Getting Playful with Pastel: Using a Brayer

Getting Playful with Pastel: Using a Brayer

Want to bring more playfulness to your art-making experience? By using creative tools like the brayer, you can open the pathways to mark-making magic.

By Dawn Emerson

I created Like the Wind (15×22), using a brayer and oil paint, and then pastel, on paper. The beauty of the brayer is in the way forms can be simplified. Here, the black, irregular marks convey only what is absolutely necessary, thus allowing color to be the star.

My belief is that it doesn’t matter what subject you paint — or even what tools and materials you paint with. What matters is how you see what you paint and how you express it. I’ve spent countless hours playing in the studio, experimenting with materials and tools like the brayer just for the joy of exploration.

My approach to painting has changed dramatically over the last decade due to the influence of printmaking. In the process, I’ve reconsidered everything I thought I knew about drawing in order to free myself from negative judgment and expectations, and it has been a transformative experience. I now feel more excited to paint than ever. And I can’t wait to see what will happen next in the studio.

The Rules of Play

I encourage you to rethink everything you do with respect to painting with pastel and mixed media. Challenge yourself to question what a drawing is or could be. Use simple, inexpensive materials and tools, and do a lot of everything rather than one precious piece. Each time you do, you’ll find yourself better equipped to let go of high expectations. Embracing artistic exploration is different than following masterpiece painting rules.

Here are a few things that art explorers should avoid doing:

  • Don’t use your last sheet of an expensive support.
  • Do not use your most precious pastel sticks and materials.
  • Don’t use a reference photo that’s perfectly cropped.
  • Do not keep noodling away at something that you should have thrown out an hour ago.
  • Don’t ask your significant other for his/her opinion.

Here are a few things that art explorers should do:

  • Use humble materials like newsprint and drawing paper so you can play.
  • Use all the materials you’ve been collecting for decades.
  • Take photos that give you lots of options for design.
  • Do many paintings. Stop often. And stop early.
  • Explore and judge for yourself to determine what you like.
creative tools
In Horse (oil paint with charcoal and pastel on paper, 16×16), I used a brayer to incorporate non-drawn marks into the image, making it more interesting.

The Power of Brayer

There are a variety of tools that you can use to make drawn and “undrawn” marks that will expand your visual vocabulary. One of my favorite tools is the brayer. Using the brayer as a drawing tool helped me broaden my vocabulary of marks — not just because of the variety of ways it can be used, but also because it forces me to simplify shapes and think more abstractly.

Using a brayer allows me to actually draw with textures, using a process called “offsetting.” The brayer eliminates the urge to outline, because it’s so difficult to make precise lines, thereby forcing me to think in terms of shape, rather than line and detail.

A Broad Range of Marks

The brayer requires you to use your whole arm and to rotate your wrist as you draw to get a broad range of marks. The size of the marks can be increased easily with a wider brayer. A brayer can make a rolled line or a segmented line, and is as expressive as any other painting tool.

Working with the brayer helps me organize elements and makes me much more aware of placement and overall design. I use the brayer in four different ways: to create abstract backgrounds; to transfer textures and patterns to my surface; to create high-contrast pathways in my work; and to make unique marks.

A new tool will teach you different ways to respond to your surface and encourage the development of new approaches. I — like many painters trying out a new tool — had to let go of my desire to control the tool and instead allow it to teach me how to open myself to more expressive mark-making.

I’ve found that gouache, acrylics, water-miscible oil paint and various printmaking inks all work well with the brayer — and all of these choices work well in combination with pastel. Depending on the viscosity of the medium, anything that sticks to the brayer in an even manner can be used, as long it doesn’t dry too quickly. Here’s a quick overview of the various ways to incorporate a brayer into your mark-making.

Dawn Emerson

Brayer Marks

After inking the brayer evenly, I press it onto the paper, without rolling, to create lines that are the width of the brayer.

favorite tools

Brayer Lines

I ink the brayer and then tip it onto its edge. Then, I roll the brayer, leaving behind thin lines.

Letterpress printing

Brayer Texture

I ink the brayer unevenly, then rock it back and forth as it’s rolled onto the surface to create a textural effect.

mixed media

Overlapping Strokes

By overlapping strokes, I can create layering of depth and variation in the opacity of the color.

oil paint

Combining Marks

I mix and match brayer techniques for interesting effects. In this example, I combined lines with rolled strokes.


Lap Lines

The brayer’s diameter will determine how long a roll you can achieve before running low on ink. Each revolution will print lighter and lighter. The term for these overlapping lines is “lap lines.” If your goal is to achieve a perfectly smooth surface, lap lines may not be desirable. The more you practice using the brayer, the easier it is to control.

Brayer Drawing as an Underpainting

I drew Trees (14×10) directly onto drawing paper with a brayer and water-miscible oil paint. The image is strong because of the quality 24×18) was created by drawing directly on the paper with a brayer. and variety of marks that are linked together to create shapes. This image could stand alone or be used as an underpainting for pastel.
The arts
The underpainting in Magic (oil paint with charcoal and pastel; 24×18) was created by drawing directly on the paper with a brayer. I pushed and pulled the image to bring out the bird from the abstraction, but I also let the background show through in places, as though the bird is in the process of emerging.

The brayer is a tool of remarkable versatility. It creates high-contrast shapes and provides immediate feedback about the structure of your image. The brayer resists your desire to get detailed and encourages you to edit and simplify. Brayer drawing quickly reveals how the space of a painting is divided in terms of dark, middle, and light values. It’s a great tool for learning to simplify forms, putting down big shapes first and linking shapes together. Lines always can be put in later to separate shapes or add detail.

Using a brayer to create an underpainting sets the stage by organizing values and shapes. The high-contrast foundation provides a background to merge other imagery.

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