Brushing Up on Oil Paint Brushes: How to Buy and Use 'Em (Plus One Rule to Ignore!)

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Oil paint brushes might look skinny, but they definitely punch above their weight. Those brushes are the most important tools in your art arsenal, so take the time to find the right ones for you. You won't be swiping right on every brush you try, but once you figure out which ones you love using, the happiness factor goes way up.

Buying brushes

While it's not all about price, aim for the best quality you can afford. Sure, professional materials won't make you a professional — not instantly, anyway — but high-quality supplies are totally worth the frustration they'll save you.

A shortlist of excellent brands

When you're shopping for brushes, always look for 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 want. A higher-quality brush holds its shape too, meaning the hairs don't spread too much when loaded, and they don't stay spread out after use.

Parts of an oil paint brush

Every paintbrush has three parts: the bristles, ferrule and handle.

Bristles

These are the hairs that carry the paint. Bristles can be made of stiff hog’s hair or softer sable (or another kind of soft, natural hair). They can also be synthetic. In a quality brush, the ends will taper down to a fine edge, giving you more control.

Ferrule

The ferrule is the metal band that holds the bristles and connects them to the handle. Whatever you do, don't fill your brush with paint up to the ferrule. If paint dries at the ferrule juncture, your brush will be that much harder to clean. Plus the bristles will spread out and your brush will lose its point.

Handle

Handles can be long or short, and they're usually made of wood or plastic. Long-handled brushes are the classic kind. They let you stand back as you're painting, so you can keep your composition in perspective. They have other superpowers too. When you hold your brush near the end of a long handle, it creates a lighter touch on the canvas, and can give a more lyrical effect to your painting. Your brush is basically an extension of your arm and fingertips, not just a painting tool.

Types of oil paint brushes

The two kinds of brushes for oil painting are bristle and sable.

Bristle

While all brushes have bristles, only the hog's-hair ones go by the name "bristle brushes." The hog's hair grabs more paint, so bristle brushes are perfect if you like to lay the paint on thick or accentuate your brushstrokes.

Sable

Sable brushes are the soft kind, and they come in different fibers. Some are made of actual weasel hair (yup, sables are a kind of weasel), and others use squirrel, rabbit or synthetic fibers. Whichever kind you choose, sable brushes are ideal for finer details and smoother blending. Don't fear the synthetic version — many of the newer ones are excellent.

You may have heard the rule that bristle brushes are for oil and sable for watercolor. Ignore it. Sable-type brushes are wonderful for oil painting. Just remember, if you work in both media, absolutely do not go back and forth between oil and watercolor with the same brush. Unless you want to totally ruin your paintings — and your brushes.

Oil paint brush shapes

Fan

The name says it all! This brush is literally a fan-shaped arrangement of bristles, meant to be used for blending and subtle texture. But even though a fan brush looks cool in your paint box, you might want to skip it. The arrangement of hairs is so fine that it can be hard to work with if you're painting with oils, unless the paint is thin.

Round

A round brush is your BF if you're painting details. Some artists consider round brushes less versatile because the stroke doesn’t vary, but when you're working on details, that’s exactly what you want. Smaller rounds are ideal for the job. Large round bristles also work fine for oil painting, but don't use a sable brush for that. Save the round sable brushes for watercolor , since a heavily loaded one can be an unwieldy nightmare when you're painting with oils.

Flats

These long, flat, rectangular brushes carry more paint and can cover more area per load. If you hold one of these brushes flat against the canvas, it creates smooth edges and sweeping strokes. If you paint with the edge, you can make relatively thin lines. Note that sometimes you'll see flat brushes described by their measurements, such as ¼-inch or ½-inch, instead of the brush size (see more on brush sizes below).

Filberts

These are like flats but with rounded sides, so they create a softer edge and blend better than a flat. To get a feel for how they handle, try the Robert Simmons Titanium filberts, which give you coverage, control and blendability.

Brights

A bright brush is kind of like a flat brush, but with shorter hairs. This gives you a bit more control than the longer flats. Smaller bright bristle brushes are great for creating texture if you're painting things like trees or fabric.

Oil paint brush sizes

Brush sizes range from super fine to an inch or more. They're numbered from low to high, so 0000 (or 4/0) is less than 0, and that goes all the way to 24. Different brands can vary in the way they number their sizes, so a No. 6 from one might be slightly larger than a No. 6 from another.

When you're painting with oils, large bristle brushes are best for washes and for the broad areas in backgrounds. Mid-size bristle brushes with sharp edges do well for details, but for finer details you'll want to go for the small, round, sable brushes.

Confused yet? Don't worry, there won't be a quiz. You don't need to memorize the different varieties all at once. You really only need six brushes to start. Begin by investing in a few high-quality, mid-to-large bristle brushes, and a couple small-to-midsize sable brushes. See how they feel and which ones perform best for your style of painting. And don't give up on any one brush right away.

Finding your way around the different brush styles takes time. Think of art supplies like workout gear — no matter how much you buy, you have to actually start using the stuff before you can see results.

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Brushing Up on Oil Paint Brushes: How to Buy and Use 'Em (Plus One Rule to Ignore!)