Paintbrushes: Art and Science
by Aisling D'Art
Whether you're painting the Sistine Chapel or a collage support, you need a good
brush. Here are important things to consider:
First, you need to decide the detail and texture of your finished project.
If you are just covering a canvas board or piece of wood with paint for a collage or
assemblage project, texture may not be important to you. If so, a disposable 25-cent sponge brush from
WalMart or Michael's may be fine.
If you are doing a painting, or something with multiple colors, a real brush is better. If
you want a surface with either suggested or obvious brush strokes, a brush is imperative. Sponge
brushes leave a stippled, sponge-like texture at best, and most people drag the brush so the
surface is perfectly smooth.
Next, you'll want to decide what you're painting with. It is the single most
important factor in choosing a brush.
Brushes vary in size, material, and glues. The latter is more important than most people
If you're painting with most oil paints, your brush will never contact water except during
Therefore, when oil painting brushes are made, the fibers in the brush can be held in place with
a glue that is somewhat water soluble.
If you're using acrylics or watercolors, your brush will have steady contact with water. The
bristles are held in place using techniques not affected by water.
So, if you use one of the newer "water soluble" oil paints with an oil painting brush, you
must be careful not to let the brush sit in the water, as you might with a brush intended for
acrylic use. Otherwise, the bristles will start falling out with repeated use.
So, the amount of time your brush will contact water determines what kind of brush you select:
The one from the oil painters' collection, or one intended for use with acrylics.
Next, consider bristle type. If you're layering on a wash of color, you'll want a brush that
is soft and holds a good amount of liquid in the bristles. For this, a sable-like brush is good.
Kolinsky sable is generally the top of the line. Faux sable is generally more
within the average budget.
Also, stories of the Impressionists such as Monet claim that they used soft, sable-type brushes
to apply thick blobs of oil paint. However, an equal number claim that they used the hog-type
(light tan colored bristles) brushes, which are stiff enough to support a heavy blob of paint.
The softer brushes generally leave fewer brush marks. If you want "bristle lines" in your
finished product to show that it really is hand painted, choose a stiff brush.
I apply the larger areas of color with hog bristles, and rely on soft, sable-type brushes
for only the finest detailing. In actual use, more than half my brushes are stiff, hog-type
Remember that hog bristles soften quickly with use. Also, many brushes are prepared with
a sizing to stiffen them for display in stores. As soon as the brushes are used, the sizing
dissolves. So, don't let the rigid appearance of a brush scare you off.
Finally, select the best brush sizes. We'll discuss that on the