Oil Painting Equipment

The equipment you need for oil painting, the most important tools are your brushes, and the look of a painting depends on their quality. There are two main types of brushes: stiff hair bristle brushes made from hog hair and soft hair brushes made from sable or synthetic material. You also need a certain amount of solvent, such as turpentine or white spirit, to dilute your oil colours and to clean off excess paint.

Linseed oil, the basic binding medium for oil paint, can also be used to modify the consistency of colours. You can paint on many different surfaces and textures, but those used most frequently by oil painters are canvases and wooden panels.

Keep equipment clean and always screw the lids back on bottles of solvent as they are a serious health hazard.

Brushes and Painting Knives

Sable Brushes

oil painting round brushes short handle
Basic round sable brushes with short handles

Five basic round sable brushes with short handles of equal thickness should be part of every painter’s equipment. These brushes should be handled much like writing tools; the small ones are used specifically for delineation. The smallest brush, Number 1, permits precise strokes, such as those needed for fine details on a portrait, for example. Numbers 2 and 3 are similar brushes in large dimensions. They are also suitable for detail work, as well as for forceful strokes on broad surfaces.

Number 4, known as a script liner, is indispensable in still life painting, in landscape painting, and in all painting situations that call for great freedom of execution. This brush can follow the most delicate impulses of one’s fingers. The long, thin body of its hair takes on a large quantity of paint. Therefore it can operate on a canvas for a long time without interruption for reloading. This, in turn, allows the initial impulse of the painter’s hand to develop with unimpeded freedom and spontaneity.

Number 5 brush, called a striper, permits even greater freedom. In contrast to the script liner, the terminal point of this brush is chisel- shaped. This characteristic forces a more vigorous application of paint.

oil painting brushes long handle
Oil painting brushes with long handle

Long-handled brushes are a handicap; the extra length extending beyond one’s hand acts as a counter-balance that nudges the sable hair away from the canvas. Thin handles, such as those found on watercolour brushes, are also undesirable for the oil painter because they do not rest well in a hand that is unaccustomed to working with a flimsy holder.

Bristle Brushes

hog hair bristle brushes
Different Types of Bristle brushes

Six bristle brushes are required with a short handle, as they are suitable for forceful applications of paint, as in underpainting, for example. Their most useful sizes are Numbers 5, 8, and 10.

Brushes with longer bristles have greater elasticity. They are used for more fluent, delicate work, and for blending of colours. Sizes 4, 7, and 10 are best. These are particularly useful for work on small and medium-sized canvases.

For work on a very small scale, or for the extremely delicate blending of colours occasionally called for, flat sable brushes Vs to 3U inches wide may be used. It must be stressed, however, that the nature of the paint diluent used in our work is such that fusion of the paint can be achieved even with a bristle brush.

However, if linseed oil is used for thinning paint, or, still worse, if linseed oil and turpentine—the favourite medium of those unfamiliar with painting techniques—are used, such fusion or blending cannot be easily and efficiently done with bristle brushes.

Cleaning Brushes

Such commercial paint removers, contrary to common belief, are not harmful to sable hair or to bristles. After the paint has softened, wash the brush with soap and water, being very careful to clean every particle of paint from the neck of the ferrule, where decay starts.

Painters’ Thinner

The best way to remove moist paint is with soap and water. Slightly hardened paint should be softened with turpentine or “painters’ thinner,” a solvent available in every hardware store. Very dry paint can be removed only by soaking the brush in a standard paint remover.

After the round sable brushes have been washed, they should be brought to a fine point between one’s lips and allowed to dry. Otherwise, as the brush dries, the sable hair will spread and separate.

To keep bristle brushes in shape, wrap a piece of soft paper, such as newsprint, around the bristles while they are still wet.

Painting Knives

These tools are of great importance; often a major part of a painting will require their use. Three knives, each one with different properties, are necessary. The first knife, Number 1, is designed for underpainting. It is made with a firmer blade than the other two knives so that the stiff, undiluted paint used for underpainting can be applied vigorously enough to fill the interstices of the canvas.

Number 2 painting knife, is a delicate instrument with a tapering, elastic blade that responds readily to the dictates of the artist’s fingers. It is suitable for both detail work and for applying paint in broad areas.

Number 3 painting knife, is usually called a blender. Large surfaces of paint can be blended and smoothed with this knife; it is useful not only for such work as finishing the underpainting of large surfaces but also in finishing the painting itself.

Painting knives are used chiefly for work on canvas. They do not operate well on panels, because a rigid surface does not respond sufficiently to the impact of the blade.

Taking care of Knives

First of all, the blades must always be kept immaculately clean, otherwise, they will damage the painting surface. The blades are not subject to rust, however, even when not in use. They are protected by an infinitesimal coating of protective oil that always remains on the metallic surface after all the paint has been cleaned off the blade. But painting knives do have a characteristic that needs careful watching—through frequent use, the blades may develop edges sharp enough to endanger not only fingers but the canvas as well. If this happens, the sharp edges should be dulled.

To do this, hold the knife upright against a piece of carborundum paper and rotate the edges. During this process, a burr will form on both sides of the blade. This burr should be sanded off with carborundum paper.

Painting surfaces

You can paint on almost any surface, including stone, glass, and metal. The materials most commonly used are canvases and wooden panels such as plywood, hardboard, and fibreboard. Commercially produced oil paper is good for trying out ideas and techniques.


These containers store small amounts of solvent and painting medium on a palette

Mahl Stick

If you need a steady hand to work on a particular area, use a mahl stick. A mahl stick is a piece of light bamboo, about 1.25m (4ft) long, with a ball-shaped end covered in soft chamois leather. You can make your own mahl stick if you prefer.


There are a variety of easels available from artists’ suppliers, from the simple sketching easel that folds right up for easy carrying on location, to the heavy studio easels that can hold large paintings comfortably.

Some artists like to work on paintings suspended on nails on a studio wall, or propped up on a table, but it makes sense to have a good adjustable easel for your work.

DIY palettes

Use a palette to mix your colours. You can make your own palette from plywood by linseed oil. Alternatively, you can use a glass slab over a piece of paper, or a disposable paper palette.

Mahogany palette

This kidney-shaped mahogany palette, with its characteristic dark red-brown colour, was originally developed for artists who worked on a similarly coloured painting surface. This meant colours on the palette could be seen as they would look on the painting.


You need to use a certain amount of solvent to dilute your colours and clean your equipment. Use either white spirit or turpentine.

Linseed oil

Linseed oil is the basic medium for binding coloured pigments and drying them when painted. Use it to modify the consistency of paint.

Oil painting medium

This enhances the consistency and glossiness of oil paint. If you don’t want to buy it, mix refined linseed oil, or stand oil, with turpentine.