Issue 23    


Tools of the Trade: Brushes

A lot of progress has been made on the Marketplace... but you'll have to wait until next time to see it.

In the last IMPrint, I discussed how to add details that make your world look lived-in. I didn't, however, discuss the technical side of it. The Marketplace was displayed at a couple conventions recently. Over the last month I have had several people ask me how I get so much detail into the painting- do I use really small brushes? It finally dawned on me that a discussion of what brushes I use, and how, is in order.

Other artists, when asked about brushes, can often tell you favorite brands and lines in the same way that car enthusiasts can talk to you about car makes and models. I've never been able to do that. Brand and line names seem to change from year to year and store to store, so I've never picked up on specific names. Later in this IMPrint I will tell (and show) you what brushes I currently like and what their brands are, but that should not be mistaken to mean I sought these brushes out by name.

Instead, I try to find brushes that fit the characteristics that work for me. This is an important thing to remember. There are many types of brushes out there, and in the end you have to use what works for you, depending on the media you use, the strokes you tend to make, how much pressure you use, how much you thin your paints down, and more.

I do think that I have settled into my preferences due in large part to my desire for detail, though, so they may be a good starting point for you, too, if you are after the same level of detail.

In short, I look for brushes in either round or filbert shapes, sizes in the 1 to 6 range, with synthetic, springy bristles.

  • Shape: In my opinion, the Round brush is ideal for fine detail. It comes to a point when wet, great for making fine lines and dots. Meanwhile, Filberts are the jacks-of-all-trades. They can be used to cover a large area quickly, but they can also be turned on edge to make fairly thin lines as well. Because their tips are broad but oval-shaped, changing pressure and angle affects the width of the line, providing a very flexible range of strokes.
  • Size: Size is a funny thing with brushes. As far as I have been able to tell, there is no standard. Small numbers indicate smaller brushes, but a 1 Round in one brand may be the size of a Round 3 in another. The length of the handle seems related, but not in a definite or sensible way. When I buy brushes, I look for a certain size regardless of its number. I usually end up with 1's and 2's, some 3's, and the occasional 4 or 6.
  • Synthetic: The synthetic bristles seem to be of a more consistent quality than natural hair so that, even if not as nice as natural hair, I know what I'm getting. They don't seem to fall out nearly as much as natural hair and they seem to retain their properties better over time. I'm not basing this on any scientific study; just personal experience. They also seem to work better with the synthetic acrylic paints. And natural hair that gives my desired springiness (see below) run a lot higher in cost.
  • Springy: This is the most important quality. Very soft bristles like ones used in watercolor brushes are too soft to retain their shape when pressure is applied. When you are working with colored water, that is okay; when you are using a thicker paint, it isn't. Conversely, stiff bristles (such as hogs hair and the like) are great for pushing around thick, viscous paint, for scumbling and dry brush, but they are too stiff to allow the control you need for the delicate details and they are too stiff to form a point when wet. You want bristles in the middle- not too stiff or too soft, but just right.

You may be asking, "If size the size indicated by a number can be all over the map, what good does it do to tell us what numbers you use?" Good question! Frankly, it doesn't do much good at all. That's why I'm going to show you.

These are my favorite brushes at the moment:

The four on the left are filberts and the four on the right are rounds. Brands and lines from left to right: Windsor and Newton Artisan, Master's Touch 800-KF, Robert Simmons Titanium, Loew-Cornell 7500, Master's Touch 800-R, Loew-Cornell 7000-C, Loew-Cornell 795, and Master's Touch 855. You wouldn't know by looking, but sizes from left to right are: 2, 2, 6, 4, - 1, 3, 3, and 6.

In particular, the Windsor and Newton Artisan, Loew-Cornell 7500, Loew-Cornell 7000-C and Loew-Cornell 795 get the heaviest use.

To get back to the questions people ask me, one that comes up a lot is, "Do you use really small brushes?" I don't think so. In fact, I have smaller brushes:

The brushes on the left (above) are the ones I just mentioned as the most heavily used. The two on the right are brushes that I purchased thinking, "These will be perfect for small detail!"

I was wrong. They were TOO small. They didn't hold enough paint to do much good, and with such little holding capacity, the paint on the brush started to dry out and get gummy before I could paint much of anything. And, I learned, I could get as fine of lines by being careful with larger brushes.

Which brings me to the next point (no pun intended). The right brushes are only half the battle. The other is technique. In particular, how you load the brush. If you do it properly, you will get a nice point on the brush and it will release the paint smoothly. Even medium sized brushes will form a nice point when properly loaded.

The paint should not be too thick. Paint that is too thick has to, in a sense, be scraped off the brush. High-viscosity acrylic paint straight out of the tube is too thick and has to be thinned with water or acrylic medium in order to flow off the brush. This is why I enjoy working with medium viscosity paints (or, as they are becoming known now, "soft body paints"). These will flow off the brush on their own.

Even soft body paints can become too thick if they are allowed to dry, however. The obvious cause would be letting the paint sit on the palette or brush too long, and the obvious solutions would be to thin the paint down with water or get new paint. But there are a less obvious cause and solution that need attention. Not all of the paint inside the brush is removed every time you make strokes on the surface of the painting. The paint remaining inside the mass of bristles slowly dries and becomes gummy. This wouldn't be a huge problem except for the fact that the gummy acrylic paint binds with and sucks moisture from fresh paint very quickly. You soon find that even very wet, freshly picked up paint does not flow off the brush well. When fresh, wet paint does not flow well, you absolutely have to rinse the brush well in your dirty brush water to get the interior paint out of the bristles. Once you have done this, you will find that the paint releases well again and you regain control lost by the gumminess.

You also need to make sure that you do not overload the brush. An overloaded brush is so full of paint that the bristles have to spread out in order to hold it all. This often happens when you mix the paint on the palette, so once you have mixed the paint to the correct color and consistency, the next thing you should do is wash the brush in the dirty water to clear the paint off. Wipe the brush on a paper towel or rag to get the moisture out. Then return the brush to the paint in order to get the right amount of paint- to "properly load the brush." A quick, gentle final wipe on the towel or rag can be used to bring the bristles to a wonderful point if necessary. The body of the bristles should hold enough paint to allow quite a few nice strokes. Reload as needed, and as soon as the fresh paint starts to feel gummy, rinse the brush!

So there you go- gory detail of how I get the detail into my pieces. After that, it is just putting in the work.



    Issue 23    


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This document last updated Mon Oct 2 11:00:31 2006.