All about paint brushes

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I thought I would talk a bit about paint brushes this week. Most of my readers are watercolour artists but a few of you enjoy using acrylics and oils, too. I hope that this blog will help you to understand which brush you should use for a particular effect but also remind you that there are no rules. So, once you know them you can break them. Watercolour artists tend to use short-handled brushes and whilst the shapes are often the same as oil and acrylic artists brushes, watercolourists’ brushes are generally are soft.

Up until the 19th century, most artists had to be creative and make their own brushes as none were manufactured, at least not to the extent that we have today. The invention of a metal ferrule – the crimped metal ring which fastens the bristles together – along with the addition of handles allowed not only for consistency in the production of brushes but also revolutionised the styles and shapes which could be made. This, in turn, meant that tools capable of making a huge array of different marks were available to artists.

Today, there is a vast amount of choice available when buying brushes, which can be extremely overwhelming. Artists can choose between brushes containing animal hair, synthetic filaments, or a mix of animal and synthetic. Since their introduction in the 1970s, synthetic (polyester) filaments have become the most commonly used material.

Typically, where animal hair is used, the main varieties are hog, sable or mongoose (there are a few other species) and they all have synthetic equivalents which mimic the marks the “organic” brushes make. Then you need to consider the shape and what you, the artist, want your brush(es) to do for you. This varies from those designs which show your brush marks, to super soft smooth brushes for no marks, thick strokes, long fluid lines, or maybe even something completely different. It’s hardly surprising the vast choice is overwhelming.

For oil and acrylic painters, soft bristles will produce a smooth paint finish. When blending flat paint surfaces using sable, mongoose or a soft synthetic brush will produce similar effects. The paint needs to be on the fluid side when using these brushes as they are not strong and therefore not able to apply heavier-bodied paints. This also means that these brushes are not ideal when going for a wet in wet technique, which requires the use of firmer paints. If you want to produce works that feature animal hair, human hair or grasses, long-bristled soft brushes are ideal for this kind of mark.

For artists looking for brushes which make marks in the paint to give a textured effect, coarser hog bristle brushes, which are stiff, are a better choice, as are their synthetic equivalents. Because of their coarse nature these brushes can be loaded with paint making them ideal for working in layers or creating impasto works. If these brushes are used with a fluid paint or not loaded with very much paint, the marks tend to be scratchy and mean looking.

In the world of artistic painters there are ten types of brushes which you should know about: Round; Liner; Flat; Bright; Angled; Fan; Rigger; Filbert; Wash; and Mop.

Round brushes are the most popular and probably the most adaptable type. They are available in a wide variety of sizes (and prices) but are great for washes and for covering large areas of your paper quickly. They are also ideal for sketching, outlining, and creating thin to thick lines. They have a fine point when new (and if they are looked after), which makes it easy to go from the fine line at the tip to a large fat line when the body of the brush is pushed into the paper. You can get round brushes with blunt edges, too. The pointed brushes are for the fine detail, but blunt versions are great for filling in.

Liner brushes are perfect for producing fine details, allowing you to produce sharp lines. These brushes come in both long and short versions to give flexibility in the type of crips lines you want to produce.

Flat or wash brushes are perfect for creating long crisp lines but also great for spreading colour quickly, depending on the particular type. With a flat brush its capacity to hold paint is determined by the number of bristles in the brush and their length. A short haired version will hold far less paint than its long-haired counterpart. The fun thing to try with this brush is experimenting with its ability to make fine and thick lines by using it on its side as well as on the flat.

These brushes are known as Bright brushes, and they have a filament length that is nearly equal to its width which means Brights can be used with heavy-bodied paint and will hold a modest amount of colour. This brush is ideal for short strokes and leaves a square edge. I have tried to find the origin of this brush’s name for you but come up empty-handed.

Angled brushes also fall into the category of producing crisp lines and are particularly useful if you need to paint an edge close to another edge or object. Fan brushes are great for creating special effects like hair and fur, but not restricted to these as several lines or dots can be created at the same time using this brush.

The fan brush, as the name suggests, is fan shaped and is a finishing brush. It is used to make final delicate marks as it doesn’t hold very much paint but does produce interesting marks ideal for fur, hair, or grass.

Rigger brushes were originally made, as their name suggests, for painting the rigging on ships. They are very long, thin and hold a large amount of fluid paint allowing artists to produce long, thin lines. They are also used by artists painting trees and plants, and in calligraphy.

The Filbert brush is made with long bristles but is flat with a rounded tip. A variety of different marks can be made using this brush. With the square flat edge, it can produce marks ranging from broad to lines as well as making flat patches of colour with no brush marks when used on its side in a kind of scribbling motion. This kind of brush is perfect for, and much used by, figurative painters.

In case you are interested, the name Filbert apparently comes from the hazelnut whose shape the tip of the brush is supposed to resemble. There was a seventh century French saint called Philibert, whose feast day in August coincided with the annual ripening of the hazelnut. So, now you know.

Wash brushes are generally, but not exclusively, used by watercolourists. They are wide and flat, designed to hold a lot of water and paint and to create large areas of colour.

Also used for creating washes are Mop brushes. These thick, round brushes can have an oval form or can be pointed but they create large washes of colour.

Artists paint brushes, all about them

As for the size of the brush, when picking out new ones, particularly if you are placing an order online, which most of us have had to over the past couple of years, just remember the higher the number on the brush the bigger it is, or more accurately, the more bristles it holds.

Now that you have a bit more information about that collection of brushes you have stashed away and hardly use, get them out, have a play and with the knowledge above, go break the rules. Just one thing to remember here. A stiff hog brush used repeatedly on your delicate watercolour paper is going to damage it, but that might be a look you find a perfect use for.

If your brushes have become damaged from overuse, please don’t just discard them. I have lots of brushes that I have ‘ruined’ but which give me marks I could never make with a perfectly-formed brush. Have a play, see what marks you can get and give that brush a whole new different life.

And make sure that you have fun.

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