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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.

Caligraphic marks with a 1/2" rough bristle brush



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

Precise marks with a 1/2" flat brush



Further detail can be suggested with a fine rigger brush.

Adding Fine Detail with a rigger or liner 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.

Watercolor Painting of moored fishing boat showing contrasting brush marks



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.

Limited palette Watercolor painting of Fishing Trawlers in a harbour


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.

Watercolor, ink and charcoal painting of an old door showing contrasting brush marks


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.

Watercolor and mixed media painting showing rough bristle brush marks contrasting with fine rigger brush lines



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.

Mixed media painting of a hammer showing contrasting brush marks


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.

Watercolor painting of a sailing ship showing contrasting brush marks



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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