Monday, September 22, 2014

Acrylic Painting at Momiji: Brushes, Brushstokes and Brush Care



I found a comprehensive list of brush types on a decorative arts website:, which I’ve appended below.  There are many types of multi-purpose and specialty brushes.  A variety of sizes of Round (with and without points (for detail)), Filberts, Flats/Brights will probably be all you’ll need. Brush sizes vary across brands.

As I mentioned in class, natural Hog hair (stiff, thick, off-white bristles), which can carry more weight in un-thinned paint and create ridged strokes; and Sable (soft, brown hairs), which create smooth strokes and can carry more water/thinned paint—are expensive.  Synthetic hair brushes (bright white, fine bristles) fall between the two, in terms of holding water and paint and depth of stroke ridges. Also Imitation Hog Hair and Sable alternatives (often called ‘camel’ hair, although made of squirrel hair, among other natural hairs) are less expensive and create similar effects to more expensive genuine quite suitable for professional artists.  (Some of the ladies in class may be aware that makeup brushes are commonly made of squirrel hair.)  All—natural, synthetic, imitation bristle and alternative-hair—brushes are suitable for professional acrylic painting.

Unless they’ve fallen to pieces, don’t throw away your old brushes. Old, abused brushes are great for creating randomized speckles and scratchy strokes used in abstract painting, portraiture (hairs, freckles…) and landscapes (grasses, water foam and spray).

Don’t forget palette knives are great for mixing paint, but also for applying it, as are any number of household or makeshift tools (everything from natural sponge to bath puffs, crumpled paper towel, rags, feathers, twigs, old cutlery, rulers and fingers.) Palette knives come in plastic now as well as traditional metal blades. However, metal knives are more flexible and offer more control when creating impasto.  Paint can also be squirted directly out of the tube onto the canvas, thinned and poured, or spattered and dripped.

As in the game of golf, choose the tool according to the scale of the task. The longer the bristles or hairs, the longer the stroke. The longer the handle, the larger the canvas. Large canvases, also call for larger, wider bristles or palette knives. Lots of detail or small canvases, require smaller brushes. Remember though, painting isn’t about using the best/most expensive tools, but rather how your tools help you to get across your message and express yourself in paint.

Test brushes for quality, as demonstrated in class, by tugging and rubbing bristles to check for loose hairs and for their ability to retain their shape. Tug the base of the metal ferule to ensure that it’s securely attached to the handle.  

My next blog will cover acrylic paint and painting surfaces.

Here is the “Your Decorative Painting Resource” article:


All types of paint brushes are featured here as well as a brief description of their main purpose.
Thanks to Heinz Jordan & Company™ as well as Loew Cornell™ for supplying images of their fine line of art paint brushes.
We've also created a section for proper care and maintenance of your brushes. We hope you'll find the information useful.

Flats are the types of paint brushes you’ll use the most often in your painting projects. You’ll use them for basecoating, floating, strokework, blending, washes and varnishing.
As you can see, they’re very versatile.

A filbert is a flat brush but it has a chiseled rounded edge instead of a straight one. Sort of like a cat’s tongue. When you look at the brush from the chiseled edge, the hairs should form an even oval edge.
As a tool for basecoating, these types of paint brushes can't be beat! The shape of the hairs eliminates ridges. It can be used for side-loading similarly to a flat brush to create shades and highlights.
It's also used for blending. And because it can hold a fair amount of water, it’s also great for applying washes of color. And lastly, because of its shape it’s perfectly suited for doing leaves, flower petals and bird feathers.

Also a part of the Flat family of brushes, the hairs here are much shorter. These types of paint brushes won’t hold enough paint for doing flowing strokes. They are very good though for blending paint, cleaning up messy edges and for other special techniques.

A brush by any other name..... This one is also a Flat but it has an angular chisel or brush tip. This means it will hold less paint and water, so you can’t get good continuous flow.
On the very positive side, this is THE brush for doing tight shading and highlighting. And it is especially coveted by artists who love to paint roses and flowers because they can get into all those little nooks and crannies. So, if you’re painting a realistic rose, consider trying this brush. But for long floats or strokework... not the right choice... best to use a flat.

These types of paint brushes come in many sizes; The smallest being a 20/0 and climbing all the way up to size #10. Mostly they are used for strokework and watercolor. This one is invaluable as a teaching tool for perfecting brush control.
Learning to use this brush for traditional strokework will provide a very strong foundation for all your painting efforts. Strokework is beautiful so mastering it is worth the time and practice.

These are part of the Round family of brushes. They range in size from 18/0 to #8. Another feature of liners is that they come in different lengths and thickness. This means that selecting the right liner can be challenging. The longer the hairs, the more paint and water the brush can carry.
The best advice is to try a variety of these types of paint brushes and stick to the ones that feel right for you and the task at hand.
A script liner has longer hairs than a regular liner, which makes it appropriate for doing fine lettering. By the way, using a script liner means you have to have a lot of brush control. It can be a little difficult to manage in tight curves because it tends to flick out. Practice, practice, practice!
Obviously a short liner will do great for small details like eyelashes. And a scroller will be ideally shaped for doing, you guessed it, scroll work.

The best memory is nothing
compared to a good brush.
- Old Chinese Proverb

As you can see there are so many types of paint brushes. For the beginner you only need a few of the most commonly used brushes to start.
But as you develop your craft, you’ll want to start dabbling in all sorts of different ways to paint. That’s when you’re ready to try all types of paint brushes.

The filbert rake is fun for creating hair, beards, feathers, fur, grass and woodgrain. It's a flat texturing brush with an oval, naturally fingered shape. Because of it's shape it offers softer edges than a flat rake.
When you're using either of the rakes you can choose to thin your paint depending on the effect you're trying to achieve. To get light texture just apply very little pressure. Don't overload the hairs with paint... the idea is to make sure that the bristles stay apart. Rakes are available in many sizes.

A mop brush is designed for gentle blending and softening. Used with a light touch, these types of paint brushes can quickly blur and soften a hard edge.
Mops come in a variety of shapes. Some resemble a make-up (blush) brush. Others are flatter and stiffer. These are the ones we prefer to use.
Mops are available in 1/4", 3/8", 1/2", 3/4", and 1".

Stipplers are the types of paint brushes used for creating fur and foliage and to give an open or soft general appearance to a painting. The stippler can be oval with flat, tidy bristles. Or it can be domed and round, as in this brush from Heinz Jordan.
It should be used dry. The amount of pressure you apply during the pouncing or stippling will determine the overall look and color value of your painting. They come in many sizes.

The deerfoot stippler is also a texturing brush used for creating fur and foliage. It's round and the bristles are long on the toe and short on the heel, bringing to mind the shape of Bambi's foot.
You should pick a deerfoot that has a lot of texture in its bristles over one that's stiff and neatly formed. You can use these brushes either wet or dry.
The amount of pressure you apply during the pouncing or stippling will determine the overall look and color value of your painting. They're available in 1/8", 1/4", 3/8", and 1/2".

The fan brush is flat with its bristles widely fanned out. It can be used dry to drag paint lightly across the surface of your painting. It can be used wet to create textures. And dragged through wet glazes it gives a fine wood-grain effect. Comes in a range of sizes.

These brushes require a little practice to use at first... it's like they're a filbert brush with half their bristles missing! They are terrific once you get the hang of them.
Truly a multi-purpose gem. You can load the brush with multiple colors, create great ribbons and petals and do stripes all in one fell swoop!

This artist paint brush is fairly new and funky looking! The needle pointed brush is a round with a long liner that extends through the end.
You can create some very interesting effects, especially great vines and twigs. Loaded with inky consistency paint, the round part acts as a reservoire and the liner is, well...a liner. By holding it almost perpendicular to the surface and using varying amounts of pressure, you'll have loads of fun with this one! It comes in Sizes #4, #6 and #8.

The Fandango brush...we just LOVE saying it... looks a bit like a fanned mop brush. This brush has long hairs with shorter ones in between. All hairs have very fine points on the ends. Not only does this brush hold lots of paint, but stroke it once on the surface and you've just made lots of fine lines. Great for creating grasses, fur, feathers and Santa's beards. Ready to Fandango?!

The Whale's Tail...a flat brush with the bristles cut in a "V" shape which can be used for lots of one stroke effects. Loaded with two colors and fully pressed, results in a tulip shape. Change to green and three presses of the brush will give you an ivy leaf. It can also be used to create plaid, ribbon, layered petals and palm trees. Available in sizes, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 1".

The Wave Brush, with scalloped bristle tips, comes in multiple sizes cut in Angular, Filbert and Flat shapes. There's a ton of stuff you can do with these brushes. Quick and easy strokes result in flower petals, leaves, simple birds, butterflies, woodgraining, eyelet lace and more. They can also be used to stipple light, airy foliage, and for some dry brushing techniques. Set your imagination in motion and have fun!!!

Another interesting brush shape, the Fountain Brush has a ring of bristles with a center opening. Loaded and spun in a circle gives you a quick rosette. Press down firmly for other interesting petal shapes. Also, try your hand at stippled foliage or fur and pulled strokes that create waterfalls and feathering.


Since cave painters used fingers and sticks to visually tell stories about the hunt, countless ways of applying paint to surfaces for any number of effects have come along. Most commonly taught nowadays are the brush techniques, rooted in classicism, handed down by highly skilled painters of the Renaissance.  But it’s worth noting subsequent modern styles that eschewed classical techniques in favour of expression and experimentation, such as the drip and splatter work of Jackson Pollack.  Technique is the ‘craft’ aspect of fine art. The ‘art’ part travels from the mind and heart of the artist through the hand to the brush and medium and onto the canvas.    

Each one of you come to painting with your own personality, taste, experiences and artistic strengths, which are discovered and expressed through creating art.  My way of painting and teaching painting is just one of many.  I do not want to train a room full of students to clone my style (even if I could). My goal is to help you discover or hone your existing style.  To encourage you to become better at being the painter you are. 


General Information About Paint Application

Brushstrokes are just one of many ways to apply acrylic paint to a surface. With acrylics anything goes, from finger-painting, to dripping, spattering, splashing, using palette knives and other implements, staining or rubbing paint in, sponging, and more.

Oil paint never truly dries. While post-renaissance painters discovered modern ways to apply oils, namely, ‘wet on wet’ (as opposed to the traditional method of building up an oil painting from a stable first layer), a flat, stable, sturdy, preferably smooth surface is still a must. Acrylics on the other hand can be used to paint on a wide variety of surfaces beyond canvas, paper and wood. I’ll talk more about painting surfaces in another blog, but it’s important to say here that the surface is relevant to the type of brushstroke one might attempt. Highly smooth to lightly textured surfaces, create less drag on the brush and more ease in creating flowing strokes with unthinned paint. But when using thinned paint on a highly glossy surface, such as plexi-glass, you may find that, even when using a fine sable or synthetic brush, the paint separates so that long strokes break down into droplets in places. Rough surfaces like stone require stiff hog hair brushes (natural or imitation), heavily loaded with paint sometimes lightly thinned with water. 

Brushstrokes for oils, watercolours and acrylics are very similar. Watercolours are almost always used thinned and applying them is about controlling the concentration of pigment in water. Oils and acrylics are used with and without thinning, but acrylics can break down if thinned to a ratio of greater than about 50%. For acrylics thinning with water is most often used for washes, glazes, scumbling and sustained flowing strokes.

Undiluted acrylics can create oil-paint-like textures and effects by loading the brush with more or less paint and applying more or less pressure on the brush. 

Some brands of paint, including Liquitex are designed to imitate the flow of oil paint, while Stevensons’ acrylics have a ‘toothpaste-like’ texture that is natural to acrylics. For better flow give them a stir on your palette with a brush or palette knife, or use a damp brush.  Certain hues of paint can also tend to be more pasty than others, or conversely runny or prone to separating.  Again, a quick stir before loading your brush will address this.

Also some hues are tend to be translucent while others are opaque (this varies across brands). This is important when mixing colours, but also with brushstrokes. Translucent hues tend to flow better, but provide less opacity or coverage. Layering, or adding an opaque hue from the same family (warm or cool) are two options. For a while now, some typically translucent hues have been manufactured to be more opaque and are often labelled as ‘permanent’. I will go into more detail about acrylic paint and acrylic mediums in the next blog.  

While quick drying time and water solubility of acrylics has many benefits, one drawback is the difficulty of replicating oil-painting techniques such as ‘wet on wet’ and large areas of gentle gradation in colour or value (light to shade).  Retardant medium can be used, or water-based oils are a good alternative for this style of painting.  However you can create wet on wet or gradations with acrylics if you have two things: an uninterrupted span of painting time, and a spray bottle filled with water and set to ‘mist’.  I’ll demonstrate this in a future class.

Common Brushstrokes

Stippling, pointillism or dabbing: Pointillism was most famously used by post-impressionist painters Paul Signac and Georges Seurat to build colour combinations that to the eye would convey more than the sum of their ‘hues’. These techniques, which involve quick up and down movements of a (usually) round brush, are also great for impressionistic foliage, dappled light, mottled textures and more. Try it with different brushes and one or more hues of paint on the brush. Get a feel for the subject you’re trying to depict and identify qualities like density, direction of elements (such as leaves, grass, hair), and light and shadow. Any small strokes, especially if repeated, quicken the pace or give energy to that area of the composition.

Blended brushstrokes: Artist Mary Pratt, in order to increase the photo-realism of her paintings blended out most of her stroke texture.  To achieve this effect, use a paintless/waterless sable or camel hair round, flat, angular brush or hog hair or synthetic fan brushes to stroke raised wet paint away with sweeping and buffing motions.

Chinese-like brushstroke: With a round, pointed brush, loaded with ‘dirty’ water and undiluted paint at the tip, make stokes by holding brush with handle erect, flatten the bristles and pull the brush along, lifting straight up or gradually at the end of the stroke. Creates a shaded effect. Works for long leaves, saplings, stems, and more. Twirl the brush ¾ instead to make a flower petal. A delicate technique that emphasizes brush handling.

Curved strokes: Any curved strokes used to create organic or rounded lines or shapes. Often used for clouds, smoke, eyelashes, tendrils or flower petals.

Dry Brush: A medium length stroke using a brush with only a blush of undiluted paint on the tip. Old brushes work well for this technique. Most successful on textured surfaces, or on top of a layer of dried brushstrokes. Useful for depicting floorboards, rustic painted objects, rocks, grasses.

Flowing strokes: Any long, sustained stroke, created with or without water added. Long strokes direct and slow down the eye. They’re often used simply for coverage of a large object or area, or to create a feeling of tranquility.

Glaze: A layer of thinned paint, usually applied with a large filbert, bright or mop brush.  Great way to create skies or flat areas of colour. Used in mixed media with oil-based media such as oil pastel to create ‘resists’.  Glazes can create rainy day or smeary effects. Mutliple layers of glazes can be used to subtly blend colours on top with those below.

Impasto: Can refer to any raised texture, or a technique involving undiluted paint applied thickly, often with a palette knife on a sturdy painting surface. Strokes can be long or short. Effective when done wet on wet (see below). Used for impressionistic and abstract styles. It adds texture and shows off the tactile quality of paint. 

Ridged stroke: A medium stroke of undiluted paint loaded on the tip of a hog hair (or imitation hog hair) brush, keeping handle at a roughly 45 degree angle to allow ridges to form. The grooves left behind by the bristles are tactile and show off rather than hide the brushstrokes. Good for creating textured under-layers as well for dry brush and glazing.

Scumbling: Glazing over an area of dark or intense colour with white or a tint (hue + white) for a softening effect.  Usually follows strokes below. Can also be used to give the impression of lack of definition, or ‘blurring’ as in the distance of a landscape or at the edges of a portrait or in lower layer of an abstract. 

Sgraffito: Incising or scratching through one or more layers to reveal a colour below. Can be accomplished with any tool, such as the tip of a palette knife or a pin. Commonly used for depicting grasses, but also in abstract work.

Splatters, drips, drizzling, etc.: Methods used by abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock. Also found in contemporary abstract art and graffiti writing. Paint, sometimes diluted for flow, is flung, drizzled, squirted from the tube, poured from a bucket, splattered on, or applied with fingers—to give an uninhibited and energetic feel to the work.

Staining: A technique used by abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. This can be recreated with acrylics by rubbing a scant amount of paint into the (unprimed) canvas with a rag, mop or large filbert brush.

Wash: A method of filling in background or creating an underpainting where paint diluted to the maximum is spread with a large brush designed to hold water well, such as a large filbert, bright, round or a mop brush.

Wet on wet: Painting over wet areas, often stirring up and/or mixing colours below with a sturdy brush or palette knife. For acrylics use retardant medium or keep paint wet with a spray bottle.

Experienced artists would probably say that they don’t stop to think about the name of the brushstrokes or paint application methods they use. They just paint. Brushstrokes do more than merely depict, they convey mood, rhythm and direction. As you gain confidence your brush it will become an extension of your hand. And you’ll just paint too.

Brushstroke Faux pas

However you apply paint to a surface, relax your fingers, wrist, arm and shoulder. Focus your mind on the idea, subject matter or mood you’re reaching for. If you’re feeling disconnected from the work or frustrated—pause. Return to painting only when you can look at it with fresh eyes. Other tricks to get a fresh perspective are: holding it upside-down or holding it up to a mirror. Works like a charm for me.

There’s no right or wrong, just strokes that stray from what you intended. Any ‘mistake’ noticed right away no matter how ego-destroying can simply be wiped away with a wet rag. 

Some ‘mistakes,’ however, are ‘happy accidents’. They can happen when you’re engaged with the medium. Your mind is telling you to test out an unanticipated direction that has naturally arisen out of the process of creating.  Take a moment to reconsider wiping it away with a rag. If you go with it, you’ll often be glad you did.

The most common ‘mistake’ is trying to paint over or next to a semi-dry area of paint. This can cause the paint to go tacky. The area will look like a spackled plaster ceiling. Unless this is what you want, add water from a spray bottle and stroke it out wet brush. If the area is beyond immediate repair, allow to dry and sand with fine sandpaper. With areas of the composition that abut or overlap, or when attempting a quick fix, let the paint dry before painting beside or overtop.   

Another common mistake is being too frugal with the paint. Leaving areas of the canvas unpainted is a valid technique used in modern art. As in Asian influenced styles of painting, you are leaving the white of the canvas to be read by the viewer as any relevant background.  Or there’s unimportant or negative space, or contrast used in styles that have a block print effect.  Using acrylics to create watercolour effects is also valid. But otherwise not applying enough paint could make your work seem tentative, skimpy or worse, immature. 

Overpainting is simply not knowing when to stop. Textures become muddled and colours muddy. Overpainting is tough to fix (copious sheets of sandpaper and/or a fresh layer of gesso or latex primer), but easy to avoid the next time, by simply breaking away from the work periodically and being open to putting down your brush before you consider the piece ‘finished’.

Size Matters. First, large paintings are intended to be viewed from far away. Any detail you include, unless it enhances the long view or draws the viewer in for a closer look is generally wasted.  When painting big pieces you should walk away from the canvas frequently to see how it looks at the ideal viewing distance. Large canvas means large brushes and broad strokes involving the whole arm.  This is best accomplished standing or sitting at an easel. Small to medium canvas means small to medium brushes and confined strokes. Details are done with the hand and wrist, so being seated works well. But you may wish to stand or use a table easel to free your arm for somewhat longer brushstrokes. Splatter, drips and drizzling sometimes require thinned paint and are often done with the canvas on a floor or worktable due to gravity.



Except for the brush you are using at the moment, keep painty brushes in water while working.  Change water frequently and before doing washes or glazes, unless you’re going for a ‘dirty water’ effect (Chinese-like painting technique I demonstrated in class.) Acrylic paint dries quickly and can clog up bristles and/or leave small, dried paint lumps on the canvas. If your painting sessions last more than a few hours, make sure the water line falls below the metal ferule to prevent water damage to the wooden handle.

Wash brushes by working hand soap or dish detergent and water from tip to base, and rinse thoroughly with running water. Pat dry with a clean rag or paper towel.  While damp, reshape the tip with your fingers.  Store brushes standing up with bristles upward. If you’re painting plein air, or where washing up facilities are unavailable, wrap your brushes in a sopping wet paper towel or rag and seal in a plastic bag. Wash properly as soon as possible. 

When travelling with brushes store them in a way that prevents the tips from being crushed.  Some brushes are sold in large plastic tubes wrapped in a holder made of canvas with pockets.  Recycled Pringles Potato Chip tube, paper towel tube or postal mailing tube—work well.  You can also stand brushes heads up in a rinsed/dried water container or in a pocket in your tote bag.   

Palette knives should be wiped thoroughly and immediately with a rag or paper towel with each use. Watch that you don’t contaminate one colour of paint with another while slicing paint from tube openings or dipping into paint in jars.

Cheap, plastic kitchen scrub pads (and water) are ideal for cleaning palette knives, brush handles, work surfaces, and many flooring and wall surfaces.

Always close paint containers and put caps on paint immediately after use.  If messy, first wipe tube openings and jar mouths/ lid insides to prevent dried paint from forming.  When caps and lids are stuck (this will happen despite your best efforts) run a palette knife around the seal, then try opening wearing a rubber glove. If this fails, run under warm water for a minute and try again. Jars often open more easily if turned upside-down and tapped on a hard surface.  No need to call on someone with a strong pair of hands.;)

Surgical gloves will keep your nails and hands paint free, but wipe regularly (same goes with your bare hands) on your apron/smock/rag to prevent unintentionally transferring paint to the painting surface.

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