Some of the best paintings emerge from ‘smarter, not harder’ techniques. Scumbling is a dry brush painting technique that creates exciting textures with less effort and time.
Scumbling has always been a favorite tool of mine when building up a traditional or digital painting. It incorporates art staples like smudging and layering in a way that looks and feels completely natural. This guide will show you some visual examples of scumbling, then give you an easy tutorial to get started!
- What is Scumbling in Art?
- Scumbling Examples in Classical Art
- How Do I Use Scumbling?
- When Should I Use Scumbling in Art?
- How To Scumble Step-by-Step Tutorial
- 3 Simple Scumbling Tips for Beginners
- Useful Scumbling Techniques to Try Out
- Scumbling is a Flexible Addition to Your Painter’s Toolbox
What is Scumbling in Art?
Scumbling is an old-fashioned dry brush painting technique that uses dry brushes, towels, or rags to smear and scuff paint. The results are natural textures created in a short amount of time.
Textures are vital for adding visual interest to your oil painting techniques or any other type of paint. They provide contrast for the eye to travel naturally between different areas, such as soft vs rough or spotted vs smooth. You can also replicate intricate details that are painstaking to recreate individually, such as hair or fur.
Scumbling is fascinating in how many tools you can use. Alongside the brushes mentioned above, you can use everyday objects – a palette knife, sponge painting, or even leaves!
What is the Difference Between Scumbling and Glazing?
Scumbling is a type of glaze, but not all glaze is scumbling. Scumbling focuses on texture, while glazes can be very smooth and subtle.
Scumbling and glazes work better together because they automatically provide visual contrast. For example, you could use a glaze to create a smooth sunset, then scumble to create textured trees in front of it.
The scumbling technique can also be used for any paint, from watercolor techniques to acrylic paint.
Scumbling Examples in Classical Art
Classical art frequently showcases scumbling, sometimes as the main draw and other times as an additional element. Below are a few examples to give you an idea of what you can create with practice!
J.M.W. Turner Peace, Burial At Sea
J.M.W. Turner Peace is one of the great masters of scumbling, frequently utilizing the technique to add atmosphere to each illustration. His style is so compelling because of how varied his scumbling technique is.
You can see the wafts of smoke billowing from the ship, contrasting with the rougher patches of clouds. Then, in an incredible stroke of inspiration, he uses scumbling to create rippled reflections in the water.
The viewer’s eye dances from each different texture, wholly lost in a scene that looks straight out of a dream.
Claude Monet, Water Lillies
Scumbling doesn’t always have to be rough-edged. Claude Monet preferred a softer and wispier approach with scumbling, frequently using a circular motion.
This oil painting uses opaque or transparent colors to create a sense of depth in the water. Thick paint for the grass makes everything feel thick and firm, while he used semi-opaque color for the water.
Water Lillies show how scumbled paint can make subjects in a painting almost feel tangible.
Edgar Degas, Dancers In Pink
Edgar Degas’ sophisticated depiction of ballerinas is a stellar example of scumbled paint and contrast. Notice how the visible smudges and brushstrokes contrast the smoothness of each dancer’s skin.
He uses scumbled paint to great effect in the backdrop with repetitive blotches. You can again see the contrast between the spotted wall and the smooth floor. The viewer’s eye is given areas to explore, rest, and explore from each texture change.
Once you learn your way around opaque pigments and different supplies, you’ll be able to create visually balanced paintings like this.
How Do I Use Scumbling?
Scumbling is known for being one of the best dry brush painting techniques. Keep wetness minimal so the paint can create texture or peel off.
Below are a few ways artists achieve scumbled paint.
Scraping Off Paint
Scraping off the very top surface is the go-to scumbling technique. Here you add a layer of paint over a painting, then peel some of it off to reveal what’s underneath.
You can achieve this result with a stiff hair brush that ‘picks off’ the excess paint.
Randomizing Brush Strokes
Randomize the brush strokes to create a balanced and appealing painting. Most everyday textures aren’t aren’t repetitive and predictable, making this texture look more natural.
You can randomize the brush strokes by hand or switch to differently-sized brushes throughout the painting process.
Try Opaque and Transparent Paint
Opaque color is generally better for scumbled paint because it creates a more robust texture. However, you can use transparent color on a thin layer to build up subtle contrast.
You can always sign up for an oil painting class online if this is a lot to absorb.
When Should I Use Scumbling in Art?
Not sure where to use this technique? Below are common subjects you can use scumbling and a few famous artists to take inspiration from.
Rough Wood and Trees
Tree bark and leaves are incredibly complex, filled with erratic patterns and different colors. Paul Gauguin used the scumbling technique to recreate the shifting blur of trees in the wind.
Stones and Mountains
Edgar Degas offers up another subject for the scumbling technique for distant mountains. Note how the mountain range almost appears as one long smear.
When you use the scumbling technique, you create new ways to add depth. The rough and jagged background contrasts sharply with the detailed areas, such as the riders on their horses.
Wispy Clouds or Fog
The line between the scumbling technique and impressionism can sometimes be faint. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec straddles that fine line here with rough brush strokes and patches of spontaneous texture.
The clouds are one of the most appealing details of this piece. They offer a swirling and billowing texture that, despite its stylization, still feels authentic.
Loose or Fluffy Hair
Hair can be one of the most challenging subjects to paint due to its unpredictable shapes and transparency. Edouard Manet uses this technique for the hair, suggesting each strand instead of drawing each one.
The result looks incredibly natural. You can even see a little color variation within the scumbling technique to mimic highlights.
How To Scumble Step-by-Step Tutorial
If you’re worried about using too much paint or creating a smudged mess, I have a beginner-friendly tutorial for you.
Step One: Gather Up Your Painting Supplies
Gather your favorite painting supplies before you start using dry-brush painting techniques. Make sure your surface and brushes suit your chosen painting medium.
For example, a canvas primed for acrylic painting won’t receive watercolor paints very well.
- Surface (canvas or paper)
- Paint of choice (acrylic or oil, preferably)
- Spare paper towels
- Scumble tool (for the tutorial, we’ll do a dry brush and a paper towel)
Step Two: Choose a Dark Color For Your Base Layer
The scumbling technique is most apparent when you start with a dark layer. This will help make the next step really pop.
Step Three: Choose a Dry Light Color to Scumble
Now you get to see the scumbling technique in action. Choose a light color for this dry brush technique – if you use wet paint, it may blend together, and you’ll lose texture.
Not only does dark and light contrast work well here, but you can also choose contrast in colors. If your base layer is a warm color, try a lighter, cool color like pale blue or green.
If you use too much paint, use one of your spare paper towels to soak up excess moisture. You can multitask and ‘scumble’ as you dry, too.
Step Four: Scumble Paint Onto the Base Layer
Have fun etching or smudging dry paint onto the layer. Try not to blend too much so the strokes stand out.
Step Five: Let the Light Layer Dry Before Continuing
While you’re working, keep in mind the paint needs to dry before adding another thin layer. You don’t want to blend your textures and lose them accidentally.
3 Simple Scumbling Tips for Beginners
Are you worried about ruining your progress by accident? Below are a few of my top tips.
- Layer Light Colors Over Dark Colors: It’s easier to layer lighter colors over dark because it pops out easily. If you painted a dark color on a dark layer, you might get confused about where to paint next.
- Get Playful With Your Scumbling Tools: This technique is incredibly fun because the tools are nearly limitless. You can use palette knives, towels, rags, crumpled paper, leaves, cotton balls, and more.
- Scumble For One Part of the Painting: Start out simple and use your dry brush painting techniques for just one part of your painting. For example, scumble for a person’s hair or for the background. This tip will keep you from getting overwhelmed by multiple paint layers.
Useful Scumbling Techniques to Try Out
Below are some tried-and-true scumbling techniques that can enhance your work.
Do Mini Scumbles Before Committing
Consider doing mini versions of a scumbling technique in a sketchbook before committing to a painting.
Scrub Over Your Mistakes and Start Over
Scumbling can be a creative way to scrub over mistakes with acrylic or oil. Keep in mind this could be difficult with watercolor or gouache.
Scumbling is a Flexible Addition to Your Painter’s Toolbox
Scumbling is one of the most enjoyable ways to breathe life into your inner world. You save time while still adding texture and atmosphere to your work.
If you’re thinking of diving deep into these painting techniques, check out one of my favorite books: Mastering The Art Of Oils, Acrylics, And Gouache by Ian Sidaway.