Oil Painting Brushes

Natural hair is best for oil painting 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 also the DIY painting shop. Only: cheap DIY bristle brushes, may leave hairs in your work, that you have to pinch out all the time.

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Natural hair for 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. They give long and lasting pleasure, if you treat them well

Bristle gives a textured, 'ropey' stroke. Ox and pony hair is smoother, but has little "snap". Snap is, the stiffness or resilience of the brush, the ability to keep its shape and resist the pressure of your hand. The more 'snap', the more paint you can push out of the brush.

Dagger blends very well, and marter has both blending smoothness and the "snap". They're really nice to work with. 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.

Brush forms and shapes

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 precise 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. For detailed work, it's nice to have a sharp tip.

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. Poking a brush into the canvas is not something you want to do with a fine Kolinsky... For that, buy bristle brushes, eventually 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 Blicks' brushes here, for brushes in every budget.

Cleaning your oil painting brushes

You can clean your oil painting 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 painting 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.

Alternatives?

I’ve tried sponge-brushes but couldn't get used to them. Synthetic material doesn't last long in oils anyway. Make up brushes made a better experience (a collegue’s advice). The best ones are smaller brushes with short hair (eyeshadow, lipliners). The hair doesn't have much 'snap', but that's OK when they're not too long. The hairs are extremely fine and great for blending. The ones I had tend to break easily - they don't last too long, but the price generously makes up for that. So, do check the ladies make-up corner in your local warehouse.

If you want to save money when buying your oil painting 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.

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