Using Paint Brushes and Palette Knives

Paint brushes define a great deal of the look of your work - different brushes make different strokes. The look of your strokes is defined by:

  • the form and size of your brushes
  • the kind of hairs or fibers they are made of
  • the amount of paint in your brushes or on your palette knife. A brush full of paint is a “loaded” brush
  • the thickness of your paint (and the way it “flows”)
  • your gestures

The shape of your paint brushes

There are round and flat brushes, with round, square or sharp tips. A flat brush can hold less paint then a round one. A flat brush with a square tip will give well-defined broad strokes, with a sharp edge. For soft, blurry strokes, take a flat brush with a rounded tip. Thin, sharp lines can be drawn with a round, sharp-tipped pencil. It doesn't matter how thick it is: if it has a sharp tip, it will give a thin line. By pushing it down, the line will be thicker.

Check out the paint brushes department at Blick art materials (click on the picture), and maybe keep these pages at hand to check on the kinds of brush fibers you need for your specific painting technique.

Paint brush materials

There are all kinds of paint brushes, made of natural or synthetic fibres, or even sponge. For oil painnting techniques, use natural haired brushes. Click here for more on oil paint brushes. For acrylic painting techniques, use synthetic brushes. Also for latex (that you use in faux painting techniques), because bristles take up lots of water out of the paint.

Ideal paint brushes have soft hairs that don't leave strokes, and yet a firmness that enable you to regulate the amount of pressure you make. For oils, that would be marter-haired paint brushes. They're not cheap, but well worth their money. But for wilder techniques, you might as well use brushes from the DIY paint store. Synthetic brushes that have all these wonderful features are much cheaper. For a cheap alternative to marter hair, check the ladies make-up corner. There you can sometimes find really soft eyeshadow brushes, made of real hair, for a fraction of the costs in the art supplies store. They don't last as long, but the prize makes up for that.

Is it loaded or unloaded?

A brush full of paint gives a full stroke, and a brush with just a little paint on it can give a transparant misty haze, consisting of tiny little dots. That is: if your canvas is still dry. When there’s already a lot of paint on the surface, a dry brush will take paint off rather than putting it on. Painting with a loaded brush is also more difficult on an already wet canvas - the colors then mix on the canvas. If you don't want that, you might want to take some paint off first, with a cloth, a dry brush, or a palette knife.

For blending oil painting techniques, first you put on your colors with loaded paint brushes. After that, you take a soft dry brush, and softly drag it over your work’s surface, making the first strokes dissappear. After each stroke, you dry the brush with a cloth. In this way, the strokes more or less dissapear. In contemporary painting, a popular effect is to drag horizontal dry-brush strokes over a painted surface. It gives the suggestion of a distorted screen. For a stripy effect, take a bristle brush. (check the German painter Gerhard Richter)

When you paint, the thickness of the paint defines the amount of ‘flow’. If you need long, flowing strokes, your paint has to be rather thin. First dip your brush in turpentine. If necessary, dilute your oil paint with a little turpentine first (no zest-it, that’s only for cleaning).


Thin paintstrokes are more transparent than thick paintstrokes. Don’t only use turpentine for putting on transparant layers, unless it’s the first layer. Putting transparant coats on thicker layers of paint is called glazing. You need to add extra paining medium then (remember fat over lean). But glazing can be done by dry brushing too. Dabbing a big round almost-dry brush can create transparent mists and clouds of color. Wet glazing can look a bit watery, when the paint is too thin. For both wet and dry glazing, the underground-layer (that you work on) has to be thoroughly dry.

The palette knife

If you like a rough texture, the palette knife has interesting possibilities. You don’t have to mix the paint on your palette: putting different shades on the knife gives a more interesting effect. You put on paint, drag it, dab it, scrape it off. Try it and see what you can do. It allows you to learn about the structural qualities of oil paint. Do mind the rules on “fat over lean” and “thick over thin”.

Practicing paint strokes

It’s a good thing to practice your strokes. The way you move your paint brushes defines a lot of the look-and-feel of your paintings, in defining the look of your strokes. There are different techniques and gestures.

You can

  • make completely controlled gestures in a medatitive way
  • go at your painting like an expressionist wildman, making erratic gestures
  • do something inbetween 'total control'and 'wild', and develop your own signature
  • take a big dry soft dagger brush, and blend away all your brushstrokes.

All ways of painting can be interesting and beautiful. The most interesting is, to have a conscious combination of different painting techniques in brushing and gesture. A good painter has a conscious way of brushing. He or she chooses a way of brushing that is fit for the job.

Artistic freedom

If you want to gain freedom in doing your painting techniques, it's good to first excercise precise, controlled and regular brush strokes. Try to paint perfect concentric circles or squares, just for study.
After you’ve learned to do precise and controlled strokes, you can go back to the expressionist way, or paint in any way you want to. Because: then you will be free in your gestures. You’ll be like a trained dancer, compared to someone who always walks his same old way. This freedom of gesture and expression is what make painting so satisfying. Without this freedom, painting is a lot less fun.

A nice story about a renaissance painter: He was asked by his commisioner, if he was good enough, for the job. The painter then took a brush and painted in one stroke a perfect circle. That was real proof, and he got the commission.

You can also practice your strokes on paper with acrylic paint, if you want to. Another way to practice: with water on a slate of leystone or a chalkboard (check the internet for “buddha board”). It's a really nice tool for meditation as well

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