Several of the tutorials I have written have included drybrushing as a technique so some further words on this may be in order. While there are a many articles already written on the subject many of them neglect what I consider to be intrinsic points in learning how to drybrush.
Drybrushing uses a very small amount of paint on the brush and uses this to pass over an object, depositing a miniscule amount of paint with each pass. One of the most common applications of drybrushing is to pick out raised detail on a model, painting the detail one colour and leaving lower areas their original colour. There are other uses for the drybrushing technique and some of these will be discussed later.
My attempts at drybrushing used to be rather hit and miss until I learnt one thing. If you want to learn drybrushing it is much easier if you start off with a suitable brush. Once you have mastered the skill you can use other brushes to drybrush, but you will progress up the learning curve quicker if you start off with a suitable brush.
Many articles on drybrushing will make the point that drybrushing is hard on brushes and that you should use an old brush or one that you do not intend to be used for fine work. While these points are not untrue, I feel they are often overemphasised. Perhaps these painters are rather heavy handed and using too much pressure. You will, however, have at least one brush that is only used for drybrushing, your “learning brush” and possibly several more sizes of drybrush, so the point is rather moot.
What is a good brush? The brush I learnt with was from Games Workshop and was a flat brush or about 6-10mm width with a reasonably stiff head or bristles, probably an Ox hair and nylon mix. As is common practice for Games Workshop this incredibly useful item has been dropped from their range so they now only have the larger flat drybrush and the smaller bullet headed model. If you have just one drybrush, a 6-10mm flatbrush is about ideal, so go to your local independent hobby shop and see if you can find something similar from other companies.
Let us get down to the actual technique itself. You will need your drybrush, some tissues, some paint and a model or two to practice on. If your practice models are painted in a colour that contrasts nicely with the paint you are drybrushing, so much the better.
For general painting I always dip my brush in clean water before it goes into the paint. My workbench has a container of clean water and another water container for cleaning brushes in. If you also wet a brush before using it, don’t do this with the drybrush. I tend to use drybrushes dry, so let them dry out if I have already used them that day and cleaned them.
Dip the end of your brush into the paint, then wipe off the paint on the brim of the paint pot. Take up a tissue and wipe the end of the brush on the tissue until it looks like most of the paint has gone, then give it a couple more wipes for good measure.
How do you know when a brush is ready to drybrush? If you brush lightly across your thumb and the paint colours the ridges of your thumbprint but not the areas in between then you have got it right. Of course, you now have a paint covered thumb which is not good practice when handling models you are painting! A better approach is to have your tissue slightly crumpled and if you are only brushing paint on the raised parts your brush is ready. Recognizing when your brush has the right loading of paint is another fundamental of drybrushing and the crumpled surface of a tissue is a good way to check this.
At first glance, drybrushing seems to be rather wasteful of paint since you are wiping most of it off on a tissue. When mastered it is actually a very economical painting method. Practice will help you judge how little paint needs to be initially applied to the brush.
Pass your brush very lightly across the surface of your model. Paint should deposit on the raised features and miss the lower areas. Use much less pressure than you would normally. Think of trying to hold a butterfly or anything else that reminds you you need to employ the lightest of touches. Your first passes over a feature should be barely noticeable. You can always brush over a feature several times to add more paint, but removing too much is problematic, so go light. You can often achieve some very subtle effects using a light drybrush.
Brushing should be perpendicular to the feature you want to pick out. You may need to brush from either direction and altering your angle a little with each pass gives a more even coat. Of course, sometimes you may want a chalky effect! Experiment and play with different angles, pressure and so forth. I tend to use a flat brush using the narrow edge when drybrushing, but see what works best for you.
The key points of learning drybrushing are:-
Learning drybrushing is easier using a relatively large brush as has been recommended earlier. Like me you will probably add a few smaller and larger additional drybrushes to your collection. I also have the larger flat citadel brush and the smaller round one. I also have a much smaller flat brush from Wargames Foundry that is useful for some jobs. Occasionally I drybrush with one of my large flat nylon brushes, although these are mainly used for painting large areas so the large drybrushes can be saved for drybrushing.
In a paragraph above I told you that drybrushing should be used perpendicular to the feature you are drybrushing. Drybrushing can also be used for highlighting and in this case the direction of brushing often favours a downward angle.
Drybrushing is a versatile technique. At one end of the scale you might use a very light dusting of colour. At the other end you may have more paint on your brush to create more coverage. This heavier style of drybrushing is sometimes called “Overbrushing” and among its applications is the three-colour undercoat technique I now use.
For a figure with plenty of texture drybrushing can produce a quick but very attractive paintjob. This Ambul (below) was basecoated a dark colour and then drybrushed/overbrushed with a couple of lighter colours. Once this was done all that needed to be done was to paint in the eyes and claws and black-ink.
This raises another point. Like any painting, drybrushing is sometimes more effective if done as more than one coat. Sometimes interesting effects can be gained by using different colours. When painting natural stone I drybrush with greys, browns and dull yellows. The skin of the Grave Horror below was done by drybrushing several colours over a dark grey basecoat.
For vehicles drybrushing is a useful technique for picking out the hard edges and highlighting them. Drybrush edges and flat surfaces with a silver metallic paint. Rust and weathering effects can also be applied with drybrushing. See my article on weathering vehicles for some examples of this.
A little drybrushing on a figure's boots or the bottom of a long coat or robe can add a bit more realism to a figure.