An Introduction to Art Paint Brushes
Artist’s paint brushes come in an array of sizes, shapes and hairs. Find out more about the different shapes of art paint brush and their uses in this visual index, and try this Paint Brush Quiz.
The size of a brush is indicated by a number printed on the handle. Brushes start from 000, then 00, 0, 1, 2, and up. The higher the number, the bigger or wider the brush.
Unfortunately, there is little consistency between brush manufacturers as to what these sizes actually are, so a number 10 in one brand can be a different size to a number 10 in another brand.
Relative Sizes of Brushes
Believe it or not, both brushes in the photo are size no. 10. Admittedly, the difference in size isn’t usually so extreme; these two brushes were chosen specifically to illustrate the point.
If you’re buying brushes from a catalog or online and it’s a brand you’re not familiar with, check to see if there’s an indication of the actual width of the brushes in inches or millimeters. Don’t just go by the brush size number.
Thickness of a Brush
Not only do different brands of art paint brush vary in size even when they’re supposedly the same (as indicated by the number), but also in thickness. If you’re buying brushes from a catalog or online, remember to consider this if you’re not familiar with a particular brand of brush.
If you’re painting with watercolor or very fluid paint, a thick brush will hold considerably more paint. This enables you to paint for longer without stopping. But if you want a brush for dry-brush techniques, you may well want a brush that holds less paint.
A filbert is a narrow, flat brush with hairs that come to a rounded point. 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.
If the filbert has hog or bristle hairs, these will wear down with use. The photo shows (from left to right) a brand-new, never-used filbert, one that’s done several miles of painting, and a very old one.
A filbert my favorite brush shape because it can produce such a variety of marks. Most of my paintings are done with afilbert. I don’t throw away worn-down filberts as they can be useful for dry brushing; I don’t feel sorry for them as I bash the hairs to spread them out.
A flat brush is, as the name would suggest, one where the bristles are arranged so the brush is quite wide but not very thick. The length of the bristles can vary, with some flat brushes having long and some very short bristles. (The latter is also called a square brush.) When buying a flat brush, look for one where the bristles have a spring to them, or snap back when you bend them gently.
Not only will a flat brush create a broad brushstroke, but if you turn it so you’re leading with the narrow edge, it’ll produce thin brushstrokes. A short flat brush is ideal for small, precise brushmarks.
A flat brush’s paint carrying capacity is determined by the bristles it has, and by the length of these. A short-haired, synthetic-bristle flat brush will hold less paint than a long-haired, mixed or natural-hair brush. The flat brush in the photo has got hog hair, which holds paint well and, being stiff, is ideal for leaving brushmarks in paint should you wish to do this.
Rigger or LinerBrush
A rigger or liner brush is a thin brush extremely long bristles. These may come to a sharp point but can have a flat or square tip. (If it’s angled, they tend to be called a sword brush.) Rigger brushes are great for producing fine lines with a consistent width, making them ideal for painting thin branches on trees, boat masts, or cat’s whiskers. They’re also good for signing your name on a painting.
A sword brush is a bit like a rigger or liner brush, but is steeply angled rather than pointed. You can paint an extremely thin line by using only the tip, or a wider line by holding the brush so that more of its hair touches the surfaces. No surprises then that it’s also known as a striper brush.
By rotating the brush in your hand as you move it across the surface, and by lowering or raising it, you get fluid, calligraphic mark making. If you hold the brush loosely in your hand and move across the surface quickly, letting it do what it wants to some extent, you get a free, expressive mark. Great for branches in trees, for instance
As the name “mop” suggests, a mop brush is one that’ll hold a large quantity of fluid paint. It’s a soft and floppy brush, ideal for large watercolor washes.
Be sure to spend the time to clean it thoroughly when you’re done painting; it’s not a job to be rushed on a brush with this much hair!
- How to Mop Up a Watercolor Wash
A fan brush is a brush with a thin layer of bristles spread out by the ferrule. A fan brush is commonly used to blend colors, but is also perfect for painting hair, grasses or thin branches. (Though you need to be careful not to make identical or repetitive marks that look unnatural.)
Possible uses a fan brush include:
• Stippling (spread out small dots or short dashes).
• Highlights in hair as it helps produce the illusion of individual hairs.
• Smoothing and blending out brush strokes.
• Painting a tree or grass
Waterbrush: A Cross Between a Brush and a Fountain Pen
A waterbrush is like a combination of a fountain pen and a brush. It consists of a head with the brush on it and a handle that’s a plastic reservoir that holds water. The two parts screw together and apart very easily. A slow, constant trickle of water comes down the brush’s bristles as you use it, and you can get more by squeezing the reservoir.
A waterbrush is ideal for using with watercolor paints and watercolor pencils(including lifting color directly from them). Various manufacturers produce waterbrushes, in a few sizes, and in either a round or flat shape. If your local art store doesn’t stock them, many online art stores do.
I use a waterbrush for on-site sketching, together with a small travel watercolor set, as it eliminates the need to take a container with water. To clean the brush, I simply squeeze it gently to encourage more water to flow out, then wipe it on a tissue. (Or, I confess, if I’ve run out of those, on my shirt sleeve.) It doesn’t take much water to clean the brush, but it’s also easy to refill the waterbrush’s reservoir from a tap or a bottle of water.
I’ve two different brands, and they definitely work slightly differently, with the one having a much easier, continuous flow of water and the other requiring a much more definite squeeze to get water out. I’ve tried filling my waterbrushes with dilute watercolor and with calligraphy ink, but both clogged up the brush. Again, I think it depends on the brand of your waterbrush (and particle size in the ink) as I’ve seen a friend use one filled with sepia ink without problems.
I’ve heard some people say if you’re not careful, you can suck paint/water back up into the reservoir from your painting, but this isn’t something I’ve encountered. It may depend on the brand of the waterbrush you’re using.
A waterbrush doesn’t hold as much pigment as a sable watercolor brush as the bristles as synthetic, so you’ll find yourself picking up color more often. The bristles are also prone to staining (as you can see in the photo), but that’s hardly unique to a waterbrush.
A waterbrush makes painting from a dark to a light color really simple: you keep painting and the extra water thins the paint until eventually you’ve got only water. But it also makes painting large areas an even tone trickier than with a conventional brush. However, you’ll soon get used to how it works. My travel sketching kit isn’t complete without one.
A quality brush will often be sold with a plastic protector around the bristles. Don’t throw them away; they’re useful for protecting your brushes when you’re traveling, whether to paint on location, to go to a workshop, or on holiday.
Colour Shapers are perfect for impasto and sgraffito painting techniques. They have a firm but flexible tip made from silicone, which you use to push paint around (they obviously don’t absorb paint like a brush). Colour Shapers are also useful for blending pastels. They’re available different shapes and sizes, as well as different degrees of firmness.
Your initial reaction to having a dedicated brush that you use only for varnishing a painting may be that it’s an unnecessary extravagance. Why not just use one of your larger paint brushes? Well, considering that varnishing is one of the final things you do to a painting, and probably only to those paintings you think worthwhile, isn’t it worth a small investment to ensure it’s done properly? A varnishing brush isn’t going to wear out in a hurry, so you won’t have to replace it very often. A good varnishing brush helps ensure you get a smooth coat of varnish. And by using it only for varnish, it will never get tainted by paint.
You’re looking for a flat brush which is at least a couple of inches (five centimeters) wide, about a third of an inch (1cm) thick, and has got longcan be either synthetic or natural hair, but either way should be soft with a bit of spring.
You don’t want a ‘scratchy’ brush that will leave brush marks in the varnish. Check that the hairs are well anchored, that they’re not going to keep falling out as you apply the varnish.
Larger art material stores and online-art stores should stock a range of varnishing brushes. Pick them up and see how comfortable they feel in your hand. Alternatively, look in your local hardware store — though you may want to cut off some of the hairs to reduce the thickness of the brush, and be sure to avoid cheap DIY brushes whose hairs will almost certainly fall out regularly.
Cheap Decorating Brush
A cheap decorating brush is useful for applying gesso or primer to a canvas because you don’t have to worry about getting it spectacularly clean afterwards, which can be quite time consuming. (And any primer left in the brush will cement the bristles together rather well when it dries.) The disadvantage is that hairs tend to fall out of a cheap brush; either pick these out with your fingers or a pair of tweezers.
A stencil brush is round with short, stiff hairs cut flat (rather than pointed). This makes it easier to paint a stencil without getting paint under the edges (see How to Use a Stencil Brush).
Don’t dismiss it as a brush unsuitable for fine art painting; it has potential for creating texture. For instance, foliage in a tree or clumps or grass, beard stubble on a face, or rust on a metal object.