Brush with illusion


Dear Artist,

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.


Dolce Far Niente (Delicious idleness)
oil on canvas 1905-9
by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

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.



“Rehearsal of the Pas de Loup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver”
oil on canvas 1878
by John Singer Sargent

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.”



“Home Fields”
oil on canvas c.1885
by John Singer Sargent

Best regards,


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.



  1. Pingback: follow through | Anita H. Lehmann, Artist

  2. I think this is all very true. There seems to be a growing trend among artists to want to paint with photographic detail. However, what we gain in detail we loose in mystery. In painting, less is more. Having too much information for the eye to see can lead to lack of focus – the eye darts everywhere without resting. Photos give graphic detail, paintings should give atmosphere and invite the viewer in. Sargent’s method of doing the big strokes at the end really works.

    • soon true-just got back from a 5 day workshop with Nancy Bush— near santa fe, n. m.
      its art with soul…to say the least…
      less is more

    • Grant Strange on

      Mike I like very much what you said above. I used to oil paint with so much detail, that everyone that came to my Galleries Shows, would immediately go up about two feet away to see the detail. With all the detail I put into my oil paintings you could easily see my painting’s 10 to 15 feet away. A friend mentioned that I should try ‘Plein Air’ painting. Well with a lot of practice and learning to stand away from my canvases to paint with long handle brushes. I’m enjoying my oil painting so much better! What is really nice is when I put up my older detail paintings beside my new paintings of Plein Air paintings they both look the same at a distant with plenty of detail, until you walk up closely! Now it’s not so pains taking for detail. Grant S.

  3. Mike Barr- This comment: Having too much information for the eye to see can lead to lack of focus – the eye darts everywhere without resting…

    Is exactly what I’m doing- with utter intention- and a total all-consuming focus on too much information! I have an INTENT TO OVERWHELM. There is nowhere for the eye to rest. Therefore- the eye DANCES all over the piece- right up until the split second your mind explodes. If the piece is impossible to look at- its success is of the highest order- and I’ve succeeded in the grandest most magnificent way possible. And I had a friend visit a show of mine back east and describe my work in exactly this way…

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