Floating Color

Floating color is a method where paint is applied to the surface using a side-loaded brush. Paint is picked up one edge of the brush and is then blended thoroughly on the palette until the paint has transitioned across the brush to gradually fade before reaching the opposite side. When side loading an angular brush the paint is always loaded on the long side or “toe” of the brush. The short side is referred to as the “heel”. The success of this technique relies heavily on choosing the appropriate supplies and just a bit of practice.

For floating, I prefer to use an angular brush that is comprised of both natural and synthetic hairs. Although suitable for general use with a variety of mediums our RB Classique™ angles were developed specifically for this purpose. Many brushes can "look" the same, i.e., having an angular cut or a particular type of handle. Hair content is what gives a brush its characteristics and makes it perform in a certain way. Most brushes commonly used for floating are purely synthetic and float as well as a plastic bag. If you struggle with floating your brush may be the culprit.

My brand of choice for paper towels is Viva. These are softer and more absorbent than other paper towels on the market. Absorbency is important when you want to blot your brush to remove just the right amount of water for floating and is also key when you want that perfectly-wiped brush for stenciling or drybrushing. The only comparable substitute that I have found are the blue shop towels sold by hardware and home improvement stores though I don’t know whether they are any more economical than Viva.

In addition to your brushes, the palette you choose is also significant. I use the Compact Grey Palette exclusively. It uses half the table space of a standard paper palette as it measures just 5.75” x 8.25”. While the footprint is smaller, the sheet count is much greater including a full 60 sheets so you replace it less often. I am partial to this disposable grey paper for several reasons. First and foremost every sheet is a uniform value consistent throughout the palette. To date, I have not used a paint color that I was unable to readily see it’s blending path on this grey palette. When blending on the grey palette you can clearly see the color transition allowing you to adequately judge the quality of your blend or float before taking it to your project. This may not seem to be critical but a poorly blended float on the palette will not magically perfect itself when applied to your surface. If you can’t critique your blend on your palette you will spend more time fixing the glaring inconsistencies that become ever-so-visible on your project. The neutral grey value of the palette also allows for accurate value judgment when mixing colors especially those that are toned. These muted colors can appear muddy when mixed on a white palette, which can cause misjudgment of both value and intensity. Some suggest a sheet of black paper beneath a white palette to be comparable but I have not found this to be the case. While the dark underlay reduces the intensity of the white paper, it does not mimic the desired mid-value grey. Before leaving the subject of palettes I want to touch on wet palettes. For many of the techniques that I use, a wet palette is not only not preferred but can be detrimental to the success of your painting because they alter the moisture content in your brush. I do not use them.
Floating Tips
  • Use a generous squirt of a lubricant like Easy Float in your water to facilitate blending.    
  • Use less paint!  Excess paint will spread too far across your brush before softening.
  • Don't hinder your success by using sub-standard supplies or the wrong tools for the job. 
  • Practice on cardstock and keep your worksheets as a gauge to document your progress.  Start with a baseline using your current supplies before changing to the recommended items so you can see how they affect the outcome and the improvement in your skill level.
  • Several thin layers will produce a smoother, more even float than one heavier application.
Floating exercise
  1. Add a squirt of Easy Float to your water. This acts as a lubricant, assisting in blending your floats. It also slightly extends the working time, allowing you to modify and reshape the float as necessary.
  2. Place your Classique brushes in the prepared water so that the bristles become saturated.
  3. Place one drop of paint on your grey palette. Using just a drop of paint will help control the amount of paint you pick up when loading your brush. It is imperative that your brush not be overloaded in order for the paint to blend smoothly and transition to water.
  4. Hand and brush position are also important. Hold the brush with your hand positioned well back from the ferrule so that the handle remains low and close to the surface. The handle should be held at about a 30-degree angle to both your palette and project. Holding your brush in an upright position will push the paint into a line and not allow it to blend.
  5. Keep the water side of the brush clear for quick fixes when your float extends beyond its intended area.
  6. Begin by wetting the brush in the basin water. Blot the brush lightly on soft, absorbent paper towels such as Viva brand just until the shine on the brush disappears. The brush should not leave a puddle on the palette when blending but must remain damp enough for blending without the hairs separating.
  7. Next, pick up a touch of paint on the toe of the brush and begin stroking the brush on your palette. Blend in a single path on the palette to work the paint into the brush moving into the path rather than away from it. Turn the brush over to blend the paint on the other side. When the blending path on the palette shows a smooth and gradual transition from paint to water, the brush has been properly prepared for floating. Remember, a poorly blended float on the palette will be a poorly blended float on your project.
  8. Check the angle of your brush and make sure you are using the full flat area of the bristles while blending and floating. Use a bit of pressure while blending the paint but then switch to a feather-light touch when applying the float to your surface.
  9. Always allow the prior float to dry before proceeding with connecting or overlapping floats. Failure to allow the previous layer to dry will result in paint lifting creating a very difficult-to-fix hole.
Stop struggling with floating. Fantastic floats require just four items and practice to begin your journey to flawless floating.
  • Start with the ideal floating brush
  • Lubricate your water. 
  • Use the recommended absorbent paper towels.
  • Choose the palette that lets you see your work clearly before moving to your painting.