Choosing Brushes for Oil Painting

The best brushes for beginning oil painters are probably china bristle brushes, which are made from natural pig hair. They're tough and durable enough to stand up to the oil paint and still clean up nicely, and they make a strong mark on the canvas.

You'll also see sable brushes. They're softer and more delicate and very expensive, and they require more care. Sables are great for blending, glazing, and making soft, less-defined marks.

You can also find synthetic-bristle brushes that work very well, but make sure that they're made for oil paints. Technology has greatly improved the quality and affordability of brushes. You can now find a wide variety of synthetic-bristle brushes that work for oil paints and provide years of service at a good price.

Don't let low cost rule the choices you make. You can find good, inexpensive brushes — but don't get the bargain multi-pack brushes that you may find in stores. The hairs will warp in all directions or fall out and become a permanent part of your painting.

The two characteristics you notice in any brush are shape and size. The different shapes allow to you load paint onto the brush and apply the paint in specific ways. Choose the size of the brush according to the size of your painting.

Selecting brush shapes

Here's a list of the brush shapes that will be most useful to you:

  • Flat: This brush has a clean, straight edge for applying color evenly to an area.
  • Bright: A bright is similar to a flat, but it has shorter bristles and makes a distinct calligraphic mark.
  • Round: You generally use this brush for drawing and any type of line.
  • Filbert: Filberts are interesting almond-shaped brushes that make an oval-ish mark; they look like the lovechild of a round and a flat brush.

You can also find other types of brushes that are used for specific purposes. For example, fan brushes are used for blending and textures, and long liner brushes are used for lettering. Experiment with the brushes to find the sizes and shapes that suit your working methods.

Choosing the right brush size

Brushes are sized by numbers based on the width of the brush at the ferrule, the metal sleeve that holds the bristles in place. The size of the brush is related to the size of your painting surface. That means that a brush that's 2 inches wide is designed for a canvas that's at least 2 or 3 feet in either direction. For a 14-x-18-inch canvas, sizes #3 to #6 are best. A 6-x-9-inch canvas requires smaller brushes, and a large canvas of 3 x 4 feet or more calls for very large brushes.

The way you apply paint, your preferred size of brush, and the shape of the brush are very much individual choices. Begin with a #2 round and three or four other brushes in other shapes in sizes #4 through #8. These brushes will get you started, and after several paintings, you'll find that you prefer a particular shape. Then go out and get more!

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