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The Magic of Brushstroke Direction in Classical Oil Painting

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

Creating Depth & Luminosity With Brushstroke Direction

The direction of your brushstrokes can have a significant impact on the overall look and feel of your painting, particularly with regards to how light is reflected off its surface.

Rembrandt Self Portrait - Notice where the brushstrokes are bold and reflective vs. more subtle and/or opaque.

Two primary brush directions are often used to create different effects: diagonal strokes from the upper left to lower right and diagonal strokes from the upper right to lower left. Choosing one direction over the other can affect how the paint catches and reflects light, as well as the overall texture and movement of the painting. Experimenting with different brush directions can be a great way to add visual interest and depth to your work.

Achieving Different Brushstrokes In Classical Oil Painting:

Mastering the use of brushstrokes can help you achieve a wide range of effects in your painting. While practice and observation are the best ways to learn how to create different brushstrokes, it's important to understand that the direction of your brush can play a crucial role in reflecting light and creating depth.

Two main brushstrokes:

There are two primary extremes of brushstrokes that you can use to your advantage.

1. Reflective

The first is the 'perpendicular' or 'reflective' stroke, which stands out and reflects light. This brushstroke is painted in a diagonal direction from the top right down to the bottom left of the canvas.

If your light source is coming from the left side of the painting, as is traditional in classical painting, this type of brush stroke will reflect the most light possible. This type of stroke is useful for creating the illusion of 3D depth and is best for painting thickly and directly.

2. Opaque

The second type is the opaque, 'parallel' or 'invisible' stroke, which is painted thinly and reflects as little light as possible. This stroke is placed in a diagonal direction from the upper left down to the bottom right of the canvas. This type of brush stroke can even appear to sink into the canvas.

There are a number of other marks that you can make as well, but just the combination of these brushstrokes can drastically alter the 3D form of your painting, creating depth that even changes as you move around the canvas.

It's important to consider the 3D form of your subject when applying brushstrokes, using them to imitate the depth and dimensionality of the model. By mastering these extremes of brushstrokes, you can create a range of effects that will enhance the realism and lifelike quality of your paintings.

Brush Stroke Direction Demonstration

Via @nic.thurman on Instagram

Why use different brush strokes in classical oil painting?

The ultimate goal of using a variety of brush strokes is to make your painting appear more believable and lifelike to the viewer. While technical skills are important, it is the final result that truly matters. Brush strokes and different techniques should not be the sole focus of your practice; rather, they should be viewed as tools to help you achieve a more realistic and lively painting.

By using different brush strokes and techniques, you can add a sense of three-dimensionality to your work, bringing it to life and making it appear more dynamic. When used effectively, these techniques can make your painting feel more real and engaging, creating a stronger connection between the viewer and the painting.

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