Which Paint Brush Should I Use? / by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall, Last Mark, acrylic and retired paint brushes on panel, 48x26, 2006

One of the advantages of working in an art supply store is that I get to know my art materials intimately, even the stuff that I don't ordinarily work with.  I don't normally write about art materials here in this blog, but today I want to share some of my knowledge on paintbrushes.  In the past I really abused my brushes.  I'd jam them into my canvas or panel like a knife into the gut of my adversary, I'd let the paint dry on them or let them soak over night in paint thinner until the bristles would be eaten away.  Now that I take better care of my brushes and respect my materials a bit, I've gotten to know a little more about what kind of brush to use in a particular situation.  

Brush Sizes and Shapes:

Concerning brush sizes:   Shorter handles are best for when you are working close up and if you are working with a table top easel.  Long handle brushes are best for when you are working standing up.  I prefer to paint standing up.  I enjoy the dynamic, physical energy I feel when I work in front of a tall easel.  As far as the size of the brush fibers, that is pretty much common sense.  Larger brushes are best for working with larger canvases and smaller brushes are best with smaller canvases.

There are a lot of brush shapes, but I primarily use only three brush types:  flats, rounds, and filberts.

Flats:  flats are great for covering a large area fast.  The longer the bristles, the more paint  it can hold, which means the stroke can be longer before having to go back to the palette.  The wider the brush, the more ground you can cover, meaning less work.  A large flat is essential.  Flats are great for background work.

Rounds:  rounds are tube shaped brushes which taper to a point.  They are great for line work and the smallest of the rounds are useful for when details need to be picked out.  Since I am a more linear artist, in that I love working with the line, rounds are essential to me.

Filberts:  as I understand it, filberts were invented for Impressionist artists, probably after some guy named Filbert.  Impressionists liked the brush as their technique allowed for loose handling of the paint, and a more improvisational look over a smooth and refined surface.  A good filbert brush is really a flattened round brush, a hybrid between the flat and the round.  Flats have a squared tip while filberts have tapered off edges.  This makes for a more organic looking stroke.  Sometimes I will use a filbert when I want a fatter line than my rounds can produce.  

Natural vs Synthetic Brushes:

Knowing what kind of paintbrush to use, synthetic or natural, is also important to know.  These days I mostly use synthetic brushes, which is fine, as in recent years I've painted in acrylics more than oil paints.  I shudder at the thought of using sable and other fine brushes, not only for their cost, but also for animal cruelty issues.  I don't have too much a problem with hog's bristle brushes (which are best used with oil paints) as they are a byproduct of food consumption.  Sable, however, is a different story.  I realize you have to accept a certain amount of hypocrisy in life just to survive, but you also have to draw a line sometimes, however arbitrarily.  

Synthetic Brushes: 

Made from nylon, polyester, a blend of nylon and polyester, and “sponge.”)

1.  Better to use with water based paints.  Natural bristle brushes absorb water from the paint, which can then swell up and lose their shape.

2.  More durable than natural bristle.  Best to use synthetic on a rough surface.

3.  Easier to clean than natural brushes (brush fibers lack scales).

4.  Some synthetic brushes, notably those made with nylon, can soften, melt and dissolve if used with shellac, lacquer, contact cement, or paint remover.  Polyester brushes would be recommended for use with these materials.

Natural Hair Brushes:  

Made from hog’s hair bristle, badger, ox, sable, kervin/mongoose, squirrel, goat, pony, and “camel” (which is really a combination of goat, pony, ox – the more robust hairs).

1.  Best used for oil painting.

2.  A good quality natural hair brush will provide a smoother finish, desirable for use when varnishing.

3.  Has flagging on the tips (split ends) – resulting in the brush being able to move more paint and providing a smoother finish, meaning less brush strokes.  Note:  Princeton's line of Catalyst Brushes are synthetic and have flagged tips (a first!).

4.  Softer brushes (sable, kervin/mongoose, squirrel) are ideal for thin paint which spreads more easily and for detailed work as the brush will form a sharper tip.

5.  Robust, hard brushes are ideal for pushing around thick paint and for creating brush marks in the paint.