Brushes for Oil Painting

The Expense of Starting Out

Looking at the possibility of purchasing a whole set of brushes from scratch can be daunting, both in knowing which brushes to choose and managing the cost. My recommendation if you are just starting out is to find a cheap set of large filbert or flat bristle brushes (perhaps 4 or 5 between sizes 12-20), an inexpensive set of flat or filbert synthetics of medium to small sizes (5 or so brushes between sizes 4-12), a couple of very small synthetic rounds (size 0 or 2) and then choose 2 or 3 higher quality brushes to try out. This way, you will have enough brushes to cover your needs at the lowest price, which also having a couple high quality brushes to show you the impact quality tools have on your work. As you learn what you like in a brush, you can slowly add to your collection over time.

Natural vs Synthetic Hairs

Natural hairs are not necessarily always better than synthetics, especially in oil painting where absorbency is not requisite for a good brush. Natural hairs include hog bristle, sable, squirrel, etc. Some synthetics may look like and be named after a natural hair. I find that synthetic brushes are easier to keep clean since they lack a cuticle which can trap paint. While affordable coarse bristle brushes are easy to come by, soft natural hairs tend to be more cost prohibitive. It’s hard to find a synthetic that is as soft as a natural sable, but in my opinion the synthetics are adequate for most applications. Rely more on how the hairs of a brush physically feel to the touch than what they are labeled, and you will do fine. I generally look for a brush that feels smooth but snaps back when bent and released. I avoid overly stiff brushes that are scratchy.

Please note that while this is the case for oil paints in my experience, that does not necessarily hold true for other media. For example, in watercolor natural hairs are far superior to synthetics due to their capability of absorbing and releasing water. My understanding is that acrylics do better with synthetics since they more easily resist the effects of water and won't become overly supple or floppy when saturated. A floppy watercolor brush still does a good job of carrying water, while a floppy brush for acrylics lacks the strength to scoop and apply the paint.

Long vs Short Handle

The difference in long and short handle brushes has to do with the distance from the painting surface one usually is when working. For example, watercolor brushes have short handles since work is usually done on a relatively flat surface and so the artist and their hand remain close to the paper. Oil and acrylic painting are usually done on an easel, and painting from life or on larger pieces often necessitates physically stepping back from the canvas while working, and having a long handle can help you paint while maintaining a distance from the work.

This does not mean that you cannot use a short handle brush or watercolor brush while oil painting, but that having the long handle is an advantage for all but the finest details, when you may in fact be nose-to-nose with your work.

Brush Shapes

Flat - As the name implies, this brush shape consists of the hairs arranged in a wide, thin row with the tips aligned at the top to form a flat edge. This brush leaves a defined edge or brush mark behind.

Bright - This is the same as a flat, but all the hairs are shorter. I personally despise brights because the short hairs result in a lot of pressure at the tip, which pushes paint more than it applies paint, and they are harder to clean. 

Filbert - For my purposes this is the most versatile brush shape and the one I rely on most. It is like a flat with the hairs arranged in a thin, wide row, but the tips of the hairs form an arc. This allows for softer, more subtle brush marks. 

Eggbert - A filbert with longer hairs.

Cat's Tongue - A filbert that forms a point in the middle.

Round - A brush with the hairs arranged in a circular grouping and forming a point at the tip. In oil it's used for primarily for detail.

Rigger or Script - A very long round.

Fan - A brush with hairs splayed in a wide, strongly arched, thin fan shape. Used for blending or for textures.

Recommendations for the Ideal Brush Set

The ideal set would consist of brushes in all of the following categories:

 

“Work Horse” Brushes

Pictured above: Winsor & Newton Winton Filbert and Flat Bristle Brushes

These should consist of inexpensive bristle brushes (hog bristle, fake bristle, etc) that are coarse, large, preferably filberts or flats. They should not be so cheap that hairs fall out easily or that the hairs are completely inflexible, but cheap enough that you feel comfortable abusing them. This group can also include worn brushes that are past their prime. Brushes in this category are used for initial rough washes with solvent diluted paint and any activity that may involve scrubbing or other techniques that can damage a brush.

Smooth Pert Brushes

Pictured Above: Winsor & Newton Monarch Filbert

Brushes in this category are used for full-bodied paint application, and creating a thicker, undiluted paint layer while keeping texture to a minimum. Look for brushes that feel silky when dragged across the skin, but that ‘snap’ back quickly when the hairs are bent at an angle from the ferrule. This is a brush that will be able to scoop up large amounts of paint and spread it over the canvas well, while also being soft enough to feather edges. My personal favorite are Winsor & Newton’s Monarch series brushes. I prefer filberts and look for a broad range of sizes since I use these brushes more than any other.

Long-Haired Brushes

Pictured Above: Royal Langnickel SableTek Flat (which is nice and long) and Long Filbert (which is not very long)

 

Pictured Above: Winsor & Newton Monarch Extra Long Flat, Extra Long Filbert, and Fan

Recently I have gotten hooked on brushes that feature a very long hair length in filbert (sometimes called eggbert), flat and fan varieties. The filbert and flat brushes allow me to overlay textured and gently changing layers of color in a way that shorter hairs do not. The longer length allows for much less pressure where the paint contacts the canvas, leading to a different effect than with the pert brushes. Expect more subtle transitions, but covering less area.

Fan brushes and some long flat brushes allow for quick ‘hatching’ as the hairs tend to separate and group once filled with paint. This is helpful not only in painting the skin, but also for hair, fur, and feather textures.

Royal Langnickel SebleTek Flats feature an exceptionally long hair which is perfect for this technique. Ironically their Long Filberts aren’t nearly as long as their flats, but are still useful brushes. Winsor & Newton also have a long filbert and long flat available. Finally, Rosemary Brushes Series 278 Masters Choice has an excellent selection of these longer-haired brushes.

Brushes for Details and Signatures

Pictured Above: Examples of Round and Rigger or Script Brushes

Very small round brushes or long haired-rounds known as “scripts” or “riggers” are great for final details, hatching, and signing. I recommend synthetic brushes whose hairs form a point at the tip. Don’t shy away from watercolor brushes of this type as they will work well with oils.

Regular round brushes are good for controlled mark making and getting in tight areas. Scripts and riggers work well to create smooth, flowing lines with fluid paint. You can use the length of the hair to make gentle turns as the brush follows your lead, reducing the amount of jitter from your hand that comes through in the resulting line.

If you like a list…

This would be a really great starter set for any student:

  • Winsor & Newton Winton Hog Bristle Filbert sizes 10, 12, 16, 18
  • Winsor & Newton Monarch Filbert sizes 4, 6, 8, 10 and Fan size 6
  • Royal Langnickel SableTek Flat sizes 8, 10, 12, 14
  • Utrecht Manglon Synthetic Brushes Round Size 2 and 4

OR Check out this list I prepared on BlickArtMaterials.com! You can get a minimum set with only the "required" items, or a full set by including both the "required" and "recommended" items. See the list here...

 

Materials ListsLacey Lewis