Watercolour & Oil Painting Brushes

Anatomy of a paint brush

The tips or points of paint brushes are the natural ends of the hair or bristle—they are never cut or trimmed; all shaping and trimming are done at the root end, by skilful operations. The hairs and bristles of the best brushes are appreciably longer than the portion which protrudes out of the handle; sometimes more hair is held within the metal ferrule that is visible outside, depending on the purposes and quality of the brush. The operations employed in making various types of artists’ brushes are all similar, as outlined in the following paragraphs.

The wooden handles of all artists’ brushes are shaped and proportioned to suit the main purpose for which each is intended; long-established usage has decreed the proper length and balance suitable for each, and so the various types can be distinguished from one another at a glance.
Watercolour brushes have short, black handles, oil painting sables have long slender handles usually cedar-coloured, while the handles of oil painting bristle brushes are very long, shaped proportionately to the size, and usually blond in colour.

Anatomy of a paint brush

Tip: Paint brushes can be made out of a variety of materials including synthetic (plastic imitation) hair and natural (animal) hair. The hairs are bundled together and tied before they are attached to the handle with adhesive. This joining is then covered by the ferrule. The tip is the most delicate and sensitive part of the brush—it is responsible for drawing up and releasing paint and if not treated well, frays quickly, making precision painting more difficult.

Belly: The belly is the middle part of the brush where the paint is held. The belly acts as a reservoir and works similar to a fountain pen that has been dipped in ink. The tip of the brush contains or holds each time only as much paint is needed at the moment, when the artist is painting. The rest of the paint remains in the belly to be used, as soon as the pigment on the tip of the brush runs out of paint.  The more liquid the pain the fuller the belly has to be to hold more paint.

Ferrule: The ferrule is usually made with metal and provides structural support for the hairs of the brush. The more expensive the brush the better the quality of the ferrule, which may be made by chrome, brass or even gold.

Crimp: The ferrule is crimped on to the brush handle to keep it in place.

Handle: Most handles are made of varnished or painted wood to protect it against paints and other mediums used for destroying it. The only part of the brush that is not finished is the one under the ferrule where the hairs are attached with adhesive, in order to bind them strongly with the wood handle.

Brushes come in different qualities and price ranges, but hog bristle brushes are generally recommended for oil painting. Hog brushes with a natural spring are likely to last longer. Sable or nylon brushes can be used

Brush shapes

There are four shapes of brushes: round, flat, filbert, and fan. Brushes are numbered from 1 to 24, and the lower the number, the smaller the brush. For a starter set, include a No. 2 round, a for glazes and fine work. Sable brushes are expensive; nylon brushes are more reasonably priced. You can also paint with a painting knife. The handle of a painting knife is cranked to lift it from the paint surface.

No. 8 and No. 12 flat, a No. 4, No. 6, and No. 8 filbert, and a No. 6 fan brush. Choose a round brush that comes to a good point. It is useful to have more brushes in the middle sizes.

No. 2 round

No. 2 round is perfect used pointed for lines and details and is also used on its side.
No. 8 flat

No. 8 flat is used flat for a broad stroke, or on its side for a thinner line
No. 12 flat

No. 12 flat gives a broader stroke, and the top can be used to make straight edges
No. 4 filbert
No. 4 filbert is a versatile brush, used flat as here, on its side, or on its point.
No. 6 filbert
No. 6 filbert holds more paint. The rounded point is good for blending.
No. 8 filbert
No. 8 filbert gives a broader stroke, but can still create a fine line used on its side.
No. 6 fan is used lightly to skim the surface, and softly blend and feather

Different types of brushes

Red sable watercolor brushes

Red Sable Watercolor Brushes

The one source of hair for the finest brushes is the tail of the kolinsky. No other hair has the same springiness, durability, and combination of desirable properties. This hair is delicately tapered; the tip is slender and comes to a fine point and beyond its widest point or “belly” the hair again tapers somewhat toward the root. Some brushes are set so that the opening of the ferrule grips the belly; others are gripped above or below this point. The character of the brush varies according to the point at which the hairs are gripped.

The hairs are cut from the tail, sorted according to length, and separated from the fur, misshapen hairs and those with defective and damaged points being removed; the hairs are then heat-treated and degreased. The shortest hairs are about IVs inches in length and the longest 2V4 inches; the fact that the longest are six times as valuable as the shortest, partly explains the sharp jump in price as the brush size increases. By ingenious and skilled hand operations each brush is shaped, uniformly sized and set into its ferrule in a rubber compound and vulcanized, and the metal ferrule is firmly attached to its handle by means of an efficient crimping machine.

Best watercolour brushes

There must be no concavity between its tip and its belly (widest girth). An exaggerated form of the concave tip is seen in the “lemon-seed” shape which inferior brushes assume when wet. Watercolour brushes may be examined by wetting them, shaking out the water, and shaping them gently with the fingers. The resiliency of hair and sharpness of point is apparent to the experienced user. A shipment or lot of any kind of finest-grade artists’ brushes will be uniformly acceptable, but in the case of the water-colour brush, there are enough slight differences in individual brushes to cause very particular artists to make their own choices.

Second-best red sables

Next to the top quality watercolor brush one has a choice of pure red sable with a shorter or smaller hold of hair within the ferrule, or a blend of red sable with ox hair. Ox hair, from the ears of certain species of cattle, is firmer, stiffer, and more springy than red sable. Next in quality are a number of other hairs sold under the names of Russian sable (fitch), brown sable, black sable, etc.

Other Hairs

There are several other kinds of hairs used in paint brushes, and the nomenclature of some of these is not very clear. Camel-hair brushes (actually made from nearly every kind of animal except camels; the best grades are made from squirrel tails) are too soft and have not sufficient elasticity or “life” for average professional purposes, yet their floppy or mop-like character makes them desirable for some manipulations. An inferior grade of sable is generally preferable to camel hair. Ox hair is much less expensive than red sable and generally inferior, but its greater rigidity makes it desirable for some uses.

Chinese & Japanese brushes

The Chinese and Japanese brushes in reed and bamboo handles are obtainable in a number of styles and are liked by some artists; others are unable to use them. Made from many varieties of hair, they are designed for procedures that are entirely foreign to most of our Western purposes, but the sensitive character of line and versatility of effect they produce show their value when employed in trained hands. Their characteristics as a general rule are those of the better Western brushes.

Red sable brushes

While the customary brush for oil painting is the bristle brush, the red sable oil brush is also extensively in use, especially for styles of painting that call for smooth, flat, or precise stroking. The rounds do not have the pronounced bulge or belly of the water-color brush but are of more slender construction and taper directly into the ferrule. The brights have sharper corners and less thickness than the longs; sizes are smaller and numerical designations are not the same as in bristle brushes.

Bristle brushes

bristle brushes
Bristle Brushes

The standard artists’ oil painting brush is made from superlative grades of bleached white hogs’ bristles, carefully gathered and selected before they reach the market; the very highest grades disappeared in the early 1940s, and although the kinds now available are considerably improved over those of recent years, the best of our present supply of brushes is definitely below the old standard.

Bristle brushes are still made with the same care and expert workmanship, however, and the details of their craftsmanship entail difficult hand operations similar to those outlined under red sable watercolour brushes. Instead of the sharp tips of the hair, natural bristle has a split end, forked and branched like a miniature twig; this is called the flag. Artists’ oil painting bristle brushes come in three major shapes—rounds, flats, and brights.

Like the sables, the best sorts have a considerable hold of bristle within the ferrule in order to create springy resiliency. The final test of the excellence of a flat bristle brush is its ability to retain its shape under controlled pressure in the hands of a competent painter; a poor brush will splay out at the corners like a broom.

Some hog bristles are normally curved. Brushes are normally protected from damage to the bristles and their Hags before getting into the consumers’ hands, by a bit of starch or gum; hence in the shops, the common ones may look as well as the better grades.

Flat Bristle Brushes

Flat brushes are more versatile than round ones, hence they are much more popular; the brights also are popular for manipulating very buttery paints. Less-used shapes in bristle brushes are the chisel-edge flats, which are bevelled or wedge-shaped at the end, and the very useful oval or filbert brush, which is a flat brush with distinctly rounded corners, resembling the shape of a well-worn flat brush.

When pressed firmly on canvas and drawn across with the handle held at a sharp angle to the surface, a good, long bristle brush will form a point of contact a short distance from the ferrule, known as the heel. This action will not occur properly with a brush that has been allowed to accumulate dried paint at its root, or with one that is either too harsh or too lime.

Special brushes

A large variety of brushes other than the sorts that artists customarily use will be found in the more complete supply shops. Made for speciality uses, such as lettering, lining, and architects’ and decorators’ work, these are often of considerable value for special manipulations and to meet the various requirements of the individual’s purposes.

Single-stroke brush

single stoke brush
Single stroke brush

A broad, flat red sable brush of great versatility, originally designed for lettering; the larger sizes are useful for broad watercolour washes and for general use in watercolour. Their widths are indicated infractions up to one inch, not by number.

Cheaper grades containing various amounts of ox hair are also available; in fact, some painters prefer these to the pure red sable for operations where their greater springiness is desirable. Strokes of considerable delicacy and variety can be obtained by using the edge, and if, instead of slanting the brush as one would a pen or pencil one leans it in the direction opposite to that of the stroke so that its right-hand or leading corner does not touch the paper, the hairs of the left side will trail out singly and produce a very thin line.

Architect’s rendering brush

This is an oversize or giant round watercolor brush, sizes 24, 26, 28, and 30 usually made of best-quality oxhair and therefore less expensive than a middle-sized red sable would be. Useful tor broad washes and all-around painting in water color, because of its size, the ox hair can be handled much as red sable can in smaller brushes. Invaluable to many water-colour painters.

Riggers (Rigger Brushes)

Rigger Brushes

These are blunt, long, half-size lettering brushes. Lettering and show-card brushes, dagger-shaped and diagonal liners, fitches, and fresco brushes all have their uses, and they come in a variety of grades. A fitch brush is a diagonally edged bristle brush and has no relation to the animal of the same name, from which the hair known as Russian sable is obtained.

Quill brushes

In the old days, brushes were set in birds’ quills taken from the portion lying between the feather and the root, instead of metal ferrules. Quills come from pigeon, duck, goose, swan, eagle, and condor feathers and, in the days before numbering systems were standardized, were sold under these names. Many styles of quill-set brushes are still on the market, particularly the long, soft sable and camel-hair lettering brushes, the hair of which would be cut or broken if gripped by metal ferrules. Quill-set brushes are less expensive than those set in metal ferrules.

Brushes for manipulations

The artist has several tools with which he may modify or alter oil paint after it has been stroked on the canvas. Al- though he may use any and all of his brushes for these purposes, there are a few that are specially intended for such uses, never to be dipped into paint or used to apply it to the surface, but intended to be used in a clean, dry condition for stroking the paint after its direct application. These include the following:

Badger blender brush

badger blender brush
Badger Blender Brush

Sometimes called a sweetener, this brush was in much wider use in the days when very smooth, imperceptible gradations between colours were more frequently sought after than they are at present. The badger brush flares out in a form that somewhat resembles a shaving brush; it has the same hair, white at the ends with a black band around the centre, and is mounted on its handle with pieces of quill bound with twisted wire.

Its shape is round but fanned out instead of pointed; its flat, blunt end is intended to be tapped or pounced exactly perpendicular to the painting’s surface. The badger brush is intended for a special type of manipulation—namely, the modifying of juxtaposed or overlaid color areas already on the canvas to create soft, gradual transitions from one to the other and to thin out glazes. It works best when clean and dry; when it becomes clogged it does not serve to best advantage.

Fan brushes

fan brushes
Fan Brush

Made for a similar purpose, these are sparsely bristled, flat fan shapes used for delicate or wispy manipulations of wet paint surfaces or to soften over-sharp contours; they are also made in red sable.

Completely different textural and blended effects are produced by various means, and for less “perfectionist” blends, the ordinary blunt bristle or sable brush will give acceptable results in some cases. Since ancient times artists have also used a number of other means to manipulate paint that has already been applied to the canvas; tapping with a piece of sponge or a tied or folded pad of cloth of smooth or rough texture, with the fingertips, with bits of leather—all will produce effects that may be useful in various circumstances.

Brushes for varnishing and for applying gesso

It is just as necessary to use the highest type of brush for these operations as it is for creative painting. The bargain brush and the dime-store variety will produce inferior work; their bristles will break or pull out and their lives will be brief, and therefore they are poor bargains.

Brushes for Polymer Colors

polymer colour brushes
Polymer Colours Brushes

In polymer painting, one may use any kind of brush that suits his manipulations. Long-bristled brushes are the most popular. Polymer is more destructive to brushes than are the traditional easel-painting media. They seem to suffer more rapidly from the gradual accumulation of solid colour at the root end, and their shapes seem to be more subject to distortion. Because of constant submersion in water in a jar, if it is not to be hopelessly clogged, a greater strain is put on the bristles. The brushmakers have therefore designed a special “polymer brush” or “acrylic brush” with nylon bristles, and in shapes designed to suit the majority of uses.

How to quickly dry brushes

For the careful blending of colour areas, for glazing, and for other manipulation of wet-paint coatings, a number of clean, dry brushes will be required. This is especially important for the application of smooth, flawless work in any kind of painting. When I find that my supply of brushes is not large enough to serve this demand, I use a rapid way of coping with the situation.

First, clean the colour out of the brush with several rinsings in a container of turpentine or mineral spirits, and wipe with a cloth. The brush is now sufficiently clean, but it is not dry enough for use in continuing or repeating the glaze or blending manipulations.

Dip it into another container of acetone, rinse it well, wipe with a cloth, and twirl it briefly or flick it on your sleeve. The acetone washes out the turps and dries almost instantly, and the brush is ready for use. Acetone, being a mutual solvent, will also wash water out of a damp brush.

How to clean oil paint brushes after painting?

Sometimes you may find it difficult to clean your brushes after each session, especially if you paint often. If you plan on painting soon after your session, no more than a few days later, all you need to do is to take care of your brushes by:

  • Swiping as much paint as you can by wiping it down.
  • Dipping it down in slow-drying oil such as safflower or poppyseed oil.
  • Having them rest on a drying rack.
  • In your next session simply wipe down your brushes and you are good to go.

The leftover paint is not enough to change the tone of your colour unless you are using a colour directly out of the tube. This cleaning process is suitable only if you are planning of painting after a few days, as if you keep them for too many days like this, they will harden.

How to properly clean brushes

There is only one correct way to clean and preserve paint brushes of any kind. Immediately after use:

  • Rinse out the paint or varnish thorough with the appropriate solvent.
  • Shake or wipe out the brush with a cloth.
  • Then wash well with warm water and a cake of common yellow household soap.
  • Pay great care to rinse out all traces of soap under running warm water.

How to clean stiffened brushes

Brushes which have become stiffened with shellac may be washed in borax solution. Those upon which oil paint has hardened and which require cleaning with paint remover, trisodium phosphate, or prepared brush-softener, lose much of their life. When simple-solution varnishes dry on a brush they cause less damage than do oil paints and are usually removable with their solvents.

However, the rubber, glue, or resinous setting of brushes is often weakened by such treatments. When a clear, simple-solution varnish such as damar is washed out with soap and water, a white, soapy residue sometimes clings to the base of the bristles and leaves the brush in a generally unsatisfactory condition for future use as a picture- varnishing brush.

How To Clean Varnish Brush

If picture varnishing is frequently done, a brush should be reserved exclusively for the purpose it can be kept in a soft or easily softened condition (provided it is not stored for too long a period) by washing it out well in several fresh changes of its solvent and folding a piece of kraft paper tightly around it in a manner similar to that in which new varnish brushes are packed. One make of varnish brush is sold wrapped in a durable jacket of strong fibre paper with a twine fastening.

How to store oil paint brushes

A clean, dry brush stored in a closed box or drawer will keep better than one left suspended in liquids. When brushes are stored for any long period of time, it is usual to put camphor, naphthalene, or paradichlorobenzene in the box as protection against moths, which are just as fond of red sable as they are of mink.

The studio brush cleaner

The studio brush cleaner is a convenience and a turpentine saver. It consists of a covered tinned container of mineral spirits within which is fitted an inner can with a wire mesh or perforated bottom, which is placed an inch or two above the bottom of the outer can. The surplus paint is wiped out of the brush with a rag; the brush is rinsed in the mineral spirits by scrubbing it not too vigorously on the mesh false bottom and is then dried with a rag. The pigment settles to the bottom of the can where it remains undisturbed and the upper portion of the solvent becomes clear again. The solvent will gradually become oily by accumulation and the outfit requires occasional cleaning and replenishing.

How to hold a brush

Hold the brush about halfway along with the handle for most of your painting. Paint with a stretched arm, and move your arm around freely over the painting and outside it. For finer detail and smaller shapes, move your hand closer to the brush, but hold it lightly. Always use the largest brush for space. Hold the painting knife like a knife. You can push paint onto the support with the painting knife both sideways, as shown in the marks above, and lengthwise.

Hold the brush exactly like your are holding a pencil.
For flowing brush marks, hold the brush like you would hold a knife. Move the wrist and arm around to make free and easy brushstrokes.
holding brush
Hold the brush like you are passing a pencil to a colleague.
Hold your brush halfway down the length of the handle.
How to Choose Brushes for Oil Painting

The type of brushes you need for oil painting, depend on your specific needs each time. The size and style of painting you are working on. You should use both bristle and sable-type brushes for oil painting, as with each different type of brush, you will be able to achieve different effects.

What kind of brushes should I pick for oil painting?

It depends on the style and size of painting your are working on but you should always have the following brushes to start with i) a Round ii) Flat iii) Bright iv) Filbert and a v) Fan brush in different sizes.

Can I use watercolor brushes for oil painting?

Yes, you can use watercolour brushes for oil painting. Watercolour brushes made from sable or synthetic fibres can be used for oil painting but after they are used, they are not very suitable for water colouring anymore.

How to clean oil paint brushes after painting?

Sometimes you may find it difficult to clean your brushes after each session, especially if you paint often.

If you plan on painting soon after your session, no more than a few days later, all you need to do is to take care of your brushes by:
Swiping as much paint as you can by wiping it down.
Dipping it down in slow-drying oil such as safflower or poppyseed oil.
Having them rest on a drying rack.
In your next session simply wipe down your brushes and you are good to go.

The leftover paint is not enough to change the tone of your colour unless you are using a colour directly out of the tube. This cleaning process is suitable only if you are planning of painting after a few days, as if you keep them for too many days like this, they will harden.

Can I use acrylic/oil paint brushes for watercolors?

Acrylic is hard on brushes so it is not recommended to use them for oil painting too.The best brushes to use for oil colors are bristle and sable brushes, as they hold very little paint.

Can I use nail art brushes for oil painting?

Sable-type brushes used for nails are good for oil painting, provided that they are of good quality. However, keep in mind not to use the same brushes both with oils and acrylics.

What can I use to clean oil art paint off brushes?

You can clean oil art paint by using a paint thinner, turpentine or mineral spirits.

What are the bristles of paint brushes made from?

Natural bristles are made from animal hair, such as hog or badger. Synthetic bristles are usually made of from polyester, nylon or a combination of both materials. When working with oil-based alkyd paints, the most suitable brushes are natural-bristle brushes are more suitable. Synthetic-bristle brushes are best when working with water-based latex paints.