Tool time


Dear Artist,

Those of us who paint outdoors will know that we sometimes attract spectators. Generally they hang out for a while, then, unless spoken to, move on. They seem to have respect for the sanctity, perhaps the mystery of the activity. Once, while painting on the luggage rack of my old Bentley, a man came and stood rather closely beside me. He lingered for what seemed to be an awfully long time, saying nothing. Gradually his face drew closer and closer to my work — until his nose was practically in the paint. Finally he stated convincingly; “That is a fantastic brush.”

I’ve thought about that encounter many times. The brush is, after all, the point of connection. It’s the end of “you-the-artist” and the beginning of “you-the-thing-you-make.” You may be the guide of the connection, but it’s the place where the wheels hit the ground; where the needle’s on the record. I thought about that encounter today while in the studio. An ancient hog-bristle, worn practically to the ferrule, was perfect for scumbling. I found myself excitedly fuzzifing and obscuring, making mystery out of my daunting ordinariness. “What a tool,” I shouted, and my dog jumped.

Twenty-six hundred years ago the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu recommended that workmen ought to know their tools. He said that when appropriate they should have sharp tools. He said that workmen who do poorly should never blame their tools. I started looking at the end of that thing. It was fantastic. I was having a little epiphany. Then I turned down the radio and tried to remember a poem by R L Sharpe that I knew in high school:

“Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules;
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone.”

Best regards,


PS: “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

Esoterica: The old handbooks are full of wonderful brush lore. Here’s one from The Painter’s Pocket Book, by Hilaire Hiler: “Dip a No.8 brush in heavy stand-oil. Set it aside for six months until it is quite hard. Dissolve the outer oil away with petrol, leaving a hard center. This brush will hold plenty of colour and yet be both stiff and soft to work with.”

The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.


Cheap brushes
by Jim Rowe

The brushes I use must have the right combination of performance and economy. I paint on canvas and it wears a brush right down, which is upsetting enough watching a good brush wear away. If the brush was expensive I wouldn’t feel comfortable using it. For larger brushes I use a 1″ make-up brush, the kind with dark auburn/brown bristles (stay away from the black bristles) I pick them up at garage sales for ten cents to a dollar. For the fine work I use a little bamboo brush. Not worrying about the cost of materials and tools extends my artistic freedom.


Big brushes
by Sandy Sandy, Tabernacle, NJ, USA


“Spirit Bear”
by Sandy Sandy

Just last night, a fellow watercolorist and I were discussing the subject of brushes. I was doing some small watercolors yesterday and noticed how they all, without exception, seemed to paint themselves effortlessly and turn out better overall than the larger pieces. I came to the conclusion that I need larger bushes for my larger paintings. Especially in watercolor, less is more and when you can paint a passage with one stroke, verses two or three, you are miles ahead of the game. The paintings are fresher and more alive the less you fiddle with them.

About the biggest brush you can get for watercolor is a 3″ flat. Really not big enough for a full sheet (22″ x 30″) painting when you consider I was using a 1″ brush for a very small (8″x 10″) painting with very good results. Proportionally, my friend and I figured you’d really need a big ole 6″ flat brush. (Or maybe two with a holster would be nice!) Then of course we’ll need a larger palette with bigger wells to accommodate the brush. Well, I guess until some famous artist comes along and endorses a bigger brush, we watercolorists are confined to using a brush that is half the size of the ideal for the job. Just another one of the many obstacles we as artists have accepted and learned to try to overcome.


Eyelash brushes
by Betty Kosokowsky, Harrow, Ontario, Canada

I paint tiny paintings on bird feathers with very fine detail so my brushes are very very small… one of my favorites is 00 H.J. SERIES 995 white taklon… I do use the 000 and sometimes 05… but I do like the “point” I get with the 00… I can really make that little white dot in the eyes of the animals I paint on the feathers that go ontop of the pupil of their eyes. I know the importance of the brush… yes some of my friends refer to my brushes as eyelashes…


The secret
by David Lloyd Glover, Beverly Hills, California, USA

We professional artists are oft asked what kind of paint or brushes we use. As if there is some particular magic in the materials and not in the skill of the hand. Oh how wonderful it would be if the “secret” of painting was contained in one very special brush that only we know about. Then everyone could paint like Sargent simply by using his magic brush! How disappointed would the hobby artist be if they really knew what brand of tools I use. Have you ever taken a tour of the dilettante’s studio? They are often much grander, more Hollywood than your own working environment. And the expensive paint, the lavish easels and those brushes! The rich sable with the elegantly finished handles and gold ferrules. How lovely it all is. A visit to my humble studio would reveal a collection of ratty hog’s bristle affairs with ugly unfinished handles. But oh how wonderful they are with those scrappy splayed bristle formations. These tools are perhaps the cheapest items I buy. I seek them out for their lack of sophistication. But I would not trade these brushes for the finest sables Italy has to offer. They are my tools, such as they are. The secret of art will never be found in any expensive device. Just keep painting, painting and painting. The truth will reveal itself.


Brush technique
by Matt Haider, Victoria, BC, Canada

When I first started out in oils, I bought all sorts of brushes; I thought each one would allow me to paint different shapes etc. Now when I go out to paint, I carry about 8 brushes of which I might use 3 or 4! I also find “washing” the brush while painting causes unpredictable paint consistency. Just giving my brush a good wipe with a rag about every 2-3 brush strokes is all that is needed. I use a loaded brush and have never found this to cause dirty strokes!

I’m painting on birch panels for the 7 by 9s and linen mounted on panel for the 18 by 22s. I have two boxes fitted with slots which keep the paintings neatly tucked away. Also I am experimenting with Galklyd medium, not so much for smell or health, but for the drying time, flexibility of film, and the non-yellowing properties. So far, it’s looking like the best thing yet! I only use Y, R, B, Flake white, and occasionally Viridian. Right now about 90% of my paintings are completed on location. I think I’m getting addicted to the adrenaline rush!

P.S. “There may be some outcry among the enemies of blue and pink, because it is precisely this brilliance, this magical light, that I am trying to render.” (Claude Monet)


Shy outdoors
by Paula

If someone approaches me while painting outdoors, it is extremely difficult to continue. It feels like an invasion and I lose the feel of the moment because of the distraction. Maybe someday I can get over this. I watch painting videos sometimes and go to painting retreats and have learned a lot from these. I’m grateful for painters that share hard-earned lessons.


by Harlan Simantel, Portland Community College, Portland, Oregon, USA

I’ve had quite a few “brushes” with spectators while painting outside, near my home. And they’ve all been positive. People are fascinated by seeing something so rare — making a painting from life, outside. I’ve been encouraged by these encounters, and it’s partly what I look forward to when I get out the French easel. Once, while painting in a busy park, a four year old boy kept wandering over to watch me paint. Suddenly, I noticed he had put his small hand in my free hand. I’ll always remember that incident more than the painting I worked on that day.


Slow tech
by Lesley Humphrey

Bill Kalwick Jr., who is well known for his paintings of South American people, was painting on location in Guatemala a couple of years back. Natives gathered around to watch the spectacle and chatter among themselves. Bill knew the language and was tickled to hear one of them say “It’s like taking a photograph… only slower…”


Slow spectator
by RDW, Sheffield, UK

I was up on a ladder painting a decorative mural on the side of a pub. A man came and stood below, looked up at me and asked, “Are you painting this mural?”


Earthquake as tool
by Sue Legault, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Have you ever thought of the earth itself as being a tool for art making? Norman MacLeod of Port Townsend, Washington has. You can see it at


You may be interested to know that artists from 79 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Gwen Pentecost who says, “‘Respect for the sanctity, perhaps mystery of the activity’ Yeah, sure. Where have YOU been painting?”

And Bill Cannon who wanted to know who R L Sharpe was. The poem is quoted in part from the book, Poems that Touch the Heart, which was compiled by A. L. Alexander (Doubleday, 1941). Sharpe was born in the 1870s and died in the 1950s. For years he worked with his father, Edwin R. Sharpe, who owned The Carrollton Free Press and a printing shop in Carrollton, Georgia. In his later years he travelled a lot, mostly freelancing for magazines of the ’20s and ’30s.

So many artists wrote and said they liked the poem that we are going to include it in our Resource of Art Quotations. This is the largest collection of art quotations anywhere. It’s a voluntary accumulation of the favourites of hundreds of contributing artists — and it’s still growing.

“Life gives to every man a staff and scale of notes. The song he sings is one of his own fashioning.” (Alma Lonsdale) Contributed by Radha Saccoccio.



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