Choosing Paint Brushes
Need help choosing the right paint brush for your artwork? We have created the ultimate guide to help you get started.
While there can be variation within them, most brushes fall into one of the following shape categories:
- Flat - Bristles are arranged in a wide flat manner, with a square end. Bristle length medium to long (as distinct from brights where the bristles are short, see below). Size and bristle type will effect use, but flats are good for painting large surfaces, washes, and bold strokes. They are also useful for varnishing.
- Bright - Similar to flats, but with shorter bristles. Allows for more controlled strokes. Good for thick application of paint as with impasto style.
- Filbert - Flat heel at the ferrule, with rounded toe. Combines some of the qualities of a flat brush with some of a round. Versatile, and can produce a diverse range of shapes and strokes. Useful for rounded shapes and soft edges.
- Angular - A flat brush with the end cut on an angle. Has similar qualities to a regular flat brush, but can also be used for detail and precision painting because of the angled tip.
- Fan - Bristles are arranged in a fan shape. Useful for blending, soft layering, and for creating feathery textures.
- Round - Probably the most versatile brush, and the one most people will reach for first. Can create thin and thick lines, depending on how much pressure is applied. Suitable for washes, detail work, outlining, and more. Quite a few variations within the round brush category l length of bristles, sharpness of the point, and other factors will affect how the brush is used and the effects it can produce.
- Liner - A brush with a round ferrule, long bristles and a pointed toe. Also called a 'rigger' because they are used to paint the rigging for ships. They can hold a lot of paint, and produce long even lines and fine detail. Great for lettering, outlining and long continuous strokes.
- Mop - Large, full, round brushes. Soft bristles. Most useful in watercolour painting, mops are used for creating washes, wetting surfaces before applying pigment, applying large amounts of paint, and for mopping up excess media that's been applied to a surface.
Brush sizes start at 000, and larger numbers indicate larger brushes.
Sizes are not standardised, and vary between brands.
When buying a new brush, especially if doing so online or from an unfamiliar brand, check the size in mm, as well as the size indicated on the handle. This will give you the most accurate indication of the size.
Two broad categories for bristles: animal or synthetic.
Type of animal hair used will have different texture and qualities. Two subcategories here are:
- Bristle brushes: thicker, stiffer and coarser. They're generally made of hog or boar hair.
- Sable hair brushes: silkier and softer. Can be made from sable, squirrel, mongoose, goat etc.
Animal hair used will affect the cost and quality of the brush.
The different bristle textures will produce different effects in the finished painting. E.g. for visible strokes in thicker paints like oils or heavy body acrylics, use that coarse hog hair brush. For smooth and flowing watercolour work, choose a soft sable brush.
Synthetic fibres are much more common.
- More affordable
- Easier to produce
- Often more durable (though depends of type of paint they're used with).
Improved manufacturing techniques mean that synthetic fibres can now mimic many of the qualities of animal hair brushes.
Thicker stiffer bristles make more defined lines, while softer more pliable ones are good for blending.