The Tools We Use: Brushes

When considering what to write about this week, I instantly thought of the tools I use daily: my brushes. As the idea arose, I paused. Surely, I had already written about the essential tools that I use in my art practice? I looked through my catalogue of now nearly forty posts and found I had written about materials and mentioned brushes in passing yet had not delved into brushes as a topic. In this post, I write about the brushes I use for acrylic painting. I explain how I select my brushes, the brands I like, and how I care for these important tools.

My acrylic brushes are very old. In fact, I thought about writing on this topic when I noticed that it may be time to invest in some new brushes. My collection is a mix and match of shapes, sizes, brands, and age. Some of the oldest brushes I have were my grandfather’s, whose interest in painting sparked my own. These brushes, together with the other oldest of my collection I have had for over fifteen years. Unfortunately, I can no longer distinguish between which were Opa’s brushes and which I collected myself and date from my teenage years.

Over the years, I have not added many new brushes to my collection. Like many artists, I have unfortunately purchased brushes that, once loaded up with paint, did not work for me. Sometimes they were too cheap and simply weren’t good, but price point isn’t always the problem. Some brushes I selected for their professional categorization but did not like the feel of them or the stroke they achieved. Those have largely fallen out of my collection. Knowing what we want from a brush is an important part of selecting brushes, but I’ve found it to be trial and error when it comes to finding my favourite tools.

A Word About Different Brush Types

There are many resources that describe brush types so I will not outline that here in a systematic way. One resource that I have come across is Montreal-based FC Art, which sells brushes wholesale in North America. From their social media, I’ve learned about brushes and paint. They have some great content on their Instagram account about all things brushes: sizes, materials, medium.

When it comes to brushes, there is no “one size fits all”. Brushes are our tools. The size and type of brush depends on what we want to achieve. You will notice that brushes are typically numbered: the lower the number the thinner the brush. I select my brushes based on my medium, working surface, and my painting style. I work mainly with acrylic paints and thus need a variety of brush sizes and shapes.

When choosing a brush, I keep in mind what I will be using it for. I will use larger, flat brushes for covering a large surface. The “wash” (part of the process I describe here) or the underpainting outlines the main shapes and values of the painting. At this stage, I want loose brush strokes and will need something larger. When I am ready for detail, I will use smaller brushes. These could be flat, round, angled, or thin, depending on the stroke I want.  

Here are a few of my favourite brushes below. They include a newer flat brush, which I use either flat or on its side for sharp lines and details; a rounded/tapered brush for larger areas; a round brush which holds its shape very well; and a brush that is so old and warn down I’m not sure what shape it was! If I had to choose a favourite, it would be the second from the top. Used on its side, this round brush provides a nice and even distribution of paint and with just the tip of the brush, I can dab in highlights. The top three brushes I believe were my Opa’s and, as the photo shows, two of them are now held together with tape (not ideal).

I am not fussy about brand. When buying a brush, I want professional quality, but I am most concerned with finding the right shape and size. I want to make sure I have brushes for the most common strokes I want. Looking through my supplies, I see that I have brushes from Princeton Art & Brush Co., Da Vinci Artist Brushes, Dahler & Rowney, and Liquitex.

Brush Care

I must admit that I haven’t always taken the best care of my brushes. I’ve left them standing too long in water and have waited too long before cleaning them of paint. These things are very bad for your brushes! Such treatment has caused bristles to warp, “ferrules” — the metal piece that attaches bristles to handle — to loosen and handles to deteriorate. After finishing a painting session, I might have rushed washing up, leaving traces of paint to harden over time. It is possible to clean old paint out of brushes with lots of soap, water and patience, but this is hard on the brush and causes damage.

My brush care today involves the following steps:

  1. After use, I soak the brushes in warm water and gently apply “The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver” to the bristles (belly and toe) of the brush. I try to soak the bristle part of the brush while lathering in soap to avoid unnecessary water waste. I am careful not to wet too much of the rest of the brush.
  2. Once most of the pigment is out of the bristles, I rinse the brush in clean warm water. This removes any excess soap.
  3. I use paper towel or an old kitchen towel to dry my brushes enough to relocate them to my workspace.
  4. Using my hands, I smooth out or shape the bristles of the brush. I lay them flat on a dry surface (usually on paper towel) to dry completely. It is important that brushes dry flat to minimize water getting trapped in the brush.

I am always learning new things, both in the practice of painting and writing about painting. For example, today I learned the word “ferrule” for that small metal piece that holds the bristles to the handle! Although it takes time, washing my brushes between painting sessions increases their longevity and it’s really a must. Moreover, washing my brushes now feels like the closing ritual of my painting practice. My brushes are the tools that make my painting possible. With cared for brushes I am ready to begin again in the studio!

Thanks for reading!

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1 thought on “The Tools We Use: Brushes

  1. Thanks for the mention! Brush maintenance and cleaning is such an essential part of working with brushes and can make all the difference! Some great tips in this! 🙂

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