2.2.1_On the paint brush

7August 2007

2.2.1_On the paint brush
Regardless of the tools the oil painter comes to use in his discipline, the oil painter must first learn to control the paint brush. The paint brush is the single most recognized tool used to create works of art,  but the artist must never be limited to its use solely for the application of oil paint.  Although it is the classic tool of the oil painter, it must not be considered the most important.  All tools, as a matter of personal choice, are simply a discipline to learn.  The artist will simply know what tool is best used to achieve each intended concept.  Within compositional oil painting the intended concept of an oil painting supersedes personality and inevitably decides what the tools should be.  Only the indented concept and communication of the work of art dictates what tools to use in its creation.  Through the path of both self and external discovery, the oil painter will use other tools to create works of art.  Afterward, as the oil painter matures, he will return to the use of the brush.

Paint brushes are made up of three basic parts:  the head, the ferrule, and the handle.  The head is the hairs or bristles of the brush.  The head has three parts: the toe, the belly, and the heel.  The shape and bristle quality of the head determines the nature of the stroke that it will make.  The ferrule is the metal cylinder, preferably seamless, that attaches the head to the handle.  The handle is typically made of wood and is self explanatory in its purpose and use.  The professional oil painter should only use a long wooden handle, as the short handled plastic brush is for the hobbyist.  The oil painter has more control over the paint with a long handled brush.

The question of the expense of a paint brush is always in debate.  I tell you now, cheap tools equal cheap results, and the oil painter that can not tell the difference between a cheaply constructed paint brush and an expensive one, is not a professional, and subsequently their opinion                                          on the matter is without merit.
Neither natural hair or synthetic bristle paint brushes are better than the other, as there are benefits to using both bristle types.  The outer casing of natural hair, the cuticle, is covered with tiny scales that help the bristles retain moisture.  Natural hair also has a hollow tube within each filament that allows the hair to absorb moisture called the medulla.  These features make natural hair vastly more absorbent than synthetic hair, therefore natural hair will always hold more color than its man-made counterpart.  Natural hair paint brushes work with any medium and become more attuned to a single medium’s use.  Synthetic bristle paint brushes are far more durable, making them longer-lasting, resistant to wearing out, and to being damaged by use with solvents and harsh paint.  Synthetic hair bristles are easier to clean because they lack the ultra-absorbent qualities of natural bristles.  As a result, synthetic brushes are better suited than natural brushes to use with oils due to their resiliency to the paint’s caustic effects.

As a preference to which bristle type is best to use, I say natural hair brushes.  The professional oil painter should use the finest grade of natural hair paint brushes.  Keep them clean and care for them, and the will outlast a synthetic brush.  Also natural hair is simply better because it is natural.  There is a physical and metaphysical connection between the painter and his materials and tools.  That connection is somehow stronger if the materials and tools are natural rather than synthetic.

There are a number of paint brush types varying from size, shape, and body for various purposes in working with oil paints.  The most common brush types are: flat, bright, fan, filbert, egbert, liner, round, flat wash, mop, and the angular.  They are named for both their appearance and use with paints.

The flat brush, with its flat rectangular body and square chisel edge, is the perfect brush for applying large amounts of color both quickly and evenly.  It holds plenty of paint for applying thick amounts, as it creates long straight brush strokes.  The flat is excellent for softly defining compositional elements that have a straight edge to them.  I find the flat most useful in applying the underpainting when clarity and precision are not too important, but applying a large amount of paint is.

The bright brush has the same chisel edge as a flat, but with shorter bristle length.  It comes to a fine chisel edge when loaded with paint.  The short square head of the bright makes it ideally suited for straight lines, applying broad strokes with a controlled edge, and well-defined brush strokes.  The bright’s capabilities of finely detailed forms makes it perfect for overpainting and finial editing.  I use the bright for all geometric forms and the overpainting of large areas of negative space to redefine positive spaces.

The fan brush is shaped into a flat profile with a curved edge spread as a hand-held fan.  The fan is designed for delicately blending color and softening edges, creating dusty-like strokes when painting objects such as clouds, and distant foliage.  I consider the fan brush a gimmick, and it should not be used by the professional oil painter who can reproduce the brushstrokes that it creates with a filbert.

The filbert brush has the body of a flat brush with a slightly rounded edge point.  The filbert is extremely versatile and is used to create as a flat to make broad strokes or as a round for more delicate and tapered strokes.  I use the filbert for softening the edges of forms and fading small areas of change in color value.  The filbert is the macro lense of oil painting with its dual ability to focus a finely detailed stroke and fade oil color, softly blurring its appearance. 

The Egbert brush is similar to a filbert in that it has the same rounded edge, only with much longer bristles.  Its flat ferrule and long bristles can carry more color than a filbert.  It is as long as the liner brush and it is most commonly used for thick long tapered lines, and blending value changes.  I have no personal use for the Egbert, and I find it lacking in self control as a result of its length.

The liner brush has a slender round head with very long bristles that comes to a thin tip that is ideal for working with tiny details.  The length of its body holds a lot of oil color allowing it to deliver color continuously in a single stroke when painting long lines.  The thin tip creates fine lines like no other brush type.  This brush is commonly called a “rigger” for its use in painting the rigging on ships.  I used the liner previously with well worked oil color to achieve the immediate effects of small detail.

The round brush has a thick round head with bristles that taper to a fine point at the end.  It is used for precise strokes of fine detail work.  Like the liner brush, the round hold a great deal of paint and is best used with slightly thinned paints; albeit, thinned oil paints fade away, crack, and slowly become transparent with time.  I do not recommend its use.  Simply work the oil color on the pallet until it is soft enough to achieve the desired effect.

The flat wash brush is an extra-large flat.  It is primarily used for  painting with watercolors, but is useful to the oil painter as a dry brush to remove all trace of brushstroke.  I use the flat wash with oils as a dry-brush for soft surface color blending and smoothing.  It is ideal for blending surface area to a smooth transition between color and value changes, without disturbing the underpainting.  

The mop brush has a large flappy fat body and is shaped into an oval or rounded thick edge.  The mop is used for delicately glazing so as to not disturb the underpainting.  It is useful as a dry-brush for blending large amounts of surface color.  I personally find the mop brush a useless gimmick.

The angular brush is similar to the build and body of the flat, with the edge angled at a tapered slant.  The angular brush has a flat edge and a pointed tip, allowing for both wide and thin strokes.  The tip is its most valued feature, as it can easily reach areas within a painting that are between sections you do not wish to disturb.  The tight details the angular can reach are virtually impossible to work with a larger brush.  I use the angular for precise details in color forms where a mistake, i.e. coloring outside the lines, would be nearly irreversible.

Taking care of paint brushes to keep them supple, resilient, and like new, is essential to increase their longevity and to extend their usefulness.  Simply use soap and water to get them clean.  I prefer using liquid dish-soap.  Do not leave a paint brush sitting bristle-side down in a solvent for days on end.  This will cause the brush to lose its original shape as the bristles will splay out from time spent soaking and softening, making them weaker and more susceptible to the weight of the handle.  Ideally the oil painter will want to clean paint and solvent residue off his brushes immediately after each use.  Do not use the same paint brush for different mediums or colors.  Each kind of paint, and the solvents used to clean it, affect the bristles differently.  Using the same paint brush with different kinds of paint will rapidly destroy it.

Furthermore, the oil painter should have six classifications of each brush type and size based on color usage.  Separating brush use by blues, reds, greens, yellows, whites and blacks.  Even though the painter will always mix and blend colors of different hues together, each brush he uses should almost exclusively be used with one color hue.  There will always be a small amount of paint left inside the ferrel of the brush, and using a freshly cleaned brush that was first used with one color for another, causes unintentional mixing and color changes within a painting.  Sometimes the result is disastrous, when the paints color turns to a grey green mud as a result of poor cleaning.  In this way the oil painter extends the lasting usefulness of his paint brushes.  I have six brushes of each type and size. So if I own a bright #4, I own at least six of them.