Understanding Brushes:

A Guide to Price, Size and Style

Confused about art brushes?

When I first began to paint, I couldn’t tell a watercolor brush from an oil or acrylic brush. I had no idea what constituted a good brush from a poor one. I’d buy what the instructor told me to buy for a particular class and then marked each 'flavor' with different colored nail polish so I could remember which medium for which to use them.


After a while, I got it. And after another little while I began to find my favorites. Now I’m a ‘brush-aholic’! Oh, and those brushes from my college days? I still have quite a few and they’re still good 30 years later.

Cheap vs Expensive:  Why the BIG Price Difference?

Student Grade Brushes

These brushes are less expensive and often cheaply manufactured. They’re made with lower quality materials and created with less precision. Student grade brushes lose their shape fast (if they ever had any), wear out quickly and often fall apart after short use. They will split on you, have stray hairs that can’t be tamed and have no “snap” or memory for their original shape. They are often either too stiff or too floppy. A good brush has good spring and snap. You can usually tell a student grade brush from a better quality brush by the price.

Multi-Packs

Stay away from multi-packs or assorted brushes. They are the cheapest of the cheap and I have found that these are usually worse than student grade! Only buy these if you intend to trash them.

High-Quality Brushes

Some very high quality brushes are sold for a reasonable price without being labeled ‘student grade’. A good quality brush will retain its shape when loaded with paint and will bounce back to its original shape after each stroke. They will last longer, the ferrules don’t rust and the bristles stay put.


A bad brush will not return to its original shape when loaded or after each stroke – or worse, will either not bend or remain flopped to one side. These types of brushes are utterly useless.

What Brushes are Made of and Why They Cost So Much

Sable and Squirrel Natural Brushes

Made of animal hair (no animals are harmed for the purposes of brush making). Shorter hair is more readily available and therefore less expensive. So of course, longer length brushes are more expensive. Natural hair may be used alone or blended with synthetic filaments.

Synthetic Brushes

Made of man-made nylon or polyester filaments that can be tapered, tipped, abraded or etched to increase color carrying abilities. Filaments can be dyed and baked to make them softer and more absorbent.

Why Synthetics Might Be a Better Buy

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The Finest brushes are made from

this little guy’s tail!

     • Synthetics are less prone to damage from solvents and paint

     • Easier to keep clean

     • More durable than natural brushes

     • Better suited for acrylics than other brushes because of their durability. Acrylics can be fairly ruthless on brush fibers.

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Isabey Isacryl Synthetic Brushes

Isabey Isacryl Synthetic is one of the finest handmade synthetic brushes available. A special mix of thick, synthetic fibers replicates the finest natural hair with the durability of a synthetic so it keeps its tight shape longer than any other synthetic.


These brushes are ideal for oil paint and heavy body acrylics. They have an incredible feel and spring for unparalleled precision and control. Finely tapered hairs interlock, keeping a perfectly sharp point and edge resisting splaying when used with solvents.

These well-priced brushes have a beautiful shape, hold a lot of paint, and the taper allows for broad strokes as well as fine linear marks. These are great soft and springy brushes.

Bristle brushes are stiff, less expensive brushes with good “snap” but lack a fine point or wedge. Sometimes my beginning students will show up with these instead of the synthetics that I list because they are trying to save money. They are fair brushes to begin a painting with, but unless you are prepared to paint impasto, they won’t work for creating finer detail.


A Note About Bristle Brushes:   Bristle brushes tend to easily lose their form when used with water, so if you are looking for something to 
use with acrylics, you’re better off buying synthetic brushes.

Winsor & Newton Winton Hog Bristle Brushes

Winton brushes feature the finest Chinese hog bristles, handset into seamless corrosion resistant ferrules. The natural curve of the bristle is utilized to produce a resilient brush that retains its shape even after heavy use.


The handles have a green stained natural wood finish protected by four coats of lacquer. While specifically designed for use with oil, these quality brushes are equally suitable for acrylic.

Bristle Brushes

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Luco Black Squirrel

Round Brush


These gorgeous pure squirrel hair pointed round locks are fixed with hand-tied quills to this unique chiqueter brush. The brush features a long, round, black handle.

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Sable

Designed for fine detail, delicate oil washes and soft blending. Strong and springy with the ability to hold the shape of a very fine point or edge because the hairs have a natural taper. Sable brushes made for watercolor usually lack the spring needed for painting with oils.

Kolinsky Sable (expensive)

These brushes aren’t really made from sable. They’re created from the tails of mink found in northeastern China and Siberia. Considered as professional brush and the best material for watercolor and oils. These brushes have great “snap” or memory for returning to their original shape.

Red Sable

Again these brushes aren’t sable but come from red weasel, are less expensive than Kolinsky and a better quality alternative to a Kolinsky.

Red Sable Blend

Some manufacturers will produce red sable blended with ox hair to make a more economical brush, but the fine point is sacrificed because of this.

Squirrel Hair

These brushes are made from a very fine, thick hair taken from squirrel tails. The gray squirrel, native to Russia is highly prized and usually in short supply. Brown squirrel is more readily available, less expensive and often used for student grade brushes. These brushes are very delicate and expensive. I bet you’ve never seen a brush like this Luco Black Squirrel 4 Locks Round! They also come in 6 and 8 Locks. Can you image what you’d use the one  on the left for?

Most Common Brush Shapes and Their Uses

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​You’ll find these types of brushes made for all different mediums. You’ll want to make sure that you choose the best type of brushes that are made for each particular medium though. (More on this below.)

Rounds

Round brushes converge to points. Less versatile than other brush shapes because they allow for little variation in size and shape of strokes. Usually used for small detail and line work.

Pointed Rounds

These rounds come to a finer point and are used for detail.

Flats

Square or rectangle that converges to a wedge. From the edge they look narrow. Holds plenty of paint and produces longish, straight brush strokes. Ideally should come to a crisp chiseled edge which is ideal for thin straight lines.

Brights

Shorter flat. Used when shorter strokes and more control are wanted.

Filberts

A filbert looks like a flat with the rounded corners and are used when you want softer edges and blends.

Fan

Used for blending. Useful for creating foliage clusters and grasses although I find these brushes too easily create symmetrical and obvious patterns which are unnatural in nature. Practice laying strokes with this brush by twisting, turning and dabbing the brush rather than flatly laying down repetitive monotonous strokes.

Scripts or Liner

Long, narrow and comes to a fine point. Used for fine line work.

Mop

Mops are soft, soft, soft and used for softly blending oil paints. Good ones don’t lose their hairs all over your painting. Mops, or blenders come in all shapes and sizes, from bushy to a shape similar to a filbert.

Rigger

Used for very fine line work. Can be a challenge to master, but once you do they can be fun.

Brush Sizes and Numbering

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The size of a brush is indicated by a number printed on the handle.


Brushes start from 00000, then 00, 0, 1, 2, and up.


The higher the number, the bigger or wider the brush.


Some large flat brushes brushes are referred to a 1/4 inch, 1/2 inch, 1, 2, 3 and 4 inch.


Unfortunately, there is little consistency between brush manufacturers as to what these sizes actually are, so a number 10 in one brand can be a different size to a number 10 in another brand. I suggest selecting brushes according to the size they look rather than choosing according to the numbering when picking brushes from different brands.


Purchase a few brushes each from different manufacturers and try them out. After a while you’ll begin to learn what you like and which ones will work for the effects you are wanting to create.


Ask for referrals from artists who know brushes before buying. Most importantly do NOT buy the cheapest brushes you can find. All too often I have beginner students who go cheap and then struggle because ‘they can’t paint’. It isn’t the student – trust me, in this case it’s always the brush. You wouldn’t drive a car with two flat tires would you? You have no control. The same goes with a cheap brush!


Wait! There are MORE differences . . .

How Brushes Differ

(Besides Shape and Size)

Soft Brushes

Springy and silky to the touch. Each strand converges to a fine point. Good for smooth brushwork and fine detail. Usually sable and sable substitutes (synthetic material).

Stiff Brushes

More resilient, stiffer and better used for filling in large areas quickly. I find that these brushes often pick up as much paint as they place on the canvas unless the artist is skilled in using them. Made of ox or hogs hair. Less expensive that synthetic or sable.

Small Brushes

Save the small brushes for your details – and your details should come at the END of a painting, not the beginning.

Large Brushes

I always recommend beginning a painting with a larger brush than you feel comfortable using. A large brush will help you to fill in large areas fast. Using a size #2 brush of any type to paint a 28" x 30" sky will take hours (vs minutes) AND will make your painting look over-worked.

My Favorite Brushes for Oil Painting

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The BEST art brushes for the best price!


Robert Simmons Titanium Series for Oil Painting

Robert Simmons Titanium Brushes TT42

My absolute favorite brushes to use for oil painting (and the ones I always recommend for my beginning students) are an excellent mid-cost synthetic made by Robert Simmons. The Robert Simmons “Titanium” long-handle Filbert brushes wear extremely well, hold their shape and last for years as long as you take good care of them.


These brushes are a high-quality grade that won’t break the bank – and more importantly, they won’t fall apart on you within a couple of weeks. They have a nice spring to them without being too stiff. The quality will last and last, giving you excellent value for your money.


In my opinion these are the BEST Oil Painting brushes for your money! I have my students order a variety of sizes.


Unfortunately the manufacturer is now out of business. When I find some comparable brushes, I will list them here. 

Short Handle vs Long Handle Brushes: Which brush do I need?

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Short Handle Brushes

Short handle brushes are usually created for use with watercolors and are much softer than other brushes. They allow liquid to flow downward onto the paint surface. Stiffer synthetic short handle brushes are often used for acrylics. NEVER use your watercolor or oil brushes for acrylics as acrylics can be rough on a brush.

Long Handle Brushes

Long handle brushes are made for oil and acrylic painting and ideally used for easel painting in a horizontal position on a vertical painting surface. The length makes it easier for the artist to stand back away from the painting and view it as a whole. Always keep your oil and acrylic brushes separate as acrylics tend to be tough on your brushes.