Guide to Choosing the Best Paint Brushes for Acrylics and Oils

Updated on August 8, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is a self-taught artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

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.

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.

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

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
Description
Handle
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.
Ferrule
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.
Heel
The part of the ferrule that squeezes the hairs and keeps them in place.
Crimp
The part of the ferrule that secures it to the handle.
Toe
The very end of the bristles, where they touch the canvas.
Belly
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.

MakeSure 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.

Size

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 most control, great for painting details; holding near the end gives you lose strokes.

Materials

What 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.

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

Shapes

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.

Tip:

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

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.

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

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Brush sets come conveniently assorted in sizes and shapes. This is my latest purchase, the D'Artisan Shoppe set, I got it on Amazon.Another example of paint brush set that I have owned for several years now. The handles have peeled off over time, but most of the brushes are still holding their shape. Image is a few years old.A newer brush set that I purchased recently, the D'Artisan Shoppe. I'm really happy with this one. The brushes have a great feel and nice bouncy bristles.
Brush sets come conveniently assorted in sizes and shapes. This is my latest purchase, the D'Artisan Shoppe set, I got it on Amazon.
Brush sets come conveniently assorted in sizes and shapes. This is my latest purchase, the D'Artisan Shoppe set, I got it on Amazon. | Source
Another example of paint brush set that I have owned for several years now. The handles have peeled off over time, but most of the brushes are still holding their shape. Image is a few years old.
Another example of paint brush set that I have owned for several years now. The handles have peeled off over time, but most of the brushes are still holding their shape. Image is a few years old. | Source
A newer brush set that I purchased recently, the D'Artisan Shoppe. I'm really happy with this one. The brushes have a great feel and nice bouncy bristles.
A newer brush set that I purchased recently, the D'Artisan Shoppe. I'm really happy with this one. The brushes have a great feel and nice bouncy bristles. | 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.


Questions & Answers

  • 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?

    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.

  • How many different fan brushes do I need for art?

    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.

  • How do I split my brush for double paint strokes?

    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.

© 2012 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 months ago from Ohio

      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.

    • profile image

      Barbara Hicks 

      2 months ago

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 months ago from Ohio

      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!

    • profile image

      Sandra Dee 

      6 months ago

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      8 months 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 

      8 months 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 

      9 months ago

      Nice guidance for beginners.......

      Thank you....

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      11 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 

      11 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 imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      12 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 

      13 months ago

      Hi,

      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 

      13 months ago

      Thank you, very informative!!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      15 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 

      15 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 imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      18 months ago from Ohio

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

    • profile image

      Sulo Moorthy 

      18 months ago

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

      Thanks

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      22 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 

      22 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 imageAUTHOR

      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 

      3 years ago

      I love painting very much. I use http://www.artistsupplysource.com/ for choosing painting supply

      [img]http://cdn.artistsupplysource.com/images/D/RS-AQ-S...[/img]

      Your step by step tips are very helpful for me.

      Thanks for informative article

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      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

      Robie

      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 

      5 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.

      http://www.artsandlearning.org/

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      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 imageAUTHOR

      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 imageAUTHOR

      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 imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 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 

      6 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 imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 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 

      6 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 imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 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 

      6 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 

      6 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 

      6 years ago

      Cool! I never knew the difference.

    • Viqe Newman profile image

      Viqe Newman 

      6 years ago from Poasttown, Ohio

      I completely agree. Thanks for posting. =)

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    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
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