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Everything you wanted to know about brushes for artists and were afraid to ask

paint splotches
paint splotches

Sometimes a brush is only a brush. Other times it is the gateway for the effect you are looking for. When I go looking for a new brush at my local art supply store I ignore the types of brushes, and instead focus on the stiffness, texture and size of the brush so that I can hopefully end up with the result I have in my head.

But there are times when looking at brushes for artists is confusing and if you are shopping online you don’t have the advantage of handling the brushes you see. Hopefully this overview will help you find what you need or maybe something you didn’t know you needed. (That’s my favorite kind of brush!.)

With rising prices it’s best to select a few good quality brushes both round and flat and in a couple of sizes and fill in with a specialty brush here and there, unless you are like me and gravitate wildly toward any specialty brush or tool that excites my interest.

Watercolor Brushes


Aficionados feel that red sable brushes are the best brushes for artists who work in watercolors. They are soft and absorbent and come in a full range of sizes. However synthetic brushes have come a long way in imitating sable. While synthetic brushes are cheaper, sable lasts longer, often being hand made.

The fact that sable is hard to come by and then being hand made, often drive the cost up, making then a bit pricey, but the fact that they can last a lifetime if taken care of mitigates the cost factor somewhat. Look for a rust resistant ferrule if long brush life is important for you.

Most sable brush lines only offer round brushes, so if you need a different shape you may have to look through different lines to find what you need.

Squirrel hair brushes are also a choice although the squirrel hair is softer and more absorbent than sable. Because it is softer it is often mixed with synthetic fibers. They are an economical replacement for sable, and while the squirrel hair holds color well, it gives its own unique look to watercolors.

They come in round and flat shapes and have many sizes in both.

Then there are the synthetic paint brushes for artists who are on a budget or who want to avoid using animal hair in their brushes. They hold color well, maintain their shape and clean up easily. Since the bristles are white they do stain over time, but it doesn’t affect the quality of the brush itself. Some artists feel that synthtic brushes are inferior, but that may be a matter of perception rather than fact.

Acrylic Brushes

acrylic and oil brushes
acrylic and oil brushes

While you can use any brushes, either natural or synthetic, most artists will tell you that using synthetic brushes is best mostly due to the fact that they must be kept wet for quite a while when working. Hair brushes just don’t like being wet for a long time.\​

Acrylic painting is tough on brushes because there are times when a watercolor look is wanted, and other times an impasto smear is needed, and because you can work either thick or thin, and due to the fact that acrylic paint drys quickly, acrylic brushes are king for this medium.

Acrylic brushes come soft and stiff. All shapes and both long handled and short, as well as being the most economical choice for the discerning acrylic artist.

Oil Painting Brushes

acrylic and oil brushes
acrylic and oil brushes

Brushes for artists who work in oils are the most important tools they own. A good brush retain its shape when loaded with paint and return to its shape with each stroke.

Hog or pig hair brushes are used to move around large amounts of paint easily because the brushes are stiff and able to keep their shape. Most of a painting can be done with a bristle brush, however the detail work demands a sable brush, even though sable brushes are designed for watercolors.

Because oil painting is done on an easel, long handles help balance the brushes when they are held in a vertical position, making application and the painting process easier.

Synthetic brushes are always an option and again, they are the most economical option. The come in all shapes and sizes, just be aware of the handle length when purchasing.

Specialty Brushes – The fun starts here.

Sometimes, brushes for artists don’t actually include brushes. There are sponges, and not all sponges are created equally. Natural ones are far better than the synthetic variety. Natural sponges hold color and water and absorb it into the sponge, allowing for more, richer color and a longer time to apply it.

Brushes for artists
Brushes for artists

There are squeeze bottles that add a different look as well. Bottles have different tip types so you can choose whether you want a broad or fine line of color.

Foam brushes make covering large areas a breeze. Speckle brushes are especially designed so that there is no mess while speckling. ‘Funny Brushes’ are used with any medium to give lovely effects to any work. They add a whole new dimension to work your work.

Last but not least today are the house painting brushes. Of course it depends on what size piece you are working on, and what effects you are looking for, but not only can they be fun to use, they are also an economical choice for the discerning artist..

Tools for Special Effects – The Orphans

If you are a real rebel, you may be into using forks, or straws to blow through. Or even canned air if you don’t want to get a head rush. There are cake spatulas and frosting spatulas as well as many other kitchen items that introduce different and interesting looks and patterns into your work.

Tools for use in working with clay are wonderful play toys for the artist always looking for the next best thing. I even use an old credit card for some swiping from time to time.

I’ve included a video about how to care for your brushes. Although it says it is for acrylic brushes, it is really good for all artist brushes.


At the end of the day…

Because I am a mixed media artist I am always looking for things that give me great texture. Or even  a lovely finished appearance. I have a large collection of not-brushes as well as almost every brush known to man.

Brushes for artists that are made of natural fibers, while long lasting, also must be taken care of. It is hard to scrub with a natural bristle brush and not have to pick hairs out of the paint. (I know this firsthand.)

So experiment, have fun, and don’t forget to clean you brushes after use. The last longer that way and allow you to buy other art goodies you can’t live without.


Brushes for artists
Brushes for artists



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