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Brushes Tutorial
by Jessica Rich

 Confused about which brush you need for your next project?  It's no wonder.  The art market is awash with more styles, sizes, shapes and bristle types than you can shake a filbert at.  That was a joke by the way.  A filbert is a type of brush.  Never mind, we'll get to that later. 

Some of the first brushes were made from reed fibers by the Ancient Egyptians.  Since that time, brushes have come a long way and now are available in numerous natural and synthetic fibers.  Here's a look at the players. 

     Red Sable hair is used for the highest quality watercolor brushes and comes from a semi-aquatic Asiatic mink.  Its structure ensures that the hairs cling closely together when wet.  Its scarcity makes it more valuable than gold! 

     Sabeline Hair is specially treated silken ox hair.  Typically, it shares many properties of Red Sable at a substantial savings. 

     Ox Hair is trimmed from the ears of cattle.  It is a bit more coarse than sable and doesn't form a point as readily.  For this reason, it is generally used for lettering and other applications not requiring a fine point.

     Squirrel Hair is obtained from the animal's tail.  The finest quality hairs form superb tips, have great elasticity and have tremendous water holding abilities.  Brushes that are said to be made with Camel hair are either made with pony or squirrel hair.  Though many times found in schools, squirrel brushes are useful for broad washes in watercolor and for craft work.

     Bristle is the trade term for hair from pigs, hogs or boars.  These fibers are well suited for oil painting due to its resilience and its split point, known as the "œflag".  They are also excellent for a variety of other techniques. 

     Sceptre Hair is an economical blend of red sable and long-lasting golden synthetic hair.  It is the best attributes of man-made fibers (value and durability) as well as the spring, snap and water holding abilities of sable. 

     Nylon is a synthetic fiber specially treated to taper toward the tip.  The fibers form flat brushes which are very suitable for acrylic painting.  However, they are not capable of forming the point required for traditional watercolor painting or for round oil color brushes.  Additionally, they don't hold oils in the same manner as bristles. 

     White Synthetic Sable is the industry's answer to quality at an economical price.  Synthetic sable brushes are made of high-quality, long-lasting artificial hair.  The important difference between these brushes and common straight-line synthetics is that each hair is tapered to come to a point.  They are as soft and resilient as natural sable, but at a fraction of the cost. 


The shape of the brush you choose is just as important as the fiber.  Every shape has a purpose and technique that it is best suited for.  Can you use a flat chiseled nylon brush for your next oil painting?  You could, but you'd have better results if you took the time to properly select a brush with attributes better suited to the technique.  Read on to find out more about brush shapes.  (Finally, more about Filberts, because they're not just a nut, you know!) 

     Rounds offer smooth finish and soft, flowing color.  They have a smaller belly (reservoir) than watercolor rounds.

     Round Pointed gives a precise point.  Fine line to wide line control.  Large reservoir to hold paint.

     Filberts have versatile shapes with no precise edge to stroke.  They produce thin to thick strokes with a characteristic "œworn" brush stroke look.  In oil, acrylic and similar mediums, they will produce less pile-up of paint at the edges of a stroke.

     Flats carry and pick up large amounts of color and give clean hard edges. One Stroke brushes can be substituted. 

     Oval Washes carry and pick up large amounts of color and give soft edges and flow. 

     Spotters are for very fine detail work.  Not limited to watercolor, they are used in fine and commercial art, ceramics and retouching. 

     Fan Blenders create soft shaded effects and can be used for dry brushing in ceramics. 

     One Strokes are made of soft ox hair or sabeline/gold sable.  Sizes are indicated in inches or fractions of an inch.  They are useful for sign writing. 

     Liners are for decorative painting, china painting and scroll work.  Free and flexible manipulation. 

     Scripts are for outlining letters and striping.  Smaller than liners. 

     Brights produce textured brush effects in oil, ceramics and textile. 

After you've taken the time to sort out which style brush you need and what critter it should come from, you'll want to take good care of it.  Well-kept brushes have a longer life and are more pleasant to work with.  Just remember a few simple rules: 

     - Ensure that paint never enters the ferrule, the metal band than holds the hairs and attaches to the brush handle.  It will clog hairs and ruin the brush's shape.

     - Never allow brushes to rest on their bristles or hairs.  Like a broom left standing in a closet, the bristles will bend and hold a shape that your brush was never meant to have.

     - Always clean brushes immediately after use, especially with acrylics. 

     - Shape the bristles or hairs after cleaning. 

     - When storing brushes for an extended period of time, ensure that they are clean and absolutely dry, then store in a closed container with moth balls or a little naphthalene. 

Finally, follow these guidelines for cleaning up after you work: 

     - Wash watercolor brushes in clean cold water, shake off excess water, reshape the hairs and store upright in a jar to dry thoroughly before storing.

     - Clean up oil paint by rinsing brushes in turpentine substitute, then shake off the solvent and rinse in cold tap water.  Next rub the brush gently on a cake of ordinary hand soap and work into a lather in the palm of your hand and rinse in tap water.  Repeat until no traces of color are left.  Give a final rinse to ensure all of the soap has been removed before shaking off excess water, reshaping the bristles and allowing to dry upright in jar. 

     - Rinse brushes used with acrylic in clean, cold water and follow the same procedures for lathering and rinsing oil brushes.  Avoid using hot water, as it causes the paint to coagulate.  Avoid the use of household detergent instead of bar soap.  Paint should never be allowed to harden on any brush, but if it cannot be removed with soap and water, denatured alcohol may be tried as a solvent. 

That's it!  That's the least you need to know to make educated decisions about brushes.  Remember that the finest quality brushes are still made by hand and that this exercise of craftsmanship, coupled with the high cost of raw materials, whether soft hair, bristle or man-made, means that the best brushes are always costly.  Investing in fine brushes, along with simple care, can mean a lifetime of rewarding use, but if you're not ready to part with your next paycheck in the name of art, there are a vast array of choices that are both economical and of excellent quality.

Click here to see our selection of brushes.

Parts of the text of this document were used with permission of the original authors.

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