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Basic Brushstroke Types With Examples

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Brushstroke techniques for artists, explained. Understanding brushstrokes helps you paint more successfully.

Brushstroke techniques for artists, explained. Understanding brushstrokes helps you paint more successfully.

Gaining Control of Paint and Brushstrokes

When you start painting, you have an idea—a vision, if you will—of how you'd like it to look when it's done. However, often the way the final painting looks is very far from how we envisioned it.

One of the secrets of having your painting look the way you picture it in your mind is learning how to control the tools you use: paint and brushes.

You've got to become a skillful master at the painterly effects. Different techniques in the application of the paint will result in very different visual effects.

Below are short explanations of the basic paint application techniques using brushes.

Types of Brushstroke Techniques

In this article we'll talk about the following techniques:

  • Flat Wash
  • Crosshatching
  • Hatching
  • Drybrush
  • Ways to paint a straight line (brush ruling)
  • How to make an organic line
  • Scumbling
  • Stippling

Let's get started.


Flat Wash

A flat wash produces a smooth, even layer of color. When laying a flat wash in acrylic it helps to dilute the paint with some water or (better) with some matte medium. This makes the paint flow smoother and gives even coverage.

To create a nice smooth wash, use soft bristle brushes and work each stroke in one direction only, rather than scrubbing back and forth.

For an even coat, use a wide, flat brush, slightly overlapping each successive stroke.

Here colors are blended from darker to lighter using flat washes and crosshatch techniques.

Here colors are blended from darker to lighter using flat washes and crosshatch techniques.

Crosshatching Painting Technique

In crosshatching, brushstrokes are crisscrossed over each other to create a web of color.

The spacing between the lines can be varied, depending on the effect you want.

You can use crosshatching to model form, build up areas of light and shade, or create lively color mixtures.

This is a technique when an old, bent brush can come very useful, for each bristle creates its own tiny stroke, making for a rough crosshatched texture.

Crosshatching can be done in any number of colors, brushed on in any direction.

  1. Wet on wet crosshatching. Make X patterns with one color. Without washing the brush, get a bit of another color and make same Xs blending the two colors. Keep adding bits of the second color to the brush while you move on with your Xs, it will create a nice transition.
  2. Wet on dry crosshatching. Lay a flat wash of one color and let it dry. Then crosshatch in various directions with another color using a fairly dry brush, not too loaded. The underground color glows through and creates a subtle optical mixture.
Wet on wet crosshatching

Wet on wet crosshatching

Hatching Technique

The term hatching refers to the building up of tone and texture with parallel lines. Typical of pen and ink drawing, hatching is the traditional method to create tonal shading.

It can also be used as an exciting way to blend different colors. In hatching, the strokes of different colors are not smoothed together, up close you see each color, from a bigger distance you achieve optical color mixing and the colors are fresh and vibrant.

You can build up striking color relationships by intermixing different colors without blending.

Hatching painting using cad yellow and raw sienna.

Hatching painting using cad yellow and raw sienna.

Drybrush Painting Technique

In the drybrush technique, the brush is loaded with a small amount of thick paint and it’s dragged lightly over a dry painting surface.

This way the paint catches on the raised tooth of the ground leaving tiny speckles of the underlying color showing through. The texture of the surface determines the texture of the drybrush strokes.

This technique allows the painter to suggest details and texture with minimal brushwork. Don’t blend or labor drybrush strokes; use them confidently and boldly, and leave them alone, or you’ll lose the effect.

As the paint is depleted from the brush, the stroke becomes fainter. This produces rough, lively gradations of tone and color.

Poll: Many artists have a favorite brush. How about you?

The highlights on this sunset sky are done with the drybrush technique. (painting "Thankful Ending" by Robie Benve, detail.)

The highlights on this sunset sky are done with the drybrush technique. (painting "Thankful Ending" by Robie Benve, detail.)

Brush Ruling: Technique to Make Straight Lines

Making a straight line with a brush can be quite challenging because the bristles tend to wobble and it’s difficult to control the flow of the paint. It requires a very steady hand.

But who said you can’t use tools to help you paint a straight line? Three ways to do it are:

  1. Use masking tape. The masking tape technique is self-explanatory: paint the line, then peel off the tape.
  2. Use a tilted ruler to guide your hand. When using the ruler, you want to avoid to use it flat, like when you are drawing a line with a pencil, because the paint can smudge. Hold the ruler at 45-degree angle to the surface and gently draw a soft brush across the ruler, keeping the ferrule of the brush against the edge to ensure a straight line.
  3. Use the ruler as a printing tool. You can apply paint to the edge of a ruler and “print” the line by pressing the edge firmly on the surface. Lift the ruler off quickly to leave a thin line of color. This kind of line, though straight may present little gaps or small smudges. In alternative to this, for shorter lines, use the straight side of a painting knife.
Brush Ruling: A tilted ruler serves as support to paint straight lines.

Brush Ruling: A tilted ruler serves as support to paint straight lines.

You Need Different Shape and Different Size Brushes for Each Specific Job

Use a Liner Brush to Paint Organic Lines

Many subjects require a thin organic line that would not look natural if made with masking tape or ruler. For example, to create flower stems, grass blades, or tree branches, a free-hand line using a liner brush is the way to go.

Use fluid paint, hold your brush loosely towards the end of the handle, and draw lines with a fluid movement. The line gets thinner as you drag your paintbrush.

It helps gently to rotate the brush between your fingers: it keeps the line varies (important especially for tree branches) and uses the paint on all sides of the bristles. Keep a very light touch.

Liner Brush

Liner Brush

Scumbling Painting Technique

Scumbling is the rough and uneven application of a layer of thin paint over a layer of another color, producing a lively and unpredictable texture and color variety. Rather than a smooth, even gradation, scumbling produces a more casual blend.

Colors that are too warm, too cool, or too bright can be modified with a scumble of a suitable color.

Scumbles are usually applied with a circular motion of the brush, but the effect can also be achieved with streaks, dabs, or smudges.

Acrylics dry fast, but if you work quickly you can scumble two colors into one another while they are still wet.

While the paint is still wet, you can create gradations of color by “knitting” the various tones of color together, using carefully controlled brushwork.

Scumbling Technique

Scumbling Technique

Stippling Technique

Stippling is the brush technique that uses random small dots or scattered brush marks to create colors, tones, and textures. You can paint each tiny dot of color in a controlled way with a small brush, or you can use a flat, bigger brush, and let the bristles make the dots for you.

Making separate dots with a small brush, hold the brush perpendicular to the surface, and make each dot evenly spaced, without pressing too hard. Paint can be quite fluid but not runny.

You can experiment by intermixing two or more colors; graduating from one color to another; and applying a stipple over different colored washes.

Stippling with a stiff brush, each of the hairs leaves a tiny dot of color. Using a brush with softer hair to stipple will produce a slightly blurred, more irregular effect.

You can also stipple using a sponge or other creative textured objects, like a nail brush or bubble wrap. Moisten the applicator with fairly stiff paint, then apply with a press-and-lift motion. Keep dabbing and lifting, slightly overlapping the patterns, until you achieve the density and texture you want.

Tip:

Experiment stippling using semi-liquid paint and see the different effects that you can achieve.

Stippling Painting Technique

Stippling Painting Technique

You'll Need an Assortment of Brushes

As you probably gathered from the information above, to be able to create the wanted effects, you'll need a nice range of brushes to choose from while painting.

Different shape brushes and different sizes come handy for each specific job.

For tips on how to choose your paintbrushes, read my article Guide to Choosing the Best Paint Brushes for Acrylics and Oils.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What are the three main painting brush strokes?

Answer: I think the three main brushstrokes that pretty much every painter uses are:

- Flat Wash - smooth and thin layer of color

- Hatching - a parallel stroke that builds up the tone and texture

- Dry Brush - lots of paint on the brush, dragged lightly over a dry surface, creating a textural stroke.

Question: What would you call the technique using the wrong end of the paintbrush?

Answer: When I use the tip of the paintbrush handle I usually make scratches on the wet paint, and I would call that technique sgraffito.

If it's a fat handle, you can load it with paint and make dots or lines, and I guess that would be called just "painting" with a creative tool. :)

At least that's my interpretation. I hope this helps. :)

Question: Does it matter what kind of brush stroke you employ if the brush has natural or synthetic hair?

Answer: In my general experience, the bristles of synthetic brushes are smoother and softer than natural ones. The softer the hair, the less paint a brush can hold, and the smoother the stroke will be. Coarser hairs tend to make more textural strokes, in which you can see the groove lines made by the bristles. This is evident when you are using thick paint or a dry brush technique. If you dilute or thin the paint, then there will be less or no visible texture.

Question: What is the best size and brush for the wash ?

Answer: I like to do my washes with flat brushes, half an inch or larger.

Question: What is a value stroke?

Answer: The value of a stroke is the degree of darkness or lightness of that particular stroke.

The best way to see the difference in values is to squint. Look at your painting squeezing your eyes and using your eyelashes as a filter, and it will be easier to see the value of each stroke.

Question: In class, I was taught other brushstrokes. Are these all the brushstrokes there are?

Answer: Oh no, not at all. These are just some basic brushstrokes. You can actually apply paint in so many ways, that there is no finished list of possible strokes, in my opinion.

You may use the brush flat or at an angle, staying light or pressing down hard, loading a little paint or a lot, making the paint thick or thin, etc. You can use different shapes of brushes too, and every variable helps creating the effect you want and need at any particular moment.

The best way to figure it out is by painting a lot, trying new approaches, and making mistakes.

Happy painting!

Question: What kind of brush and what techniques would you use for a very detailed artwork?

Answer: In general, big brushes are good for a loose style of painting and small brushes are good for details.

How small the brush should depend on the size of the work and on your style. Miniature artists use very tiny brushes that have only a few hairs. I like to use brushes size 1 and 2 for the final touches.

If you use oils or acrylic, have the big shapes established first, with no or minimum detail, then add the small shapes, the highlights come last. That sequence uses big, medium, and small brushes.

© 2015 Robie Benve

Comments

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 12, 2020:

So glad you liked the article and found the different kinds of brushstrokes helpful. Happy painting!

sav on May 11, 2020:

really good and helpful

Brenda Davis on January 10, 2020:

very informative...love it

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 07, 2018:

Oh wow Sharon, that's wonderful to hear! I'm really flattered that you refer to my article for your introductory course. Thank you and happy painting! Or should I say, happy teaching! :)

SharonM... on December 06, 2018:

Robie, I refer my students to this page as part of their introductory process.

Thanks, for updating it and keeping it fresh.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 28, 2015:

Hi RTalloni, thanks for pinning! Pinterest is a great source of traffic. Appreciated :)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 26, 2015:

Hi ChitrangadaSharan, I love oil painting too. I keep learning and challenging myself every day, painting is a source of happiness. :) Thanks a lot for your kind words and for voting and pinning! :)

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 25, 2015:

Thank you, Robie, for the encouragement! I gotta "just do it" as they say. :) Have a beautiful week ahead!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 25, 2015:

Hi heidithorne, I find that many time our own enemy and creativity-stopper is our mind. My thoughts (and I am talking about the negative, self doubting ones) can be the worst road blocks to overcome. A suggestion for getting the painting skills on your bucket list: pick up some brushes and paint, some cheap paper or canvas, and start playing around with colors/subjects you like. Nothing more liberating than doing something you love and knowing that if you mess up you are not wasting expensive stuff.

Happy painting! :) And thanks a lot for your votes and kindness!

RTalloni on May 25, 2015:

Pinning to my Draw/Paint/Create Arts and Crafts board. Thanks.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 25, 2015:

All the brush techniques for painting, that you have mentioned above are just beautiful. I have a keen interest in painting, especially oil painting.

Thanks for sharing your artistic skills. Voted up and pinned!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 24, 2015:

Painting beautifully like this is a serious bucket list item for me. Thank you for the inspiration. Voted up, beautiful and sharing!

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