Painting & drawing blog


(Know your Filbert from your Egbert)

Artist's paintbrushes

Choosing an artists’ paintbrush probably sounds like it should be straightforward enough but as with many art materials, the choice on offer can be overwhelming! Learning the lexicon of different shapes helped me to choose more effectively, whether buying in an art store or online. Here’s a list of the different brush head shapes you’ll come across and their suitability for different mediums including oils, acrylic or watercolour paint.

A few things to know

One point to be aware of is that there’s no industry standard for naming the different types of brush shape, resulting in the confusion that beginners experience when trying to buy brushes. Characterful names for brush shapes emerged from different painting traditions (see for example the ‘Rigger’ brush shape which derives from the type of brush traditionally used for painting the rigging of ships) Usually the names are applied by manufacturers reasonably consistently but there are confusing overlaps: for example the terms ‘Rigger’ ‘Liner’ and ‘Script’ brush technically have different meanings but are sometimes applied interchangeably.

Manufacturers may also make up new and more modern descriptions to make them sound less mysterious: for instance traditional ‘Bright’ brushes are now sometimes rechristened as ‘Short Flats’. Sometimes a brush shape may also be named differently depending on what sort of bristles or hairs it is made from. The ‘Flat’ brush is sometimes called a ‘Wash’ brush if made with very soft bristles and designed for watercolour painting, even though it’s really an identical shape to a flat.

Brushes will always have their ‘size’ number printed on the side. Most brush ranges will be available in a number of different sizes. Sometimes they are sized in a scale that generally starts at 0 and goes on up, but other ranges may categorize their brushes according to their width (6mm or 1/4 inch, etc). Not all brush shapes within a range will be available in every size, for example a ‘Wash’ brush may only be available in size 2 upwards because you’d be unlikely to want a really tiny brush for applying washes. Tiny Spotter brushes made for detailed work in watercolour ranges may start at size 000, which is known as “triple ought” and will literally just contain a few hairs.

This numbering system doesn’t relate to any set measurement, it’s simply a scale that each manufacturer establishes for their own range and so a ‘size 1′ brush in one range may be different in size to a similarly numbered brush in another. Numbers relate only to other numbers within the scale for each range. If you’re lucky a brush ranges’ marketing information will include a photograph of the brush against a ruled scale so you can see the dimensions of the head of your brush. Otherwise buying brushes sight unseen online can mean that it’s difficult to know the exact size of the brush you are ordering.

(Apart from where otherwise stated, all these brush shapes are suitable for use with oils, acrylics, watercolour, gouache or ink and found are both in ranges of stiff bristles and also softer haired brushes. All photo credits below: Jackson’s Art Supplies which I have no affiliation with, but recommend for their very large range of brushes and very informative website)

The Flat brush

The Flat is a pretty self explanatory name for this blocky brush, whose hairs are arranged in a rectangular shape. When the hairs or bristles of a brush are described as ‘flat’, the round metal ferrule of the brush (the metal section that attaches the hairs to the handle) will be crimped flat at the end to hold them in place in this flat shape. When the head of a Flat brush is in the shape of a particularly elongated rectangle it may be described as a ‘Long Flat’. The hairs or bristles of the Flat brush finish in a straight line which in a good quality brush should be achieved by lining them all up before crimping them to the ferrule rather than simply trimming them in a line at the end – this type of cheap brush is known as a ‘blunt’ and won’t apply your paint very smoothly. A flat brush is useful for covering a large area quickly and evenly and maintaining a bold, choppy brush stroke. As a long brush shape, Flats are not ideal for use in blending paint.

Flat brush

The Bright brush

The Bright brush is nearly identical to the Flat brush but is stubbier, sometimes almost square in shape. This gives more control than a flat brush and makes the Bright useful for mixing, for working dryer paint into a canvas weave, spattering or scumbling, or applying thick ‘impasto’ paint. Given their unfamiliar name, Bright brushes are sometimes rechristened by manufacturers as ‘Short Flat’ brushes. They are more likely to be listed in hog hair or stiffer synthetic bristle ranges designed for oil or acrylic painting, because in a soft haired watercolour range this type of shape is often known as a ‘Wash’ brush rather than a Bright (see below)

Bright brush

The Wash brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)

‘Wash’ brushes are usually sold within watercolour brush ranges. They are designed to apply a watery wash of paint, and therefore will never be made with stiff hog hair but instead from a very soft hair such as Sable, Goat or Squirrel or a synthetic equivalent. Unusually the designation of a ‘wash’ brush applies more the its use than its shape, which can be quite varied. Often, as with this brush, they have the same flat, square shape as a Bright or even stubbier. Sometimes they are flat like this one but with a pointed tip, similar to a Cat’s Tongue brush (see below) but a bit wider. Alternatively they may have a rounded head and ferrule, in which case they are very similar to a Mop brush (below) but a little less flared in shape and affording you more control.

Wash brush

The One Stroke brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)

‘One Stroke’ brushes are like slightly longer versions of the flat, rectangular type of Wash brush and are also almost identical to Flat brushes in their rectangular shape. Unlike Flat brushes however One Strokes are always made with soft hairs as they are more suitable for use with watercolour or gouache and for doing lettering or signwriting in block letters. Often watercolour brush ranges will call all their Flat brushes ‘One Strokes’. There’s also a specific painting technique called ‘one stroke painting’ which involves loading the brush with more than one colour at a time.

One stroke brush

The Mop brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)

Like wash brushes these come in a variety of different shapes: they may have a flat ferrule and a rounded or domed end, or they may be round or oval in section and flare out widely. Other round mops may have a pointed tip. Generally quite large, whatever their shape they are all designed to carry as much water as possible and will be made from the softest possible hairs: very often Squirrel. Mops are most often used in watercolour painting for laying in very large areas of watery colour.

The Mop brush

The Filbert brush

This is what I think of as the classic paintbrush shape. It is available in all types of bristles and very multi-functional in terms of the type of mark you can make with it. It’s a flat brush with an oval/domed end, so that you can both cover a large area with it but also blend paint and apply it in more of a pointed stroke – a small enough Filbert will be suitable for doing fairly detailed work. The name ‘Filbert’ has a charmingly complex origin, deriving from an obscure association with the hazelnut whose shape the Filbert brush is thought to resemble at the tip. A seventh century French saint called Philibert whose feast day in August coincided with the ripening of the hazelnut gave the brush shape its name. If the dome on the Filbert brush is very pronounced it may be called a ‘Domed Filbert’

The filbert brush

The Egbert brush

A rather lovely, but much less common variation on the Filbert. It’s a more elongated shape than the Filbert but is a smaller brush in general, and was a favourite of the Old Masters. The extra long hair allows for a more expressive stroke and a better paint ‘reservoir’ (the name given to the amount of paint the brush hairs or bristles can hold before application)

The Egbert brush

The Angled brush

Like the Flat brush but with an angled tip, the Angled brush allows for wide coverage and more precision because the angle makes it easier to do controlled work than a Flat. It’s particularly effective for making really decisive and choppy brush strokes. The bristles on an angled brush are fairly short to help maintain this control.

The Angled brush

The Round brush

This one is pretty self explanatory, and the Round is probably the most versatile of all brush types as the pointed tip allows for detailed work in a small brush, or for achieving much wider coverage with a larger one. Rounds are available in every size from tiny 000 brushes (sometimes called ‘Spotters’ in watercolour ranges, as below) to really thick chunky brushes, and both the head section and the ferrule will always be rounded.

The Round brush

The Spotter brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)

This is a tiny version of the Round brush with a small number of hairs and is designed for doing very fine details like eyes, grass, twigs and so on. It’s always made of soft bristles and you so won’t find Spotters in the hog hair ranges – they aren’t for oil painting.

The Spotter brush

The Fan brush

These are used for lightly dragging paint in order to blend or soften colours, or to create wide textural or feathered effects – for example for painting grass. They may be made with either stiff bristles or softer hairs.

The Fan brush

The Rigger brush

Rigger brushes are fairly small brushes with rounded ferrules and long hairs that taper to a fine point. They can sometimes be every elongated in shape. They’re useful for doing fine detailing and painting thin but continuous lines, as they hold a greater volume of paint than a small Round brush or a Spotter. Confusingly the terms ‘Rigger’ and ‘Liner’ or ‘Script Liner’ (see below) are often used interchangeably although there is technically a slight different between them. What they all have in common however is that they are always made of soft hairs and never stiff bristles.

The Rigger brush

The Liner/Script/Script Liner brush

Various terms are used to describe this very small brush which is like a sightly smaller version of the Rigger. Like the Rigger the Liner is long and fairly thin, but it is shaped more like an elongated Round brush whereas the Rigger has more of a taper. The Liner has a rounded ferrule and its hairs are always soft and taper to a fine point for very fine thin detailing. It carries more paint than a tiny Spotter brush and is better for doing small detailed lines. It usually has a short handle.

The Script Liner brush

The Stippler/Deerfoot Stippler brush

It’s easy to see the reference to a deer’s foot in the short flared shaped of this angled brush. Its semi-soft bristles typically mix soft and coarse hairs in order to produce a stippled effect, allowing the Deerfoot suggest textures such as trees or foliage. This technique is most successful with slightly dry paint.

Deerfoot Stippler brush

The Striper/Dagger/Dagger Striper brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)

These soft, exotic looking brushes have a flat ferrule, and a long curving angled shape with a pointed tip. The unusual shape is designed for the creation of very expressive strokes, allowing as they do for a wide wash that can end in a fine point. Daggers are used largely for watercolour and gouache, or in sign writing.

Dagger Striper brush

The Swordliner brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)

These are very similar in shape to the Dagger but generally come in smaller sizes than daggers and have slightly longer hairs, which making them more difficult to control but even more expressive.

The Swordliner brush

The Cat’s Tongue brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)

An uncommon brush type used by watercolour artists, this brush is like a triangular Filbert with a point at the end. You can use it both for washes and finer detail work.

The Cat's tongue brush









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