Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
Oil and Acrylic Paint Brushes: What You Need to Know
This article provides a great reference guide for fine artists working with oil and acrylic that are trying to find more information on how to choose the best paintbrushes to achieve the desired painting effects.
We'll look at:
- How to choose your brushes by size, shape, and material.
- Anatomy of a brush, learn what the different parts are called.
- How to take care of your brushes.
- Why buying a brush set could be a good idea.
Let's get started.
Considerations When Choosing Brushes
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.
Material: Synthetic or natural? Soft or stiff? Find out what kind of bristles fit best your painting style.
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.
Keep reading for more details about each of these categories.
Anatomy of a Brush
Parts of a Paint Brush
|Part of Brush||Description|
Where you hold the brush. Usually made from painted or varnished wood, but it can also be made from plastic or metal. The length can vary from short to 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.
Make Sure You Take Good Care of Your Brushes
Once you are done collecting info on how to choose a brush, you may want to read the extra info at the end of the article about:
- How to clean your brushes;
- How to store them;
- And the convenience of brush sets.
Now let's get started talking about the three main aspects of a brush to consider: size, material, and shape.
Paint Brush Sizes
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.
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 the most control, great for painting details; holding near the end gives you lose strokes.
Which Bristles Are Better for You?
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.
Nylon brushes are best to lay flat paint areas, while natural bristles give a more uneven texture.
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.
Shapes of Artist Brushes
- Fan: Fan-shaped bristles 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: 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.
When painting, your brushes are your working tools. Of course, it is very important to use good quality brushes and top quality paint, but also to choose the best type of brush for the task at hand.
Types of Brushes - Photos
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.
How to Clean Brushes After Acrylic Paint
- Remove as much excess wet paint from the brush as possible by wiping with a rag or other absorbent material.
- Rub the brush on a towel to take off as much residual paint as possible and limit the amount of chemicals ending up in the waterways.
- 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. If the paint started to dry already, make sure you clean the base of the bristles.
- Massage the soap out of the bristles with warm running water.
- 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.
After many years of painting, I still enjoy using brush sets, especially when working with acrylics. My latest purchase has been the D'Artisan Shoppe set, and I'm pretty happy with it.
Paint Brush Sets
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: I love to learn how to paint. My husband bought me a big paint by numbers canvas. He said, use it to learn different brushes and strokes. Do you think painting by number teaches anything?
Answer: Absolutely! Though I grew up in Italy, totally missing the paint by number phenomenon, I've heard about it and I've seen some wonderful examples of paintings completed that way.
Color-by-number images are created by very talented artists that apply complex color theory and excellent shape simplification.
While you paint, observe how the colors interrelate and bounce off each other. Each color-shape does not make any sense individually, but when you put them all together they make believable and charming images.
Analyze the subject and observe the areas of color. Why did the artist design it that way? Why did he/she choose those specific colors?
I think this can be extremely useful for a beginner to move to the next step: develop those color shapes yourself.
Question: How do I split my brush for double paint strokes?
Answer: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by a double stroke. But I'll take a couple of guesses.
1. For strokes that are half of a color and half of another, use a flat brush and dip one corner in one color and the other corner in another color.
2. If by double stroke you mean a split in the bristles that separates the stroke into two parts, I would cut off the middle bristles of an old brush, making some of the bristles in the center of the ferrule short. This way you create two separate "bunches" of hair that you can use to make parallel strokes.
Question: How many different fan brushes do I need for art?
Answer: Technically, you can make remarkable paintings without using any fan brushes.
I have a couple of fan brushes for my oils and one for my acrylics. I have used them sometimes to blend skies and clouds and to make textural marks, especially when painting vegetation. Other times, I manage the same or similar results with other brushes or, for the textural marks, palette knife.
It's all about what you like to do. I would recommend that you get one, try it out, and see if you feel like you need more.
Question: What should I do about paintbrushes that are ruined?
Answer: When paintbrushes are ruined, usually bristles lose their shape or get very stiff.
You may still be able to use them to paint things that are loose ad textured, like grass of stones, or you can cut the bristles shorter and give them any other shape that suits your style. You may even keep them just to use the tip of the handles to create sgraffito or textures.
Question: What brush would you use to dry brush with acrylic paints?
Answer: Flat brushes are my favorites, you can use them for wide strokes or sideways for thinner ones. Harder bristles are better for a dry brush technique.
Question: I'm about to start an acyrlic portrait painting that is double the life-size and I need some insights on brush sizes. Can you suggest brush numbers?
Answer: When I start a painting I use really big brushes, usually plats. The recommendation is to paint general to specific, starting with grouping big shapes, adding details only when every shape is blocked in, towards the end. I would start drawing with a flat brush size 4 or 6, then fill the big shapes with a size 30, and move down in size from there.
Numbers of sizes vary with different brands. The rule of thumb is to use bigger brushes for bigger shapes, smaller brushes for smaller shapes, size 4 or smaller for the final touches.
Question: Some area the canvas appears underneath and the brush makes streaks I was told could be the acrylic not opaque. How do I avoid that? Is it brush issue or acrylic transparency? I used a pre-primed canvas.
Answer: Well, the reasons for the canvas to show through thick brushstrokes could be many.
Here are three situations that come to mind:
1. Some cheaper canvasses behave a little weird. Even if they have been primed with gesso, somehow the paint seems to slide on the surface as you apply it and sections of the canvas will show through. My solution to that is to paint a base coat of paint as ground color and let it dry. Further layers of paint will have a better grip. Another solution would be to add one or two layers of gesso to the canvas.
2. It could be a low-quality paint issue. If you try to paint with craft acrylics or with some student-grade paints you may have to fight against the lower pigmentation and the fillers of the paint. The solution is to buy professional paint, look for artist quality..
3. It could be that you are using transparent paint, in that case the paint it's only doing its job, you may want to learn which colors are more opaque and use them accordingly. Most acrylic brands include an indication of transparency/opacity on the container. Opaque colors mixed into transparent ones will lower the transparency.
Question: I'm currently working on a piece and I was wondering what would be the best brush to use to get like a shadow effect?
Answer: Not knowing what medium you are working with and what your painting style is, I can't quite envision the brush you need for what you are trying to accomplish.
Let's just say that in general, to achieve a soft effect, you may want to use a soft brush with thin paint. If you are more into an impressionistic effect, then a thicker brush or even palette knife application with thick paint would do.
Overall, your painting should have a consistent look. Keep your paint applications varied but harmonious throughout the painting.
Ultimately, what decides the degree of success of the application is greatly your choice of color and the positioning of the shapes.
When painting shadows, or anything else, really, make sure you observe closely the levels of relative darkness vs. lightness and dullness vs. brightness of each section. Pay attention to the reflected light into the shadows. All those variations make a shadow believable no matter how it's applied.
Question: I've purchased expensive oil paint brushes and I wonder whether I can use them for acrylic paints? I've just learned that in college we're going to use acrylic paints only.
Answer: Most oil brushes can be used for acrylics as well. If you look up your particular brand and model of brushes online, you might be able to find a description that specifies if they are suitable for acrylics. In doubt, show them to your painting teacher and ask for advice. Good luck.
Question: How can you achieve different shapes/stokes with very clean edges by using acrylic paint?
Answer: I like to use heavy body acrylic paint, and it is particularly good for creating bold strokes. When you put down a thick stroke and let it dry, it flattens a little, but it stays clean and visible. To achieve clean edges, avoid scumbling or blending, make strokes with intend, planning the size, color, and value that you want, and then leave them be.
Question: Should I choose heavy or soft body acrylic for traditional portrait painting ?
Answer: Traditional portrait painting is usually done with oils and several parts are painted with a glazing technique, then the final details are applied thicker.
Personally, I like thick acrylics, the heavy body kind, for pretty much every painting technique.
You can make glazes by thinning them with water or acrylic medium and make them more transparent that way. It helps to know which hues are opaque and which are more transparent from the start - this info is usually on the tube.
Oil paint is pretty thick right out of the tube, so I feel like if you are trying to emulate the results of oils using acrylics, you should use thicker acrylic, at least that's my take on it.
Question: What brushes do you recommend for water mixable oils?
Answer: There are a lot of brushes that are suitable for both oil and acrylics. When in doubt, I would buy those.
© 2012 Robie Benve
Pau on June 19, 2020:
Hi! I’m still new on painting and I use
Acrylic paints. I just uploaded a video on my youtube channel.
Perhaps, Can I use this info about paintbrushes on my vlog ? Thank you
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 12, 2020:
You are very welcome, Bhagya! We love to publish helpful articles, keep coming back, we have always new ones being added.
Bhagya Alloju on May 11, 2020:
Ms. Benve and others, First of all thank you very much for the PINTEREST and also for you all. By taking time and effort you put in this site and giving lots of information about painting to learn like all of our beginners .
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 31, 2019:
Yes Gayle, I use gesso and gel medium. and they require even more quick cleaning with abundance of soap and water.
Gayle on July 23, 2019:
do you use gesso and gel medium?
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 05, 2019:
Hi Dipen, all you really need is acrylic paint and some water. Take a look at this other article of mine about strokes, it has suggestions on how to handle the paint. Happy painting! https://feltmagnet.com/painting/Acrylic-Brush-Stro...
Dipen thapa on May 04, 2019:
hello. i just start painting with arcylic.i cant blend colours. do i need other medium to blend or i m doing wrong.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 20, 2019:
Hi Mary, no, you don't need specific brushes to paint on different surfaces. Using what you have should be absolutely fine. Happy painting.
Mary Kendall on March 18, 2019:
I'm starting painting with acrylics. Do I need to use different brushes if I paint on paper or on canvas?
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 14, 2019:
I'm not sure if there is a brush like that, probably yes. You may want to visit an art supply store or search online sellers like jerry's artarama. I know that some artists cut off portions of an old brush' bristles and make it raggedy in order to paint grass. I've painted grass with fan brushes, and I don't remember the curve to show a lot. Hope you find what you are looking for. :)
PATRICIA KELLEY on January 14, 2019:
I am looking for a brush like a fan brush with stiff bristles, but isn't in a fan shape. I'm thinking like painting grass, I don't want the curve to show. I realize that I can use one edge or the other but just wondering if there is a brush like this? Thanks.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 27, 2018:
Hi Barbara, you probably have tried this already, and please let me know if it does not work for you, but for fine detail painting I would lean towards a small round brush. Since you are working on carved wood, I would choose one with stiff bristles. Size numbers change depending on the manufacturer, but I would look for a size 4 or smaller.
Barbara Hicks on August 26, 2018:
I am looking for a very fin detail brush that can stand up to wood. I do use acrylics. I quite often have carved text, best bristles are short and small to go down into shapes. Your thoughts?
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 06, 2018:
How awesome Sandra, way to go! Those paint nights are a great way to break the ice and gain confidence with painting. They make it seem easy and fun, which painting truly is, but sometimes we let out inexperience stop us. Happy to hear that you are working on your planter project and buying supplies. Careful now, or you might end up like me with your house full of painting gear, lol! :) Best of luck to you on this painting journey!
Sandra Dee on May 04, 2018:
What a great article for a newbie like me! It really helped me to understand the different brushes and uses. I went to a 'paint night' a few weeks ago and discovered (at 62 years old) that I really really enjoyed painting! Something I've always wanted to try but had no idea how or where to start!! That class got me motivated. So far I've watched some youtube videos on different ways to 'load' the brushes and finally understand the color wheel! I bought acrylic paint from the $ store and also a pack of different brushes. I'm now painting my old tomato planters to practice on! I've done 2 of them and must say I'm really pleased with the results! Who Knew!? Next step....canvas!!! :)
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 06, 2018:
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!
Lorelei Cohen from Canada on March 06, 2018:
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.
Rahul Kadam on January 26, 2018:
Nice guidance for beginners.......
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 18, 2017:
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!
Sally on December 18, 2017:
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 (author) from Ohio on October 26, 2017:
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!
Adi on October 25, 2017:
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?
Alba Bianchi on October 02, 2017:
Thank you, very informative!!
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 16, 2017:
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! :)
Jaime Moreno on August 13, 2017:
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 (author) from Ohio on April 30, 2017:
Awesome to hear Sulo Moorthy! Keep painting, enjoy the process, have fun. :) Thanks for your note.
Sulo Moorthy on April 29, 2017:
I'm a beginner and your articles on brushes and strokes are very helpful.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 08, 2017:
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!
Mercedes Aza on January 06, 2017:
Great article. Information perfectly explained, detailed and documented .
Thank you for taking the time to explain it so well.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 14, 2016:
Thanks a lot Sarah, it always makes me happy when I hear that someone has been inspired to create. Happy painting!
Sarah Goodman from Newark, U.S. on March 14, 2016:
Great article and a source of inspiration for a starter like me.
debrartin on April 27, 2015:
I love painting very much. I use http://www.artistsupplysource.com/ for choosing painting supply
Your step by step tips are very helpful for me.
Thanks for informative article
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 23, 2014:
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!