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Feb 14, 2010

Use the biggest brush you have...

For gestural excitement, try to use the biggest brush you have on hand – for the task at hand.

Above is a detail from a quick study I did of an old-school carpenter named Jim sometime late last fall. (click on the image to see an extreme detail.) I spent about three hours on this painting, a one-off. Jim walked into my friend's studio one night and I didn't know what I was going to do with him. But he exuded some real character and I wasn't going to waste the opportunity to capture it.

You can make a good guess at what brushes were used by the strokes you find in this detail. The brushes were were hefty boar-bristle #8 and #10 flats. However, what might be a bit deceptive about the marks in this detail is that sometimes I used the flat tips of those brushes for my pulls, and sometimes I used the sides. And at other times, I used just a corner of the tip. Held at an oblique angle.

But why do this? Isn't a Flat supposed to be held flat? Wasn't it designed to leave a squared-off mark? Sure. But if there is one basic rule of thumb to painting expressively then it is to vary the stroke as much as possible. A painting constructed with a single repetitive mark usually ends up being a dull and unexciting experience for the artist and viewer. Even the Impressionists – who were known for laying down short repetitive daubs of broken color – offered lovely variation in their strokes. You just have to look for it.

Here is Jim in full. You've already been up close to his eye:

His head was painted close to life size. Ask yourself, how much gesture was invested in the area around his eye? How much movement was concentrated into that small space?

Besides gesture, a painter can vary the opacity of his strokes. She can vary the length of her stroke, the physical thickness, and the crispness of the trailing mark. He can vary the color from its surrounding area, or emphasize the lightness or darkness, and even decide whether or not the movement of that stroke should align with the surface of the subject, or run counter to it. There are no rules to making strokes – other than to create interesting variety.

The variety of strokes we can offer is endless and how we choose to use them eventually develops into our signature in paint.

So why try to make our strokes identical? Or try to rid the presence of our hand by cat-licking it out of existence with a soft brush? Or even worse, ignore this important aspect to building a painting because, well, we don't stop to consider it?

I say throw the paint down and push it around! Make painting a visceral experience. Make your mark.


1 reader comments:

Kitty Wallis said...

I agree! Accurate strokes do not need small brushes. If we miss, we can use large brushes accurately by honing strokes, pushing the paint around until we have it. The fewer strokes the better. The more feelingful, the better.

For me, large brushes carry more feeling, although that might sound weird. I tend to pick at the painting with small brushes. A large brush encourages me to lay in the feeling straight from my gut.