Simon Bland

A Blog About Oil Painting

Brush Technique in Small Paintings

by Simon Bland / Aug 29, 2017 / Animal Rabbit Sketch

A oil painting sketch of a young rabbit with greenish umber background

Rabbit. 8x8, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2017.

Painting small is hard, right?

In recent years, I've had a tendency to reach for a painting knife every time I've worked on a small landscape painting. It's a good way to get something down fast without getting bogged down by detail.

Yet I've never been tempted to take that approach with animal paintings. Perhaps it's that I've done enough of them that the techniques have become too ingrained. Maybe I'm afraid of failing.

So, when I want to paint an animal loosely and avoid getting sucked into the detail, I simply use a bigger brush.

In this case, working out from the eye, I used ever larger brushes to cover the canvas. The sizes ranged from no.2 Rosemary series 279 around the eye to no.8 bristle flat in the background. 

To paint the eye, I used the fried egg technique:

  • paint the entire form of the head
  • cover over where the eye will be with the same color paint that surrounds it
  • scrape that paint back a little if it's too thick
  • the dark mass of the eye is then painted directly into that layer

This gives a soft, fluid edge without the need to work it over with a tiny brush - it's so effective that I use it for most animal paintings and portraits.

This method of painting the eye (and other facial features like lips) was a staple of John Singer Sargent. It's the best way to keep the features fluid. It forces working from big shapes to smaller ones. Wet in wet.

It's much easier to get the values of the big shapes right when you're not fussing over the features.

Animal faces are often easier to paint than human ones, so you can often get away with leaving holes for the eyes and filling them in later. But you always end up having to worry about those edges.