Only As Good As the Hand Wielding It

2 Feb 2012

A painting brush isn't animate. It isn't going to teach me how to paint or go about painting art when no one is looking. It needs the hand of the artist to do its job.

Penitent Mary Magdalene by Titian, 1560s, oil on canvas.
Penitent Mary Magdalene by Titian, 1560s, oil on canvas.

But one thing a brush—by its very nature—is made for is emphasizing paint texture. Just think back on how early Renaissance artists worked through decades in which a smooth glossy surface was tantamount. That changed dramatically when artists like Titian and Rembrandt came on the scene.

All of a sudden, paint techniques grew to encompass how the paint sat on the surface. Paint texture came to be analyzed like it was true writing on the wall. The marks of the brush could provide endless painting lessons for oil painting students and practitioners.

You could look at the dabs of color that dot a painting and see leaves, pebbles, rain or snow. A long vertical stroke that widens at the bottom becomes a tree trunk with one controlled swipe. A gestural curving stroke becomes the shape of a reflected piece of light on a glass bottle.

Woman with a Pink by Rembrandt, 1660s, oil on canvas.
Woman with a Pink by Rembrandt,
1660s, oil on canvas.

But the most important of all painting lessons dealing with brushwork that I've learned has to do, in a way, with putting form to function. Make marks that describe the shapes you are painting. Short dabs can be ripples of water, broad strokes can follow the motion of drapery, whatever you want—the point is that we are all cognizant of how the stroke in essence becomes the form. That's the greatest reward to learning how to handle a paintbrush in varied ways—the stroke you make come together with your intention to (hopefully) create the object you see in your mind's eye!

American Artist Guide to Painting Techniques is the resource I started with when starting to delve into brushwork. There's an informative breakdown of brushwork by medium and by the kind of painting you intend to make. All in all, I've found it is a worthwhile guide to keep nearby and reference often. Enjoy!

 


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