Types of Bristles for Oil Painting Brushes

Bristle is the term used for the hairs that make up the brushhead of a brush used for painting. The brushhead is the part that holds and delivers paint to the surface of an artist’s canvas. Bristles are made from two types of hair, these are natural hair and synthetic hair.

Natural Hair

There are two main types of hair used in natural brushes, these are bristle and sable. Because natural bristles are softer than synthetic bristles, professionals prefer them for oil paints.

  • Bristle brushes
    bristle hair brush
    Bristle brush

    are made from the hairs on the back of a pig and are stiff and springy. They have natural “split-ends” making them perfect for oil painting as they are durable enough to withstand use with heavy oil paint, textured canvas and harsh solvents like turpentine. They clean up nicely, and they make a strong mark on the canvas. Bristle brushes are best in sizes of a half inch wide or larger. They are best when used in large areas of a canvas, to begin a painting, or for very large paintings. Entire paintings can be painted using only bristle brushes, however, if you want finer detail in smaller areas, you would want to switch to sable brushes.

  • Sable brushes
    sable hair brush
    Sable brush

    do not come from sables. They are actually made from any member of the weasel family with “red” hair. Sable brushes are softer and more delicate than bristle or synthetic brushes. They can also be quiet expensive and require more care. Sables are great for blending, glazing, and making soft, less-defined marks. They make great detail brushes. The best sizes for this brush are those one half inch in width or smaller. Artists painting with oils often prefer their long handles which allows them work at a greater distance from their painting.

  • Some less common natural hairs used for painting brushes are badger, camel, goat, mongoose, ox, pony, and squirrel.

Synthetic Hair

synthetic hair brush
Synthetic brush

Synthetic brushes are man-made either of nylon or “Taklon”, a polyester filament. Synthetic bristles offer more versatility than natural because they can be used with acrylic and oil paints. These brushes are a good economical alternative to natural bristle brushes, however, make sure they are made for oil paints.

Some advantages of synthetic brushes are:

  • They are more resistant to damage from turpentine, insects or paints.
  • Cleanup is easier since they don’t tend to trap paint in the individual hairs.
  • The hairs last longer because they are less prone to break and are more durable on many different types of canvas surfaces.

bonnie and clyde car painting“Forgotten Roads of Bygone Days”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 18″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info


One disadvantage is the less expensive synthetic brushes tend to lose their shape quickly due to heavy paint on textured canvas.