Is the Devil in the Detail?

28 Nov 2012

How to let go of small brush addiction so your paintings can move on to become more gestural

If you lost all of your brushes, which one would you miss the most?

For me, it's a 12 year old Filbert bristle brush that has lost its shape, has unruly hairs, and is caked in paint. In other words, it's perfect.

Transitioning from a large to small brush in an oil painting can be problematic if you do it too fast, without establishing your big shapes first.
Transitioning from a large to small brush in an oil painting can be
problematic if you do it too fast, without establishing your big shapes first.
But often, for beginners, their prize possession is a number 000, the smallest, thinnest detail brush.

I can appreciate that there is something so pleasing about a detail brush, it can be hard not to resist. It's a bit like adding whipped cream to your coffee, you know you shouldn't do it but it tastes so damn good!

Getting over 'small brush addiction' can instantly give your oil painting art a boost and help you develop your skills as a painter.

The obsession hits hardest when you're making the switch from drawing or sketching to mastering oil painting techniques. The familiarity of a small, sharp point is comforting, yet unbeknown to you, ultimately damaging to your painting skills.

You start to work in a 'piecemeal' approach. This is where you focus on one small section at a time rather than bringing the painting together as a whole.

But what if you dream of producing work with energy, gestural marks and movement, yet everything you produce looks flat, lacking that certain style you know is in you?

The solution

Take a few words of advice from a master of gestural marks, John Singer Sargent, who is credited with saying,

'Start with a broom & end with a needle'

So find the biggest brush you have, often a 2 inch decorators brush is good, work on a larger scale, 60 x 60 cm is a good starting point, and go for it!
Try to paint as much as you can before changing your brush down a size.

"But, don't I need a small brush for the details?"

No, you need a deft touch.

When studying at the Angel Academy of Art, Florence, Master John Angel would repeatably say, 'The Devil is the detail' to emphasis the importance of establishing your big forms first, rather than diving into the details too early on.

If you establish the general feel of the painting using a big brush first, not only will you work faster with more expression, but your dexterity with the brush will improve.
When you do finally succumb to the charms of your small detail brush the marks will sing, in comparison to the broad, gestural strokes surrounding them.


Will Kemp is an award-winning professional artist from the U.K. He teaches classical painting techniques with a modern approach, so you can discover how to paint & draw in the quickest time possible. Will creates weekly videos at Will Kemp Art School about painting, drawing & creativity.

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KatPaints wrote
on 3 Dec 2012 5:36 PM

Cartoons of the day depicted Sargent painting with a mop.

KatPaints wrote
on 3 Dec 2012 6:00 PM

That is...lunging at his canvas with a mop. There is a lecture on Utube - "Erica Hirshler: Looking at John Singer Sargent." I found it interesting to compare the actual vase to the way Sargent depicted it in "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit "