Guide to Choosing the Best Paint Brushes for Acrylics and Oils
This article provides a great reference guide for fine artists that are working with oil and acrylic and 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.
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.
Anatomy of a brush
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 - PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
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, either by rinsing, or wiping with a rag or other absorbent material.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 SetsClick thumbnail to view full-size
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
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.Helpful 25
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.Helpful 22
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.Helpful 18
What should I do about paintbrushes that are ruined?
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.Helpful 15
What brush would you use to dry brush with acrylic paints?
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.Helpful 13
© 2012 Robie Benve