Artists and their brushes

Brushes for oil and acrylic painting

Finding the right brush can make all the difference to your work. When choosing a brush to use with oil colour and heavier applications of acrylic colour, consider a brush with hair that is able to move thick, viscous colour, such as hog hair or a stiff synthetic equivalent. If using thinners to alter the colour properties for a more fluid consistency or for a greater focus on detail, brushes with softer hair can be used.

Natural hair is available in both stiff and soft varieties. The quality of natural hair brushes is superb, especially kolinsky sable brushes, which retain their spring over time.

Hog hair is the most commonly used hair for oil painting brushes. It is a stiff, strong and durable natural hair, stout enough to pick up oil or acrylic colour straight from the tube. The best quality hogs also wear down gradually, maintaining their shape but getting smaller, so the initial investment will pay dividends.

Stiff synthetic brushes made for oil and acrylic paintings also offer good flow control and a well-defined tip or edge for detail and blending work. An additional benefit is that they are resistant to damage from acrylic resin and won’t soften in water.

Artists & their brushes


Professional oil painters on brushes

Nigel Wright worked for ten years at the British Museum, in the prints and drawings and Oriental departments. He now paints full-time.

“I use hog brushes for large areas, such as skies, but sable for the more complex and involved parts of a picture,” he says. “This gives me greater control when dealing with specific forms. Sables can also offer great flexibility in terms of texture in the more confined areas. Within specific forms they can also be used to achieve surprising textural effects – through, for example, scumbling with various degrees of fluidity of the paint and exploiting the different qualities of different pigments, such as the grainy transparency of transparent white in rendering flesh and certain textiles.

Anna Gardiner was shortlisted for the 2009 Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize, which champions representational painting and draughtsmanship.

“For me, flat hog hair brushes combine well with a palette knife as I’m working with edges in my painting,” she explains. “I buy several of the same brush I like in one go, because I don’t want to pick up something I’m not used to. I use Winsor & Newton Series 7 to have a quality brush when I’m painting out and about.”

Kate Brinkworth’s photorealist work stems from her curiosity in films, particularly those directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

“I use oil paint in a similar way to how you use watercolour,” she says. “I choose Winsor & Newton Monarch brushes as they work well with the oil, not deteriorating as quickly as other makes. The Monarch brushes have a nice soft quality and good spring, unlike some oil brushes, which are too stiff.”

Iain Andrews has exhibited in galleries in London (notably Saatchi) and across Europe.

“One only has to look at oriental calligraphy to see the beauty of what can be achieved with the right kind of tools,” he says. “I have recently got hold of a large Chinese horsehair calligraphy brush. It has an unusual weight once fully loaded with pigment, but produces some lovely marks that are hard to replicate in any other way.”

Neil Douglas has exhibited in both the UK and the US. His work combines influences from traditional painters with a modern use of photography.

“I prefer the canvas surface to consist of a variety of different brushstrokes and mark making,” he says. “I work heavily into the canvas, to the point that upon completion a canvas will need to be re-stretched. As a result I need to use brushes that are going to be durable. I work between the Winsor & Newton Azanta and University ranges, as both are fairly inexpensive for the quality given, both hold paint well and keep shape well.”

Artists & their brushes


Brushes for watercolour painting

When choosing a brush for use with watercolour, gouache and fluid colour, consider three things:

  • A great point which can be held to create edges and fine detail.
  • A perfect “snap” or spring enabling the brush to spring back into shape during use.
  • Even flow control so the colour flows consistently from the point of the brush.

Watercolour brushes can be made from both natural hair and synthetic fibres. The highest quality natural brush hair comes from the kolinsky sable from Siberia. Other types of natural hair include squirrel and goat. Both of these make good mop brushes because they are naturally soft and have good colour carrying capacity.

A good selection of watercolour brushes made from superior synthetic filaments – including Winsor & Newton Cotman brushes – is available. They are affordable and the fibres have excellent colour carrying capacity and much improved spring, thanks to the possibility of combining different filament thicknesses in the same brush.

Professional artists on brushes for watercolour and fluid media

Paul Antonio works as a calligrapher, gilder and heraldic artist.

“The nature of what you are aiming to execute is the deciding factor in which brush to use,” he says. “For mixing colour, be it Winsor & Newton watercolour or gouache, or pigments that I grind from scratch, any of the hog hair brushes are great, as the sturdiness of the bristles give for good crushing and blending with water, giving a smooth finish.

“For fine painting and heraldic illustration my brush of choice is a kolinsky sable Series 7 – size 00 for sketching and a size 1 for fine art painting. For flat brush lettering no one can rival the Winsor & Newton Cotman brushes, be it the 666 or the 555. For big, sumptuous flat brush calligraphy the Cotman wash brush is exceptional.

“Pointed brush work is easily executed with the watercolour rigger and the Cotman 333. These brushes work in perfect concert with Winsor & Newton watercolour and gouache ranges.”

Martin Impey has been a freelance illustrator for nearly 20 years.

“I have used Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes for some 20 years now, and find them without comparison,” he says. “From the finest of detail to the loaded broad stroke washes demanded in painting with watercolour, this particular series has never lets me down!”