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

about artist brushesWhat is there to know about artist brushes? Let’s find out.

An artist’s single most important tool in oil painting is their art brushes. It’s the main piece of equipment used to apply paint to canvas.

Artist brushes come in a wide variety of types, sizes, and shapes. Knowing all you can about the different kinds of artist paintbrushes available and how they are used will allow you to choose the right one for each stage of your canvas painting.

Anatomy of Artist Brushes

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.

artist brush parts anatonomy

    • Head — The hairs or bristles of the brush. The strands are made from either natural or synthetic fibers. This 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 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 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 is usually 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 the article titled Anatomy of The Artist Paint Brush.

Hair Types Used in Artist Brushes

Artist brushes 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. A different kind of brush hair is synthetic. 

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 have 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 primarily 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 affect 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 brush.

sable hair brushSable brushes are soft painting brushes made with hair 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 types of 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 artist paintbrushes is called synthetic brushes. They are not made from animal hairs but are products of 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 strands of synthetic brushes tend to stick together when they get wet, are prone to wear out faster, and are harder to work with. The individual strands often spread out in all directions, fall out, and may 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 brush types, see the 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     |     Part 3

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