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

paint brush shapesThis article is the final installment of a three part discussion on artist paint brushes. As a recap, in part one brush anatomy and bristle types were discussed. In part two we looked at brush shapes and sizes. In part three the various brush manufacturers and brush care will be covered.

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.


Irong Age Pottery Still Life“Still Life with Iron Age Pottery”
Still life by Teresa Bernard
14″ x 11″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


Brush Manufacturers

Oil painting brushes are made by a variety of manufacturers from around the world. A few of the more popular brands are da Vinci, Winsor & Newton, Silver Brush Limited, Raphael Paris Classic and the Robert Simmons line of brushes. These brands are the best known and most used high quality brand name of brushes. They will always be known for the quality of the brush as well as their longevity and ease of use. Some artists are faithful to just one or two particular brands and will not use anything else. Whereas, other artists like to have an assortment of different brands available depending on their needs at the time. The only way to know which brand you will like best is by using the brushes yourself. Some name brands will be more expensive than others, however, don’t let that be what you base your final purchasing decision on. With proper care the more expensive brushes will out last the lesser made and priced brands.

Caring for Your Paintbrushes

art brush careIt makes no sense to invest in quality art brushes if you are not going to take proper care of them. All art brushes require a thorough cleaning at the end of each painting session. Let me repeat, never store your brush until it is completely cleaned. Never leave your brush standing head down in a solvent for any length of time. This can cause the brush to lose its shape. After cleaning, a brush should be hung head-down or laid flat to dry. This allows moisture to drain out of the ferrule and hairs. If you allow your brush to dry standing up, the cleaner and paint residue can drain towards the ferrule, which can weaken the glue that holds the hairs to the handle. In addition it can also cause a buildup of paint residue in the ferrule. In time, this will also cause the brush to become misshaped. When a brush looses its shape, it is then worthless. As a final step in caring for your paintbrushes, you will need to remove the solvent from the head by using a mild “degreaser”, like dish soap, and warm water. This helps to keep the hairs soft and undamaged.

One final word – always keep in mind that your art brushes are expensive, if you take good care of them they will last a long, long time.

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 2

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

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

paint brush shapesAn 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.


Still Life with Fruit and Candle“Still Life with Fruit and Candle”
Still life by Teresa Bernard
14″ x 11″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


Paintbrush Anatomy

A paintbrush’s anatomy is made up of three basic parts. These are the head, the ferrule and the handle. It isn’t necessary to know this to create a beautiful painting, however, by knowing the different parts you will be familiar with various art terms when you hear them.

artist brush parts anatonomy

  • Head — The hairs or bristles of the brush. The hairs are made from either natural or synthetic fibers and is what an artist uses to apply and push paint around on the canvas. The head has three parts too. The very tip of the head is called the toe. The fattest part of the head is called the belly and the point where the head meets the ferrule is called the heel.
  • Ferrule — The metal cylinder that attaches the head on to the handle and helps hold the hairs in shape. High quality ferrules won’t rust or come loose.
  • Handle — The long stem of the brush that is held when in use. It’s generally made of wood or plastic. The length of the handle can vary. A quality brush will balance on your finger regardless of the size.

For additional information about the parts of a brush, see article titled Anatomy of The Artist Paint Brush.

Hair Types

Artist’s paintbrushes come in a variety of types. Knowing what those types are is beneficial in knowing which brush to use to achieve the effect you desire in your paintings. There are two main types of hairs in paintbrushes – bristle and sable. There is one other type – synthetic, however that one will be talked about last.

bristle hair brushBristle brushes are made from ox or hog’s hair and are usually light in color and have a lot of bounce. The ends of the bristle hairs don’t come to a point, but has two or three V-shaped splits called “flags.” This makes them capable of holding a good amount of paint which is beneficial since these brushes are mostly used when you are applying paint to the major areas of your canvas. After repeated use, the “flags” will become stained by darker pigments, however, this will not adversely effect the brush in any way. In addition, because the individual hairs of the bristle brush are hard or stiff to the touch, they will leave small grooves in the paint. These grooves will remain in the paint until they are smoothed out with a sable hair brush.

sable hair brushSable hair brushes are soft painting brushes made with hair that comes from animals such as sable, squirrel, marten or mongoose. They are springy and silky to the touch with each strand converging to a fine point. Sable brushes are great for blending, glazing and making soft, less-defined brushstrokes. When compared to a bristle brush, you will notice their hairs are softer and much more delicate. In addition, sable brushes will not leave tiny grooves in your paint. They are capable of smoothing out the brushstrokes left by other type brushes and will give your painting a smoother, softer look when you don’t want your brushstrokes to show. Artists prefer using them for more delicate applications of paint and finer detailed work. Sable brushes are the most expensive and will require more care than all of your art brushes.

Synthetic brushThe final type of art paintbrushes are called synthetic brushes. They are not made from animal hairs, but are products from man-made materials of either nylon or polyester filaments. Synthetic brushes range from soft to stiff hairs. They can be tapered, tipped, flagged, abraded or etched to increase their paint carrying ability. They are more affordable than natural brushes made from animal hair, however, they are not quite as good. The hairs of these type brushes tend to stick together when they get wet and synthetic brushes are also prone to wear out faster and are harder to work with. The individual strands often spread out in all directions and fall out and can become a permanent part of your oil painting. However, there are some advantages to synthetic brushes. They are less prone to being damaged by solvents, insects or caustic paints. They are also easier to clean than natural hair brushes because the filaments won’t trap paint like natural hairs will.

For additional information about the different types of brush see article titled Types of Bristles for Oil Painting Brushes.

Continued in Part 2.

Additional Reading

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

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

Taking The Mystery Out of Mahl Sticks

The word “mahl stick” comes to us from the Dutch word maalstok which means “painter’s stick”. It’s a handy little tool that has been around for centuries used by artists. Many of the Old Masters regularly used them as they were putting paint to canvas on many of their masterpieces. We often see paintings from the 16th- through 19th-centuries depicting artists in their studios, at their easels, etc and the mahl stick is often there, included as part of the painter’s equipment.

artist painter stickArtists use this painter’s stick to steady their hand when attempting to paint minute details on their canvas art. Most oil painting artists paint with their canvases resting upright on an easel and sometimes its hard to get your hand into just the right position without resting it on your canvas. This is a problem if the surface is delicate or the paint is wet. You can’t just plop your hand in the middle of your work. To do so, would mean smudging or smearing your artwork. That’s when a mahl stick comes in handy.

painters mahl stickA mahl stick is simply a long round stick that is approximately three feet in length with a ball or knob on one end. Usually the knob end has a ball or wad of cotton on it that is surrounded by soft leather or chamois. The chamois will keep it from slipping on the surface and can easily be removed for cleaning or replaced when it gets soiled. You use the painter’s stick by resting the ball-end on the edge of the canvas, easel or dry spot of the painting. Then hold the other end up with your non-painting hand and steady your hand holding the brush on the stick while you paint. If you’re right handed, you would hold the mahl stick with your left hand and if you are left handed, you’d hold it with your right. It should be light enough so your hand that holds the stick will not get tired.


African art Camelthorn Trees“Camelthorn Trees of Africa”
Landscape painting by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 24″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


A mahl stick is something you can purchase online or from a local art supply store, or you can simply make one yourself. They can be made from any round piece of wood that you have on hand such as an old broom handle, half inch dowel or piece of bamboo. Whatever it is, it should be lightweight yet strong enough to resist bending under the weight of your hand. One end should be easy to grip. This can be achieved by wrapping it with some sports tape like the handle of a hockey stick or tennis racket. The other end of the painter’s stick needs to be bulky by adding a ball-shaped piece of wood or a rubber tip like what is used on the end of walking canes. You would then wrap it with a bit of cloth to prevent it from slipping or scratching the canvas. It can be tied on by using a piece of string.

I hope this article takes a little bit of the mystery out of mahl sticks and also provided a useful painting tip.

Complete List of Art Supplies for The Beginning Oil Painter

Below is a list of necessary art supplies for the beginning oil painter. All items can easily be found at local arts and crafts supply stores such as Hobby Lobby or Michaels, or online via DickBlick.com or JerrysArtarama.com, for example.

art bin paint box
Art Bin and Paint box
  • Art supply bin or wooden paint box
    A plastic art supply bin (resembles a fishing tackle box) or wooden paint box are ideal for carrying supplies in.
  • Art brushes (the type made for oil painting)
    10 to 12 brushes is a good start. Both Flat (square with long bristles), and Filbert (rounded on top with long bristles) are recommended.

    • 2 Large brushes (one flat, one filbert) about one inch wide
    • 5 Medium brushes (three flat, two filbert) about ½ inch wide
    • 3 Small brushes (one filbert, two flat) about ¼ inch wide
    • 1 Very small brush for autographing the painting when completed

Bunratty Ireland canvas panel“Bunratty Ireland”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
12″ x 9″
Oils on canvas panel board

>> More info


Click for more info on flat and filbert types of brushes.

Click for more information about oil painting brushes.

  • Canvas
    A variety of pre-primed canvas board or stretched canvas, in sizes from 9 X 12 to 16 X 20 will do to get started with.

Click for more info on the types of canvas used for oil paintings.

  • Charcoal
    A package of each small and large sticks of charcoal. Used for sketching the composition onto the canvas. Can also be used to do preliminary sketches of the subject matter.
  • Cleaning rags and/or paper towels
    These are used for cleaning excess paint, medium, etc. off a brush. They are also used for getting most of the paint and turpentine out of brushes before final cleaning.
  • Cups for turpentine and medium
    A small or medium sized cup for each.
  • Dishwashing liquid
    A small bottle of liquid dishwashing soap to clean your brushes. It will need to be the kind that works on grease such as Dawn. The small size fits nicely in an art bin or paint box.
  • Easel
    For portability, a table easel that can fold up. For studio work, a standing easel that can be adjusted to a comfortable height for standing up. For “plein air” work, an adjustable standing easel that can be folded up and easily transported.
  • Eraser
    A  kneaded eraser for charcoal work. A pink pearl to erase pencil lines.
  • Gesso
    1 small container. Used to prepare just about any surface to receive oil paint, from thick paper to wood, even pre-primed canvas.

Click for information about gesso.

  • Linseed oil
    1 bottle or can. Used to mix painting medium. Medium is made by combining 1 part linseed oil to 1 part turpentine. Medium is used to thin oil paint and makes it flow more easily on canvas and aids in blending paints.
  • Oil paint
    Windsor & Newton or Grumbacher are two good brands of oil paint for the beginner. They are less expensive than other brands, but the quality is fine. Be sure to purchase oil paint rather than water-soluble oil paint. Buy one each (200 ml tubes) of these colors are:tube of oil paint

    • Thalo Blue
    • Cobalt Blue
    • Cerulean Blue
    • Ultramarine Blue
    • Cadmium Red light
    • Alizarin Crimson
    • Yellow Ochre
    • Cadmium Yellow Light or Lemon Yellow
    • Cadmium Yellow Medium
    • Viridian Green
    • Sap Green
    • Ivory black
    • Burnt Umber
    • Raw Umber
    • Burnt Sienna
    • Raw Sienna
    • Burnt Umber acrylic paint – This will be used to trace over and cover up sketch marks on the canvas.

For more information about oil paints, see article titled Artist Grade or Student Grade Oil Paint, Making A Choice.

  • Odorless turpentine or odorless mineral spirits (a.k.a. paint thinner) 
    Used to clean paint from art brushes.
  • Palette
    Used to hold dabs of paint squeezed from the tube and also for mixing colors together. Can be made from wood, glass or some other material. Disposable palettes have sheets of wax paper which can be torn off and thrown away for easy cleanup.

Learn much more about the artist palette. See article titled What to Know About an Artists Palette, Part 1 and Part 2.

  • Palette knife
    palette knife image
    Palette Knife

    A handy tool used to mix paint on the palette. Some artists also like to using one to apply paint to canvas instead using an art brush.

See article titled There Are Palette Knives and Then There are Painting Knives.

  • Pencils
    A variety of sizes for drawing and for sketching a composition onto the canvas.
  • Pliers
    This tool will come in handy to loosen tight paint tube caps.
  • Rulers
    Used for measuring and drawing straight lines.
  • Sketch pad
    Any size to sketch on.
  • Varnish
    Applied to a painting after it is thoroughly dry to bring out the color and protect the painting from dust, direct sunlight and other elements that could harm it.
  • Varnish brush
    A soft brush with long hairs, dedicated to varnishing, helps to apply varnish thinly and evenly.