When I paint, I like to blend. Arguably, I like it too much, do it too often and start blending at too soon a point in my painting. In my defence, it looks so good, I can’t help it.
I only know about oils and acrylics, when it comes to blending, so this is what this post will be about. I’m sure you can blend water colours and pastels, but I have limited experience with those. There are a few things that are worth knowing about blending, which I learned the hard way. This post might be a short cut for you.
Firstly (and this took me a while to figure out for myself – I should have read a few books), blending is about mixing the paint on the canvas, not about diluting the paint with thinner or water until it blends because you have a big sloppy mess at the transition. You are trying to maintain the same consistency of the paint, where your colours blend.
Some people advocate a wet blending technique (there are many such tutorial videos on YouTube, for example), but to my way of thinking, that’s just colour mixing on the canvas instead of the palette, not blending. Maybe it’s an insignificant semantic point, but I don’t think the result you get is as pretty and you can still wind up with hard edges between colours. For me, the essence of blending is in getting a diffuse gradation of one colour into another.
Blending is essentially a dry brush technique, in my opinion. The more paint your blending brush picks up, the worse it is at blending and the more coarse the finished colour transition will look. If you stop to clean your blending brush, you have to let it dry thoroughly before you can use it again. Blending with a wet brush doesn’t produce such a great result.
I should mention (even though if you try it for yourself, it becomes instantly obvious) that you cannot blend acrylics with oils. All you can do is under paint in acrylic, let it dry completely, then blend using oils over the top of the acrylic under painting. The two types of paint mix poorly when wet.
Your choice of blending brush is important. Ideally, you want something soft and fluffy. The Bob Ross Blending Brush is a good (if expensive) choice. Bob was famous for saying you needed to apply “one hair and some air” when blending. By that he meant you need to use a very light, deft stroke, to avoid loading the bristles with paint and to make the blended effect look sufficiently diffuse.
I have a couple of these brushes (you never can have enough of these), but I have to admit that I have more success with oil paint than I do with acrylic. With acrylics, you have to judge the wetness of the paint just right for blending to work well. With oils, the timing is far less critical. Oils dry so slowly and the paint is tacky and sticky, so pulling it gently with the bristles of the blending brush is quite easy, whereas with acrylics, getting the paint to be sticky and tacky is harder to judge. Slow mediums or other retarders that maintain a longer “open” time are useful, but judging the consistency is still a bit of a dark art, to be honest.
Other brushes that are useful for blending are fan brushes. They are great for blending smaller areas and can be used in a feather-light way to achieve very localised effects. Make-up fan brushes are often a good choice because of the number of bristles and how soft the bristles are (they’re used on people’s faces, after all, so they are going to be very soft on a canvas).
Another good choice is the so called “Fan Gogh” brush that artist and teacher Terry Harrison promotes. This brush has many more bristles than a regular artist’s fan brush. However, the bristles are quite coarse, so beware of that. Hake brushes, which have softer goat’s hair bristles, are another option for blending.
Blending is really great for skies, clouds, distant mountains, mists, etc. I recommend blending only when that area of the painting is more or less finished. You don’t want to blend too soon, mess it up and have to try to repair it. That always looks bad. Try to blend an area of the canvas and leave it alone.
Always blend in one direction. Go from left to right or top to bottom, but never alternate. If you go from top to bottom, then bottom to top again, you’ll contaminate your blend and make it look uneven. You can either use single direction strokes (long and deliberate) or else for a more diffuse effect, use a criss-cross stroke, changing the direction of the brush on alternate strokes. Again, Bob Ross taught this method and you get a good result. Bob also liked to blend white into a darker (almost black) colour and you get some stunning effects like that. Dark into light isn’t quite so spectacular or controllable. This also applies to skin tones, when blending those.
Another blending trick is to load the brush with two different colours of paint, either side by side or one opposite sides of the bristles. In this wet technique, the blending happens because the bristles carrying the two colours just mingle while you paint. It takes a bit of practice, though.
I find that a good way to make acrylics blend well is to cover the canvas in a medium (such as structure gel) first and then, while it is still tacky, paint the colours onto the medium. This gives the paint enough “pull” so that the blending brushes can “smoosh” it around (that’s an official painterly technical term) in gentle and subtle ways. A small amount of colour goes a long way, with this technique, but these gels dry fast, so your chance to get it right sits within a window of about ten minutes. Work fast. I’m yet to try adding a retarder with this technique.
Blending some colours together is more or less impossible. You can’t blend yellow with blue unless you want to get green in the transition. A work around is not to blend at all, but to allow the darker colour to dry completely, then fade the lighter one over the edge (assuming your dark colour is applied with a diffuse edge – a hard edge will never look right). In this case, what you are really doing is glazing, not blending, because one of the colours is dry.
When you blend, you will often find that the blending brush will shed a bristle or two. I pick these out carefully with a deft flick of the brush. Leaving the hairs in, for me, spoils the effect. It’s up to you, though. Leaving them in has the advantage of not risking the smooth transition you have already created, whereas digging them out sometimes moves a little paint with it and that can also spoil the effect.
I use a brand of paint designed for blending. Atelier Interactive paint is an acrylic made by an Australian firm that works very well for blending. Here is their blending tutorial video:
Blending is a lot of fun. I hope you try it or if you already know how to blend, I hope some of the tips in this post give you some new ideas and approaches to try. Smoosh and Sploosh (another technical painterly term) to your heart’s content.