An Intro to Paint brushes for Beginners

An Intro to Paint brushes for Beginners

Ever struggle with finding the perfect brush to use on your project? Or maybe you get anxiety with all the different options you see at the art store or when shopping for supplies online?

Well, today we’re going to be talking all about paint brushes and all the ins and outs of what they’re called, what they’re made of, how they’re supposed to be used and all the nitty gritty details. If you’re a beginner, this will be a great place to start if you want a handy guide and if you’re a pro, I still think it’s useful to brush up, no pun intended, on the basics.


Long vs Short Handle

All brushes fall into one of these two categories and basically in a nutshell, short handle brushes are best used for smaller sized paintings. You’re going to hold these brushes right above the silver part called the ferrule and these are the brushes favored by watercolor artists gouache painters and anyone making smaller sized painting because of that shorter handle. It’s just less cumbersome.


On the flip side, long handle brushes are most commonly used for large format canvas paintings. By and large you’re going to hold these brushes at the very end of the handle while you’re standing back from your painting. That distance really helps with being able to see the big picture of what’s going on in your painting. So long handled brushes are generally preferred by oil painters, acrylic painters and anybody creating art on a larger canvas.


Natural vs Synthetic

Moving down the line to our next category, after long and short handles, we have natural vs synthetic brushes. Natural brushes are made from animal hairs, The best known one being sable which is basically a type of weasel. Sable is also frequently used for making expensive fur coats so as you can probably guess the cost of sable brushes is going to be at the top end of brushes in general as far as budget is concerned.


Then we also have bristles that are made from other animals ranging from squirrel, badger, pony, and goat to ox, camel, raccoon, rabbit... the list goes on and on. Now, your traditional old-school artist will probably tell you that these paintbrushes, and sable in particular are the Rolls-Royce of brushes and that the quality is incomparable to synthetic brushes which will talk about in a minute but in my opinion I think that with today’s technology, synthetic brushes have gotten so good that personally, I can’t justify the need to kill animals in order to be able to get really great quality brushes.


If you’re looking at a naturally made brush you’ll find the details of the brush, Including in most cases, the type of animal that was used will be indicated on the handle of the brush. The type of animal that was used to make the brush will make the characteristics of the brush distinct one from the next so Sable will be a softer springier brush whereas a squirrel brush will be a lot softer and have less snap. Snap refers to when the paintbrush will snap back to its original shape right after you use it and that’s generally a desirable outcome for a brush but it depends on what you’re looking to do and what you’re looking for in your brush. So squirrel will be softer and will hold more water and maybe not snap as much an ox or badger brush which will be harder and less absorbent. 

All of these animal made brushes will be available both in long handle as well as short handle brushes for the most part.


Synthetic Brushes


Moving on to synthetic brushes which is what I use for pretty much all my work, these are brushes using man-made materials that are engineered to mimic the characteristics of animal made brushes. So aside from being cruelty-free a lot of these brushes are also very convenient because they tend to be less fragile and easier to maintain than animal hair brushes.  And guess what they’re much much cheaper too. 


I would say you generally want to avoid using materials like acrylics on natural or animal hair brushes because they can be very harsh and will break them down very quickly whereas synthetic brushes will be more forgiving and able to stand up to that kind of rigorous use. 

However just like animal bristle brushes, synthetic brushes also come with many different finishes. Some can be made to be soft, some like these Taklon orange brushes are stiffer and some like these Princeton Aqua Elite and Escoda Reserva are even engineered to mimic the famous Kolinsky Sable.


Synthetics are great for literally all mediums whether you’re an oil or acrylic painter or a watercolorist. The key here is to make sure the type of brush you get is appropriate for the medium you’re using. Usually when you’re shipping for brushes, you’ll want to check the product description to see whether the brush was engineered for the type of paint you’re planning to use it for or now.


Brush Shapes


So that covers it for synthetic brushes. Now we’re going to move onto brush shapes. And here’s where it easily gets super confusing because there are dozens and maybe even hundreds of different brush shapes. But for the sake of simplicity, I like to think of brushes as belonging into one of two fundamental categories. Throughout my years of working, I’ve noticed that most brushes fall into these 2 categories. Either brushes with a flat footprint, or brushes with a round footprint.


So if you look at the brush from above, what’s the shape at the base. Is it round or is it a flat square? Regardless of the details in the exact shape, I like to think of my brushes as following into one of these 2 categories. In fact, I’ve recently started organizing them that way too.


This Video will give you some demos of some of my favorite brush shapes and what they can be used for.


 YouTube Video 




00:00 Intro
01:40 Long Handle v Short Handle Paintbrushes
03:27 Natural Brushes vs Synthetic PaintBrushes
07:50 Brush Shapes
13:27 Flat Brushes Demo
19:01 Round Brushes Demo
20:14 Round Brushes Demo
00:28 Outro
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