Forest Thrones, Part 11: Drybrushing

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I suddenly remembered I hadn’t painted the undersides of the trees, so I took a moment to do that.

I also went over the trees, filling in the worst of the gaps in the texture with paperclay. I also filled in around the bottom so it looks properly attached to the ground, and the place where the roots overhang the edges of the base so they would be nice and flat on the bottom. Once I add a little gloss, it’ll look amazing.

Now I want to show you how to drybrush a sculpture. Drybrushing is a technique that uses layers of paint to emphasize the features of a texture. It mimics the way light and shadows fall on something full-sized.

First, you need to gather your tools and supplies. Drybrushing is hard on brushes, so you want to use an old, cheap, or previously damaged brush.  A large, flat brush is a good choice, but really, whatever you have that you don’t mind getting messed up. Then, select a paint for your tree. The paint that you want to be the overall impression of color for your tree (in art we say that it “reads” a certain color) is going to be the middle tone. After you choose that color, you need to choose (or mix) a darker color and a lighter color. You want the darker and lighter colors to be shades of the middle color or as close to it as you can manage. (Go ahead and use black to mix your darker color. I would probably argue that it’s a cool color too, but it’s okay for the darker shade to be cooler than the others. Cool colors tend to fade to the back.)

Now, start with the basecoat. Take your darker color and paint the entire piece thoroughly. With a high texture like I have on my tree bark, I watered the paint down a little so it would go into the crevices easier, and I had to do several coats to get all the little white cracks and holes. But trust me, you want to do that now because it’ll be a pain in the neck to do it later.

The second coat is your true color. The one you want everyone to think your tree is colored. Put a little paint on your brush, then work it in by “painting” on your palette until your brush is loaded all the way through. Then, wipe off most of the paint. You want your brush to be almost “dry,” hence the term “drybrushing.” When your brush is ready, start painting by dragging your brush lightly from top to bottom, or whichever direction your light source is coming from, letting it put paint only on the peaks and plateaus of your texture. Think of it this way: the dark color is the shadowed areas. Now you’re painting everything that isn’t a shadow. You’ve probably drybrushed before, on accident, when you were running out of paint on your brush. This is the same idea.

Here’s my piece after the middle coat:

Now, you might think this looks pretty good, but we’re not done yet. Now you take the third color and, using the same drybrushing technique, paint another coat. This time, you’re only trying to paint the parts of the texture that are high enough to be highlighted by your light source, so make sure it’s a lighter coat (in the sense of covering less territory). Like so:

I’ve been doing this for years, but I still get a kick out of how it breathes life into a dull paint job. The photo doesn’t convey as much depth as the piece has.

As an aside, do you see what I mean about the instant papier mache making the perfect texture for faux dirt? If I wanted to be even more realistic, I’d probably mix some other colors into my base coat, like a yellow ochre or black. But I’m going to cover all this up with grass, so I don’t need to get that realistic.

That’s it for today. More pictures of trees next time, I promise.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.

Salley Mavor

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I am fascinated by the idea of sculptural illustrations, whether for childrens’ books or more general graphic arts functions. I’ve done a couple of bas-relief-type pieces myself, and I’ve already featured Meredith Dittmar, whose funky work almost defies genre. Today, though, I’ve got an artist to show you whose reliefs are much more doll-like, and therefore more on-topic for this blog.

Salley Mavor has spent years developing her style, which she calls “fabric relief” sculpture. You might call it stumpwork embroidery, but that would be far too narrow a term to include everything she does. Her pieces incorporate sewing, felting, embroidery, sculpting, and photography to create ornate miniature worlds with all the warmth the fiber arts can offer.

Mavor describes her workflow on her website:

To make a book, each picture starts as a clear, vivid scene in my head.  I do not know exactly how the pictures will unfold and it will go through many steps to get from the imagined to the finished product.  I start by working out a rough layout in small thumbnail sketches. They are blown up on a copier to full book size and made into a dummy to show the editor.  She then checks to see that the content of the layout works with the text and that there is enough room for the type.  After making any necessary changes to the layout, and with the trust of my editor, I start work on the fabric relief pictures.

Each illustration requires about a month of hand sewing, so it takes more than a year to complete all of the pages.  The original fabric relief pictures are then photographed and used as illustrations in the printed book.

I suspect the pictures on her website, some of which I’ve borrowed for this entry, really don’t do her work justice, so maybe you should go down to the bookstore (or click on this link, if you want to contribute to this humble blogger) and get a couple of her books for yourself. She also has published a book of sewing and felting projects called Felt Wee Folk.

I want to thank Mimi Kirchner for bringing this artist to my attention.


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Dittmar 1 Dittmar 2  Dittmar 6

As a former English major, I admire a ten-dollar word like the one above, which was invented by Meredith Dittmar to describe her imaginative figurative sculptures. I’ve admired her work ever since I first came across her on PolymerClayDaily, but her latest offerings take things to the next level.

Dittmar 5 Dittmar 4 Dittmar 3

She started out sculpting her “Guys,” goofy little monsters in vivid colors, and selling them on eBay, several years ago. As time went on, her pieces developed environments and graffiti-inspired backgrounds, and this new group makes use of a sophisticated color palette. If you take the time to ponder them, you can see deep meanings in her work, having to do with the connections between life and the relationships of people with each other and their surroundings, but the amazing thing is that despite all that heavy stuff, it still makes me smile. At the end of the day, that’s all I hope for from my own work: to make people smile.

Dittmar is a “real” artist, as in one who shows in galleries and actually earns money doing her work, and I don’t know if you can call what she does “dolls,” but what the heck. To learn more about Dittmar, you can view a page about her most recent show at Compound Gallery in Seattle, or you can visit her adorable Flash site or read this article about her artistic process.

I’d like to thank Cynthia Tinapple for her fantastic blog,, since I collected most of the info for this blog entry from there.