There are a number of painting techniques that I particularly like with oils and one of them is scumbling. Scumbling is traditionally described as applying a thin coat of broken colour to change the effect of the base colour without totally covering it. It is often advised to use opaque colours and lighter colours over dark, but, as usual, I seem to like breaking the rules (I must have a naughty gene!) so I thought I would share what I have learnt about scumbling so far.
So, I agree that scumbling is the application of thin paint over dry paint (safe ground so far), although (uh oh!!) I have found with oil painting that I can get away with nearly or touch dry paint, especially if I want a softened effect (the stickiness of the surface on ‘nearly dry’ helps to produce either a more marked effect or softening the effect in some cases). I use scumbling to create texture, break up areas of solid colour to imply form and structure or to suggest variations in surface and to break up areas of colour to provide interest and the suggestion of depth. I might develop several layers to achieve an effect I am most happy with, often leaving a few days in between so that the base layers become tacky or dry, and I have a chance to reflect on how it is working within the painting as a whole.
I use a range of my scrattiest, oldest, cheapest brushes, that have been battered and knocked about – the more battered the better! To apply paint thinly, I don’t use any mediums – just the oil paint straight from the tube, using a dry brush. To get the paint thinly on the brush I knock it about a bit on my palette to make sure there is just a tiny amount in the bristles. You can see where I knock or tap the brush on the palette further and further away from the original pile of paint so that it gets thinner and thinner.
One tip I would give is each time you take brush to painting start off working in an area where you know you want the scumbling to be thicker – the more you tap the brush onto the surface the more paint is deposited and wet paint already there is smudged together. Continuing like this can lead to nearly fully covering the base layer. Conversely a few taps dispersed over a wider area leaves more obvious tiny splodges of paint ( depending on the size of brush used). So, to help build up form and shape I would start where I want to scumble colour to show most, fading outwards in intensity towards the edges. The following two close ups show this I think.
Note – looking at the work really close up, ie whilst you are mid-scumble, can be misleading as it often looks just messy (as well as making you a wee bit cross-eyed after a while)! You need to keep standing back to look at the whole painting and how each area is working together.
I have found that I can produce successful effects layering dark over light as well as light over dark, using transparent colours over the base colour as well as opaque, layering different hues of the same colour, or layering complementary colours. It is true that with techniques you simply just have to try different things out to see what works for you.
In the image below, on the right is the stage where I had worked some different colours in to start to form the clumps of grass on the moor. On the left you can see where I have used more purples and reds to warm the areas up, creating greater depth and interest, defining that area of the painting within the whole piece.
In the images below, the lower one shows a mixture of using opaque colour, different hues, and complementary colour.
Again, both of these show a mix of approaches to scumbling. Sometimes, I will scrub paint into an area (more brush abuse!) or I might blend parts of the scumbled area to either soften the effect or provide further shaping to create form.
In the images below, the close ups attempt to show some of the detail as examples ( although it doesn’t always work successfully in a photo as the camera struggles to cope with the more blurry edges). The middle picture shows a stand-back view to see how it works in the whole painting.
Scumbling allows successive layers to help build up texture, shape and form. You have to be somewhat patient with it, steadily and slowly building up each section, maybe using a rather smaller brush than you might think and regularly checking how much scumbling is required. Sometimes I might just scumble a single colour on an area and then leave to dry, but more often that not I will work several colours in the same sitting so that I can do a bit a blending where required. But a big plus and beauty of the technique is that if you don’t completely like the result at first, subsequent layers can make all the difference with slight variations in tone, opacity, shape of brush etc, so all is not lost!
I generally prefer a softer effect, on the whole, although I have seen some paintings where the scumbling is very obvious and sharp – it is all a matter of personal preference and taking the approach that says what you want to say in the best way!