Scumbling (Dry Brush Painting Technique)

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What Is Scumbling in Art?

Scumbling refers to a painting technique which involves applying a thin layer of paint with a dry brush and a loose hand over an existing layer. The idea is to allow parts of the already existing paint below to remain exposed.

In most cases, scumbling is used over dried paint, but you can also use it over wet paint. You just need to be careful with the colors blending together if you are scumbling over wet paint.

It is most commonly thought of as an oil painting technique, but it can also be used with acrylic or watercolor paints. 

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When to Use Scumbling in Art?

Here are some of the common uses of scumbling:

  • To add texture to the surface.
  • To create a sense of atmosphere and depth (like in the painting by Joseph Turner below).
  • To break up a background area to make it less monotonous.
  • To build up highlights on top of a dark background.
  • To make slight adjustments to color shapes.
  • To soften the transition from one color to the next.
  • To create a broken color effect which takes advantage of optical color mixing.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snow Storm
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snow Storm

How to Use Scumbling?

To use the scumbling technique, you should pick up a small amount of paint straight from a tube with a dry brush and apply it loosely to the canvas. You do not want the paint to blend with the existing colors or to be so thick that the colors below are completely covered; you want the paint to scumble and break on top. You should also vary the strokes you use so that it does not look repetitive. 

Tip: When scumbling color on top, use this as an opportunity to keep building up a sense of form and structure. Allow your brush to follow the contour of the subject.

General Tips for Scumbling

  • In general, it is more effective to scumble light colors on top of darker colors.
  • If you are using watercolors, then instead of scumbling white paint on top for your highlights, you should just leave areas of the paper exposed. The white paper is far more effective than white paint as your lightest light. But you could use scumbling to recover any white areas you accidentally cover up.
  • You should avoid using any additional mediums or solvents when scumbling. In most cases, paint straight from the tube is the most suitable.
  • Opaque color is often used for this technique, rather than transparent color.

Examples of Scumbling

When I think of scumbling, the first artist who comes to mind is Claude Monet. He used the technique in many of his paintings to build up a stunning vibration of color. In particular, his paintings of haystacks, water lilies and the Rouen Cathedral are great examples of this. 

Below is a painting from his haystacks series. Monet painted this by scumbling numerous layers of color on top of each other. The end result is a vibrant display of oranges, yellows, reds, greens and purples. Monet also scumbled both light and dark colors (notice the dark reds and greens used for the haystacks and grass).

Claude Monet, Grainstacks at Giverny; The Evening Sun, 1888-1889
Claude Monet, Grainstacks at Giverny; The Evening Sun, 1888-1889

He is a close-up of Monet's scumbling work.

Claude Monet, Grainstacks at Giverny; The Evening Sun, 1888-1889 (Closeup 4)

Below is a much cooler painting by Monet from his water lilies series, which features a pleasant arrangement of greens, blues, yellows and purples. Monet used scumbling to build up the dynamic, broken colored surface.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916

In the close-up below, you can see all the distinct colors applied layer-on-layer. It seems he went back and forth scumbling with different greens, blues, purples and yellows until the canvas was filled with color.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916 - Closeup

Monet's series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral demonstrate how you can use scumbling to paint the illusion of texture. In the painting below, notice the build-up of blues, purples and oranges. The broken color creates the illusion of the rough building, which is reiterated by the physical texture of the thick paint.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, Sunlight Effect, 1894
Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, Sunlight Effect, 1894

Turner used scumbling to paint his atmospheric and moody seascapes and landscapes. He would build up layer upon layer of scumbled yellows, reds and even blacks, allowing parts of the lighter layers below to remain exposed. The end result is a strong ambient effect, with the feeling of light bursting through from the background.

Joseph Mallord WilliamTurner, The Morning After the Deluge, 1843
Joseph Mallord WilliamTurner, The Morning After the Deluge, 1843

In my painting below, I made use of scumbling to paint the choppy water. I painted a rough colored ground of broken blues and purples, then once that layer dried, I scumbled light purples over the top. Notice how I followed the contours of the water.

Dan Scott, Three Boats at Kingfisher Bay, 2016
Dan Scott, Three Boats at Kingfisher Bay, 2016

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

33 thoughts on “Scumbling (Dry Brush Painting Technique)”

  1. I am an artist who uses oil/alkyds and only palette knife. I had no idea one of my “techniques “ was scrumbling. It works great. Love your drawpaintacademy.com. Thamks

    Reply
  2. Hello Mr. Dan,
    You’re AWESOME! I’m super impressed with both of your talent and ability to communicate so clearly and effectively. Your art tips are ”exactly what the doctor orders”. After reading your instructions (prescriptions), I’m feeling much better now, on the road to recovery. LOL
    Thank you a whole big bunch for sharing!!!

    Reply
  3. Hi Dan,
    I always look forward to your insightful advice and instruction sent to me via email! I am an acrylic painter and gained useful knowledge from the “Sc rumbling” techniques and the examples of how you and other artists used this technique.
    Thanks so much,
    Jean

    Reply
  4. Thanks Dan, I enjoy all your instructions and how you frequently relate it to the Masters. You have the ability to make sense of some difficult concepts for me. Your’e a great teacher.
    I look forward to all your emails.
    Mary White

    Reply
  5. Your explanations and examples may have solved many problems I have been having with depth and perception. Thank you. I’m really excited to practice your creative ideas.

    Reply
  6. I’m at the start of my self-taught journey into painting & have been devouring your articles since discovering your site. You explain concepts in a way that I understand and feel enriched from, which is very refreshing. I’m really excited to use your lessons as I develop my skill set and perspective. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Reply
  7. Thank you so much Dan for your clear instructions and examples
    I. Am a Kiwi women and it’s amazing that technology can bring us together to share ideas and tips about our passion for art

    Reply
  8. I have been using that technique just to try capture the image I am working on. Now I have a name for it and some useful examples from some of the masters of how they achieved some stunning effects. I am going to employ it in my backgrounds, to break them up. Thanks mate.

    Reply
    • Hi Rita

      Best tip – just try it out and see how you go. With scumbling, go easy with it at first. Don’t use much paint on your brush. Then build up from there.

      Cheers!
      Dan

      Reply
  9. Others above have expressed my feelings so well. Dan imparts invaluable information in easy to chew bite size pieces. He imparts in depth assessment and practicality with equal ease. And, Dan your verbal communication and teaching skills are supreme. I am loving all of your PaintDraw Academy courses.

    Reply
  10. Thank you for this article about scumbling
    I had admired Monet’s painting but only after reading your article I understood his technique. I am sure this will go a long way in improving my painting.
    Thank you.

    Reply

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