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Oil Painting Brushes For Beginners

Art Lesson 6, Part 2

Find out all you need to know about Oil Painting Brushes

The five oil painting supplies beginners need are: 1) Oil paints and palette 2) Paint brushes 3) A canvas 4) An easel 5) A medium (like linseed oil).

Learn how to paint like the Old Masters!

  1. Free Beginner Painting Lesson: Brush strokes. Learn 4 different brush strokes. Watch how to paint background trees, rocks, a waterfall, clouds and foreground.
  2. Oil paints are thick! When painting on a canvas, there is a need for brushes that can move the oil paint against the grip of the fabric fibers. The 'working horses' are hog bristle brushes. When subtlety or precision is needed, brushes with soft natural bristles or brushes from synthetic hair are used.
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Oil Painting Brushes for Beginners

Well, let’s recap. Which brushes are better and should be chosen?

For some artists, Sable brushes might feel too soft, so they stick to rigid Hog Bristles. Others, on contrary, like to paint with soft accurate movements, smoothing the paint on the surface – for them Sable brushes are the best choice. With time, you will feel the difference between different kinds of brushes and form your own personal preferences.

But for now I advise you to acquire the following starter set of brushes:

Sable: for glazing
Shapes: Round and/or Flat and/or Filbert
Size: 00, 4, 8, 12
Bear in mind that sizes could vary from brand to brand; number 8 of one brand could be a completely different size in another brand.

Mongoose: can duplicate the Sable brush set. They are more or less interchangeable.

Hog: rigid irreplaceable brushes for all kinds of works.
Size: 00, 4, 8, 12
And also these are priming brushes – which should be used exclusively for priming. Label them and keep them apart from painting brushes.

Synthetic: are soft brushes, they work as a cheaper alternative to Sable and Mongoose.
Size: 00, 4, 8, 12

Buy and keep your Varnishing brushes separate from the ones that you use to paint. For Varnishing, you need a Flat or Long Flat wide synthetic brush like these ones. You can even go for a wider brush like this one.

The logic behind choosing sizes is simple – you need the smallest possible brush for details; the biggest brush to work freely, blocking in large spaces on medium size canvas; and one or two sizes between the smallest and biggest brush.

Do not buy too many brushes under emotion; wait till you decide what brushes are better for you. You will naturally start collecting one brush after another, according to your preferences.

Professional oil painting brushes

I have, at my disposal, a bunch of outstanding quality brushes I usually use for glazing, for finishing layers of painting; for flash and portraits.

I mostly use Mongoose brushes; Sables are too soft for my touch. These are my Bristle Brushes which I generally use for Underpainting and in methods that require the intensive work of a rigid brush – for Scumbling and Dry-Brush methods. Soft hair brushes cannot handle these methods. And finally, Synthetic brushes. I like to keep my best and favourite brushes for important work and I choose Synthetic for all unimportant odd jobs and exercises. They are disposable and, as you see, I have quite a lot of them. But honestly, no one needs so many brushes, they just sit in boxes for years.

How to clean your Brushes

If you paint on an everyday basis, there is no need to clean the brushes after each painting session. It’s enough to gently wipe off any excess paint from the brush with a piece of cloth; clean it in Linseed Oil until there’s no trace of any paint coming out; and immerse it into Linseed or Sunflower Oil till the next session. Brushes should lay in Oil, flat in a horizontal position, to avoid damaging brush bristles. Never store your brushes vertically in Oil or in any solvent. Before your next painting session, just wipe off the oil from the brush and it’s ready to be used.

Oil painting brushes for artists

When your brushes have been set aside for a long time, you should clean them properly. To do so, you can use Solvents or hand soap, but there are downsides to using them – solvents make Brush hair brittle, but soap can’t wash out the paint from the brush hair, and paint can gradually build-up in the ferrule, which can misshapen the Brush quite soon.

However, there is a special cleaner that can cope with such problems. I’ve been using it for the last two years and must admit it has a big advantage over solvents and soap. It is “The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver”. It completely removes not only fresh, but also hardened oil paint from the brush. From any brush – whether it is the finest Sable brush or Hog bristle brush, or synthetic brush. This cleaner helps prevent paint build-up in the ferrule and substantially extends the life of your brushes. It’s very simple to use: after you remove excess paint from the brush, wet it with water; swirl it in the cleaner and work it into a lather, then rinse the brush with clean water and repeat the process until the lather becomes white. Gently shape the brush head with your fingers and leave them to dry horizontally. When your brushes are dry, you can store them vertically, head-side-up.


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This information for artists, including a downloadable PDF, is supplemental to the video “Twelve Brushes for Landscape Oil Painting”.

The Video

In the video I have shown a simple basic set of twelve brushes suitable for landscape painting in oils on canvasses up to about ninety centimetres or three feet. I have carefully chosen this selection from what could have been an almost unlimited combination of sets of twelve, all equally valid. Ten different landscape artists probably would have come up with ten different selections.

Best Oil Painting Brushes For Beginners

The important thing however, is that for the beginner, everything is unfamiliar and confusing. With this set I have taken the indecision away and you won’t be wasting your money or effort on the wrong tools. This is as good a starting point as any carefully chosen selection and if you used nothing else while you are learning what your own preferences are, then you will be well served.

Oil Painting Brushes For Artists

To help you navigate the overwhelming array of choices and the probably not so helpful sales assistants you will encounter when buying this brush set, I have provided a simple buying guide. Print it off and take it with you to the art store. Download link is at the end of this article.

More Information About The Brushes

Note that I have chosen these brushes to suit paint handling that is more stiff or thicker rather than very thin and fluid. If you use thicker paint to start with on your painting journey, you will find it easier to keep the painting looking “fresh” and not overworked. Beginners have a tendency to “torture” the paint surface by re-brushing over and over again, creating a mix of virtual mud and an uninteresting surface, devoid of purposeful marks and obviously out of control.

If you feel that you would prefer to “brush out” your paint with fluid strokes more-so than pushing thicker paint about, then substitute “Flat” brushes of same size and type where I have recommended “Bright”. Note that some manufacturers call their “Bright” brushes “Short Flats”.

Some people prefer a smooth, mark free surface and longer bristle brushes are more suited to that goal. Beware of over blending however. You may like that seamless look when standing at the easel, but the viewer standing back at a normal distance will see a characterless homogenisation with no sense of artistry. You are making a journey through a painting and there should be a record of that endeavour that is perceivable by the viewer – that is where the emotional connection lies. The marks you make are your handwriting, your language, your unique voice, independent of the actual image. Don’t smooth them out to be nothing but “white noise”.

Unfortunately, brush manufacturers do not standardise their sizes. So for your sanity, I have noted down the actual approximate width of the bristles at the ferrule for each brush that I have demonstrated. Beware that with the brands you have available, wherever you are in the world, the same dimensions may be labelled a different size!

LONG HANDLED HOG BRISTLE BRUSHES

I have demonstrated Art Spectrum series 1000 brushes. These are an economical middle range brush that hold shape reasonably well, wear away quicker than I would prefer and have a nasty habit of loosening the joint between the handle and ferrule. This is easily fixed with some epoxy glue and a squeeze with pliers so not really a problem. Also, this only happens as a result of vigorous cleaning where the end of the brush is subjected to some sideways forces from holding and squeezing. It doesn’t happen in normal use. They are good value, compare well with some much more expensive brushes and are infinitely better than cheapies that will lose bristles and turn into pipe cleaners almost immediately.

Some other economical and mid-range Hog Bristle brands I use are Holbein, Daler-Rowney/Georgian and Mont Marte.

I don’t find the Holbein brushes to be that much better than the Art Spectrum with regard to wear but they are more expensive. The Daler-Rowney Georgian brushes look beautiful, feel great in the hand and are surprisingly good to use. I find myself trying more and more of these. They’re not very expensive either. At the real budget end of the market is Mont Marte. Surprisingly, their green handled Hog Bristle brushes are really good value considering they are super cheap. My favourite filbert brushes in my kit are Mont Martes. For me they respond better than some much more expensive alternatives I also have.

SYNTHETIC SABLE BRUSHES

There are multiple types of synthetic, or imitation sable. Anything labelled “Imitation Sable” or “Im. Sable” I’ve found to be rather nasty. I have no idea what the two Roymac College brushes I demonstrate are made of, their blarb doesn’t say, but they do hold their shape really well. I’ve not had a lot of success with white Taklon in the past, and yet I tried a Mont Marte short handled 2/0 Taklon Liner when making the video and although the bulge in the handle proved awkward to me, being designed to use holding close to the ferrule, I found the point easy to control and it has held its shape well.

Westart brand Prolon brushes (made from what they call “golden nylon”) are my general go-to for synthetic sables and you will see me painting fence wire with one of those in the video. They’re pretty good as Flats, Rounds or Fans. I don’t think these are available readily outside of Australia though. First place I’d start looking for a similar brush would be UK manufacturer Pro Arte and their Acrylix or Prolene brushes. One more point – brushes may be labelled for Water Colour, Acrylic or Gouache, but they are fine to use with Oils. Using Hog bristle oil brushes with Acrylic or Watercolour paint however, is not a good idea – the acrylic and/or water will destroy them.

Size 1 Synthetic Sable Round: 1.5 – 2mm wide. 10-12mm long. The long handled Roymac College brush I demonstrate in the video is actually a size 2 with the larger dimensions. It performed quite well. Anything in the given size range is fine. Keep in mind that the smaller brushes allow more intricate detail. So, if you are really keen on making a very small hair width mark, get an even smaller brush. They go down to sizes below 1 such as 0,00 and 000. Very useful for neat signatures.

You may not be able to find long handled versions of very small sizes because intricate work is usually done close up with short handled brushes. That’s OK too. The longer handled versions are best suited to free easel work with a full arm. The shorties are for close careful work, holding it more like a pen.

Size 6 Synthetic Sable Flat: 9mm wide. 14-15mm long. In the video I have demonstrated a long handled Roymac College which has a quite firm bristle. It is a little stiffer than ideal for soft blending but is still a very useful brush. I didn’t have a lot of choice in the remote town where I bought the brushes for demonstrating but I wanted some pretty new ones for the video, not my well used collection.

My personal favourite soft Flat however, for blending, applying glazes and touch up varnish is a short handled natural hair Flat with the same dimensions. Mine are old and unbranded so I don’t know if they are squirrel, ox, camel or alligator but they are beautifully soft, keep their form well and have lasted a lifetime. They may even be real sable. If you can find something like that, get it.

What Are The Best Brushes For Oil Painting

Size 1 Synthetic Sable Rigger: 1.5mm wide. 15-18mm long. May be called a “Liner”. The only new Rigger I could find in the middle of nowhere for the video was a Roymac Revolution size 2 made from Taklon. They claim great things about this new Taklon in the blarb but I found it stodgy and didn’t hold a point well. Being a size 2 it was also a bit too big for fine line work. Also it was too soft to control easily so is probably much better suited to mediums other than oils. The Westart Prolon D111 series Riggers are the best I’ve found that aren’t too expensive. I use a size 0 generally. The Mont Marte 2/0 Taklon liner that I picked up really cheap at a discount store also performed really well.

Professional Oil Painting Brushes

Expanding Beyond This Set

Best Brushes For Oil Painting

To extend beyond the basics of this set, some additions I recommend are:

Oil Painting Brushes Reviews

  • Add some hog bristle Rounds, sizes 1 and 2. These are useful for larger linear strokes and are very versatile for foliage. Little controlled dabs can form foliage clusters. Edge qualities of bushes and tree foliage are easily softened and manipulated. Rolling a Round brush thinly loaded with sticky paint can create random marks also useful for adding foliage variety.
  • A short handled synthetic sable size 00 or 000. Really useful for tiny detail stuff, highlights and signatures.
  • Size 2, 4 and 6 hog bristle Flats. Once you are comfortable with the Brights and filberts of these sizes, you will appreciate the different paint handling capabilities of these longer more flexible brushes. The 2 and 4 are the same size and feel the same to use as the Filberts in the starting set, but their squared ends allow a different mark to be made and don’t smooth off the edges of the stroke. The Filbert gives you a more organic stroke whilst the Flat gives you a more sharp geometric stroke. In the event that you initially opted to buy Flats instead of Brights, now is the time to add the Brights.
  • Fan brushes are a classic staple. If you really want to try blending the perfect mark free, graduated sky, then a medium size sable or synthetic sable Fan blender is what you need. For more random mark making such as clusters of twigs, grass etc., then a small hog bristle Fan blender will do the job.
  • If you want to make paintings larger than ninety centimetres or three feet, you may find the size ten brush too small to cover larger areas quickly. Size 12 or 14 would see you good for some quite reasonable size paintings but for the beginner, sticking to many smaller works will be much more rewarding and you will improve much faster. Trying to create a huge master work without a solid bank of skills and experience will just bog you down. My advice from experience – learn what the violin can do before you try scoring for the entire orchestra…
  • Not so much an addition than a helpful note – if you don’t know what a brush is for, don’t buy it! Think about it. Every brush type has a specific purpose it was designed for. You are not going to try and bang in a nail using a screwdriver or try to drill a hole in a piece of wood with a hammer. These may seem extreme metaphors but I have seen the exact equivalent mismatches with artists brushes many times, with the resulting lack of success.

You will know when the time has come to start making your own personal choices about brushes when:

  • When painting, you pick up the brush you think is right and something in the back of your head chimes in a warning with “nope, that doesn’t feel right. You need something that’s a bit narrower, or stiffer, or wider, or pointed, or softer etc.” So you put it back and grab that other brush.
  • You don’t have that other brush that you know would be a better choice. This is when you go and purposefully buy that specific brush – because now you know what you need!
  • Finally, when your regulars wear out, you try a few different brands as replacements and find you are sensitive enough to their differences to know which brand in which brush you prefer and why. Now you really know what you are doing!

PDF Download

Landscape Oil Painting Tools – More Videos

Filbert Brushes For Oil Painting

Video 1 – The French Box Easel
Video 2 – Landscape Oil Painting Brush Basics
Video 3 – 12 Brushes for Landscape Oil Painting
Video 4 – How to Clean Oil Painting Brushes (coming soon)
Video 5 – Keeping Control of the Mixing Palette (coming soon)

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