Watercolor: Florence Strauss: Building Layers of Drybrush Color

0707stra5_600x424Californian Florence Strauss gradually builds layers of relatively dry watercolor paint on rough paper with a stiff bristle brush, starting with colors that define the background and moving to the objects in the foreground space.      

by M. Stephen Doherty

Touch of Velvet
2006–2007, watercolor, 22 x 30.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.

The term drybrush is a bit difficult to define with watercolor because it’s hard to determine exactly how much or how little water can be mixed with the paints to establish them as being “dry.” Museum curators will identify an Andrew Wyeth painting as being a drybrush picture when it is finished off with strokes of thick, barely diluted paint; yet the great master usually reaches that point after splashing highly diluted colors on rough watercolor paper and gradually reducing the amount of water he combines with the successive layers of paint.

Florence Strauss’ answer to the drybrush question is that she just doesn’t give it much thought. “I guess you could say I use a drybrush technique because I add very little water to my paints,” she confesses. “But I just say I’m a watercolor painter, and that’s enough for me.” But as the California artist provides more information about her approach to the medium, it becomes clear that her materials and techniques would lead to disastrous results if she ever mixed generous amounts of water with her watercolors. The multiple layers of strong pigments would work against one another and combine to create a dense, dull, and stained surface. Whether she recognizes it or not, the beauty of her work is completely dependent on keeping the paints dry and semiopaque.

Working from her own photographs, Strauss first makes a detailed graphite drawing of a subject on Arches 400-lb rough watercolor paper. “I work eight days a week, but I’m very slow,” she says with a laugh. “It takes me a couple of days to complete the drawing because I’m very particular. I erase extraneous lines and lighten those that are too dark, and I make sure everything is accurate and complete. The drawing has to be just what I want it to be before I consider starting the painting process. I go through bushels of pencils and erasers that get worn down as I’m working.”

Golden Apricot by Florence Strauss, 2006–2007, watercolor, 41 x 29.
Golden Apricot
2006–2007, watercolor, 41 x 29.

Strauss prepares herself for painting by laying out an extensive palette of colors that includes Payne’s gray, titanium white, cerulean blue, French ultramarine, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, manganese blue, cobalt turquoise, olive green, Hooker’s green, permanent green, Winsor green, lemon yellow, Winsor yellow, new gamboge, cadmium orange, burnt sienna, sepia, alizarin crimson, Winsor red, permanent rose, and violet. “I’m partial to the warm colors because they are more appealing to me,” she explains. “I don’t look at the names of the colors on the tubes when I pick up one or the other. I just grab the one that looks appropriate for what I am painting.”

0707stra5_600x424_2 0707stra6_600x406
2006–2007, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Sunlight and Shadows
2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 41.
0707stra7_436x600 0707stra8_452x600
Vanilla and Ice
2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 22.
Twilight in Venice
2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 21.

When she is ready to “fiddle with” the painting process, as she says, Strauss starts building up layers of dark color in the background areas of the picture using a stiff bristle brush and relatively dry paint. “The bristle brush punctuates, whereas a sable brush would glide,” the artist points out. “I paint one small area at a time, not expecting the brush to hold a lot of paint or to make a long, extended mark. By keeping the paint relatively dry, I can build up four or five layers of color without them mixing to the point that the colors become dense or dull. For example, I recently developed a background by painting a brilliant red, then a black, and then more red to establish a pulsating interplay of the two strong colors. If I had done that with fluid mixtures of paint using a sable brush, the results would have been quite different. I think the dry technique I use creates a much more exciting background.”

Bird of Paradise
2006–2007, watercolor, 24 x 24.

Progressing logically, Strauss moves forward in space to paint the flowers, landscape elements, or objects in the middle space of her photograph using the same painting techniques. Finally, she reaches the foreground elements and develops them with four or five layers of dry paint. The entire process can take as long as three or four weeks to complete, with the music of Haydn, Strauss, and Mozart playing in her studio.

Strauss has recently been using this drybrush technique on a series of floral images, but she has found the process just as effective in developing landscapes from the photographs taken while traveling with her husband. “We love to travel, and I take photographs everywhere we go,” she explains. “I’ve done lots of paintings from those photographs and will continue to do so in the future.”

Family of Roses
2006–2007, watercolor, 30 x 20.

The artist reveals that she uses some of the same source material for large acrylic paintings on canvas that are exhibited, along with her watercolors, through the Art Rental and Sales Gallery of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I just finished a 4'-x-4' acrylic painting of two magnolia blossoms using a technique that is similar to the one I employ with watercolors,” she explains.

About the Artist
Art has been a way of life for Florence Strauss since she was a 12-year-old girl studying on a scholarship at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). After graduating from Cass Technical High School and Wayne State University, both in Detroit, and competing her studies at the DIA, she worked as an illustrator and art teacher before moving with her family to California in the late 1960s. She quickly became a member of several local, state, and national watercolor societies and exhibited in juried shows organized by those groups. Her watercolors have been included in exhibitions presented by the National Watercolor Society, the San Diego Watercolor Society, the Torrance Artists Guild, and the San Pedro Art Association. She is represented by The McLean Gallery, in Malibu, California, and she maintains a studio in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of American Artist.

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7 thoughts on “Watercolor: Florence Strauss: Building Layers of Drybrush Color

  1. Hello,

    I did enjoy reading about Florence Struss and loooking at the paintings. However, I really would love to read more about how Florence Struss paints and to see more of her paintings. Therefore, I need to know if Florence Struss has a book with information on her and her painting style.

    Thank you
    Belinda Tartaglia

  2. Hello as well,

    What a wonderful article. I know many things about my dear mother, but this article revealed even more.

    Thank you for the words, Stephen Doherty, and thank you for the great mothering, Florence.

    Cynthia Strauss

  3. Hi, I think Florence Strauss’s work is out standing. I would definately like to see more of her paintings and more info about her a book ,video or web site. You have a fan Florence. Verena.

  4. Your paintings are beautiful. I love painting florals and started using acrylic like watercolor, so my technique is similar. I am now into watercolor, but love the colors that can be achieved using the dryer method of application. I was surprised at your using rough paper. I have to give that a try. Thanks for sharing with us.

  5. I have a beautiful “Strauss” painting of the Lighthouse on the Palace Verde Pier. It was given to me for a wedding gift in 1982. I am thankful for the friendship Florence has had with my mother Ophelia from since her Wayne State University Days.

  6. What a wonderful article and beautiful pictures. I am blessed to enjoy this phenomenal artist’s work everyday. My walls are covered with her wonderous works. I will always love and treasure these gifts because of their beauty. I feel I can smell the flowers and step into the landscapes. Although I am most certainly biased (I am her daughter), the works speak for thenselves.