Guide to Choosing the Best Paint Brushes for Acrylics and Oils

Updated on December 1, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

When you are creating a painting, your brushes are your working tools. The final results depend completely from your brushwork, so it is very important to use good quality brushes and top quality paint, but also to choose the best type of brush that suits the task.

Selection the best paint brushes at the brush shelf in art supply store.can be quite overwhelming... Very informative article on what to look for in a brush.
Selection the best paint brushes at the brush shelf in art supply store.can be quite overwhelming... Very informative article on what to look for in a brush. | Source

How to Choose a Good Paint Brush

When buying brushes for acrylic painting, you can get both the stiff bristle brushes used by oil painters and synthetic brushes made for smooth watercolor painting. It all depends on the effect you want to obtain with your brushwork.

Stiffer brushes will leave visible marks on the painting, with more textural results. Softer brushes will give you smoother brushstrokes, with more blending.

For oils you need thicker bristles to move the dense and heavy paint around. For watercolors you need a softer brush because the medium is very fluid. Acrylic paints are softer than oils but thicker than watercolors, so your brushes can be somewhere in the middle.

Spring Qualities of Brush Bristles

Most brush manufacturers produce synthetic brushes made specifically for acrylic painting. These are more resistant and springier than those made for watercolor. They are durable and keep their shape well, and make a great choice for beginners.

The first time you use a brush it has a protective coat that keeps it in shape. With your thumb you can break that stiffness and test the flexibility of the bristles.

Moving the hairs with your fingers from side to side will give you an idea of the spring qualities of the bristles and how they’ll handle while you are painting.

Expensive Sable Brushes Are too Fancy for Acrylics

Even though natural bristle brushes created for oil paint can be used with acrylic paint, you may want to avoid expensive sable brushes.

When painting with acrylics you need to keep your brushes wet or immersed in water for a long time, so that the paint does not dry on the brush, and this excessive moisture can ruin the natural fibers quickly.

Anatomy of a brush

Each part of a brush has its own name. See table below for descriptions.
Each part of a brush has its own name. See table below for descriptions. | Source

Parts of an Art Paint Brush

Part of Brush
Where you hold the brush. Usually made from painted or varnished wood, but it can also be made from plastic. The length can vary from short to really long.
Bristles or Hairs
The part of the brush that holds and applies the paint. They can be natural or synthetic. Good quality brushes have firmly held bristles. It’s important that they don’t fall out while you are painting, for aesthetic reasons and because you may create messes on your painting when you try to remove them.
Usually made from metal, it connects the handle to the hairs, and keeps the bristles in shape. A good ferrule does not rust or come loose.
The part of the ferrule that squeezes the hairs and keeps them in place.
The part of the ferrule that secures it to the handle.
The very end of the bristles, where they touch the canvas.
It's the wide part of the hairs beyond the ferrule; in a round brush it the middle area of the bristles, before narrowing to a point.
Never store brushes standing on the bristles, or they'll get deformed.
Never store brushes standing on the bristles, or they'll get deformed. | Source

Paint Brush Sizes

The size of a brush is indicated by a number on the handle, and it refers to how thick the brush is at the heel, where the ferrule meets the hairs. Sizes vary from 000, 00, 0, 1, 2, etc.

Different manufacturers have different sizes for the same number, so if you buy supplies online, always refer to the measurement of the brush, not just the size number, especially if you are not familiar with the manufacturer.

How to read manufacturer measurements:

Length: distance from the edge of the ferrule out to the tip of the hair in the brush's center.

Diameter: distance across a round ferrule at the point where the ferrule ends and the hair begins.

Width: distance across a flat ferrule at the exact point where the ferrule ends and the hair begins.

A brush's width is different from the width of the paint stroke that the brush makes. The actual width of the stroke varies according to the amount of pressure used, the angle at which the brush is held, the media used, and the flexibility of the brush hair.

The brush stroke will vary depending on how you hold your brushes too. Holding your brush close to the ferrule gives you most control, great for painting details; holding near the end gives you lose strokes.

When Choosing Brushes You Should Consider:

Size - The rule of thumb about brush size is that big brushes should be used for large areas and loose brushwork, and small brushes should be used for small areas and details.

Shape – each shape delivers different stroke styles, and a different effect. Learning which shape to use to get the wanted effect is very important, and requires some experimenting. Have fun with it.

Material – Nylon brushes are best to lay flat paint areas, while natural bristles give a more uneven texture.

Types of Artist Brushes

Fan– with fan-shaped bristles, they come in many sizes and thicknesses, and they are great for painting grasses, tree limbs, bushes, blending cloudy skies, and highlights. Natural hair is more suitable for soft blending and synthetic works well for textural effects.

Flat – with long bristles and square ends. They hold a lot of paint and can be used for bold sweeping strokes or on the edge for fine lines. Flats are very useful to cover a big area of paint, or the background.

Slanted– the bristles are angled; good if you are painting on an easel and give you better control than flat brushes doing thinner lines and also large.

Round– has a round ferrule and round or pointed tip, and it’s available in a wide variety of sizes. Rounds are useful for details and lines or edges, small ones are great for finishing touches. Round brushes blend very softly, especially the softer bristles.

Rigger or Liner– thin and with long bristles, great tool for painting lines or text.

Filbert – fuller in shape than flats, with rounded ends that make soft strokes, filberts are good for blending. After you block the paint in with flats, you can blend with filberts.

Square Wash – can produce a variety of shapes and widths. Often has a short handle.

Oval Wash – has rounded edges, flat ferrule and comes in many sizes. Useful for laying large areas of color, wetting the surface, or absorbing excess media.

Stencil brushes - they usually have short handles and thick stiff bristles, all of the same length, and mounted on a round ferrule.

Household brushes – are handy for covering large areas quickly and laying colored grounds. They are inexpensive but will last only for a couple of paintings before the hair will start to fall out or get ruined.

Palette knives – have a wooden handle and a metal or plastic blade. They may be straight or angular, great for mixing paint on the palette. When you are mixing paint with your palette knife, work from all sides. Think of it like mixing cement or cake frosting. Keep working it until the paint is smooth and has an even consistency.
You can also paint with palette knives: grab the paint with the knife and apply to the painting, using the palette knife as a painting tool.

Types of Brushes - Photos

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Fan BrushOval BrushWash BrushSlanted BrushBig Round BrushSmall Round BrushLiner BrushSmall Flat Shader BrushBig Flat BrushMedium Flat BrushBig Filbert BrushMedium Filbert Brush
Fan Brush
Fan Brush | Source
Oval Brush
Oval Brush | Source
Wash Brush
Wash Brush | Source
Slanted Brush
Slanted Brush | Source
Big Round Brush
Big Round Brush | Source
Small Round Brush
Small Round Brush | Source
Liner Brush
Liner Brush | Source
Small Flat Shader Brush
Small Flat Shader Brush | Source
Big Flat Brush
Big Flat Brush | Source
Medium Flat Brush
Medium Flat Brush | Source
Big Filbert Brush
Big Filbert Brush | Source
Medium Filbert Brush
Medium Filbert Brush | Source

Palette Knives

Palette knives can be used for mixing paint or for painting.
Palette knives can be used for mixing paint or for painting. | Source

How to Clean Brushes After Acrylic Paint

  1. Remove as much excess wet paint from the brush as possible, either by rinsing, or wiping with a rag or other absorbent material.

  2. Massage the paint out of the bristles with warm running water. If the paint started to dry already, use a stiff brush to loosen and remove any paint build-up.

  3. Wash in soapy water. Massage the brush thoroughly in warm, not hot, soapy water and gently knead the bristles. I like to “brush” circles on the palm of my hand, making sure the soapy water penetrates inside the bristles.

  4. Rinse and Dry. Rinse and then shake the remaining water out of the bristles and store the brush flat, make sure not to bend the bristles. The storage area should be cool and dry, away from any sources of heat.

Paint Brush Sets

Brushes can be very expensive. To save some money, you may purchase a paint brush set.

Brush sets come conveniently assorted in sizes and shapes. Many sets are a lower quality, but they can still be a great choice for beginner painters, and allow you to get used to the different types and sizes of brushes without investing a lot of money into it.

Once you know what type of brush you like to work with, you can expand your brush collection and invest in higher quality, more expensive brushes of your choice.

Paint Brush Set
Paint Brush Set | Source

Taking Care of Your Paint Brushes

Taking good care of your brushes is very important for many reasons.

From an artist’s point of view, ruined brushes just don’t do the job. Their efficiency as working tools can be critically harmed if you don’t clean and store them properly.

Bent bristles, dry paint, loose ferrule, and other nuisances can be avoided by spending some precious moments at the end of each painting session making sure brushes are completely clean and stored correctly.

Always lay them flat to dry, so the water does not infiltrate the ferrule, making it loose or causing mold.

Reshape the bristles with your fingers, and make sure that there is enough space for them, so nothing is touching or pushing them into weirs shapes while resting.

From an economic point of view, brushes are quite an investment in terms of money, and unless you want your wallet to pay the consequences, you really got to protect your investment taking proper care of your paint brushes.

I Keep my Dry Brushes in a Bamboo Rollup Case like This.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Robie Benve


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      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 6 weeks ago from Ohio

        Hi Lorelei, just give it a try again. Start painting something that you like, keeping your expectations low. As beginners we all end up a little disappointed by the first attempts, but keep trying. The great thing is that you can even paint over a painting and start from scratch. I hope you pick up those brushes and enjoy the process. Ciao!

      • Ladymermaid profile image

        Lorelei Cohen 6 weeks ago from Canada

        Painting in acrylics is something I have long wanted to try my hand at. Years ago I purchased oils but found them difficult to work with and never made another attempt at diving into the artistic venue. It is still on my mind so hopefully one day I'll pick up the brushes again.

      • profile image

        Rahul Kadam 2 months ago

        Nice guidance for beginners.......

        Thank you....

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 4 months ago from Ohio

        Hi Sally, unfortunately I am not familiar with your town, but I'll try to help you as much as I can. If you are trying to purchase acrylic paintings, as you wrote, I'd suggest to find a local art gallery or art exhibit. Artists and art leagues are exhibiting in all kinds of places nowadays. Many artists have their online gallery too, you just need to do some research for the style you like.

        If that was a typo, and you are looking for acrylic paints, you can find them in an arts and crafts, or an art supply stores. In case you don't have any nearby, you can buy all kinds of paints online and have them delivered to you: Amazon, Dick Blick, Jerry Artarama, Cheap Joe's, are just some of the sited where you can find acrylic paint to purchase. I hope this helps. Happy painting!

      • profile image

        Sally 4 months ago

        Hi, Could you please help me find a store where I can buy acrylic paintings ? I would really appreciate it very much. I live in Campbellton, New Brunswick Canada..thanks in Advance ..

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 5 months ago from Ohio

        Hi Adi, it sounds like you have all you need to start a great painting, good luck and much fun! To answer your question about brushes, I buy mine thinking of the kind of paint that I am going to use. It does not matter what support I'll be painting on. Usually they are either fine for either water media (acrylic and watercolor) or oils. It's usually indicated by the manufacturer. In some case I have seen brushes that said they were good for both water and oil based paint. While an acrylic brush could later be used for oils, once I use a brush for oils, I keep it for oils. I hope this helps. Happy painting!

      • profile image

        Adi 5 months ago


        Thanks for the tips. I already bought a brush set and going to start acrylic painting soon. bought my easel, camlin 20 ml tube and canvas. by the way, any specific brushes to be used in canvas? can they be used in both canvas and paper?

      • profile image

        Alba Bianchi 6 months ago

        Thank you, very informative!!

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 8 months ago from Ohio

        Wow Jaime Moreno, your comment made my day! I'm so glad that what I write can help someone, somehow! We learn in many ways, but especially from mistakes and trial and error. I enjoy writing about the things I've learned the hard way, in the hope that it might create a shortcut for others. Thanks a lot for your feedback, and paint on my friend! It sounds like you are on a fabolous art journey! :)

      • profile image

        Jaime Moreno 8 months ago

        Hi Robie , I find your sharing of knowledge so helpful and refreshing and I have to thank very much and wish you all the best for your kindness . I got the ideas in my head and find it easy to convey them into real shapes ,but have no idea at all of the tools ( lol) I have successfully painted six large canvases , but after buying all sorts of brushes ,I do all my work with an small flat because I find it the most versatile of the lot I am an absolute fanatic for detail I even paint the finger nails dirt ,on my hand portraits ( just learn the name " flat from your post on brushes ) and now I understand why my brushes last so little .

        Surely I started with the wrong foot , but surely thanks to you I will get ... better thank you ...

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 11 months ago from Ohio

        Awesome to hear Sulo Moorthy! Keep painting, enjoy the process, have fun. :) Thanks for your note.

      • profile image

        Sulo Moorthy 11 months ago

        I'm a beginner and your articles on brushes and strokes are very helpful.


      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 15 months ago from Ohio

        Thanks a lot for the feedback Mercedes! I'm delighted to hear that you find this article full of useful information about different types of brushes. Happy painting!

      • profile image

        Mercedes Aza 15 months ago

        Great article. Information perfectly explained, detailed and documented .

        Thank you for taking the time to explain it so well.

        Much appreciated.

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

        Thanks a lot Sarah, it always makes me happy when I hear that someone has been inspired to create. Happy painting!

      • Sarah Goodman profile image

        Sarah Goodman 2 years ago from Newark, U.S.

        Great article and a source of inspiration for a starter like me.

      • profile image

        debrartin 2 years ago

        I love painting very much. I use for choosing painting supply


        Your step by step tips are very helpful for me.

        Thanks for informative article

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

        Hi The Stages of ME, happy to hear that what I share can be useful! :)

        Have fun with your passion for painting, the fun of the process is what counts. Thanks for pinning!

      • The Stages Of ME profile image

        The Stages Of ME 4 years ago


        I started a painting class this year and I love it. However I am clueless when it comes to brushes. This was so helpful I am pinning it so I can refer to it over and over. Thanks for sharing

      • artsandlearning profile image

        Debora Wondercheck 4 years ago from 1518 Brookhollow Drive, Suite 15, Santa Ana, CA, 92705

        A & L conservatory provides amazing painting tips especially for young children that can help in their later lives development.

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

        Hi Shyron, it's funny that you paint with oil and want to try acrylics, and I paint with acrylics and I would like to try oils! lol Happy painting to us, with whichever media! :)

      • Shyron E Shenko profile image

        Shyron E Shenko 5 years ago from Texas

        Robie, this is awesome, the only painting I have done was oil. I have done lots of drawings. I did not have formal training in art, but my Mom was an artist.

        I am thinking of painting with acrylics, and know next to nothing about the brushes. I will bookmark your hub.

        Voting you up, awesome and interesting, and will be following you.

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

        That's great to hear CanvasrtShop! Thanks for reading and your comment :)

      • CanvasArtShop profile image

        CanvasArtShop 5 years ago

        Thank you for the information, found this hub really interesting :)

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

        Hi Sharon, grammar and spelling errors? Me? and to think I thought I were perfect! (joking of course)

        Fresh eyes can spot errors much faster and easier, I would really appreciate if you let me know. Feel free to send me an email (my profile > fan mail > send an email) listing all you found wrong - if you have the time that is. :)

        I'm glad you enjoyed the content. Thanks a lot for reading and your feedback. :)

      • profile image

        Sharon 5 years ago

        This was a very informative article. Aside from a few grammatical and spelling errors, it was useful. I especially appreciated the usefulness of synthetic vs sable brushes on different paint mediums. Thank you for taking the time to teach us!

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

        Hi Jan, Starting with cheap supplies can be very liberating, no worries of ruining or wasting anything. Thanks a lot for reading and happy painting to your husband (PS: not sure why your comment was tagged spam, I'm glad I checked and I rescued it) :)

      • profile image

        Jan Card 5 years ago

        This was very helpful, I had bought my husband a cheap set of acrylic brushes for his first attempts at Acrylics, this made it possible for him to experiment and not worry about the cost of the brushes before moving on to more expensive ones. Thank you

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

        The Brush shelf at an art supply store can surely be overwhelming. Which brush is better for which task? That's the question I often had as a beginner, and what prompted me to write this hub. Thank for reading and commenting, Carol. :)

      • carol7777 profile image

        carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

        I have been looking for information about brushes with acrylic paints. I never knew the names of most and when to use them. This is a great article with all the information you need to make decisions about brushes. Thanks for this great information.

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

        Thanks all for the great feedback! I'm glad to hear that you found my article useful and especially very informative. I tried to condense in one place all you need to know to choose your brushes and to keep them in good "health". Thanks! :)

      • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

        Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

        What a great article! I learned more about the choices, shapes and uses of brushes from reading this hub than I have learned poring over books! This is such helpful information for those of us who want to paint someday. Thanks for publishing this - voted up, useful, awesome and interesting!

      • Angelo52 profile image

        Angelo52 5 years ago from Central Florida

        Great article with all the information needed to pick the right paintbrush for acrylic paints. I paint some of my seashell crafts with acrylics to make piers or water scenes and use hobby brushes. Did not know there were so many types and what they were used for. Voted up + share.

      • Nare Anthony profile image

        Nare Gevorgyan 5 years ago

        Cool! I never knew the difference.

      • Viqe Newman profile image

        Viqe Newman 5 years ago from Poasttown, Ohio

        I completely agree. Thanks for posting. =)