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Types of Paintbrushes for Artists

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An artist’s brush is an extension of their limb, so it’s important to know the right one to use in different situations.

Image by Dean Hochman, Flickr

First and foremost, you need to know how large your work will be, and how detailed. This is a huge deciding factor, as it will determine the size, shape, and bristles of the brushes you will need. A smaller brush, with a thinner tip, will give you more detail in a smaller area, while a bigger brush with a thicker tip is good for covering large surfaces.

If you are working with watercolour or ink, you would use a short-handled paintbrush; whereas oils and acrylic work would benefit more from a longer handled brush, as they are commonly done on easels. When starting out, always try for a middling length and size (a six or an eight, for example), to accustom yourself to the feel of a paintbrush, before branching out into others.

Sizes are indicated by numbers, most commonly ranging from 000, 00, 0, to 20 — the larger the number, the larger the brush. There is no consistent system for sizes, and no standard for physical dimensions, so you should check with the manufacturer for their specific dimensions.

Blick brush size chart - from http://www.dickblick.com

The shape of the brush tip used helps with the kind of work you’ll be doing. There are eight common types of paintbrushes used with acrylics, and more once you start working with other mediums, which you can read more about here. In the meantime, here is a quick rundown:

Types of Paintbrushes

Round tips are good for outlining, sketching, details, and small areas. A good round-tipped brush will have a sharp point, and a good spring in the bristles, to retain its shape during and after use.
Flat brushes are wide, but not thick, with varying bristle lengths. It is good for creating broad brushstrokes, but can also be used to make thin strokes using the narrow edge. Shorter bristles are also called square brushes, and are good for precision, but will hold less paint.
Bright brushes give great control, good for close-up work. It gives heavy, thick strokes, so is good when using thinner paints. They are similar to flat brushes, only with shorter and stiffer bristles.
Filberts are similar to flat brushes, but have domed ends. It produces a wide variety of strokes (thick, thin, or even tapered), so it is especially good for blending and round edges.
Fan brushes are for smoothing, blending, and feathering, especially on broader areas. The bristles are arranged so they lie flat and spread, so it’s best to go for a stronger brush when using acrylics, otherwise the bristles will clump together.
Angle brushes are best for curves and corners, as well as detail work with the sharp tip. They are also good for covering broad areas, given how similar they are to flat brushes.
Mops are large brushes with rounded edges, for broad and soft applications. It is especially good for applying secondary layers over a still-drying layer with minimal damage.
Rigger brushes, also called line brushes, are thin brushes with extremely long bristles, used for fine, consistent lines and detail work. They are commonly used to paint the rigging on ships, or for tree branches, cat’s whiskers, and for signing names on a painting.

There are also different kinds of bristles, made from either natural or synthetic hairs, for use with watercolour, oil painting, and acrylics.

Oil brushes - David Pacey, Flickr

Natural-haired bristles, such as soft hairs (sable or ox), or hog’s hair, are best used for oils, as they are better suited to heavy textures. They retain their shape quite well, given proper cleaning, and absorb and hold water better than synthetic bristles.

Synthetic bristles are made from either Taklon, a type of polyester derivative, polyester, or extruded nylon filaments. They are best for acrylics, and are easier to clean — unlike natural hairs, they can sit in water with little to no damage. Although less durable than natural-hair brushes, they are relatively low-maintenance and affordable, which is perfect for a beginner.

Image by shannonpatrick17, Flickr

Thaneeya McArdle, who runs the popular art blog Art is Fun, suggests beginners go for the relatively inexpensive brushes to start.

“All my artwork is created with brushes that cost less than $5. Some of them, less than $2. With proper care, they can last several months,” she writes.

She also suggests a couple of her favourite brands, and provides an extensive guide to choosing art supplies, including how to properly care for your paintbrushes.

Although you can buy paint brushes online, you should go in store when making your first ever purchase. This way, you can get a feel for the different types of bristles, the sizes and lengths, to see which ones suit you best.

For all you artists out there - what are your favourite kinds of brushes? Do you have a preferred brand? If you have any tips or advice, make sure to share it with us here!

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