Whether you are a building painter, an artisan painter or a painter of canvases, you may have run into the same dilemma: which is the best brush for your medium?

Different media – watercolors, acrylics, oils and gouache all require different types of brushes.

Furthermore, each style of painting demands its own technique  and specific tools - brushes foremost among them.

From wide brush strokes for landscapes and still lifes, to the meticulous dabs required for portraits and otherwise drawing people, each brush is selected based on bristle type, brush tip, and more: the handle, and the weight and size.

Information on the Internet and art magazines can be boggling: so many brushes to choose from, with no real guide as to which brush would be best suited to what medium, and hardly no information on how to select proper size or tip.

Perhaps these art supply vendors expect everyone to learn these distinctions in art school or drawing class.

Maybe you've not attended any drawing tutorials. Maybe you are picking up a brush for the first time because you feel so inspired.

If that is your case, Superprof now dons an artist's pinafore and beret to give you step by step instructions about brushes for painting portraits, or any other masterpiece, in all media.

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The Anatomy of a Paint Brush

Disclaimer: this segment is for absolute beginners in the world of drawing and painting.

Three aspects of any paintbrush influence the artist's work:

  • Bristles type
  • Bristle tip
  • handle

Each brush also has a ferrule, meant to keep the bristles attached to the handle but, unless the brush is very poorly made, ferrules should have no impact on your work.

The quality of your rendering depends greatly on the type and grade of brush that you use.

Birch, beech, ash, oak or wenge: the handle of a paintbrush is the instrument of transmission of the painter's inspirations.

That is a whimsical statement, to be sure. But, we aver that artists feel a greater connection to their work with smooth, warm wood in their hand, rather than a gaudy, brightly coloured piece of plastic.

Wooden handles have a pleasing effect: well-balanced and comfortable to hold.

Besides, they don't have those annoying seams that plastic handles have.

The length of the brush handle is as important as its bristles.

The artist painting watercolors may well select a short-handled brush, especially for shading, because this technique requires precise strokes.

On the other hand, painting a realistic drawing in oil would call for a longer-handled brush, especially if the canvas is rather large. (Choosing the right canvas is another post.)

A bit of distance would help the artist gain perspective on his work as he paints.

The aforementioned ferrule is the metal jacket that secures the bristles to the handle. Ferrules are double-crimped on the handle side.

The bristle end of the ferrule dictates the brush style: flat, round or fan-shaped (for smoothing, blending and feathering colour).

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Select your brushes according to handle length, bristle type and tip
Every brush comprises of bristles, handle and a ferrule Source: Pixabay Credit: Simisi

Paint Brush Bristles

The quality and type of bristles should complement the type and quality of canvas used.

Brushes for artistic rendering can be made of natural or synthetic bristles, each suitable for a different type of painting and medium.

Here is a brief rundown to help you select the right brush for your painting lessons, or for mastering your medium.

  • Extra fine natural fibres: usually made of sable, they are great for watercolors because they absorb and retain colour (and water) well, permitting maximum transmission onto your canvas.
  • Squirrel brushes are also very fine, but less expensive than sable brushes. Their most unusual property is expansion: when moistened, they become 20% fluffier!
  • Hog bristles are ideal for oil paints because they have natural split ends, great for holding and transmitting colour to canvas. They become softer and more responsive with use, and can last a long time with proper care.
    • They are also suitable for acrylics.
  • Camel brushes are not actually made of camel hair, but of other soft hairs. Camel hairs are too wooly to suit fine, detailed art.
  • Horse (pony) brushes are often sold as watercolor brushes. They tend to be inferior in quality.
  • Ox hair tends to be springy and coarse, used mostly in flat brushes.
  • Goat hair forms a good point, thus is often used for calligraphy brushes.

What about synthetic fibre brushes?

Jax-Hair brushes would be a great brand to try. For other suggestions, you could ask your art teacher, during your drawing classes.

Brush points are another important feature to consider when selecting the proper brush for your three dimensional painting, or when drawing animals.

There are eight types of points to influence shading and drawing techniques.

You should learn to distinguish between them in order to create proper shading and contrasting effects, as well as for painting detail and emphasising lines.

  • Round brushes are good for sketching, outlining and detail work, as well as filling in small areas.
  • A pointed round is best for spotting, retouching, and drawing faces; touching up delicate areas
    • used to learn how to draw eyes, for example, or adding definition to human face drawings.
  • The detail round is great for short strokes. In learning how to draw hands, you may use such a brush for lines around knuckles, for example.
  • Flat brush is good for bold colour strokes on large canvases, and filling wide spaces.
  • The angular flat brush is good for filling in corners or making curved strokes. They can be used like flat brushes.
  • The bright is a flat brush with short hairs that curve inward at the tip, good for thick, heavy colour applied in short strokes.
  • the Filbert is an oval-shaped brush what works well to blend and shade. If you have just learned how to draw a rose, you may use a filbert to refine your shading technique.
  • The Fan has spread out hairs, good for smoothing, blending and feathering colours.
    • This type of brush gives excellent texturing effect if you are painting clouds, trees or creating a seascape.

With all of this variety in painting tools, don't you feel pity for the digital artist who renders art on a virtual canvas with nothing but a drawing tablet?

You artist's toolkit should include a variety of brushes
Consider investing in an assortment of brushes suitable for all media Source: Pixabay Credit: WerbelFabrik

Best Paint Brushes by Medium

Would you like to be the next Van Gogh, Warhol or Klee?

We mention those masters specifically; not for the movement they represent, but for their medium: oil, acrylic and watercolour, respectively.

Naturally, the type of brushes they used accorded to their preferred medium.

Portraiture in Watercolour

To paint a portrait – or anything else with watercolours, you should use a fine brush with a short handle.

You may already know that from your drawing lessons, but still, you wonder: would a sable brush be called for, or could a squirrel brush suit?

Squirrel hairs are very fine, which makes it easy to achieve various effects, using the same brush.

With a bit of pressure, you can use the belly of the brush to make a broader stroke. Or, you can back off, using only the tip: a great way to contour or outline.

These natural hair brushes are perfect for watercolours because they are very fragile, and should not be cleaned with solvents.

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Acrylic Painting

By their very composition, acrylic paints damage natural fibre paint brushes. Therefore, it is best to use synthetic brushes when expressing yourself in this medium.

Made of nylon or perlon, they provide a soft yet resistant fibres; a more advanced method to transmit colour to canvas.

This type of brush (and the medium itself) makes for good line drawing, and could even substitute for a graphite pencil or other type of pencil if you are doing any crosshatching or ink drawing.

Oil Painting

So much work goes into preparing both your canvas and your brushes, to work with this medium.

Often, the artist must retouch his work in order to create a perfect still life or portrait painting in oil.

Purists gravitate toward hog brushes or ox hair, both for economic reasons and because of the finesse they give to the portrait.

The filbert stands as the brush of choice for many oil painters.

Of course, if you are creating a digital painting to share on an interactive whiteboard, brushes of any type matter not at all!

Boars hair brushes work best with oils
The Filbert brush is the brush of choice for oil painting Source: Pixabay Credit: Nietjuh

Choosing Paintbrushes According to Technique

A rock guitarist may secretly prefer a folk guitar, while a gypsy jazz guitarist would swear on the acoustics of only Gypsy guitars.

When choosing art materials, your mind follows the same reasoning: which brush would best match my technique?

For subject matter with a lot of detail, if you like to sketch or draw animals and then paint them, for example, you should opt for a short handled brush with soft bristles.

If you are in a Drawing for Beginners class, for instance, you may have already experienced the advantages that proximity to your canvas can bring: tighter control of your brush strokes, and more flexibility in your wrist.

And why would you want a paint brush with soft bristles? Doesn't that seem like a good way to miss a stroke or make unsightly blotches?

Painting with firm bristles does provide the advantage of control.

However, you may leave visible brush strokes on your life drawing or even in the shadows you create.

You may even scratch your canvas or watercolor paper!

If your art drawing has a lot of detail, you should probably choose from the array of synthetic hair brushes to render your work.

By contrast, large swaths of uniform color would best be rendered with a long-handled, hard bristle brush.

You can get a better perspective on your work by grasping the brush toward the end of the handle. This permits you a bit of distance, to take in the whole of your art.

The art of oil painting demands thick-haired brushes to effectively convey your dense and heavy colour to canvas.

For watercolors, you need a softer brush, because the medium itself is very fluid.

Acrylic paints are softer than oils but thicker than watercolors, so you have a greater range of firmness to work with.

But the brushes you choose should be chemically resistant: hence the earlier recommendation for nylon brushes.

The artist who specialises in pencil drawing has the same quandary as you, a painter. S/he must choose pencil and paper carefully, to suit his drawing technique.

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Choosing the Correct Drawing Tools and Brushes

Your paintbrush is a magic wand for realising face drawing, perspective drawing... anything you are learning to draw!

Of course, we're exaggerating. There are no such things as magic wands.

Still, we maintain: those instruments used to transfer your vivid imagination into visual art will become an extension of you.

Once you've mastered how to express light and shadow, contour drawing... everything beyond stick figures, you will find you can realistically draw something, and then fill in those lines to render your scene almost three dimensional, for a beautiful work of art just ready for framing.

It all comes down to using the right brush.

Brushes should only be stored like so if they are completely dry
Storing your brushes upright when wet could cause them to warp and bend Source: Pixabay Credit: Stocksnap

How to Clean Paint Brushes?

Unlike the digital drawing artist, who does not need to clean much of anything pertaining to his medium, you must take proper care of your art materials.

Cleaning your brushes, just like an art professional does, will prolong the life and utility of those tools.

Once you have framed your canvas, or if you are just done for the day, you must make effort to clean and preserve your equipment.

Here are a few tips on how to draw every last bit of paint from your brushes' fibres:

  • Remove as much paint as possible, either by wiping your brush repeatedly (for oils and acrylics), or by running them under water.
    • For watercolours, you can massage the brush head until water runs clean.
  • If the paint has already hardened, work the bristles gently
  • Wash your brushes in warm, soapy water
  • Work the brushes gently and carefully.
  • Rinse in cool, clear water, and then pat dry.

You should lay your brushes on a flat surface, in a cool, dry area away from heat.

Following these methods, you will be able to pick up those brushes the next day to fill in your sketches, practicing textures and blending shades anew.

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