Tuesday, February 24, 2015


From the beginning it should acknowledged out that many of you can make a fine painting already. If you've picked up a brush and experimented with pushing paint around on your own you've likely developed some useful tricks and techniques. The understanding you've developed will help you a lot in this class. More than anything you'll learn in this class, the eagerness to tackle the medium on your own will carry you forward after this class in developing into a skilled artist.

Although some of you have worked with paint before, it's unlikely that any of you can just do anything you want with the medium at this point. Otherwise you wouldn't be in this class. In order to be able to do that it's important to break things down into manageable, understandable chunks and then put it all back together. So, please keep that in mind. Some things may seem elementary, but there's still something there for you to learn. 



Brushes are made from natural hairs or synthetic fibers. There are two basic types (with a lot of variation), soft and stiff. Soft brushes are good for thin paint which spreads easily, and for detailed work as they form a sharp point which allows for precision painting. Robust, hard brushes are ideal for pushing around thick paint and for creating brushy impasto in the paint.

The number one problem with recommending brushes is that you get what you pay for. Cheap brushes really suck and nice brushes make painting so much more enjoyable. The number two problem compounds the first problem, everyone likes different shapes and types of bristles. The third thing is that you don't really need that many. Especially for water color, you can do just fine with three or four. It's just about impossible to tell you to to go buy four good quality brushes of a particular brand, size, and shape. You might not like them. Your money will have been wasted.

Instead, I'm going to say go buy the cheapest variety pack you can find. Most likely these brushes will be total garbage, but they'll last long enough for you to see which ones you keep picking up. At any art supply store you can get yourself a variety pack like the one below for $8 or $10. These are cheap brushes and are not going to last very long but they'll last long enough for you to figure out which ones you prefer. As you you what out what you like and dislike in a brush you can go buy nicer ones as you need them.

Now, that's not all there is to paint brushes. I said there are two types, natural hair or synthetic. But there is a lot of variety within those types. The most common types of natural hair brushes, from softest to stiffest, include Squirrel, Sable and Hog's hair. There are also badger bristle brushes but they're not commonly used for the type of painting we'll be doing.

Understanding which brushes are for particular things is just as important as knowing what they're made of. Trying to use a hog bristle brush for watercolor is just futile, it won't hold any paint at all. On the other hand trying to push thick paint around with squirrel hair is going to end with a ruined brush.

Squirrel brushes

These are the softest, have the least spring and memory and hold the most liquid. Being soft means a squirrel hair brush won't really push paint around, instead it will bend when pressed. Not being very springy and not having much memory means the brush will tend not to return to it's original shape after you press it out of shape. You can dip it in water to get it back to it's original shape, but it's not practical to keep doing that while you work. And loading it with paint is just going to push it back out of shape. I tend to use squirrel brushes, whatever size they are, more like a mop than a brush. These characteristics make it good for watercolor or ink washes and most squirrel brushes are made for those media.

Sable Brushes

Sable is soft, springy, has memory and it holds on to water. Being soft means it will push paint around but not much Instead it will bend when pressed. Being springy and having memory means it will return to it's original shape and retain that shape over a long period of time - if you take good care of it. These characteristics make it good for watercolor and oil paint. Many many artists use only sable brushes.

Hog Brushes

Hog bristles are the stiffest and don't hold much moisture. They're not good for water color at all, unless you're trying to get some particular effect. Artists prefer them for pushing oil paint around and building up thick impasto.

Synthetic Brushes

Synthetics are not always completely synthetic. They're meant to mimic one of the types of natural hair brushes and will usually contain some of those same hairs. Mainly, adding synthetic bristles is a way to make brushes less expensive. There are some high quality synthetic brushes and some professional artists even prefer them. But most synthetic brushes are student grade and they tend not to hold water well, so they're not great for water colors. Again, it's a good idea to buy these while you're learning as they're less expensive and will give you an idea of what a specific brush is supposed to do. Once you know what you like and which brushes you tend to use you can buy nicer natural hair brushes as you need them.

Brush Shape

In addition to the type of bristle, you need to consider what shape of brush to use. This begins to get into very subjective territory as different artists work in different ways. It's a little like having a preference for ball point pens vs fountain pens. There are reasons to like either but that preference comes with experience. The basic shapes that we're concerned with here are Rounds, Flats and Filberts. Most of the other shapes are specialty brushes that have their place in particular situations.

Filbert brushes tend to be the preferred shape for oils and acrylics. They are a good all around brush that can be used for blocking in (filling in areas of color) and for blending. If you use only the point of the brush it can also be used for some detail work. You can do almost everything you need to with a few different sizes of filberts. Add a couple of small rounds and you can do just about anything.

Round brushes are best with watercolor as the mass of bristles holds water well but the tip allows for careful detail. The pointy tip makes them useful with oils and acrylics for the same reason. Although you need to be careful not to let it soak up too much paint and clean it carefully. Any oil or acrylic drying in the body of the brush will ruin it.

Flat brushes are used with oils, acrylics and watercolors mainly for blocking in. Some students will try to force flat brushes to do more than they're designed to do, trying to use the corners for detail work, etc. But it never really looks as good as it could have. Generally, I use flats for water color and don't sue them for oils at all. Some people prefer them for acrylics.

Mop brushes are good for watercolor washes and some artists prefer them for that. However, they hold a ton of liquid and things can get out of control quickly unless you really want to move a lot of color. I prefer a flat for washes as they work well for and things are easier to keep under control.

Having said all of this, I still recommend that you start out with something like the variety pack above. It contains most of the shapes and types of brushes and will give you a chance to experiment with each of them to see what you prefer. It'll take some time to work that out, but by then it will be time to replace the brushes you use the most anyway and you can get a nice ones that you know you will use and enjoy.


There are lots of options for paints at all sorts of price ranges. Here's a secret about them, expensive paints are a waste of money. All paints are made from the same stuff. From cheap paints almost all the way to expensive paints they are all made with marble dust, dye and some kind of binder. All watercolors use the same binder. All oil paints use the same binder. All acrylics use very similar binders.

However, the most expensive paints don't use dyed marble dust, they use minerals that have to be mined from the earth. I don't know anyone who can tell the difference between those minerals and dyed marble dust. So, unless you can tell the difference, high end paints are really a waste of money.

The real difference between paints is in the amount of pigment. Cheaper paints contain less pigment. More expensive paints contain more pigment. Now you might think that more pigment is better. But if you're into thin glazes or transparent washes you might prefer to have less pigment and therefore prefer cheaper brands.

There are still lesser differences to be aware of. There are differences in the workability of different paints because of variations in the ratios of materials used to make them. Manufacturers each have different, but still fairly similar, workability standards they work to. For example, less pigment and more oil is going to make for a looser oil paint. A manufacturer might try to make up for that by adding a stiffening agent.

Now, having said all of that, you should still be aware that the very cheapest paints will tend to have some consistency and quality control issues. Good, middle price range paints will be of good quality and will be exactly the same every time you buy them.

For the moment, it's a good idea to check out different brands of paint at different price points. Don't be afraid to experiment. I've never bought a tube of paint I wasn't happy with. Buy small tubes at first. You might discover that you prefer Rembrandt's alizarin crimson to Windsor and Newton's. You might prefer VanGogh's phthalo green. If you buy big tubes it'll take you forever to work through that process. Any time you meet another artist ask them about the paint they use and what they like about it.