Oil Paint Brushes

Natural hair is best for oil paint brushes. Synthetic brushes are cheaper and have a great shape, but they don’t handle oil paint well - they wither fast. Do check the economy corner of your art supplies store - and your DIY paintshop. Only: cheap DIY bristle brushes, may leave hairs in your work, that you have to pinch out all the time (making a mess when you can't get them).

Oil paint brushes from cheap to expensive:

  • Rough Pig hair (bristle)
  • Ox/pony hair
  • Fine pig hair (bristle)
  • Daggerhair (very soft, good for blending). Shaving brushes used to be made of dagger.
  • Marterhair: the queen of brushes. Very fine, very expensive. But they give long and lasting pleasure, if you treat them well

It’s also good to have a palette knife. You can mix your paints with it, without loading a brush full of paint. Later you can use it for special effects in painting as well.

Texture And Strokes

Pig hair brushes give a textured stroke, ox- and marterhair give supple strokes without texture. Having softer or firm brushes depends on your likes. Marter hair is really the most refined (soft, supple strokes, no traces of hair, yet the brush has nice firmness). That's great for delicate brushing. For rough expressionist gestures however, it's better to use cheaper bristle. Bristle (pig hair) is rather sturdy, but you can soften it up by putting the brushes in water during the night. Do dry them very well before use, because water in oil paint makes your paint very matte. And – only do this trick with cheap bristle brushes.

The form of your brushes defines your strokes

A rounded tip gives soft-edged-strokes, a flat tip gives broad or small strokes with a sharp edge. A round brush with a tip allows you to make more calligraphic lines, that get thicker and thinner as you push harder or lighter. A big round sharp-tipped brush can be loaded with a lot of paint, and still make a very thin line.

What’s Your Style?

Your choice of brushes really depends on your own preference for certain oil painting techniques, the likes and gestures, and the effects you desire. If you like the expressionist way, making brisk, erratic gestures and strokes: don’t waste your money on expensive brushes. Buy them at the house-paint store. Also try materials like sponges, cloth or pieces of plastic, and the palette knife.

Or do you like to work in precise and clear strokes - as in Zen-, tole- or one-stroke-painting techniques? Then your results stand or fall with the quality and shape of your brushes. In that case, invest some money in brushes, and take good care of them. It’s good to have a broad variety brushes at hand: big and small brushes, pig and marter hair; round, flat and tipped ones. I even keep the ones I ruined, because sometimes that’s just what I need. For painting foliage of small (distant) trees, dabbing a split tip can be handy. Check out Blick Art Materials for finding good brushes.

Cleaning your oil paint brushes

You can clean your oil paint brushes with water and soap. First dab them in turpentine (gently!) or better, a less polluting alternative like zest-it. Zest it is only good for cleaning, don’t let it touch your oil paint or canvas. After that, you wash then out with water and soft soap. Leave them to dry before you use them again.

An alternative to water and soap: after rinsing with real turpentine, hang your brushes in a bath of clean (real) turpentine, or even clean linseed oil. Rinse it in clean turps, before you start working, and wipe it off with a cloth. The linseed-oil method is the best maintenance for your oil paint brushes. Just make sure the brush isn't resting on its tip.

The shape of your brushes are ruined, when they're left to stand on their tips. There are special brushholders available, if you want to avoid washing your oil painting brushes after every session. They clamp the steel so the tip can hang freely in the turpentine or linseed oil (you can also put a clothes peg on the steel, and leave the brush hanging freely in a glass jar).
The more brushes you have, the less you have to bother about cleaning them, while you’re working.

Brushes for glazing techniques

Glazing means: applying transparent layers, to tweak colors and create depth and atmosphere. It's often done by adding a glossy medium, for this you might need a fine-haired brush. But here's a secret: you can also glaze with almost dry brush, rubbing and scumbling, almost 'cleaning' the canvas dry with your brush. Needless to say, you need sturdy brushes for that. Big, short-haired, rounded bristle brushes work best for that. Dry glazing takes some practice, but it's worth it. The drying time of thin layers is agreeably short.

Alternatives for regular brushes

I’m not familiar with sponge-brushes, I’ve tried them but didn’t get used to them. They won't last long when used as oil paint brushes, because the synthetic material will deteriorate fast. I did try eyeshadow and lipliner brushes of soft hair (a collegue’s advise), and they're really nice. I don't know how long they last, and there's only one size of them, but they are great to handle. So, do check the ladies make-up corner in your local warehouse.

If you want to save money when buying your oil paint brushes, first look into the hardware or house-paint store to see what brushes they have. Buy some broad, flat bristles – great for filling in bigger surfaces. Maybe also big house-painting dagger brush for blending out – and some big round ones with flat tips (they can carry loads of paint). They won't be really cheap though. The smaller normal pig hair brushes from the paintstore are good to have, even if only to remove paint off your canvas, or for mixing on your palette. Just make sure the hairs don’t stand out. And: the cheap ones leave hairs in your work.
For some more refined oil paint brushes, do check the brushes of Blick art supplies, they offer a wide variety of products for every budget.


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