It can be overwhelming to enter an art store and come face-to-face with a giant selection of paint brushes of varying shapes and sizes.
Understanding which brushes are used for what specific purposes is the first step to confidently choosing the right brush for the job.
What are the different types of paint brushes? Paint brushes come in natural and synthetic forms and in many different designs for adding fine detail, covering large areas, and everything in between. Some of the most common include flat, angled, round, fan, wash, liner, filbert, bright, spotter, mop, stroke, stippler, rake, stencil, and wedge.
While there are dozens of different kinds of paint brushes in existence, in this article you will learn about 15 primary types, including what they are best used for and their suitability for beginners.
You will also learn how to understand brush sizing as well as how to know when it’s time to replace your paint brushes.
- Different Types of Paint Brushes & Their Uses
- Understanding Paint Brush Sizing
- When To Replace Your Paint Brushes
- Related Questions:
- In Summary
Different Types of Paint Brushes & Their Uses
Paint brushes have several different parts, and when it comes to choosing the right brush for the job, it’s important to understand how each part works.
Each paintbrush has:
- A handle – the part that the artist holds, which can be made of materials such as bone, plastic, or wood, and which can come in various lengths.
- A ferrule – the metal band that attaches the bristles to the handle.
- Bristles – comprise the head of the brush and can be made of either natural or synthetic fibers.
The head of the brush can end in a pointed tip, a flat edge, or many other shapes, depending on its intended use.
Natural vs. Synthetic
Natural brushes are made from animal hair, and can come from a diversity of animals, including hog, sable, squirrel, badger, mink, and others.
Natural brushes are best used for oil-based paints, as their flexibility facilitates the application of thin, even coats of paint.
Synthetic brushes consist of man-made fibers such as nylon or polyester.
Synthetic brushes work well with water-based paints, and are an excellent choice when it comes to detail work.
Bristle vs. Sable
The hair for a sable brush comes from the tail of a member of the weasel family, making it soft and supple. (Learn more in my article here.)
Sable brushes taper to a natural fine point and can be used for smaller details.
Synthetic sable brushes are also available, and are often made of Taklon, which is a filament that goes through a dyeing and baking process to make it softer.
Natural bristle brushes are a firmer brush made from hog bristles, while synthetic bristle brushes are made from nylon or polyester.
Bristle brushes are springy and can hold a lot of paint.
Natural bristle brushes are a great choice for oil painting, while synthetic brushes work well for applying thick layers of acrylic paint.
1. Flat Brushes
Flat brushes have a flat ferrule and a wide, thin, square brush head. Flat brushes can be used with watercolor, acrylic, or oil.
- Best Used for: Use the edge of a flat brush when you want to paint a fine line, or sweep the entire brush across the painting surface to create broad swaths of color.
- Variations: Flats, shaders, and wash/glaze
- Good for Beginners? Flat brushes are a great choice for beginners as they are a versatile brush that can be used to create both thin and thick areas of color.
2. Angled Brushes
Angled brushes have a flat ferrule and a short brush head that ends in an angle. Angled brushes can be used with watercolor and acrylic paints.
- Best Used for: Angled brushes are great for cutting in, creating precise lines and curves, and highlighting and shading.
- Variations: Angled, angle shader, and angled flat
- Good for Beginners? Angled brushes can be a fun choice for beginners, especially when painting something with varying line thickness, such as tree branches.
3. Round Brushes
Round brushes are a versatile brush that can be used with all varieties of paint. They feature a round ferrule and a rounded or pointed tip.
- Best Used for: Round brushes can be used for all kinds of things from washes to details.
- Variations: Round brushes come in many different sizes with a wide variety of tip choices.
- Good for Beginners? The round brush is a great brush for beginners as it can be used for a multitude of purposes.
4. Fan Brushes
Fan brushes have a flat ferrule and a widely spread brush head.
- Best Used for: Fan brushes are great for dry brushing and blending and can also be used to quickly create tree leaves, grass, or animal fur.
- Variations: Fan brushes come in an array of different sizes.
- Good for Beginners? Beginners will love the ease of painting natural foliage with a fan brush!
5. Wash Brushes
Wash brushes are square, flat brushes that are used to cover large areas. They can be used with many different kinds of paint.
- Best Used for: Wash brushes are good for painting backgrounds or adding water to a large painting surface.
- Variations: Wash/glaze, flats, and shaders
- Good for Beginners? Wash brushes are a great remedy for an affliction that many beginners face: using too little paint!
6. Liner/Detail Brushes
Liner brushes have round ferrules and narrow tips and can be used with many different kinds of paint.
- Best Used for: Liner brushes can be used to apply paint in a similar way to ink and are ideal for lettering, highlights, and other small detail work.
- Variations: Liner, detail, script liner, and scroller
- Good for Beginners? Liner brushes can help beginners to accurately apply smaller amounts of paint.
7. Filbert Brushes
Filbert brushes have a flat ferrule and an oval-shaped brush head. They can be used with oil or acrylic. Cat’s tongue and oval wash brushes are great for using with watercolor.
- Best Used for: Filbert brushes are perfect for blending and gestural painting.
- Variations: Filbert, cat’s tongue, and oval wash
- Good for Beginners? Blending paints is one of the most intriguing parts of learning to paint, and filberts are a great aid to beginners in the blending process.
8. Bright Brushes
Bright brushes have a flat ferrule and a short brush head.
- Best Used for: Bright brushes are good for blending paint and applying short, controlled strokes.
- Variations: Bright and chisel blender
- Good for Beginners? Beginners may find themselves frustrated with bright brushes as they don’t hold a lot of paint.
9. Spotter Brushes
Spotter brushes are small round brushes that are great for use with watercolor.
- Best Used for: Spotter brushes are designed for detail work.
- Variations: Spotter and retouching
- Good for Beginners? Spotter brushes can help beginners to work tiny details into their watercolor paintings.
10. Mop Brushes
A mop brush is as the name implies: full and round and good to use with water!
- Best Used for: Mop brushes can be used similarly to wash brushes: to apply large amounts of color or to wet a larger painting surface.
- Variations: Mop brushes can come in different shapes and levels of flexibility, from soft to firm.
- Good for Beginners? Beginners can happily use mop brushes just as they would a wash brush.
11. Stroke Brushes
Stroke brushes are brushes with a flat ferrule and square-shaped head.
- Best Used for: Stroke brushes are best used for painting letters or details, such as in sign painting.
- Variations: Stroke brushes come in different sizes
- Good for Beginners? Painting letters and details can be challenging for beginners, but stroke brushes can make the task a little simpler.
12. Stippler Brushes
Stippler brushes are firm brushes made for stippling, a painting technique involving the process of applying distinct levels of pressure in order to create different shades of dots of the same color.
Stippler brushes can be used for pointillism as well. Pointillism uses the same dabbing technique to create an image out of dots, but it uses a range of different colors.
- Best Used for: Stippler brushes are designed for effective stippling and can be used for pointillism as well.
- Variations: Stippler and deerfoot stippler
- Good for Beginners? Stippling can take some time to learn, but everyone starts somewhere! Using a stippler brush can make stippling easier for a beginner.
13. Rake Brushes
Rake brushes have gaps cut into their bristles.
You can make your own rake brush by using a small, sharp pair of hair-cutting scissors to trim the top of a flat brush and then carefully cutting spaces into the brush toward the ferrule.
- Best Used for: Rake brushes are great for textured effects, including grass, fur, hair, beards, feathers, and more.
- Variations: Rake and filbert rake
- Good for Beginners? Beginners can use rake brushes with a small amount of paint to get a feel for their effect.
14. Stencil Brushes
Stencil brushes have short, stiff bristles and are designed to be used in a stamping motion to apply color to stencils.
- Best Used for: Stencil brushes are best for stencils.
- Variations: Stencil brushes come in different sizes.
- Good for Beginners? These brushes are especially good for beginners to use when stenciling as the densely-packed bristles help to keep paint from getting under the stencil.
15. Wedge Brushes
Wedge brushes are rare brushes as their bristles are cut triangularly with a pointed tip.
- Best Used for: Wedge brushes are great for painting natural elements, such as flowers and leaves.
- Variations: Wedge brushes come in different sizes.
- Good for Beginners? Experimenting with wedge brushes to create leaves and flower petals can be enjoyable for beginners and experts alike.
Understanding Paint Brush Sizing
In general, when choosing a brush size, use larger brushes for larger areas and smaller brushes for details.
Paint brushes come labeled with different numbers referring to their size. The smaller the brush size, the lower the number.
This means that a size 0 paint brush will probably be better suited for painting minute details, while a size 20 or 24 would be a better choice for painting bigger areas.
Different manufacturers have different brush sizes.
A size 8 brush from one company might be a completely different measurement than a size 8 from another brand.
You can always bring a favorite brush with you to the art store to compare and contrast sizes.
Acrylic and oil brushes tend to have longer handles to enable freedom of movement and to allow the painter a better view of their painting.
Watercolor brushes tend to have shorter handles to grant the painter easier access to their painting surface.
In the end, handle size really comes down to a matter of preference.
When To Replace Your Paint Brushes
If your brushes are stiff with dried paint that won’t come off or splayed so badly that random brush hairs are getting paint in all the wrong places, then it’s time to replace your paint brushes.
To keep brushes in good shape, be sure to clean brushes as you are using them.
If you are using water-based paints, that means rinsing your brushes to remove excess paint as soon as you are finished with a certain color.
If you are using oil-based paints, you will want to use linseed oil or an odorless mineral spirit to clean your brush as you paint.
You can also use a brush cleaning tank to help to remove paint.
Personally, I think this one is fantastic – it cleans really well without damaging the bristles, and it even doubles as a brush holder.
After painting with water-based paint, wash your brushes gently with soap and water, and apply a brush conditioner to the tip (I use this one – wouldn’t want to do without it!).
You can use your fingers to reform the tip, and then store your brushes tip side up to dry.
To clean oil-based brushes after a painting session, you will want to work in a well-ventilated area due to the chemicals present in the solvents.
First rinse your brushes in a paint thinner. Then use paper towels or newspapers to remove excess paint from the bristles.
Rinse the brushes again in paint thinner, and then apply an artist’s soap to the bristles to remove paint from close to the ferrule.
Finally, rinse the brushes in warm water and use your fingers to mold the tip to its appropriate shape.
What Type of Paint Brush Is Best for Acrylic Paint?
Brushes with synthetic fibers are a good choice for painting with acrylic.
A brush set that includes a larger size wash brush, a medium size round brush, and a small detail brush is all you need to get started painting with acrylics!
How Long Do Brush Sets Last?
With the proper care and conditioning, a good brush set can last for years.
To lengthen brush life, be sure to use bristle brushes with oil-based paints and synthetic brushes with water-based paints and to clean your brushes as you paint as well as directly afterward.
There are many different brushes to choose from, each made for a specific purpose.
Using your brushes with the appropriate paint and for what they were designed to do not only creates better results but also extends the life of your brushes.