Choosing and maintaining brushes

1) The Basic Figure Painting Brush
2) Other Brushes
3) Looking After Your Brush

1)The Basic Figure Painting Brush

What to look for in a brush
Don't worry about getting a very small brush for detail; a good brush should come to a very delicate point even if it is quite large. I use a size 2 Proline from Pro Arte for everything.


Good brushes are normally pale in colour, and they should evenly come to a point. Cheaper brushes have less stiff, less even hairs. They cannot be used to paint such fine detail and they won't last as long, so they are a false economy.

Sable brushes are most commonly recommended for figure painting, however I much prefer those with at least some synthetic content.
Sable has a couple of advantages over synthetic - it holds more water/paint for its size, so you can paint for longer with the same colour, and it also comes to a very fine point. The drawback is that sable brushes are more delicate than synthetic brushes and they will rapidly come to a worse point than a synthetic one with the same length of wear. In addition the consistency of paint applied to a figure is much thicker than would normally be used for painting on paper or board so the sable brush's ability to hold water is less marked.

Use older brushes for less demanding tasks.
I usually have 3 or 4 brushes in use at a time, one new one for doing the odd bit of delicate work, a main brush for shading, base coating etc., a fairly worn brush for drybrushing, and a scraggy knackered one for painting PVA onto bases etc.

These are the main uses in descending order of required brush quality.

  1. Fine detail and patterning
  2. Shading and dark-lining
  3. Highlighting
  4. Base coating
  5. Undercoating and drybrushing figures
  6. Painting scenery (especially with PVA)
All the brushes below are the same type and size, but they differ in age. To help keep track of which one is which, I paint different coloured rings around the end for identification.

The first is in the first flush of youth, and is used only sparingly. The second I use for the bulk of my painting, although the point is only just fine enough for some shading where thin lines are required. The third is definitely drybrushing only. To make the brush a bit stiffer and therefore better for drybrushing, I have shortened the hairs a bit with a scalpel. Since it got to a stage where the point couldn't get any worse, I got careless about leaving it standing on its point in the water jar and this has cracked the paint off the shaft.

2) Other Brushes

As well as the basic work-horse brush for painting figures, a few others come in useful.

The very small brush.

While some people swear by sizes such as the '00000' brush (they really do exist with that number of 0's), I find that they don't hold enough paint and they wear out really quickly. However, one great thing about them is that even when they have lost their point, they're still very small. This makes them ideal for drybrushing very small areas.

A medium scenery brush

This is about a size 5, it is just too big for any role in painting figures, but good for the fiddlier bits of scenery where the one below would stray onto the wrong areas.

A large scenery brush

The handle of this one is also in such a state that I can't tell where it comes from. I think it's about a size 11 from the Daler 'Dalon' range and costs 5 or 6). It drybrushes beautifully as it's a mid-quality nylon, which means that the bristles are stiffer and tougher than a cheaper brush, which tend to be too floppy. It is also big enough to cover areas quickly, but not so large that it takes an age to clean out. I have had it for at least ten years and it has taken formidable abuse.

3) Looking After Your Brush

Age brings a number of unwelcome changes to brushes. The ends of the hairs will literally wear blunt and also tend to start to curl over at the very top. Paint will also gradually collect in the base of the brush head, and this will force the hairs outwards to they no longer come to a point.

Use acrylics rather than enamels. As they are water based they only need water rather than white spirit for diluting and cleaning. More importantly although they are not particularly good for brushes, (compared to watercolour or gouache which remain water soluble when dry), they do not ravage brushes in the way that enamels do. (Although enamels do have some advantages in that they chip less easily and the coverage is better).

Before you put paint on the brush, dip the whole head in clean water. The main way in which a brush loses its point, and thereby its usefulness, is through paint hardening in the base of the brush head which then splays the hairs from a neat point. In order to help prevent this, This will also help keep the paint sufficiently diluted.

Never let paint dry on the brush. If you are painting with the same colour for a long period of time then you should clean the brush out with water every few minutes. If you don't then paint will begin to harden on the hairs and collect in the base.

Don't clean your brush out too vigorously. A really good scrub out will do more harm than good. It may remove paint but it will also bend and damage the hairs. The heads of brushes which are too forcefully cleaned will tend to become distorted at their base and the hairs will split into two or more forks when wet. This is irreversible, so the brush will be consigned to an early fate as a 'drybrushing' brush.

Cleaning out your brush while painting
To clean your brush, thrash it around in the water, taking care not to scrub the head on the bottom of the container. Then wipe it on a wad of tissue, gently rotating it and dragging it backwards only, as shown on the right.

Clean the brush out with soap after every couple of uses. Use standard hand-washing soap and gently massage it into the brush head with a little water. (Don't scrub away furiously). Rinse it out and repeat a couple of times, and this will clear a surprising amount of muck. The last time you soap the brush, don't rinse it out but gently tweak it to a point with your finger tips. Then leave it with the soap in to dry out. This will help maintain the point.

Sometimes a single hair will start to stick out and get in the way. Don't try to pull the hair out, as it will either snap or start to unseat the other hairs. To get rid of it, you should carefully pull it so that it is sticking out at right angles and then slice it off near to the base with a sharp scalpel blade. This will leave a small stump but it will be too small to cause any problems.

Some final DOs and DON'Ts

  • Never let your brush stand on its bristles in the water for obvious reasons.
  • Protect the tip of your brush with a brush cap or a piece of drinking straw when travelling.
  • Splash out on a decent brush or you'll never get decent results.


    "This is my brush, there are many like it, but this one is mine."


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