Whether you’re a beginner painter or an experienced artist who just needs a refresher, let’s brush up on the most important tool in your painting arsenal: your oil paint brushes.
Resplendent Grapes via Dorothy Lorenze, using medium and small round sable brushes.
A little trial and error may be required when working with a new oil painting brush, but this blog post should point you in the right direction. I’ll explain distinct types and shapes of oil paint brushes.
Buying oil paint brushes
While it’s not all about price, it’s a good idea to get the best quality you can afford. Professional materials do not a “professional” make, but supplies that perform well will reduce your level of frustration.
Some excellent oil paint brush brands include:
Two qualities to look for in every oil painting brush are “spring” and “shape” resiliency. A brush should have enough spring to respond well to your hand when you make a stroke. It should give a little — but not too much — so you get the stroke weight you desire. A higher quality brush holds its shape, meaning the hairs don’t spread too much when loaded or stay spread after use.
Parts of a oil paint brush
Starting with the basics, there are three parts of a paintbrush: bristles, ferrule and handle.
These are the “hairs” that carry the paint. Bristles can be stiff hog’s hair or softer sable (or other soft natural hair) or synthetic. In a quality brush, the ends will taper to a fine edge, allowing more control.
The ferrule is the metal band that secures the bristles and connects them to the handle. Avoid filling your brush with paint up to the ferrule. If paint dries at the ferrule juncture, it’s harder to clean and will spread the bristles, making the brush lose its point.
Handles are long or short, wood or plastic. Long-handled brushes are classic and allow you to take a farther view to keep your composition in perspective. When you hold your brush toward the end of a long handle, it touches the canvas in a more sensitive way, creating a more lyrical painting. Think of your brush as an extension of your arm and fingertips rather than a writing utensil.
Types of paint brushes
The two distinctly different types of brushes for oil painting are bristle and sable.
While all brushes have bristles, it’s the stiffer hog’s hair brushes that are referred to as bristle brushes. The stiff hog’s hair grabs more paint so bristle brushes are great if you work thickly or like to accentuate brushstrokes.
Sable brushes are soft and can be made from actual weasel hair (yep, sables are a kind of weasel), squirrel, rabbit or synthetic fibers. These soft brushes are perfect for finer details and smoother blending. Do not fear the synthetic brush — many newer ones are excellent.
We usually think of bristle brushes for oil and sable for watercolor. But sable-type brushes are wonderful for oil painting. Just remember, if you work in both media, do not go back and forth between oil and watercolor with the same brush. Chaos will ensue!
Oil paint brush shapes
This is literally a fan-shaped arrangement of bristles. It’s a sweet-looking little brush, meant to be used for blending and subtle texture. Truthfully, the spread of hairs is generally so fine that I don’t find it especially useful for oils unless the paint is thin. But a fan brush does look cool in your paint box!
Round brushes are said to be less versatile because the stroke doesn’t vary, but that’s exactly the attribute needed when painting details! That’s why smaller rounds are great for detail. Large round bristles work OK for oils, but save the soft rounds for watercolor. A heavily loaded, round sable brush can be unwieldy for oil painting.
This is like a flat but with rounded sides, so it creates a softer edge and blends better than a flat. My first favorite brushes were Robert Simmons Titanium filberts because they had the coverage, control and blend-ability I was looking for.
Long, flat, rectangular brushes. Longer brush hairs carry more paint, so flats can cover more area per load. Held flat against the canvas, it creates smooth edges and sweeping strokes. Used on edge, relatively thin lines are possible. Sometimes flats are described by measurement, such as ¼” or ½” rather than brush sizes (more on brush sizes below).
These are similar to a flat brush, but the hairs on brights are shorter. This allows a bit more control than the longer flat brush. Smaller bright bristle brushes are my go-to for texture, whether painting trees or fabric.
Lemon Light painting via Dorothy Lorenze using large and medium synthetic filberts
Understanding oil paint brush sizes
Brushes sizes range from super fine to an inch or more. They are numbered low to high, 0000 (or 4/0) being less than 0, and up to 24. Different brands will vary somewhat, so a No. 6 from one might be slightly larger than a No. 6 from another.
In oil painting, large bristle brushes are best for washes and the broad areas of backgrounds. Mid-size bristle brushes with sharp edges can also be used for some detail. Finer details are best accomplished with small, round, sable brushes.
Confused yet? Don’t fret. Start by investing in a few high-quality mid-to-large bristle brushes, and a couple of small-to-midsize sable brushes. See how they feel and which perform best for your style of painting. Six brushes should be enough to start. Spend some time with them. Because art supplies are like workout gear — no matter how much gear you buy, nothing improves until you use it!