Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Sunday, July 12, 2015


I received a request to talk about brushstrokes (Tom B., this one's for you!), so here goes~

When I'm teaching, one of the most common problems I see is that of muddy colors. This usually happens in conjunction with overworked surfaces with strokes which have little expression, intention, or meaning. 

Most of the time, the student assumes poor color mixing is to blame, ("my colors don't look right!") and this may indeed be true, but often the problem may not be in how he made his color mixing decisions, but in how he applied the color onto his canvas. 

When we're painting wet into wet, we can't avoid picking up some of the colors already on the canvas surface as we make contact with the brush loaded with new color. If we keep dabbing or stroking at the surface with this same loaded brush, each subsequent contact will have less of the intended new color that we mixed on the palette, but more of the combined mixture of the new color and whatever the brush picked up in the previous dabs. 

Obviously, this "combined color" isn't what we intended.  (We are not talking about intentionally mixing colors on canvas here - that's a totally different technique) And it's easy to see how this happens. Surprisingly, many students just keep on dabbing, licking (mindlessly stroking the same spot over and over on auto-pilot) and "smoothing" out the area in an attempt to fix or hide the mistake. (Been there, done that. Thousands of times.)

Having identified the problem, this solution doesn't make any sense, does it? 

So what do we do? We have to figure out how to avoid this "combined color", and only put down the intended new color. (the color you actually mixed on the palette)  

The answer seems pretty logical; one, avoid picking up the existing color on the canvas surface, and two, if you do pick up some of the existing color, don't keep putting it back into the painting. 

The second part is extraordinarily simple. Whenever you pick up unwanted color, clean your brush!  Yes, that might mean cleaning the brush after every stroke and reloading with fresh paint. But if you use both sides of a flat or a filbert brush, you should at least be able to get two strokes before wiping it clean. 

It's easy to forget to clean the brush when your new color is so closely related to the existing color, because they're so harmonious, the mixture doesn't look muddy, or even wrong. But if the two colors are further apart in hue and/or value, it gets mucky pretty quickly. So you see, "Clean your brush often" and "Put it down, and leave it alone" go hand in hand.

Now let's talk about avoiding picking up of the existing color on the canvas. If you're painting wet into wet, it's pretty much impossible not to pick up at least a tiny bit of it every time you touch canvas. So it comes down to trying to pick up as little as possible. 

First, take a look at how your brush is angled when you apply your strokes. Is it nearly perpendicular, like this? 

If so, notice only the tip of the brush makes contact at first, and if you want to transfer the paint on the rest of the brush onto the canvas, you have no choice but to push the brush against the canvas, and into the wet paint, like this; 

You can't avoid picking up a lot of the paint from the surface because you're pretty much jamming your brush into it. And even if you do clean your brush after every stroke, whatever expression you get from such a stroke is going to reflect that heavy-handedness. Does that make sense? 

What if you were to hold your brush at a much more acute angle, almost flat against the canvas, like this;

This will allow your brush to make contact with the canvas with more surface area, more paint, and without jamming the tip into the wet surface. That means minimal disturbance of the existing surface. You'll still pick up some paint from the canvas, but because you're not digging into it, you'll be putting down the new color on top of the old color, not into it. With a loaded brush, and if the wet paint on the canvas is thin enough you can get quite a few more strokes in without getting any "combined color" to muck it up.

The other great benefit of holding the brush at an acute angle is the range of expression that you can get. By moving the brush side to side and skimming over the wet surface, you can get some really nice irregular-looking calligraphic expression.

I do have to stress that this is just one aspect of using the brush to apply paint. There are times you do want to hold your brush perpendicularly to the canvas. There are times you do want to jam the brush into wet paint and mush it around. There are times you do want that "combined color", especially if you're looking for a transition between two colors, or a beautiful broken color note.  There's no one right way,  except in the specific context of what you want to achieve with any given note.

So here's a list for ya, (because we all like lists :-D)

  • Load your brush with paint. (Don't skimp!)
  • Hold your brush nearly flat against the canvas.
  • Don't hold your brush perpendicularly to the canvas. 
  • Don't push the canvas with your brush. Don't stab it. Don't jam it.
  • Use only enough pressure to take paint off the brush without disturbing the wet surface.
  • If you pick up existing color, clean your brush immediately and reload.
  • That may mean you only have one or two strokes per load, especially if the surface already has a lot of paint, or if you don't have enough paint on the brush.
  • A very, very light touch!
  • You can move your brush every which way to get different kinds of strokes. Experiment, practice and be familiar with what it can do.
  • No licking. (mindlessly going over the same stroke over and over while you think about what to do next. If painting were a verbal language, this is the same as repeating "um....um.... um..."
  • Put it down, leave it alone.
  • If you do notice that the color you put down is wrong, scrape it off. Don't try to hide the error by mushing it into the surface.
  • Once again with the verbal language analogy; Each stroke is a word. Enunciate each word. Say it like you mean it. Make sure you have the right word before you say it.
  • Strokes show intention, so have one. If you're unsure, that shows, too. Perhaps more than you wish to reveal.

Sorry to bore you with the repeated plug, but I can show you exactly how this is done in the context of your own painting...and other ways of using the brush and the knife, too, if you come to my workshop in Michigan in September! Please follow this link for more info: Michigan workshop.


  1. I have a large studio piece I am working on and been struggling with a passage in all week.
    I found the solution to my problem in about a second after applying the ideas in this this post.
    Thank you, and man, oh man I would really enjoy a work shop with you. Until I can make that happen, so appreciate what you share here on your blog.

    1. Thanks Jim~! SO glad my post was somehow helpful! :-D

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Sergio~! 'Hope you're doing well~

  3. Nice post, really helped me revisit my errors and needs. Will work on this area over the next week or so. Thanks!

  4. I learn more by visiting your blog than by most painting books I've read. If you ever decide to write a book that gets to the heart of the matter, or produce a dvd, I'll be first in line to get it! Thank you once again for your generosity in sharing your knowledge and talents!

    1. Thanks Roberta~! I may do a book at some point. If only there were 25 hours in a day... :-D

  5. Thanks for the great insight and practical advice!

  6. Terry, I can't even begin to tell you how helpful I've found this article. Thank you so much.

    1. Hi Sharon, and thanks! Happy to know you found this helpful!

  7. I have followed your blog for years. I am painting plein air and studio works in watercolor, after painting in acrylics for years. Would a watercolor guy taint your workshop?

    1. Taint? not in the least! But I should tell you that I don't paint in watercolor very much at all, and I don't feel qualified to teach the technical aspects of it. If your focus (and expectations) is on picture making principles, then I have much to share in the workshops. So you are more than welcome to join us, just be warned that my talking points won't cover watercolor-specific techniques.

  8. I found these tips very helpful. Also, I enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you so much for sharing!

  9. Just want to repeat what everyone else is saying here: Thank you for your clear explanation!

  10. Thanks again Terry. I attended your workshop in Lowell, Michigan and am glad I did. You get five out of five stars in my view. Incredibly useful information, both in the workshop and your book!

    1. Hi Joe~ Thanks for that feedback! That workshop was so enjoyable for me too - perfect locations x super nice people. Can't go wrong! I'll be back in 2017 :-D

    2. I couldn't make Lowell this year, but I'm glad to hear you'll be back
      there in 2017: I'll be there!