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

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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

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.