Back to Basics with Brushes

When I began oil painting a few years ago, I was confounded by brushes. Earlier, I’d done a bit of watercolor painting, and I’d attempted acrylics, and in both instances, again, brushes were a source of bewilderment.

What brushes did I need? Should I buy the best quality or will less expensive brushes work just as well for my purposes? How do I clean my brushes? What are the differences between natural and synthetic? Is red sable really made from red sable, and does it really matter?

When it came to brushes, which ones to buy, how to use them, how to care for them, and — something I hadn’t really considered — when to get rid of them, I was completely befuddled.

I researched online, reviewed materials lists from various instructors, and tried a lot of different brushes. In time, I found some brushes I liked, others I didn’t, and mostly, despite my good intention, I really didn’t care for my brushes properly.

Like most beginning painters, I bought a lot of brushes, far more than I really needed. I bought inexpensive brushes; I bought a few very good quality brushes. I bought fat ones, skinny ones, fancy ones, long ones, short ones… you name it, and I have it somewhere in my huge collection of brushes.

Yes, I have far more brushes than I need, but that hasn’t stopped me from recently buying more new paintbrushes. Why buy more? Am I crazy?

Not really. In fact, my recent brush-buying marks the beginning of a new stage in my growth and development as an artist. Here’s why.

First, I freely admit to having ruined nearly every brush I’ve bought. Second, I have no idea which brushes are which, so I don’t know what they should be used for. Third, I have so many different brushes, it was overwhelming. Fourth, sometimes the best way out of a big mess is to simply throw it all out and start over.

No, I haven’t yet thrown away all of my brushes, but I’ll probably be doing that very soon. I have been taking a good close look at them all, though, and lately I’ve become much more realistic about what I do and don’t actually need.

My decision to get more organized with my brushes began when I started following the lessons in Arnold Fletcher’s step-by-step oil painting book. Fletcher made it simple. His recommendation was clear and concise. Buy three filbert brushes: a No. 9, a No. 6, and a No. 4. He made no mention of bristle type, simply specifying that they be “oil painting” brushes.

Filbert BrushesI found a nice set at a reasonable price.  Yes, I bought nine brushes, not three, and the set doesn’t include a No. 9, but from the moment they arrived, I loved them. These, I knew, would be all the brushes I would really need — at least for a while.

I vowed, too, to take good care of these brushes. One step toward that objective was my decision to use water-soluble oils. Clean-up has been much easier since I made that switch, and I’m happy to say that I’ve been using this set of brushes (along with a few others) for several months now, and I haven’t ruined them yet.

Just as Fletcher said in his book, the filbert brush shape is practical, and with the variety of brush sizes I have, I can choose what will work best in any situation. Since I’ve started doing a bit more detail work, I have added a few very tiny little brushes to my “brush jar”, and along with the filberts I keep a nice mop brush for blending, and a few larger flat brushes for toning my canvases before I paint.

All in all, I was very pleased by my decision to more or less start over with my brushes. It felt good to simplify the painting process. The fewer brushes I have, the fewer times I have to agonize over which brush to use!

But going from dozens of all-but-ruined brushes to a simple set of filberts with a few necessary additions was only the first step toward my objective of becoming a better-educated and better-organized (i.e. more efficient) painter.

Since purchasing that set of filbert brushes last summer, I’ve learned a lot more about brushes. Now, armed with the new knowledge I’ve gained, I purchased two new sets of brushes.

One thing I learned, you see, is that the type of bristles really does make a difference. Natural bristle brushes may be made from several different hairs: squirrel, goat, ox. horse, and hog are popular. These are all coarse hairs, perfect for creating thick brush strokes and rough-looking textures in painting. Soft bristle brushes, generally referred to as sable brushes, can create a smooth surface. If you’re painting a still life, for example, and have a silken cloth, you’d want to pick up a sable brush. But sable brushes aren’t necessarily made from sable; they’re usually made from weasel hair. Genuine sable brushes can be quite costly; the weasel hair brushes are far more affordable.

As to the debate of synthetics versus natural? That’s an individual choice, I think. Being a more natural sort of individual, I decided to steer clear of the synthetics for now.

With a new understanding of the different types of brushes — and why I would need both — I went brush shopping again. This time, it was a pleasant experience because — for once — I knew exactly what I wanted and why. I purchased a set of natural hog hair filbert brushes and a set of pure red weasel hair sable filbert brushes, and I’m set now to do a lot of painting.

As for all my old brushes, I will be tossing them out. Another thing I’ve learned through my recent research is that one of the biggest mistakes painters make is not getting rid of bad brushes soon enough. Our brushes are important tools, and like any other tool, they occasionally need to be replaced. Another good tip I’ve picked up recently is that we don’t always need to buy expensive brushes. While I doubt that anyone advocates buying cheap brushes, you don’t have to spend a fortune.

Yesterday my new brushes arrived. Right now, there are stiff and hard. They’re shipped, you see, with a protective glue that must be washed out thoroughly before first use. So, that’s on my agenda for the coming week.

After all my confusion about brushes, after all my impulsive buying of these and those and, hey, maybe I need a brush like that, too, and after all the frustrations of mis-using and mistreating my brushes, it feels really good to reach a point where I feel like I’m in control here now. I have what I need. I know the differences between the different brushes I have. I know when to use them and how to use them. I know how to keep them working for me by careful washing and drying.

My pathway to better painting just got a whole lot easier to follow.



  1. Good luck with your brush management! FWIW I got into endless trouble with brushes regardless of their quality, and so now prefer using knives and sticks instead. The advantages being I could keep them clean easily and prevent contamination of unwanted colours (although some can be exciting and useful – the happy accident). By using the end grain of sticks and pieces of wood, say up to 25mm wide, you can achieve a remarkably similar effect to the brush stroke (and they’re free and disposable!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the idea of painting with sticks sounds so awesome! Alas, however… even using palette knives is beyond my skill level at the moment, although I do keep practicing. Since I’m trying to become slightly more detailed in my oil painting, I’m finding it helpful now to move toward smaller brushes, and I am going to do my best to keep them clean and serviceable! I do feel that buying less expensive brushes is the best choice for me right now. I don’t feel quite so bad if I ruin them. 🙂


      1. Yes, that’s probably wise. The thing about knives and sticks is you CAN abuse them!!! I’d definitely suggest having a go. What is there to lose? Only don’t try to use them as brushes, think icing a cake (which I’m sure you’ve done?!) Good luck whatever.

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      2. LOL… I am the world’s worst at icing cakes, so maybe that’s why I have so many problems with palette knives. I will take your advice though and keep trying it from time to time. This year is all about imagination for me, all about playing with ideas and trying new things, so I will definitely be using palette knives, and hey, I might even grab a stick or two just for the fun of it. 🙂

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  2. I haven’t attempted using oils yet, too busy grappling with other mediums, but I really enjoyed your post. I’m at that same crossroads of trying to now work out which brushes I really need and what to use.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like the filbert brushes I have — at least, for oil. What I’ve learned is that keeping it simple really helps me, so my set of brushes are all alike — just slightly different sizes. I’ve added a few very small “detail” brushes now, but you may or may not need those, depending on what you’re painting and which medium you’re using.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Super article. I never heard of washable oil paints- there is hope in the world. Thank you for sharing. Hope you expand your thoughts on ways to clean brushes. Dish soap? Special artist soap- dial soap bar.?

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    1. Yes, there are water-soluble oils, and I’m loving them. I was introduced to them by members of one of our regional art clubs. The facility where we were meeting had strict rules about toxic substances, so we really couldn’t do any oil painting — unless we used water-soluble oils. So, I bought a small set, and although it took a little while to get used to them, I really enjoy them now. For clean up, yes, I use dish soap. First, I rinse them thoroughly, and then I use dish soap in the palm of my hand and follow by rinsing again. For a more thorough cleaning, I had a cleaner another artist recommended. It’s called “Fast Orange” or “Orange Goop”. Either one works well. It’s available in the auto parts section of most big stores, or at an auto parts store. It’s not expensive, has a wonderful orange fragrance, and really helps keep brushes clean. I’ve learned, too, to dry them flat instead of standing them up. I know there are special soaps and brush conditioners, but I’ve never tried those.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the great reply & detail. I have used the jar type artist’s soap that keeps my watercolor brushes soft and most likely would have the same result with a mild hand soap. I have started looking at the washable oils and found a set for $130.00 yikes- will have to investigate more.
    Many of the ones on the big box e store do not say washable as in the Bob Ross kits. I also saw many used sets and again do not say washable so I am guessing those are not. Probably not a good idea to buy used paints as from experience they dry out over the years. Cannot wait to read your next posts.


    1. The water-soluble paints I have are inexpensive. They are Mont Marte and are available at Amazon. A “starter set” with 8 colors (primaries, secondaries, black, and white) is very reasonable. This gives you a chance to try them out without investing a lot of money. I later bought a larger set of the same brand. I’m now also buying some water-soluble paints from Winsor & Newton. Most major brands are coming out with them now.

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