Blending paint

Once you 've found out how blending paint is done, you know an important painting secret. Blending is where the smooth, photo-like quality of realistic paintings come from, or the pretty gradients without any brushstrokes. It takes some skill and a good brush, but most of it is about having a little courage.

Detail of a  painting

Blending in the sky

On this painting, I've used the blending technique in the sky part, using yellow ochre, white and ultramarine. I've also done an underpainting first. As you see, I didn't blend the whole painting. Blending paint creates a 'closed' paint layer and I don't like to use overall because I like 'open' spots. I first paintex the mountains, but only to see where they are. When blending the sky, I partly went over the mountains (I'm only human, can't do everything at once), and after that I painted the mountains again.

So, what's the trick?

The blending trick is: first you apply your colors where you want them to be, in a not too thin paint layer. After that you use a big, soft clean brush to 'scumble' or wuzzle away the paintstrokes. Gently have the tips of the brush touch the wet paint, and make really small movements. Then the hard edges will fade but the paint wil stay in its place. The longer strokes you make, the more your colors will fade into each other. Usually blending is done in oil painting techniques, but you can use them in acrylics as well (scroll down).

What do you need for blending paint?

  • Apart from your paint brushes: one or two soft, big brushes - preferrably dagger or marter. No bristles, they give ropey strokes
  • A clean cloth over your arm, to wipe your blending brush clean.
  • Good preparations: a non-absorbing priming layer that 'seals' the underground.
  • Some underlayers - a colored underpainting helps a lot
  • For acrylic paint, you can use a retarder medium to increase 'open' (wet) painting time.

Only when the paint is really wet, you can blend it. When the underground is too absorbing, or the paint already partly dry, the paint will get ugly when you try to move it around. Oil paints stay wet the first hours after painting, they're great for blending paint.

Blending acrylic paint

If you want to blend with acrylics - maybe even on your walls - you might need to take some precautions because acrylics dry really fast. A good primer, (or a first acrylic underpainting layer) seals off the surface. Then the paint won't suck into the underground and dry slower. A retarder medium gives you more time to work. Don't further thin your paint with water, it helps when you layer is not too thin, but do moisten your brush a little, so that it won't suck the paint dry.Check here for more on acrylic paints.

'Open' time is short, so work straight through untill you're finished so, take your time to look before you mix your paints, and take your break afterwards. A tip for keeping your acrylic layer (or the paint on your palette) useable just a little longer: lay the painting on its back and use a plant-sprayer to put mists of water over your painting. I do that if I want to make a blended gesso background. You can do that for walls too, except here you need to be careful with too much water (it might cause dripping).

blending paint

How to use the blending effect

Blending can be used to create a sense of depth. When you work with an oldfashioned camera, only items at a particular distance are sharp, the rest is blurred. Blurriness makes things to to the background and so space is suggested, without you needing to indicate depth by a horizon or 'stuff' like architecture or furniture.

Blending can create a really slick-looking paintlayer, but you can also use it to 'clean' your canvas when you're not entirely happy with what you're doing. When blending with a dry brush, you take paint off your canvas which gives some room to paint again. And it fades the lines, so it's easier to regroup. Cleaning like this always helps me a lot.

Blending your wallpainting

Blending paint can be used for wall painting techniques, but you might think up a system first. Walls are a huge surface, and most wall paints are of the fast drying kind. Some tips:

  • Work over a well-dried wall primer.
  • Prepare your paints in different jars, mixed in different, closely related shades. The more difference between the top- and bottomcolor, the more shades you need.
  • Have a few big brushes and a lot of cleaning cloth at hand (old T-shirts will do fine).
  • Work from the top to the bottom.
  • Plan ahead and work fast!
  • If possible: have someone there to help you.

Let's say you want to blend your colors horizontally on the way down. What you do is: first paint the corners and edges, in the shades you will use. In this way you don't only do the time-consuming edges and corners, you also plan where the colors go. You start with the top color, paint the second color underneath, and start blending these two colors right away with a clean, moist brush. Eventually use a plant sprayer to keep the paint wet a little longer. Then apply the third shade and again blend it. (and so on). If you have a co-worker, let him/her do the blending (or the painting).

Dry blending

There's also a dry method for creating those gradients though I'm not sure if it's called blending paint, or rather 'scumbling'. In a way it is, only you work with a brush that has hardly no paint on it, or that you wipe almost clean first. When you hush that over a canvas, a cloud-like mist appears that really looks as if it's blended. If still too much paint went on, it ca be rubbed and blended away with a cloth or another clean brush. It save a lot of time drying. But it does need a few good underlayers to look good.

This technique is maybe less suitable for walls, unless you're really handy with a brush. Because even when the paint looks dry, there's a difference between touch-dry and firmly set, which happens fast enough with wall paint. A wall is just too big, you don't have time to make all the necessary corrections for a smooth surface. Blending it wet is the best option for walls.


Related pages: