All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Artist Brushes and Then Some — Part 2

paint brush shapesThis article is continued from part one where brush anatomy and bristle type was covered. In part two, brush shapes and sizes will be discussed.

An artist’s single most important tool in oil painting is the paintbrush. It is the main piece of equipment used to apply paint to canvas. Art brushes come in a wide variety of types, sizes and shapes. Knowing all you can about the different types of brushes available and how they are used, will allow you to choose the right one for each stage of your canvas painting.


The Study still life oil painting“The Study”
Still life by Teresa Bernard
14″ x 11″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


Brush Shapes

Art brushes come in four standard shapes for oil painters and are called round, flat, filbert and bright. The names refer to the shape of the end of the hairs on the brushes and the different shapes determine the nature of the stroke that it will make. Therefore, it is important to select the proper brushes for specific needs. There are also a few other brush shapes that are used for specialized functions like blending which will be talked about afterward.

flat oil painting art brush
Flat Art Brush

A flat is a brush with hairs that are long and flat on the end, much like the head of a screwdriver. From the side it is narrow. Flat brushes have a lot of spring to them and can hold a lot of paint. You can use these brushes for broad sweeping broad strokes or you can turn the brush on its edge to create fine lines. With a little twist, you can even create a triangular stroke. The flat brush is also good for when you are blocking in large areas and for early stages of a painting. These brushes are perfect for quickly and evenly applying large amounts of paint to the canvas surface.

filbert oil painting brush
Filbert Art Brush

The filbert brush is an almond-shaped brush with a thick, flat ferrule and hairs that are medium to long in length. It is similar to the flat brush except the edge of the brush hairs come to a rounded shape. The strokes are somewhere between a flat and round brush. Filberts create a softer more rounded stroke because of their shape and are perfect for painting flower petals and leaves.

round oil painting brush
Round Art Brush

Round brushes are most often sable hair and get their name from their round ferrule. Their tip is shaped like a bullet which comes to a blunt point or sometimes it can be pointed. They are designed for more controlled brush strokes. Round brushes make a softer rounded stroke and are not suited for creating hard straight edges. They hold a nice amount of paint and are great for making thin or thick lines. Round brushes are also good for washes, fills, fine detail work and creating long lines.

bright oil painting art brush
Bright Art Brush

Bright brushes are similar in shape to flat brushes but the hairs are much shorter. They make short controlled strokes and tend to put paint on thickly. Brights are good for driving paint into the weave of a canvas, however if worked too hard, they will actually remove as much paint as they apply. Depending on how you manipulate the brush, brights can create broad and bold brush strokes, sharp edged thin lines or smooth sweeping layers of paint. A bright is the ideal brush for painting landscapes and flowers.

The last paintbrushes that fall under this category are called blending brushes. While these type art brushes are not essential like the first four types listed above, they are good to have on hand for smoothing out brushstrokes and for spreading and blending colors smoothly. Blending brushes are very soft and are not used for applying paint. They are made to gently stroke the wet paint that you have already applied to canvas to take out brushstrokes and for blending paint. These art brushes are usually the most expensive art brushes in your paintbox so you will want to take good care of them to make them last a long time.

For more information about different brush shapes see article titled Types of Artist Brushes for Oil Painting.

Brush Sizes

Artist’s paintbrushes come in a large assortment of sizes. They range from very large brushes to medium sized to extra-small brushes. The size of the brush is usually indicated by a single digit number on the side of the brush handle up near the ferrule. Most brush sizes range from 0 up to 30, however, really small brushes are numbered by multiples of the number zero (like this: 00, 000, 0000 or 2/0, 3/0, 4/0, etc.). The more zeroes there are, the smaller the brush. The most standard brush sizes are 3/0, 2/0, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, and 20. However, keep in mind there is no exact standard for their sizes and brushes manufactured by different companies are not universal in size. You will need different sized brushes for all stages of a typical painting. Large brushes for the beginning stages and smaller brushes for the detail work. Which brush you would want to use depends on two things:

  1. The size of your canvas. The larger your canvas, the larger your brush will need to be and the smaller your canvas, the smaller your brushes.
  2. The particular area of the painting you are working in. For example, you would use a large brush to apply paint to larger areas of your painting such as the background (like the sky) and smaller brushes for the detail work (like individual leaves on a tree).

Auvers, France church painting“Van Gogh’s Church at Auvers, France”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 24″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info


Handle Length

After you have considered your brush size, the next thing to think about is the handle length. Art brushes are either “long-handled” or “short-handled.” There is no universal standard for handle length. Long-handled brushes usually tend to be around 9 inches or longer and short-handled brushes are generally 6 inches or shorter in length. The handle length was developed ages ago and depended upon the brush use. Oil painters usually stand away from the canvas which requires a longer handle on their brushes, whereas, a water colorist sits and paints much closer to their canvases and do not need the longer handle. Your larger brushes will most likely have the longer handles since they are used are for larger areas of the canvas and smaller brushes will have slightly shorter handles since these are used most for detail work where the artist would need to move in closer to the canvas.

Continued in Part 3.

Additional Reading

All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Artist Brushes and Then Some — Part 1

All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Artist Brushes and Then Some — Part 3