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Brushes 2. For Oil (and Acrylic) paints

By Justin Cooke, Jan 1 2015 10:23PM

A great way to learn about brushes is by looking at other artists at work.

Lets have a look at J M W Turner and Berthe Morisot


Turner (1775 -1851)

There are few contemporary accounts of Turner’s method; but one look at his paintings tells us that there is some pretty sophisticated brushwork at play.


What we know


We know that all artists who studied at the Royal Academy in London studied drawing. As far as painting is concerned, they largely had to teach themselves, from fellow artists or from books. A very common way was to learn by copying paintings by old masters such as Claude Lorrain.


Just a few things you should keep in mind about Turner.

•The Royal Academy school only taught drawing at that time and their approach was firmly rooted in the classical world of antiquity.


•His earliest paintings were watercolours and he was the master of watercolour


•He was in his early 20’s when he began to produce oil paintings and he consequently developed his own methods for both media simultaneously


•So by the time he came to do his most expressive later oil paintings, he had put in decades of work, honing his skills from drawing to watercolour to oil canvases.


As I mentioned we have few contemporary accounts but we do have a painting of him by an artist named William Parrot. It is now in the collection of Sheffield Museums. Unfortunately I cannot find a copyright free image of this painting that I could use here, however where there is a will there is a will there is a way. Here is a link to the Sheffield Museums page where you can see the image. If you click on it you should find this curious painting appear in another window

click here

And this brings me to the brushes!

Look at that hand full of brushes.

I have read many books which suggest that you don’t need many brushes; the range available being so vast that you should just buy the few that you will actually use.


What I would suggest is that the range may seem vast, but pick what you like and get lots of them. Make sure you have plenty of the same type that you like. By having a hand full of brushes you can keep one for a specific range of colours, one for say reds-orange, another for blue-violet and so on. By reaching for the brush best suited to the colour you want to apply you can avoid contaminating the paint on your pallet.


Because time is saved by not having to clean brushes constantly, the actual painting process can be speeded up. This is exactly what Turner needs when he is painting on Varnishing Day; refreshing…if not repainting a picture prior to the opening of the exhibition to the public.


If we look again, he holds a whole selection of brushes in his left hand…each ready and waiting to be used.

Berthe Morisot (1841 – 1895)

We know a little more about Berthe Morisot. We know who her tutors were and who she painted with. Between them, the Impressionists (of which she was one) did many paintings of each other at work. But the painting I want to show you is by her sister, Edma.




See the hand full of brushes again.


I thought I’d show you a few of my other favourite artists doing the same thing.


So here is:

Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755- 1842)



Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)


John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)



Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is the second of three posts on brushes for oil painting.











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