Paint brushes – which brand or style works best, and how many do I actually need?
I conducted a year-long experiment, involving 7 of the top brands and more than 30 individual brushes, to find those answers.
Did you know that there are artists, like William Hook, who complete entire paintings with just one brush?
I’m no exception – I love a variety of textures and shapes in my brushes as well.
After beginning to paint professionally it took several years to settle on the brushes and brands that worked well for me, but hopefully sharing the results of this extensive experiment will help you save time and money on your own brush selection process.
Keep in mind that even after finding my “dream set” I continue to pick up a new brand or style to play with here and there, and I encourage you to do the same. It’s possible that the best brushes in the 80s may seem less impressive in 2021.
In fact, my own set of brushes drastically changed due to this experiment (more on that later).
Why This Experiment
The simple answer – because dozens of artists have requested it!
Utrecht, Robert Simmons, Isabey, Royal & Langnickel and Grumbacher had been my go-to brands since the late 80’s. Then one-by-one my regular brushes either disappeared entirely or were modified in a way that turned me off from using them. Hog bristle and mongoose hair paintbrushes had been essential tools for my work since the late 80’s, and now one of them is illegal to manufacture…
Over the years I’ve collected enough brushes that I could have continued painting without much of a hiccup for at least another decade (or start a paint brush museum).
However, I’ve received an email or FB message almost every week asking which brushes I use and what I recommend. I’ve done my best to give a good answer, but it was difficult because of the confusing assortment of brands and stores I’ve purchased my brushes from.
Plus, my set was about impossible to replicate considering several of the brushes were no longer available.
I made it my mission to tackle this subject in a focused manner so that I could whittle the list down to the absolute best – which would be especially useful for the artists following our training. That’s why, if you’ve been watching our videos, you may have noticed my brushes change multiple times over the past 12-15 months.
Brands and Brushes Tested
Here’s the list of brushes included in the experiment. ‘Bargain’ brushes weren’t used because I didn’t think it was worth the time needed to sift through them (and it’s probably not worth it to you either). Sometimes you get lucky with low-end brushes, but they’re so inconsistent that it’s difficult to nail down which ones work well.
Brushes included in the experiment:
Utrecht: Series 103 X Long Filbert, 209 Flat Hog Bristle & 207 Synthetic Blend.
Rosemary & Co: Ivory Long Flat and Egbert; Masters Choice Series 272 Round, 274 Short Flat, 278 Long Filbert & 279 Long Flat; Eclipse X Long Comber; Ultimate Long Flat; & Series 2085 Egbert
Jack Richeson: Grey Matters Series 9841, 9842, 9844, 9845, 9811, 9812, 9813, 9822 & 9823
Raphael: Kevrin Bright & 867 Round
Isabey: 6158 Bright & 6115 Round
Royal & Langnickel: 5590 Series
Robert Simmons: Signet 40F Flat
Richard and Jeremy both use Rosemary & Co brushes, and I know quite a few other artists who speak highly of them, which is why I put a few of the Rosemary brushes up against my old Utrecht set last spring.
You can read about that head-to-head experiment HERE.
The Gray Matters and Kevrin brushes were on display at the Plein Air Convention in San Diego. Several other brands were displayed there as well, and I’ve tried out a brush here and there, but most of the brands listed above offered the possibility of one-stop shopping. Artists don’t usually have enough spare time to order brushes from 7 different companies.
Most brushes can work for multiple techniques, so it’s possible to get by with less variety than I recommend, but each brush tends to have at least one advantage over their peers that makes it worth keeping nearby.
Block-In with Bold Brushwork Technique
Hog bristle brushes are just plain tough – like the workhorse of the paintbrush family. They’ve been my faithful painting partners for more than 30 years.
If I was stranded on an island with only one type of brush, I would pray it was the hog bristle (I know, not likely I would get to choose, but you never know).
The Grumbacher bristles were awesome to paint with in the 80’s, and even part way through the 90’s, but then they changed. I’m not sure if they got bought out or just altered how they were manufactured, but the brushes weren’t the same.
So, I started using the Robert Simmons Flat hog bristles. They seemed alright at first, but then I noticed one brush after another getting twisted bristles after a few months (Twisted Sister was bad enough, but twisted bristles are a true nightmare).
Once I discovered the far superior Utrecht 209 series hog bristles my Robert Simmons went into the kids’ craft collection. If you want to keep them around though, they are excellent for trying out fun brush textures by chopping the bristles into punk rock hairstyles.
Even though it’s fun to play with them occasionally, I generally get the textures and shapes I want with my everyday brushes and don’t actually need mutated ones.
For painting block-in I often begin with large shapes of color. This is where the hog bristle brushes like the Utrecht 209’s really shine. The large stiff bristles create amazing looking broken brush strokes.
Rather than dealing with the soupy mess often accompanying mineral spirits, I lay in the colors with paint from the tube and a touch of walnut oil to let brush texture show through. Next, I fill in more and more with additional layers if I decide it needs greater opacity.
Pressure is placed on the brush so the bristles will splay out a bit, separating the bristles and leaving behind a beautiful textured stroke. If the stroke doesn’t leave enough paint I simply load up a bit more until it leaves just enough paint to show the individual bristles without leaving a solid opaque line of color.
We never know when those first strokes will show through in the final stages, so each stroke needs to be interesting and textural. The back trees in Finding Gold in Estes Park are an excellent example of this:
Notice how loose the brushstrokes remained in the final image, with much of the original brushwork remaining untouched!
A good hog bristle Flat brush can fill in large masses like those pictured above and then turn around and be used for thin branches or small accents of color.
I’ve finished entire paintings with one large #12 hog bristle brush before!
So what brushes work the best for the block-in then?
At the start of the experiment the Rosemary Ultimate and the Grey Matters 9842 hog bristles went toe-to-toe with the 209’s.
I purchased quite a few of the Jack Richeson’s Grey Matters brushes during the 2017 Plein Air Convention in San Diego for this experiment. The grey ferrule on their brushes is fantastic, especially for filming, since there’s significantly less light glare to affect the cameras.
I really wanted these particular brushes to work for me!
They turned out being great quality brushes, but just weren’t nimble enough for my style of panting. The bristles on the Grey Matters are arranged too thickly for a nice sharp edge – and my paintings depend on a good edge.
All that thickness also makes them much more difficult to clean – and I barely tolerate cleaning time as it is. Because of that both Utrecht and Rosemary delivered knock-out punches that sent the Grey Matters to join Robert Simmons brushes outside of the ring.
Rosemary’s thin quality makes the brush immensely more responsive to bravura brushstrokes and the unpredictable foliage work that I love.
It also holds a nice edge and withstands incredible abuse.
Keep in mind that the Grey Matters would probably be fantastic for someone working opaquely with large definite strokes, but not with my particular style.
Blocking-In with Bold Brushwork Winner:
Between the Utrecht 209 series hog bristle and the Rosemary Ultimate Long Flat hog bristle, I would call it a draw – they are both superior brushes. Neither brush lost any steam during the experiment – they just kept going and going with razor sharp reflexes and edges.
Here’s a quick video that shows some of the prowess of the Rosemary Ultimate hog bristle brushes and the way I push and pull the brush that demands so much vigor from the bristles:
Dry Brush Technique
The Dry brush technique, which you saw a bit of during the initial block in, is one of my absolute favorite painting techniques. This is another area that hog bristle brushes excel, as they are able to continue that type of broken textured look even in the final stages of a painting.
When used well it allows underlying layers of color to peek through between the bristle texture of the newer layers of paint.
In ‘Colors of the Wind’, as seen above, the whole painting is filled with dry-brushed strokes that help create a kaleidoscope of dazzling colors.
For twenty years hog bristle brushes delivered wonderful Dry-Brush strokes for my paintings.
However, once I began playing with the Utrecht 207 Synthetic Blend I found myself reaching for it more and more. During my training videos you probably noticed me use them more than any other single brush.
And it wasn’t until writing this guide that I figured out why!
Do you notice how the bristles are slightly separated from one another with varying gaps?
The spread out bristles is what I get with the hog bristle brushes when I push down with pressure, but with the 207’s it’s built right in (no extra work required).
The Utrecht 207 bristle gaps make for some wonderful dry brush paint application. You can see what I mean in this 60 second video:
Unfortunately, Utrecht stopped carrying the individual sizes and currently only offers them in a package that includes a bunch of brushes I don’t need. I haven’t been able to find an apples for apples replacement either.
When I saw Rosemary’s Comber brushes I thought they might fill the open role since they had the look of a suitable synthetic blend. The bristles have the slight separation from one another at the tips, or edge of the brush, that I’ve been searching for.
When I picked these up during the Oil Painters of America show in Cincinnati I was so enamored with the look of the bristles I failed to give them the spring test.
For those who don’t understand what I mean by ‘spring’ – grab two brushes. Now, bend the bristles back to a 90-degree angle with a finger and quickly release them. If you were holding a hog bristle or the 207 you would feel them snap back into place – with the comber you would see it either stay slightly bent or very slowly move back into position.
After getting back to my studio and testing them out I realized they were way too soft for the Dry-Brush technique.
Because of the lack of spring the bristles lack the strength to show off those separated bristles when applying paint. That’s why hog bristles like the Rosemary Ultimate or the 207’s work so well for a dry brush stroke. When the brush is bent back it separates the bristles from one another and the spring causes them to disperse the paint while separated. That’s important to break up an otherwise opaque paint stroke and let the underlying colors show through.
That same softness and lack of spring is what eliminated the Jack Richeson Synthetic line during the experiment.
Rather than 100% synthetic bristles, it seems the dry-brush technique needs the hog/synthetic bristle combo, like the 207’s, to get the needed spring and toughness.
Utrecht 207 Synthetic Blend brushes should win with a strong margin, but since they’re no longer sold individually the winner’s crown has to go to another. Most artists, myself included, aren’t willing to purchase an entire set of brushes each time an individual brush needs to be replaced.
The Rosemary Ultimate Flat hog bristles and their Masters series 279 (which I discuss later in this guide) have become my fallback for Dry-Brush effects. I’m still hoping that Rosemary creates a perfect replacement match for the 207’s, which I’m confident will happen eventually, but until then I’m content with my fallback options.
Scruffy Foliage Technique
What a fun technique to play with. The back and forth movement causes brush bristles to dance and splay, and pushes the paint around with an irregular pattern and texture.
Here’s an example from the Master Oil Painting Plein Air Course showing this unruly technique:
The Scruffy Foliage technique requires bristles to be nimble, tough and long, and without the right brush it can leave them looking pretty… broken (i.e. the Ivory brush below).
Langnickel Mongoose 5590s were by far the best brush for the job. They were fine being pushed, pulled and scrubbed on the panel while loaded up with thick paint
The Langnickel 5590s had two major issues. The first is they constantly lost bristles while I painted – a size 16 could get reduced to a size 8 after a few months of use. That meant removing a lot of loose hair from my paintings.
Even if you could work through loose hairs though, the second issue was insurmountable. They have become illegal to produce, so it didn’t really matter how well they worked..
You’ll learn more about why they became illegal in the ‘Softening an Edge; Thin Branches/Grasses; & Paint Texture Techniques‘ section of this guide.
I tried the haphazard foliage technique with the Rosemary Ivory series brushes, and they just couldn’t handle the back and forth movement.
Lots of artists rave about the Ivory series, so early on I called Rosemary to see why I had so much trouble with them. She asked me to describe my brush handling technique and then told me that Quang Ho has a similar way of using the brush and had the same problem.
Synthetic bristles like the Rosemary Ivory’s seem to be designed for quieter styles.
Up until recently, and for quite some time, my go-to for random Scruffy-Foliage had been the Utrecht 103 X Long Filbert . It is a thin hog bristle filbert with extra-long bristles that can handle being pushed back and forth with minimal damage to the bristles – over and over again.
Who could possibly stand up against this long time champ?
Since we already eliminated the Grey Matters brushes because of their sign that read ‘Caution: Wide Turns’ – I decided to test out another Rosemary brush to give it a fair chance.
Boy did she come through!
The Rosemary Series 2085 hog bristle Egberts offer the same responsiveness and unpredictable movement of the Utrecht 103’s when adding fun layers of thick foliage.
And because they keep their shape and remain razor sharp they’re also fantastic for precise fluid strokes, like in this sunflower painting slow-motion video where I added one fluid stroke of petals on the bottom of the flower.
This has become a tough brush to compete against!
A razor edge at one moment and then splaying out perfectly to dance haphazardly around the painting makes it the perfect Scruffy-Foliage technique brush.
The Utrecht 103 is an awesome brush for this technique, and you won’t be disappointed painting with it. However, because the Rosmary 2085 Egbert is a more versatile brush, and far more precise when handling the Scruffy-Foliage technique, it has become the clear winner.
As a runner up you may also want to play with the Rosemary 279 Masters Long Flat badger brush. They are far superior to the Langnickels I used for 20 years, because it gives me that wonderful bristle texture without leaving any stray hairs behind.
Softening an Edge; Thin Branches/Grasses; & Paint Texture Techniques
A major factor that separates a stiff lifeless landscape from a vibrant natural look is edge quality. Too many hard or sharp edges look fake – like colored paper cutouts placed on top of a painting.
Paintings are meant to have a variety of sharp, soft and lost edges – like what we see in nature.
The soft broken edge on the upper right side helps push it into the background and away from the viewer, while the sharper edge on the upper left of the aspen tree helps direct the viewer’s eye to that area and pulls it away from the background.
With the little blades of grass, I started at the top and ended the stroke where the grass joins the ground. That way the thicker bit of paint is at the top helping it come forward toward the viewer and the grass dissolves and becomes less distinct as it moves down.
Notice I also hold the brush all the way at the end of the handle so the stroke is more graceful and fluid. When the brush is held like a pencil it tends to stiffen up the movement and doesn’t feel as natural or free flowing.
Holding it farther back on the handle can also give greater control over the brush as far as lessening the pressure at the end of the stroke.
Wonderful sharp and lost edges were often created using mongoose hair paintbrushes. They were able to hold paint with just enough spring and separation in the bristles, while maintaining their shape to transition from an opaque sharp edge to a broken bit of color as the paint was dragged off the brush.
Mongoose hair was just stiff enough to load it up with paint and lay it down with thick brush bristle texture while also being able to distribute thinner paint for a wonderful Dry-Brush stroke, especially when I needed a subtle breakup of the edge of a tree trunk or a group of leaves.
The more precise I wanted to be the more likely I was to use a mongoose hair rather than a hog bristle Flat. The Isabey Mongoose hair 6158 Bright brushes were excellent for softening an edge and adding small delicate branches. I could also go back and forth between an Isabey Mongoose Round and Bright brush for thin blades of grass or little tree trunks.
It all came to an end when mongoose hair paintbrushes became illegal to produce due to cruel manufacturing practices coming to light. You can still find them here and there for sale as stock dwindles down, but they are no longer being produced (for good reason).
So where do we go from here?
I tested synthetic brushes galore in an attempt to find anything that could replace my old mongoose brushes. Over and over I was met with disappointment, because none of them were able to produce comparable results. Plus, they kept falling apart or bending out of shape under the stress of daily use.
Eventually I tried out Rosemary’s Masters Choice Series.
Somehow she created a badger hair replacement that matches the spring and texture of the mongoose hair perfectly.
Worried about using badger hair after our mongoose hair conversation?
So was I, until I looked into it a bit more (credit emsplace.com):
“Badger hair is imported from China. British, American and Canadian Badger are of no interest to brush manufacturers and cannot be connected with today’s limited trade. China being the main export of Badger hair does so with very strict control on the amount exported each year, clearly displaying their awareness of environmental conservation. The Badger population is carefully monitored avoiding any decrease in its numbers. (It should be remembered that the badger is a source of meat to the Chinese people and is available in the markets). Chinese Badger are collected from the wild and are not in contravention of the Washington Treaty of Endangered Species.”
“This has been an industry for the people of China for hundreds of years and it should be remembered that an increase in the Badger population would quickly be regarded as vermin and a pest to agriculture. The high prices paid for Badger hair, its removal being a costly operation, means that any significant growth predicted in its demand has little foundation. Such an expensive product will never be part of the mainstream fashion boom. Britain, Europe and America all operate very strict import controls ensuring that any Badger hair brought into these countries is done so with all legislative agreements being strictly adhered to. The ecologists in both the exporting and importing communities of Badger hair have created a system preserving the Badger, an important source of livelihood for hundreds of years in the Far East and ensuring that a small market does exist, creating valuable work in an industry which dates back to the time when wet shaving was first recorded.” – Mr.Philip Watterson, former Managing Director, Progress Shaving Brush (Vulfix) Ltd
Because of this, the Masters Series 274 Short Flat brushes have taken the place of the older Isabey Mongoose brushes and the 272 Round took over for the Isabey 6115. The Masters 279 Series Long Flat brushes did a great job replacing the Langnickels.
The Mabry Mill painting I finished recently was done almost entirely with two brushes: a Rosemary Masters 279 Long Flat size 8 and size 4.
The 279’s moved expertly from thick textured strokes for the roofs and foliage to thin delicate lines for tree branches and wood beams in the Mill.
All the thick paint texture you see in the sky and throughout the painting was created with a loaded-up Rosemary Masters 279 Long Flat.
See the full instructional video: masteroilpainting.com/monthly-member-trial/
First, I like to under-mix the paint with several colors for a striated colorful brush stroke. Then I get plenty of paint on the brush and with the brush parallel or flat to the panel I let the panel drag the paint off the bristles while exerting varying pressure on the brush, depending on how much paint I want to leave behind.
For thin wisp-like branches or grasses I squeeze a paper towel down the bristles to shape a sharp edge. Then I push the brush gently forward into a pile of paint and get a small line of paint on the front edge of the brush.
Side note – to get a good edge from your brush I recommend dipping the bristles into a small amount of walnut oil or Turpenoid Natural before compressing with a paper towel.
With just enough pressure to let the paint come away from the brush and keeping the brush perpendicular to the panel as I move the brush, I let the brush edge travel forward even through thicker paint, forming a line in the direction I want the branch to go.
It’s usually a quick motion, and often I flick the brush up at the end of the stroke to help feather the mark even thinner.
Here’s a 6-minute video with these different brush techniques showing how fun and versatile the Masters series brushes are – from thin delicate lines to thick textured strokes:
The Raphael Kevrin series are also beautifully crafted mongoose replacement brushes. The only issue is that although the Kevrin Series has the Bright and Round, they do not have a Long Flat.
If you decide to try the Kevrin brushes and are comparing prices, keep in mind that a size 10 Kevrin Flat (Bright) is about the size of a Rosemary 274 Bright size 5 (their prices are comparable).
Softening an Edge; Thin Branches/Grasses; & Paint Texture Winner:
The Rosemary Masters set and Raphael Kevrin win this contest by a mile (or more)!
Since the Kevrin doesn’t have the Long Flat that Rosemary offers I recommend going with the Masters Series 272, 274, and 279 for this job.
David, my son/editor/publisher, brought this up as we were finishing the final draft of this guide – what do I use for my signature?
Oh crumb – that didn’t even cross my mind. I’ve been using the exact same brush for more than 25 years. That just seems crazy to me – a brush holding out for 25 years, but part of the reason for that is that it’s only used for my signature.
That brush is the Utrecht White Nylon Sable 233 size 2.
In fact, I think it was simply happenstance that I started using it, because at the time I hardly had any size 2’s of anything in my studio. I still rarely use a brush that small (I have no idea why I even had such a small brush in my studio – possibly from a school illustration assignment). That day I probably just grabbed whatever seemed convenient out of my ‘museum’ of brushes.
It worked well for keeping my signature small so I kept using it until it became a habit. Maybe it’s a comfort thing – always reaching for the same brush – like a lucky hat or something.
Obviously, since I am quickly adding this in, I have not yet tested any other brushes. I could probably use about any of my brushes (okay, a size 12 bristle might be challenging on a 6×8 painting), but I decided to order some that might be close to what I’ve been using.
I made the order a couple days ago and will keep you updated once they arrive. One group looks very promising – the Shiraz Pointed Rounds. I also ordered an Ultimate Pointed Round size 0 and an Ivory Pointed Round size 1.
Pending. Visit back in a few weeks and I should have this updated with the results of my next experiment.
Priming a Panel
Another question that comes up repeatedly is what to use for texture when priming a panel. Now that I use the Ecos Air Purifying Primer I don’t do much to texture the panels – I simply use a foam roller from a hardware store to cover front, back and all edges of the MDF ¼ inch panels.
The Ecos Air Purifying Primer is not as thick as acrylic gesso, and brush strokes mostly flatten out as it dries. It’s great for priming though and stays pure white with time.
If you want to use thicker acrylic gesso for texture, your best bet is to experiment with several brushes and see what kind of texture you like.
A hog bristle Flat works for me, but I also like to play with cheap Lowe’s $1 brushes.
Either a foam roller or a cheep hardware store brush. Yes, I know, it’s not anything special, but most artists have a cheap brush like it lying around and it gets the job done.
Overall Winning Brush Brand
Rosemary conquered this experiment hands down, and has changed what I paint with in my own studio!
Many of the other brushes and brands I tested are impressive, but none of them offered the selection and superior craftsmanship in one location like Rosemary brushes have been able to do.
If you want to save time and money searching for the perfect brushes – you can go to Rosemary for about everything you need.
They’re beautifully crafted, conservatively priced, and (other than the Ivory brushes) they hold up well through all the abuse I’ve been able to throw at them.
In an effort to make following the Master Oil Painting training simpler, my studio is moving exclusively to Rosemary brushes. Our goal is to eliminate confusion – students will know exactly what brushes I’m using and have easy access to every brush they see.
To limit site surfing I’ll go ahead and reach out to Rosemary about creating a kit with all the brushes I use and recommend, which I hope will make ordering easier for our community. Watch for future emails from us to see when they are able to get that put together for everyone.
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