Before I began my master's degree in illustration, I had had no formal training in art. And while being self-taught does come with certain advantages, I quickly realized how much I didn't know about technique, theory, design, etc. Even now, I feel like I'm only just beginning to delve into my craft and learn its intricacies. And what an adventure it is to learn!
In my first critique sessions in art school, I was overwhelmed by all the terms I didn't know. Or if I knew them, I had no idea how to execute them in my own work. Texture? Tangents? Golden thing-a-ma-jigs? In light of that, I thought that I'd start the New Year off with some more practical blog posts about techniques, terms, and simple ways to improve your art. First up: texture!
Texture adds richness and depth to your painting, as well as making the surfaces therein feel more tactile and therefore real. Paintings are like the Velveteen Rabbit, they all yearn to be real. And no matter the style or subject matter, it's always good to anchor some part of the painting in reality, to give your viewer somewhere to start and something familiar to hold onto.
So that's all well and good, you say, but how do I put texture in my art? As I'm primarily a watercolorist, I'll share some of my favorite texturing techniques below. There are many, many more ways to insert texture into your art (especially if you work digitally or with mixed media), but many of these painting techniques can be applied using your medium of choice.
1. The damp sponge method.
This is exactly what it sounds like: lay down a wash, wait for it to be almost dry (no longer glossy), then dab with a damp sponge (natural sea sponges work best, but in a pinch, a crumpled up paper towel will do) to create cool water spots. I did a more in-depth tutorial a long time ago which you can still find on my tumblr HERE.
2. Salt snow.
Again, the name says it all. I've never been a huge fan of this one, since the effects are hard to control (and we all know how much I love control). Basically, lay down a wash (it works better with darker colors) and while the paint is still wet, sprinkle on salt. Coarse sea salt works best, but for the above example, I literally just sprinkled some salt from my little penguin salt-shaker onto a wet wash. Then when it's completely dry, just brush off the salt.
3. Hatching/Painted texture
This is an easy technique to do in any medium to add a bit of texture. Need to make that basket look like it's actually woven from sticks? Add some hatch lines in a slightly darker color. Want that tunic to look like it's made from rough-spun wool? Hatch lines. Knit patterns on a sweater? You guessed it: hatch lines. Just pick up a small detail brush, and start painting thin lines in one direction, then add some going in a different direction. Super. Easy.
Experiment with line weight and stroke to make your hatching even more expressive.
It's exactly what it sounds like. Painting with a dry brush. This is a bit harder to do with watercolor, as you have to have some moisture either on your brush or in your pigments in order for them to spread. But a little goes a long way. Too damp? Run the brush over a dry paper towel or the back of your hand a few times to dry it off a bit. The left half of the sample was made by stippling, the right half by doing normal strokes.
(This is how I get most of the texture on my tiny moth wings. It's great for subtle texturing and small details.)
5. Painted textile designs/patterns
Fun fact, I used to work designing commercial fabrics. It was a pretty interesting gig, and taught me all about repeats as well as historic pattern design, though I'm happy not to be banging my head against my desk trying to make complex tiny repeats work anymore.
Similar to the cross-hatching, just pick a design and start painting! For a subtle pattern, make the designs in a color only slightly darker than the base. Or go for contrast and do something really bold and bright! I also love painting fabric designs with my iridescent gold from FineTec. (Which, unfortunately, scan brown.)
Remember, your patterns don't need to be perfect (mine are far from it, for evidence, see above), they just need to break up the monotony of flat-colored surfaces and give them some visual interest.
6. Layered brush strokes
Similar to hatching and dry-brushing this technique is great for painting fur, hair, spines, etc. and making them seem more real. Remember, paintings are like the Velveteen Rabbit, they want to become real.
I modeled the left side of this sample after hedgehog spines and first put down a thin wash of burnt sienna for the base, then did a layer of strokes in burnt umber, all going the same direction. Then when that was dry, I went back with a thinned white gouache and put some more spines on top. For more complexity, add more layers of in-between shades (or hide some dull blues or violets in there), just be sure that you can still make out distinct spines, so that it hasn't all run together in one blob.
The right side I modeled after fur, and followed the same basic steps as above, just with a thinner brush and short, curving strokes. Remember that fur moves a lot and frequently changes direction. Just look at a dog's face and all the different directions the fur there grows. Then snuggle that dog, because we've reached the end of our tutorial!
If you want more practice, challenge yourself to find and paint six different textures (or more!) around your house or in your backyard. Maybe there is some really interesting tree bark outside, or a nice pattern knitted into your favorite sweater, or even lichen-mottled rock surfaces. Remember, inspiration is everywhere!
If you have any questions or would like to make requests for my next topics, just let me know if the comments below. Happy painting!