Painting & drawing blog
HOW TO CHOOSE AN ARTISTS’ PAINTBRUSH
(Know your filbert from your egbert)
Buying a brush to paint with 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 and bristle types helped me to choose much more effectively whether buying in an art store or online. Here I’m going to break down the many options firstly into brush shapes and then into the different bristle types and their suitability for oil, acrylic, gouache or watercolour painting.
(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)
Before we begin a few bits of jargon will be useful. The ‘ferrule’ of the brush – the metal band that clamps the bristles and holds them to the wooden handle – can be round or flat like this one, depending on the type of brush. The thickness of the ‘belly’ allows for a smaller or greater ‘reservoir’ of paint to be held by the hairs or bristles, so a fatter belly will allow you to apply more paint with each stroke.
Handles can be short like this one, or much longer. 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 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 starts at 0 and goes on up, but other ranges may describe 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 wouldn’t really want a tiny Wash brush. This numbering system doesn’t relate to any set measurement, it’s just a scale that the manufacturer has decided upon. Tiny Spotter brushes for detailed work may start at size 000, which is known as “triple ought” and will literally just contain a few hairs
ARTISTS’ BRUSH SHAPES
One important thing to know 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.
The Flat brush
A pretty self explanatory name for this flat block-shaped brush which is usually a rectangular shape. When the rectangle is elongated this may be described as a ‘Long Flat’. Although the hairs of the brush will finish in a straight line this should be achieved by lining up all the hairs rather than chopping them in a straight line – a good flat brush will never contain trimmed hairs and those that do are known as ‘blunts’.
A flat brush is useful for covering a large area quickly and evenly and maintaining a bold, choppy brush stroke. Flats are not ideal for blending paint.
The Bright brush
The Bright brush is a shorter version of the Flat brush, and the shape created by its stiff bristles is square rather than rectangular. This stubby shape gives more control than a flat brush and is useful for working dryer paint into a canvas weave, spattering or scumbling, or applying thick ‘impasto’ paint. Given their unfamiliar name, Bright brushes are sometimes sold as ‘Short Flat’ brushes instead.
The Wash brush
‘Wash’ brushes are usually sold within watercolour ranges and usually have the same square shape as a Bright brush and are sometimes even stubbier. They will always be made with a soft bristle such as Sable and may have either a flat or rounded ferrule. They allow a wide flat wash of colour to be applied with a lot of control.
The One Stroke brush
‘One Stroke’ brushes are almost identical to Flat brushes in their rectangular shape. Generally One Strokes are made with softer bristles than stiff ones such as hog hair that are used for oil painting, so they are more suitable for use with gouache or watercolour and for doing lettering or signwriting in block letters.
Often watercolour brush ranges will define all their Flat brushes as 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.
The Filbert brush
This is what I think of as the classic paintbrush shape and is maybe the most multi-functional. It’s a flat brush with an oval/domed end, so 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.
The Egbert brush
There’s a rather lovely but much less common variation on the Filbert which is called the Egbert. It’s a longer version of the Filbert, often quite a small brush, and was a favourite of the Old Masters. The extra long hair allows for a more expressive stroke and better paint reservoir
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 control than a Flat brush. It’s effective for making really decisive and choppy brush strokes. The bristles on an angled brush are fairly short to help maintain this control.
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 with a small brush or wider coverage with a larger one. They are available in every size from tiny 000 to really thick chunky brushes, and both the bristle section and the ferrule will always be rounded.
The Spotter brush
This is a tiny version of the Round brush with a small number of bristles, designed for doing very fine details like eyes, grass, twigs etc. It’s always made of soft bristles and you won’t find them in the hog hair ranges.
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 or soft bristles.
The Mop brush
This is nearly always a fairly large brush and is always made from soft bristles, very often Squirrel, so is most often used in watercolour painting for laying in very large areas of watery colour. The Mop can have a round or flat ferrule. It can have either a flared or a pointed tip but is typically fat and capable of holding a lot of paint.
The Rigger brush
Rigger brushes are fairly small brushes with rounded ferrules and bristles of varying length – sometimes extremely elongated – that taper to a fine point. 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 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 in that it’s long and fairly thin, however the Liner looks more like an elongated Round brush whereas the Rigger has more of a tapered shape to it.
The Liner has a rounded ferrule and its bristles 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 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 when the Deerfoot is used to depict stippled textures such as trees or foliage. This technique is most successful with slightly dry paint.
The Striper/Dagger/Dagger Striper brush
These soft, exotic looking brushes with a flat ferrule have bristles with a curved angle and a pointed tip. The unusual shape is designed is the creation of expressive strokes, allowing as they do for a wide mark that can end in a fine point. Daggers are used largely for watercolour and gouache or in sign writing.
The Swordliner brush
These are very similar in shape to the Dagger. Swordliners come in smaller sizes than daggers and to have slightly longer bristles making them less easy to control but even more expressive.
Which types to use for which paint mediums?
Walking into an art shop it can be hard to work out which brushes are designed for the type of painting you want to do. Some individual ranges may be marketed as ‘Acrylic’ brushes or ‘Watercolour’ brushes, and when buying online the brush section may be divided into ‘Brushes for Oil painting’ or ‘Brushes for Acrylic painting’ etc, but other stores will categorise them by bristle type and regardless you’ll find a great deal of crossover, because the truth is that with a few exceptions most types of brush can be used for any type of painting, depending on the effects you want to achieve.
For example the ‘Oil painting brushes’ sections within online stores will usually contain mostly hog hair ranges but also synthetic ranges designed for Acrylic paint, because these will be fine to use for for Oils if you’re happy with a smooth effect or are making quite small paintings. For tiny details, many oil painters will even used super soft Sable brushes. However for manipulating large areas of thick paint you may find that only coarse hog hair does the job.
Traditionally and still today, the list of animals whose hairs are used to make brushes is endless: hog, goat, sable, squirrel, horse, badger and even mongoose. If you are vegetarian or vegan and prefer to avoid these there are plenty of very sophisticated synthetic options too. Animal hairs have a scaly surface microscopically which makes them good at holding a reservoir of paint, and good synthetic brushes are designed to mimic this texture to increase their paint carrying ability. Additionally, synthetic brushes are likely to last longer than natural hairs and will usually be cheaper, although the cheapest synthetic bristles may not give a great effect.
These are designed for oil painting and most brushes sold as ‘oil painting brushes’ will be made of hog because oil paint is the stiffest, strongest type of paint and requires fairly thick bristles to manipulate it. Hog hair bristles actually come from the ears of hogs and they are easy to identify as the stiff, coarse bristles are always very pale or white in colour. The hairs have a naturally curving shaft and split or ‘flagged’ ends that hold paint well and deliver it consistently.
You can also used hog hair brushes for alkyd and acrylic paint, although they may leave visible ridges in your paint layer that you might prefer to avoid. Different grades of hog hair brush are available depending on how much you want to pay and the most expensive will retain their shape better when they are wet and carry the best reservoir of paint. ‘Chunking’ white bristles are considered to be the very best.
Mongoose and Imitation Mongoose
Not everyone painting in oils wants to use still hog brushes, all of the time. For blending, glazing and detailed work many oil painters will use slightly softer brushes and need a type of bristle that’s softer but still with enough stiffness to manipulate oil paint. Mongoose was a traditionally a popular choice for oil painting due to its 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 therefore 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 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.
There are other brushes made with stiff synthetic bristles, which don’t necessarily claim to be mimicking any particular animal hair. They will typically be only about as strong as Mongoose hair however. If you want something as coarse and strong as hog hair, there isn’t really a synthetic equivalent.
Badger hair has been used for oil paintings. It’s a coarse yet soft and ‘bushy’ looking hair due to each shaft being thickest at its tips, and is used for blending, stippling and creating texture. Badger brushes are also marketed as watercolour brushes, used for creating textural marks.
Ox hair brushes, made from hairs taken from the ear of the ox, are more commonly found than badger but are another example of semi-soft bristles that can be used in many different mediums – traditionally for oil, watercolour and tempera painting. The hairs are long and springy and inexpensive.
Much more on ‘sable’ brushes below, but a quick mention for the cheapest and strongest which are ‘black sable’ brushes, made from the pelt of the Russian polecat. 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’s suited for use in a range of mediums
Synthetic ‘Acrylic’ brushes
Most typically, brushes marketed for acrylic painting are made with synthetic bristles, such as the ubiquitous Pro Artex ‘Acrylix’ range. Acrylic paint is less stiff and easier to manipulate than oil paint but still thicker than gouache or watercolour, so synthetic brushes which are softer than hog but stronger than other animal hairs are well suited to it. You’ll often see Acrylic brushes in the ‘oil’ section of an online score, described as ideal for acrylic and also suitable for oil paints and indeed they are fine for use with thinner oil paint, for mixing, glazing and detail work.
Synthetic hair brushes are made with nylon or polyester, with varying degrees of taper along the ‘hair’ shafts and different coatings. As already mentioned, the best ranges will mimic animal hairs by creating microscopic cavities along the shaft of the synthetic hair to improve their colour carrying capacity. The cheapest synthetic brushes won’t have a good reservoir capacity, and I’d advise against choosing anything called a ‘student’ or ‘graduate’ synthetic range if possible because it won’t imitate an animal hair very successfully.
‘Kolinsky Sable’ brushes
The most famous and prized animal hair in the manufacture of soft brushes (particularly those used for watercolour) is the ‘sable’. This meaning is far from straightforward however! ‘Sable’ brushes are named after a species of Marten called the Sable Marten. In fact most brushes sold as ‘Sable’ actually contain hairs from other types of minks or weasels.
The most famous and most expensive type of watercolour brush is the ‘Kolinsky sable’, or ‘Kolinsky red sable’ which really comes from a variety of weasel or mink. These exalted hairs come from specifically from the winter pelt of the male Siberian Kolinsky. Traditionally, true Kolinsky hair brushes contain hairs only from the tail fo the winter pelt of the male animal. These hairs have tapers at both ends to a very fine point with a wider shaft (the belly) and this allows the brush to retain a sharp point even when wet, have excellent ‘snapping’ qualities and carry an excellent reservoir.
The Kolinsky won’t breed in captivity and must be specially trapped, explaining their very high cost. What is often sold as Kolinsky frequently comes not from these hairs but from different parts of their pelts, from their summer coats, or in part or entirely from female animals and these hairs do not have the same qualities at all. Therefore the name is often – not to say usually – used completely misleadingly. Red sable (below) is quite often described as Kolinsky when it is nothing of the kind. If you really want to buy true Kolinsky try a very reputable art store and look for their most expensive Kolinsky range, but check the small print.
Sable/Red Sable brushes
When a brush is just sold as a ‘sable’ it is likely to be from the Red Sable. These hairs are slightly shorter than the Kolinsky’s but do actually come from a real sable, a type of marten. They are also thinner and thicker than the best Kolinsky hairs but still make an excellent watercolour brush or an oil brush for very fine, top layer details.
Squirrel hair is often used to make watercolour Mop or Wash brushes. It is exceptionally soft and doesn’t hold a point as well as a sable because it has little spring so isn’t suitable for most brush shapes but carries colour excellently making it 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 made for schools.
‘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.
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 decent nylon brushes around such as Winsor & Newton’s ’Cotman’ series which mimic soft animal hairs to create a good brush for watercolour. This range is made with a blend of differing thickness fibres so that the thicker fibres give strength and spring whilst the thinner fibres improve colour carrying capacity. Some ranges mix artificial hair with some Sable as a mid-price alternative.