Thursday, March 9, 2023

What did Andrew Wyeth mean by "drybrush?"

What did Andrew Wyeth mean when he called his paintings "drybrush?"

Undersnow by Andrew Wyeth, drybrush, 1977

I've found Wyeth's use of the term misleading, because Wyeth's "drybrush" paintings often have a lot of very wet passages. Wyeth didn't think like other artists, and his notions about his use of the medium are mixed in with a lot of emotions and instincts. Here's what Wyeth himself said: 

"Drybrush is for more contemplative works (as compared with watercolor), or when a work arrives at a profound emotional stage. I use a smaller brush, dip into the color, splay out the bristles, squeeze out a good deal of the moisture and color with my fingers so that only a very small amount of paint is left." Drybrush is layer upon layer — a definite 'weaving process.' Source of quote: Thomas Hoving in conversation with Andrew Wyeth, From Handprint

Wyeth also said to Hoving: “Now drybrush comes to me through the fact that after I finish a tempera I may feel exhausted. I may have worked four or five or six months on it and I’m desperately tired. But then I may see something that interests me and watercolor doesn’t have the strength somehow. I start with a watercolor sometimes and realise, damn it all, I feel stronger than that. I want to go into it with a little more detail so I start working in drybrush.... " 

Garret Room" (right) is a very good example.

Wyeth continues: “When I stroke the paper with the dried brush, it will make various distinct strokes at once, and I start to develop the forms of whatever object it is until they start to have real body. But, if you want to have it come to life underneath, you must have an exciting undertone of wash. Otherwise, if you just work drybrush over a white surface, it will look too much like drybrush."

It was rare for Wyeth to allow other artists to watch him paint, but he made a few exceptions, and what follows are some quotes from what these observers noticed about his materials and methods.

Les Linton says: "I met Andrew Wyeth in March of 1976 and was able to not only speak to him about his materials, but also ask about his techniques. He was usually reticent about tech talk, but for some reason he warmed up to me and I was able to spend an entire afternoon asking questions.

Les continues: His paint box was there on the table by the back door and that's when I got the first clue about his use of gouache. I did notice he had a tube of Shiva casein white in there also. When I asked him about it he said once it dried, it was less likely to pick up when painted over again. I think that was the opaque white he used most in his watercolors and drybrush paintings, but I can't swear to it."

According to Linton and other observers, "most of the paper was Imperial (22" x 30") 140 lb. Cold Press (or "Not," which in Brit-speak means not smooth or rough) woven linen, not cotton, and handmade. This is why the sizing was "harder," unlike the softer cotton watercolor paper later revived under the Whatman name (and mould made mimicking the original Whatman handmade texture). This harder surface is one of the reasons why Wyeth was able to abuse the surface of the paper so easily. He used sandpaper, knives, steel wool, and just about anything else he could find. Wyeth also had a large supply of rough Whatman Imperial sheets on hand as well."

"Many of Wyeth's drybrush watercolors were painted on extremely smooth 3-ply, plate finish (Bristol) from Strathmore. Some of the earlier Bristol paper he used (50's & 60's) was not archival, but current production is. You can see yellowing in some of his earlier studies and drawings on that particular paper.

"Mr. Wyeth used Winsor & Newton watercolors (with a few Grumbacher colors) and also made much use of W/N Gouache in his darker, earthier passages. The opaque watercolor came in handy in his drybrush watercolors painted in a more detailed egg tempera technique. He occasionally added alcohol (or whiskey) to his water when painting outdoors in cold weather to retard freezing."

"The paint thickener came from liquid gum arabic as well. These passages look thicker, 'juicier,' and are characterized by little bubbles (not possible with just water). He used an old, beat up, folding, enameled metal watercolor palette when I saw it in the 70s. I'm pretty sure his own watercolor palette was made in the U.S., but the nearest thing I've seen to it is the large, black, metal folding palette made by Holbein of Japan - most likely a copy of that same design. He favored W/N Series 7 Kolinsky sable rounds and used to buy the size #1's "by the fistful," again according to Berndt (who used to baby sit Andy when he was a child!). I've always assumed these very small brushes were purchased for his temperas and drybrush paintings and he wore them out readily."

"The main thing I came away with from my visit was Mr. Wyeth's willingness to break 'the rules' and use anything that gave him the effect he wanted in a painting. There were studies littered all over the floor of his studio, some with dusty shoe prints where he'd walked on them. 


Michael Pianta said...

This is some great information. I normally only work in oil, but reading this kind of makes me want to try this out. Thanks for surfacing all this Mr. Gurney!

Unknown said...

Thank you for the comprehensive summary of these records.
I was always struggeling to understand what he meant by drybrush.
Tanks! A.

Unknown said...

This is super interesting to me. I'd love to hear more about Wyeth and his experiments and techniques. This description of "drybrush" really sounds like very very gentle glazing to slowly build things up.

I love the idea of mixing mediums as necessary as well. Bringing in gouache to get richer, thicker darks, and its interesting to read about the use of white casein. Have you ever mixed casein with watercolors? Like, actually used it as an opacifier that you mix in with a watercolor pigment? Or do you imagine he was layering it on top? I would be surprised if he was just using straight white, rather than giving it a hint of color, so I was trying to imagine the details of how one might use it. I'm asuming it's more opaque that watercolors?
Thank you for sharing this!

G. said...

Wow, I had no idea he used casein in his watercolor and gouache paintings (or at least, that's what Linton thinks). I also wonder if there are any watercolor paper brands that can take such a beating today. Thank you so much for posting this.

tayete said...

Thanks Mr. Gurney for this insight into Wyeth's technique. Really helpful!