Oil Paint Brushes

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We’ve come a long way from boar bristles tied to a stick with a rawhide thong, but painters will try just about anything to get paint on the canvas.

If there’s anything an artist likes to collect as much as paints, brushes will be a close contender.

No matter how confident we are of our skills, there is always the next great discovery. Because there are so many manufacturers vying for business, there are constant innovations or new twists on old products to lure us into spending our hard-earned dollars on just one more brush.

It doesn’t matter that the innovation is a clear, purple Lucite handle or that the bristles are tinted a lovely shade of green. Just like a blackbird, we’re tempted by the prospect of a shiny new bauble to hide in our nest.

An Artist And His Brush

We all have our pet possessions. A soft, shabby flannel shirt that’s just right for a cold, rainy Sunday or a favorite pair of down-at-the-heels sneakers for raking leaves are comfortable, friendly companions that make us feel good.

Oil Painters Favorite Brush

It’s much the same for an artist and his favorite brush. The lacquer has long since peeled away from the handle, the ferrule will never be free of dried paint and the bristles are beginning to have that droopy hangdog look of an old warhorse. However, it continues to be the brush we pick up to begin our next masterpiece. It may have been demoted from painterly finishing strokes to burnt sienna and mineral spirit underpainting, but it continues to fill us with expectations of artistic possibilities.

As a beginning artist, you should become intimately familiar with the character traits of your Oil Paint Brushes. Build your collection slowly, and take the time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of all your brushes. Don’t be too anxious to acquire a harem, but get to know your brushes well. You may be surprised at how few you need to create a lovely painting with a variety of brushstrokes and techniques.

Oil Paint Brush Basics

Brush Basics

Since we’ve moved past the point of the thong-tied boar-bristles-on-a-stick era, things have gotten pretty cushy for a painter. Brushes, which were once coveted possessions, are now almost disposable. Walk into any art supply store, and you’ll be overwhelmed with the variety of brushes. You don’t need 99 percent of them.

Most of us are working with a pretty limited budget. Oil paints can be quite costly, canvas or wooden panels are an expensive necessity and one quick look on the store shelves will tell you that brushes are the cheapest things on your list. No, that is a fallacy. A cheap brush is the least costly thing on your list, and you should scratch it off immediately.

A good painter can paint with just about anything, including a ratty craft-project brush. A novice painter has so many things to learn, and dealing with a problematic brush is just silly. Buy three or four quality brushes that will last for years and will serve you well. As you develop your skills, add to your collection as the need arises.

Brush Fiber Choices

Unlike a watercolorist, whose paint is usually the same watery consistency, an oil painter has many options for the texture of paint he chooses.

An artist who paints alla prima may have thick mounds of paint, which is built up to add textural peaks and valleys to the canvas. A painter may thin his first layer of paint with mineral spirits to create a shadowy underpainting that establishes the composition, lights and shadows. He may then follow with thick paint directly from the tube for the intermediate layers. He finally finishes with delicate glazes, created with paint thinned with oil, for the final subtle colorations.

Each of these styles of painting requires a different type of brush. Some brushes are interchangeable, but one brush will not suit all the types of painting you will do. Start with your instructor’s recommendations until you get the hang of which brush is used for what technique.

Natural Bristles

Natural bristles can range from kitten-soft Kolinsky sable to boar’s bristle brushes that can be used as an emergency weapon of self-defense.

Kolinsky sable brushes are typically used by watercolorists, who have generous patrons sponsoring them, and these fine hairs are really too soft for oil painting. However, black sable has more snap and resilience and is able to handle the heavier body of oil paints. Black sable is primarily used for glazing.

Boar bristles are the first line of an oil painter’s arsenal of brushes. The bristles have the strength and resilience to stand up to the dense body of oil paint. Even with hard use, the characteristic curve of the bristles produces a turned-in brush that is naturally shaped, and with proper care these brushes will last for years.

Synthetic Fibers

Along with acrylic paints, one of the finest accomplishments of modern technology is the creation of quality, synthetic artists’ brushes. The polyester filaments are as diverse as the many types of fur and hair that has been used throughout the ages to make brushes. From soft and supple watercolor brushes to faux hog bristle brushes for an oil painter, there is a style and incarnation of brush for every artist.

Synthetics are great alternatives for a variety of reasons. They can be more inexpensive than the genuine articles, they are less susceptible to deterioration due to paints and solvents and there a wider variety. In addition, some animal species are no longer available to provide their useful hair.

At one time, mongoose fur was used to create exceptional brushes. They are now an endangered species, so synthetic mongooses are being raised in captivity to provide us their precious synthetic fibers. Perhaps that is a tall tale. Let us leave the mongoose to their untimely decline and enjoy the wonders of synthetic bristle brushes.

Synthetic fiber brushes are a great value, can be produced in any configuration, and they certainly give the artist an overwhelming variety of brush styles from which to choose.

Oil Paint Brush Shapes

Brush Shapes And Uses

A skilled craftsman can paint a lovely and convincing piece with just about any brush. Fortunately, for the less experienced artist, brushes with specific shapes make your job much easier and less frustrating. To repeat an oft-used phrase, take the advice of your instructor in purchasing brushes for your initial plunge into the world of the oil painter. Since there are a number of different methods to approach painting, your teacher has definite plans for what you will be learning and how she or he intends for you to acquire your skills.

Each style of brush is designed for a particular task or style of painting. Using the correct brush will speed you along in your quest to conquer the challenge of painterly brush strokes and convincing artistic passages.


Flat brushes are rectangular and have long bristles. It’s the basic tool with which most oil painters begin. It is used to lay in the basic composition, quickly cover large areas of bare canvas and can be used for all general-purpose painting.


A bright is a short, rectangular shape. This stubby-bristled brush doesn’t hold much paint, but when working in confined areas of the canvas, it is useful for massing in small fields of color.


Rounds use the natural tapering shape of the hair to create a brush that is thicker near the ferrule and tapers to a fine point. Rounds are used for detail work like highlights, or they are used to create long lines of color. Since the base is much thicker than the tip, the hairs form a natural reservoir that holds a substantial amount of paint. This allows the artist to paint without the frequent need to replenish his paint. An oil painter will typically use this type of brush for the final stages of his work.


A filbert is a flat with rounded edges. These brushes are useful for painting curved edges like flower petals, leaves and other round-edge shapes. They can also be considered a general duty brush.


As graceful as a Spanish senorita’s, a fan brush is a flat layer of bristles that are arranged in a fan shape. Use this brush for smoothing or blending thin layers of glaze to a create stroke-less haze of color. This is used for the final glazing layers of an oil painting. It is also useful for softening edges that are too sharp.

Oil Paint Specialty Paint Brushes

Specialty Brushes

There are many specialty brushes. You might think of them like the one-use kitchen appliances you see offered on late night infomercials. They have been developed to accomplish one task or a limited type of brush stroke. Liners, dagger stripper, rigger and stencil brushes are all very useful if you are doing particular types of work on a regular basis. Put these on your holiday gift list if you’re quite intent on adding them to your collection.

Brush Sizes

Brushes range from a size 50 that’s nearly 2 inches wide down to a size 000 that’s just the right size for painting the eyelashes of a hummingbird. The size of brushes you need is based on the style of painting you’ll be doing, the subject matter and the amount of detail that is required.

You’ll need something to cover a large area quickly. Choose a large brush that is an inch or more wide, a medium sized brush of ½ inch and a couple of smaller brushes for details. As usual, your instructor will give you good recommendations of the sizes that will serve you best for the class you are taking.

One other size consideration is the length of the brush handle. If you are standing at an easel, it’s much easier to paint with a long handled brush than a short one. Think of jacking up a car. Using a short jack handle is a lot of work. When you use a long handle, you are able to make a wider motion and stand further away from the vehicle. It’s sort of the same thing with painting while standing. When you use a long handle brush, you’re able to use the brush as an extension of your arm and get your whole body into the action.

On the other hand, if you are more comfortable sitting at a desk easel or an inclined desk, you may have more control with a short handled brush. Short handled brushes are also convenient for plein air artists, as they are more compact to store in a small paint box or backpack.

Now you have the lowdown on paintbrushes. It’s not very exciting, but it’s rather like selecting hand tools for a beginner’s toolbox. You need to know a little bit about what each tool does to determine if it’s a wise investment. Start with basic sizes and shapes. Purchase the best quality you can afford, as a good paintbrush will last for years.

Oil paint and the associated solvents and mediums can wreck havoc on your brushes. Leave them to dry on the tabouret, drown them in harsh turpentine or scrub them severely and you’ll soon be scrambling for extra cash to replace them. Treat your tools with respect and care, and they will provide you with consistent, reliable service for a long time.

FREE Online Art Paint Course

Free Online Beginners Guide To Painting!

There are 27 Chapters in this Free Online Painting Course:

Let Us Begin…

The Beginners Guide to Painting

Watercolor Paints

Watercolor – Where to Start
Watercolor Paints
Watercolor Paint Brands
Watercolor Supports
Watercolor Paint Brushes
Watercolor Basic Painting Techniques
Advanced Watercolor Painting Techniques
Watercolor Painting Accessories
Watercolor Painting Tips and Tricks

Oil Paints

Oils – Where to Start
Oil Paints
Oil Paint Brands
Oil Paint Supports
Oil Paint Brushes (This Article)
Oil Painting Techniques
Oil Painting Accessories
Oil Painting Tips and Tricks

Acrylic Paints

Acrylics – Where to Start
Acrylic Paints
Acrylic Paint Brands
Acrylic Painting Support
Acrylic Paint Brushes
Acrylic Painting Techniques
Acrylic Painting Accessories
Acrylic Painting Tips and Tricks

In Closing…

Getting Creative!

Enjoy the Free Art Course!

Paint on! :)

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