Learning to drybrush

Dry brushing is a quick way to apply texture and layering to your models quickly. After priming or painting in a solid color, you get a model which looks flat - depth is not visually present due to the uniformity in color. Dry brushing is a way to bring out raised edges on a model without a bunch of fine detail highlighting manually - something I have never been able to do with my unsteady hands.

The basic idea is to add layers of brighter versions of a color to the model over time. This could be reversed, or you could use different colors to add effects, but in the most basic use case you are using brighter colors as you go a simulate light catching the edges of an object. In a few minutes you cant take a previously flat loxoking object and make it look contoured.

I don’t have much experience using this on figure models (e.g. Legion unit models), but I have started using it a lot on my terrain pieces. This is especially true when painting rocks or cut foamboard which is meant to look like rock. Components which would have taken me hours to prep I could make look good in 5 minutes with this method.

I did take some work to get good enough at this process to have it look passable. I had to screw up a few items before asking for some help. I found an employee at NextGen Games in LA who was good at scene and mini painting, and asked for some advice. He was kind enough to give me a demo of the process, including some tips to make it easier. I took what he showed me and tried it out on a set of rock terrain pieces I had just received in the mail, and sure enough the final product came out 100% better than my previous attempts.

In case this advice helps anyone else. I wanted to document what I learned by walking through the steps I took to paint these models. The models I used were these two items from PrinTerrain on Etsy. This shop has a few premade rock designs I liked.

The first step was a prime the models. Following suggestions I had seen online, I used a flat black automotive primer. It goes on thicker and covers the model better. I needed three passes to get all the recesses filled in, which meant being careful how close I got the spray nozzle to the model - too close and the primer would pool in the models’ cracks, obscuring detail. After the three coats though the model looks well covered. I let that dry for about a hour.

This was my second attempt to drybrush “rock” over a black primed model. My last attempt had not gone well - I had misunderstood how to handle the first coat and has used far too little paint when applying the initial layer of gray. This left the model mostly black, with only gray-white highlights, resulting in something which looked more like an ash covered volcanic stone.

Example shows one primed and one with just the first coat in place.

Example shows one primed and one with just the first coat in place.

This time I did a much thicker pass as my initial. Normally with drybrushing you need to leave the brush dry (hence the name of the technique), but for the first pass I wanted the paint to go on more evenly between the creases and outcroppings so I used a large brush that was just a little damp. Using Army Painter Uniform Gray I painted this layer on heavily, but with no detail - meaning I was not trying to fill in any of the recessed, just get a coat over the majority of the piece. This left the deeper recesses still black, or with black showing through, to help those areas look darker.

Now I start drybrushing in earnest. I got a large drybrush for which the brush was completely dry. I also set up a stack of brown paper towels. This is one of the things which was suggested to me. After you dip the brush int he paint, you need to remove most of it before you start brushing it onto the model. I was using standard household white paper towels before, but I could not see the light / white paint on the white paper towel, and could often not realize I still had too much paint on my brush. Moving to the brown paper towels made it easier to see.

I started with the Army Painter Ash Gray. It was just a little lighter and warmer than the uniform gray, which not only would help pick put the raised areas, but also shifted the feel of the model, like the rock was mottled in coloring. For this round I would dip the brush lightly in the paint, then dap it on the paper towel until it was leaving light marks - so maybe 70% of the paint gone from the brush. This meant that then brush left a fair amount of paint behind, but that paint was still mostly on the top most ridges and raised areas.

The second layer brushed on. You can see how much more the detail pops on the model in the foreground, vs the one in the back with just the primer and base coat.

The second layer brushed on. You can see how much more the detail pops on the model in the foreground, vs the one in the back with just the primer and base coat.

Speaking of brushing! I am still working on this part, but I from what I have seen in online tutorials, and what is working best for me, is quick flicks across the model. No dabbing the brush or careful strokes, just quick swipes with the flat side across the model’s surface. Drybrushing works because the paint being light on just the very end of the brush only comes off on the model as the tips move across, which if you are brushing like this will only be on the top most raised edges. To that end, you want to make sure you are not getting paint onto the sides or edges of the brush - just the very tips.

From there I went back to the original Uniform Gray and started mixing white paint into it. It was not an exact science - I would mix in some white, stir it up, dab a little on the brush and apply it lightly somewhere out of direct sight. If it looked too dark, I added a small amount more white. Too light, some more gray. Once I liked it, I did another pass of brushing, then lightened the gray up more, and repeated the process. Each time I tried to get even more of the paint off the brush before I started to paint, so less was appearing on the model with each pass. The last coat of almost pure white went on so thin it really only showed on the top most raised edges.

Ugh.

Ugh.

It was the last few coats though which really showed me a major mistake in my process. I had not sanded down the models before I started painting, and while the primer does a good job of filling in the print lines for a standard paint job, drybrushing will bring them back out again. If you plan to use heavy drybrushing, be sure to sand down the model - at least the largest flat areas. Its worth 10 minutes of working at it with a fine grain sandpaper to avoid ruining the final product.

The final product came out looking pretty good regardless, and only took me about 15 minutes to complete! There is still more practice to be had, but I had a lot more confidence in the process after working on this project!

The final product, sans any flocking or base.

The final product, sans any flocking or base.