Painting & drawing blog

WHICH ARTISTS’ PAINTBRUSHES TO BUY

Artist's paintbrushes

In this post I’m going to look firstly at what to look out for when buying an artist’s paintbrush, and what distinguishes a good quality brush from a poor one that will hamper your painting. We’ll examine all the different types of brushes including hog, sable, and synthetic brushes as well as more exotic types such as badger and mongoose, and find out whether each is suitable for oils, acrylics or watercolour paint.

Before we begin let’s look at the component parts of a paintbrush and learn a few technical terms which we’ll be using to describe how brush types can be compared. The ‘head’ of the brush which is formed by the bristles or hairs (only hog, boar and pig hairs are known as bristles) is known as the ‘belly’. The fatness of the belly depends chiefly on the natural shape of the individual hairs or bristles and it affects whether the brush can hold a greater or smaller ‘reservoir’ of paint, as a fatter belly will allow you to apply more paint with each stroke.

Paintbrush parts diagram

The ‘ferrule’ of the brush which is the metal band that clamps the bristles and holds them to the wooden handle can be round or crimped so it’s flat near the brush head, depending on the type of brush shape.

Brush handles which may be made from wood or acrylic, vary in length. Oil or acrylic painters working on large canvases are most likely to prefer the longer handles as they allow you to view your painting from further away as you work. For finely detailed work choose a short handled brush which will feel lighter and easier to control. The degree of control will also be affected by the length of the bristles – the shorter they are the greater the control and the longer they are the harder to control but most expressive.

Brushes are sized in a numerical scale from the tiniest ‘000’ brush to a large ’12’ or so. There’s no industry standard for the length of the head of the brush, so a size ‘2’ in one range may be a different length to a size ‘2’ in another, for example.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD PAINTBRUSH?

The brush head:

  • This be made by lining up the hairs at the tip end, rather than chopping them to create the required shape of brush (this cheap type of trimmed brush is known as a ‘blunt’)
  • It should be made with long enough hairs that these sit well into the ferrule where they are glued, and don’t fall out
  • The head should have a fine point (unless the brush shape is flat at the end)
  • It should retain that point when wet
  • After being pressed down, the point should ‘snap’ back into place with a degree of elasticity
  • The head should both hold a good reservoir of paint in the belly and deposit the paint easily allowing  you to make flowing, gestural strokes
  • It should be strong enough to manipulate the type of paint it’s designed for use with, and durable in the long term (hairs not becoming easily damaged)

The ferrule and handle:

  • The ferrule should be seamless to prevent liquid seeping into the handle
  • The bristles or hairs should be well glued and then the ferrule should be deeply crimped to the handle. You can see that the brush in the diagram above has two indentations to the ferrule where it has been tightly crimped.
  • The ferrule should be rust-proof, for example coated in something like a brass or copper alloy.
  • The handle should be smooth and well coated with layers of primer and paint

How can you tell whether any brush has these qualities? This is a difficult thing to assess when you’re in an art shop and can’t try your brush out to see how it handles. But you can press down on a tip, to see if it springs back well. Better made brushes will always be more expensive because they are so labour-intensive to manufacture and so the price is a fairly reliable guide to how well your brush has been put together and from what quality of materials. When you buy online you’ll get quite a lot of the manufacturer’s marketing information about the particular qualities of the brush.

Animal vs synthetic hairs

What makes animal hairs so good for making paintbrushes? Most of them have nice tapers towards their tips and some of the most prized have a natural ‘belly’, meaning that they are fatter in the middle and narrower at both the base and tip. This helps them to soak up a greater amount of paint and deposit it nicely in smooth strokes. Animal hairs also have microscopic scales and cavities along their shafts which make them very absorbent. The very best animal hair (although it’s not really suitable for oil painting) is thought to be from the ‘Kolinsky sable’ and is long, super strong and springy, has a very good belly with a fine taper at the tip and very fine cuticles along the shaft.

Synthetic hairs and ‘bristles’, made of polyester filaments, used to be pretty basic cylindrical filaments which did not carry paint very effectively, and the cheapest synthetic brushes will still be like this. These days however the best synthetic brushes are cleverly made to mimic the qualities of different animal hairs, with tapers along the shaft and tiny cavities to the filament’s surface. They may have ‘flagged’, or split ends (where they are designed to mimic hog hair) or hollows (to imitate Mongoose) or a wave (to mimic squirrel, badger, goat hairs). Good synthetic oil painting brushes may be made with curved filaments and interlocked just like a good hog bristle brush. The technology constantly improves and synthetic brushes are becoming very good.

DIFFERENT PAINTBRUSH HAIRS AND BRISTLES

It can be difficult to work out which kinds of brushes are suitable for the type of painting you want to do. Sometimes a range will be specifically described as suitable for oils, acrylics or watercolours either in the marketing description or within the name itself, but others may not. Even if a paintbrush is described as an ‘acrylic brush’ for instance, this is only a suggestion by the manufacturer of which medium the brush is thought most ideally suited to. It doesn’t mean you can’t use it for types of paint other than acrylics.

A couple of other points to be aware of: firstly some brushes combine more than one type of hairs within a single brush. They may either do this to provide a brush head that can make particular effects – a stipple brush for example which mixes hard and soft hairs – or to reduce the cost of an expensive type of hair by mixing it with a less expensive type. Secondly not all ranges will contain brushes made from the same type of hair: you might find a range with a squirrel mop brush and a synthetic flat brush for example.

Before we look at the different types of hairs and bristles let’s summarize the types of brushes suitable for each common type of paint:

OIL PAINT:

Oil paint is the thickest type of paint and needs a strong brush. The classic brush for oil painting is made from hog hair, but some stiff synthetic bristle brushes are also available. Softer synthetic brushes made for acrylics including imitation mongoose are good options for fine details or glazing, as are ox, black hog or black sable. Some people will use red sable brushes (usually marketed for watercolourists) for very fine details in oil but I wouldn’t use an expensive sable brush for such thick paint and find that a very good quality soft acrylic brush works well.

ACRYLIC PAINT:

There are many synthetic brushes aimed at acrylic painters which are softer than hog hair but stronger than sable. Some people do use hog brushes for acrylics but others find that hog bristles go too soggy, as they absorb a lot of water from acrylic paint. Imitation Mongoose is a good choice for acrylics. Again some people may use natural haired brushes like sable for fine details but they are very delicate and I prefer a more robust soft synthetic brush for this.

WATERCOLOUR AND GOUACHE:

The best brushes for these mediums are sable (or Kolinsky sable), synthetic watercolour brushes that mimic soft animal hairs, or squirrel or badger hairs for mop (wash) brushes

Let’s now look more at all the different brush types and what sort of painting you would buy them for

Hog hair 

Hog hair bristles come from the ears of the hog. A real hog brush is easy to identify as the stiff, coarse bristles are a pale cream or bleached white in colour. The hairs have a naturally curving shaft and split or ‘flagged’ ends that hold paint well and deliver it consistently. The best hog hair is said to come from a wild hog, and the most prized hog hair comes from Chunking in China. Hog brushes are intended for oil painting because oil is the stiffest, strongest type of paint and requires quite thick bristles to manipulate it.

Hog hairs will often be boiled to soften or remove their natural curve and bleached to whiten them. However some premium ranges will not boil them and will ‘interlock’ the bristles with the curves facing inwards towards each other for maximum strength and to spread the paint more smoothly.

You wouldn’t ever use stiff hog brushes for watercolour paint. Some people do use them for acrylics but since hog hair doesn’t absorb oils but does absorb water (up to 40% of its own weight) others find that they become a bit soggy and limp when used for acrylic paint. If you want to use the new water-mixable oils you’ll experience the same problem with hog hair and a synthetic bristle will be better. Winsor & Newton make a specific brush for water soluble oils as part of their ‘Artisan’ range.

Synthetic brushes for oil or acrylic painting

Hog hair is a difficult hair to replicate in synthetic brushes, due to its tough springiness and those flagged ends which require a heavy gauge of fibres to imitate. However there are some synthetic brushes aimed specifically at oil painters, which are made with particularly thick polyester bristles. Some are even made with a curve and are interlocked. In my experience though, nothing is quite as stiff and strong as a natural hog brush.

Softer synthetic brushes are often marketed for acrylic painting – for example the ubiquitous Pro Artex ‘Acrylix’ range –  although they are also perfectly suitable for doing finer details or glazing in oil paint as well. The cheapest synthetic brushes won’t have a good reservoir capacity, and I’d advise against choosing anything called a ‘student’ or ‘graduate’ synthetic brush if possible because it will not imitate an animal hair very successfully. However good synthetic brushes are ideal for acrylic paint because although less thick than oil paint, acrylic is perhaps too stiff for soft sable or squirrel hair brushes.

Mongoose and Imitation Mongoose

Not everyone painting in oils wants to use very stiff hog brushes all of the time. For blending, glazing and detailed work many oil painters prefer to use slightly softer brushes but still need something with enough thickness and springiness to manipulate the oil paint. Mongoose was a traditionally a popular choice for oil painting due to its good point and strong and springy hairs, and mongoose brushes are still seen today but are now very controversial due to the mongoose’s status as an endangered animal.

Several companies have developed ’synthetic mongoose’ ranges of brushes which mimic the look and feel of mongoose hair. Some are actually a blend of synthetic and animal hairs, but will not usually contain any true mongoose. These ranges are marketed for use in both oil and acrylic painting and Winsor & Newton’s entirely synthetic ‘Monarch’ range is a popular example.

Badger hair

Badger hair is cheaper than true Mongoose and is a very traditional brush for oil paintings. It is a coarse but also soft and ‘bushy’ looking hair due to each shaft being quite thick at its base. You wouldn’t be likely find a whole range of badger brushes in all the different shapes, but you will commonly see this hair used for specific types of brushes used for blending, stippling and creating texture. Badger brushes are also marketed as watercolour brushes designed for creating particularly textural marks.

Ox hair

Ox hair brushes which are made from hairs taken from the ear of the ox, are another example of semi-soft brushes that have traditionally been used for many different mediums including oil, watercolour and tempera painting. The hairs are absorbent, long, springy and inexpensive. They are considered inferior to sable brushes because they don’t have a fine point at the tip. You’d be unlikely to see a whole range of ox hair brushes in an art store, except where they are being mis-sold and passed off as a cheap ‘sable’.

‘Kolinsky Sable’ brushes

The world of ‘sables’ is a confusing one. ‘Sable’ brushes are named after a species called the Sable Marten. However the term may be used to denote any type of ‘mustelid’, which is a family that includes weasels, martens, and minks.

The most famous and most expensive type of watercolour brush is the ‘Kolinsky sable’, or ‘Kolinsky red sable’ which really comes from varieties of weasel or mink. These exalted hairs came originally from the winter pelt of the male Siberian Kolinsky which grows thick and long due to the cold climate. These hairs have a wide belly but taper at both ends to a very fine and this allows the brush to carry an excellent reservoir, retain a sharp point even when wet and snap back beautifully. Very fine cuticles also add to the large carrying capacity.

The Kolinsky won’t breed in captivity and must be specially trapped, explaining their very high cost. However the name is frequently mis-used and what is often sold as ‘Kolinsky’ frequently comes not from these very specific hairs but from different parts of their pelts: from their summer coats or tails, or in part or entirely from female animals. These hairs do not have the same qualities at all and can be thin and kinked. Red sable (below) is quite often described as Kolinsky and though it may be of very good quality it is not technically the same thing.

Russia restricts trade in the Siberian kolinksy, but Da Vinci still sell real Siberian Kolinsky brushes which are incredibly expensive. Other true Kolinsky ranges use Chinese and Korean Kolinsky. Price is likely your best guide to finding true Kolinsky: unless it’s really in the very top price bracket it’s probably made from inferior hairs of some description.

Sable/Red Sable brushes

Red sable is a term used to denote both the weasel and the Asian mink, though can also refer to ‘seconds’ of Kolinsky hairs . Red sable hairs are slightly shorter than the Kolinsky’s. They are thinner and thicker than the best Kolinsky hairs but the best quality red sable can still make a very good brush for very fine or top layer details. Like the Kolinsky, Red sable hairs have a fat belly but taper at each end which create a good reservoir for paint.

Red sable hairs make the best sable brushes. ‘Sable’ or ‘Brown sable’ brushes are made from hairs from the Marten and are generally of low quality. You will sometimes come across ‘White sable’ or ‘Golden sable’ brushes but these are made with synthetic hairs. 

Black Sable/Fitch

The strongest type of sable brushes are ‘black sables’ which are made from the pelt of the Russian polecat, a type of weasel. You sometimes find these marketed as oil brushes for fine work and blending. They have good reservoir capacity and are another type of brush that is suited for use in a range of mediums.

‘Fitch’ is another name for the Russian polecat and tends to be applied to lesser quality black sable. Confusingly, you’ll sometimes also see something called ‘Hog Fitch’ brushes for sale because fitch is a name that seems to have become associated with certain shapes of brush, rather than what they are made from. ‘Liner fitches’ for example are popularly used by decorators and are a funny flat shape with a rectangular ferrule. Sometimes cheap round hog brushes are also called fitches.

Synthetic ‘Watercolour’ brushes

Sable brushes can be massively more expensive than synthetic alternatives so if you can’t afford them or object to them on ethical grounds, there very decent synthetic brushes which mimic soft animal hairs like sable. Some ranges mix artificial hair with a reduced amount of sable as a mid-price alternative.

Squirrel hair

Squirrel hair is often used to make watercolour Mop or Wash brushes. The hairs are exceptionally soft, thin and pointed but have little spring. Therefore squirrel brushes aren’t suitable for many brush shapes but they carry colour excellently making them very good for washes.

Goat/Black Goat/White Goat

Goat hair is long, coarse, and quite limp. In the best grades it can make a good substitute for squirrel and is used for Mop and Wash brushes. Cheap goat hair makes poor quality rather floppy brushes and is often found in the type of cheap watercolour brush sets produced for schools.

‘Pony’ hair

‘Pony’ brushes are actually made from the hairs of mature horses. They are another very cheap hair and are used to make soft, inexpensive watercolour brushes. They don’t hold their point well.

Once you’ve decided which type of hairs or bristles to go for, this post on artists’ brush shapes will explain all the different types of brush heads from ‘flats’ to ‘filiberts’, and what sort of painting strokes they are used for.

CATEGORIES

DRAWING PEOPLE

DRAWING ANIMALS

DRAWING MATERIALS

OIL PAINTING

WATERCOLOUR

PAINTING MATERIALS

FRAMING

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