Do you really need all those brushes? by Dan Schultz
How does one go about choosing brushes for oil painting? Perhaps you’ve noticed that the search can be daunting. One visit to an art supply store or online retailer reveals the almost endless brushes from which to choose.
I discovered a few things early in my painting journey that have helped me keep my brush choices simple. Perhaps they can help you too. (It should be noted that I prefer to paint wet-into-wet whenever possible, so that has influenced my brush decisions.)
Stiff vs. Soft: One thing I learned is the difference between stiff bristle brushes and softer sable or mongoose brushes. Bristle brushes offer more durability and can put up with a bit of abuse. They’re great for filling in large areas quickly and for scrubbing, scribbling and scumbling. Softer brushes tend to be more fragile and must be treated with more care. They excel in smooth paint application, glazing and softening effects.
Brush Shapes: I also discovered some things about different brush shapes. And my experience revealed that flat brushes offer a full range of application possibilities without the need for other brush shapes. Using just a flat brush, a painter can make a surprising number of different marks including:
- filling in large areas with the wide flat side
- making thin lines with the long narrow side
- sharply dividing shapes with the narrow flat tip
- making small detail marks with the corners
You may ask, “Don’t you need other brushes like rounds, filberts and brights?” In my opinion, the detail marks that can be made with the corners of a flat brush eliminate the need for a round brush. I don’t need to buy filberts because my flats eventually turn into filberts as they wear down. And brights simply don’t hold enough paint for me and also lack the bounce of longer flat brushes.
My Brush of Choice: As a result of these discoveries, the flat has become my brush of choice and the majority of my paintings are completed with just two types of flat brushes: the flat hog bristle and the flat mongoose.
The Flat Hog Bristle
The flat hog bristle is quite versatile. It can hold a lot of paint for thick impasto work or be used to paint thin washes. It has a nice springy quality. For years I used this brush exclusively, but at this point I do about 80% of each of my paintings with flat hog bristle brushes. I mainly use sizes 2 – 12 but occasionally use larger sizes for larger paintings (my largest is a size 35!). I’m currently using Creative Mark Pro Stroke Series 77F, but the brand doesn’t really matter as long as the bristles don’t fall out too easily.
The Flat Mongoose
I’ve since added a flat brush made with mongoose hair by Royal & Langnickel. However, these brushes have been discontinued due to the endangered status of Indian Mongoose. Happily, Rosemary & Co. offers a high-quality replacement made with a blend of badger hair. The softness of these brushes offers the ability to lay down thick paint on top of an already thick stroke without digging into the lower thick stroke the way the stiffer hog bristle would. They’re also great for softening edges and for detail work. I mainly use these for finishing effects as I approach a painting’s completion. I use sizes 2 – 12 in these brushes as well. The remaining 20% of each of my paintings are done with these brushes, as well as a few other tools for special effects.
Special Effects: Occasionally, I employ a brush called an egbert. It’s an extra long filbert that can hold a lot of paint and has an extra measure of bounce. After a lot of use, egberts also develop a ragged character that makes for some fantastic brushwork. I mainly use them for a few final, strategically-placed strokes of thick impasto.
I’ll also occasionally use a palette knife or paper towel for certain effects, but I’m admittedly mostly a brush painter. (Although you’ll often catch me at plein air painting shows touching up paintings with my fingers after I’ve put my brushes away. But I usually end up just getting them out again because I haven’t figured out how to make convincing brush strokes with my fingers.)