This article provides a great reference guide for fine artists that are working with oil and acrylic and are trying to find more information on how to choose the best paintbrushes to achieve the desired painting effects.

We’ll look at:

  • How to choose your brushes by size, shape, and material.

  • Anatomy of a brush, learn what the different parts are called.

  • How to take care of your brushes.

  • Why buying a brush set could be a good idea.

Let’s get started.

When Choosing Brushes You Should Consider:

Size – The rule of thumb about brush size is that big brushes should be used for large areas and loose brushwork, and small brushes should be used for small areas and details.

Material – Synthetic or natural? Soft or stiff? Find out what kind of bristles fit best your painting style.

Shape – Each shape delivers different stroke styles, and a different effect. Learning which shape to use to get the wanted effect is very important, and requires some experimenting. Have fun with it.

Keep reading for more details about each of these categories.

Parts of an Art Paint Brush

Part of BrushDescription
HandleWhere you hold the brush. Usually made from painted or varnished wood, but it can also be made from plastic. The length can vary from short to really long.
Bristles or HairsThe part of the brush that holds and applies the paint. They can be natural or synthetic. Good quality brushes have firmly held bristles. It’s important that they don’t fall out while you are painting, for aesthetic reasons and because you may create messes on your painting when you try to remove them.
FerruleUsually made from metal, it connects the handle to the hairs, and keeps the bristles in shape. A good ferrule does not rust or come loose.
HeelThe part of the ferrule that squeezes the hairs and keeps them in place.
CrimpThe part of the ferrule that secures it to the handle.
ToeThe very end of the bristles, where they touch the canvas.
BellyIt’s the wide part of the hairs beyond the ferrule; in a round brush it the middle area of the bristles, before narrowing to a point.

MakeSure You Take Good Care of Your Brushes

Once you are done collecting info on how to choose a brush, you may want to read the extra info at the end of the article about:

  • How to clean your brushes;
  • How to store them;
  • And the convenience of brush sets.

Now let’s get started talking about the three main aspects of a brush to consider: size, material, and shape.

Paint Brush Sizes

The rule of thumb about brush size is that big brushes should be used for large areas and loose brushwork, and small brushes should be used for small areas and details.

The size of a brush is indicated by a number on the handle, and it refers to how thick the brush is at the heel, where the ferrule meets the hairs. Sizes vary from 000, 00, 0, 1, 2, etc.

Different manufacturers have different sizes for the same number, so if you buy supplies online, always refer to the measurement of the brush, not just the size number, especially if you are not familiar with the manufacturer.

How to read manufacturer measurements:

Length: distance from the edge of the ferrule out to the tip of the hair in the brush’s center.

Diameter: distance across a round ferrule at the point where the ferrule ends and the hair begins.

Width: distance across a flat ferrule at the exact point where the ferrule ends and the hair begins.

A brush’s width is different from the width of the paint stroke that the brush makes. The actual width of the stroke varies according to the amount of pressure used, the angle at which the brush is held, the media used, and the flexibility of the brush hair.

The brush stroke will vary depending on how you hold your brushes too. Holding your brush close to the ferrule gives you most control, great for painting details; holding near the end gives you lose strokes.

What Bristles are Better for You?

When buying brushes for acrylic painting, you can get both the stiff bristle brushes used by oil painters and synthetic brushes made for smooth watercolor painting. It all depends on the effect you want to obtain with your brushwork.

Stiffer brushes will leave visible marks on the painting, with more textural results. Softer brushes will give you smoother brushstrokes, with more blending.

Nylon brushes are best to lay flat paint areas, while natural bristles give a more uneven texture.

For oils you need thicker bristles to move the dense and heavy paint around. For watercolors you need a softer brush because the medium is very fluid. Acrylic paints are softer than oils but thicker than watercolors, so your brushes can be somewhere in the middle.

Spring Qualities of Brush Bristles

Most brush manufacturers produce synthetic brushes made specifically for acrylic painting. These are more resistant and springier than those made for watercolor. They are durable and keep their shape well, and make a great choice for beginners.

The first time you use a brush it has a protective coat that keeps it in shape. With your thumb you can break that stiffness and test the flexibility of the bristles.

Moving the hairs with your fingers from side to side will give you an idea of the spring qualities of the bristles and how they’ll handle while you are painting.

Expensive Sable Brushes Are too Fancy for Acrylics

Even though natural bristle brushes created for oil paint can be used with acrylic paint, you may want to avoid expensive sable brushes.

When painting with acrylics you need to keep your brushes wet or immersed in water for a long time, so that the paint does not dry on the brush, and this excessive moisture can ruin the natural fibers quickly.

Never store brushes standing on the bristles, or they'll get deformed.

Types of Artist Brushes

Fan– with fan-shaped bristles, they come in many sizes and thicknesses, and they are great for painting grasses, tree limbs, bushes, blending cloudy skies, and highlights. Natural hair is more suitable for soft blending and synthetic works well for textural effects.

Flat – with long bristles and square ends. They hold a lot of paint and can be used for bold sweeping strokes or on the edge for fine lines. Flats are very useful to cover a big area of paint, or the background.

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