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Paintbrushes for artists are a great tool for creativity, but with the huge array available, it can get confusing selecting the right one for your needs. Our buying guide shows you what to look for, including shape, size and bristle type, to help you achieve your desired results when painting with acrylic, oil or watercolour paints.
Paintbrushes and artist brushes are made from either natural or synthetic bristles, with different levels of absorbency, stiffness and spring (how quickly it returns to its original shape). Softer brushes provide smoother brushstrokes and are ideal for paint that spreads easily, such as watercolour paint. Stiffer brushes provide textural results and are better for thick and heavy paint, such as oil and acrylic paint.
Brushes with natural bristles commonly use the following animal hairs.
These man-made bristles use either nylon or polyester filaments and are usually cheaper and more durable than natural hair paintbrushes. Synthetic paintbrushes can be soft or stiff, and are referred to as nylon brushes or Taklon brushes.
Paintbrushes come in various shapes for different purposes. Below are the most common brush shapes for artists.
Flat with a sloping edge. Ideal for shading, highlighting, filling corners and tight areas.
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Flat with edges curving inward at the tip. Ideal for blending, applying thick colours and controlled strokes.
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Flat with a fine tip and gradually angled edge, resembling a sword. Ideal for striping, tight curves, freehand lettering and fine line detail work.
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Slightly flared with an angled flat end that resembles a deer’s foot. Ideal for precise painting and adding texture.
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Similar to a filbert brush, but with longer hair and capable of holding more colour. Ideal for blending, applying colour and figurative work.
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Flat and spread out like a fan. Ideal for blending, feathering, smoothing and creating textured effects.
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Flat with a rounded edge, forming an oval edge. Sometimes called cat’s tongue. Ideal for blending, colour washes, shading and highlighting.
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Medium-length bristles with a square end. Ideal for broad and bold strokes, filling wide spaces, washes, edges, fine lines and stripes.
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Flat with a curved head. Produces a repetitive pattern of thin lines, making it ideal for details such as fur and feathers.
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Thin brush with a very fine point. Ideal for fine lines, outlines, lettering and small details like eyelashes.
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Available in a variety of shapes, with some resembling a makeup brush while others are flatter and stiffer. Ideal for blending, blurring, softening and large washes.
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These classic brushes have a round or pointed tip. Ideal for filling in areas, outlining, sketching, detailed work and controlled washes.
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Round with short, tight hair. Less flexible than round brushes, making them ideal for detailed work.
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Round with a flat top and densely packed bristles. Designed specially for stencilling.
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Similar to a flat brush but with a squarer and larger head. Ideal for applying colour washes and filling in large areas.
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Paintbrush sizes are indicated on the handle and refer to how big or wide the brush is. The higher the number, the bigger the brush.
The most common sizes are from 000 to 20. Brushes below size 4 are ideal for details, while sizes 4 to 6 are commonly used for painting small areas. Brushes above size 6 are used for broad strokes and large areas. Note that sizes can be inconsistent between brush manufacturers, so a size 6 in one brand could be different to size 6 in another brand.
You may also see sizes listed as 4/0, 10/0, 12/0 and more. These refer to the number of 0s, so 2/0 is 00, 4/0 is 0000 and so on. The more 0s, the smaller the brush.
Flat brushes are sometimes identified by their width in inches, so you’ll find their sizes listed as 1/2”, 3/4”, 1/8” and more.
Stiffer brushes are better for acrylic paint so choose hog bristles or a stiff synthetic brush. Natural brushes can get damaged over time due to chemicals used in acrylic paint. As a rough guide, select a brush that’s harder than a watercolour brush and softer than an oil paintbrush.
Hog bristles are best for oil paints as they are strong, resilient and accentuate the qualities of the paint.
Natural brushes such as sable or squirrel hair brushes are recommended for watercolour painting as they retain their shape longer and can hold more water. Soft synthetic brushes are a good alternative.
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