Friday, December 11, 2009


Scumbling is a painting technique largely overlooked in the contemporary preoccupation with alla prima methods. From an 1842 painting manual:

“By Scumbling is meant, the application of opaque tints very thinly, over parts that have already been painted, and that are sufficiently dry and firm, to undergo the operation; it is usually performed with a hog's hair brush, very sparingly charged with the tint to be employed; which is called a Scumble, and must be generally lighter, though nearly of the same tone of colour, as the part over which it is passed.

"Scumbling may with proper judgment, be used in any part of the picture, but it is better if possible to avoid using it over shadows, more particularly such as are wished to be kept transparent, and to confine its application chiefly to the lighter parts where it may be required.

"Its use is to weaken the force of colours that are too strong, and force themselves too much on the eye, for the preservation of harmonious effect; to give air and distance to objects that seem too near, and to soften and unite such tints on the surface of particular objects, as may be too violently contrasted for breadth of effect.

"A Scumble is generally a tint made of some colour mixed with white; its usual effect is to render the part of the picture where it is employed, somewhat cooler, grayer, and less defined than before; hence it is of great service in connecting any tendency to muddiness or dirtiness of colouring; and also to what is called hardness, or over-distinctness of detail.

"Scumbling, in its effects may be viewed as the opposite of Glazing; and if a picture has been injured by too free a use of the latter, it may, in a great degree be remedied by the former; indeed each is to a great extent, calculated to remedy any errors that may be committed in the use of the other; and their judicious combination in the same picture, is found to produce the greatest possible clearness, brilliancy, transparency and richness of colouring."
Painting by William Logsdail. St. Martin in the Fields, courtesy Art Renewal Center. Second painting by F. Waugh.
Document courtesy Graydon Parrish. Title: The Guide to Oil Painting, page 41. Kownky, Dillon and Rowney, 51 Rathbone Place.


Rafael said...

Scumbling is great for creating atmosphere and depth in landscape paintings. It is also helps reproduce the translucence of light on skin, which is very difficult to paint allaprima. Although, once you understand how stumbling works, it is possible to imitate the effect painting wet in wet or even allaprima. It is also not just limited to oil painting. I do it in gouache all the time!

Rafael said...

Oh yes, the wonderful still-life painter Chardin built his entire painting oeuvre on scumbling!

Christopher Thornock said...

James- Thank you for posting this. One of the greatest misunderstandings in painting. So many people think that 'scumbling' is about a particular brush mark and not about the paint at all. When I tell others what scumbling really is, they look at me cross-eyed.

Will Kelly said...

This is really informative. I think I've learned more about painting by reading this blog than anywhere else. This looks like a fabulous technique, and I really like the example painting. There is such great art out there! Thanks Mr. Gurney.

Mario said...

I wonder if it's the same as "frottage". Although I realize that the same word could have slightly different meanings in different languages.

K. W. Broad said...

Ah, this is actually something I do in my digital paintings quite often. Not only was I unaware that there was a word for it, but also that it could be done with actual paints (Naive, I know)!
I shall certainly have to experiment with this.

Anonymous said...

In my mind, i put scumbling in with glazing, as a technique. Scumbling is just a dry glaze, as it were, done with touch. Uses are many and varied. Like commenter Rafael says, it's great, because it works as an optical effect. The eye mixes the scumbling and underpainting, and effects of texture, focus, etc. can be induced. It's also a very useful and economical technique in itself in say, painting the effect of a sheer fabric over flesh, the way Rembrandt does. Or the way Hals does with hair and even basic facial features. From 18 inches away the scumble looks so painterly as to feel too sloppy... from 10 feet away, the effect is astonishingly lifelike, present. Scumbling also is very effective way of building up effect of flesh, without using a ton of expensive paint, heh.

Making A Mark said...

I agree - scumbing is certainly not limited to oil painting. I like the suggestion that it can be defined as a dry glaze done by touch.

Scumbling - when using pastels - certainly works a little differently with the result largely depending on the nature of the support being used and the dexterity of artist in terms of 'touch'.

tayete said...

I think I don't really understand this (maybe because English is not my native language): Is it then similar to a "dry brush" technique?

P.S.: I am loving your book, not only for what I am learning, but for how clear and accesible everything seems.

James Gurney said...

Tayete, thanks for your compliments. Yes, scumbling is a way of painting where you dry-brush a thin layer of opaque paint over a the dry surface of a painting. It's great for mist or fog or smoke.