Brush Work

A question I hear very often is which brushes to get when you start out in oil painting.  The number of different types of brushes is endless at any art supply store! There is bristle, synthetic or natural hair, there is round, filbert, bright or flat, long handles or short handles and the list goes on. In this blog post I try to suggest some starting points as well as my favourites.

A good painting comes out of you, not your brushes

What is your Favourite Brush?

Your favourite brush will be the one that suits your hand, your painting approach, your paint and your style best. There is no way you can figure all of this out when you are just starting out in oil painting. Only time and practice will tell you which brushes you like and which you don’t. It is really worth trying out lots of different types and brands. That said, at the end of the day a good painting comes out of you, not your brushes.I have found that after trying out lots of different types I like to use the same brushes not only because they are my favourites but also because I ‘know’ them. I know how they behave, I know how much or how little paint they hold, I know what sort of a stroke I get. When I use a new brush, I struggle to paint what I want to paint as the brush is behaving in unexpected ways. So I would recommend not only to try out lots, but also to settle for one at some stage. You can then really ‘get to know’ your brush and make the most of its qualities.

For example I love the Winsor & Newton Series 7 Sable brushes. I have tried many other sable brushes (as the series 7 is very expensive) but I just know exactly how much paint it holds, I can anticipate how much spring it has, what mark it makes etc etc. So no matter how many others I try, they will always be ‘different to what I know’ and therefore harder (unless I give myself time to get used to them) to use.​

Sophie Ploeg, The Handkerchief Girl, oil on linen, 91.4x76cm Small detail was created with small sable brushes

Get to Know Your Brush

​What is a good brush?

A good brush holds lots of paint so you don’t have to dip it into the paint all the time. A good brush makes strokes that you like, a good brush does not lose hairs, keeps its shape, and a good brush takes a bit of rough handling without falling apart. A good brush cleans easily, is affordable and does not harm animals in its manufacturing.

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What types of brushes are there?

As mentioned above there are dozens of different types of brushes and the choice can be quite overwhelming. Many brands and shops have different brushes for watercolour, acrylics and oil paints, which can help you with a first selection. Mind you, these selections are by no means strict rules. Although watercolour brushes are made to work best with watercolour, there is nothing to stop you from using them for oil painting. They might just work a tad better with what they were intended for. Many brushes for acrylic are also very suitable for oils and these types are often interchanged.

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From left to right: Filbert, fan, bright and round brushes

Hairs

There are synthetic brushes and natural animal hair brushes. Many people find natural brushes nicer to work with but synthetic materials are constantly trying to catch up and many synthetic brushes are now just as good or better than natural brushes. In the end it all comes down to preference.

Hog/ Bristle

A stiff and natural brush made of pig hair that can take some rough handling, give texture and effects. I mainly use it for underpainting, but many artists will use it for all of their painting. They are hard wearing and affordable brushes.

Sable

Another natural hair brush but much more delicate than hog. Mostly recommended for watercolour because of its excellent water-holding capacities but also used by oil and acrylic painters. It is loved by many artists for its strength (some artists use sable brushes for many decades), spring (it just has the perfect bounce) and because it holds its shape so well (very little splaying).

This is often considered the best of the fine brushes. The hairs are taken from the tail of a type of weasel. Because of the usage of animal (tail) hair the US has recently issued a ban on these brushes but in the rest of the world they are still available. I suppose it is up to each artists to decide whether they want to use natural hairs or not. I have found it very hard to find out whether any animals were unnecessarily hurt, whether they are endangered or not, and therefore found it hard to come to a meaningful conclusion about this.

Synthetic

There are many synthetic hair brushes and this is a huge and constantly growing category. Many synthetic brushes try to mimic the natural hair brushes but are often cheaper and do not involve animals in the manufacturing. Many synthetic brushes combine the features of sable (spring, shape) and hog (strength, texture). Brands will do their best to describe what their brush feels like and what its intended use is.

For example Rosemary & Co’s Ivory brushes are described as a “synthetic bristle at its best, a cross between the feel of nylon and hog bristle. Short Flats allow a much sturdier brush with a stronger “snap” creating sharper edges and control. Ideal for blocking in and impasto.” A Pro Arte Acrylix brush is described: “designed especially for acrylic painters who require precision for detail, tremendous ‘spring’ and great pointing adaptability.” And the Jackson’s Shinku brush is “a red synthetic haired brush that has a vibrant spring in the hairs. The hairs are super glossy which helps achieve smooth and fresh brush marks. A wonderful long handled brush, perfect for acrylic painting techniques”

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Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco, Untitled Still Life, 30x40cm. Ilaria uses mainly synthetic bristle brushes (Rosemary & Co’s Ivory, filbert) for her painterly works.

Sizes

Brush sizes are usually measured by the width of the ferrule. The ferrule is the metal band that holds the hairs together. It can be round, oval or flat and comes in various widths. The width is usually measured in millimetres and determines the size of the brush. Many brands are not consistent in their sizing however, so a size 2 does not necessarily mean the ferrule is 2mm or even 2cm wide. It pays off to check sizes for each brand!

Shapes

There are different shaped brushes which are explained as such:
Round: The ferrule of the brush is round and the hairs are formed into a point. The marks these brushes make are consistent and the smaller sizes are very suitable for minute detail.
Flat: A flat ferrule where the brush hairs form a flat square or rectangular mat. The strokes are wide and sharp edged or used on its side can be fine and thin.
Filbert: A flat brush with rounded edges, sometimes the hairs a little shorter than flat brushes. These brushes are very versatile as they are less blunt and harsh in their mark making yet allow for wider covering strokes. For many this is the work horse and general all rounder.
Bright: A flat brush with shorter hairs for more control and less ‘floppy’ hairs.
Fan: A fan shaped brush often used for blending.

For a beginner I would recommend to get some filbert and flat bristle hog brushes ranging from size 3 to 12 and some synthetic smoother brushes in a variety of shapes and sizes

​​Which Ones Do I Need to Begin with?

When you just get started with oil paints you might wonder where to start in the world of brushes. A good idea is to figure out how you will be painting first. Do you like bold and brash or are you more in the refined and fussy department? Have you got a giant canvas ready, or a miniature? Do you use rough canvas or smooth board? Are you at an easel or a desk?

All of these considerations will determine whether you should opt for big and bold brushes (bristle hog) or refined and dainty (synthetic small). A delicate sable brush will be ruined in no time on a coarse canvas. It is not suitable for scrubbing or impasto work. A stiff bristle brush will leave completely different marks on a smooth board than on a coarse canvas and can take much more punishment than a small synthetic brush.

If you are somewhere in between or just not sure it is a good idea to get an affordable selection of all-rounders. So I would recommend to get some filbert and flat bristle hog brushes ranging from size 3 to 12 and some synthetic smoother brushes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Keep it affordable at first so that it is ok to put a brush aside if you don’t like it and you have some money left to try out others. An expensive brush is not necessary if you are just starting out, but a cheap brush can be a real handicap while painting. Cheap brushes can lose their shape and hairs which will make it very hard for you to make it do what you want it to do. So do not opt for the cheapest of the cheap.

​​Try Something Different!

Also consider loosening up with tools that are not the most obvious choices. After all mark making can be done with anything and nobody says you have to use oil painting brushes. Try watercolour brushes, children’s brushes, palette knives, sticks, combs, nails, fingers, paper towels, cardboard sponges and whatever else you have lying around. You’d be surprised at the wonderful effects it can help you create!​

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Maureen Nathan uses chopsticks for her work. This is in ink and oil pastel.

 

I am very bad at cleaning brushes

​Cleaning and Caring for Brushes

It is a bad idea to leave paint dry on your brushes, especially if the paint reaches into the ferrule where it is very hard to get rid of. Clean your brushes regularly and gently. With good care they can last for a very long time indeed.But this topic is really not for me to advise on. I am very bad at cleaning brushes. I leave my paint around all day and night as I never know when I have an hour free to get back to the easel. Hence I clean my brushes very rarely and sometimes I ruin them by leaving them out too long. A great product is Masters Soap which is probably created for badly behaved artists like me as it allows you to remove even dried up paint from brushes. In between painting sessions I simply wipe my brushes clean on some paper towelling.

Alternatively you can use (odourless) solvents (artists quality! to protect your brushes from harsh chemicals) or oils. A quick swish in some linseed oil will loosen most of the paint and a good wipe on some rags will remove paint as well. Do make sure you remove the oil as linseed oil will dry and make your brushes unusable and hard. Some people use baby oil, which no doubt will work fine, but it is important to wash out the baby oil afterwards otherwise you run the risk of having traces of baby oil still in your brush when you get back to painting. Baby oil will not dry and is full of chemicals you do not want in your painting, so make sure you wash your brushes out with a gentle soap. There are many ways of cleaning your brushes but it is important to realise which ways are toxic and which are not and whether there is a chance that the cleaning product could leave any residue in your brushes which could interfere with your painting.

​Many artists leave a jar of solvent out during painting and swish their brush in it many times, not realising that leaving an open jar with toxic solvent will fill the room you are in with toxic fumes. If you want to paint like this I strongly recommend to keep a lid on it. Even odourless solvents are toxic, they just don’t smell so bad. I remember I once joined a local art club and when I visited the weekly painting session I entered this small church hall and was welcomed by a huge waft of toxic fumes. All the artists had their little jar of solvents open and the air was full of it. I did not return to these paintings sessions as it made me feel quite sick.

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Sophie Ploeg, The Girl in the Mirror, oil on linen, 60x50cm I like to use very small sable brushes for the final layer of the painting.

My brushes

I swear by Winsor & Newton Series 7 Sable brushes. I mainly buy size 1 and use it for all the detail work in my paintings. I often use it to paint the final layer of a whole painting and so I get through quite a lot of these little beauties.  I have tried many others but keep coming back to series 7. I just love the spring, the shape and the durability.

Other brushes I use a lot are bristle hogs (any decent brand), which I use for underpaintings. I often scrub my underpaintings in quite “enthusiastically” and needs sturdy strong brushes for this.  After the underpainting is set up I move to synthetic brushes for some more detail and control. Although I vary my brushes at the moment I am using Jackson’s Shinku brushes for this.

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I often use bristle brushes to scrub in the underpainting. I use no medium.


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4 thoughts on “Brush Work

  1. Hi. I enjoyed reading this, thanks. I think that when selecting a brush, one of the key considerations is the consistency of the paint that you’re going to use. The ‘stiffer’ the paint, the ‘stiffer’ the brush hair will need to be. This is almost common sense, but it’s one of those things I learned the hard way, and I don’t remember any of my books on painting mentioning this. If the paint is more liquid, with lots of medium added, then a softer brush hair can be used (e.g. sable). If the paint is more ‘stiff’, with little or no medium, then a stiffer brush hair will be needed – e.g. hog hair. It’s very difficult to use a sable (soft hair) with stiff paint (though nothing is impossible with oils, it seems). This means that choice of brush is somewhat dependent on the choice and amount of medium (or, rather, what paint consistency) you will be using. This is part of the challenge when learning to paint in oils. There are a lot of variables, and it can be time consuming and expensive to explore all the options to find what you prefer.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for commenting! You mention an excellent point – one I should have included! Thank you so much for that. Indeed – stiff paint = stiff brush and fluid paint = softer brush. Great addition to my post, thank you.

  2. My process for cleaning brushes: (1) dip or swirl in zest-it solvent; (2) wipe on rag or paper towel (a rag is often more effective); {repeat (1) & (2) maybe 3 or 4 times until most of the paint has been removed} (3) put a pea-sized drop of washing up liquid in the palm of my hand, dip the brush in cold water, then gently scrub the brush into the soapy palm of my hand, trying to get the soap into the hair near the ferrule, then rinse in cold water; {repeat (3) if necessary} (4) give the brush a sharp flick to remove water, re-shape the brush head and leave to dry in a horizontal position (if left in a vertical position the water in the brush hairs could seep down and soak into the wooden handle and cause it to expand and loosen the metal ferrule).

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