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Enhance Your Work With the Right Paintbrushes

These days there are so many different kinds of paintbrushes in the art supply store it’s easy to be confused about which kind to buy. I often find myself grabbing a handful of different kinds and hoping for the best.

What types of paint brushes are really best for watercolors? For oils or acrylics? What is the difference between a sable and a bristle? Is a squirrel brush really made from what it sounds like? And what the heck is a Filbert? Fear not! Here’s a quick overview to help you sort through the chaos and find the brush for you.

Let’s start simple: the basic paintbrush


A brush has three major parts:

  1. The head (or the bristles)
  2. The ferrule
  3. The handle

1. The head

The head of the brush can be broken down into the tip (or point or toe) and the belly.

The belly if the fattest part of the head closest to the ferrule, and serves as a reservoir for paint. The tip is where the brush will make contact with the surface you are painting. Depending on the style of brush tip, the tip can make all sorts of different kinds of strokes.

A brush head can have two kinds of bristles: coarse (or stiff) and soft.

Coarse brushes are great for working in oils or acrylics where they can push thick paint around and leave visible strokes. Soft brushes are preferred by watercolorists because of their flexibility and ability to change the shape of the stroke depending on the amount of pressure applied.

Brushes can also be either natural or synthetic.

Natural brushes are always made from animal hair, which is something to consider depending on how you feel about that sort of thing. Coarse, natural brushes are commonly made from boar’s bristle, and many painters simply call them “bristle brushes.” The highest quality soft natural brushes are sable, which is actually weasel fur, but others can be made from squirrel (yup, squirrel), badger and mink

Synthetic brushes can be made from various plastics and can vary greatly in quality and price, but they are generally less expensive than natural.

2. The ferrule

The ferrule is the metal piece that connects the head to the brush handle.

A well-constructed brush should have a high-quality ferrule with a strong crimp. Cheaper brushes often have ferrules with weak crimps that can detach from the handle, or cheap glue that loses bristles easily, so remember that a ferrule is as important to the quality of a brush as the head.

3. The handle

Last but not least is the handle. Handles can be made of wood or plastic and can be long or short. Many artists who work very close to a painting (or work on a flat surface, such as watercolorists) prefer short handles. Long handles are great for standing a bit further from the painting surface.

Now let’s look at some different brush shapes.

There are many more different kinds of brushes, but most fall under one of these six types.

Flat brushes

Flat brushes are just what they sound like — flat and wide, and straight along the top.

They can create a wide stroke when pulled in one direction, and a narrow stroke when turned and pulled along their edge. They are excellent for filling a lot of space quickly with paint and are commonly used with oils and acrylics. A shorter flat brush is known as a bright.

Round brushes

Round brushes can be used with oils, acrylics and watercolors. They create a narrower stroke that can vary in width depending on the amount of pressure applied, and they are also great for creating dabs, dots and very small, precise strokes. Very long, very thin rounds are also called riggers.

Fan brushes

Fan brushes are also known as blenders as their soft, fanned-out bristles are excellent for blending and feathering one layer of paint into another.

Filbert brushes

Filbert brushes are quite versatile, combining many of the features of flats and rounds to create a wide variety of strokes.

Angular brushes

Angled shaders, also known as slanted or angular brushes are good for creating sweeping curves and calligraphic brush strokes, as well as fine-tuned and precise marks.

Mop brushes

Mops look a lot like the powder brush in a makeup kit. These are round brushes preferred by watercolorists because of their ability to hold lots of fluid paint, making them perfect for washes.

Do you have a favorite brush you like to use? Any weird ones you can’t remember why you bought? Tell us about it!


joe godin

mop vs fan: great blog! – fo years I’ve used a fan for blending – a couple of years ago I was reading an article on mops with oils. You try this once for blending you will never go back!!
best brush in the box “filbert and mop” 🙂

Michelle Carnevale

Too bad you didnt include the “bright” brush. It is shorter than the flat and most useful when oil painting. It’s a real workhorse!!

Michelle Carnevale

also, the liner brush..indespensible!! I also bought a brush that looked like a flat but the edge of the brush, while chiseled, had an irregular edge..kind of like a picket fence. Dont recall what the name of that one was.

Kirk Witmer

It’s called a rake, and can be an advantage in painting grass and fur.

Paul Heaston

I did include it, in the flat brush description. 😉 It’s one of my faves, too!

Sherri Moore

They did mention the bright brush.


Great Post, I love the explanation, I always mess up the differences. I would like to mention the Japanese brushes that are great for making a lot of nuances… I just love it for the backgrounds

cutter baseball grip

Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon on a daily basis. It’s always exciting to read through content from other authors and practice a little something from other sites.


I was reading through some of your content on this internet site and I believe this web site is very informative ! Continue posting .

sherie otteson


norma eversole

just started oil painting again after 26 years. your article, very helpful too me, thanks


l am a beginner and l have made many mistakes but l am learning great tips from you.
Thank you


wonderful blog. it gave me ot of information ad thank u so much

Michelle Hilmes

Have you ever heard of a paint brush called a scrubber brush? I bought one because it looked cool but idk ehat it is used for can anyone give me some kind of answer?

Kevin Smith

This article has useful information about types of paint brushes.
The heads of paintbrushes are clearly explained.

thanks in advanced.


I am new at watercoloring. can you give me names of some inexpensive brushes that I could start with. I have older brushes that I used with acrylics for crafts . I think some, like the liners will be ok but I need one that holds paint well. so far I am mostly using water brushes. thank you.

Jason Hall

Thanks for the article, i was looking for the translation of the ”nuanceur en angle” found it because of your brush breakdown !



Thanks. Including Pictures of each type of brush would have been great.

Nancy Wachowiacz

For many years I did decorative painted woods. Just lately I have gotten back into canvas. Have been working with acrylics but want to try my hand at both watercolors and oil. Of course not together. My fav brush is an angle great for floating. The strangest brush I ever bought is a deer foot. And it actually looks like a hoof.


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