The Basic, Brilliant Brush Creates Texture

Your brush itself can be used in many different ways to create texture–ingenious and practiced brushwork is the key to Cheryl Criss’ amazing textural feats. Her depictions of the ravages of time are often trompe l’oeil tour de forces that invite the viewer to come close. “There’s no formula you can carry over from one painting to another. To achieve convincing textures, you have to keep looking at what you’re painting and then keep trying different things until you get a correspondence,” Criss says. “A lot of texture is technique,” she continues. “And technique has two components: what you know you can do and what you know the materials–the paints, the brush, the paper–will do. You have technique when you’re pretty sure you know what will happen when you apply the brush to paper.”

In Balance Plus a Remainder, Criss was intrigued by an ancient copper scale that had become encrusted with verdigris. She studied the subject before her and practiced on the side of the 300-lb. Arches cold-pressed paper. She describes her process: “My favorite, 2-inch flat is stiff in comparison to some brushes I’ve paid a fortune for. I can load it with paint and it will maintain its shape. For the green crust on the copper scale, I started with a wash of cerulean blue, then I loaded the 2-inch brush up to the ferrule (the metal ring or cap that holds the bristles in place). Slapping the brush flat on its side (right next to the ferrule), I quickly dragged it across the surface. With this technique the paint will go right over the top—not slipping into the crevasses of the paper.”

For the box the scale is resting on, Criss used the same, battered 2-inch brush, only instead of loading it, she pressed it dry: “Using drybrush, I picked up paint on the tips only. I skipped over the top of the paper with feathery strokes that are good for suggesting wood surfaces.” To complete the illusion of wood, she also used a fan brush. “If the paint’s too wet on the fan brush, you’ll end up with distinct lines. You have to use paint that’s dry on the palette, then mix it with a little water. The brush has to be damp, so you can pick up the diluted dry paint. Then I use a feathery stroke that’s good for wood surfaces.”

Unlike many watercolorists, Criss props her paper on an easel. “When you’re looking down at a flat painting, you can lose perspective. When I worked flat, I always seemed to overwork the painting. But if I put the paper on an easel, I can read the painting visually. I know what it needs and where to stop. Now I never paint flat unless I’m running a wash, and as soon as the wash is dry, I prop it up again.”

A master at depicting light and shadow, Criss knows how to imply rather than overstate texture: “You can’t be fussy. Once you feel as if the brush has described what you want, stop. Let the viewer interpret the painting.”

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