Choosing the Right Paint Brush
I bet you can picture yourself: You walk into Wallack’s and turn down the first aisle to pick up a paint brush for your project. To your amazement, you’re met with thousands of brushes. Some are pointy, some are flat and some are even the size of your head!
Your eyes widen and you think, “Wow!!” All you wanted was to find a paint brush that will finish the painting you started.
So, where do you even start?
There are many types of paint brushes, and since the invention of the paintbrush, many new types have been made to accommodate all the different types of mark-making that you could imagine.
Parts of a Paint Brush
The parts of a paintbrush are fairly simple.
Every paint brush will have bristles, a handle and a piece of metal that will hold the two together.
The bristles will be the most important part of a brush. Depending on what type of bristles, the outcome of the brush stroke and how the brush interacts with the paint will vary quite a bit.
The handle is relatively the same between all types of brushes, but can vary slightly in width. You can choose typically between two brush lengths as well: Short-handle and long-handle.
Some brushes will only be made with one length of handle. Like a watercolour brush, for example, will only ever have a short handle. Whereas oil painting brushes will typically all come in a long-handle. Acrylic or mixed-media brushes are found in either length of handle.
Why the different handle lengths, you may wonder? Well, a longer handle is typically used for working on an easel, when you may want to stand away from the painting to get a better eye for the composition while you work. A short-handle brush is great for up close work.
Some artists find that using a longer brush for working with oil paint can also help balance the brush in your hand and allow the paint to be guided over the canvas with more ease. This is useful because oil paint is quite thick.
Materials used to make a Paint Brush
Brush handles are typically made out of wood which is coated in lacquer. The coating helps to protect the wood from getting saturated with water or solvents when it’s sitting in wet containers. The coating will also paint the brush far easier to clean, and make it a pleasant experience to hold for the long hours of a painting maraton.
The coating is embossed with the brand of the brush manufacturer, and will also show information about the type of brush and its size.
Different types of Bristles
Real hair brushes are made from several types of animal hairs that range from very coarse hog’s hair, ideally meant for the application of oil paints, to very fine sable’s hair, which is great for watercolour paints.
Different types of hair will achieve different effects. Hog’s hair bristles are stiff and fairly non-absorbent and are meant to push paint around a surface with little effort. They have a great “bounce” to them, meaning they’re less flexible than other bristles. A sable hair brush will be extremely absorbent due to the micro-ridges that are on each hair. This type of hair will expand while it’s dipped into fluid and grasp onto large amounts of water. This is useful because it allows for longer brush strokes in between dipping your brush.
Alternatively, you can also choose a synthetic bristle which will do a fairly good job of mimicking the qualities of a real hair brush. As you can imagine, a synthetic brush can be quite a bit cheaper to manufacture, and therefore will cost you a lot less than the real-hair counterpart. Unfortunately, it is true that in most cases, what you make up for in cost, you will end up sacrificing for in performance.
For some types of painting, like oil painting, it is best to opt for a natural hair bristle because of the frequent use of solvents. A hog’s hair brush is less likely to deteriorate than it’s synthetic counterpart.
Another option is to seek out a brush that uses a combination of synthetic and real hair, which can be more cost effective without cutting out too much performance.
Different shapes you can choose from
A round brush is probably the most universal brush shape. Don’t let the name fool you, as this brush is actually pointed, and is only round if you are looking at it straight on from the toe. This brush is great for a number of uses, but it can be used for detailed work, or to cover large areas depending on the size that you choose. The line that a round brush produces can vary quite a bit just depending on how much pressure you apply.
If you’re thinking of adding only a single brush to your painting kit, a round brush would be the best choice.
A flat brush can be significantly wider than a round brush, and it cuts straight across so that the toe of the bristles are completely flat when pressed vertically against a surface. Because they are wider, when you apply paint with a flat brush, you can cover the most ground.
Angled Flat Brush
Just what it sounds like, this brush is cut at an angle rather than straight across. This is beneficial because you can change the orientation of your hand in relation to the canvas while you work. You also can utilize the sharp pointed end to achieve different effects.
A wash brush is similar in look to the flat brushes, but will typically be a little wider and thicker with the purpose of grabbing more paint or water to apply large washes onto a surface.
A filbert brush has a similar intended use to the flat brush, but instead of it being cut straight across, the toe of the bristles are arranged in an arch shape. This can be used to achieve more organic shapes while working.
A fan brush is built with bristles that are fanned out from a single axis point, the handle. A fan brush can be a little unpredictable when it’s being used and therefore is great to use for organic or abstract subjects like trees or cloud formations.
A liner brush looks like a long, thin version of a round brush. They are very flexible and can hold quite a bit of paint in their bristles, which make them ideal for making very long, thin and consistent lines out of paint.
A Blender brush is typically made from short stiff bristles that are tightly compacted. You should use this brush when you want to blend between two colours in a small area. If used in short, circular motions, you can blend quite easily.
As we mentioned before, a brush size can vary drastically, and so it is important to know what to choose and when to use them.
When helping customers at Wallack’s, we typically will ask about the scale of the work they’re painting, and how detailed they like to work. It’s also helpful to know if they plan to work in an abstracted sense, or with a portrait or landscape.
Then, we will take that information and make a recommendation. So, if you plan to work large and abstract, we usually suggest to scale your brushes accordingly. This means, it might be a good idea to select a few larger brushes so that you can work gesturally and cover more ground.
Conversely, if you plan to work small and detailed, choose a range of brushes that fit within that scale. Think about the marks that each brush will make and try to picture the size of it on the surface you have in mind.
If you plan to work somewhere in between or have a number of projects on your mind, it will be a good idea to choose a wider range of brushes, or even choose a brush pack that will suit your needs.
If you’re planning to pack your bags and head out of town, there are some great travel brush options for watercolour that you may want to take advantage of. Compactable paint brushes are clever in that they come right apart and collapse inside of themselves, which is beneficial for two reasons: They will half in size, and the bristles stay protected. Another option for the travel-savvy artist would be to use a brush that has an empty cavity instead of a regular handle. These brushes are incredibly useful if you can’t bring water with you while you plan to work outdoors. All you have to do is pre-fill the body with water, and squeeze to release the water into the bristles.
Both options are great if you find yourself always on the go!
Brush Care and Cleaning your Brushes
Brushes can be one of the most expensive investments when you start painting! That’s why it’s incredibly important to care for your brushes properly.
Here’s some tips for you:
- Keep your brushes wet while you use them
- Clean your brushes after every use - use proper brush cleaner. Make sure you really get in close to the ferrule. This will prevent extra paint build up. Your brushes are clean when the water runs completely clear. Wash the handle as well!
- After you finish cleaning your brushes, reshape them, and let them dry!
- Never leave them in water or solvents overnight.
- Once a month, use a brush conditioner to form your brush and let it dry on the bristles.
Proper storage can be just as important as regular brush care. Brush storage is simple: Either keep them bristle-face up, or just lay them flat. The only thing to avoid is to have the bristles touching anything while drying as this can impact how the brushes stay formed. You can end up with stray hairs that are difficult to form back.
How to use a brush
There are many ways that you can use a brush. Some artists will hold them at the end of the handle to allow for a more gestural approach to their work, while others will place their fingers firmly on the edge of the ferrule to give a more detailed and accurate mark. It’s important to play around with what works best for your hands and body.
Other than how to handle a brush, the use of a brush can be completely freeing. There are very few limitations to how you actually use the brush, but the main intention is to make some sort of mark with some sort of paint (or material) on some sort of surface.
In the world of brushes, there seems to be endless options that can work for you. It's helpful to know what kind of paint you plan to use, how large of a painting you're working on, and what types of brush strokes you want to make.
All of these decisions will help you narrow down the types of brushes that you should have in your kit. From there, you can play around with mark-making to see which brushes work best with certain techniques.
Experimentation is the key to the success of finding your own unique style and preference! So, pick up your brush and get to it!