Contrasting Brush Marks

There is a great pleasure in loading up a large brush with a mixture of strong dark pigment and quickly working some big, confident marks over the first washes of a painting.


Of course, the planning needs to be done first, but to establish these big calligraphic marks early on builds a really strong foundation for a painting.

Once these big confident marks are in place more washes can be added then, with smaller more precise brushes, finer detail can be suggested. The contrast between the loose marks made with a big brush and the fine precise lines made with smaller, geometric brushes add immensely to the interest and character of a painting.

Loose confident marks applied with a rough bristle brush establish a spontaneous foundation for a painting.



Contrasting the broad loose marks with precise, geometric shapes can be achieved with a long at brush - in this case a 1/2 inch long flat produces formal accurate brick shapes.



Further detail can be suggested with a fine rigger brush.



In this painting, once the background washes were applied and let dry, a 1/2 inch bristle brush was used to delicately put in the masts and hull of the trawler.

The variety and character in the mast could not have been achieved with a more accurate, predictable brush.

To achieve these fine lines with a bristle brush the brush has to be worked into a flat, chisel shape on the palette then the thin edge of the chisel shape is used to make the fine mark.

All the cabin details and nautical equipment were painted with a rigger and various flat brushes.



This painting shows the importance of contrast between loose rough shapes and fine detailed shapes.
Apart from a few precise squares and rectangles and the fine masts, booms and rigging, most of this painting was completed with a 1/2 inch rough bristle brush.


The calligraphic shadows around the door and window here were made over the first pale washes with a 1/2’ bristle brush. More color, finer lines and detail were built up, then, towards the end, the long vertical down pipe was painted with the chisel edge of a 1/2 inch bristle brush. Starting and finishing this line on areas of damp paper softens the ends of the line, drawing attention to the focal point.


The spontaneous white brush marks in this painting were applied with gesso over the first background washes. Fine detail was then added with a 1/4 inch flat brush and a #1 rigger. The extreme contrast between the fine mesh of the fence and the vigorous, rough gesso marks amplify each others character.



A heavy steel hammer has little subtlety or delicacy. Here the fine charcoal and rigger lines contrasting with rough heavy brush marks add a strange sense of refinement to what is a very simple implement.


This hammer is much more refined. Rough white charcoal marks and strokes of white gesso impose a frantic animation on the serious formality of the instrument.



The masts and booms on this old sailing boat were delicately applied with a 1/2 inch bristle brush rolled into a point on the palette. The variations and random marks give the vessel far more interest than precise lines made with a small round or at brush



Once the details and rigging are applied the calligraphic masts and booms appear to belong in the painting. Had these features been carefully applied with a more formal brush, their appearance would be tight and lifeless.



When planning a painting consider the type of marks that best suit your subject. The powerful contrast between loose animation and careful refinement, in the marks you make, adds variety and tension that can really bring a subject to life.

See also:

 Painting Fine Lines

 Brush Techniques

 Watercolor Brushes

Author : John Lovett


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John Lovett


John Lovett is an Australian artist working in oils, watercolor and mixed media. Since commencing his career John has held over thirty five solo exhibitions and taken part in many joint ones. John’s work is represented in private and corporate collections in Australia, United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and USA. John’s passion for his work and his open easy approach to teaching make his books, DVD’s and workshops thoroughly enjoyable, extremely informative and always very popular. His articles are regularly featured in “International Artist” magazine.      



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© 2017 John Lovett (all text and images unless otherwise stated)