Scumbling Painting Technique: Beginner’s Guide

Scumbling is a painting technique that can be used to add depth and dimension to a painting. Artists also use the technique to create texture. It is often used in conjunction with other painting techniques, such as glazing, to create a complex and nuanced painting. The effects that can be achieved with scumbling could be described as loose or painterly.

It is similar to the dry brushing technique, which is a technique used in oil, acrylic and watercolour painting. However, the scumbling technique can also be used with drawing media!

In this guide, find out what the scumbling technique is and how to try it for yourself to add a new dimension to your artworks.

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Scumbling definition

Scumbling is a painting technique, in which a thin layer of opaque or semi-opaque color is applied over a dry base, the layer will be applied in such a way so that it appears broken. The colour beneath will be visible to the viewer, which creates variation and interest. Artists can apply the paint with a scrubbing motion, to create the scratchy looking surface texture. This technique is often used with lighter, opaque pigments, to brighten dark shadow areas.

The technique works to alter previous layers of colour. When the broken paint film of the scumbled layer is seen next to colours in previous layers, the viewer’s eyes will mix colours optically. This creates a kind of optical illusion for the viewer. This is because the marks of two disparate colours, with one overlaying the other, look as if they have been mixed, when the viewer stands back from the artwork.

How to use the scumbling technique in a painting

Scumbling texture

There are various ways to use scumbling in a painting. You can either use it for the entire painting or for specific areas that you want to draw attention to.

Scumbling is typically done with a brush that has stiff bristles, such as a hog’s hair brush for oil painting or a stiff synthetic brush for acrylic painting. You can use this technique with watercolour, but use a soft brush that is slightly drier to apply paint.

Despite the medium you use, make sure to work on a dry surface with this technique. It works better with a brush that is a little drier and with thicker paint if you’re using oil or acrylic paint.

J.W. Turner: Snow Storm Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth

The paint is applied in a light layer over the surface of the painting, in quick sweeping motions. This is because the purpose of scumbling isn’t to achieve fine detail, but to emulate the appearance of texture. Previous layers of colour will show through, where the stiff brush marks break the surface of the wet paint. For example, J.M.W Turner used the scumbling technique to create the effect of fog in the distance.

Be expressive and gestural with your brush, this way you’ll be most likely to achieve more texture and get paint on the surface faster.

The brush doesn’t have to be completely loaded with paint, you could absorb some of the excess paint with a paper towel to create a scumble with a dry brush. Swipe the brush across the surface to achieve an broken and rough texture. The dry brush technique works especially well for wet and runny media like watercolour or gouache paint, where it is necessary to use a soft brush.

How to apply paint with the scumbling technique: Steps

  1. Choose the colour you want to use for your scumbling layer.
  2. Load your brush with paint and apply it to the surface. You could opt to use a paper towel to absorb excess paint first, if the brush is too wet to create a broken textured effect.
  3. Work the brush into the surface, if you’re using a stiff brush, use the bristles to remove excess paint to create a scratchy looking layer.
  4. Allow the scumbling layer to dry completely before adding more paint or blending it into the surrounding area.

What are the benefits of this technique

Scumbling can be used to create different effects such as:

  • Adding texture and interest
  • Creating depth and dimension
  • Creating the appearance of details
  • Enhancing other painting techniques

Tips for using the scumbling technique

  • Use a light touch when applying the paint to avoid overworking the surface.
  • Don’t overload the brush with paint.
  • Experiment with different colours and brushstrokes to create unique effects.
  • Practice on scrap paper before trying this technique on your final painting.

Examples of scumbling in art

J.M.W Turner used the scumbling technique extensively in his paintings, particularly to create the effect of fog or mist in the distance.

J.M.W Turner Scumbling
J.M.W. Turner: The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons

In this painting, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834, Turner has used scumbling to suggest smoke and debris in the air, as well as to create a sense of depth. The buildings in the foreground are more detailed than those in the background, which become increasingly blurred. This creates a sense of atmospheric perspective.

John Singer Sargent: Madame X

Scumbling can also be used to great effect in portraiture. In this painting by John Singer Sargent, Madame X, the artist has used scumbling to suggest the sitter’s translucent skin. The paint is applied in very thin layers, allowing the underpainting to show through in places. This creates a sense of light and shadow, which gives the portrait a lifelike quality.

Which mediums can you use with the scumbling technique?

The scumbling technique can be used with any painting or drawing medium. However there are slight different variations for how it’s used with each medium:

  • Oil and acrylic paint: use thick paint, with a stiff brush where excess residue has been removed, so the paint is relatively dry, then apply with quick, sweeping, expressive marks.
  • Watercolour and gouache: Load a soft brush with paint, remove excess residue and brush over textured (cold pressed or rough) paper.
  • Drawing media: use a pencil to draw with small circular motions, the lines should overlap and gaps between circles will show the layers of pencil, or white of the paper beneath. Use this technique with coloured pencils, charcoal or graphite.

What subjects can you paint with this technique?

Wet on Wet Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent: A Torrent in Norway

Represent a quality of light, use it to create the appearance of atmospheric perspective, or resemble rough terrain.

Get creative! Singer Sargent used this technique in many of his paintings, to create the effect of dappled sunlight across rough grass. He also used it to represent the broken texture of reflections on a lake and to reveal subtle skin textures. Use two colours that contrast with each other, either in hue or value to create a dynamic effect. Alternatively, use two colours that are similar for a more subtle effect. Subtle effects work to represent clouds, fog, skin or hair. Conversely, contrasting colours work well with the scumbling technique for reflections or the appearance of light.


There you have it! A guide to the scumbling painting technique. Whether you want to add texture, or enhance other painting techniques, scumbling is a great option to try. So get your brushes out and give it a go!

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