Drybrush Brush Tests #1: Billowing Cloak Folds

When I started my Beyond the Kit stream on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel, one of my goals was to encourage a spirit of exploration both in my viewers, and in myself. The Core Skills learn to paint kit that I wrote for Reaper includes the technique of drybrushing, so I thought experimenting with it would be a great way to literally explore beyond the kit. The first experimental question that came to mind is: Does the brush you use make much of a difference to your drybrushing result?

Malcolm groupSix figures and a bunch of brushes stepped into the ring.

I designed an experiment to see whether different types and sizes of brushes might give different kinds of results on different types of sculpted surfaces.  Drybrushing is generally considered a good technique for strongly textured surfaces like rocks, chainmail, wood grain, and so on. It can be more frustrating to use on smoother surfaces like cloth and skin since the results often look uneven, streaky, or chalky.

I’m sharing the results of my experiments in case they’re useful to others, but also to encourage you to explore and experiment with your own hobby materials. Experiment with brushes you already have but haven’t used for drybrushing before you buy new ones. Also, consider how the results might differ if you use different application techniques or approaches to lighting.

The other main technique that I cover in the Cores Skills kit is washes. I’ve conducted a couple of previous tests with washes, mainly focused on the effect of combining different wash colours with a more or less saturated base colour. (Wash test one, wash test two.)

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A Note on the Video(s)

I had hoped to be able to link to the YouTube upload of the video so you could see the brushes in action and how I used them. Unfortunately the save files of the videos for both the first and second experiments had issues and cannot be uploaded. The video for the third experiment is available. This experiment was on a textured stone wall, so it’s a different kind of surface, but you can at least see the tools and my approach to using them.

If you’d like to see me make a new video testing drybrushing on smooth cloth, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to put one together!

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The Seed of the Experiment

For a while I’d been hearing that soft makeup brushes were a great tool for drybrushing. A year or so ago I got curious enough to buy a cheap set off Amazon. I didn’t have time to explore them in depth, but I was encouraged by my initial use. The larger, softer brushes seemed both easier and quicker to use than the smaller, stiffer flats typically recommended for drybrushing miniatures. I did a quick test with my favourite blending test subject, Anirion the elf wizard. The version on the left was painted with smaller flat brushes, and the figure on the right was painted with a huge fluffy makeup brush.

Ani flat vs makeup backLeft side: small flat brush, right side huge fluffy makeup brush. Brush 4 in the list below.

The right side isn’t wildly smoother, but it has a more even distribution of colours, is slightly smoother, and was much quicker to paint. It got me thinking that there is something to this makeup brush idea!

Ani flat vs makeup frontLeft side: small flat brush, right side huge fluffy makeup brush. Brush 4 in the list below.

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Setting Up the Experiment

When I decided to put together some drybrushing test episodes for Beyond the Kit, I wanted to include as broad a range of brushes as possible. Between my general art interests and my habit of collecting a lot of art supplies, I have a lot of brushes! My curiosity also drove me to purchase a new style of brush that is advertised as being specifically designed for drybrushing miniatures.

I selected the cloak of Malcolm Lightbringer as my first test surface. This cloak is a mix of flatter and rounded surfaces, with some well-defined recesses and peaks. I also already have smoothly blended versions of it to compare the drybrushing versions against. After the mixups during my previous wash experiments, I labeled both the figures and their holders so it would be easy to identify which figure was painted with which tool during and after the experiment!

Malcolm group holderThe test figures right after completing the experiment.

I chose to use the same paint colours I had used on my smooth blended copies of Malcolm for easier comparison. I’ll discuss more specifics of the paint mixes in the process section below. I used Reaper MSP paints. These are a fairly fluid consistency paint. Paint viscosity would be another variable to experiment with for drybrushing. Even with these more fluid paints I might find I need to add a little water or medium to pale opaque colours that have a lot of white in them to help avoid a chalky look, or if I’m using older paints that have thickened up a little.

I used a wet palette for this painting session. I use a dry palette in the second experiment.

Since this was a test of drybrushing, I did not use any washes. I basecoated the figures with the darkest shadow colour. I do not think the shapes of this cloak are very amenable to an attractive result when adding shadows with uncontrolled washes.

I used the same general process and approach with each of the figures and brushes. I found that it was optimal to use a larger brush for the main area of the cloak, and a smaller brush on the smaller folds on the hood and shoulders. However, in some cases I had only one size of a type of brush, or I had to use a different shape for a smaller brush, so the comparison of the effect on the hoods isn’t as accurate as the comparisons between the results on the main cloak area.

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My Painting Process

I think a lot of us view drybrushing as a simple technique without much variation. I think there are definitely some variations to how you can load, unload, and in particular, apply the paint, so I want to be clear about the approach that I used in testing the various brushes on these figures. (I have written a more hands-on how to for washes and drybrushing in the Core Skills learn to paint kit if you’re new to these techniques.)

Proof of Concept Approach
With these tests I was aiming to get an idea of how the brushes work and the kind of results that might be possible with them. I was not trying to paint each figure to the best possible standard I could. I think of this as a proof of concept approach, and often use it to do tests for colours or textures I want to paint before applying them to a miniature I plan to spend a lot of time on. With this approach I’m trying to get an idea of the best result that might be possible, not actually achieve that result. At the end of the general experiments I may take a few of the most successful brushes and paint a few miniatures with more care to see what quality of a result I can achieve.

Paint Loading and Unloading
Dipping the brush into paint is referred to as loading the brush. My aim was to load paint on the bottom third of the bristles, and avoid getting paint near the ferrule. For unloading, I wiped and tamped the brush on a piece of textured paper towel. I aimed for a paint load level where the paint was visible on the tops of the paper towel texture but not filling the depressions of the paper towel texture. I also checked to see that it didn’t seem too streaky when I did test strokes. However, I tried not want to wipe the brush on the paper towel to the point where the paint would be super dry, chalky, or dusty. 

Brush Handling
I applied light pressure to the brush in a sweeping or dusting motion. I did not vigorously scrub it around the surface with strong pressure. I tend to use this approach even when drybrushing sculpted textures. It’s gentler on the brush and is less likely to result in a chalky, dusty look. It also allows me to make some painterly decisions instead of leaving everything up to the sculpt and the brush.

Paint Mixes
I painted four lighter layers of paint on top of my darkest shadow basecoat. I mixed these in advance for this test, but did on the fly mixing for my second test. If necessary, I applied multiple coats of a single colour mix to build up the colour intensity. Using more intermediary mix steps between the darkest and lightest colour values results in smoother transitions with drybrushing, just as it does with layering. And just as with layering, applying multiple layers of a mix that is more transparent can also help create smoother transitions.

Paint Application
I applied paint with intention by changing the angle of brush and/or miniature as necessary. I tried to apply the first couple of paint layers further down the slopes of the cloak folds, and restrict the lightest value layers to small areas on the peaks of the folds. I also applied the values of paint with the idea of simulating light shining from above. Part of my assessment for how well each type of brush worked include how much it allowed me to control the application of the paint.

And now on to the actual test result pictures!

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The Test Results

For each test figure I’m including a photo of the figure, and of the brushes used to paint it. Since there are so many different brands of brushes and differing availability of brands depending on location, I’m including a photograph of the brushes used on each figure next to a ruler that includes both metric and imperial units. This should allow you to see the general size and shape of the brush you might be interested in rather than trying to match my exact brand choices.

I don’t think any of these brushes would allow you to achieve a flawless smooth blend without as much time and effort as layering or wet blending, regardless of how many paint mix layers you use. However, I do think that some of them would allow you to get a more attractive result than standard drybrushing with just a little more time and attention.

1. Classic Synthetic Flats

I believe these are the most common choice for miniature painters when drybrushing. Used as I described in the Painting Process section, they performed much better than I had expected! However, size really matters. You need a larger brush to get a smoother effect on large curved folds of cloth like on a cloak or robe. The smaller size worked better for the finer folds of the hood. I found that I needed to reload the paint on these brushes more often compared to some of the others. Likewise, paint application took more time with these than most of the others.

1 flat classic

The brush on the left is a size 4 Reaper Miniatures flat. This is a larger brush than the one included in the Core Skills learn to paint kit. I know less experienced painters are often nervous about using larger brushes, but I encourage you to give them a try! If I spent a little more time and effort on applying the paint to build up the colour and depict the light, I think I could get a pretty good looking result. I believe synthetic filberts would achieve similar results, possibly with a little more control. Filbert brushes are also called cat’s tongue brushes. They’re similar to a flat but rounded off on the corners.

Malcolm crop 1

2. Large Soft Bristle Flat

Since the softness of the bristles seems to be part of what makes the cosmetic brushes work well, I had some hopes for this one. It’s a type of brush that is available at a low cost in craft stores. (In the United States at least.) Sadly it did not perform well at all. I think it was either too big or too flat. I did not have a comparable smaller brush to use on the hood, so everything was painted with this one brush.

2 flat large

I did not enjoy the experience of painting with this brush, and I also don’t think the results are very attractive. It was challenging to aim the brush exactly where I wanted. I could see streaks where the bristles touched down to paint a layer on the sides of the folds. The overall result is streaky and stark. I think part of the issue is the size of the brush, but given the streaky issue, I’m not sure a smaller version of this brush would give an attractive result.

Malcolm crop 2

3. Art Store Oval Mop (Inexpensive Brand)

I purchased these brushes from my local art store. Watercolour mop brushes are usually larger and more expensive. They’re also most commonly round, where these are a bit more like filberts in shape. The hair on these brushes is very soft, which is part of what I think makes the makeup brushes work well. This hair may be too soft, however. It has no spring, so the shape quickly deforms, and you can’t use the edge of the brush to get in smaller sections as you can with a stiffer brush. It’s also not stiff enough to push paint into areas when that is necessary for successful application. So although they seemed similar to the makeup brushes, they don’t really work the same way at all. Watercolour detail brushes are a great choice for miniature painters because they work well with our more fluid acrylic paints for general painting. However, watercolour mop brushes are designed to apply watery washes of paint, so I guess it’s not too surprising that these didn’t work well for drybrushing.

3 oval mop

I think even the larger of the brushes was too small and maybe too short. They were very frustrating to use, even more so than brush 2. It might be possible to spend time and effort to get a bit more of an attractive result, but if the aim of drybrushing is to make painting easier and/or quicker, this brush is no help at all. I have used this for small areas of sculpted texture with some success, but we’ll see how it does in comparison to others vis a vis texture in future drybrushing tests.

Malcolm crop 3

4. Makeup Brush: Pointed Round

The makeup brushes I’m using came as part of a large inexpensive set I purchased from Amazon. In the US, you can look for inexpensive makeup brushes in big box stores and pharmacies. ELF is a common brand, and Walgreens in house brand has a variety of options. Cosmetic stores like Sephora and Ulta will have a much larger selection, but the brushes seem to be much more expensive. I purchased this set of brushes prior to doing these tests. The large brushes work surprisingly well even for gaming size miniatures, but if I were buying another set or looking for individual brushes, I’d probably prefer to have brushes that are a half inch diameter rather than these full inch diameter ones. The larger brushes would be great for working on vehicles and terrain, however. 

4 makeup pointed roundThese tests make me I wish I had a brush in between the size of these two.

The larger brushes have very soft, dense hair, which I think is what makes them work so well for drybrushing. The shorter hair and smaller diameter on the smaller brushes makes them feel firmer, closer to how a standard flat brush like Test Brush 1 feels. I think a half inch diameter version would be the sweet spot between control and softness/density. I wasn’t able to get down into the lower areas of the folds for the first few layers as well as I would have liked. The shape of the pointed round worked pretty well for the larger folds. I would probably switch to the smaller brush for the lightest highlight layers to have better control in applying paint to smaller areas. The bristles cut into a point shape style brush did not work well for the smaller, sharper folds on the hood. Even when I switched to the smaller brush it was hard to keep paint out of the crevices of the hood folds.

Malcolm crop 4

5. Makeup Brushes: Flattop and Filbert

When I had talked about makeup brushes on stream, someone mentioned that the ones with flattops work well. I checked my Amazon set and discovered I did have a couple of those in the larger size. I did not have anything comparable in a smaller size, so I used smaller filberts for the hood. The comments on the Test Brush 4 section all apply to these brushes as well – the larger ones are soft and dense, the smaller ones are a little closer to a standard flat in terms of being stiffer due to the crimp of the ferrule and the shorter length of the hair. And as with the above comment, I’d love to have one about a half inch in diameter rather than these larger one inch diameter ones.

5 makeup flattop filbert

For the Malcolm figure below, I only used the straight flattop brush directly adjacent to the ruler on the right. I tried the slanted flattop in my second drybrushing test. I was impressed with how these worked. They filled in some of the shadow areas a little more softly so that there is a less stark transition between the deepest shadows and the first few values of highlights. On the downside, the size of the brush and the flatness made it hard to control, so it was much more difficult to confine the lightest values of highlights to small areas on the peaks of the folds. It was difficult to keep the large brush away from the hood, so the painting on the hood isn’t a great test of these filberts really.

It might work well to start with the flattop and then transition to the pointed round makeup brushes to get a combination of the softer starting point and more control for the later layers.

Malcolm crop 5

6. Dome Shape Drybrush

The last brush type I tried is a new type of brush that is marketed as being specifically made for drybrushing. The vast majority of tools and techniques in our hobby are repurposed and often repackaged from other types of arts or crafts. I have seen dome brushes with longer brush heads made both with this goat hair and also other types of hair sold for both makeup and fine art purposes that pre-date this brush. The first place I saw this shorter bristle style of brush was from Artis Opus. Their brushes look lovely to work with, but they are fairly expensive, and I was reluctant to spend that much money for conducting experiments in a technique I probably won’t use that much in every day painting. The Army Painter has come out with a similar looking brush for a lower price, so I decided to give those a try. I suspect that the Artis Opus version has more densely packed and higher quality hair so it’s likely to last longer and perform perhaps a little better.

NOTE: Both brands of these brushes use goat hair. If you’d prefer a synthetic alternative I would look for dome makeup brushes. Less expensive ones are more likely to be made of synthetic hair.

6 dome drybrush

The brushes pictured are from the Army Painter Masterclass set. Artis Opus has two additional sizes – one even smaller, and one even larger. One interesting thing about these brushes is that you can apply paint with them in two different ways. You can use a sweeping/dusting motion as with the other brushes I tested, or you can use them in a dabbing, stippling motion. The effect you get with each is slightly different. 

When painting the figure below, I wiped off a little less of the paint for the initial layers to try to build up some colour in some of the lower areas as the flattop brush 5 had done. I used the largest brush for the main area of the cloak, but I think the medium size might have been a better choice to have a little more control in some sections. I was pleasantly surprised by these brushes. They were easy and enjoyable to use. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the dome shape makes it easier to control where you are applying the paint, and also easier to avoid getting paint in areas where you do not want it to go. I suspect there are a few nuances to learning to use these for optimum result, but overall they’re pretty easy and low stress to use.

Malcolm crop 6

A little while after the tests I had occasion to paint something I wanted to look a little speckled – a Gingerbread Knight. I used these brushes for the bulk of the painting on the cookie area.

Gb front

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Here’s another picture of all the figures together, lined up in order from 1 through 6.

Malcolm group crop

Coming soon – the results for tests two and three!

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Patron Spotlight: Ward Shrake

This blog is made possible by the generous support of my patrons, and I want to share more about them and their work with the world!

Ward’s primary hobby work has been model kits, and he has years of kit bashing and scratch sculpting experience, particularly in the genre of vehicles. But his hobby interests range far beyond that. He has dipped toes into many facets of modelling, and sees interesting areas of overlap of which those of us who specialize more intently might be unaware. He also loves sharing his knowledge and experience and has had numerous articles published in modelling magazines.

Ward SFFM Horror and Monster Modeller Special Issue by Ward Shrake Eddie from Aces High 06 jpg a3c1d9b042444e5fd0b7db4a5bbba9bfEddie from Aces High. You can read more about how Ward painted this figure and fitted it with lights.

The following are Ward’s words, accompanied by some photographs of his work and links to where you can see more and read more about how he made his creations. Thank you Ward for the support, and for sharing your thoughts!

Hello, fellow blog readers, and fans of figure modeling!

Like many of you, I enjoy reading about various aspects of this craft or hobby — the art, the science, and/or the philosophy and psychology of the figure modeling world.

I have to admit, though, that it’s not all I ever read about. I am a life-long “book-a-holic”. I have spent many years happily reading about many areas within the overall scale modeling world. Figure sculpting, painting, and vignette or diorama creation always interested and even fascinated me, as a reader. But I mostly “stopped at reading,” with figure models. It wasn’t just figure modeling that I read about, but “did not do”. There are many areas within the scale modeling hobby that I mainly “read about” but wasn’t actively involved in, in a hands-on kind of way. There’s only so much time, money, and energy available to anyone. If you are easily inspired by art, when you see examples of it, you’re simply not going to be able to “do” everything you want to. Being a “multi-potential-ite” is fun, sometimes: but it’s hard to force myself to focus on only doing one specific “new” thing!

Ward article by ward shrake sffm vol 17 01 remodelling max sized lYou can see more of this piece and others Ward has done on his Putty & Paint page.

I knew about gaming minis since the days when companies like Grenadier and Ral Partha were creating and selling lots of awesome little sculptures. I still have a few minis I purchased in the 1980s; and I’ve added a lot more minis to my collection since then. I haven’t painted them, mind you: I mainly like marveling at the sculpting work! (It took me far too long to realize I was attracted to the idea of being able to do figure sculpting work, myself!) In my local hobby shop, in the 1970s, I saw Aurora’s “Monster Scenes” and back then, I wanted all I could get. Which was none of them: I had a parent who thought all such things were evil. (Any of those I brought home, would have been trashed in hours, and I would have never heard the end of it.) I finally got most of those kits, when they were re-issued, about ten years ago. But to be honest, as a kid I was more sorry that I didn’t have more of that company’s “Prehistoric Scenes” kits: those kits were majorly cool!

Ward steampunk modeller volume 3 hornethopter 04 article by ward shrake sized lWard’s diorama with a Steampunk Hornethopter.

As a youth, of elementary and junior high school age, I built (but at first, rarely painted) injection molded plastic kits of any subject that was within my price range, as long as it had “cool shapes and colors”. World War One bi-planes and tri-planes were favorites of mine back then. By the time I was about 16, I had built 200 plastic model kits. I became more interested in figure models, in various scales, in the early to mid-1980s: but I became distracted by other hobbies, including computers and auto mechanics.

Ward 234397760 132348599055529 2250407868523966301 nSome of the fun details inside the Steampunk Hornethopter. You can see additional photos and read more about the construction of the piece.

I am sort of “circling back” to figure modeling now. It wasn’t planned. What happened was that, several years ago, a publication I used to love writing for (“Sci-Fi & Fantasy Modeller” from England) decided to stop publishing. I had done fifteen articles with them, as a writer and builder, over time. That publication was very “in-depth” with most of their articles, and I had loved being able to share what I knew, with others. When that writing gig stopped being an available option to me, it was devastating to me, hobby-wise. I had very much wanted to simply keep doing what I had done with them: but it was not possible, any more. So I sort of “had to find another hobby,” in a way. It took me several years to begin to visualize what that might be.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 02 article by ward shrake sized lWard’s Steampunk Fish Submarine diorama.

I had learned that I truly loved to learn! I also knew from writing about my projects, that I loved to be able to share things like what people in one hobby were doing, to folks in a seemingly unrelated hobby. (“Cross Pollination”.) But opportunities for doing that seemed quite slim, at least in “printed publications”. I wanted to explain techniques, but most publications only wanted to show completed projects.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 01 article by ward shrake sized lA closer view of the Steampunk Fish Submarine itself.

So I mainly focused on my love of reading and of learning, after that writing gig ended. When I realized, with a bit of a shock, that what I had been doing with SF&FM was sort of like “sculpting vehicular models,” I realized I already had a little sculpting knowledge (of a kind). I signed up for the (free!) Shiflett Brothers’ Sculpting Forums, on Facebook. That fascinated me! It put me deep into “artistic overload”! Seeing so many talented sculptor’s art works, so often, made me want to study harder about the “how to” of sculpting various figures. At least for me, it is nearly impossible to see that many inspiring sculptures, without eventually having a strong urge to want to learn more about “adding cool colors” to the “cool shapes” I was seeing.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 03 article by ward shrake sized lSome of the details inside the Steampunk Fish Submarine. You can view additional photos and read more information about how this was built.

Due to how much time I had spent studying it, and doing it, I am more comfortable with vehicular scale modeling than with figure modeling; and “building” versus “painting”. But I love to learn! So now I am studying what “real painters” are doing, in places like this (and others). I’m buying up more tools and equipment and supplies, related to working on scale figures. And I’m enjoying being on this journey!

Ward has some additional project folders in this gallery where you can see more of his great work.

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Figures and Paints in this Article

Anirion the Elf Wizard is available in Bones USA plastic, clear plastic, and metal.
Malcolm, Lightbringer is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Paints: 9076 Deep Ocean, 9077 Marine Teal, 9078 Surf Aqua
The Gingerbread Knight will be available for individual sale in January 2022 from the Reaper website.
I have the impression that the kits Ward worked on are no longer available, but if you have questions about any of those ask in the comments and I’m sure he’ll be happy to answer.

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