The next time you have one of the instruments of your craft in your hand, take a minute to see exactly what it is, and try to rethink what it’s best cut out to do. Paint brushes are often asked to do things they were not meant to do. Whether from laziness or ignorance, the wrong sizes and shapes are pressed into service. Large passages are laboured through with little brushes, while detail is attempted with big ones. This is often because artists have their eyes on reality and not on illusion.
Here’s a simple idea that will almost always improve your work. It’s an easy one for even the most seasoned painters to forget. Simply think and select the brush that will most easily get around the passage at hand. Conversely, find passages that suit the brush you have in your hand. Demand that your brush be comfortable with its strokes. The whole brush, right down to the ferrule, gives confidence to the illusion you wish to make.
Think how aptly the sumi-brush performs when used as intended. Think of the limner at limning, the fan at softening. See the uses of the Bright, Sharp, Round, Sable. Consider, above all, size. Particularly, move up in size of brush when you move up in size of work.
It’s safe to say we ought to start a painting with a broom and end with a whisk. In the name of giving a dash of élan and the impression of freshness and ease, try taking John Singer Sargent‘s advice and “start with a whisk and end with a broom.” Sargent loved to finish with a few casual or flamboyant strokes, larger than were needed, “a flash of talent.”
PS: “Illusions are art, and it is by art that we live, if we do.” (Elizabeth Bowen)
“And if you ever do a survey, you’ll find that people prefer illusion to reality, ten to one. Twenty, even.” (Judith Guest)
This letter was previously published as “Brush with illusion” on January 25, 2000.