When I started out, my sole criteria for buying brushes was price. Like most in my position, I told myself that it didn’t matter that I could only afford the cheapest material. Well, it does matter. Good tools will not transform bad artists into good ones, but good artists can do wonders with good tools, and do it more efficiently. A good set of brushes is one of your most important acquisitions.
When it comes to art supplies price is not always a reliable guide, as anyone familiar with the boutique prices artists have to pay knows, but the old adage applies here–you get what you pay for. The good news is that the most expensive brushes–premium sables–are not as important for oils as they are for watercolor.
Synthetic brushes. Synthetic brushes are mainly marketed to the acrylic user. Oil brushes are commonly grouped with acrylic brushes but, other than the consistency of the paint, the two have little in common. Acrylic brushes are not subject to thinners, siccatives, varnishes and other things that shorten a bush’s lifespan. Strong solvents like turpentine and oil of spike can damage or even ruin some synthetics. You can’t assume that brushes designed for acrylics are suitable for oils.
Synthetic brushes are in most respects inferior to natural brushes. Premium synthetic is an oxymoron. This is especially true for sable-replacement synthetics. I’ve yet to see one that out performs even mediocre natural sables. But because synthetic brushes are cheap, they can be good substitutes for large-size bristle brushes. I have an assortment of large synthetic brushes that I use for glazing and scumbling large areas.
Natural Sable. I use sable rounds for details that are too fine for the hogs. Rough canvas and thinners are murder on sable brushes, so I never buy premium sables for oil. Besides,what represents fine detail in oils is not the same as fine detail in watercolors, so there is no need for expensive sables. Save your money for that deluxe watercolor sable that, with proper care, will last for years. The only sables I use are rounds. I use bristle brushes where I would need a flat or filbert.
Natural Bristle. Natural bristle brushes are the best brush type for oils. Hog bristle brushes are excellent for all but the finest detail. Because of of the viscous nature of oil paint, hogs perform better than comparable sables. Even if money was no object, I would choose the hogs over the sables in most instances. I use flats for the vast majority of work, followed by brights, and then filberts. I use bristle rounds infrequently. Of course, these are just my proclivities and you might do wonders using nothing but rounds.
Blenders and fan brushes. I don’t use them.
Brush Care. Oil painting is tough on brushes. I always buy several brushes of the same size and type. This spreads the work around and the brushes last longer. Although I use solvents to paint (turpentine and mineral spirits), I NEVER soak the brushes in solvents. At the end of each day, I wipe the excess paint from the brushes with a rag, and then briefly dip them in a jar of mineral spirits. I keep a jar of paint thinner with a rag at the bottom for this purpose. Then I wash them in oil soap before putting them away. The oil soap cleans and conditions the brushes.
Strategy. If you are on a really tight budget, I suggest: 2 each of sizes 2, and 4, and 1 size 6 natural bristle; 1 size 2 sable; 1 size 8+ synthetic. TAKE CARE OF YOUR BRUSHES.
Natural bristle brush reference
I will update the information as I get new material.
|Winsor Newton||Excellent performer; keeps shape very well; very rugged. Excellent value. A-|
|Trekell Hog bristle 400||Excellent performer; keeps shape fair; above average lifespan. B+|
|Isabey 6087||Top performance; holds shape well; rugged. Slightly more expensive (10%-20%) than Winsor Newton none performs better. A|
|Pearl||My brushes are old, back from when Pearl was a leader in supplies. The fact they are still usable might be seen as a testament to their quality, but that is misleading. I use them infrequently, so they get less wear than others. Average performer; loses shape, fragile. D|
|Escoda 4528||Excellent performer, keeps shape, fragile. B-|
|Manet 227 A||Excellent performer; cannot hold shape; average lifespan. C|
|Creative Mark Pro Stroke 77B||Average performance degrades rapidly due to below-average durability. Because of their cheap price (#4’s can be found for less than $2) these brushes can represent a decent value for those on a budget. D|
Sable brush reference
This reference covers sable brushes for oil painting. Because the detail-painting requirements are less strenuous for oil than watercolor, and because of the lifespan-reducing environment, high-end watercolor brushes are inappropriate for oil painting and are not covered by this reference. Although some of the brushes reviewed here are designed for watercolors, their modest price makes them acceptable for oils. I have not used any of the designed-for-watercolor brushes in this review for watercolor painting. (I keep a separate set of brushes for watercolor.) This means that an A-rated brush here might only be a B or C for watercolors.
|Rembrandt Pure Kolinsky||Useless. Even though they are cheap, you can get better performing synthetic brushes even cheaper than this poor excuse for a brush. Short handle. Avoid. F|
|Creative Mark Rhapsody Kolinsky Sable||Excellent value. Performs well and keeps its shape but does not hold up. If you buy these brushes, make sure you get multiples of each size to increase their lifespan. Short handle. C|
|Creative Mark ‘pure sable’ Pro Stroke 49R||Despite being cheap, still manages to be a waste of money. Quality control is non-existent. None of the bellies of the 6 size 2’s I bought were the same size. Inferior quality and poor performer. Avoid. F|
|Trekell Kolinsky Sable 7000||Excellent value. None of the modestly priced brushes under consideration perform better, and they are rugged. Short handle. A. My top choice.|
|Old Holland Kolinsky sable 7001||Excellent performer, keeps shape, and rugged too, but not better in any way than the cheaper Trekell, except they are long handled. A.|
|Blick Master Sable||Keeps its shape but is a mediocre performer, fragile. Short handle. Cheap. D|
|Pearl 13R Red sable||My sables from Pearl are old (so they are reasonably rugged), but an average performer and loses shape. Long handle. C|
|Russian-made sables||I’ve bought brushes marketed as ‘Russian-made sables’ at different times and from different vendors. The actual manufacturer is obscure. Their only identifying marking is the distinctive logo, which you can see in the accompanying photo. In addition to the logo, the brushes have long, mahogany handles. Performance is good; they are full-bodied but retain their shape, but have only average lifespans. They are in the $10-$20 price range, which is considerably more than the other sable brushes discussed here. If you want a long-handled sable, they represent value, especially in sizes 4 and above. B|
About the reference: I know that you, a reader of discernment and judgement, understand without having to be explicitly told that the views I express are my opinion. Therefore, I do not have to preface every statement with “In my opinion…” or “In my humble opinion…” My opinions, such as they are, are unbiased; I do not receive any considerations from any manufacturer or supplier.