Artist Spotlight: Michael Skalka

Chesapeake Bay, Before a Storm
"Cheap brushes are frustrating because they loose hairs.  They don’t hold their shape and the artist has to pay attention to the brush and how to overcome its problems rather than concentrate on the painting at hand." ~
Michael Skalka

Michael Skalka would know about brushes, as he manages a collection of several hundred, has researched art materials for years, works with many art material manufacturers and conservators and paints in his spare time.  Michael is the Conservation Administrator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., working in the art industry for more than 25 years.  With his own background in art history and museum studies, Michael pursued gallery work out of graduate school and found his interest in art materials piqued with the contacts he has made in the industry.  Getting to know conservators, manufacturers and material experts at NAMTA, ASTM and conservation seminars has not only given Michael expertise in art materials but also enhanced his own painting.

Eastport at Sunset
Michael started painting during high school, a summer art class studying plein air in oils.  He had no formal training outside of the class, but continued to paint throughout college, stopping once work, family and other interests came into play. It wasn't until his work at the National Gallery that he took it up again with Ross Merrill, the previous Head of Conservation at the National Gallery.  Together they were involved in plein air painting and outings with MAPAPA, the Mid-Atlantic Plein-Air Painters Association. Michael has now been with the organization as a member and on the board as well as painting quite a bit on the west coast.  Finding landscapes to be his preference, Michael steers towards oils and sometimes watercolors as they have given him the working time he needs for warm coastal weather.  He has always had an interest in how things are made, and Michael has taken advantage of his time and connections within the art industry, getting to know companies that make the products, reading as much as he could and attending lectures or ASTM meetings to get to know these products better.  With his understanding of materials, paints and brushes in particular, Michael has been able to educate other artists and historians in the field as well as steer his own art work.

Yellowstone National Park
Since Michael works primarily in oils, he leans towards natural bristle brushes for his work, sometimes leaning into the sables for the softer details.  Flats and filberts primarily work for his plein air, laying in the underpainting and using smaller sizes for some of the finishing details.  Michael chooses his brushes by how they deliver paint, rather than just the feel of the brush in his hand.  He doesn't look at just the type of hair that a brush contains, but rather takes into consideration that any hair, synthetic, natural or combination, might provide the end result he desires.  In light of that, when choosing a brush from the store, he looks at the chiseled edge, the spring it provides and whether the brush has a large belly for holding paint.  He also considers the handle, whether or not it is coated, comfortable in his hand and how well the ferrule is attached.  It is a lot to consider, but choosing quality, putting the brushes into circulation, and keeping them clean means that he has brushes over 40 years old that are still in great condition.

Big Sur, California
Michael recommends buying quality when purchasing brushes by leaning towards brands that are well established and have a reputation for quality.  It can be tempting to purchase the cheapest materials, not knowing what will work, especially if you are new to painting.  However, buying better quality is not only going to improve one's painting and practice, but the brushes will last longer.  Purchase flats, rounds and filberts to start, sizes and hairs depending on the medium.  "A few riggers and some short flat brushes work well for putting in details.  Some of the novelty shape brushes can be great time savers," Michael explains.  Also consider buying brushes for finishing work, like glazes and varnishes.  Most importantly, clean brushes after using them.

Currently, Michael writes the Technical Q&A for American Artist Magazine and his own blog on pigments and color.  He also manages the Modern Art Materials Collection at the National Gallery of Art, heads up ASTM Do1.57 for Artist Materials and works full time as the National Gallery's conservation administrator.  To keep up with Michael's painting and material research, you can find his blog at:

FM Brush, the parent of Dynasty Brush, has donated a large selection of their highest quality brushes, the Black Gold line, to the Modern Art Materials Collection.  These brushes will be cataloged and archived with the National Gallery for conservators, researchers and scientists. 

Keep Painting, 

For more brush information, check out the Dynasty Brush website.