Choosing the right paintbrush can be really overwhelming when you’re starting to paint. If you’ve wandered down the aisle of your local art store and seen the dazzling array of brushes, all made of different materials and some for students and some for artists and some for professionals and some for oils and some for watercolors and some for painting model airplanes (okay, okay, if you’re seeing that one you’re in the wrong aisle), you know there are a LOT. So let’s break it down to the basics in this edition of the Watercolor Glossary!
I was really fortunate when I started to paint because there was an amazing local art supply store staffed by an Australian woman who seemed to know everything about art supplies and wasn’t snobby about it at all! She helped me pick out my first supplies and made the subject approachable and beginner-friendly, and I’m aiming to do the same for any beginners who are reading this very post.
To start, there are paintbrushes for just about every kind of painting and medium. Brushes for oil painting, acrylic painting, watercolors, house painting, wall painting, and turkey basting.*
Really briefly though, oil and acrylic brushes usually have much longer handles (they’re easier to use when you’re painting something on an easel). Some oil and acrylic brushes are made of the same materials as watercolor brushes, but you’ll want a watercolor-specific brush for painting. Trust me, you’ll notice the difference.
*check out the Turkey Baster Glossary for more on that.
How many different brush shapes can you name? If you’re thinking, “Um, paintbrush-shaped?” Don’t worry! That’s what I’m here for.
Among the many, many types of brushes* we are going to focus on three: the round, the filbert, and the flat. As you continue to paint, you’ll undoubtedly want to add more brushes to your arsenal, but those three brushes are capable of a LOT and are all I personally use.
Here’s a little illustration I made to show you the general shapes:
A round brush: this is the most traditional size, and what you’d think of when you think, “paintbrush.” A round is very versatile and is by far the most-used paintbrush in my own arsenal. Rounds come in lots of sizes and are capable of doing very fine detail with the point of the brush, but also laying down a lot of paint when you use the belly of the brush.
A flat brush: the metal part that holds the bristles of the brush is called the ferrule. On a round brush, the ferrule is round. On a flat brush it is pressed flat, which makes the bristles form into a square/rectangle shape. These are best for doing broad strokes and washes, though you can get some detail and good lines with the side of the brush.
A filbert brush: a filbert looks a lot like a flat brush, but the sides are rounded. Filberts are the brush of choice for many artists as they can hold lots of paint, do big washes, and you can get some nice detail work by using the sides of the brush.
The takeaway from this section? If you’re just getting started, invest in a good-quality round brush. They can lay down a lot of paint but their fine point means you can also create beautiful details. A round brush is my go-to in my own paintings, but if you’d like to try a few different shapes, go for a round brush, a flat brush, and a filbert.
*an incomplete list: round, pointed round, flat, bright, filbert, sword, rigger, liner, taper, fan, angular flat, detail, and mop.
The size of the brush is typically printed on the handle. The size refers to the bristles/hairs and here’s something fun (and by “fun” I mean kind of annoying…)…there is no consistency between brands regarding sizes. A size 6 brush in one brand can be completely different from a size 6 brush in another brand! And so on and so forth for every number and brand. There just isn’t a standard size chart for brushes, so make sure you always look at the brush measurements provided if you’re buying online. Some brush manufacturers also have free catalogues with brush images printed so they are at their actual size.
The takeaway: to give yourself the most range when you’re starting, go for a small round brush (somewhere between size 0-2), a medium round brush (somewhere between size 4-6), and a larger round brush (somewhere between size 8-12).
Again, here’s a great resource from Blick about brush sizing, and it also goes into some interesting information on brush hair, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
Watercolor brushes can be made from natural animal hairs or synthetic bristles. It’s a veritable petting zoo of animals, too, and includes sable, ox, mongoose, hog, badger, squirrel, goat, and pony!!
The best watercolor brushes are made of Kolinsky Sable, which is a fur from the Siberian Weasel. Sable fur is held to be superior to all other materials for brushes–it is extremely soft, absorbs lots of paint and water, and holds a beautiful point for detail. It is also a lot more expensive, but you can really tell the difference when you paint with a Kolinsky Sable brush.
This video gives some behind-the-scenes info on some of the most expensive Kolinsky Sable brushes–it is REALLY interesting to see what goes into each brush. Did you know there are only a few brush-makers who can make the Winsor and Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable brush? And it takes three years of training before they’re ready! The nine (ONLY NINE) brush-makers who make these each have 27 years of experience on average. Okay, I’ll stop quoting the video to you and just encourage you to watch it when you have a minute 🙂
When a brush is labelled “camel hair” it is usually made of squirrel hair, or a mixture of goat, pony, squirrel etc. These are cheaper brushes and I don’t personally enjoy using them as I like a bit more spring in my brushes. Because they’re quite inexpensive, though, it’s easy to experiment and see if you like them.
Finally, if you don’t want to go with natural brush hairs, you can also purchase a brush made of synthetic fibers. They do perform a bit differently, but a lot of the synthetic brushes I’ve used are just as good as the natural ones. This is a set of mini synthetic brushes and I use them all the time. I do find that synthetic brushes don’t seem to hold up as well to my sable brushes, but they tend to be cheaper and easy to replace. Also, if you are opposed to buying products made with animal components, they are a great choice.
Anyone else love the show “How It’s Made”?? This video is amazing if you’re interested in learning more about paintbrushes, how they’re made, and the different components.
As with all art supplies, you will find your favorites by experimenting. That can be a little difficult at the beginning of your painting journey if you’re not sure what to experiment with or if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on a bunch of different art supplies. If that describes your situation, I’d recommend purchasing a couple good quality round brushes in at least three different sizes. Princeton makes some great affordable brushes. If you’ve been painting for a while, though, and you’re ready to upgrade, you can’t beat a Kolinsky sable brush. Check out Rosemary and Co. brushes and the Winsor and Newton Series 7 brushes for the very tippity-top of the line.
As always, let me know if you have any questions or feedback in the comments below! Happy painting!