Gurney Journey | category: Paint Technique


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

What did Andrew Wyeth mean by "drybrush?"

What did Andrew Wyeth mean when he called his paintings "drybrush?"

What did Andrew Wyeth mean by
Undersnow by Andrew Wyeth, drybrush, 1977

I've found Wyeth's use of the term misleading, because Wyeth's "drybrush" paintings often have a lot of very wet passages. Wyeth didn't think like other artists, and his notions about his use of the medium are mixed in with a lot of emotions and instincts. Here's what Wyeth himself said: 

"Drybrush is for more contemplative works (as compared with watercolor), 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.' Source of quote: Thomas Hoving in conversation with Andrew Wyeth, From Handprint

What did Andrew Wyeth mean by
Wyeth also said to Hoving: “Now drybrush comes to me through the fact that after I finish a tempera I may feel exhausted. I may have worked four or five or six months on it and I’m desperately tired. But then I may see something that interests me and watercolor doesn’t have the strength somehow. I start with a watercolor sometimes and realise, damn it all, I feel stronger than that. I want to go into it with a little more detail so I start working in drybrush.... " 

Garret Room" (right) is a very good example.

Wyeth continues: “When I stroke the paper with the dried brush, it will make various distinct strokes at once, and I start to develop the forms of whatever object it is until they start to have real body. But, if you want to have it come to life underneath, you must have an exciting undertone of wash. Otherwise, if you just work drybrush over a white surface, it will look too much like drybrush."

It was rare for Wyeth to allow other artists to watch him paint, but he made a few exceptions, and what follows are some quotes from what these observers noticed about his materials and methods.

Les Linton says: "I met Andrew Wyeth in March of 1976 and was able to not only speak to him about his materials, but also ask about his techniques. He was usually reticent about tech talk, but for some reason he warmed up to me and I was able to spend an entire afternoon asking questions.

Les continues: His paint box was there on the table by the back door and that's when I got the first clue about his use of gouache. I did notice he had a tube of Shiva casein white in there also. When I asked him about it he said once it dried, it was less likely to pick up when painted over again. I think that was the opaque white he used most in his watercolors and drybrush paintings, but I can't swear to it."

According to Linton and other observers, "most of the paper was Imperial (22" x 30") 140 lb. Cold Press (or "Not," which in Brit-speak means not smooth or rough) woven linen, not cotton, and handmade. This is why the sizing was "harder," unlike the softer cotton watercolor paper later revived under the Whatman name (and mould made mimicking the original Whatman handmade texture). This harder surface is one of the reasons why Wyeth was able to abuse the surface of the paper so easily. He used sandpaper, knives, steel wool, and just about anything else he could find. Wyeth also had a large supply of rough Whatman Imperial sheets on hand as well."

"Many of Wyeth's drybrush watercolors were painted on extremely smooth 3-ply, plate finish (Bristol) from Strathmore. Some of the earlier Bristol paper he used (50's & 60's) was not archival, but current production is. You can see yellowing in some of his earlier studies and drawings on that particular paper.

"Mr. Wyeth used Winsor & Newton watercolors (with a few Grumbacher colors) and also made much use of W/N Gouache in his darker, earthier passages. The opaque watercolor came in handy in his drybrush watercolors painted in a more detailed egg tempera technique. He occasionally added alcohol (or whiskey) to his water when painting outdoors in cold weather to retard freezing."

"The paint thickener came from liquid gum arabic as well. These passages look thicker, 'juicier,' and are characterized by little bubbles (not possible with just water). He used an old, beat up, folding, enameled metal watercolor palette when I saw it in the 70s. I'm pretty sure his own watercolor palette was made in the U.S., but the nearest thing I've seen to it is the large, black, metal folding palette made by Holbein of Japan - most likely a copy of that same design. He favored W/N Series 7 Kolinsky sable rounds and used to buy the size #1's "by the fistful," again according to Berndt (who used to baby sit Andy when he was a child!). I've always assumed these very small brushes were purchased for his temperas and drybrush paintings and he wore them out readily."

"The main thing I came away with from my visit was Mr. Wyeth's willingness to break 'the rules' and use anything that gave him the effect he wanted in a painting. There were studies littered all over the floor of his studio, some with dusty shoe prints where he'd walked on them. 

Frederic Church's Area-by-Area Process

This plein-air oil study by Frederic Church was left unfinished, which gives us a glimpse into his process.

Frederic Church's Area-by-Area Process
Bavarian Landscape; Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900)
USA; brush and oil, pencil on academy board.; 27.3 x 30 cm (10 3/4 x 11 13/16 in.)

Church first outlined big areas of the scene in pencil over a sealed and toned paper surface. He then covered them in oil paint from the top to the bottom. 

This area-by-area method of painting is sometimes called "window shading" because it's like pulling down a window shade.

Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

On Instagram, I posted about this plein-air still life in oil, and some of you had questions:

Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

fefecru: "Can I ask you what umbrella is that? Anyone in particular you’ll recommend? 
A: It’s a Jullian umbrella, designed to clamp onto a French easel, but I keep it on a C-stand so that it doesn’t blow over and bring my painting into the wreckage."

agustin.poratti "How'd you build that camera trípod easel?"
A: That’s an Open Box M easel, which may not be made anymore, but there are others like it, and there's a Facebook group about building your own.

bencrastinate "Does painting with an easel help? Ive always painted my canvas flat on my desk. What are the benefits of painting on a vertical surface?"
A: I find it helps my speed and accuracy to have my painting set up perpendicular to my line of sight, and directly adjacent to, the same size as, and in the same light as my subject.

Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

grinningink "Since you used oil here, wasn’t it still wet when you sold it that same day? Was there something to protect it when the customer took it?"
A: Yes, this was for a paint-out. I framed it and it was auctioned same day. I knew the owner, and after it was thoroughly dry I borrowed it back to varnish and photograph it.

Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

thefrankryan "Is this palette approach inspired by Carolous Duran’s method?"
A: A lot of oil painters have used premixed colors. I was thinking mainly of Frank Reilly, but using an adapted version of his practice.
Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

 "Please list the names of oil colors on the pallet, looks like three primaries and white." 
It’s the 5-color palette recommended by John Stobart in his book The Pleasures of Painting Outdoors: titanium white, cad yellow light, pyrrole red, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. You can paint almost anything with those five colors.

 "Would you also premix your colors when you paint with other mediums?"
In theory you could premix with water media, but the pools of color would tend to dry too fast.

Related previous posts: Painting Pumpkins 

Artists Collaborate with Museums to Explore Techniques

A growing number of art museums have teamed up with practicing artists to explore the painting methods of historical painters.  

Watercolor expert Mike Chaplin heads outdoors to demonstrate how J.M.W. Turner may have thought about tone (Link to YouTube). Instead of trying to copy a Turner, he paints directly from nature using materials and methods similar to what Turner might have used. Chaplin teamed with the Tate to produce similar videos with line and color.

London's National Gallery examines Titian's technique with commentary from art historians, conservators, and a practicing painter.  (Link to YouTube)

The Victoria and Albert Museum has demonstrated techniques of Renaissance artists (Link to YouTube).

Other museums such as the Yale Art Gallery have hosted illustrated lectures by conservators about painting methods, but it's not quite as engaging as watching someone try to replicate antique methods. It's a difficult gig for the living artist and it requires considerable humility.

Collaborations between artists and museum experts help to bring historical artists to life and make their work more approachable. Are you aware of other museum / artist collaborations? Please share them in the comments.

"Make every stroke count"

Stop and think for a second before you place a stroke. Consider how the stroke is going to look before you lay it down. Then commit to it. Don't move the brush three times when once will do.

Painting in gouache helps train this awareness. When you paint in water media, leave a passage alone once it starts to dry. Let it dry fully before you add more. Place the wettest layers on the first pass, and use drier strokes later in the process as you build opaque colors.

I learned all this stuff from my early years doing calligraphy, where you only get one chance to make a stroke, and you can't change a goof. I also picked up the idea from two of my early heroes, Jack Leynnwood (plastic-model box illustrator) and John Berkey (science fiction illustrator). I met each of them and watch them paint a little. As Jack used to say, "Make every stroke count." 

The purpose of this deliberation is not to make a particular virtue of technique, nor is it to make the brushwork stand out. Heaven forfend! 

The goal is economy and efficiency, just as it is in writing. Style gurus Strunk and White put it this way: "Omit needless works. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts." 
Quote from Strunk and White's book, "The Elements of Style"

Combining Pencil and Oil

Combining Pencil and Oil 

Our boat brought us to a settlement of crested hadrosaurs and their human assistants, where we spent a few days drying out in the smoky attics of their houses" 

The painting is done in oil wash over pencil on illustration board, which has been sealed first with some workable fixative spray and then with a thin layer of acrylic matte medium. 

Combining Pencil and Oil
Dinotopian flight instructor Oolu holds a lightweight skybax saddle. 

Combining Pencil and OilThis technique is fast, direct, and reproduces well. 

handeyeoriginals asks: "What do you thin the oils with to make the wash?"

Answer: Liquin (a fast-drying alkyd medium) and Gamsol (a mineral solvent). Note that both of those are toxic, so you need good ventilation and protection for the skin of your hands.

    joeybruceartWhat’s the advantage of an oil wash instead of watercolour?
    Colour? Vibrancy?

    Answer: It's workable for a longer period and it blends well with opaques.

Illustrations from Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.

Illustration Techniques of Robert McGinnis

Robert McGinnis (born 1926) painted glamorous women and gun-toting spies for paperback covers and movie posters.  

This video by producer Paul Jilbert introduces McGinnis and his work and puts it in context. (Link to YouTube Video) Jilbert also produced a video showing the process of painting a standing semi-nude in egg tempera. 

The drawing is enlarged from photo reference on a Balopticon, similar to the one used by Norman Rockwell and Mort Kunstler. (Link to Video on YouTube

Book: The Art of Robert E. McGinnis 

Robert McGinnis on Wikipedia

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

Thomas Blackshear has produced a series of instructional videos called the Illustration Master Course. I have had an opportunity to watch most of the videos in the series and can highly recommend them. 

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

If you're not familiar with his work, Thomas Blackshear emerged in the '80s and '90s as an illustrator, creating about 30 US postage stamp designs, plus posters, art prints, and 3D figurines.

He trained in Chicago and worked for Hallmark Cards and the Godbold/Richter Studio. 

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

At that stage of his career he was inspired by Mark English, Bernie Fuchs, Drew Struzan, and David Grove, and he either learned directly from them or figured out their techniques. 

The first volumes in the series demonstrate these unusual techniques with gouache and acrylic.

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

In Volume 4 he demonstrates the "lifting out" technique, where you apply a gouache base layer over a pencil drawing and lift out light areas with a wet brush or Q-tip.

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

He has since pursued a gallery career for his original paintings, developing his own style that he calls 'Western Nouveau,' inspired by a variety of painters of the past such as Maynard Dixon and Alphonse Mucha. 

Most of his gallery paintings start in acrylic and finish in oil, sometimes with special touches of gold leaf.

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

His videos take you through the entire process, with closeups of his palette, his brushwork, and his special techniques, which he explains at each stage in a clearly recorded voiceover. 

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

The video occasionally cuts away to him sitting in his studio explaining the thinking behind what he's doing. His process is 100% 'old school,' using pencil, brush, tracing paper, and acetate overlays.

He often does a very detailed and complete pencil drawing and several color studies before he starts the finished painting, and the quality of his final results proves the value of solving all the problems sequentially.

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

Blackshear puts a lot of emphasis on getting the drawing right, no matter how much effort it takes, before proceeding into the paint. He hires models and shoots photo reference, but he freely interprets his reference to make it better.

There are six episodes so far, produced by Thaxton Studios. Each video is about an hour long, and priced at $45 for either a download or a DVD. Each is a standalone exercise and you don't have to follow them in order. I would suggest starting with whichever one that sounds closest to your interest. 

You can get info about Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course at this link. The videos are also available at Gumroad as digital downloads or streaming videos.

Muddy Colors did a blog post featuring his gouache 'pick-out' technique as featured in the magazine Step by Step Graphics. (Thanks, Matt Dicke and Dan Dos Santos)

Brushstroke Tips

Brushstroke Tips

The painting knife in #5 refers to oil painters. In #6, I'm talking about the opposite pointed end of the brush. The purpose of these tips is to help us get us to #10—to guide our imaginations beyond the surface of the painting so we can live inside it. 

Good brush technique happens when you convey the most information with the least effort. But we don't want technique to be the subject. It's easy to make a painting look like paint; the viewer's awareness of the surface is a given. Painterly execution should invite the viewer beyond the brushstrokes.


Previously: "Ten Tips for Better Brushstrokes"

Painting a Backlit Parked Car in Casein

I painted this casein study while Jeanette was in the market, so I had about 45 minutes.

I took a gamble on the car staying parked, and lost the gamble twice, but kept going anyway.

(Link to video)
Over an underpainting color of Cadmium Orange casein, I used Cobalt Blue,Venetian RedIvory Black, and Titanium White and focused on a simple warm/cool 

What did Andrew Wyeth mean by "drybrush?"Frederic Church's Area-by-Area ProcessYour Questions about Plein-Air Painting in OilArtists Collaborate with Museums to Explore Techniques"Make every stroke count"Combining Pencil and OilIllustration Techniques of Robert McGinnisReview of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master CourseBrushstroke TipsPainting a Backlit Parked Car in Casein

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