Teaching Painting: Brushwork 1

Exercises to Learn How to Handle a Brush

Exercises to Learn How to Handle a Brush

In my early years of teaching middle school students I found that I was consistently expecting too much of them. Things that I thought were second nature, like how to handle a brush, were not so intuitive after all. Of course I could have just let them mess around with brush and paint until they figured it out, but that leads to an awfully lot of frustration, and I wanted these kids to feel that art was something that they COULD do.

As a result I developed a series of brush exercises that I’m going to begin sharing with you today.

Materials: We did these on 4”x5” card stock, using 1/2 and 3/4 inch bristle brushes, blue and white tempera paint and a little bit of acrylic medium. Tempera paint with acrylic medium is always my preference with this age student because it doesn’t dry too quickly, is water soluble, and the acrylic medium improves its durability and gives it a nice finish. When we covered prepared palettes with Press and Seal the mixed colors would even last over the week-end and be ready for our next session.

Preparation: For the first of many times, I told the students that an artist never paints with just one hue. Everything has at least a light, a medium, and a dark. Therefore, they put a puddle of pure blue on their plastic palette and then mixed a puddle of very light blue and another medium blue. They also added a puddle of pure white.

Exercise 1 — Blended Graduation (upper left). Starting at the top with the darkest blue and a touch of acrylic medium and using the widest side of the brush, the student paints wide horizontal strokes down about a fourth of the paper, pinch cleans the brush (no water) and switches to the next lightest hue being careful to blend between the two hues. They then move to the next lightest hue adding a little more acrylic medium every time they switch hues. Finally, they finish with pure white which isn’t really pure with the blue in the brush and on the paper. I tell them that this could be used to paint a sky and take them outside for a 30-second field trip to LOOK at the sky. They had never noticed that it was darker directly above and faded toward the horizon.

Exercise 2 — Horizontal Application (upper right). This time they use the narrow side of the brush and avoid over blending. We might use this technique when painting water or some kinds of clouds. I stress the importance of keeping the strokes very horizontal, as thin as possible, and the hues distinct.

Exercise 3 — Vertical Application (lower left). This is done just like exercise 2 except up and down. I had to watch that they didn’t turn the paper side ways and repeat the horizontal streaks. These exercises are valuable for developing eye-hand coordination and the muscular control to handle the brush in a variety of ways. If done with different colors this technique would be useful for tree trunks in a woods or tall grass, but mostly it is just developmental.

Exercise 4 — Random Application (lower right). This one is a little more tricky, but it is very useful for masses of bushes, clouds, or tree foliage. We use the wide side of the 1/2 inch brush and apply the paint in short x-marks turning the wrist so that we are using both sides of the brush. It is meant to look random without looking scribbly.

I’ve got two more brush work exercises to share with you next time. I hope these are a help to you with your own students.T

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