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Mastering side loading

Side-loading is a very important decorative painting skill and many of my students still find it a little daunting when a project involves side-loading!

All I can say is – everything is easy if you know how and that applies to panting skills too.

What is side loading?

Side loading is one of the principle methods for applying acrylics. A side loaded brush has paint on only one side for placing graduated colour. This technique is sometimes referred to as floating colour. And indeed, the paint should float on a layer of water in order to dry smoothly. Side loads are used to place shading, highlighting and accent colours within the design. The contrast between light and dark values creates depth in the painting. Like other painting techniques, side loading requires practice to master.

Sharyn Binam, CDA, author of “The Sideload Book”

That’s right. Practise. Practise. Practise. There’s no running away from practise.

Basic side loading involves loading a flat brush with paint on one edge of the brush and water on the other edge. I usually tell my students to use the biggest brush possible for the project. A small brush is more difficult to load….that is until you master the technique. The brushes I use the most for floating are the 1/2” angle or #10 flat. But get a 3/4” angle and save it for floating – you’ll never regret it.

23-Carat Tulips on Desk Box

Side loading was the major technique used in painting this tulips deskbox project. The floating technique was used here to layer the highlights to create depth and the “light within” effect.

The key points for a successful float (other than perfecting the technique of course!) are:

  • a flat or angle brush in PERFECT condition – in other words, like new, with a perfect chisel edge
  • clean water always for dressing the brush
  • a clean wet palette for blending the brush to dress it
  • fresh paint – certainly without lumps. Leftover paint is not advisable
  • less is better – use very little paint to load your brush

Start by dampening the brush in clean water. Blot the excess by touching the brush only once on each side on a folded paper towel. Pick up a small amount of paint with one corner of the brush. Hold the brush vertically and blend the paint into the brush by pulling a short strip on your palette towards you. This is called the “blending strip” and it shouldn’t be more than 1”. Maintain the brush position and push and pull the brush back and forth so that you spread the paint across the brush and create the dark-to-light gradation.

A good side-loaded brush will have colour on one side diminishing gradually to nothing on the other side.

If the colour has travelled completely to the other side you will have a strip colour when you paint the float. When that happens you must wash the brush and dress it all over again.


No, we’re not talking about swimming here! “Floating” in decorative painting refers to the application of colour to an object to create shadows and highlights.

It is a basic skill decorative artists learn so that they can paint realistic, three-dimensional objects. This skill is used in painting many subjects including fruits, flowers, inanimate objects, even teddy bears.

What are shadows and highlights anyway? In painting, there is something called the “light source” which is basically something the designer or you yourself can decide. It is the direction in which light is coming from in your painting. This determines where the shadows and highlights will fall—shadows occur in parts which are hidden from the light and highlights occur in the brightest parts where light hits the object.

Floating colour is done by loading a flat or an angle brush with colour on only one side. Only a little colour is applied to the brush. The brush is then blended back and forth on a palette until the brush paints a stroke which ranges from a solid colour of the paint on one end of the brush hairs fading into nothing at the other end. This colour is then “floated” on the object usually at the relevant edges where you want to create the shadow or highlight.

The colours used depend on the object being shaded or highlighted. Highlights are floated in colours lighter than the base colour of the object and shadows, with colours darker than the base colour.

Floating applied to a fruits design

This fruits project illustrates the use of the floating technique to create shadows and highlights.

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