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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Know your Brushes

Employing a good quality brush is as crucial to an artist as the media chosen to work in, so it is important to know what constitutes a good brush, and how to care for your brush.

There are literally thousands of available brushes, priced in ranges from very economical, to extremely expensive.  In general the brush itself is made from either synthetic or natural materials, with the natural hair brushes commanding the highest prices.  One doesn't necessarily need to pay $200 for a single brush (although one might, depending on its use) but it is necessary to find a brush of good quality, that will withstand repeated use and cleaning.

Brushes come in a very large number of sizes, ranging from a tiny 18/0 watercolor/liner brush, wide flat wash brushes, and every size in between.  The most common shapes for artist brushes are Round, filbert, bright (or flat) liner, wash, Angled, and fan.  

Brushes are made of three components. The brush material itself, the ferule, and the handle.  The bristles of the brush may be a synthetic material such as nylon, or natural animal hair such as ox, boar, or the finer hair of sable or badger. The amount of hair in the brush will depend entirely upon its use.  A sable or badger oil brush will contain a large number of individual hairs, and the higher end brushes are often hand tied before insertion into the ferule. Some brushes may contain a combination of mixed natural and synthetic hairs, and give both the qualities greatly desired of natural brushes with the durability of synthetic materials.

The ferule is the metal piece that attaches the bristle portion to the handle.  A good quality brush will have a ferule that is tightly glued to the handle.  Ferules that feel loose, or become loose with limited use indicate an inferior brush.  Good quality brushes will have bristles that are not easily detached from the ferule or handle itself.  Additionally the bristle material should be firmly tied and glued into the brush handle, as it is never a good thing to find stray brush hairs, or even the end of the brush itself in one's paintings

The handles of the brushes themselves are usually made of wood, or composite materials.  A number of my brushes handles are created with soft grips, or ergonomic handles that increases the artists ability to use the brush for extended periods of time.

Another indicator of brush quality is the ability of the bristles to interlock.  Poor quality material, or failure to properly care for the brush results in a brush that appears stubbly, and will not give a smooth paint line. Caring for your brush will depend greatly on the medium.  Oil brushes may be cared for using a thinner to clean the excess paint media from the bristles, then followed with a brush soap.  There are many brush cleaners, my own personal favorite is Master's Brush Cleaner and Preservative that can be found in both bar and tub, and works great to clean and condition both brushes and hands.  This particular brush cleaner can be used for all media, and does an excellent job at cleaning the brushes without damaging the bristles.  Failure to properly clean brushes can diminish painting capacity or outright ruin the brush.  Poorly designed brushes may be more difficult to clean, as there is often empty space in the ferule for the media to lodge itself, making cleaning and preserving the brush difficult.

To learn more about brushes, there are a number of free videos at Dick Blick that discuss brush manufacturing techniques.


  1. Animal hair brushes are not gotten by merely giving an animal a haircut...I learned how to paint with a knife, which also does not require solvents...

  2. There are products out on the market that don't use animal hair. I know that the silver brush company carries synthetic brushes that will behave as an animal hair brush would. Examples of brushes that are synthetic would be taklon and golden taklon brushes, sable synthetics and then brushes made to behave as hog hair bristle. An artist can still paint with brushes without killing animals if that is their choice.

  3. I never said that Animal Hair brushes were obtained by giving animals a haircut. The post is simply about what is available.