An Introduction to Art Paintbrushes

Artists' paintbrushes come in an array of sizes, shapes, and hairs. Find out more about the different shapes of art paintbrushes and their uses in this visual index, then try them out in your own creative work.

01
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How the Size of an Art Paintbrush Is Indicated

Paint brushes
Image by Catherine MacBride / Getty Images

The size of a brush is indicated by a number printed on the handle. Brushes start from 000, then go to 00, 0, 1, 2, and up. The higher the number, the bigger or wider the brush.

Unfortunately, there is little consistency between brush manufacturers as to what these sizes actually are, so the size of a No. 10 in one brand can be different from a No. 10 in another brand.

02
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Dealing with the Relative Sizes of Different Brand Brushes

Art paint brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Believe it or not, both brushes in the photo are size No. 10. Admittedly, the difference in size isn't usually so extreme; these two brushes were chosen specifically to illustrate the point.

If you're buying brushes from a catalog or online and it's a brand you're not familiar with, check to see if there's an indication of the actual width of the brushes in inches or millimeters. Don't just go by the brush size number.

03
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Thickness of a Brush

Art paint brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Not only do different brands of art paintbrush vary in size even when they're supposedly the same (as indicated by the number), but also in thickness. If you're buying brushes from a catalog or online, remember to consider this if you're not familiar with a particular brand of brush.

If you're painting with watercolor or very fluid paint, a thick brush will hold considerably more paint. This enables you to paint for longer without stopping. But if you want a brush for dry-brush techniques, you may well want a brush that holds less paint.

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Parts of an Art Paint Brusand

Parts of an art paint brush
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

When choosing a brush, examine each part of it. All the variabilities can affect your work.

The handle of a brush is most often made from wood that's painted or varnished, but it can also be made from plastic or bamboo. The length is variable, from really short (such as those in travel paint boxes) to really long (ideal for big canvases). What's more important than length is that the brush feels balanced in your hand. You're going to be using it a lot, so it needs to be comfortable to hold.

What bristles or hairs are in a brush is also variable, depending on what the brush is intended for. Most important is that they're firmly held and aren't going to fall out constantly as you paint.

The ferrule is the part that holds the handle and hairs together and in shape. It's usually made from metal, but not exclusively. Mop brushes, for instance, can have a ferrule made of plastic and wire. A decent-quality ferrule won't rust or come loose.

The toe of a brush is the very end of the bristles, while the heel is where the bristles go into the ferrule at the end of the handle (not that you can usually see this without taking a brush apart). The belly is, as the name would suggest, the fattest part of a brush. (It's most obvious on a round brush, rather than a flat one.) A substantial belly on a round watercolor brush enables you to pick up a large quantity of paint at a time.

05
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Filbert Brush

Photo of Filbert Brush for Painting
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

A filbert is a narrow, flat brush with hairs that come to a rounded point. Used on its side, a filbert gives a thin line; used flat it produces a broad brushstroke; and by varying the pressure as you apply the brush to canvas, or flicking it across, you can get a tapering mark.

If the filbert has hog or bristle hairs, they will wear down with use. The photo shows the front and side views of a very old filbert and a brand-new, never-used one.

A filbert is a favorite brush shape for many because it can produce such a variety of marks. The No.10 filbert is commonly used. Don't throw away worn-down filberts: use them for dry brushing and you won't have to worry as you bash the hairs to spread them out.

06
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Round Brush

Introduction to Art Paint Brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

A round paintbrush is the most traditional brush shape, and what most people imagine when they think "art paintbrush." A decent round brush will come to a lovely sharp point, enabling you to paint fine lines and detail with it, especially if it's a brush made with top-quality Kolinsky sable hair. Look for one that's got a good spring in the bristles, where they snap straight when you take the pressure off the brush.

The round brush in the photo has synthetic hair in it, and didn't have a very fine point even when it was brand-new. But such a brush is useful for creating broad brushstrokes as it's very soft and holds a good quantity of fluid paint. Always consider what you intend to do with the brush; don't have unrealistic expectations of it or you'll just frustrate yourself—and blame your tools for poor painting.

07
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Flat Brush

Introduction to Art Paint Brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

A flat brush is, as the name would suggest, one where the bristles are arranged so that 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.

Not only will a flat brush create a broad brushstroke, but if you turn it so that you're leading with the narrow edge, it'll produce thin brushstrokes. A short flat brush is ideal for small, precise brushmarks.

A flat brush's paint carrying capacity is determined by the bristles it has and by their length. A short-haired, synthetic-bristle flat brush will hold less paint than a long-haired, mixed or natural-hair brush. The flat brush in the photo has hog hair, which holds paint well and, being stiff, is ideal for leaving brushmarks in paint should you wish to do so.

08
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Rigger or Liner Brush

Introduction to rigger paint brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

A rigger or liner brush is a thin brush with extremely long bristles. These may come to a sharp point but can have a flat or square tip. (If angled, it is often called a sword brush.) 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.

09
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Sword Brush

Sword brush for painting
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

A sword brush is a bit like a rigger or liner brush, but is steeply angled rather than pointed. You can paint an extremely thin line by using only the tip, or a wider line by holding the brush so that more of its hair touches the surfaces. No surprises then that it's also known as a striper brush.

By rotating the brush in your hand as you move it across the surface, and by lowering or raising it, you get fluid, calligraphic mark making. If you hold the brush loosely in your hand and move across the surface quickly, letting it do what it wants to some extent, you get a free, expressive mark. This is great for branches in trees, for instance.

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Mop Brush

Introduction to Art Paint Brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

As the name "mop" suggests, a mop brush will hold a large quantity of fluid paint. It's a soft and floppy brush, ideal for large watercolor washes.

Be sure to spend the time to clean mop brushes thoroughly when you're done painting; it's not a job to be rushed on a brush with this much hair.

11
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Fan Brush

Fan Brush
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

A fan brush is a brush with a thin layer of bristles spread out by the ferrule. A fan brush is commonly used to blend colors but is also perfect for painting hair, grasses, or thin branches, although you need to be careful not to make identical or repetitive marks that look unnatural.

Possible uses for a fan brush include:

  • Stippling (spreading out small dots or short dashes)
  • Highlights in hair, as it helps produce the illusion of individual hairs
  • Smoothing and blending out brushstrokes
  • Painting a tree or grass
12
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Waterbrush: A Cross Between a Brush and a Fountain Pen

Introduction to Art Paint Brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

A waterbrush is like a combination of a fountain pen and a brush. It consists of a head with the brush on it and a handle that's a plastic reservoir that holds water. The two parts screw together and apart very easily. A slow, constant trickle of water comes down the brush's bristles as you use it, and you can get more by squeezing the reservoir.

A waterbrush is ideal for using with watercolor paints and watercolor pencils, including lifting color directly from them. Various manufacturers produce waterbrushes, in a few sizes, and in either a round or flat shape. If your local art store doesn't stock them, many online art stores do.

Waterbrushes are useful for on-site sketching, together with a small travel watercolor set, as it eliminates the need to take a container with water. To clean the brush, simply squeeze it gently to encourage more water to flow out, then wipe it on a tissue. It doesn't take much water to clean the brush, but it's also easy to refill the waterbrush's reservoir from a tap or a bottle of water.

Different brands work slightly differently. Some have an easier, continuous flow of water and others require a definite squeeze to get water out. It is generally not recommended to fill waterbrushes with dilute watercolor nor with calligraphy ink, since both may clog up the brush. Depends on the brand of the waterbrush (and particle size in the ink) it may be possible to fill the brush with sepia ink without problems.

A waterbrush doesn't hold as much pigment as a sable watercolor brush since the bristles as synthetic, so you'll find yourself picking up color more often. The bristles are also prone to staining (as you can see in the photo), but that's hardly unique to a waterbrush.

A waterbrush makes painting from a dark to a light color really simple: Keep painting and the extra water thins the paint until eventually all that's left is water. But these brushes also make painting large areas an even tone trickier than with a conventional brush.

13
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Colour Shapers

Introduction to Art Paint Brushes Colour Shapers
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: © 2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

Colour Shapers are perfect for impasto and sgraffito painting techniques. They have a firm but flexible tip made from silicone, which you use to push paint around (they obviously don't absorb paint like a brush). Colour Shapers are also useful for blending pastels. They're available in different shapes and sizes, as well as different degrees of firmness.
 

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Varnishing Brush

Art Paint Brushes -- Varnishing Brush
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Your initial reaction to having a dedicated brush that you use only for varnishing a painting may be that it's an unnecessary extravagance. Why not just use one of your larger paintbrushes? Well, considering that varnishing is one of the final things you do to a painting, and probably only to those paintings you think worthwhile, isn't it worth a small investment to ensure it's done properly? 

A varnishing brush isn't going to wear out in a hurry, so you won't have to replace it very often. A good varnishing brush helps ensure you get a smooth coat of varnish. And by using it only for varnish, it will never get tainted by paint.

You're looking for a flat brush which is at least a couple of inches (5 centimeters) wide, about a third of an inch (1 centimeter) thick, and has long hairs. These can be either synthetic or natural hair, but either way should be soft with a bit of spring.

You don't want a "scratchy" brush that will leave brush marks in the varnish. Check that the hairs are well anchored, that they're not going to keep falling out as you apply the varnish.

Larger art material stores and online art stores should stock a range of varnishing brushes. Pick them up and see how comfortable they feel in your hand. Alternatively, look in your local hardware store—though you may want to cut off some of the hairs to reduce the thickness of the brush, and be sure to avoid cheap DIY brushes whose hairs will almost certainly fall out regularly.

15
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Toothbrush

Introduction to Art Paint Brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

No, you're not seeing things. This is a toothbrush and it does belong in the visual index of art paintbrushes. A toothbrush is the perfect brush for splattering paint to create small drops, such as spray on a wave or in a waterfall, or texture on a rock. It also has the potential for creating weathered roof tiles or shingles. 

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Cheap Decorating Brush

Introduction to Art Paint Brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

A cheap decorating brush is useful for applying gesso or primer to a canvas because you don't have to worry about getting it spectacularly clean afterward, which can be quite time-consuming. Also, any primer left in the brush will cement the bristles together rather well when it dries. The disadvantage is that hairs tend to fall out of a cheap brush; either pick these out with your fingers or a pair of tweezers.

17
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Stencil Brush

Photo of stencil brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

A stencil brush is round with short, stiff hairs cut flat (rather than pointed). This makes it easier to paint a stencil without getting paint under the edges.

Don't dismiss it as a brush unsuitable for fine art painting. It has potential for creating texture: foliage in a tree or clumps or grass, beard stubble on a face, or rust on a metal object.

18
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Brush Protectors

Introduction to Art Paint Brushes
A visual index of the different types of art paint brushes. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

A quality brush will often be sold with a plastic protector around the bristles. Don't throw it away; it's useful for protecting your brushes when you're traveling, whether to paint on location, to go to a workshop, or on vacation.