The brushes you really need

You don’t need to spend a fortune to paint.

Channel Marker, 9X12, oil on canvas, available.


Expensive brushes are not the place to throw money for the beginning oil or acrylic painter—good quality paints are far more important. Still, brushes do change how the paint sits, and you need proper tools.

For alla prima painting in oils, you want long-handled hog-bristle brushes. They are less expensive than softer hairs like sable. I like Princeton 9700 series and Robert Simmons Signet hog bristle brushes.

Princeton also makes synthetic brushes that are good value for money—the 6300 series. Anything softer really isn’t appropriate for alla primapainting in oils. Acrylic paints will tolerate a little more flexibility, but avoid anything labeled for both watercolor and acrylic—they’re too soft. Princeton has a good chart of fiber stiffness, here.

Home Port, oil on canvas, available.

An assortment of rounds and filberts, a few large flats and an optional fan brush should suffice. More than a handful is overkill. Most workhorse alla prima painting happens between sizes #6 and #12, with a few smaller brushes for detail work, and larger brushes for bigger canvases.

If you like painting itsy-bitsy lines, invest in a rigger and a #1 round. I get more mileage out of spalter brushes, which are large, inexpensive flats for covering lots of area fast. I also keep a few soft sable brushes for glazing and blending.

Parrsboro Sunrise, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, available.

Bristle brushes tend to form a flag (a v-shaped split) at the end over time. If the brush is made properly, with good interlocking bristles, it will have a natural resistance to fraying. However, oil and acrylic brushes can’t tolerate letting paint dry into them, or being left standing on their bristles in solvent. You can wash brushes with Murphy’s Oil Soap, saddle soap (nice), specialty brush soaps, Fels Naptha, or even shampoo or detergent in a crunch. The important thing is that you do it promptly, before your paint has a chance to set up.

First, remove the solids by swishing them around in solvent. Then, put soap on a rag and work it into the bristles from the ferrule down to the bristles’ end. Be sure you’re washing the inside bristles, not just the surface. Repeat until the suds run clean. Shake excess water out, shape the brush slightly with your hand, and let it air dry.

Sometimes it rains, oil on canvasboard, available.


Brushes are far more important in watercolor. I like Rosemary & Co. but they are very expensive. I recommend Princeton Neptune brushes for new painters. A ½” flat, a 1” wash brush, a #6 quill and a #8 round will get you started. If you’re going to invest in a mop, squirrel is better than synthetic. A set of short synthetic flats (or mottlers, as they’re sometimes called) in ¾”, 1” and 1½” will round out your collection.

Riggers and liners are tiny brushes for making very fine lines. They’re more useful in watercolor than they are in oils, in my experience. I buy the cheapest ones I can find because I’m always wrecking their points.

Lastly, you should have a scrubberto take out mistakes. You can buy them purpose-built, or you can just use an old hog-bristle brush.

Never leave your brushes standing in water, even as you work. Cleaning watercolor brushes is far easier than cleaning oil brushes. Hold them under the tap and let the pigment wash off with the flow of the water. I have never washed my brushes with soap, but if you find your synthetic brushes have stained, you can use a small amount of bar soap on them. Squeeze the water out and reshape the heads. That’s all there is to it.

Monday Morning Art School: accurate lines in oils

It may seem like a fine brush is better, but that’s not always true in wet-on-wet painting.
Sea Fog on Main Street, by Carol L. Douglas. When painting plein air, you don’t have time to wait for the painting to dry to draw lines.

I’m working on a commission that has a lot of architectural detail. I don’t want the end result to be fussy. I’m not a clean renderer like Frank Costantino. He can drop a fine line with a rigger and it falls into the painting, cool and elegant.

Watercolor loves fine lines. Alla prima oil painting doesn’t. It tends to be looser and rougher. A fine line added with a rigger can lie on the surface looking silly, or it can melt into the bottom layers and look like mush.
Working backwards allows you to make clean edges without being overly fussy.
My solution is to paint edges and lines in reverse. I lay down the line and then back the color up to meet it.
Lines should be happening on an already-wet surface, because they aren’t important in the big-shape phase. That means you need a technique for removing excess paint before you draw. For large erasures, I take off excess paint with a palette knife. For lines, I use a wipe-out tool. I had a very old one made by Loew-Cornell that I lost this summer. I replaced it with a terrible one I picked up on the road. But Bobbi Heath assures me this is the best one currently available.
Start by getting rid of excess paint.
Getting rid of that schmearof excess paint is an important first step. You can’t draw into soup.
Lay the line in before the surrounding background. With architecture, this often means a line of light-colored paint before its dark surround. Don’t worry that you’ve broken the dark-to-light rule. Lines are usually added toward the middle or end of a painting, so you should be past that point anyway.
In oils, the side of a flat brush always works better than a tiny round for straight lines. Flats are more stable and tends to track in the right direction. Go ahead and use a ruler if you want.
The line going on with a bright.
This line should be made of fairly thin paint, with just enough medium to carry it smoothly. Too much oil and it will blend into its surround.
It’s easier to paint a line with a flat on its side than with a small round.
Next paint the surrounding area, pushing up against the line with the background color. Use enough paint and be bold. It’s best to do this edging in a single stroke, but that takes practice. However, as a general rule, the more you touch the surface, the muddier the edges will get.
Then push the background color right up against the line.
In my examples, I use two different brushes. The fine flat, made by Rosemary & Co., was a gift this summer. It is very precise, but as with all synthetic fibers, it doesn’t carry much paint. The bright is old and clunkier, but it carries enough paint for a good, finished line. It may seem like finer is better, but that’s actually not true. What’s most important is getting enough paint on the canvas, evenly, so that your line doesn’t look anemic. I find that with alla prima painting, hog bristles are almost always better.
After two flags, a chair, and a lot of white trim, I was so cramped up by precision that I had to do this fast surf exercise to wash out my mind (and loosen up my hand).
I enjoyed painting with the Rosemary & Co. flat, but it was no good for surface work. Eventually, I realized I didn’t like my painting at all. I set it aside and did a fast exercise with big brushes that got rid of the stiffness that had crept into my painting from using the wrong brush.