When people think of watercolor paintings, they typically think of soft, ethereal, watery paintings. However, watercolor doesn’t have to be used only with water – it can also be used dry through a technique called dry brush watercoloring.
So, what is dry brush watercolor? Dry brush watercoloring is a technique of watercolor painting where you dip a dry paintbrush in watercolor paint to create soft, textured brush strokes on the paper.
There are nuances and fine details that you’ll need to nail down if you want to try your hand at dry brush watercolor painting. This technique works best with the right supplies, the right pressure on the brush, and the right amount of paint.
Let’s explore all of this and more below.
What Is Dry Brush Watercolor?
Dry brush watercolor is a technique used in watercolor paintings. Rather than saturating the brush with water and using water to activate the watercolor paint, the brush is used dry.
The dry brush is dipped into the watercolor paint and lightly applied to the watercolor paper.
With dry brush watercolor, it’s important to use only a light amount of pressure. This is how the texture is achieved, with the paint only grabbing onto the tooth of the paper and not sinking into the sunken spaces.
It’s remarkably similar to the technique of oil painting, except watercolor paints tend to be easier to work with.
For example, if you have leftover paint in your palette, you can let it dry and reactivate it with water when you’re ready. Watercolor paints are also easier to clean up from your workspace and your brushes.
Supplies For Dry Brush Watercolor
Before you get started trying out your new dry brush watercolor technique, there are some supplies you’ll need to pick up first.
- Watercolor tube paints (recommended brands: Castle Arts and Winsor & Newton)
- Watercolor brushes
- Paint palette
- Watercolor paper
- Paper towels
Most people are used to seeing watercolor pan paints, but we recommend using watercolor tube paints for the dry brush technique.
Watercolor pan paints need water to activate, and will only work if made wet. This takes away from the dry brush technique and makes it difficult to achieve the same effect.
Watercolor tube paints already come wet, so all you’d need to do is squirt a little into your paint palette. You can even mix up your own custom color to achieve better color variety in your painting.
It’s always important to have the right tools for the job, so before diving in with watercolor painting, you’ll want to make sure you have the right brushes, too.
Not all brushes are created equal. Some work best for acrylic, oil, gouache, etc. Some brushes are versatile and can work for all paint types. Just make sure the brushes you choose have “watercolor” as a suggested paint type listed.
The right surface is another important step in the process. Watercolors work best on textured paper specifically designed for watercolor paints.
We recommend getting a book of watercolor paper to work with. The product we recommended above has two sides to each page: smooth and textured. You can practice your wet brush watercolors on the smooth side and your dry brush technique on the textured side.
It’s also good to have paper towels at the ready. Although dry brush technique uses a dry paintbrush, you’ll still need to use a little water to wash off between colors.
Having paper towels nearby is important for drying off the brush before choosing your next color.
How To Do Dry Brush Watercolor
Once your supplies are all gathered and ready, you can begin your dry brush watercolor painting!
- Select your desired color and squirt a little out from the tube onto one of the divots in the paint palette.
- Dip a dry brush in the paint very lightly. You don’t want too much paint on the brush. You can always add more later if the brushstrokes are lighter than you wanted.
- With the paint on your brush, gently sweep the brush across the watercolor paper. Play with different speeds and angles to create the brushstroke that most closely matches the texture you’re aiming for.
It’s as simple as that! When you’re just starting out learning dry brush watercolor, it’s important to use a page or two for practice to get the hang of things.
Experiment with different variables, such as speed, the amount of paint you use, and even the type of paper you’re working with. The speed you sweep the paintbrush across the page will affect how much paint is distributed in a single brushstroke.
Here are some quick tips:
- If you move quickly, not a lot of paint will catch on the tooth of the page. If you move more slowly, the paint will have more time to drag across the page, leaving more color behind.
- You can also try adjusting the amount of paint you’re using. We suggest starting with a small amount of paint, then adding a little bit more to see the different effects it can have. Large globs of paint will go on too thickly and won’t produce much texture at all, so keep in mind that even as you increase the amount of paint, there is a limit to how much you can add before you lose the effect of dry brush technique.
- The texture of the paper will also affect the brushstrokes. High tooth will create a much more significant texture, while smoother papers without any tooth will appear more wispy and broken.
Play around with the dry brush technique until you get the hang of it. It may take some time, but it will be worth it once you’ve mastered it and are able to add more texture and layers to your watercolor paintings.
To learn more about the nuances of dry brush watercolor technique, and to see it in action, watch the video below from Stephanie Law. She starts slow, demonstrating the basics of the technique, before moving on to show you how she uses it in her art.
Dry Brush Vs Wet Brush Watercolor
Since watercolor paints can be used both with a dry brush and a wet brush, which technique is best?
Both techniques are fantastic and should be used, depending on the style of painting the artist is going for and what details they’re trying to create.
Dry brushing creates stronger details and visible brushstrokes. This makes dry brush technique ideal for texture or detail work that you might need for feathers or fur on animals or grass and trees in nature landscapes.
Wet brushing gives a dreamy, ethereal quality to an art piece. The colors used in wet brush tend to spread and blend, with soft edges and seamless blending.
Generally, watercolor artists use both techniques in a single painting. Wet brushing is a great technique for laying down the foundation of the painting.
You can use it to create the overall shapes of the background and fill in large areas of color. Dry brushing is then used to layer on top of the soft areas of color, creating specific details and adding sharper textures to the piece.
Best Uses For Dry Brush Watercolor
The dry brush watercolor technique is best used to achieve specific types of details and textures.
One type of detail it particularly works well at creating is light beams and reflections. Dry brush works great to create light beams coming down from between clouds, or even sparkling light reflections on bodies of water.
It also works great to add details to landscapes.
Whether it’s highlights on top of snowy mountains or tiny blades of grass in a field, the dry brush watercolor technique can help you create those tiny, sharp details you wouldn’t be able to make with a wet brush.
It can even help make large details that need to have crisp yet textured edges, like the trunk or branches of a tree.
Dry brushing isn’t all sharp texture, though. Depending on the amount of paint you get on your brush and the pressure applied, you can create soft details too.
For instance, you can create light, wispy strokes, like smoke coming up from a chimney or steam gently rising from a freshly baked pie.
It can also create soft shading, if used with the right type of brush and pressure. Start lightly, then press just a little harder. As you add more pressure, you’ll apply more paint to the paper, creating a softer area of vibrant color.
No matter what you’re painting, you can find a use for the dry brush technique in your watercolors.
Can You Dry Brush With Regular Paints?
Yes, the dry brush technique is also used with other paints, such as oil paints and acrylic paints. You can adjust the amount and level of water you leave on the brush when using acrylic paints to achieve different looks.
Oil and water don’t mix, so water isn’t often used with oil paints. Instead, the dry brush technique is preferred.