Brushes can be quite an investment, so making sure you take good care of the ones you have can save you a lot of money in the long run. That being said, brush prices differ dramatically based on the manufacturer, hair type, size, and handle quality. I’ve purchased brushes anywhere from $1 up to $50 and they get more expensive than that.
This size 28 Kolinsky Sable filbert oil painting brush from Da Vinci is $250-$500!
Up until the late 1600’s, artists made their own brushes. It was at this point that craftsmen started making them for the artists, so artists had more free time to actually paint (yay!). Now they are available for purchase in any art supply store and some craft stores, or you may want to buy online.
Just like any craftsman knows his tools, so do artists need to learn about their tools. There are an overwhelming number of brushes to choose from, so it’s important to know about brushes so you can easily assess what you need for your particular style of painting. You’ve already purchased the brushes we recommend for this course when you bought your supplies.
Here’s what we’ll be discussing:
Anatomy of a Paintbrush
First, let’s break down the parts of a paintbrush.
Tip: Paint brushes can be made out of a variety of materials including synthetic (plastic imitation) hair and natural (animal) hair. The hairs are bundled together and tied before they are attached to the handle with adhesive. This joining is then covered by the ferrule. The tip is the most delicate and sensitive part of the brush—it is responsible for drawing up and releasing paint and if not treated well, frays quickly, making precision painting more difficult.
Belly: This is the middle part of the hairs on the brush. It is essentially a reservoir where the paint is held. Imagine a fountain pen. The belly of the brush works much the same way as a fountain pen that’s been dipped in ink. The tip contains all the pigment load that’s being used at the moment, but there’s a back-up supply in the belly so you can keep painting and not have to reload your brush every two seconds. Brushes made for very liquidy paints (such as watercolor) have fuller bellies and hold more paint.
Ferrule: This piece is typically made with metal and the better quality the brush, the better quality the metal. A very expensive brush may have a chrome, brass, or even gold ferrule. This piece provides structural support for the hairs of the brush. A good quality ferrule is made out of a single piece of metal and should not have a seam.
Crimp: The ferrule is crimped on to the brush handle to keep it in place.
Handle: Most handles are made out of wood and are usually painted to protect the handle from paints and liquids. The only part of the handle that is not finished is the part under the ferrule where the hairs are attached with adhesive. This is done to provide a strong bond between the hairs and the wood handle.
From Steven Saitzyk’s book, The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials:
The ability of a paintbrush to hold and transfer paint is a result of the capillary action created by the bundle of bristles/hair/fiber and the surface area of the fibers. When the brush is applied to a low viscosity* liquid paint, such as watercolor, the paint is drawn up into the belly of the brush by capillary action. When tip of the brush is applied to the paper surface the absorptivity of the paper and force of gravity pull the paint out of the brush. As the viscosity of the ink increases and it becomes more paste-like, the paint no longer flows up into the belly on its own. It must be “loaded”. That is, the paint is drawn up into the belly of the brush by pulling the paint up into the brush by physical action/pressure. How much paint can be held in the belly, the control with which the brush releases the paint, and the ability of the brush to maintain its tip is a reflection of the number of, size, and shape of scales on each hair, which varies between species of animals and their environment.
*Viscosity: the state or quality of being viscous.
Viscous: of a glutinous nature or consistency; sticky; thick; adhesive.
Notes About Oil Brushes
Oil painting brushes tend to be longer and have smaller bellies, since oil paint has much more viscosity than something like watercolor.
Why do I need different brushes? What does each one do?
Each brush has its own specialty. Using a variety of brush sizes and shapes throughout your painting will make it feel more lively and professional. Here’s a breakdown on shapes:
Round: This brush is good for detail work, depending on the size of course. The tapered tip of the brush allows for a much finer line when you use just the very end of the bristles but if you load the brush with paint and press down, you can get a thicker, heavier line.
Pointed Round or Liner: These are best for fine detail, outlining, and long, fine strokes. If you’re painting lettering or individual eyelashes, this is the brush you will need. Be gentle with these and make sure to keep the protective plastic case on when they’re not in use. The very fine liner brushes are fragile and very easy to damage.
Filbert: This is a good brush because of its versatility. The combination of rounded and flat allows for good coverage but with a softer line quality than with just a flat brush. The rounded edges will let you blend your paint nicely.
Of course, if you can afford more, then go for it! Experiment and see what you like best. To make your paintings have movement and excitement, don’t use the same brush the whole time. The varying textures of the brushes will add life to your paint.
There are a lot of different materials that brushes are made out of. Natural hair brushes are ideal for oil painting but can be more expensive, so if you’re just starting out, you’ll want to get less expensive synthetic hair brushes.
Some brushes will be very soft and some will be very hard. Choosing the texture that’s right for you will depend on the type of painting you’re wanting to make—the softer the brush, the softer the line quality you’re going to get. When painting with oils, you’ll be putting down your lean layers first (less oil) and the paint won’t want to move as much. At this stage, it’s easiest to use a stiff brush to move the paint. Later on in the painting as you use more oil and the texture of your canvas is smoother, you’ll switch to softer brushes. Kolinsky sable is a very soft (and expensive) brush hair and is best suited to finishing a classical portrait in oil. Using it to scumble (or scrub) in an underpainting would ruin the brush (and anger the painting gods). Natural bristle brushes are made from actual hairs from varying animals. The nice thing about that is that the shaft of the hair has more scales and thus will hold your paint better as it’s dragged across the canvas. Synthetic bristles are plastic and don’t have the scales, so you lose some texture when painting.
Compare the two images of hair under a microscope:
Natural hair. See all the scales? Those will hold your paint much better than these:
Synthetic or plastic bristles.
Let’s discuss some of the most common hairs for oil paint brushes.
Sable: Sable is the type of hair taken from the marten. The term “red sable” references both the weasel and the Asian mink. “White” and “golden” sable are the names given to synthetic versions of the natural hair. Sable is prized for its spring (ability to bounce back quickly to its original shape) and for its point (the ability to return to a fine pointed shape). Each individual hair has the shape of an elongated pear—fat on one end and thin on the other. This is what gives the sable its strength to spring back and come to a fine point. The highest prized type of sable is Kolinsky. These hairs used to come from a particular strain of mink that once lived in the Kola Peninsula of western Russia. Today, these animals are nearly extinct and the term “Kolinsky” sable generally refers to hairs coming from the Asian mink that lives in Siberia, Korea, and northern China. Red sable has less spring to it and typically comes from either the kolinsky hairs not deemed up to standard or from weasels. Brushes marked “sable” or “brown sable” are not from a particular animal but usually made from leftovers from the production of other sable brushes. These range in quality and are typically found in adequate grade student brushes.
Ox or Sabeline: Sabeline is a light ox hair dyed a reddish color to resemble sable. Ox hair has a springiness comparable to that of sable but lacks sable’s ability to hold a fine point. Darker colored ox hair is longer and typically used to make large, flat brushes.
Camel: The term “camel hair” is a misnomer—no camel hair is ever used in making brushes. It is a term that applies to any type of inexpensive, poor-quality hair such as pony, bear, sheep, some squirrels, or whatever else is available at the time of production. These are unprofessional brushes of poor quality.
Squirrel: Squirrel hair is very fine and comes to a nice point when wetted, however it has virtually no spring in it. It’s a hair best used for watercolor washes, lettering, and when fine detail with little surface texture is required. The best type of squirrel hair is from the Kazan squirrel, which creates a fine tip and has nice elasticity. Hair from the Blue Squirrel is the next best quality, with Taleutky and Canadian or Golden Squirrel behind that.
Bristle: Hog, boar, and pig hairs are called bristle because they are stiff, coarse hairs. The hairs themselves are pretty uniform throughout, slightly curved, and “flagged,” meaning they have split ends. While it would seem split-ends would be a bad thing, it’s actually good with these types of brushes as it creates multiple tips and allows for greater control of the paint. The best bristle brushes are from wild hog—those from the Chungking province of China are said to be the very best.
The size of a brush is based on the length, diameter, and width of the bristles. The length is measured from the base of the ferrule (where the bristles start) to the tip (where the bristles end) at the longest point—usually the center of the brush. The diameter is measured by the circumference of the hairs at the base of the ferrule, and the width is measured by the distance across the hair at the opening of the ferrule. The bigger the number, the bigger the brush. Some flat brushes may be measured in inches, so instead of saying 24, they might say 31/32”.
Here’s a good chart and explanation of brush hairs and sizes from Dick Blick:
How To Hold Your Paintbrush
Of course, you can hold your paintbrush in any way that is comfortable to you, but here are some quick tips.
You may feel like you want to hold your brush like a pencil—crunched between the tips of your fingers, holding near the bristles of the brush.
There are a few problems with this technique, though. For one, you will smudge all your paint and get it on the side of your hand because you will rest the side of your hand on your canvas when you hold your brush so close to the bristles. Secondly, holding the brush like this will make your strokes very uptight and fussy, focusing too much on detail and not enough on the overall picture.
This is how I usually hold my brush—halfway down the length of the handle. This way I still have a lot of control but am not close enough to the bristles to get my hands dirty or start worrying over detail work.
Ideally, you want to hold your brush near the end of the handle and even better yet is to stand while painting with your arm outstretched (I had a professor once who told me to pretend I was fencing). This will allow you to take in the whole picture as you’re painting and not fuss over details too much.
Holding the end of the brush seems scary, but you’ll be happier with your results.
Thomas Gainsborough used to lengthen the handles of his brushes up to six feet so he would never stand too close to his canvas! Still, he was able to get incredible detail. So don’t worry too much about being “close” to your canvas in order to get fine details in your painting.
Painting And Palette Knives
Most of the time, you’ll use your palette knife to mix larger amounts of paint on your palette, but they can also be used for direct paint application. Although not actual painting brushes, palette knives are often used to create paintings. The term palette knife generally refers to a knife that is used to mix paint on your palette while the term painting knife is generally used to describe a similar product used to apply paint to your canvas or surface. Though palette knives can also be used to apply paint to the surface, they’re not specialized to do so. Just like brush shapes, different shaped painting knives will yield different results. My personal favorite for mixing and applying paint is labeled e in the above photo. The knives labeled g and h are considered painting knives and are great at creating texture, sharp lines, and hard edges when used to apply paint. Both painting and palette knives are identified by style numbers and can be purchased individually or in sets. Both types can be purchased from around $5-$10 a piece.
In this video by Scribble, artist Marcia Kay Ellis is mixing flesh tones with oil paint. Watch how she uses her palette knife to mix colors on her palette: https://youtu.be/PYJ72MWzVZY
Clean your palette or painting knife by wiping it off with a paint rag or washing it with soap and water in the sink. Palette and painting knives are pretty hardy, so you don’t need to treat them as well as your brushes, but you will want to make sure not to bend them or damage the tips.
Brush Care, Use, And Storage
When you start painting, dip your brush in your solvent first then blot it off on your painting rag before dipping it into your paint.
You will need to constantly be rinsing your brush out in your solvent jar throughout the course of your painting session. Every time you change paint colors, set down your brush, change brushes, or clean up an area of paint on your canvas, you’ll need to rinse your brush out. I tend to wash my brush out probably every 30 seconds to one-minute during a typical painting session. You do this to keep the brush clean, make sure the paint flows smoothly, and to keep the paint away from the ferrule.
Do not let paint go under the ferrule.
Don’t use the same brushes for water-based and oil-based paints. If you’re using water miscible oil paints, you will need a brush set dedicated to those paints. You can’t use them with acrylic paints because oil will still remain in the bristles even if you clean them.
Be mindful of which brushes you use for different techniques. Don’t use your expensive brushes (like sable) for scumbling*! Better to use a stiffer, less expensive brush for that technique.
*Scumbling is a technique like scrubbing, in which a very dry brush is used to scrub a thin layer of paint over another. This can be hard on your brush bristles, so it’s best to do this technique with a brush you don’t mind ruining a bit.
Always wash paint off in solvent or clean linseed oil—never water—unless you’re using water miscible oil paints.
You can wear gloves if you want (helpful if you have acrylic nails) but they’re not necessary.
Never let paint dry on your brush.
Always wash your brush thoroughly when you’re not using it. During the painting session, clean your brush even if you’re only taking a one-minute break from using that brush (because sometimes, one minute turns into 30 without you even noticing!).
Brushes can be expensive and are a good investment if you take proper care of them. Nothing makes me sadder than to see good brushes left in solvent or with dried paint stuck in them!
In this video, artist Andrew Whyte shows us how he cleans his brushes. He uses turpentine, but Gamsol also works for this process. You don’t need to follow Andrew’s process exactly, but it gives you an idea of how to properly clean your brushes after a painting session.
In Safety In Oils, we discussed how to clean your brushes with linseed oil as an alternative to solvent if your studio is lacking ventilation or you’re concerned about solvent fumes. Whichever method you choose, it’s helpful to have two containers of either solvent or linseed oil: one dirty solvent or linseed, and one clean solvent or linseed.
For traditional oils, at the end of your painting session, wipe all the paint that’s on your brush onto a rag then rinse it in the dirty container of either your solvent or linseed oil. Wipe it on the rag again to see if all the paint is out. If there’s still paint, repeat the rinse in the dirty container then do your final rinse in the clean container. This is an important step because it helps to keep your solvent clean. You want your solvent to be clean so it doesn’t dull or muddy your colors when you go to paint!
For water miscible oils, at the end of your painting session, wipe all the paint that’s on your brush onto a rag then rinse it in the dirty container of water. Wipe it on the rag again to see if all the paint is out. If there’s still paint, repeat the rinse in the dirty container then do your final rinse in the clean water container.
For both traditional oils and water miscible oils, you can now run the paintbrush under lukewarm water and give it a final cleaning with soap (Dawn dish soap works well for water miscible oils or my personal favorite for traditional oil paints is Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap, which can be purchased at any art store or online). When you wash your brush with soap and water, don’t swirl your brush in the soap—this can cause paint to go up under the ferrule and it will never come out again. Instead, pounce it on the palm of your hand with a little soap, rinsing and repeating until the soap comes out clear (i.e. has no more paint in it).
Don’t let your brush sit in solvent (traditional oils) or water (water miscible oils). Leaving it in solvent will eat the bristles and leaving it in water will rot the handle and dissolve the glue, causing all the hairs to fall out.
Don’t wash with hot water, as this can break the adhesive bond between the bristles and the handle.
If you’re using sable brushes, know that moths are very fond of sable! Keep them stored in a drawer or box where moths can’t get to them.
Don’t store your brushes upright in a container. The leftover paint/water will run under the ferrule and eventually break down the adhesive bond.
Do store your brushes lying on a flat surface (make sure the bristles aren’t in contact with any surface that will bend them out of shape) or hanging upside down (not stuck upside down in a bin!) with the bristles aiming towards the floor.
To reshape your brushes if they get bent out of shape, wash them thoroughly then leave a tiny bit of clean soap and water in the brush and wrap the bristles with a piece of paper towel or toilet paper. For flat or bright brushes, you can reestablish the razor sharp edge by folding a piece of cardboard over the clean, damp bristles. Hold the cardboard in place with a clothespin and store it this way until you need to use the brush again. When you go to use your brush again, just take the paper or cardboard off and rinse the brush off in your solvent.
This is a good brush holder that can be purchased from just about any art store. It holds your brushes in an upright position so you can find them easily while you’re painting and folds up so they can be stored flat when you’re not using them. You can purchase these from just about any art store for $15-20.
This is a very inexpensive brush holder that can be purchased at art and/or craft stores (with brushes included) for about $10.
Exercise One: Try Out Your Brushes
Now that you’ve bought your brushes (click here for our Traditional Oils Recommendation List or WMOs Recommendation List), experiment on a small canvas. You can use any of the paint colors you have. Try using the edges of the brush, applying varying amounts of pressure, and using the paint with both no linseed oil and varying amounts of linseed oil. If you have a very stiff brush, try stippling (hold the brush perpendicular to the canvas and dab) the paint lightly onto the canvas. Try scrumbling (scrubbing paint onto a dry surface). Try making a very slick line. How many different strokes/textures can you come up with?
Bonus Exercise: Make Your Own Paintbrush Holder
If you have some canvas you can make one yourself. You can always buy a remnant of canvas or other heavy duty fabric, too. The length and width of the fabric will be determined by the number of brushes you own and their lengths. For example, with a 7” brush you’d want the fabric to be at least 14” so you have room to lay the brush down, cover it ¾ of the way with the folded fabric and still have a little room at the top to fold over the hair of the brush.
I just did this and it’s awesome—it holds all my brushes. All you need to do is fold the canvas so the bottom part comes about ¾ of the way to the top. Using a sewing machine, stitch the edges closed. Then about every 1”, stitch from the bottom up to the top of your folded piece. Put your brushes in these slots and roll the canvas up. If you want, add a ribbon on one edge (see picture above) so you can tie your roll closed.
I love this brush holder because it holds all my brushes and keeps them safe when I’m moving around from place to place.
Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about the different types of paint brushes and palette knives and their likely use. Also, you’ve learned about the recommended method of holding your paintbrush. The importance and methods of caring for your painting supplies have also been discussed.
Next lesson: Oil Painting Methods And Techniques