I wrote about brushes once before — when I was first doing watercolor painting. That was a little over two years ago, and a lot has changed since then, at least when it comes to me and painting. I’ve discovered that I’m not a watercolor artist. I’ve also discovered that oil painting is far more relaxing and enjoyable than I’d ever though possible. I love oil painting.
Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot about brushes, and I’m learning now about brush strokes for oil, and I’ll be sharing more information about various brush strokes in future posts. Today, I want to share a few thoughts about my brushes and my personal preferences.
I’m going to begin by going against some of the conventional wisdom regarding brushes. We’re always told to buy the best quality brushes we can afford. I’ll admit that with watercolor, buying better quality brushes made a noticeable difference. With oil, however, it doesn’t seem quite so important. Disagree if you want. Share your thoughts about high-quality versus cheap brushes. I’m still learning, and I’m always open to ideas, advice, and suggestions.
My reasoning is based on personal experience. The one good brush I owned — a lovely 1″ goat hair mop brush — literally fell to pieces in my hands. It’s not from over-use. For me, this was a great blending brush, but from the start I was always picking pieces of goat hair off the canvas. Still, I loved the brush. It worked well for blending — other than those stray hairs it shed. Recently though, while washing the brush, it completely disintegrated. I stared at it in shock and dismay and thought immediately about buying a new one.
As it turned out, I never did buy a new brush. Later that day I found an old discarded make-up brush. It’s smaller than my mop brush, and I have no idea what it’s made from, but it works just as well as my expensive brush — without the stray goat hairs. That’s a real plus. It’s a very cheap make-up brush. It works. So, why should I spend money on another high quality brush like the one that fell apart?
Another of my favorite brushes is a ragged, jagged-looking brush that came from a children’s paint set. It was never intended for oil painting, but who cares? It’s awesome for painting in leafy bushes and tree boughs. Lots of artists use old brushes in a similar fashion, deliberately cutting them up, creating those jagged edges, and that’s fine. I have one that’s already rough and jagged, and I love it. It’s got cheap plastic bristles, and a cheap plastic handle. It’s sturdy and seems almost indestructible, but if it ever falls apart, I can buy new ones at a cost of three for a dollar. Why pay more?
The most important thing — from my point of view as an artist learning oil painting — is finding brushes that produce the results I want. There are, of course, many different ways to apply paint with a brush, and as my knowledge increases and my skills improve, I might think much differently about the brushes I choose.
For now, I find that it’s easiest for me to use smaller brushes than larger ones. Here again, I’m going against conventional wisdom somewhat, but smaller brushes give me a greater sense of control, and, therefore, a greater sense of confidence as I approach the canvas. I’ve learned that I like flats but hate fan brushes.
There are, of course, different types of bristles designed for different types of media. I haven’t attempted to keep all the necessary knowledge in my head, so I rely on packaging information to guide me when I go brush shopping. Some brushes are designed for acrylics, others for watercolor, and some for oil painting.
Another consideration involves your thoughts and feelings about brush strokes and how they will appear on your canvas. We’re talking here, of course, about oil paints. Bristle brushes will produce stronger, more noticeable brush strokes. Soft brushes leave smoother, less noticeable brush strokes.
But what sort of surface are you painting on? That’s something to think about, too. If you’re using a heavily gessoed or other textured surface, soft brushes won’t hold up very well.
In coming weeks, I am going to be doing a lot of brush and brushstroke exercises, learning more about brushes and other ways to apply oil paint. Guiding me along the way is a book I recently bought called Brushwork Essentials by Mark Christopher Weber.
He points out that brush shopping involves a lot of trial and error:
“Examining a brush at the store will tell you only so much. The next step is to buy and try one or two of a brand you’re interested in to discover how well they handle the paint and how durable they are. Some brands lose their bristles, others lose their shape, and some just plain fall apart. As for handling properties, gaining experience through working with your brushes is the only way I know to discover which types and brands give you the kind of control you want.”
Fellow blogger pdlyons from Pdlyon’s Exporations also reminded me recently about the role intuition can play when it comes to brushes:
“Don’t forget intuition. I have on occasion bought brushes because they were beautiful or because I simply had to have one. Also the same applies to using them for me. I have done things just so I could use the brush, so to speak. Brushes can be as inspirational as color or view.”
Excellent point. Intuition is always an important element in every aspect of art.
Before I head off to begin my brushwork practice for the day, I want to share one little brush puzzle. Do I have an Egbert?
I don’t know where this brush came from, but it’s sitting in my brush jar. I’ve grabbed this brush from time to time, and I’ve decided I don’t like painting with it, so I guess it really doesn’t matter what it’s called. I don’t think it’s a flat or a bright. The hairs are far too long. It’s definitely not a round, and it’s not really shaped like a filbert. There’s another brush type — an Egbert — said to be a longer-haired version of a filbert. I don’t think that’s what this is, but I can’t think of anything else it could be.
As always, I’m curious, so if anyone knows what this brush is, please let me know. In the picture, the hairs don’t look all that long, but when I load it with paint (I’ve tried using it for skies in the past) they’re much longer than the hairs of any other brush I have.
And since I’m not really an authority on brushes for oil painting and can do no more than share a few of my opinions, I’ll direct you now to someone who does know about brushes. Dan Schultz shares his thoughts here:
I hope you’ll find the information useful, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, too, about choosing and using brushes.