What is Scumbling in Oil Painting?


A little known but simple oil paint technique, scumbling is the application of a small amount of neat paint from a stiff brush to create atmosphere in a broken glaze. Scumbling can be seen in any expressive painting such as one from the impressionist movement. The English landscape painter, Constable was particularly noted for his scumbling effects in his later paintings. Look closely, and rough brushwork with an uneven and broken paint layer will be seen.

How to Scumble in Art

Thinning the paint with linseed oil or spirits would result in a runny consistency to the paint, not ideal for scumbling. The idea is to dab a little of the paint onto the bristle ends of a brush and to lightly scrub the paint over selected areas of the painting, allowing some of the pigment to snag against the texture of the art surface. This will result in some of the underlying paint to show through.

My video clip shows how I completed a painting using scumbling technique in speed art

YouTube Video


Good Scumbling Techniques

To get the most out of scumbling, I will work the scumble over the top of a glaze with a conflicting color that has already dried (as can be seen in my Youtube clip). This will bring interesting shimmering effects throughout the painting. Large areas of otherwise uninteresting areas of the composition will suddenly yield interest as scudding clouds for example are scumbled over an area of red underglaze. This can be seen in my painting in progress of a mackerel sky on a fresh day. Notice how the blues shimmer against the china-blues. The intention is not to cover the underglaze, but to allow some of the reds to peek through.


Scumbled Textures

Scumbling a neat layer of paint is great when working on canvas, as the paint skids over the surface of the weave pattern, creating granular effects. Coarse canvas is ideal for large, loose brushwork intended to bring atmosphere and expression. Any subject matter is suitable for scumbling, including figures. In this painting-in-progress I had conducted for one of my art instruction books, notice how the muted greens contrast against the skin tones of Gauguin’s Tahitian women.

Oil Painting in a Scumble

But scumbling can also be expressed over a smooth art surface, as can be seen here in this painting of a footbridge spanning the mouth of Grasmere in the Lake District. The divisions between light and shadow exhibit the color of the glaze beneath, adding a dappled effect to the painting. The muted oranges and ochres are most apparent on the further bank, bringing an autumnal feel to the trees without actually adding brown to this upper glaze.

Easy Art Technique in Scumbling Paint

Scumbling oil paint is a great way of adding freshness, atmosphere and expression to any oil painting. Apply a little oil paint onto the tip ends of a bristle and lightly scrub over selected areas of the painting, encouraging an imperfect glaze. Allowing a conflicting color to show through in places will inject vibrancy and movement into an oil painting. Using textured surfaces such as canvas will bring a visual texture to the canvas’ weave. No art mediums are needed, just stiff brushes and neat paint.

Images taken from my art instruction books: Skin Tones in Oil: 10 Step by Step Guides from Old Masters and Landscape Painting in Oil: 20 Step by Step Guides, both by Rachel Shirley (copyright 2013)

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