Softening or Adding Defocus Blur to Long Straight Lines

Greetings all,

Here are a few thoughts on softening or adding “defocus blur” to long straight lines.

Hope this is helpful!


Thank you so much for sharing this-- super helpful! I have always found painting long straight lines difficult, looking forward to trying some of your techniques to keep the line in place while blending.


Excellent and super helpful video!!! Thank you!


Hello and thank you for hosting this forum. I really enjoyed this insightful demonstration of wet-into-wet blending. I’m wondering how your technique might vary if this were wet-into-dry… If you painted that cadmium red line over a dry context of black, would your approach, results, and process be very different? Or would you avoid this altogether and just repaint the black context to blend wet-into-wet?

This is a great question, Thomas. There would be a few considerations I would need to mull over in such a scenario. These considerations would include opacity, how well the colors involved can be “matched” with an indirect approach, and lastly surface topography. The opacity of the subsequent color would be important of course as I would have to completely cover the black at the center and taper outwards towards the edge. I could taper this edge via a diminishment in the material application (less and less material moving outward)–but this, in my experience, often requires a few touchups with the background color (hence, how “matchable” the color would be (keep in mind there are separate variables of “matchability” here). Opacity may also become an issue if there needs to be a couch (thin layer of oil or medium to oil out target area) of any kind for adequate color/value relationship observations or for better fluidity of the subsequent application.

Lastly, I try to keep my final paint film topography very smooth. Building up paint over dry paint increases the risk of topographies that I do not want. This could mean that certain forms of indirect application can cause issues in the uniformity of the surface requiring additional steps.

There are often many ways to achieve the same result. However, I do try to always temper my effectiveness with efficiency. As such, while the soft line can indeed be achieved indirectly, in my experience, with the above factors in play, it’s a much longer path to travel.

Thank you for laying out these issues. I understand how indirect painting of multiple layers would complicate things for that smooth typography you so beautifully achieve in your paintings. However, from other descriptions of your process it seems like you do indeed paint wet into dry (?). For instance, you describe using a consistency of paint in the early stages that gives you the feel of dry media. I’m trying to imagine your process. I’m wondering how you could achieve such brilliant effects like the texture of the skull in Totem without painting indirectly. Maybe I’m wrong. Did you block in the background and the skull, blend the edge while still wet, and then do the detail of the skull over several sessions working wet into dry?

Lately, I’ve been trying to follow the process of Ken Davies described in his books Artist at Work and Painting Sharp Focus Still Lifes, where he combines washes, semi-opaque applications, and glazes for various textural effects, which often involves utilizing those topographical accidents. I’m not married to his process, just experimenting. I’ve tended to paint indirectly in many, many layers, “creeping up” on the forms and textures, partly because I like the effects that can be achieved, partly because I can only paint for short sessions, but also because I feel like I have more control over the process, but yes, it is an awfully “long path to travel.” Painting directly with full bodied paint kind of scares me, but if I were more skilled I’m sure I’d appreciate the efficiency.

Hi Thomas—There is definitely indirect painting involved in my process. I didn’t mean to imply or communicate otherwise. I was just speaking to this particular scenario. My process is definitely a combination of both direct and indirect practices. I wish I had more WIP images of the painting you mentioned, Totem, but I only have one or two. But even here you can see that my initial pass is “mostly” direct with maximal useful information being deployed across the general form. This level of resolution cannot be done quickly so my initial pass takes some time (often weeks and weeks for complexity like this.) Subsequent indirect layers usually consist of larger-scale concerns like more global or sweeping gradations/transitions, color unifications or shifts, etc… (This may seem quite backward to most contemporary approaches.)

Here you can see a collection of WIP images from a more recent work (Scientia) that does have a very similar subject:

What information is carried out in a direct or indirect manner is a matter of context–in other words, what the situation may call for in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. I am sure that the same results could have been garnered by a far more indirect approach. It really depends on what the individual finds effective, efficient—and also fulfilling!

I’m understanding better now. Wow! You are a real master of your genre. I don’t think I could find a brush stroke in there even under microscope! It’s great to see these WIP images.

What really astonishes me is how you work your way over the surface of the support inch by inch, completing the part of the image you are working on to such a high degree —with almost the finished drawing, values, colors, and edges —before moving on. You don’t even paint the insect legs down beyond where you are finishing (!) There doesn’t seem to be any underpainting, just a pencil drawing. Really interesting.

I’ve never attempted this. I would be terrified that I wouldn’t be able to remix the colors properly from one session to the next and I’d end up with a patchwork of values, hues, sunken in areas, etc. I guess that is my weakest point, matching colors. I’d also be afraid that I wouldn’t put the proper “blur” on elements that should not be in focus, relative to the focal point (the insects relative to the skull) without being able to see all the elements together with my own eyes. I’m assuming that you are reproducing the focus embedded in a photograph, rather than working from life (?).

I’ve attached a picture of my current (second) attempt at a trompe l’oeil genre, following the aforementioned Ken Davies. I start with a pencil drawing, then a “wash-in” of paint diluted with equal parts of damar varnish, linseed oil, and turpentine. That’s the stage pictured. Next is the block-in with opaque and semi-opaque passes, then detailing, then glazing of shadows. …Now I’m wondering if I could attempt this second stage of opaque painting with your method of working to near finish of maximum information across the surface little by little, but with the challenges mentioned above of remixing paint between sessions, there must be very specific methods for maintaining consistent colors, values, edges. Hmm. If you have any further references for working in this manner, please let me know.

If you have any more WIP images from other paintings, particularly the early stages where you use a paint consistency most like dry media, I’d be really interested to see them. Thanks again for sharing. I’m honored that you take the time to speak about your process.

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Oops. I just saw your post and video for the painting “Discovery” and that answered a lot of my questions. Thanks!

This is great Thomas. I would love to see how your process unfolds. I hope that you will share more images of this work as it develops. You are absolutely correct in that my initial layer—while information-rich—is a topographical “patchwork” that must be unified and refined in subsequent layers. I am glad that you found my Discovery piece video. That was done many years ago and it’s time that I produce something better with a much higher resolution. In any case, I am very happy to learn that it answered some of your questions. :smiley:

Thanks. I’ll post WIP pics as it develops. Should I start a thread for that? I’m not sure where you would want that on the forum.

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It’s up to you Thomas. We do have a WIP section if you like. I have to upload a few recent pieces there myself. :slight_smile:

Ok. Thanks.

In another post you mentioned removing dust from a painting in between sessions and also keeping dust out of brushes, but how exactly do you deal with dust or other debris once it’s on the painting? Sometimes I don’t notice until it’s already embedded in the paint film, but sanding seems really aggressive to me, like it would destroy the painting I worked so hard on. I’ve used masking tape for dust on the surface. I’ve never sanded a painting.

Sorry I didn’t see this sooner Thomas. There are several different methods that I use to remove dust. First, I have a number of higher-resistance brushes (like hogs hair bristle) that I use to see if the particulates can be “brushed off.” I never use these brushes for painting as they would essentially be dust-applicators. Second, if it is a small section that seems to be holding a good amount of dust and the brush proves ineffective–I will use a piece of low-tac tape to see if it will lift out/off. Lastly, for dust that has dried into the paint, I will often use very, very high-grit sandpaper to wipe it away. This doesn’t scratch or mar the surface if done correctly, but rather “rolls out” any particulates protruding from the surface. I think I have a video clip of this somewhere. I will have to dig a bit for it but if I find it I will be sure to post it here. :smiley:

Thank you for the input. I’ll get some of that extra fine sandpaper and see if I can make it work for me. It seems like the dust is particularly problematic when it settles on wet glazes.

So I tried sanding with 600 grit sandpaper and it worked pretty well, although I did mar the surface of the paint film in places. After sanding, I used a piece of masking tape to lift off the debris. I was surprised to find what looked like brush bristles on the tape, which I hadn’t even noticed on the surface of the painting, -or maybe these are rolled up pieces of paint film. I wasn’t so concerned about sanding off paint at this stage, because it’s just the underpainting. It’s really just a series of thin washes. All in all, it was pretty effective at removing debris and protrusions. Thanks.

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No, I confirmed that those “bristles” on the tape are definitely rolled up paint film. I guess that happened because I was sanding a wash, rather than opaque paint…

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Hey Thomas! Hmmmm… When using the sandpaper in this way, I tend to use two pieces of 600 grit that I sand together to get a much smoother surface than the 600 grit unused. Now you might say–why not just get finer grit sandpaper like 1200 or higher? And the simple answer is you or I can but I like to have some control of the grit so I do it that way.

Second, your layer might have been a pit “tacky.” A tacky or “non-hard dry” surface will have a good chance of pulling and rolling as you’ve observed. When I do this there is near-zero marring of any kind (unless my grit is too high or my paint film is not hard-dry.

Thanks for the follow-up. I’ll try refining this technique.

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