Fan Brush Painting

mature woman painting in studio
Tara Moore / Getty Images

The first time you see a fan brush, you'll instantly know why it's called this. It's a thin flat brush with the spread out in a semi-circle, like a hand-held paper fan.

The metal ferrule holds the hairs in this shape. Even when wet, the hairs stay spread out, and won't come together to form a point.

Many artists use fan brushes only for blending colors, but they're also extremely useful for mark-making. The types of marks you get in the paint with a fan brush depends on whether it's one with coarse hair or with soft, and how much paint you've got on the brush.

If you find a fan brush is too wide, then give it a haircut like this...

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Fan Brush With a Haircut

Photo of a Fan Brush with Cut Hairs
This old, hog-hair fan brush was given a haircut to reduce the width of the brush. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Because of its distinctive, semi-circular shape, a fan brush can also easily create a series of marks in your painting that are repetitive and predictable, where the technique is too evident in the result. That's "oh, the artist used a fan brush to do this" result. It's often also wide for what you're wanting to paint. The solution is to give it a haircut to alter the shape, as shown in the photo here.

A word of warning: don't do this to a paintbrush that doesn't belong to you, and don't do it to your brand-new, expensive, sable hair fan brush. The former can destroy a friendship and the latter is sacrilegious.

To give a fan brush a haircut, simply take a pair of scissors or a craft knife and cut off some of the hairs on the outer edge. Rather cut less than more; you can always trim off another bit.

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Dry Brushing with a Fan Brush

Photo of how to dry brush with a fan brush
How to dry brush with a fan brush. Top and bottom left: picking up paint from the edge of my paper palette. Bottom right: Using it on a painting. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

A fan brush works well for dry brushing, where you want only a little paint on the brush, to apply roughly and loosely. To load a fan brush with paint for dry brushing techniques, take a dry brush and touch the very tips into the paint a few times. Ideally the paint won't be very fluid, but quite stiff or buttery so it sits at the end of the brush hairs and doesn't seep up.

Test how much paint you've on the brush on your palette or a scrap bit of paper. See bottom left in the photo, where I'm working on a disposable paper palette. Don't worry that this is going to take all the paint off, it won't, and with dry brushing you want very little anyway.

It takes a little bit of practice to judge how much paint is on your brush, but if in doubt have less rather than more. You can always apply a bit more paint. But you'll find a little bit of paint can go further than you might think. In the photo at bottom right, I've used the paint that was on the brush in the photo on the bottom left. I've painted this on white paper, but imagine it as texture in long grass, a weathered old barn, or windswept hair.

If you've only one fan brush and want to change colors, wash out the brush and then press a towel or paper towel around it for a minute or so to absorb as much moisture from the hairs as possible. It should then be dry enough to continue dry brushing with another color. If the brush is dripping wet, you'll get quite a different effect.

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Wet-on-Wet Painting with a Fan Brush

Photo of how to wet brush with a fan brush
Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Painting wet-on-wet with a fan brush, or with a lot of fluid paint on the brush, gives quite a different mark to dry brushing. It's a useful technique for painting hair, grass, and fur.

The photo top left shows how even a coarse-hair fan brush will easily pick up a lot of fluid paint. Even more so if you dip both sides of the brush into the paint. The photo top right shows the mark the brush makes when pressed fairly hard onto paper. (Note I'm using a had a cut fan brush, one that's had a hair cut.)

If you let the tips of the brush glide over the surface, you get a more delicate result -- see the different mark making in the photo bottom left. Use the brush in long strokes, swerving from side to side a bit, and you've started to paint wavy hair.

In your painting sketchbook, experiment with:

  • How much paint you have on the brush
  • How dry or wet the paint and brush is
  • How hard you press down with the brush
  • And with various lengths of strokes, from very short to very long.