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Oil Painting Lessons - Choose the Perfect Paint Brushes
Things to get started with:
A Paintbrush Guide
Depending on what medium you will be working in; watercolor, oil or acrylic, there is a vast range of brushes to choose from. The following is the basic, most common information about brushes that most likely anyone will be able to find in any art store or online.
You don’t need a bunch of brushes to start. When I have a painting workshop and provide materials to my students, they each get 6 brushes which is plenty to start with. Paint brushes are something that you collect over time and sometimes need to replace. Depending on what you will be painting on, such as rough canvas, you may need to replace your brushes more frequently as rough canvas can act as sandpaper on your brush. I keep my brushes long after they don’t resemble anything similar to the original brush I purchased– when they are simply sticks with a fringe on the end. These brushes are some of my favorites for blending.
The basic anatomy of the brush - Handles, Ferrules, Bristles
Handles: Treated/Lacquered wood, Raw wood and plastic. The handle is where you find all of the information on the brush printed: size, manufacturer, type. Brushes for Acrylic and oil are usually longer so you can stand back from your canvas and paint. Whereas brushes for watercolor are shorter, since most people sit at a table and work on paper.
- Treated/Lacquered wood - This is my preference. The hardwood is treated and usually painted to help keep the handle from swelling or splintering. They are water-resistant if you take care of them. If you leave them in water or turpentine, the paint may splinter and peel off.
- Raw Wood - These can tend to absorb water or turpentine and swell, sometimes splinter. But, are usually cheaper and you can get an amazing deal on a set of them. For the money you pay, they aren’t bad. I go through my brushes so quickly that I don’t mind spending the minimal amount of money on a set of these, which usually come in a fabric holder – which is a great way to travel with brushes. If you take good care of your brushes, they will last longer!
- Plastic - These are usually for watercolor. This is a personal preference. I prefer wood, though plastic handles may last longer.
What the heck is a Ferrule?
This is what the bristles are set into. It is metal, and the bristles are set inside of it using a special type of resin glue. It is crimped onto the handle. The best ferrules are nickel-plated copper and are seamless (no split in the metal where water or chemicals can seep in). Be nice to your ferrule and do not mix colors with your brushes! Use a palette knife instead. If you mix your paints with a brush, paint gets stuck and dried inside the ferrule, compromising it and weakening the bristles from the metal.
There are many types of bristles. I’m only going to mention the most popular. There is natural hair and synthetic. Natural hair brushes are more expensive than their counterparts. But, some of the synthetic brushes they now manufacture are just as good as the best natural hair. The main thing to test when purchasing a brush is to make sure that when you run your finger across the bristles, they spring back and that they don’t shed. Mind you, when you go to the store, most bristles are hard because they dip them in a glue-like solution to keep the bristles formed. Usually there is a cup of water laying around that you can dip the bristles into to wet them and get the glue off, so you can test the feeling of the bristles.
- Sable (Kolinsky Sable) – Soft and flexible. They are recommended for watercolor painting.
- Squirrel – Cheaper than Sable, though they have very soft hair and have a spring to them. It has been noted that the larger squirrel brushes are easier to manage than the smaller ones.
- Hog/Bristle – This is made from the hair on the back of the pig. These are mostly used for oil and acrylic paints. They are springy with natural split ends.
- Synthetic Sable – Many painters do not believe these work well with oil colors. I have used these with acrylics and they seem to be fine. I do think they would work fine with oil, but probably wouldn’t last as long as the natural brushes. And, sometimes, they don’t last if cleaned with solvents. I’m always concerned they’ll melt in turpentine.
Brush Shapes: Round, Flat, Bright, Filbert, Fan, Angle, Mop and Rigger
- Round brushes - Closely arranged bristles for detail
- Flat – Use this to spread paint quickly and evenly over a surface. The hairs are a bit longer than a ‘bright’ bristle.
- Bright – (My Favorite!) This is a flat brush with stiff, short bristles. This is good for pushing paint into the weave of your canvas in thinner paint applications (I like it for underpainting), and is often used for thicker painting styles (wet into wet, or impasto).
- Filbert - This is a soft, flat brush with tapered ends, or dome-ends. This is good for coverage, blending and detail work.
- Fan - For blending large areas of paint. These look really cool and everyone wants to have one. My feeling on this brush is, unless you specifically need it, don’t spend the money. I rarely have met anyone that doesn’t paint landscapes that actually uses these brushes.
- Angle – Similar to the Filbert, these brushes are versatile and can be used in general and are great for details. Sometimes, I cut my own out of ‘flat’ brushes using an x-acto blade.
- Mop - A large fluffy brush with a rounded edge for broad soft paint application. This brush is recommended for glazing over dry layers of paint without damaging work that has already been done. This is also a cheaper and accurate version that women purchase to apply blush with. (Spread the word!). This brush is really only necessary if you are going to be glazing your painting.
- Rigger - Round brush with long hairs. The tip is around the same size as a pencil tip. They are useful for fine lines for both oils and watercolors. They also are useful for painting ‘rigging’ on ships - hence the name!
I personally use Flats and Filberts in Hog Hair Bristles. All different sizes from 0 – 12. And, when I find a good deal at the store or online, I’ll get a couple of each. I probably use about 6 brushes in total for a basic painting of a portrait on canvas. I like scrubbing paint onto the canvas, so the hog hair works best for me. Sometimes I glaze, and when I do, I go for a softer bristle.
I also get a flat brush with soft bristles for washing my canvas. (Covering the gesso with a neutral color before starting to paint on it). This brush can be purchased at a hardware store – Which is much cheaper than an art store.
If you are going to Gesso or Prime your own canvas, I also recommend the the hardware store – a brush for gesso. Find one that doesn’t shed, that is good for water-based paint and is about 3 inches. Much cheaper than a gesso brush at the art store. Soon, I will write an article on how to Gesso a canvas, but until then, I should tell you that a sponge actually works better than a brush, and is very cheap!
These are good deals:
Does Size Matter?
Yes. If you are a painter that likes small paintings, you should invest in small brushes. If you like large canvases, go for larger brushes, or you’ll be painting your canvas for a very long time.
This is the most important thing you can do to save your brushes life. Never leave your brushes standing on their heads, in or out of solvents – this will bend the bristles. Instead, clean them as you work by swirling them in either water or turpentine, and wiping them on newspaper or in a cloth. Acrylic and watercolor brushes need to be kept wet while painting, use a water cup, rinse them out before you set them aside. I like to rinse them in the cup and wipe them on a cloth and set them aside. Once paint is dried into your bristles, it may never come out. Oil paint brushes need to be rinsed in turpentine (try to find the odorless kind if you can). For both oil and acrylic, before you finish and walk out of the studio, make sure to wash them with soap. There is special soap for brushes that helps keep them conditioned, or you can simply use hand soap. Also, if you forget to wash out your oil paint brushes, soak them overnight in fabric softener – this may save the life of them. It also helps to do this from time to time anyhow, to condition them. I have been told that you can also rinse out your wet oil paint brushes in vegetable oil for a more environmentally safe approach. I haven’t tried this myself, but sounds like a good experiment.
I’m pretty liberal when it comes to brushes. I think the best way to find out what you like is by experimenting. More expensive brushes overall will save you time in your painting process as they will be less hassle with hairs falling out, or warping, or the ferrule disconnecting from the handle. But, I also think there’s plenty of things that an artist can use instead of a paintbrush to achieve certain effects, like a toothbrush, toothpick or the handle end of the paintbrush. There are no rules, you just have to experiment to see what works for you.