Building Up Luminous Layers of Drybrush Color

Watercolor Tutorial from California Artist Florence Strauss

Touch of Velvet by Florence Strauss, 2006–2007, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Touch of Velvet by Florence Strauss, 2006–2007, watercolor, 22 x 30.

It is how 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, that have made her one of the most beloved contemporary watercolorists of our time.

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 he usually reached 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.

Don’t Think On It

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 it is clear that Strauss’ 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 semi-opaque.

Graphite First

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.”

Sentinel by Florence Strauss 2006–2007, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Sentinel by Florence Strauss 2006–2007, watercolor, 22 x 30.

Strauss prepares herself for painting by laying out an extensive palette of colors:

  • 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
  • Violet

“I’m partial to the warm colors because they are more appealing to me,” explains the artist. “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.”

Sunlight and Shadows by Florence Strauss, 2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 41.
Sunlight and Shadows by Florence Strauss, 2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 41.


Vanilla and Ice by Florence Strauss 2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 22.
Vanilla and Ice by Florence Strauss 2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 22.

Layer by Layer

  1. 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.
  2. “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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Twilight in Venice by Florence Strauss, 2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 21.
Twilight in Venice by Florence Strauss, 2006–2007, watercolor, 29 x 21.

Drybrush for Landscape & Floral Alike

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.”

Watercolor tutorial from Florence Strauss on drybrush layering
Family of Roses by Florence Strauss, 2006–2007, watercolor, 30 x 20. Article contributions from M. Stephen Doherty.

You have the unique opportunity to evoke luminosity across every inch of your next watercolor painting with Light Up Your Watercolors Layer By Layer as your guide. This eBook is a simple click away and you can avoid painting dull and lifeless watercolors forever. Excited for you, artists! This is proposition well worth considering–and acting on. Enjoy!


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American Artist Featured Artist Galleries, Watercolor Painting
Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

7 thoughts on “Building Up Luminous 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.