Saturday, February 7, 2015

Open Letter to an Art Student

Posted by: Kate

Dear Art Student,

You find yourself now standing at the beginning of a long and arduous road, struck through with joyful milestones, confusing side tours, and misguiding road signage.  You will learn much and create some nice work (which you will hate within the year, but love again in five years when you can look back upon "Past You" with some affectionate condescension only made possible by the passage of time and the acquisition of greater skill).  People will ask you how you plan to make money, what your fall-back is, and, if you're a woman, what your husband does for a living.  But at this important moment of lacing up your boots and swinging that rucksack on your back, I would like to share some words of wisdom, words that I can spit out at any art student with certain confidence that they apply:

Your brushes suck.

Your brushes really, really suck.

You have, like, ten brushes.  I have almost two hundred, and I still some days don't have the right brush for what I want to do.  But it's not just that you only have ten brushes and not a single one of them is the right size for the thing you want to paint.  It's that your brushes really, really, totally suck in every way possible.  I ask myself a lot of questions when I teach students.  Is this actually a brush or a chopstick with some lint stuck to it?  Did you use this one to scrub out the grouting in your shower?  Is this filbert homemade out of Great Aunt Tabitha's chin hairs?  And how did you acquire hand-me-down brushes?  How does that happen?  Did someone say, "Oh, I heard you were an artist, and I have this ratty old homemade chin hair brush in my purse that I used to clean my bathroom with.  Want it?"  Does that happen?

Your brush bridges the gap between you and the canvas.  Your brush is the extension of your very fingers.  Your brush needs to be capable of transmitting every nuance that your eye detects.  Did you know that when you use a tool, your brain rewires to accommodate it as if were one of your own limbs?  I don't want my brain to rewire to accommodate crap.

A poor craftsman blames his tools.  Said no artist ever.

Are you not worth two hundred dollars in new brushes?

Because here's a secret: the quickest and easiest way to become a better painter overnight is to get yourself some good brushes.  I promise.  If you don't understand what's so important about a good brush, it's because you've never had a good brush.  Really, you're an innocent.  You're the victim here.  You need to know that there's simply more out there, waiting for you.  And it pains me to watch you chase paint around instead of actually painting.  There's a rich and vibrant world of sable, and mongoose, and long-handles, and cat's tongues.  Chungking.  Egbert.  Someday these words will cause your heart to speed up.  But for some reason right now, you don't think brushes are important.  You will shell out hundreds on paints and canvases.  You ask me what special mediums I use.  You rifle through artist forums for Old Master Secrets.  In the meantime, I'm here with an aching heart, waiting for you to come around.  I am your voice of reason, echoing unheard like a phantom siren call luring you across the stormy waters of your mis-allocated student art supply budget.  And my siren song is this:  Nice brushes: get them already.

An Art Teacher


  1. Loved reading this post. Let's get brushes in people's minds... it really can make such a huge difference. I hope we can help wherever possible! Symi (Rosemary's Brushes).

  2. This is so good, I am going to pas it to my students. I love it.

  3. Thanks for this post. I just ordered some brushes from Utrecht last night. Did i waste my money?
    Please give us another post with some recommendations!

  4. Really great post. I've had a long career in commercial art and only recently started trying my hand at fine art. One of my pet peeves has always been people asking me what 'brushes" I use in Photoshop. While there are a few that are pretty cool, the important thing in using Photoshop for illustration (besides knowing the software) is knowing the fundamentals, composition, drawing, lighting, color, etc. I admit I have carried that prejudice over from commercial art into my fine art efforts. I've never bought quality paints or brushes because I felt like my knowledge (limited as it is) is more important than my materials. Not to mention that they are pretty pricey. But I've heard this same advice from artists that I admire enough to finally take it to heart. I recently made my first purchase from Natural Pigments and registered with Rosemary's Brushes (I should have done it in reverse order but in my defense I had already made the purchase when I read this post). So once I collect a few more pennies I will be buying some nice new brushes.

  5. My friends and I have found several wonderful brushes from Rosemary and Utrecht. My workhorse is Utrecht #16 Mixed synthetic. It keeps its chisel and slides over the painting when needed for blending. Others. Rosemary's #8 long flat for blending; Silver Bristlon #6 & #2; Royal Langnickel bright found at (horrors) Hobby Lobby. I have a #3 liner brush that is red sble. I like it because it can be used on point or flattened to a chisel to make letters. Rosemary 0 rigger is useful also. I don't paint large so these recommendations will change with size. Buy one or two of each when you can and pay attention to how they work for you.

  6. Great advice. I have hundreds of them all...and I am constantly buying new ones. Rosemary and Silver are my favorites. Looking forward to the workshop.