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Choosing the Right Brush for Your Painting Project

Susan Radke

We’ve all been there …

You want to explore your creative side, feel the joy of layering brilliantly colored paints on a canvas, and create your first masterpiece!  You head to the art store and quickly find your paints, canvas or paper, and maybe a “how to get started book” with fun painting exercises to try.  You’re feeling excited and eager to get going.  And then it happens. You reach the brush aisle and are faced with an overwhelming number of choices and have no idea know where to start.  Sure, the brushes may be separated into sections for watercolor, acrylic, and oil, but within each of these sections, you still have many choices to make before you can unleash your inner Vincent Van Gogh.

Don’t worry.  Once you understand the basics, you’ll be able to decide which brushes are best for you to get started with.

Anatomy of a Brush

Let’s take a look at the main parts of a paintbrush:

Bristles – (or hairs) are made from synthetic fibers, natural fibers or a combination of both

Ferrule – this is the silver part of the brush that holds the bristles and connects them to the handle

Crimp – the crimp is where the ferrule is attached (or crimped) to the handle

Size – ranging from 000 on up; higher numbers mean larger brushes

Handle – made from wood or acrylic and can be long or short

Some brush makers also include the type of brush like “Round” on the handle

Brush Bristles

Choosing the right bristle type is important for you to get the results you’re looking for.  If your art store has already grouped brushes together by oil, acrylic, and watercolor, you’re half-way there! 

Bristles made from natural fibers include Ox, Squirrel, Sable, Goat, Pony (Horse), and Hog. These choices give you bristles that are very soft (Sable or Squirrel) through very coarse (Hog).  Softer bristles hold more water than coarse bristles which make them ideal for working with watercolors.

Synthetic bristles are made from nylon or polyester.  They’re a versatile brush but don’t hold their shape as well as natural bristle brushes.  They are however an excellent choice for beginners as their cost is typically less.  Acrylic painters often use synthetic brushes because they stand up to the resin in acrylic paint and clean more easily.

Here’s a breakdown of which bristles work best with the different media:

Longer bristles give you more flex while shorter bristles tend to be stiffer regardless of the fiber they’re made from.

If you really want to get to know the difference between bristles, run your thumb or finger across the bristles themselves.  You’ll be able to feel the difference in the fiber, flex, and length.  Don’t be surprised if you feel the brush "snap" when it's new. Brushes are treated with gum arabic to help them keep their shape during shipping.  When you purchase a brush, you should always clean it first in order to remove this material.

Brush Shape

Just like people, brushes come in different shapes and sizes.  This image shows you some common shapes.


Round – these brushes hold a lot of water (great for watercolors), work well for creating details, and can paint large areas

Flat – flat brushes make bold, flat strokes.  You can also turn them on edge to create fine lines

Angle – with its pointy tip, angle brushes are perfect for filling in small spaces or creating curves and unique shapes.  It can also be used like a flat brush to cover large areas with one stroke

Filbert – the rounded shape of the filbert brush makes it ideal for blending and creating a variety of brush strokes.  It’s typically used in oil and acrylic painting

Liner – liner brushes are also called riggers and hold a surprisingly large amount of paint.  They work great for fine detail and lettering

There are other brush shapes like brite, fan, or the mop brush, but these basic shapes are perfect to get you started.

Brush Size

Understanding brush size can be tricky but with a few basic concepts in mind, you’ll find the right brush in no time:

  • Brushes are labeled by number. Smaller numbers mean smaller brush size (width of bristles) while larger numbers mean larger brushes

  • There is no standard numbering system for brushes so a size 4 from one manufacturer may not be the same as a size 4 for another manufacturer

  • Small brushes are best for detail work – medium brushes offer great versatility – large brushes cover large areas

Rather than focusing on the number stamped on the handle, it’s often better to simply look for a brush to accomplish the task at hand. If you’re going to be painting miniatures, look for small brushes.  If you have a large painting, then go for the larger brushes that can cover the area more quickly.

Another consideration to keep in mind is the size of the handle.  They can be short or long.  Short handles are more often used for close detail work.  Long handles are typically used when you’re standing further from your painting and working at an easel.

Wrapping It Up

We hope you’ve found this information useful in demystifying the brush aisle!  In the end, choosing a brush can be a very personal experience.  You need to like the feel of the brush in your hand.  The bristles need to react and produce the types of results you’re looking for.  And the brush needs to be easy for you to care for. 

When you’re first starting out, consider buying an inexpensive set of synthetic brushes that includes a variety of shapes and sizes so you get used to benefits of each.  You can then work your way up to more expensive brushes as you refine what’s important to you and your unique style.

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