I haven’t done a lot of serious drawing and painting recently, but I have done a lot of reading, a lot of studying, and a lot of practice work. I laughed a little when I read Mark Christopher Weber’s words in Brushwork Essentials, one of the books I’m working with.
He writes of one essential thing available to us all:
“Practice. And not just practice, but practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice.”
Point well taken, Mr. Weber, and practice has become part of my daily art routine.
Before we see good results from any practice, however, we have to be sure we’re practicing correctly and not simply reinforcing bad habits. So for my painting practice, I’ve been going back to basics and going over the different ways to hold a brush.
Now, if you do an online search on the topic, you’ll find lots of different ways to hold a brush. Yes, there are different ways, but it all comes down to three basic grips with a bit of variation here and there.
But knowing various grips still isn’t enough. We also need to understand the reasons for using these grips, and what sort of brushes work best with each.
The first — and probably the most basic grip, especially with beginning artists — is the familiar pencil grip. We pick up the paintbrush as though it were a pencil and hold it as if we were going to write our name.
It’s a simple, easy way to hold a brush. When we use this grip, with our fingers close to the ferrule, we’re using the motion of our hand, and we have good control over the lines we make. So, for fine, detailed work this is a good grip to use. It’s usually used with small brushes — liners, riggers, and very small flats or brights. An excellent exercise is to practice this grip by signing your name on a sheet of canvas paper using extremely thin paint and a small, pointed tip brush.
A useful variation on this grip occurs when we hold the brush like a pencil, but move our hand down toward the end of the brush.
We still have a bit of control over our brushstrokes, and it’s great for long, sweeping strokes where we’re touching only the tip of the brush to the canvas. It’s excellent for blending.
Another grip — one often advocated by art instructors — is the baton grip.
As its name implies, the baton grip is similar to the grip of an orchestra conductor on his baton. It’s a fun grip to play around with. Hold your brush this way, and I guarantee you’ll feel like waving it around in the air as though you’re conducting a symphony performance.
The baton grip is used when we have lots of paint on our brush. We use our wrist, arm, and shoulder with this grip, so we can make lots of loose, painterly strokes. We can skim the brush over the canvas, press down to apply thick impasto strokes, or with a bigger brush, we can put paint on large areas with bold strokes — as if we really are an orchestra conductor waving the baton back and forth.
A variation on this is to hold the brush as a baton, but with only the thumb and forefinger. This makes it possible to roll the brush around — a technique I have yet to master. It’s fun to try, all the same. You can see Thomas Van Stein using this two-fingered grip in a video clip here.
And, if you’re painting with watercolor, there are more brush grips you can use.
As with every other aspect of art, the simple act of holding a paintbrush is something to play around with. With practice, we each develop our own feel for holding the brush in ways that are comfortable for us and well-suited for the brushstrokes we are creating.