Brushing Up On Brushes

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Walk into any art store and browse the brush aisle.

There are dozens of brands, scores of styles and sizes, and hundreds of brushes from which to choose.

How do you go about selecting the brushes that will be best for you?

Start With The Basics

Once a novice has made the commitment to learn to paint and decided on which medium, he will be making some significant purchases. Right after he selects his rainbow of paints, he will stand before the brush section and perhaps shake his head a little and wonder which to choose.

If he chooses oil or acrylic, he will select from the same group of brushes. Since both of these types of paints have a full body and thick texture, the brushes are interchangeable, although some oil painters would never use their finest brushes with acrylic paint.

If he decides to work with watercolor, he will select from a different set of brushes. An artist working with different mediums may have overlapping sets of brushes. An acrylic artist, working with very wet paint, may opt for some of the watercolor brushes. Conversely, a watercolor artist may have use for a stiff bristle brush to scumble paint or to add textural effects.

When Longer Is Better

At first glance, the most noticeable difference between watercolor brushes and oil brushes is the length of the handle. There really is a reason for this, not just for the sake of looking different.

Traditionally, and most commonly, an artist working in oil stands at an easel to paint. The long handle allows him to stand away from his work and paint with his entire arm and body. Conversely, the watercolorist sits at a table or a slightly inclined board, as the drippy nature of the medium hampers the use of an upright easel. Those long handles would inhibit the artist’s ability to paint. Poking one’s eye out with a brush handle is hardly the way to garner the esteem of the artistic community, but a very real possibility if the artist tried to sit while painting with the long handled oil brushes.

One Little Piggy, Two Little Piggies

Another difference between watercolor and oil brushes is the hardness or coarseness of the bristles. A watercolor brush soaks up the paint in the hairs, releasing the color as it is applied to the paper. An oil painting brush does not absorb liquid but holds the paint on the bristles. The manner in which the brush is manipulated determines how the paint appears on the canvas.

Oil and acrylic paints may be more vigorously applied to a canvas or board than watercolor. An artist may scrub the paint into the surface, or create texture and building up dimension with the paint. This kind of manipulation requires stiff, sturdy bristles to withstand the friction and bending. The types of brushes used for this kind of painting are bristle brushes, composed of hog bristle. The best bristles are from the backs of male boars. This hair has natural split ends that help to hold additional paint.

Synthetic bristle brushes are also available, but they are somewhat softer and not able stand up to the rigors of an enthusiastic scrubber as well as natural bristle. They are frequently less costly and are very suitable in other respects.

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

Modern technology has opened the world to the production of art brushes. There are synthetic substitutes for every kind of hair and bristle. Many companies produce great synthetic versions of favorite bristle, sable, camel and other natural hair brushes. Many of these are truly wonderful brushes, and most artists will be very pleased with the snap, springiness, absorption and life of these imposters.

An artist does not need to purchase only top shelf brushes. Many good quality brushes are very reasonable and well suited for particular tasks. Mastic, for instance, is very hard on brushes. It dries quickly and if not instantly removed, will dry to the hairs and ruin the brush. Use an old or inexpensive brush for applying mastic and any other similar products.

Acrylic paint is water-soluble. However, when it is dry, it is solid and cannot be reconstituted with water. If the artist allows a brush to dry with acrylic paint on it, it is a total loss. An artist who finds this to be a consistent experience should opt for less costly synthetic brushes, unless he has unlimited resources.

For the most part, these brushes are less costly than their natural fiber brothers are, and will be very well suited for all but the most discriminating artist. That being said, there is nothing like a Kolinsky sable brush.

Wrap Me In Sable

For the watercolor artist, there is nothing to compare to a Kolinsky sable brush. These are probably the most costly brushes, but their ability to absorb paint, the natural point of the hairs, the flexibility and their smooth application make them the epitome of watercolor brushes. These brushes are used for applying controlled washes, details and linear strokes. They are very soft and flexible, so they are not commonly used for vigorous scumbling.

Sable’s naturally pointed hairs give brushes a long, tapering point that is perfect for fine line work. It is soft and flexible, holding paint well to allow the artist to do a good deal of brushwork before replenishing the paint. In addition to Kolinsky sable, many other sable brushes are first-rate and are far less costly.

All Creatures, Great And Small

There are several other animal hairs and bristles used for brush making. They include horse, ox, goat and squirrel. Camel hair brushes are not really made of camel hair, as it is too wooly. Camel hair brushes are made of a variety of other animal hair, generally of a soft nature. These other natural fiber brushes are typically not found in an artist’s tabouret. Experimenting with some of these unusual hair brushes may be of value for particular painting tasks, but the standard artist’s brushes give enough variety and range of prices to make the need for any other type of brush non-existent.

It’s fun and educational to experiment, and an artist will only learn about brushes and their characteristics by trial and error. As budget and projects allow, try out a new brush or two occasionally, or splurge on a great sable to add to your collection. A carpenter can build a barn with only a hammer and a saw, but it certainly makes his job easier when he has a full toolbox. Spend some time and a few dollars filling your toolbox to make your painting more enjoyable and productive.

One thought on “Brushing Up On Brushes

  1. Hey there, I like your descriptions for brushes. I use Oils but use watercolour brushes.. I am forever telling my students to get certain sizes of brushes, but they keep coming to the studio with the hard long handled brushes which dont work for photo realism! So your information here would help them understand their uses more.


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