Highlighting Brushes

Recently I asked for new blog ideas on the Turbo Dorks FB page and was intrigued by Trevor Seok's response. He asked for my insights into highlighting with traditional techniques versus the wet drybrush technique that has been popularized by Artis Opus.

This request spurred me to watch several of the Artis Opus tutorials and to think about my own use of drybrushing. It was the first technique that I learned and still use heavily. I "grew up" using the traditional flat stiff brush but was introduced to the idea of the soft, round makeup brush a few years ago. 

In some ways, the two brush types define two different methods of highlighting with the same name. Using a stiff, flat brush is a down-and-dirty way of hitting the highest spots with a contrasting color to make things pop quickly. With just a single pass or two the model can take on a next-level look with a minimum of hiccups. In contrast, using a soft brush gives what I think of as an overall "blush" to the model. It is harder to control than the traditional method in terms of getting the right amount of paint on the brush. However, it is a good twist if you looking for that type of look. 

Of course, if you are talking about highlighting a model, then I would be remiss for not including the use of a traditional long, round brush for carefully adding layers of different colors over the base. Layering is slower and requires more precision than the two drybrushing methods mentioned above but done well results in the most realistic look.

Demonstrations by Artis Opus artists take drybrush technique with the soft, rounded brush to the next level by combining it with layering. The do multiple passes with lighter and lighter paints over smaller areas to give a smooth transition and a show stopping overall effect. It should be noted, however, that these artists are some of the best around and make what they are doing look easy. The average painter would need time and practice to get comparable results. So I will not be showing examples of models highlighted to this level of detail. 

I want to say upfront that, I was skeptical as to whether using a single drop of water on a dampening pad can make a big difference at least for Turbo Dork paints. See my comments later in this blog as to my final conclusions on this subject.

This blog emphasizes the differences in highlighting techniques depending on the shape of brush used. I did not create Golden Demon worthy samples but rather examples that were more middle of the road and ready to be use.

I am personally very hard on my brushes so I do not buy ones as costly as the Artis Opus ones. However, I did buy a knock-off a set of similar brushes with their version of the dampening pad to try out. I also picked up a new flat brush billed for drybrush use and a new long, round one.

One side comment: The Artis Opus dogma of using a big brush holds for me as well. Using as large a brush as you are comfortable with will give you a much smoother surface than trying to paint your figures with itty, bitty, tiny brushes.  Save them for the eyes.

I bought five copies of two different 3D-printed models at the 50 mm scale. I wanted the models to be large enough to potentially show of differences in the highlighting techniques. I picked the grandfather of the Ice Golem (GoonMaster) used for the Turbo Dork swatches as something spiky and an Earth Elemental (Archivist Guide) as something smooth with distinctive high and low spots.

All of the figures were primed with matte black and then airbrushed with the base color. Highlighting was done by hand as described below. I choose to use only Metallics to better show any potential highlighting differences.

Ice Golem - Da Ba Dee (base) with Dork and Blue Steel
Earth Elemental - Gordian Knot (base) with Appleseed, Malum Malus, Gold Rush

I decided to highlight the Ice Golem to represent light coming in from all angles and the Earth Elemental with a single light source. The figures in each set were highlighted using the following techniques:

  • airbrushed base alone, no highlighting
  • ayered with focus on flatter areas (long, round brush)
  • drybrushed with focus on quick and dirty (flat, stiff brush)
  • drybrushed with focus on daubing to give an overall blush (soft, rounded brush)
  • wet drybrushed with focus on smooth strokes (soft, round brush + water)

Final Figures:

Ice Golems with Overall Lighting


Earth Elementals with Lighting from the Top Right


Layering with a long, round brush probably created the most distinctive pattern It is best shown on the Ice Golem where the flat strokes that I used on the sides of the spikes are highlighted more than the edges which I mostly stayed away from. I also stayed away from the edges while layering the Earth Elemental making it more delicate looking than the models on which other techniques were used. 

Drybrushing with a stiff flat brush was used to show off the spike edges and tips on the Ice Golem with a bit of a jittery look. This brush technique also hits high spots which are more visible on the Earth Elemental than the Ice Golem. 

Using a soft round brush in a quick and dirty manner with or without water produced highlighting that pretty much looks the same on both models. The surface area covered using a makeup-like brush includes both edges and flat surfaces giving an overall smooth look. 

So did having a wet soft round brush effect anything. The answer is no and yes. I used other models to test using a single drop of water on a dampening pad to wet the brush. This did not seem to make a difference. However, I used an overall damp brush (dip in water container, dry off on a paper towel) the paint seemed like it went on more smoothly. The final result as you can see from the photos above looks similar but having a moist brush made the painting of the Ice Golem and Earth Elemental easier. This approach is definitely my recommendation for getting a smooth transition. 

Bottomline: Highlighting is just highlighting. The overall differences between these four techniques can be rather subtle. This is probably good news for the average painter as you can do what you are most comfortable with and still have a nice model. Then you can work on the tricker highlighting techniques for your showpiece.