Scumbling Painting Technique

An artist's paint brushes

Blanchi Costela / Getty Images

Scumbling is a painting technique in which a layer of broken, speckled, or scratchy color is added over another color so that bits of the lower layer(s) of color show through the scumbling. The result gives a sense of depth and color variation to an area.

Scumbling can be done with opaque or transparent colors, but the effect is greater with opaque or semi-opaque color and with a light color over a dark. You can add a bit of titanium white to a color to lighten it if need be before using it for scumbling. This will also help to make the color a bit more opaque. When you look at the scumbled area from a distance, the colors mix optically. Up close you will see the brushwork and texture in the scumbled layer.

Scumbling Technique

Scumbling Art Techniques in Paintings
Save your old, worn-out brushes for scumbling.

Marion Boddy-Evans.

You can scumble with a brush or a crumpled-up cloth (if you have ever done decorating paint effects, you will recognize that it is a bit like sponge-painting a wall, on a small scale). The key is to use a dry brush (or cloth) and very little paint. It is far better to have to go over an area again than to start with too much paint. 

Dip your dry brush into a bit of paint, then dab it on a cloth to remove most of the paint. It helps if the paint is stiff rather than fluid because it doesn't spread as easily when you put brush to canvas. Try to keep the brush hairs relatively dry, rather than soaking up moisture from fluid paint. If your brush is very moist, hold a cloth around the hairs at the ferrule end rather than at the toe. This will help pull moisture out of the brush without removing the pigment.

Think of the technique as rubbing the last little bits of paint from the brush onto the painting, leaving behind fragments of color. (Or if you like being vigorous, think of it as scrubbing at a painting with a not-quite-clean brush.) You're working on the very top surface of the painting, the top ridges of the paint or the tops of the canvas fibers. You are not trying to fill in every little piece of the previous layer. 

Don't use your best brushes for scumbling since you will be scrubbing and will most likely push hard on the brush and flatten the hairs at some stage. Either buy a cheap, stiff-hair brush that you sacrifice for scumbling or use an old, worn-out one, preferably bristle or synthetic. Work the brush in a circular motion or back and forth.

Problems With Scumbling

Scumbling Art Techniques in Paintings
Compare the scumbling on the left and right of this painting, and you'll see the result of having too much paint on the brush. Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Scumbling isn't tricky to learn but does take a bit of practice to do confidently. The two important things to remember are to have very little paint and medium on the brush and to scumble onto dry paint.

If you have too much paint on your brush, or the brush is very wet, when you try to scumble the paint will spread. The little gaps on the surface will fill in and you will end up with a smooth, even area of color, which isn't your goal when scumbling. You can see an example of this mistake in the photo, on the right-hand side of the painting. To avoid this problem, always have a clean rag or paper towel handy to wipe off excess paint. You can get some nice effects that way as well. 

If you scumble onto wet paint, the colors will mix (a physical mix) and ruin the effect (which creates an optical mix). Scumbling should be done onto paint that is absolutely, definitely dry. If in doubt, wait. Working onto dry paint also means that if you don't like the result, or put down too much paint, you can lift it off with a cloth. (Though if you're scumbling with acrylics, you'll need to do so very quickly!)

When to Use Scumbling

Scumbling in a painting by JMW Turner

 DEA / Getty Images

Scumbling was used long ago by 15th century Renaissance painter, Titian, who some say invented scumbling; 18th-century English Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner; 19th-century French painter, Claude Monet, and others to create the effects of beautiful soft cloth, atmospheric skies, wispy clouds, smoke, and to bring light into a painting, whether sparkling light on water or a general diffused hazy light.

Scumbling lets you modify color and create subtle transitions while at the same time enlivening a color and adding complexity to your painting. You can alter the temperature of color by scumbling it with a related hue in a different temperature; you can make a color resonate by scumbling it with its complementary color, creating the effect of ​simultaneous contrast, and you can soften colors by scumbling them with more neutral and lighter colors.

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