How to Brush up on your paintbrush choices

9 10 2010

Brushes apply paint, so they’re a pretty important part of your paint box. And they’re a pretty simple tool — some hair glued or held by a metal ferrule clamped to a handle.

Splitting hairs: Natural, synthetic, and more

The hairs on a brush can be either natural or synthetic and soft or stiff. The following list gives you the lowdown on hair styles:

  1. Natural hair: Brushes with natural hair are more costly because the hair comes from the fur of varmint-like creatures. Sable is the most popular natural hair, with kolinsky sable being the most valuable. These hairs have memory, snap, and spring, meaning they quickly go back into their original shape after you mess with them or paint with them. A squirrel or camel hair brush gets mooshed into a shape and stays in the mooshed shape until you rinse it. Mooshed has its purpose, like mopping out a cloud in a sky, but most watercolorists like a brush that springs back into shape — pointed and ready for action.
  2. Synthetic hair: These manmade hairs are excellent today, and it’s often difficult to tell the difference between synthetic and natural brushes. You can buy excellent synthetic brushes that cost one-tenth of what a sable brush costs. If you accidentally ruin the tip of a synthetic brush by scrubbing, you won’t pay a lot to replace it.
  3. Boar hair: Stiff-haired brushes are called bristle brushes, and they’re made from boar hairs. Stiff brushes are good for scrubbing (a form of erasing); the softer bristles can’t take the abuse.

I recommend starting your collection with some nice synthetic brushes. If you can afford a sable brush, get one; you’ll definitely need it as you get more advanced in your painting. As with most things, the difference between beginners and professionals (who are just artists who have sold one painting) is the price of their toys. Enjoy playing.


Handles are usually wood, although they can be plastic or something else, and are either long or short. Typically watercolorists work closer to their paintings, so they prefer short handles, 9 to 10 inches long. If you want to put more distance between yourself and your work, use a long-handled brush that’s 13 to 14 inches long so you can stand back.

Brush shapes and sizes

Brushes come in two shapes: flat (like a fan) and round (like a crayon). If the shape isn’t obvious from the way the hairs lay, just look at the shape of the metal ferrule that holds the hairs to the handle; it will be flat or round. All brush shapes come in different hair choices. You can get soft hairs or stiff bristles in most shapes, just as you can get expensive or cheap brushes in most shapes.

Brushes are sized using a number system in which the bigger the number, the bigger the brush. Tiny brushes are number zero (0), but they can be smaller yet and have more zeros. The more zeros, the smaller the brush. Triple zero (000) is commonly the smallest. The width of a flat brush sometimes is measured in inches rather than numbers.

I find lots of discrepancies in brushes and sizes. I have two brushes of the same brand and size, but even they aren’t exactly the same. Many brushes are handmade and vary a little. You can buy a brush and love it. When you replace it with the same brand and size, you may not like it as much. Use the number only as a comparison point. The numbers vary between companies, countries, and even shipments of the same brand.

Expand your brush collection as you continue to paint. After you’ve been painting a while, you’ll know what you’re lacking and can see what newfangled inventions may give you a creative boost.


great little article on brushes.. found at

That should help you narrow your choices down a little as there are soooo many to choose from!

Mikescribble out!




2 responses

9 10 2010

Hey Mike, loving your blog too. You’ve go some great informative posts here like this one. Right I’m off to read some more, I’m picking up all sorts of useful tips.

9 10 2010
Mike Scribbling

Hey! thanks for the Comment Juliebroom!! Feel free to subscribe, im constantly updating and trying to put together a informative blog with lots of stuff for everyone!.. 🙂 glad you found the article helpful!

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