll have to see about that.

The video below shows the creation of a work by Russian artist Igor Kazarin. This is the original drybrush video that caught my eye.

When using water-based media, it's okay to go over previous brushstrokes, because the paint dries quickly. With oils, because they have a longer drying time, brushing over or blending strokes made with oil paint will reduce or destroy the drybrush look.

There is a whole range of brushstrokes you can use in drybrush, including lines that are hard-edged on one side and broken on the other, lines that are broken on both sides, and lines that start out heavy and hard-edged but taper off and lighten up towards the end. Another technique when using water-based media is to start a line as drybrush, then draw it into a dampened area, or vice-versa.

The surface and the speed of the brushstroke also affect how much of a drybrush effect you get. A smooth surface, for example, requires a faster stroke to create a drybrush effect, while a slower line can be used on a stippled surface. The angle of the brush and the amount of paint on the brush make a difference as well, often related to speed and type of surface.

In general, drybrush allows for fairly realistic shading and modelling, and is especially effective in works of high realism. American artist Andrew Wyeth was particularly adept at this technique, and used it often in his work.

Faraway, 1952
Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009)
Drybrush on paper

Given that most drybrush appears to lean towards realism, I thought I'd better paint from a photograph for today's elephant. This is the photograph I chose:

African elephant.

For paints, I decided to use acrylics, since I wanted to give myself the best chance of achieving a proper drybrush look. For my surface, I used a canvas board measuring 15.25 x 20 cm (6 x 8 inches).

I started by making a light sketch, since most online videos of drybrush painting seem to start that way.

I wasn't sure how to use the paint, so I poured a bit of purple paint in my palette. I dipped my bone-dry brush in it, then wiped it lightly against a paper towel before brushing it onto the canvas board. The two photographs below show what my first few strokes looked like.

As you can see, I was somewhat tentative. No firm and confident brushstrokes for this girl. Still, the sky hadn't fallen, so I continued on with the purple. Interestingly, the graphite in the pencil reactivated with my brushstrokes, so I got purple mixed with grey. That was okay with me, but bear it in mind if you decide to try this.



I liked the look of this well enough, but thought some additional colours might make it more interesting. I added a bit of blue and green first.

And, since I had added all three cool colours, I decided to add the three warm ones: red, orange and yellow.

I liked the sort of dreamy quality this had, and I did indeed find that this technique works well to create something realistic. I only spent about an hour on this painting, so I guess I would probably be able to make it more detailed if I spent more time on it. But I decided it might be better to leave well enough alone at this point.

I found it hard to create sharp lines with this technique, but I might have had better luck with a finer brush. The dryness of brush and paint tends to make the bristles on the brush spread out a bit, however, so I'm not sure I'd be much more successful at fine lines, unless I wanted to make the paint quite thick. Since I'd started out with a fairly light hand, I didn't really want to go too thick, because it would have meant going thicker all over.

Another thing I noticed was that, if I pressed too hard with the brush, the paint tended to blob a little. I was much happier when I could keep the paint light and layer sweeps of colour.

That being said, I'm surprised at how well this worked out. I think I would work darker next time, but I'll definitely try this technique again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
During the nineteenth century, Delavan, Wisconsin was the winter quarters to more than 25 circuses, earning it the name "Circus Capital of the World".

To commemorate this legacy, Delavan has chosen a life-sized fibreglass sculpture of a wild-eyed killer elephant named Romeo. Oddly enough, at a time when elephants were put to death for killing a single person, Romeo was allowed to live, despite the fact that he was something of a serial killer.

Over a period of 15 years, Romeo killed five people by crushing them, impaling them, or stamping them to death. He also escaped from his enclosure at one point and terrorized the countryside for three days before being caught. On another occasion, while appearing in Chicago, he went on a rampage and nearly tore the theatre apart.

Why did Romeo escape execution when so many other less-murderous elephants didn't? It may have had something to do with a popular story at the time. Romeo, it was said, was simply behaving out of grief, following the death of his beloved elephant companion, Juliet. This, however, was merely a tale made up by a circus press agent. There was no Juliet; Romeo was probably just plain mean.

As a commentator on the Roadside America website suggests, if the statue of a rearing Romeo—with a happily oblivious clown standing right underneath—is any indication of nineteenth-century circus life, "then perhaps Romeo wasn't a cold-blooded killer after all. Maybe the people around him were just dumb."

Statue of Romeo the killer elephant on Main Street
in Delavan, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
Photo: Ginny Hall

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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