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

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

Anatomy of The Artist Paint Brush

A brush is an artist’s tool of the trade. In fact it is the most important tool the artist uses, therefor, it is good to know the various parts of your paintbrush. The anatomy of a paintbrush consists of three major parts. These are the: bristles, ferrule, and the handle. Other parts of the are brush’s: toe, belly, heel, and crimp. These are all explained below in this article.

parts of art brush

Bristles

Sometimes referred to as hairs or filaments, bristles make up the head of the brush called the brushhead. This is the part of the brush that holds the paint. They be made from natural hair, synthetic fibers, or combination of both. Natural bristles are made from some sort of animal hair, such as hog or badger. Synthetic bristles are often made from nylon, polyester, or a combination of both. (For more information on the types of fibers bristles are made from see “Brush Bristle (Hair) Types”.)

Bristles are formed into different shapes which dictate the type of brush it is; bright, fan, filbert, flat, and round, for example. (See “Types of Art Brushes for Oil Painting” for more information about this topic.) The quality of the bristles determines the cost of the brush. The very tip of the bristles is called the brush’s toe, while the heel is where the bristles go into the ferrule at the tip of the handle. The belly is the fattest part of the bristle head.


longhorn cow oil painting“Texas Longhorn in The Meadow”
Wildlife Art by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

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Ferrule

The ferrule of a brush is the metal band that connects the bristles to the handle and the crimp is the part of the ferrule that secures it to the handle. Ferrules can be made from tin, aluminum, brass or copper alloys that are nickel or chrome plated. Better quality brushes have a brass or copper alloy ferrule. These types have the best adhesion to the handle and a double or triple crimp. This is important because if the ferrule does not fit properly, the bristles will fall out or the ferrule could come off the handle.

Handle

Handles can be made of wood, acrylic, or bone. Most are made of hardwoods like beech. They can be either short or long, however, lengths do differ from manufacture to manufacture. Short handles fit into the palm allowing different paint application and movement. Oil painting brushes are made with longer handles which provides for better balance. Longer handle brushes are the ones used by most oil painters. The size of the brush is indicated by a number printed on the handle, usually starting from 000 (called “triple ought” and is the smallest size), then 0, 1, 2, up to #12 or larger.

Types of Artist Brushes for Oil Painting

Artist brushes for oil painting come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Each type of brush is for a specific purpose. Here are some of the more common types used: bright, fan, filbert, flat, and round.

Bright

bright oil painting art brush
Bright Art Brush

A Bright is a brush with a flat ferrule with short-length hairs set in a long handle. The hairs curve inward at the tip and measure almost the same for width and length of the brush head. This brush works well for applying heavy color in short controlled strokes, however, when worked too hard a Bright will remove as much paint as they apply. Use this brush when you want the brush strokes to show. These type brush are better for working up close rather than holding the brush at a distance from the canvas.


painting with covered wagon“Covered Wagon on The Prairie”
Western landscape by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


Fan

fan art brush
Fan Art Brush

A Fan is a flat brush with a thin layer of hairs spread out in the shape of a fan. It also features a flat ferrule. This brush is great for smoothing, blending, and feathering. The synthetic hairs are especially good for painting highlights and flowing strands of hair, grasses, or leaves and thin branches on trees, creating textural effects, and blending the soft edges of clouds. A word of caution though, be careful not to make identical or repetitive marks that look unnatural.

Filbert

filbert oil painting brush
Filbert Art Brush

A Filbert is flat oval-shaped brush with medium to long chiseled rounded edge hairs. It has thick flat ferrule with a long handle. This brush is ideal for blending, soft rounded edges like flower petals. Filbert brushes look like a blend of Rounds and Flats. The curved tip makes it easier to control blending and softening edges. Used on its side, a filbert gives a thin line; used flat it produces a broad brush stroke; and by varying the pressure as you apply the brush to canvas, or flicking it across, you can get a tapering mark.

Flat

flat oil painting art brush
Flat Art Brush

The Flat brush has medium to long square-ended hairs within a flat ferrule. The hairs are arranged  in a rectangular shape that are longer than wide. Looking at from the side it is narrow. This brush is ideal for bold, sweeping strokes, washes, filling wide spaces, impasto. It can also be used for fine lines, straight edges and stripes. Used flat produces broad brushstrokes, turned on the narrow edge produces thin strokes. Flat brushes are primarily used for covering large areas, flat strokes as well as blending.

Round

round oil painting brush
Round Art Brush

The Round brush is a traditional brush shape with a round or pointed tip in a round ferrule. It is what most individuals picture when they think of an art brush. They make excellent brushes for sketching, outlining, detailed work, controlled washes, and filling in small areas. Use them to create thin to thick lines – thin at the tip, becoming wider the more its pressed down. The round brush is versatile in many ways. They have large bellies with long hairs that taper at the ends. They can hold a lot of paint for thick, large, bold strokes. Thin delicate marks are also possible with this brush if the pant loaded to the belly is thin. Rounds are most often used for small details and line work.

Additional Reading

Anatomy of the Artist Paint Brush