Artist's Brushes what to use and what ones are best

Artist's Brushes what to use and what ones are best

Often when I teach an art class, the question about what brushes to use for which type of painting or technique comes up.

So here is a run down on the brushes I prefer and have used

If you are a Watercolourist you will find that Sable brushes will work best for you, these natural hair brushes hold the water and 'bellies' out whilst having a good snap & spring. If you like to 'draw' with your watercolour, these types of brushes will taper to a fine point- they are very popular for expressive watercolourists as well as botanical painters. You can also use a sable/nylon mix where you get the benefit of both worlds in that the Sable will retain the liquid and flow onto the paper when pressure is applied and the nylon will give real control, indeed the snap of nylon is sometimes preferred to the more gentle snap from sable. It is also a cheaper option to pure sable. i personally use the Da Vinci Caseneo hand made brush range, its a synthetic fibre that has been made to mimic the natural hair fibres and holds water in a very similar manner. The frugal Queen in me knows that these will most likely last a lot longer as natural hair brushes tend to break down quicker. 

You can also use Sable for oil painting depending on what effect you require, if you wish to see the brush strokes then a bristle brush whether synthetic or hog hair will have the right firmness for that. Nylon or synthetic type brushes go somewhere in between, giving that smoother finish but also flexibility and strength to move the paint around easier, especially if you use an impasto technique.

The main factor for the long life of any artist brushes is good maintenance & cleaning out all of the pigment which tends to collect in the belly of the brush. I have often found that even when I think a brush is clean, a good working through of brush soap tends to find some leftover pigment. so I never miss out this step and my brushes have lasted me a lot longer since i started using that. I use Da Vinci artist soaps, its worth its weight in gold. I can honestly say I've tried everything else, dish detergent, hand soap and even wonder soap, sure they clean the brushes but the difference is that artists soap will also condition the bristles which will help them keep their shape and last a lot longer.

These days I paint mainly in acrylic and have a favourite range of nylon brushes I prefer to use. The nylon brushes are really firm, they keep a good shape and they clean out really well. They don’t leave brush marks like a bristle brush does, which is what I prefer for my art.


FILBERT - a filbert is a narrow, flat brush with hairs that come to a rounded point lie a fingernail would normally look like. Used on its side, a filbert gives a thin line; used flat it produces a broad brush stroke; and by varying the pressure as you apply the brush to canvas, or flicking it across, you can get a tapering mark.
FLAT - a flat brush is just that, flat! The bristles are arranged so the brush is quite wide but not very thick. The length of the bristles can vary, with some flat brushes having long and some very short bristles. (The latter is also called a square brush.) When buying a flat brush, look for one where the bristles have a spring to them, or snap back when you bend them gently. 
A flat brush creates a broad brushstroke which is useful for getting an edge together with a large area filled in. If you turn it onto its narrow edge, it'll produce thin brushstrokes. A short flat brush is ideal for small or precise brush-marks.
ROUND - A round paint brush is considered the most traditional brush shape, and what most people think is an "art paint brush". A decent round brush will come to a lovely sharp point, enabling you to paint fine lines and detail with it. Look for one that's got a good spring in the bristles, where they snap straight when you take the pressure off the brush.
OTHER – Fan brushes are good for blending as well as creating plant effects; I find them good for ponga or palm trees, or blending water effects. There is a Mop brush which as the name "mop" suggests, a mop brush is one that'll hold a large quantity of fluid paint. It's soft and floppy which is ideal for large watercolour washes, I wouldn’t recommend it for anything else though as its hard to clean up and a little difficult to control for anything else. And last but not least you have a Rigger, a rigger or liner brush is a thin brush with extremely long bristles. These may come to a sharp point, have a flat or square tip, or be angled. Rigger brushes are great for producing fine lines with a consistent width, making them ideal for painting thin branches on trees, boat masts, or cat's whiskers. They're also good for signing your name on a painting.

Proper use, together with correct care and cleaning will ensure your brushes have a longer life span.

Storing your brushes - always keep your brushes aired so they don’t go mouldy. And whenever possible, in an upright position, never on their tips unless you want them to look like and paint like a fan.

Its best to try and keep handles dry, to prevent them from loosening and cracking. When you dip the head into water, try to keep the water level below the crimping and only wet the ferrule. What is a ferrule you ask? Well it is the metal part of a paintbrush that holds the bristles to the handle, if you dont look after your brushes properly this part will rust and the bristles will fall out..

Always clean a good quality brush thoroughly after each painting session. If working in watercolour, rinse in cold water. Remove as much moisture as possible with kitchen roll and reshape before storing. If you need to transport your brushes around try using a bamboo brush roll. This not only keeps brushes secure and prevents damage to brush heads, but also allows for air ventilation. They look like a sushi mat but have seperate compartments to hold brushes seperate.

Oil and acrylic paint is less easy to remove from the belly of the brush head. There are some excellent cleansers available for both types of paint! I prefer using the brush soaps that are available, like the Da Vinci brand, my go to soap. It also works well for removing dried paint and for those marks you left on the tablecloth or clothing. As an alternative, washing up liquid or a cream cleanser (found in the bathroom) are ok or a good quality hand degreasing agent - usually used by mechanics for washing their hands is excellent, but brush soap is best as it also conditions the bristles and keeps your brushes in good order, meaning they will last a lot longer too. To store good quality oil brushes, it is recommended you reshape and apply Linseed Oil or Pure Almond Oil etc, but you will need to cleanse before next use.

artists brush soap for cleaning brushes

The Masters and the DaVinci brush soap that I use. I put the big block into a travel soap container as it comes in a cardboard box and its much easier to store and use like this while the masters soap is smaller and portable in the round container, its great for art classes and painting elsewere where space is limited.


• Always have a set of brushes for each medium you use. It is false economy to use the same brushes for all applications. 'Crossing over' from one medium to another can prove expensive and disastrous when contamination occurs.

• Never use your brushes for mixing paint, use a palette knife for that. Paint can work its way up into the ferrule where it’s hard to get out again and it will then ruin the brush.

Posted: Thursday 7 January 2010


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