Getting Started: Throw away your small brushes

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting

Start with a broom, and end with a needle.

It’s an exaggerated way of saying start with big brushes then end with a small one, it’s a way of choosing brushes that can really help you when starting painting because it stops you focusing on the ‘interesting detail’ too early on.

Using large brushes to lay down bold and decisive strokes,  helps to alleviate self-inflicted pressure to make the  painting look finished too early on, in reality this never happens it’s like trying to re-landscape your garden without digging up the soil, you have to make the mess first to finish with the flowers.

How big is big?

If you use large brushes to start with it will teach you brush skills and the huge variety of marks that can be achieved with one brush rather than relying on another specialist brush to fix the problem.
For an example canvas 30x 40cm I would use a brush 2-4 cm wide.

What type of brush should I use?

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is indecision, if you only have one brush and two colours you’ve got no option, you just have to start.

I love filbert brushes, they are so flexible to use the hairs are quite long, arranged as a flat head and tapered to a rounded tip. For more details see: A quick way to understand brushes.

It’s always better to start with fewer brushes than to amass a whole draw and not start at all.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca July 28, 2013

To start acryllic painting what brushes would you get and what sizes. How many and what is the best brand?

Reply

Will Kemp August 4, 2013

Hi Rebecca,

To start acrylic painting you only need a couple of brushes, a size 10 or eight Filbert or Flathead brush and a small size Round is a great start. I like Rosemary & co brushes, Isabey brushes are also nice for acrylics.

Have a look at this article on brush sizes, as can be a bit confusing.
Hope this helps,

Cheers,

Will

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Yulia November 12, 2013

“You have to make the mess first to finish with the flowers.” thank you, you’ve just made my day and encouraged me! I’m really laughing…
I didn’t do any brushstroke the last two years, it had taken me too long time to create a “masterpiece”. I really felt lost: I wanted to paint but I was so insecure and got so scared…and so on. But, the point is: I was stuck and now I’m ready to carry on moving. Thank you for that magic phrase for me, an ignition key to begin again. Thank you a lot!
Have a good day, Yulia.

Reply

Will Kemp November 12, 2013

Great to hear it Yulia.

Cheers,
Will

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George May 29, 2014

This is the problem I having. I have paints, brushes, palette knives, surfaces to paint on, and a whole bunch of photos that I’ve taken when out walking, to paint from. All that stuff is in one room in my house. I’m about 15 feet away, in another room, fretting over my indecision and anxiety over the matter. I don’t know where to start!

Reply

Will Kemp May 30, 2014

Hi George, you need to feel the fear…and paint it anyway! try working from one of these free tutorials, just download the reference image and follow the lessons, even if its not a subject matter you would normally choose it will get you painting.

Cheers,
Will

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Kate December 12, 2013

Hi, I painted this lovely picture of a beach scene with sunset and a lighthouse in a A4 water colour pad, I now want to paint it again on a canvas with arcrylics. But I’m so apprehensive of painting it on a bigger scale and also I painted the original in portrait maybe I should of painted it landscape way in the first place! Any tips would be very appreciated! Thanks Kate

Reply

Will Kemp December 12, 2013

Hi Kate,

If you’ve painted in once with watercolours you’ll be fine, just take the painting a step at a time, paint the canvas with a coloured ground and you’ll be away.

Cheers,
Will

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Kate December 12, 2013

Thank you very much! :)

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Kathleen January 6, 2014

Ok, I am on the spot to paint a portrait for a big opening of a complex where thousands of people will walk by and view. Iam not sure how they decided to have me paint this but I am taking on the challenge. Black and white acrylics is my medium and my subject is an old photograph in a black & white. I paint for murals on walls using acrylics and house paint but to paint either on wood or canvas has been awhile. So, Iam brushing up on my homework and I’d come across your website. I have painted under pressure before but not quite like this and so I want it to “feel” like an oil painting (though I don’t work with oils). I will be reading and working very quickly to complete this task. Thanks for providing techniques to “brush” up my artistic skills. Kathleen

Reply

Will Kemp January 7, 2014

Good luck with the live demo Kathleen, as long have you have a ‘two palette’ system. One palette with a premixed string of tonal mixes, and the other a tear-off palette, it will work fine. Keep the light and the darks mixes separate and the forms will work well.

Cheers,

Will

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Kathleen January 7, 2014

Thank you for that advance. I will be paying close attention to your website and classes, its a boost of confidence for all artist beginning or rusty like me.
Kathleen

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Will Kemp January 7, 2014

You’re welcome Kathleen, pleased it helped.

Cheers,
Will

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Amanda February 9, 2014

Will, you are wonderful. it is super to see a professional artist willing to be generous with his tips and guidance. :) Well done.
The art world is rather pretentious so when I find a person like you, I am thankful!
Amanda

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Will Kemp February 9, 2014

Thanks Amanda, pleased you’re finding the articles helpful.

Cheers,
Will

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Kathleen February 9, 2014

A great compliment, well said Amanda.

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Faye March 8, 2014

I want to paint a white canvas with black gesso but how do I do this with out getting lines in it? please. My main feature will be a water fall.

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Will Kemp March 8, 2014

Hi Faye,

To get a solid black gesso you need to apply a couple of coats.

Cheers,

Will

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Faye March 10, 2014

Tried two coats of the black gesso like you suggested, good result thank you.

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Will Kemp March 10, 2014

Good one Faye, pleased it worked.
Cheers,
Will

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George May 29, 2014

I’ve only ever seen white gesso sold, in Michael’s (artsy store here in the USA). Where on-line can I purchase different colored gessos? I’d like to paint night scenes and scenes with flowers and single objects (like artist Abbey Ryan does!).

Christine May 18, 2014

I just used your YouTube video on painting an apple study in acrylic last night (I’m a beginner) and it was amazing! You’re a great teacher!

Reply

Will Kemp May 18, 2014

Thanks Christine, really pleased your Apple study turned out well.
Cheers,
Will

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Chris Higgins June 5, 2014

Hi there..where can I buy the material that’s used for plaster casts? ( when you break an arm or leg)
I want to use it to develop texture on canvases
Thanks

Reply

Will Kemp June 6, 2014

Hi Chris, have a google for ‘plaster of paris.’
Cheers,
Will

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Leslie July 2, 2014

Hi Will. Your site is like the missing link! I just love it’s practical applications and the way your encouraging personality shines through! I have a question somewhat like Kathleen’s: I am commissioned to do a large canvas in acrylics of an abstract beach scene. My challenge is that my client insists on warm colours: mostly sand, little water. The piece will hang in a north-facing family room and she doesn’t want it to appear cold. What colour would you suggest I use as the tonal ground? And is there a blue that reads as “warm”? Thanks in advance for your suggestions!

Leslie

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Will Kemp July 3, 2014

Great to hear it Leslie, a warm naples yellow ground can always work well for a tranquil beach scene, ultramarine blue will give you a warmer blue compared with a phthalo blue green (see this video)

Good luck with your commission.

Cheers,
Will

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Leslie July 3, 2014

Good morning, Will. Thanks so much for your suggestions! Extremely helpful!

Leslie

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Will Kemp July 4, 2014

You’re welcome Leslie,
Will

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Kelly Ford September 14, 2014

I noticed when viewing your cherry photo painting that the titanium white and the dark color next to it appeared to be a very thick paste. So, should we use thicker acrylics to begin painting with?

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Will Kemp September 18, 2014

Hi Kelly, it’s is often best to start with thin layers of paint to establish the form and shapes and then come in with thicker impasto areas of paint as the painting progresses. Unless of course you’re painting and more impressionistic Impasto style from the off.
Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

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Kelly Ford September 18, 2014

I saw where “satin acrylic glazing medium” was used to help soften both water reflections in the foreground as well as distant mountain peaks in the background. My question is can “matte acrylic floating medium” be used in the same way with the same effect? It is a lot cheaper to buy.

Reply

Will Kemp September 18, 2014

Hi Kelly, yes matte medium can be used in exactly the same way, can be sometimes harder to judge the colour as matte will be whiter when wet and dry clear, I use a gloss glazing medium.
Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

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Kelly Ford September 18, 2014

One last question before I easel up. I have a typical and nice desktop easel. I have a large floor standing easel with drawers but it leans too far away. Anyway, any easel has the same problem, it contacts the canvas material along the bottom edge and at the top near center. As I paint and do various strokes at the bottom and top center the easel “hold points” look a mess and makes the entire canvas give an unfinished, unprofessional appearance. What can be done to float the canvas so that top and bottom edges can be properly attended, or is this the best an artist can hope for? Of course if it’s going to be framed the frame will hide those edges.

Will Kemp May 30, 2014

Here is some black gesso on dick blick.
Cheers,
Will

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Will Kemp September 22, 2014

Hi Kelly, you just need to take it off the Easel and then paint in those areas of the canvas.
Cheers,
Will

Reply

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