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TRY IT: Paint Brushes, Getting to Know an Essential Art Tool


Paintbrush for painting with oil, acrylic, watercolor (and gouache, ink and tempura)


A paintbrush is a brush used to apply paint or sometimes ink to various surfaces. A paintbrush is usually made by clamping the bristles to a handle with a ferrule.


Brushes vary by fiber, by medium, by name, and by shape. It's important to understand the basic anatomy of a brush before selecting the right one for the task at hand.



1. Brush Hair Type *

2. Brush Shape *

3. Brush Size *

4. Brush Handle Length

5. Ferrule Type & Assembly

6. Paintbrush Glossary of Terms by Winsor and Newton


1. Brush Hair Type

There are three main categories for painting brushes:

Natural soft animal hair, Bristle, and Synthetic

Natural Soft Animal Hair: Kolinsky & Red Sable Brushes * A quality sable paint brush should hold it's shape extremely well with good spring and snap in it's stroke

* The brush hair tips should come to very fine points

* Often the choice brush for watercolor artists with Kolinsky Sable being the finest quality and Pure Red Sable a close second, also used in oil and acrylic painting

* Kolinsky is considered to be a professional grade of hair because of its strength, spring, and ability to retain shape ("snap")

* Red Sable can be a good alternative to the more expensive Kolinsky, with similar performance and durability that vary greatly

Other Soft Animal Hair: Ox Hair (Sabeline), Squirrel Hair, Camel Hair (Mix of Pony & Goat Hair)

Bristle (Natural Firm Animal Hair): Hog, Pig, Boar Bristle

* Unlike any other natural filler brushes in that they form a V-shaped split or "flag" at the tip for holding lots of liquid and adding "texture"

* Are the firmest of the natural hairs

* Should have "interlocked" bristles, with the curves formed inward to the ferrule - will provide a natural resistance to fraying and spreads medium/thick paints smoothly and evenly

* The natural curve provides superior spring and shape retentioin

* Have a resilience that is ideal for oils and acrylic on canvas (heavy paint, slightly textured surface).

Other Sturdy Animal Hair: Kevrin/Mongoose Hair, Fitch, Skunk, Badger

Synthetic (manufactured hairs)

* Taklon is the main synthetic hair used in an artist paint brush for all mediums with many variations simulate the characteristics of good Sable and Bristle brushes

* Although more often used in oil/acrylic painting, watercolorist find Taklon a very good substitute for quality Sable brushes

* Can be used with both watercolors and oils and are better suited for use with acrylics (PH of Acrylic is opposite of natural hair PH)

* Easy to clean as they lack the animal cell structure that can trap paint/liquids

* Synthetic filment is less prone to damage from solvents, bugs, or paint

* For painting on rougher surfaces, white synthetic bristle is also available. They are ideal for fabric applications, stenciling and unique effects on hard surfaces.

* These are the more prominent brushes for sale and most afforable. With advancements in technology it becomes harder and harder to determine real from synthetic

Natural and Synthetic Hair Blend Artist Paint Brushes * Combine natural hair’s softness and absorbancy, while the synthetic filaments provide increased durability, spring and point.

* Many do a good job of maintaining the qualities of natural hair while making the price more affordable.

* Desirable for watercolors


2. Brush Shape / Sample Strokes

* Indicates common useful brush shapes


Media: watercolor, acrylic, decorative

Fiber: bristle, synthetic

Description: Flat ferrule, short-length hairs, set with longer hairs at one end

Usage: Precise strokes, lines and curves, with thick/heavy color

Bright *

Media: oil, acrylic, decorative

Fiber: sable, mongoose, bristle, badger, synthetic

Description: Flat ferrule, short-length hairs, usually set in a long handle. Width and length of brush head is about equal.

Usage: short, controlled strokes, and with thick or heavy color


Media: oil, acrylic, decorative

Fiber: bristle, badger, synthetic

Description: Flat ferrule, spread hairs. Natural hair is more suitable for soft blending, and synthetic works well for textural effects.

Usage: smoothing and blending, special effects and textures

AKA: "The Bob Ross Rebel"

Filbert *

Media: oil, acrylic, decroative

Fiber: sable, mongoose, bristle, badger, synthetic

Description: Thick, flat ferrule, oval-shaped medium-long hairs, soft round edges, long handle.

Usage: Blending and figurative work, natural hairs hold together when wet.

Flat *

Media: all media

Fiber: sable, mongoose, bristle, badger, synthetic

Description: Flat ferrule, square-ended, with medium to long hairs. Provides lots of color capacity and easy maneuverability.

Usage: bold, sweeping strokes, or on edge for fine lines.

Use heavier filling for heavier paint.


Media: watercolor

Fiber: Squirrel, goat, ox, bristle, synthetic

Description: Oriental-style wash brush on a long flat handle

Usage: Laying in large areas of water or color, for wetting the surface, and for absorbing excess media


Media: ink, sign paint

Fiber: sable, squirrel, synthetic

Description: Round ferrule, square-ended brush, with extra-long hairs and a short handle. Large color carrying capacity

Usage: Delicate lettering, outlining, and long continuous strokes

AKA: Outliner


Media: watercolor

Fiber: squirrel

Description: Round, full version of the wash brush, made of soft, absorbent natural hair

Usage: Laying in large areas of water or color, for wetting the surface, and for absorbing excess media

Mottler & Spalter

Media: watercolor, acrylic, oil, decorative

Fiber: bristle, squirrel, pony, badger, synthetic

Description: Large flat brushes with long or short handles and can have long or short bristles

Usage: Faux finishing techniques, murals, washes, varnishing or priming. Hold a large amount of paint and cover large surface areas

One Stroke

Media: oil, ink, decorative, sign paint

Fiber: sable, squirrel, ox, synthetic

Description: Flat ferrule, square-ended medium to long length hairs. Short handles. Large color carrying capacity.

Usage: Painting block letters in a single stroke

Oval Wash

Media: watercolor

Fiber: squirrel, ox, bristle, synthetic

Description: Rounded hairs, flat ferrules, and produces a soft edge, with no point. Wash brushes come in other varied shapes

Usage: Laying in large areas of water or color, for wetting the surface, and for absorbing excess media


Media: ink, sign paint

Fiber: sable, squirrel

Description: Long hairs, and a natural-shaped tip. The writer has a round ferrule and a short permanent or detachable handle.

Usage: Lettering and poster work. Good on smooth surfaces such as glass

Round *

Media: all media

Fiber: all hair, synthetic

Description: Round ferrule, round or pointed tip

Usage: Detail, wash, fills, and thin to thick lines. A pointed round is used for fine detail while a detailer is a pointed round with very short hair.


Media: oil, acrylic, decorative

Fiber: bristle

Description: Long handles and tapered bristles

Usage: Detailed work on large paintings. Also good for delicate decorative painting.

Script/Liner *

Media: watercolor, decorative, ink, sign paint

Fiber: sable, ox, synthetic

Description: Pointed, narrow brush with very long hair. Liners are shorter and narrower. Short handles, round ferrules. Large color carrying capacity.

Usage: Delicate lettering, highlighting, outlining, and long continuous strokes

Square Wash *

Media: watercolor

Fiber: squirrel, ox, bristle, synthetic

Description: Square wash can produce varying shapes and widths, and often has a short, "flat-footed" handle. Wash brushes come in varied shapes.

Usage: Scraping, burnishing, and separating watercolor paper from blocks


3. Brush Size

Artists' brushes are usually given numbered sizes, although there is no exact standard for their physical dimensions.

Kolinsky Sable Bright Brushes (0-20)

From smallest to largest, the sizes are:

30/0, 20/0, 12/0, 10/0, 7/0, 6/0, 5/0, 4/0 (also written 0000), 000, 00, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30

* Sizes 000 to 20 are most common, specifically various shapes in a few sizes from 2-12 are good starting points for an artists collection, 30/0 has only select availablity as it is not a common size.

* The best standard of measurement a consumer can use is to compare similar lines from various manufacturers size for size.

Image: Kolinsky Sable Bright Brushes (0-20)


4. Brush Handle Length

Artists' brush handles are commonly wooden but can also be made of molded plastic. Many mass-produced handles are made of unfinished raw wood; better quality handles are of seasoned hardwood. The wood should be sealed and lacquered to give the handle a high-gloss, waterproof finish that reduces soiling and swelling.

* Short-handled brushes: Ideal when holding the brush close to the tip as you would use a writing instrument and then work on a table/desktop

Uses: Including but not limited to watercolor, decorative and craft/hobby brushes

* Long-handled brushes: Reserved for easel work, so artists may distance themselves from the work

Uses: Various paints and mediums, including but not limted to oils, acrylics but can include gouache and watercolor

Additional Resources: Rex Art Handles & Sizing


5. Ferrule Type & Assembly

The ferrule is the metal tube designed to hold the hairs and handle of the brush. It can be made of various metals: Copper, Brass, Aluminum

* High End Brushes: Ferrule is often made of copper or brass and are seamless, so more expensive

* Lower End Brushes: Ferrule is often made of Aluminum and have a seam, cost less to produce

Additional Resources: Rex Art Handles & Sizing


6. Paintbrush Glossary of Terms by Winsor & Newton

(See below Make Studio Logo)



Okay...that was a lot of information.

For some it maybe seem like too much, for others it just starts to stratch the surface.

What is most important before buying any paintbrush is understanding that not all brushes are created equal. Before shopping, narrow down the general idea of bristle type, shape and size that best fits your next painting.

Depending on what you want to paint, with which type of paint, for what purpose, you can narrow down how much you are willing to invest in your next paintbrush purchase. Hopefully, you now have an understanding of what types of hairs, shapes and sizes are available, and where they are best utilized.

See "resources" below for more articles with detailed paintbrush information.


If you are just starting out with painting, don't worry about aquiring a top of the line kolinsky sable brush for $50+. Invest in a few synthetic brushes of various shapes and sizes to get a handle on how they create different lines and effects. As mentioned previously, synthetic brushes have come a long way and can do an excellent job. From your initial trials you will begin to understand what works and feels best for you and your painting style.

Sample Starter Set:

1 - 6-8 Round

1 - 4-12 Filbert

1 - 4-8 Bright

1 - 4-8 Flat

1 - 4-6 Liner

Hair type: Select a type of paint to learn with first, for example - watercolor. Compile a starter set in the same/similar hairs, let your collection grow as your comfort and skills grow.

Happy making.



Winsor & Newton's Paintbrush Glossary:

When choosing a brush, the wide selection of hair types, head shapes and handle lengths mean that there are many words used to describe the characteristics of each one. The glossary below provides a guide to terms used when talking about brushes: Acrylic brush - synthetic brushes, the mix of hair is specially made for use with acrylic colour. Balance - the correct weight and shape of a handle in relationship to the weight of the brush head. Belly - the mid-section and thickest part of the brush head, or the individual hair filament itself. Sable filaments have excellent bellies, which result in well shaped round brushes. Blunt - a hair which is missing its natural tip. Finest quality brushes, do not contain blunts or trimmed hairs. Bright - often Short flat, a chisel ended, square headed bristle brush. Bright was a painter. Bristle - hog hair. Coarse, strong hair, suited to thick brushwork in oil, alkyd and acrylic painting. Different qualities of hog brushes are available, the most expensive ones carry the most colour and retain their shape best when wet. Camel - is a pseudonym for a mixture of miscellaneous hairs of low quality. Crimp - the compressed section of the ferrule which holds the handle to the brush head. Designers’ - an elongated round sable, most common for illustration work. Egbert - an extra long filbert. Fan - a flat fan, used for blending, available in both bristle and soft hair. Ferrule - the metal tube which supports the hair and joins it to the handle. Filbert - flat brushes with oval shaped heads, available in both bristle and soft hair. Flag - the natural, split tip of each bristle. Flags carry more colour and are evident on the highest quality hog brushes. Flat - usually Long flat; flat hog brushes with a chisel end. Goat - makes good mop wash brushes. Gummed - newly made brushes are pointed with gum in order to protect them in transit. Interlocked - bristle brushes whose hairs curve inward towards the centre of the brush. Kolinsky - the highest quality sable hair. Length out - the length of hair, exposed from the ferrule to the tip. Lettering - very thin, long, chisel ending sables, traditionally used for lines and letters in signwriting. Liners - see Lettering. Long flat - see Flat. Mop - large, round, domed brushes, often goat or squirrel, used primarily to cover whole areas in water colour. One Stroke - a flat soft hair brush which allows an area to be covered in one stroke, traditionally used in signwriting for block letters. Ox - ear hair is used for flat wash brushes. Pencil - see Spotter. Polyester - Synthetic hair is made of polyester; different diameter filaments, varying tapers, different colours and different coatings result in as many possible variations in synthetic brushes as in those made from natural hair. Pony - is a low cost cylindrical hair, ie. lacking a point, often used for childrens’ brushes. Quill - bird quills were originally used for ferrules prior to the development of seamless metal ferrules. Still used in some squirrel brushes. Rigger - very thin, long round sable, traditionally used for painting rigging in marine pictures. Round - available in both bristle and soft hair, the latter having different types of rounds. Sable - produces the best soft hair brushes, particularly for water colour. The conical shape and scaled surface of each hair provide a brush with an unrivalled point, responsiveness and colour carrying capacity. There are different qualities, the finest being taper-dressed Kolinsky [Winsor & Newton Series 7]. Short flat - see Bright. Snap - see Spring. Solid-dressed - sable which is sorted in bundles of equal length prior to brushmaking. Resultant brushes are not as responsive as taper-dressed sables. Spotter - extra short and small sable rounds, used for retouching photographs and other high detail work. Spring - the degree of resilience of the hair and its ability to return to a point. Sable displays excellent spring. Squirrel - hair makes good mop brushes but does not hold its belly or point well. Stripers - see Lettering. Taper-dressed - Kolinsky sable which is sorted into different lengths prior to brushmaking. Resultant brushes have wider bellies and finer points. Wash - large flat soft hair brushes, used primarily for flat washes in water colour.




Winsor & Newton:

Artist Paint Brush:

Rex Art: |

Art is Fun:

Dick Blick:

Ninas Art and Framing:

AOE Art World Supply:


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