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Brushes for Oil Painting

You will need two sorts of paint brushes: stiff for handling most painting tasks, and soft for adding fine details.

Singer SargentStiff brushes are made of hog bristle and come in three shapes: round, flat and filbert. Get a small range of sizes to begin with. Synthetic bristles make an acceptable alternative for most purposes, but the natural article is better.

The best soft brushes are sable, and the substitutes are much less satisfactory. A fan-head brush (sable or hog hair) may be needed to blend paint in a smooth way on the canvas.

Care of Brushes

Paint brushes are expensive — most particularly sable brushes — and deserve to be looked after. A used but cared-for paint brush will in fact perform much better than a new one. Remember:

1. Use painting knives to mix paint, not brushes.

2. Do not stand brushes point down in jars or containers: the hairs or bristles will be permanently bent out of shape.

3. Think before adding paint to a brush. Add the correct amount and apply according to needs: carefully or briskly, with the right pressure and action, holding the brush some distance from the tip.

4. Don't use the brush as a scoop, which will clog the ferrules. This paint has to be cleaned out, and will eventually spoil the handling property of the brush.

5. Clean brushes as soon as possible after use, and certainly at the end of the day's painting. Use turps followed by normal soap and water. Or wash in turps and give a final rinse in turpentine. Soft brushes can be dipped in milk, gently shaped, and allowed to dry, tips up, for a couple of days.

Working Practices

Watteau was an untidy painter, and Sickert often preferred to move flat rather than sort out the indescribable mess of his studio. But most artists regard painting as a craft, and share the craftsman's delight in fine tools and sensible working practices. Time has to be set aside at the end of each painting session to clean up and prepare for the next. Some painters do live in squalor, especially if fame allows them to hit the bottle in later life, but that's an unfortunate aspect of a chaotic lifestyle, not an inspiration. Most find a a tidy studio, with everything laid out ready for work, the necessary encouragement to properly getting down to the day's tasks.

Using Brushes Properly

Ideally, you will have planned your painting carefully, and have the main colours mixed and arranged on your palette, needing only to transfer them to the canvas.But you still have to choose the appropriate brush or brushes, and apply the paint properly. If you are laying down a thin spread of paint over something not perfectly dry you will want to use a soft brush (a synthetic in larger sizes), restricting bristle brushes for passages where each stroke is intended to show. How you hold the brush matters, as does which side of brush you use, and the pressure you apply. Clean the brush frequently, even between strokes when painting wet into wet in light and/or easily sullied colours. It also helps to 'warm up' each session on easy patches of painting, and so become relaxed when tackling the difficult bits: painting then becomes natural, as automatic as driving a car, when the paint goes where the mental processes intend.

Equally important is the consistency of the paint: mix according to the task in hand and the brushto be used.

Further Reading

1. The Painting Guide. Debra Clem's handy hints, including choice and care of oil painting brushes.

2. 10 essential oil painting tips and techniques by Jonathan Hardesty. Creative Bloq.

3. Good Brush Habits and How to Load Your Brush with Paint. YouTube

4. 'Brushes: A Handbook for Artists and Artisans' by Jacques Turner. Good Reads. 1992.

5. Seven of the Best Brushes for Oil Painting: Architect’s Collection. Architecture Lab. Illustrates useful sets, though some you'll need to renew.

6. Picking the Right Brushes for Oil Painting with Katie Blackwell. YouTube.

7. Oil Painting Brushes for Landscape Painting - Brush Basics Explained  by Michael Hodgkins. YouTube

8.  The Best brushes for Oil Painting, and how to clean them!  by Andrew Tischler. YouTube

9. 'Top Paint Brush Tips from the Art Pros on Facebook'. Fine Art Tips.


Vanessa Lemen: Traditional Brushes for Oil Painting

How to Care for your Brushes

AGP Quick Tip: Stray Hairs and Brush Care

How to Make Your Brushes Last

Oil & Acrylic Painting Tips : Paint Brush Cleaner


'El Jaleo' by John Singer Sargent. 1882. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Boston. A strking work built on an analogous orange-red to yellow-orange color scheme with strong tonal contrasts.