Confused about art brushes?
When I first began to paint, I couldn’t tell a watercolor brush from one I was suppose to use for oil or acrylic painting. I had no idea what constituted a good brush from a poor one. I’d buy what the instructor told me to buy for a particular class and then marked each kind with colored nail polish so I could remember which medium they went with.
After a while, I got it. And after another little while I began to find my favorites. Now I’m a ‘brush-aholic’! Oh, and those brushes from my college days? I still have quite a few and they’re still good 30 years later.
Cheap vs Expensive: Why the Big Price Difference?
Student Grade Brushes
These brushes are less expensive and often cheaply manufactured. They’re made with lower quality materials and created with less precision. Student grade brushes lose their shape fast (if they ever had any), wear out quickly and often fall apart after short use. They will split on you, have stray hairs that can’t be tamed and have no “snap” or memory for their original shape. They are often either too stiff or too floppy. A good brush has good spring and snap. You can usually tell a student grade brush from a better quality brush by the price.
Stay away from multi-packs or assorted brushes. I have found that these are usually worse than student grade!
Some very high quality brushes are sold for a reasonable price without being labeled ‘student grade’. A good quality brush will retain it’s shape when loaded with paint and will bounce back to it’s original shape after each stroke. They will last longer, the ferrules don’t rust and the bristles stay put.
A bad brush will not return to it’s original shape when loaded or after each stroke – or worse, will either not bend or remain flopped to one side. These types of brushes are utterly useless.
The Finest brushes are made from this little guy’s tail!
What Brushes are Made of and Why They Can Cost so Much
Sable and Squirrel Natural Brushes
Made of animal hair (no animals are harmed for the purpose of brush making). Shorter hair is more readily available and therefore less expensive. So of course, longer length brushes are more expensive. Natural hair may be used alone or blended with synthetic filaments.
Made of man-made nylon or polyester filaments which can be tapered, tipped, abraded or etched to increase color carrying ability. Filaments can be dyed and baked to make them softer and more absorbent.
Why Synthetics Might Be a Better Buy
- Synthetics are less prone to damage from solvents and paint
- Easier to keep clean
- More durable than natural brushes
- Better suited for acrylics than other brushes because of their durability (Acrylic can be fairly ruthless on brush fibers)
Isabey Isacryl Synthetic BrushesIsabey Isacryl Synthetic is one of the finest handmade synthetic brushes available. A special mix of thick, synthetic fibers replicates the finest natural hair with the durability of a synthetic so it keeps its tight shape longer than any other synthetic.
These brushes are ideal for oil paint and heavy body acrylics. They have an incredible feel and spring for unparalleled precision and control. Finely tapered hairs interlock, keeping a perfectly sharp point and edge resisting splaying when used with solvents.
These are stiff, less expensive brushes with good “snap” but lack a fine point or wedge. Sometimes my beginning students will show up with these instead of the synthetics that I list because they are trying to save money. They are fair brushes to begin a painting with, but unless you are prepared to paint impasto, they won’t work for creating finer detail.
A Note About Bristle Brushes: Bristle brushes lose their form when used with water, so if you are looking for something to
use with acrylics, you’re better off buying synthetic brushes.
Winton brushes feature the finest Chinese hog bristles, handset into seamless corrosion resistant ferrules. The natural curve of the bristle is utilized to produce a resilient brush that retains its shape even after heavy use.
The handles have a green stained natural wood finish protected by four coats of lacquer. While specifically designed for use with oil, these quality brushes are equally suitable for acrylic.
Designed for fine detail, delicate oil washes and soft blending. Strong and springy with the ability to hold the shape of a very fine point or edge because the hairs have a natural taper. Sable brushes made for watercolor usually lack the spring needed for painting with oils.
Kolinsky Sable (Expensive)
These brushes aren’t really made from sable. They’re created from the tails of mink found in northeastern China and Siberia. Considered as professional brush and the best material for watercolor and oils. These brushes have great “snap” or memory for returning to their original shape.
Again these brushes aren’t sable but come from red weasel, are less expensive than Kolinsky and a better quality alternative to a Kolinsky.
Red Sable Blend
Some manufacturers will produce red sable blended with ox hair to make a more economical brush, but the fine point is sacrificed because of this.
These brushes are made from a very fine, thick hair taken from squirrel tails. The gray squirrel, native to Russia is highly prized and usually in short supply. Brown squirrel is more readily available, less expensive and often used for student grade brushes. These brushes are very delicate and expensive. I bet you’ve never seen a brush like this Luco Black Squirrel 4 Locks Round! They also come in 6 and 8 Locks. Can you image what you’d use this one for?
These gorgeous pure squirrel hair pointed round locks are fixed with hand-tied quills to this unique chiqueter brush. The brush features a long, round, black handle.
Most Common Brush Shapes and Their Uses
You’ll find these types of brushes made for all different mediums. You’ll want to make sure that you choose the best type of brushes that are made for each particular medium though. (More on this below.)
Round brushes converge to points. Less versatile than other brush shapes because they allow for little variation in size and shape of strokes. Usually used for small detail and line work.
These rounds come to a finer point and are used for detail.
Square or rectangle that converges to a wedge. From the edge they look narrow. Holds plenty of paint and produces longish, straight brush strokes. Ideally should come to a crisp chiseled edge which is ideal for thin straight lines.
Shorter flat. Used when shorter strokes and more control are wanted.
A filbert looks like a flat with the rounded corners and are used when you want softer edges and blends.
Used for blending. Useful for creating foliage clusters and grasses although I find these brushes too easily create symmetrical and obvious patterns which are unnatural in nature. Practice laying strokes with this brush by twisting, turning and dabbing the brush rather than flatly laying down repetitive monotonous strokes.
Scripts or Liner
Long, narrow and comes to a fine point. Used for fine line work.
Mops are soft, soft, soft and used for softly blending oil paints. Good ones don’t lose their hairs all over your painting. Mops, or blenders come in all shapes and sizes, from bushy to shaped similar to a filbert.
Used for very fine line work.
Brush Sizes and Numbering
The size of a brush is indicated by a number printed on the handle.
Brushes start from 00000, then 00, 0, 1, 2, and up.
The higher the number, the bigger or wider the brush.
Some large flat brushes brushes are referred to a 1/4 inch, 1/2 inch, 1, 2, 3 and 4 inch.
Unfortunately, there is little consistency between brush manufacturers as to what these sizes actually are, so a number 10 in one brand can be a different size to a number 10 in another brand. I suggest selecting brushes according to the size they look rather than choosing according to the numbering when picking brushes from different brands.
Purchase a few brushes each from different manufacturers and try them out. After a while you’ll begin to learn what you like and which ones will work for the effects you are wanting to create.
Ask for referrals from artists who know brushes before buying. Most importantly do NOT buy the cheapest brushes you can find. All too often I have beginner students who go cheap and then struggle because ‘they can’t paint’. It isn’t the student – trust me, in this case it’s always the brush. You wouldn’t drive a car with two flat tires would you? You have no control. The same goes with a cheap brush!
Wait! There are MORE differences . . .
How Brushes Differ (Besides Shape and Size)
Springy and silky to the touch. Each strand converges to a fine point. Good for smooth brushwork and fine detail. Usually sable and sable substitutes (synthetic material).
More resilient, stiffer and better used for filling in large areas quickly. I find that these brushes often pick up as much paint as they place on the canvas unless the artist is skilled in using them. Made of ox or hogs hair. Less expensive that synthetic or sable.
Save the small brushes for your details – and your details should come at the END of a painting, not the beginning.
I always recommend beginning a painting with a larger brush than you feel comfortable using. A large brush will help you to fill in large areas fast. Using a size #2 brush of any type to paint a 28 x 30 sky will take hours (vs minutes) AND will make your painting look over-worked.
My Favorite Brushes for Oil Painting
The BEST art brushes for the best price!
Robert Simmons Titanium Series for Oil Painting
My absolute favorite brushes to use for oil painting (and the ones I always recommend for my beginning students) are an excellent mid-cost synthetic made by Robert Simmons. The Robert Simmons “Titanium” Filbert brushes wear extremely well, hold their shape and last for years if well taken care of.
These brushes are a high-quality grade that won’t break the bank – and more importantly, they won’t fall apart on you within a couple of weeks. They have a nice spring to them without being too stiff. The quality will last and last, giving you excellent value for your money.
In my opinion these are the BEST Oil Painting brushes for your money! I have my students order a variety of sizes.
You can find the best price for these brushes at Dick Blick Art Materials!
Short Handle vs Long Handle Brushes: Which brush do I need?
Short Handle Brushes
Short handle brushes are usually created for use with watercolors. They allow the liquid to flow downward onto the paint surface.
Long Handle Brushes
Long handle brushes are made for oil and acrylic painting and ideally used for easel painting in a horizontal position on a vertical painting surface. The length makes it easier for the artist to stand back away from the painting and view it as a whole.
Traveling and Storing Your Brushes
With proper care, your brushes will last your for decades. Use a travel holder when transporting your brushes. You never want to toss them loosely into your bag or box which will ruin them permanently.
Natural hair brushes, especially expensive watercolor brushes, have to be protected from moths, which may lay their eggs on the hairs, which will be food of the larvae when they hatch. Never place a brush in a plastic bag and put it in the dark. This may keep the moths off the brush, but you will be providing a fertile ground for mildew and rot.
Bamboo mats used as brush holders can cut hairs from your brushes and are too rough to use. Go with a soft canvas wrap with a folder over flap for oil brushes and a stiff canvas carrier that folds for your watercolor brushes.
Never store or stand brushes on the tip, or in a container so small that the tip is pushed against one of the sides. This will bend and split them and ruin them. This also means don’t just drop your acrylic or watercolor brush into water and leave them sitting bristle side down in the water.
Brushes left buried ferrule deep (the metal part) in water or cleaning solution will cause the glue that holds the bristles to break down and the ferrule to separate from the handle.
Dried paint in the ferrule will also loosen the handle from the brush as well as cause your brush to split. Splitting occurs when the brush no longer returns to its original shape.
I’ve also seen brushes become unusable because my students have left them in a hot car for a week between lessons. It’s very difficult to bring back the spring.
Alvin Prestige Paintbrush HolderMade of durable black nylon with a Velcro closure, this hard-cover brush holder protects small brushes and tools from damage. An adjustable drawstring cord secures the case so it stands upright, and a stitched elastic band holds brushes in place for easy access.
The standard size holds brushes up to 13″ (33 cm) long with handles up to 5/8″ (1.5 cm) diameter and folds flat to a convenient 6″ × 13-3/4″ (15 cm × 35 cm) size.
The large size holds brushes up to 15″ (38 cm) long with handles up to 3/4″ (2 cm) diameter and folds flat to a 7-1/4″ × 16″ (18.5 cm × 41 cm) size.
A Simple Trick for Choosing a Good Watercolor Brush. . . and it’s fun to do!
Testing the Quality of a Watercolor Brush
A good watercolor brush will hold plenty of water and maintain a fine point or sharp edge. Dip the brush in water and swish it around. Remove the brush and give it a quick snap or shake. Check the edge. If it’s split or has hairs sticking out then the brush is either damaged or of poor quality.
Your Brand New Brush . . . and what to expect
Sizing in the Bristles
Most brushes come from the manufacturer treated with a water-soluble sizing to protect the hairs. Remove this sizing by washing with brush soap and cool water before you begin to paint. Don’t crack or try to break it out of your brush.
Those Little Plastic Sleeves
Often brushes come with a plastic sleeve that covers the tip of the brush. Once you remove this plastic sleeve, THROW IT AWAY! Trying to put this back on your brush will result in bent hairs and bent hairs will only end up ruining your stroke work and annoying the heck out of you!
Testing the Ferrule
Wait! What’s a ferrule?
This is the metal collar that grips the hairs tightly together and clamps them on to the handle. The base of the hairs should be held firm with glue and the ferrule acts as an additional clamp on the hairs. On cheap brushes the ferrule may break off easily from the handle, or there may be no glue holding the hairs, so the occasional hair will pull out when painting which can spoil the finish.
You want to make sure that the ferrule is not loose on your new brush.
Check your brush by tug or twist the ferrule before buying to see if it is tightly clamped onto the handle. Over time, using a brush, washing it, and leaving it in water or solvent can loosen the ferrule’s grip on the handle, or loosen the hairs in the ferrule. So look for tightly clamped ferrules.
Cheaper brushes will have ferrules made of tin or aluminum. Better quality ferrules are brass or copper alloy ferrules that are nickel or chrome plated. These ferrules have the best adhesion to wooden handles, and an adhesion that is double or triple crimped to the wooden handle provides even more sturdiness.
To keep your ferrules in good condition, wash brushes properly after use and dry thoroughly, preferably flat or hanging upside down to keep the water from settling down in the hairs against the ferrule. This will keep the tuft solidly in the ferrule and the ferrule solidly attached to the handle.
My Favorite Watercolor Brushes
Give these brushes a whirl – you’ll love them!
For watercolor painting, my favorites are Loew-Cornell’s #7040 Golden-Taklon Ultra Round brushes. These brushes hold a lot of water and retain their point no matter how much you use them. Thick and thin strokes are easy with these and they give you a lot of control. Of course these are the brushes I recommend for my watercolor students as they are consistently the BEST Watercolor brushes to spend your money on.
Loew-Cornell Ultra Round Brushes have excellent water holding capacity with an exceptional point for a synthetic. Blending three thicknesses of filament, they perform like the finest natural hair.
You can find these brushes for the best price at Dick Blick Art Materials!
How to Clean Your Brushes
Take care of your brushes and they’ll last for years.
Care and Cleaning of WATERCOLOR Brushes
- Swish in clean water until all paint is removed.
- Gentle squeeze out excess water
- Lay FLAT until dry with the brush tip hanging out over the edge of the table to keep the bristles from drying bent.
Care and Cleaning of ACRYLIC Brushes
- IMPORTANT! Rinse acrylic out of your brushes OFTEN while you paint
- Swish in clean water until all paint is removed
- Rinse your brush under cool running water and gently squeeze the bristles to dislodge any left over paint
- If you have dried paint in the brush, use a brush cleaner formulated for acrylics
- Lay FLAT until dry with the brush tip hanging out over the edge of the table
White synthetic bristles can become stained by pigments and remain stained even when clean. This will not harm the brush.
Care and Cleaning of OIL Brushes
- Gently wipe off excess paint on a paper towel or cotton cloth
- Clean with Turpenoid – I prefer Turpenoid Natural as a brush cleaner for my oil painting brushes. It’s a highly effective cleaner and conditioner that’s organic, non-toxic and non-flammable. Gently twizzel the brush against the side of the jar at a 45 degree angle. Don’t scrub the brush on the bottom of the jar – it bends the bristles and you’ll be rubbing the brush in residue from previous cleanings.
- Finish cleaning with Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap – I’ve found that this cleaner works extremely well to loosen the final traces of paint from oil brushes. This can also be used to clean your hands, tools and work surfaces. Miracle of miracles, with a little effort it will remove dried paint from your brushes. They won’t be as in great of shape as new, but they often turn out well. Work a small amount into the bristles and watch how much paint will come out of what you thought was a clean brush!
- Wash with soap and cool water
- Lay FLAT until dry with the brush tip hanging out over the edge of the table.
This versatile linseed oil soap is an excellent brush cleaner and moisturizer that can also be used to clean your hands. Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap’s minimal odor makes it ideal for classroom or studio settings.
Keep Your Brushes from Falling Apart
Always lay brushes flat to dry or hang brushes tuft down and let them drain and dry, so the water runs away from the ferrule. Then store them upright.
HELP! I’ve Ruined My Brush! Can I Repair It?
How to Reshape a Damaged Synthetic Brush
So you have a bent brush. Perhaps it got stored bristles down or it ended up jammed into your travel bag and now it’s bent and pretty much useless, right? Maybe not!
I’ve had a lot of success with this method of restoring a damaged synthetic brush.
Do this carefully. Test with just a short dip first.
- Boil some water and pour a few inches into an old coffee mug (or something similar)
- Quickly dip the bristles into the hot water
- REMOVE the brush quickly
- Carefully test to see if you can touch the bristles and when you can, reshape them
- Dip again if necessary and reshape
- If the brush is stubborn, you can hold it in the hot water for a little longer.
Warning: When you pull your brush out of the hot water, give it a couple of moments to cool before shaping or you could burn yourself. If you’re under 18, have an adult help you.
How to Clean Dried Oil and Acrylic Paint out of your Good Brushes
I’ve found that Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap is the perfect solution for reviving old brushes.
Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap
Jack’s Linseed Studio Soap completely cleans dried acrylics, oils, and alkyds with no damage to the brush head or loss of fibers. It can be used on natural or synthetic brushes.
To get DRIED paint out of a brush:
Dip the offending brush into the Jack’s and work it into the bristles as much as possible. I wrap the brush in plastic wrap and let it sit for an hour or more. Check the brush to see how pliable it has become. Let it sit overnight if it’s still to hard to massage the bristles.
Once the brush becomes pliable, massage the soap into it thoroughly, then wipe it out. Work more Jack’s into the bristles, wipe out and continue until brush comes clean. Once clean, wash with cool water and mild soap. Squeegee the water out with your fingers, shape and lay flat to dry.
If you find you can work the brush but it still has dried paint, work out what you can, add more Jack’s and let sit overnight. This might take a few days but you should have a fairly good brush again.
I’ve also discovered that this great cleaner can remove dried paint from clothes, off furniture and anything else you’ve managed to splatter. The paint may leave a stain if on walls even though you’ve removed the actual dried paint.
This water soluble cleaner is non-toxic, biodegradable, non-flammable and comes in a plastic bottle.
Common Questions on Brushes
Send me your questions and I’ll add them here!
Can I shorten the hairs of a brush?
Not a good idea. The hair of a brush is not uniform and usually tapers to a fine point. If you cut the brush you will be removing the delicate ends and completely change the characteristics of the brush.
Can I cut away stray hairs?
Yes, but you’ll need to trim them down near the ferrule. Otherwise they’ll still stick out and cause stray lines of paint. Be careful of trimming away too many as the brush may lose it’s springiness and no longer hold a fine point or sharp edge.
Can I use the same brushes for oils and acrylics and watercolors?
It’s recommended that you use separate brushes for each medium. Acrylics require sturdier synthetic brushes. Watercolors need short handle, soft brushes with good form. Oils are better applied with long handle brushes with lots of spring and snap. You can ruin a good watercolor or oil brush by using them for acrylics and you can contaminate your watercolors by using a brush previously used for oils.
One Very Important Thing
Choose the best brushes you can afford. While there is no magic brush that will instantly make you into a painting genius, a bad brush will definitely make it difficult for you to create decent work.
I’ve often watched a new student struggle with a cheap brush, believing that they “just can’t paint”. When I hand them a good brush and they see how much easier it is to use, they usually turn and dump their junk brush into the nearest garbage can.