(Images above are a step by step process through a still life painting.)
Idea And Composition
Usually I have an idea of a design first and then use objects to fall within that idea to create a story. The first thing I thought of was the idea of the cloth wrapping around the edges of the painting, and something very appealing, very colourful in the centre. I came up with lots of little thumbnail storyboards to try and come up with this painting and spent at least 2 full days contemplating it.
There is a story in the still life that has it's own life. However I have heard other people tell me their very different, very interesting ideas of how they think the story unfolds. With that being said, it is a story of struggle and sacrifice that seems to universally be seen within this work.
The beginning of the painting, and the most important part is in the drawing stage. First completing a "Construct", straight, elementary lines that give an accurate location, gesture, proportion of objects as well as the shadows. The first marks and lines are made to express the larger movements and measurements. The drawing starts off with larger measurements and lines and continues to break down the objects, until I am accurately articulating their shapes within a 90 - 95% accuracy.
This painting was drawn in the "dry brush" style, which is to just use a paint brush, as well this particular painting was made in the exact same size as the objects next to it, a method known as "sight-size". The general advantage to this method is it's easier to measure, and easier for your eye to notice mistakes.
Once the drawing is complete there is at least one opening layer to be used before completely rendering. I lay in a thinned layer of paint on the shadows to darken them. The parts of the painting that are in light, that are not too colourful or light are given a layer that will start to show off the forms and increase the thickness of paint in the lights. In this painting I used a monochrome mix of raw umber and white to achieve this. In the areas of the painting where it is very bright, or colourful, I used either pure white or pure colour paint to build up the thickness.
Depending on the object, it's position and importance in the painting, how colourful or bright it is decides whether or not to paint it to a finish in this next layer. The final layer for any object that was not finished by a second layer of paint. In this painting there was no third layer necessary for any part of it.
All About Paint Brushes
A Brief History
In the past few years we have stumbled upon cave artwork in Western Europe and Indonesian caves from 40,000 years ago. That’s pretty old, and one of the pigments that they were using to paint the caves is actually a natural pigment called Red Ochre, that in fact can still be found in the paints we use today. The paintings are for the most part pretty crude and surreal (just like abstract art! (sorry)), but in the defence of the kind hearted savages that painted them, they were most likely using sticks and leaves. Which brings us to the topic at hand.
From Sticks and leaves to animal hairs and then synthetics replacing animal hairs, but trying to be just like them… the actual timeline history of brushes (as with most things in art) can’t currently be pegged down to specific points. At some point people moved away from crude paintings made from sticks and started using bunches of animal hairs connected to handles usually derived from wood. In the past there is evidence of brushes made from all kinds of animals, Donkeys, Cats, Racoons and even reports of Rats in 4th Century China.
I have been unable to find the first existence of synthetic paint brushes, but, in the late 1930’s early 1940’s people created the first synthetic brushes for applying shaving cream. Synthetics brushes are made from Nylon or polyester and to the delight of artist supply companies, synthetics are much less expensive to make then capturing animals and removing their hair and battling lawsuits for doing so.
In our modern day we have four choices for brushes, Bristle, Synthetic, Animal Hair (AH), and AH/Synthetic combination brushes. Most brushes you will find in an art store are synthetics and bristle with a few companies that still provide the more expensive real animal hair brushes. Personally I would only use Bristle brushes for drawing on canvas, they are very stiff and are not meant for any kind of smoothness. The combination Synthetic/AH brushes was a cute idea, but having used one before I was less than impressed and would suggest you go with a brush that is purely Synthetic or AH.
(As a side note, I am particularly discussing acrylic and Oil Painting.)
Synthetic VS Animal Hair (AH)
Which should you choose, a synthetic brush or an AH Brush? My natural inclination was to think AH brushes were superior because of their price, however this isn’t necessarily true. Brushes made from synthetic are extremely good at mimicking the elasticity, and hold fastness of an AH brush. Synthetics have a better longevity and are cheaper.
On the other hand brushes made of AH show a slightly better brush stroke texture, and in my opinion do have a nicer feel when you apply the paint. The longevity of a brush will be extremely long with either way if you take good care of your brushes.
Pretty much every brush sold in an art store today that is designed for oil painting will be of reasonably good quality. All of them can achieve the same result if handled correctly, and handling them correctly is a matter of practice and preference. This may sound like a cop out but the truth is, it’s most definitely a greater question of preference, then saying one is superior to the other. So my final decision would be both can be just as good as the other.
Types of Brushes and what to use them for
There are a great many types of brushes, lets deal with what I consider to be the most important.
Filberts – Used for detailed work as well as blocking in areas or articulating your drawing. You can still obtain a straight edge without much difficulty, and I find the naturally rounded edge to a filbert gives a more random and fulfilling brush stroke than that of a flat or bright which is completely straight. This is definitely my most used brush.
Flats – An alternative to filberts, but with a straighter edge and more belly (longer hair). Because of its longer belly a Flat can hold more paint and is better at carrying streaks of paint. However a rigger is also specifically designed for that purpose.
Brights – These can come in handy when applying an impasto. Their short size enables them to be better at smoothly handling larger amounts of paint in one spot.
Fan – Ideal for any landscape painter. This brush is excellent at diffusing or smoothing out an area as well as mixing paint on canvas. It is also excellent for creating smaller textures or complex thin textures ie. Blades of wheat or grass.
Angle – Especially for creating a straight edge, generally used with a more liquid paint mixed in a medium
Mop – Made for blocking in, or filling in large areas on a painting
Rigger or Rounds – A very thin brush for making thin lines, and is able to hold more medium to make streaky lines. Great brushes to use for very exact lines, comes in handy when your painting landscapes (i.e. grass, wheat etc.) or for superior draftsmanship.
In my type of work I create the best quality realism paintings I can produce. I generally use filberts but I do also use mops, fans, and the occasional bright. I have found a brush with a straight edge creates a very predictable straight brush stroke and that is why I use Filberts over Flats. I only have a couple of large mop brushes for blocking in large areas with paint, I wouldn’t recommend using them for any detail.
My favourite brushes are the Escoda brand which are made in a small town just outside of Barcelona. One of the coolest things about these brushes is that they’re still handmade in a shop by master brush makers sitting at a work table. The only machinery involved connects the handle to the metal Ferrule (the actual brush). They have a great variety producing AH and Synthetic brushes alike and their handles are made from Italian Beechwood. The actual brushes are long lasting and have a good stiffness with some elasticity.
In the Beginning
To put it simply, you should have two of every size of brush you’ll need. The sizes of brush you’ll need depend on the canvas size and what you’re painting.
A good rule to follow for choosing a brush to paint with is always choose the larger size brush. I’m not saying you should use a 1inch brush for detail work on a painting that’s 12” x 12” that would be absurd. I’m saying when you’re deliberating over which size brush to use, think about the size of the area you’re painting and how you’re going to paint it. Then use the largest brush to accomplish this, not the smallest.
Where to buy Brushes if you live near Toronto
Unfortunately ordering from the supplier isn’t going to save you any money on brushes unless you’re ordering at store volume, so onto the art stores. There are 4 main art stores in the GTA that cater best to oil/acrylic painting.
If you’re looking for the greatest variety the Above Ground location next to OCAD definitely tops them all. I’m unsure of exactly all the different brush brands they carry but it is fairly extensive.
The main brands at Curry’s are Escoda, Windsor & Newton, Raphael (although I have yet to see Raphael Brushes in store). Also, they have a few other lesser known brands, as well as their own house brand. With stores peppered all over Southern Ontario, if you happen to not be in Toronto they’re probably you’re only bet.
Gwartzman’s has a reputation for having good supplies but they’re website is currently down and I haven’t been in their store for quite a while. It is worth looking into if you’re closer to their store but being downtown I would look into Above Ground first (also Gwartzman’s isn’t the most customer friendly).
Articulations If you’re on the west side and a newer Above Ground store are both on Dundas West near Keele and can serve you with a fair range of brushes and supplies.
You should feel free to try out all types of brushes from a natural kolinsky sable brush, all the way to a no name synthetic brush they hand out in public school for kids who may not care about art. Wherever you go though, you will gain preference with practice. The only way to know your favourite brush is to paint with it.