Brushes can be quite an investment, so making sure you take good care of them can save you a lot of money in the long run. That being said, brush prices differ dramatically based on the manufacturer, hair type, size, and handle quality. I’ve purchased brushes anywhere from $1 up to $50 and they get more expensive than that.
This size 20 Kolinsky Sable flat watercolor brush from Daniel Smith is $178!
Up until the late 1600’s, artists made their own brushes. It was at this point that craftsmen started making them for the artists, so artists had more free time to actually paint (yay!). Now they are available for purchase in any art supply store and some craft stores, or you may want to buy online.
Just like any craftsman knows his tools, so do artists need to learn about their tools. There are an overwhelming number of brushes to choose from, so it’s important to know about brushes so you can easily assess what you need for your particular style of painting.
Here’s what we’ll be discussing:
Anatomy Of A Paintbrush
First, let’s break down the parts of a paintbrush.
Image source: http://www.surrencystudios.com/bush%201.htm
Tip: Paint brushes can be made out of a variety of materials including synthetic (plastic imitation) hair and natural (animal) hair. The hairs are bundled together and tied before they are attached to the handle with adhesive. This joining is then covered by the ferrule. The tip is the most delicate and sensitive part of the brush—it is responsible for drawing up and releasing paint and if not treated well, frays quickly, making precision painting more difficult.
Belly: This is the middle part of the hairs on the brush. It is essentially a reservoir where paint is held. Imagine a fountain pen. The belly of the brush works much the same way as a fountain pen that’s been dipped in ink. The tip contains all the pigment load that’s being used at the moment, but there’s a back-up supply in the belly so you can keep painting and not have to reload your brush every two seconds. Brushes made for very liquidy paints (such as watercolor) have fuller bellies and hold more paint.
Ferrule: This piece is typically made with metal and the better quality the brush, the better quality the metal. A very expensive brush may have a chrome, brass, or even gold ferrule. This piece provides structural support for the hairs of the brush. A good quality ferrule is made out of a single piece of metal and should not have a seam.
Crimp: The ferrule is crimped on to the brush handle to keep it in place.
Handle: Most handles are made out of wood and are usually painted to protect the handle from paints and liquids. The only part of the handle that is not finished is the part under the ferrule where the hairs are attached with adhesive. This is done to provide a strong bond between the hairs and the wood handle.
From Steven Saitzyk’s book, The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials:
The ability of a paintbrush to hold and transfer paint is a result of the capillary action created by the bundle of bristles/hair/fiber and the surface area of the fibers. When the brush is applied to a low viscosity* liquid paint, such as watercolor, the paint is drawn up into the belly of the brush by capillary action. When tip of the brush is applied to the paper surface the absorptivity of the paper and force of gravity pull the paint out of the brush. As the viscosity of the ink increases and it becomes more paste-like, the paint no longer flows up into the belly on its own. It must be “loaded”. That is, the paint is drawn up into the belly of the brush by pulling the paint up into the brush by physical action/pressure. How much paint can be held in the belly, the control with which the brush releases the paint, and the ability of the brush to maintain its tip is a reflection of the number of, size, and shape of scales on each hair, which varies between species of animals and their environment.
*Viscosity: the state or quality of being viscous.
Viscous: of a glutinous nature or consistency; sticky; thick; adhesive.
Notes About Acrylic Brushes
Acrylic paintbrushes tend to be made of synthetic fibers because of their durable nature. Acrylic paint can damage natural hair brushes, which are typically used for oil painting because the texture of the bristle is strong enough to hold viscous oil paint. Since acrylic paints don’t have the same viscosity as oil paints, synthetic hair brushes are recommended for use with acrylic paints. The handles of acrylic paintbrushes are the same as those used for oil painting.
Watercolor brushes tend to have short handles and fat bellies. This is so the belly can hold the liquid needed for working with watercolor and because you usually sit to do watercolors (the paint will run off the page if it’s on an easel) the handles are short so you don’t poke your eye out!
Why do I need different brushes? What does each one do?
Each brush has its own specialty. Here’s a breakdown:
Round: This brush is good for detail work, depending on the size of course. The tapered tip of the brush allows for a much finer line when you use just the very end of the bristles but if you load the brush with paint and press down, you can get a thicker, heavier line.
Pointed Round or Liner: These are best for fine detail, outlining, and long, fine strokes. If you’re painting lettering or individual eyelashes, this is the brush you will need. Be gentle with these and make sure to keep the protective plastic case on when they’re not in use. The very fine liner brushes are fragile and very easy to damage.
Flat: These are good for covering large areas in short amounts of time and making straight lines. Also good for varnishing your work after it’s finished.
Bright: These are good for short, controlled strokes and hold a lot of paint. Good for impasto work.
Filbert: This is a good brush because of its versatility. The combination of rounded and flat allows for good coverage but with a softer line quality than with just a flat brush. The rounded edges will let you blend your paint nicely.
Angular Flat: These are good for angular strokes and hard lines with varying thickness (you can spin the brush as you’re using it to get greater coverage). They fill in corners nicely, too.
Fan: These are well suited to blending, feathering, and smoothing paint. When using them with acrylic paints, be sure to get a fan with stiff bristles otherwise the paint will cause all the bristles to clump together and that defeats the purpose of using a fan brush to begin with!
Detail Round: These stubby little detail brushes are good for fine detail but not long lines. This would be more for the reflection in an eye, but not for hair.
Of course if you can afford more, then go for it! Experiment and see what you like best. To make your paintings have movement and excitement, don’t use the same brush the whole time. The varying textures of the brushes will add life to your paint.
And that’s another thing: texture. There are a lot of different materials that brushes are made out of. If you’re just starting out or using acrylic paint, you’ll want synthetic hair brushes. They’re less expensive and acrylics, being alkaline in nature, can be hard on natural hair brushes.
Some brushes will be very soft and some will be very hard. Choosing the texture that’s right for you will depend on the type of painting you’re wanting to make—the softer the brush, the softer the line quality you’re going to get. A very stiff brush works well if you’re wanting to load the canvas with gobs of paint and a soft brush will feather out, making it difficult to achieve impasto (very thick paint on the canvas). Natural hair brushes are more expensive and are best suited to finishing a classical portrait in oil. Using it to scumble (or scrub) in an underpainting in acrylic would ruin the brush (and anger the painting gods).
The size of a brush is based on the length, diameter, and width of the bristles. The length is measured from the base of the ferrule to the tip (of the bristles) at the longest point—usually the center of the brush. The diameter is measured by the girth of the hairs at the base of the ferrule, and the width is measured by the distance across the hair at the opening of the ferrule. The bigger the number, the bigger the brush. Some flat brushes may be measured in inches, so instead of saying 24, they might say 31/32”.
Here’s a good chart and explanation of brush hairs and sizes from Dick Blick:
You can download PDF files of these two guides here:
How To Hold Your Paintbrush
Of course you can hold your paintbrush in any way that is comfortable to you, but here are some quick tips.
You may feel like you want to hold your brush like a pencil—crunched between the tips of your fingers, holding near the bristles of the brush.
There are a few problems with this technique, though. For one, you will smudge all your paint and get it on the side of your hand because you will rest the side of your hand on your canvas when you hold your brush so close to the bristles. Secondly, holding the brush like this will make your strokes very uptight and fussy, focusing too much on detail and not enough on the overall picture.
This is about how I usually hold my brush—halfway down the length of the handle. This way I still have a lot of control but am not close enough to the bristles to get my hands dirty or start worrying over detail work.
Ideally, you want to hold your brush near the end of the handle and even better yet is to stand while painting with your arm outstretched (I had a professor once who told me to pretend I was fencing). This will allow you to take in the whole picture as you’re painting and not fuss over details too much.
Holding the end of the brush seems scary, but you’ll be happier with your results.
Thomas Gainsborough used to lengthen the handles of his brushes up to six feet so he would never stand too close to his canvas! Still, he was able to get incredible detail. So don’t worry too much about being “close” to your canvas in order to get fine details in your painting. See here:
Painting And Palette Knives
Most of the time, you’ll use your palette knife to mix larger amounts of paint on your palette, but they can also be used for direct paint application. Although not actual painting brushes, palette knives are often used to create paintings. The term palette knife generally refers to a knife that is used to mix paint on your palette while the term painting knife is generally used to describe a similar product used to apply paint to your canvas or surface. Though palette knives can also be used to apply paint to the surface, they’re not specialized to do so. Just like brush shapes, different shaped painting knives will yield different results. My personal favorite for mixing and applying paint is labeled e in the above photo. The knives labeled g and h are considered painting knives and are great at creating texture, sharp lines, and hard edges when used to apply paint. Both painting and palette knives are identified by style numbers and can be purchased individually or in sets. Both types can be purchased from around $5-$10 a piece.
Clean your palette or painting knife by wiping it off on a paint rag or washing it with soap and water in the sink. Palette and painting knives are pretty hardy, so you don’t need to treat them as well as your brushes, but you will want to make sure not to bend them or damage the tips.
Brush Use, Care, And Storage
When you start painting, dip your brush in water first then blot it off on your painting rag before dipping it into your paint.
Never let paint dry on your brush.
You will need to constantly be rinsing your brush in your water jar throughout the course of your painting session. As little as one minute is enough for acrylic paint to dry in the brush, resulting in damaging or ruining the bristles. Every time you change paint colors, set down your brush, change brushes, or clean up an area of paint on your canvas, you’ll need to rinse your brush out. I tend to rinse my brushes about every one to two minutes during a typical painting session. You do this to keep the brush clean, make sure the paint flows smoothly, and to keep the paint away from the ferrule. After you’ve rinsed your brush in water, blot it off on a rag to remove excess water.
Do not let paint go under the ferrule.
Don’t use the same brushes for water-based and oil-based paints.
Be mindful of which brushes you use for different techniques. Don’t use your expensive brushes (like sable) for scumbling*! Better to use a stiffer, less expensive brush for that technique.
*Scumbling is a technique like scrubbing, in which a very dry brush is used to scrub a thin layer of paint over another. This can be hard on your brush bristles, so it’s best to do this technique with a brush you don’t mind ruining a bit.
Always wash in lukewarm water. Don’t wash with hot water, as this can break the adhesive bond between the bristles and the handle.
You can wear gloves if you want (helpful if you have acrylic nails) but they’re not necessary.
At the end of your painting session, you’ll need to wash your brushes thoroughly with soap and water. Soap can either be purchased at the art store or you can use dish soap (Dawn, for example).
Don’t let your brush sit in water. Firstly, the water will break down the adhesive used to hold the brush together and secondly, leaving your brushes bristle down in water will damage the shape of your bristles.
Don’t store your brushes upright in a container. The leftover paint/water will run under the ferrule and eventually break down the adhesive bond.
Do store your brushes lying on a flat surface (make sure the bristles aren’t in contact with any surface that will bend them out of shape) or hanging upside down (not stuck upside down in a bin!) with the bristles aiming towards the floor.
To reshape your brushes if they get bent out of shape, wash them thoroughly then leave a tiny bit of clean soap and water in the brush and wrap the bristles with a piece of paper towel or toilet paper. When you go to use your brush again, just take the paper off and rinse the brush off in your water.
This is a good brush holder that can be purchased from just about any art store. It holds your brushes in an upright position so you can find them easily while you’re painting and folds up so they can be stored flat when you’re not using them. It’s okay to have the brushes in an upright position when you’re using them, but keep them flat when they’re not in use. You can purchase these from just about any art store for $15-20.
Exercise One: Try Out Your Brushes
Bonus Exercise: Make Your Own Paintbrush Holder
If you have some leftover canvas you can make one yourself. You can always buy a remnant of canvas or other heavy duty fabric, too. The length and width of the fabric will be determined by the number of brushes you own and their lengths. For example, with a 7” brush you’d want the fabric to be at least 14” so you have room to lay the brush down, cover it ¾ of the way with the folded fabric and still have a little room at the top to fold over the hair of the brush.
I just did this and it’s awesome—it holds all my brushes. All you need to do is fold the canvas so the bottom part comes about ¾ of the way to the top. Using a sewing machine, stitch the edges closed. Then about every 1”, stitch from the bottom up to the top of your folded piece. Put your brushes in these slots and roll the canvas up. If you want, add a ribbon on one edge (see picture above) so you can tie your roll closed.
Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about the different types of paint brushes and palette knives, and their likely use. Also you’ve learned about the recommended method of holding your paintbrush. The importance and methods of caring for your painting supplies has also been discussed.
Next lesson: Basic Color Theory