Art Brushes Guide

Elvis Elvis

Art brushes are an artist’s most personal tool. Find the right one and it’s a friend for life… and there’s plenty of choice to tempt you…

In fact there’s the problem… too much choice!

There’s oil brushes, watercolor brushes, acrylic brushes, rounds, flats, filberts…. the list is endless.

You can choose between synthetic and natural hair and often a choice of handle lengths. And happily, there is an increasing range of art brushes designed for artists who have difficulty holding or manipulating the traditional shaped handles.

And of course, there’s the cost! For example, you can pay ten dollars for a synthetic watercolor brush, or at the other end of the scale I’ve even seen size 50 top-of-the-range sable art brushes for $1000.

So, where do you start?

You’ll probably acquire numerous art brushes over time, especially as you develop your skills. Which brushes are best for you whether you’re a beginner or someone moving to the next level or a new medium?

We’ll examine the different shapes of art brushes with an overview of the two most popular types, considering some of the factors you need to be aware of when selecting brushes.

You can then move on to some of the other articles which look in more detail at oil brushes, watercolor brushes and acrylic brushes. On the way we’ll look at some tips on what to look for when selecting art brushes.

And what about looking after your investment?

Don’t forget, these are largely hand-made products that, if properly cared for, can give you a lifetime of companionship!

OK? Read on ….

Hair Types

You have a choice of hairs (filaments) used in brushes – natural and synthetic.

Natural fibers are used from a variety of animals including squirrel, ox, pig, goat and others, with the most expensive, sable and mink. This is achieved as a by-product of the food & fur industry and animals aren’t killed just to satisfy the needs of artists.

The main advantage of natural hair is that it contains microscopic ridges along its length, which helps to hold a greater amount of paint. The more expensive hair also has a ‘spring’ that returns the brush it to its natural shape and in the round versions, maintains a superb point for years.

This can help your painting ‘flow’ better as you have to recharge your brush less often, whilst a good point allows the same brush to be used to cover both large areas of wash and fine, detailed sections with equal confidence.

In my experience, you would need to use a brush at least 2 sizes larger in synthetic to achieve anything like the comparable paint holding capacity of the natural version – i.e. a nylon No.10 equating to a sable No.8.

These art brushes have the advantage of durability, particularly when painting with oils and acrylics on canvas, which can be pretty hard on bristles. They are less likely to get paint clogged in the ferrule, thus splaying out the filaments and ruining the brush because it doesn’t hold it as well as the natural hair. (But see the article on brush care below).

They are also cheaper and manufacturers have come a long way in recent years in closing the gap between the quality of real hair art brushes over their synthetic counterparts. As a compromise, you can get art brushes with a mix of synthetic and natural fibers, giving some of the qualities of both.

Shape & Size

I always think of art brushes in basically three shapesRound, Flat and ‘Other’.

Now, I know ‘other’ covers a pretty broad range of art brushes and some people would no doubt categorise them differently… which is fine. Even rounds and flats have sub-divisions. It’s just that I find most people start to learn to paint with rounds and flats and then acquire other brushes as they progress. This is how I learned when I started.

Art Brushes Guide

Look at the picture above.

The round and the flat are the first two in from the left. The round is a No12 and the flat is half an inch wide.

Then we have just a few of the ‘others’ like the mop, a 000 size round (red handle), a rigger, fan brush, a cleaner than it looks filbert and finally, a one of my well-used brights.

All art brushes come in a range of sizes and qualities and each has a particular use. I’ll comment on these and more of the ‘others’ under the detailed guides about oil brushes, watercolor brushes and acrylic brushes (see below).

But for now, as a taster, just a brief word on probably the two most popular brush shapes, the round and the flat.

Comes in numerous sizes, from the smallest (0000) about 1/64 inch (approx.0.5mm) diameter, to No 24 – about 3/4 inch (approx.18mm) diameter. You can get even bigger brushes but usually only by special order.

A good quality brush will have a seamless nickel coated brass ferrule (the metal tube that joins the bristles to the handle) to prevent rusting and hair loss.

Remember, the width of a brush does not mean this is the width of the line it will paint. This depends on how hard or lightly you press, the sort of hairs or filaments it’s made from and the type of paint and surface used.

A round is an excellent multi-purpose painting tool, especially using watercolor. With brushes made from bristle however, the point is almost non-existent as its use is intended mainly for acrylics or oils. These, being much thicker, need the sturdier hog’s bristle to be able to spread the paint. However, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use art brushes designed for watercolor, for other paint types (or vice versa).

As the name implies, the hairs or bristles are laid out in a flat formation, with a straight end to the bristles. This allows you to paint a square edged mark – windows and doors for example.

They are identified by actual width size i.e. quarter inch, half inch and so on. The softer-haired versions come to a lovely sharp chisel edge when charged with paint. If used vertically they’re ideal for making thin straight lines such as ships masts or fence posts. Again the bristle versions are happier with heavier mediums like acrylics and oil.

And finally…


The great thing about painting is that it’s relatively cheap to start off. A synthetic No14 watercolor brush can be obtained for about $12. Smaller brushes are even cheaper. If you want the top-of-the-range Kolinsky sable equivalents, expect to pay at least ten times as much. However, you’ll appreciate the quality for years to come…

Even if the very best is out of your reach right now, there are a vast array of prices and qualities in between to suit every pocket.

My advice would be to get the best you can afford – and look after them! (See below for brush care article)

A few, well-cared-for quality art brushes will give you years of loyal service and enjoyment. I know I am always sad when a favorite brush has to be replaced – it’s like losing an old friend.

However, don’t despair… such a brush can be given a new lease of life. The raggedy bristles that saw it pensioned off could be ideal for producing the random branches of middle distance trees or, say, depicting cloth with a particular texture!