A Guide To Artist Paint Brushes: Which One To Choose?


There really is no such thing as a standard artist’s paint brush. Take a look at the range offered by this New Zealand arts and crafts online retailer and you’ll see hundreds of choices, ranging in price, size and paint type. So, how do you choose the right brush for your preferred style of painting? Here is a simple guide to help you.

Just like brushes, there is no such thing as standard bristles. There are many types to choose from, both natural hair and synthetic. Good quality natural hair brushes are often more expensive and are regarded by purists as being superior to synthetic brushes. However, some of the newer synthetic brushes, using improved technology, now deliver outstanding results. Often the comparative price of a brush will give you a good indication of the quality, performance and longevity you can expect from the brush.

Most commonly there are two types of natural hair brushes: sable and hog. Sable hair is suited to a more fluid application of colour, generally watercolours or thin applications of oil colour. A good sable brush will have excellent colour carrying capacity and a controlled release of paint off the brush. A quality round sable brush will also snap to a fine point every time, no matter the size, allowing for both fine detail and larger colour washes. Kolinsky Sable is the most highly regarded in this category (see the Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brush for example).

Hog hair is suited to the heavier application of colour, generally for oil or acrylics. It is strong hair with naturally flagged (split) ends which holds the colour at the end of the brush and allows it to be pushed around the canvas. There is a large quality difference in hog brushes.  Cheap hog brushes tend to break and leave hair in your paint, they also lose their shape quickly, splaying at the ends. If you are looking for a quality hog bristle brush, try to find one made with interlocking hog hair.

There is a wide range of synthetic brushes to choose from as well, and they vary in price and quality.  Synthetic brushes are often more budget-friendly because they can be made with lower-cost materials like nylon or polyester.  However, there are a number of superb synthetic brushes now available which use innovative filament technology to replicate the desired performance of a premium natural hair brush.

Shape is also an important consideration when choosing a brush. They include:

  • Round brushes are usually shaped like sharp teardrops and are the traditional shape we associate with paint brushes. The smaller brushes have a very sharp point which is ideal for detailed work while bigger rounds are used to fill larger areas.
  • Flat brushes, because of their wide square/rectangular shape, are often used to spread paint quickly and evenly over a surface. The hairs are a bit longer than a ‘bright’ bristle.
  • Bright brushes are flat brushes with stiff, short bristles. They are usually used for pushing paint into the weave of a canvas in thinner paint applications and are also used for thicker painting styles such as wet into wet, or impasto where thick layers are applied to the surface.
  • Filbert brushes are narrow, flat brushes, and the bristles come to a rounded point. These brushes can be used on their side to produce a thin line, or flat for a broad brushstroke, Because they’re good for coverage, blending and detail work, filbert brushes are popular for their versatility.
  • Angle brushes are versatile too. They’re flat with angled hairs at one end making them good for curved strokes and filling corners.
  • Mop brushes are just like their name indicates: large and fluffy brushes that have a rounded edge for the broad application of paint. These are the brushes to use for big watercolour washes and glazing over dry layers of paint without damaging the work that’s already been done.
  • Rigger brushes have extremely long bristles, making them great for fine lines with a consistent width for both oils and watercolours.
  • Fan brushes have a thin layer of spread out bristles – yes, just like a fan. They’re generally used for blending colours but are also ideal for painting hair, grasses, or thin branches.

These are the most common brushes you’ll find in an artist’s collection, and as you delve further into the world of painting, you’ll discover so many more. Thankfully, arts and crafts specialists will help you understand what they are, and what they do.

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