5 Ways to Kickstart Your Art – #5: Use the Tools to Your Advantage

(If you missed the previous blogs, catch up on the whole series here)

Tip #5: Use the Tools to Your Advantage

One of the things that can be overwhelming about oil painting in the beginning is the sheer volume of supplies that comes along with it. I'm a huge proponent of both starting small and simple, and also experimentation. I remember in the beginning being so afraid that I was using the "wrong" tool or using a tool the "wrong" way, but that can limit creativity so much! Painting is simply about getting paint from the palette onto a surface in an efficient way with a mark that excites you! That said, there's a few different ways to do that...

Know Your Knives:

Palette and painting knives can be your best friend or a constant pain. Using an inefficient knife for a specific task can definitely slow you down!

Palette Knife or Painting Knife?
  • A palette knife is straight and flat like a butter or spackle knife and is good for moving paint from one part of your palette to another, or getting paint or medium out of a tub.
  • A painting knife has a bend in it like a spatula to keep your hand out of the paint and is meant to move paint from your palette to your painting.
  • Both knives come in a wide variety of shapes and if you get into palette knife painting (technically "painting knife painting," in case we aren't confused enough) it's a good idea to try a variety!
A Good Mixing Knife:

For your basic mixing, I find a painting knife in a leaf or diamond shape at least an inch long is the most useful. My favorite one is two inches long!

A knife with a nice point gives you more control, and a larger knife won't get swallowed by your paint mixtures. Mixing with a blunt or square-tipped knife can make the job clumsy, and using too small of a knife can keep you from mixing enough color and tends to get your knuckles messy!

Painting knifes (left) and palette knives (right)

Painting knifes (left) and palette knives (right)

Know Your Brushes:

This one can be overwhelming to the beginner, and even more experienced painters can get into a rut and shy away from the wide world of brushes. There are so many different shapes and sizes and materials, where do you start?? I find it easier to think of them in three categories:

A mix of filberts, flats, and brights in hog bristle, badger hair, and synthetic fibers

A mix of filberts, flats, and brights in hog bristle, badger hair, and synthetic fibers

Working Brushes:

You'll probably end up using these for 90% of your painting.

  • Flats and brights have a square tip, with flats being longer.
  • Filberts are usually as long as flats with an oval tip, but some brands offer a short filbert.
  • In general the longer the bristles, the more expressive the stroke, the shorter the bristles, the more control. Try one of each in a good standard size like an 8 and see what you like the feel of better! Some artists swear by different shapes for different techniques (filbert for fur, flat for rocks) but in reality it all comes down to your working style and personal preference.
Small rounds and filberts in hog bristle, badger, and red sable

Small rounds and filberts in hog bristle, badger, and red sable

Detail Brushes:

These are rounds and pointed rounds, as well as maybe small filberts and angled flats. It's good to have a range of these for getting into small areas, but don't use them too soon or you'll wear yourself out struggling to fill in a 16"x16" canvas with an 1/8" brush!

(from top to bottom) Spalter, angled flat, fan, mottler, paddle brush, short and long liner

(from top to bottom) Spalter, angled flat, fan, mottler, paddle brush, short and long liner

Technique Brushes:

This is everything else!

  • Eggberts: long flippy filberts, good for loose strokes
  • Fan brushes: good for interesting marks and swoops but very easy to overuse
  • Riggers and liners: good for signatures, whiskers, flower stems, boat rigging, etc
  • Mottlers, spalters, and paddle brushes: huge versions of flats for making big broad strokes, available with different handle lengths from different brands
  • Angled flats, good for crisp lines and interesting marks
  • Wash and hake (pronounced hah-kay): great for getting large even areas of thinned color, but are generally very soft
  • And more! There are brushes made for hand-lettering, murals, pinstriping, and even housepainting that all have different capabilities for holding paint and making marks, don't be afraid to try them!
  • Natural bristle (usually hog or boar) is stiffest and best for your working brushes since they'll hold up to abuse
  • Synthetic brushes marked for oils or heavy bodied acrylics will have a similar stiffness. These brushes give you good coverage and crisper marks
  • Sable, squirrel, and badger are good for details, blending, and smoother effects, but will break down faster if you use them too hard
  • Soft synthetics or "taklon" brushes have a similar texture to squirrel
  • Despite media labels, any brush is an oil brush when you stick it in oils! However, some marketed for watermedia and may not stand up to thinner well. Also, if you use encaustic at all, stick to natural hair brushes since synthetics will melt!

Make Life Easier:

There are so many little tools that make your studio life easier! Some of my favorites are:

  • An ergonomic palette scraper: Find these in the painting section of the hardware store next. Make sure it feels good in your hand and it's easy to change the blades. Buy a box of blades and change them often for best effect!
  • A nutcracker: In case you get hungry? Actually, these are perfect for opening stubborn tubes of paint. A pair of pliers works well too, but I find nutcrackers to be more compact for travel, and more ergonomic for my small hand. Find them for cheap at a thrift store!
  • A tube wringer: This is magic!! You can easily get all that spread-out paint into the tip of the tube, especially if you're like me and when you're in a hurry you squeeze from the middle. (It also works on toothpaste...;) )
  • Cotton rags: I like paper towels or shop towels for wiping brushes, but when it comes to soaking up thinner, wiping palettes, or catching spills there's nothing more absorbent than a cotton rag! You can use them for days, especially if you lay them flat to dry after a painting session. Find them in the painting section of your hardware store.
  • A good brush cleaner: These can be pricey but they're one of the things that are worth the money because they extend the life of your brushes and keep thinner from spilling all over the studio (or your car or backpack). Find one that seals completely, is easy to open and close, and has rounded holes to protect your brush tips.



There is no rule that only brushes and knives marketed for oil painting should be used in a painting! Find other interesting ways of applying paint. I've seen painters use objects like sponges, rags, sticks, carving tools, pieces of mat or cardboard, forks, rubber stamps, printmaking blocks, cheap chipping or foam brushes, rubber brayers, spackle knives, and plastic wrap to make different types of marks and textures!

And don’t be afraid of mixed media:

  • Collage, metal leaf, acrylic and water media can be a base for applying oils on top
  • Many oil or wax-based materials can be layered on top of (or in between) layers of oil paint: colored pencil, wax and oil pastel, alkyd paint, cold wax and encaustic, etc.

Use good, archival substrates like hardboard, birch panel, oil paper, and canvas, and do a little research to understand layering order and how a medium might need to be sealed or displayed differently, but go have fun!!

Having the right materials makes all the difference! Do you have a favorite tool? Please comment with your story!

Read All 5 "Kickstart Your Art" Tips Here!

One of my favorite tools is even simpler than anything on this list - my value scale! If you want a Free Download of my 5-Value Scale - the version I use in my own studio - sign up below! Plus, I'll also send you a handout of the "Top 3 Mistakes Artists Make With Value (& How to Fix Them!)."

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