Expressive Brushwork: Bring Your Marks to Life | Jen Dixon | Skillshare

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Expressive Brushwork: Bring Your Marks to Life

teacher avatar Jen Dixon, Abstract & figurative artist, educator

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Materials Needed


    • 3.

      Get to Know: Round Brushes


    • 4.

      Get to Know: Flat Brushes


    • 5.

      Get to Know: Filbert Brushes


    • 6.

      Get to Know: Rigger, Angle, and Fan Brushes


    • 7.

      Project One: Simplified Bamboo


    • 8.

      Project Two: Wild Grasses


    • 9.

      Project Three: Loose Landscape


    • 10.

      Final Advice and Thanks


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About This Class

Expressive Brushwork: Bring Your Marks to Life is about getting to know your brushes and then putting them to work for you in a fearless way. This class is aimed at beginners or artists looking to refresh skills.

You will learn:
What marks each brush makes.
To build confidence in controlling them through specific exercises.
To let loose with confidence in three, expressive projects.

In short, we learn to control the brushes, then we learn to let go.

You'll need a few supplies:

  • Indian Ink
  • Brushes: Round/Pointed Round, Flat, Filbert, Rigger, Angle, Fan *
  • A4 or US Letter cartridge or sketch paper (I recommend 100gsm or heavier)
  • Watercolours (only a few, basic colours are needed)
  • Water, spray bottle, and paper towels

* The brushes should be suitable for watercolour work, and can be synthetic or sable/natural bristles. Each brush has a different mark, and you'll see me switching frequently to demonstrate this. Brushes also vary manufacturer to manufacturer, so having several is a goal to work towards.

This class includes a four page pdf download after enrolment.

Looking forward to seeing your projects!

Meet Your Teacher

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Jen Dixon

Abstract & figurative artist, educator

Top Teacher

Whether you want to learn new skills or brush up on rusty ones, I would love to help. I have been a selling artist for around 35 years. In my own practice I use pen & ink, pastels, oils, acrylics, and watercolours regularly. My work hangs in private collections around the world.
I love what I do, and I teach what I love. We can do good things together here, so let's get started...

About me:
I'm an Ameri-Brit (dual citizen), living on the North Cornwall coast of the UK. I've been here nearly two decades, but have lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Berkshire (UK). I am studying Spanish daily with an aim for becoming bilingual. Hola, artistas.

My work covers everything from graffiti-influenced illustration & mixed media abstracts, to more traditional painti... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Hi, I'm Jen Dixon and welcome to Expressive Brushwork: Bring Your Marks to Life. I work in a variety of mediums in my drawing and painting, and my projects can vary from precise line work to wildly expressive mark making. One of the most transformative lessons I teach students in my studio class, is how to break conservative habits with familiar tools and through practice and experimentation bring new marks into their work. That's what we're going to do in this class. By the end of the projects, you'll be fearless with your brush marks and on your way to creating more expressive art. We'll use minimal supplies and through ink and watercolor, builds skills and confidence that you can then transfer to other mediums. So let's get started. 2. Materials Needed: The materials list for this class is short. You'll need a sturdy cartridge or sketch paper, Indian ink or similar in a shallow dish, a variety of watercolor brushes, but at the very least, a few sizes of round brush, water in a jar, a spray bottle of water, paper towels, a few basic watercolors. I also find an old toothbrush and a water dropper are helpful. 3. Get to Know: Round Brushes: This first lesson is the longest and covers the basic techniques for several of the brushes in this class. Round brushes come in a wide variety of sizes and can have subtly different shapes depending on the manufacturer, natural or synthetic bristles or whether or not they come to a point. These are a few of mine. I'll start this exercise with a size six sapphire from Taylor Ronnie. To load ink into the brush, gently swirl to ensure the particles haven't settled. Then using a twisting motion, take excess ink off the brush and define the point at the same time. The first exercise is to practice smooth consistent lines. The goal is to get used to and even pressure, a feel for how much ink to load and speed. Your brush should be held at a slight angle, not vertically. You want the bristles to open up and release ink at a steady rate. Feel free to rest your hand on the paper as you pull the line towards you. You can also use your pinky finger to steady your hand. I'm switching to a much larger brush, a 10 with a natural sable bristle. Notice how it's possible to achieve a line as thin as the previous brush. Then with just a little more pressure, we can easily double or triple the width. This larger brush holds more ink, so I'm still able to achieve several lines without reloading. Now we're going to begin combining varying pressures to smoothly transition from thin to thick. Reshape the bristles on the edge of the ink dish where necessary. Switching brushes in practice exercises increases your familiarity with what you can do with each one. Now we're going to add a pulse to the pressure on the bristles and begin a mark I call the well-fed snake. The idea is to try several brushes, keep your hand moving smoothly and swiftly as you press and lift to create the pattern. I wasn't crazy about the size 10 sapphire so we switched. You can also see what happens when I get impatient and load too much ink. On a fresh sheet of paper, I've had to play with the pulsing line at different pressures to create different shapes. But now we're taking it further by rotating the brush side to side and varying the pressure. Keep experimenting with different brushes. Try also holding the brush from the middle or the handle tip to create more expressive marks. You can see the rotation of the brush before each press I make with the bristles. Now let's make some bud stems. Rather than starting this next mark with an angled hand, bring the brush up vertically. This is necessary so we can push away from a pivot on the bristle tip. The movement is pulling down, then pushing up and away at a slight angle. Again, change brushes to see how they behave. Now let's introduce a zigzag into the stem. You can see how the stroke travels further between each pushing, press. Learning this motion and which brushes provide the look you want are all built into this practice. There are two additional basic marks I want to share before we move on. The side swipe and scumbling. Side swipes are useful for sky, water, land, or any number of abstract applications. Try several brushes. Scumbling is using your brush to scrub paint or ink into the surface at random directions. Practice with different brushes and try fading into a dryer brush with lighter coverage in tone. Always clean and reshape your brushes after use. 4. Get to Know: Flat Brushes: Let's have a quick look at flat brushes. Flat brushes are typically longer in bristles than the brushes wide. Shorter bristled flat brushes are called Bright. I'll demonstrate the QM memo tip incise 22. It's a synthetic brush from one of my favorite brush ranges. There are predictable marks you can make from patches to lines. But notice the lines have a little more character and can portray a chiseled look. Flat brushes are also good for lettering as they behave with a fluid stroke, similar to calligraphy pens. With bristles spread slightly and a little less ink load, a fairy combed texture can be achieved, which when brushed with a loose sweeping motion, can look like grass. Try weaving down the page in a zigzag, but adding a push at each change in direction, you'll see an almost dripping or icicle effect. Dabbing also gives a wonderful texture when done horizontally. 5. Get to Know: Filbert Brushes: Here's a quick look at Filbert brushes. Filberts are something between a round and a flat brush and are useful in blending. The tip is rounded like an oval and so the marks it leaves are generally soft. You may also know this brush as a cat's tongue. I don't use a Filbert often, but because of the unique market makes and use in blending oils, acrylics and gouache, I usually have a couple around. I like the texture it makes when it's pressed into the paper. 6. Get to Know: Rigger, Angle, and Fan Brushes: Finally, here's a look at rigor, angle and fan brushes. Rigor brushes hold a lot of ink thanks to their long bristles. They're great for long lines and whippy marks, but are a little limited otherwise. Always good to have a couple on hand, but they aren't likely to be used regularly. Angle brushes are more versatile and behave similarly to flat brushes. The point can offer fine detail, while the bulk can give a calligraphy feel. Sideswipe marks are beautifully random. Fan brushes are strange little beasts. They're highly expressive but can make very cliche marks. Explore this one fully to see its unique potential. Great for falling water, combed-over grass or fur, or random swirls and curls. Some people love them, some hate them. I'd say I fall somewhere in between. 7. Project One: Simplified Bamboo: Our first project is a simplified bamboo, you'll need a size ten to fourteen round brush that allows a point at either ends of our leaf shapes, I also used a rigger for the stems, but if you haven't got a rigger, just use a small round brush instead. First, practice a whole sheet of leaves, each will require the control you practiced in the pulse lines, you remember? I called them, "The well-fed snake mark." You'll use light pressure then heavier then lifting with a return to light pressure, the movements should be swift and deliberate. Experiment with various dilutions of ink, you can create bent leaves by swiftly changing the direction of your mark, this takes practice, but you'll get it. After a whole sheet of leaf mark practice begin the simplified bamboo painting. Using a rigger brush, sweep a single curved line upwards on the paper, this is the main stem, add a few more stems with a similar movement. Making the marks in various shades of gray will add the illusion of depth and dimension. Now it's time to add the leaves, using what you learned from your leaf practice, create groupings of leaves in varying intones around the stems, new leaves are light and point upwards, so they will often be at the top of the plant, older leaves droop and will typically be on the lower branches, you may like to add more stems, and a few more leaves. Bamboo leaves are typically in groups of odd numbers, so threes and fives, but resist the urge to fill in all the white space on the page, and there you have it, a simplified bamboo. 8. Project Two: Wild Grasses: Our next project is wild grasses. Begin by misting a sheet of paper and then dropping in ink. Allow it to spread in the water. Then, holding a rigor or small round brush at its handle tip, begin a swift moving pendulum motion to drag out the grass blades from the ink and water. Change direction frequently. Drop in dots of ink in random places, but also where you think shadows may occur. Try blotting areas of the work, lifting out excess ink or water. Change brushes and experiment with the effects they have on the evolving painting. Try re-wetting with misted water. Remember that holding your brushes in unusual ways can create expression in your marks. Don't be afraid of contrast. A full range of light, medium, and dark will always look good. Side swiping can add the illusion of water or a cliffs edge. Spattering ink and then misting with water will soften the effect of the ink droplets. Add a few stems of leaves or buds using the practice techniques from earlier. The same techniques can be used with watercolor. If you want to combine watercolor and India ink, I would suggest laying down the watercolor first as a base layer because it's difficult to come back from the severity of ink once it's there. There you have it, wild grass using expressive brushwork. 9. Project Three: Loose Landscape: Now that you're comfortable and confident with your brushwork, let's build a bigger picture. Creating our final project, loose landscape, puts together all of the expressive brushwork we've explored so far. Begin in the same way as the wild grasses project, by first misting the paper and dropping in some India ink. Then begin manipulating with brushes. The loose landscape began as a basic concept of wanting a wilderness with fir trees, grasses, stone, and hillside. I also wanted to experiment with all that we've covered so far in this class. As I mentioned in the grasses project, a full tonal range of light, medium, and dark may feel extreme to apply, but will result in a more believable image. The full tonal range will add depth and create distance in your work. Push, pull, drop in, blot, and water spritz to manipulate the brushwork. If you're not ready for a full landscape painting, that's okay too. Try creating a smaller vignette of perhaps a few trees with boulders and grasses around. Embrace the expressive marks and be bold. Whatever you create, I'd love to see it. 10. Final Advice and Thanks: Thank you for being a part of my class. I'm looking forward to seeing not only your three expressive brushwork projects, but your practice brushwork too. Remember that confidence and skill comes through effort in painting. If you're having some frustration with some of the techniques, just a little more time on the tough stuff will get you over the hump. The important thing is to keep learning, doing and creating. Don't give up. Just get another sheet of paper and try again. Again, thanks for joining me and have a great day.