The Studio Art School: Dorset

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By Justin Cooke, Jan 1 2015 11:18PM

Soft brushes are essential too; but need some care.

Here is Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. We saw another of her self portraits in Brushes 2. for oil (and acrylic); where we could see her at her easel with a whole handful of brushes

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

Once again she has a selection of brushes

Now I want to look at the variety of brushes artists useand in particular soft brushes. It is true that for many artists a bristle brush is the most typical choice for applying oil paint; particularly thick oil paint. But soft brushes should not be neglected. They are essential to achieve delicate fine lines and fluid brush marks. These brushes may also need a little extra care.

Here are some of my soft brushes that I use for oil painting. Nice sharp point and long handle.

(I also use square soft brushes which I trim to shape)

Let us consider the pointed brush.

Often, when oil painting, it is inevitable that you may just have to throw those brushes into a jar of turps so that they can be used some time later, or even the next day, without drying out. You may have the time and inclination to clean thoroughly the dozen or so brushes that you have been using, but it is tempting, isn’t it, to just plonk them in a jar.

I am now going to save your brushes.

If you have a few, use an elastic band to hold them together and place a pencil across the top of the jar in such a way as to hold those brush tips away from the base of the jar.

You should have something that looks like the image below.

For single brushes…just use a clothes peg

Remember though, this is only a temporary measure and brushes should not be left in this way for too long.

With water based paints like acrylic and watercolour do not do this, they will rinse out easily with water and can be left to dry flat

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.

By Justin Cooke, Dec 30 2014 09:22PM

Brushes I wouldn’t part with

Firstly, the technical bit.

These are some of the bristle brushes you might use. You will find them in various sizes


The metal ferule is round/cylindrical shaped. The bristles usually are of an even length


The metal ferule has been pressed so the bristles form a flat arrangement. The bristles usually have an even length in a square shape. The one on the right, I have trimmed. See below.

3.Filbert. Like a flat brush but the bristles have been pre-trimmed to give an oval shape. Why the name? well it’s thought the shape resembles a hazelnut (Filbert is an alternative name for a hazelnut).

The more you use brushes (particularly bristle brushes) the more they will wear down and adopt the natural shape specific to the way you use them. Much like an ink pen becomes unique to its owner.

Naturally, if you the pick up a brand new bristle brush you will probably want to trim it as close as possible to the shape you like and are used to. Scissors will now be a part of your painting equipment.

Many artists, myself included, have brushes so exquisitely worn – (you know the sort of thing, an unattractive stub of bristle) that they wouldn’t lend it to anyone. These are the brushes I use for drawing with paint. The paint is used quite dry and the brush behaves more like a soft pad. They are no longer best suited to applying paint. The only time I might use a brand new untrimmed bristle brush is if I am scooping large amounts of paint onto a canvas.

Everyday Brushes

Think of it this way. There are brushes of all shapes and sizes. Pretty soon you will know what you want for your everyday brushes; you will buy a fist full of brushes and prepare them yourself!

Here are some of my drawing brushes

These are some of my bristle drawing brushes, I also draw with soft hair brushes with a delicate, sharp point.

So why these brushes?

When I draw with them they give me the same feel as a stick of charcoal. This is a feel I am very used to. So it works for me.

Here is a warning though.

Just because you’re now trimming brushes doesn’t mean that you should dismiss the more pricy, quality brushes.

Yes trimming can help with a mass produced cheap bristle brush – but you cannot deny the real pleasure of those expensive brushes. You see, it’s not just the shape of the way the bristles are cut; it’s the quality of the bristle, the way in which they are fixed to the handle (whether it will moult hairs); the luxury of holding something with some weight to it. We’re talking craftsmanship here, and as with all top craftsmanship; you can feel the quality. Trimming these “specials” takes a bit of courage. Maybe…just let them wear in, naturally.

And don’t forget

All those stray bristles that poke out sideways from time to time….if you don’t want them…trim them. But keep a few eccentric brushes. Those scraggy, scruffy, character brushes…you’ve gotta love em too.

Here are some of my more eccentric brushes.

Also: Those beautiful soft watercolour brushes you may have…Don’t trim. Keep those scissors away! Try to look after the point as much as possible and just pick off any troublesome stray hairs. For more on watercolour brushes, see the watercolour brush pages. For more on using soft brushes for oil paint see part three of 'brushes for oil painting'.

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