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When starting something new (like learning to paint) one of the first big hurdles is to get set up with the right gear. A new student needs good quality tools but they don't want to spend a fortune, or buy too many superfluous items. This whole task can be overwhelming, but don't stress; we're here to help aspiring artists choose the right brushes for their needs.

STUDENT: ...yeah okay, but the problem is I don't know what my needs are!

 

Good news! There are only a few considerations to take into account when selecting brushes. Just asking yourself these 3 simple questions will help to narrow down your options significantly.x

Question #1

Scale

The first hurdle is to determine what size of substrate you're working on. You may notice that some paint brushes have long handles and some have short handles; the reason for this is simple ergonomics.

Brush Handle Recommended Uses
Short
  • for painting in a sitting position
  • smaller scale substrate (up to 12x16" roughly)
Long
  • for painting in a standing position
  • larger scale substrate

 

 

 

 

The logic behind handle length is pretty basic: If you're sitting on a park bench painting a postcard, a long handled paintbrush will likely poke you in the eye. Contrary, if you're standing at an easel, a longer handle on your brush allows you to stand back from your painting so you can see the whole picture as you paint. (Standing back also decreases the likelihood of stumbling over your easel legs and smearing your wet canvas)

 
Question #2

Media Type

The type of paint (or media) you'll be using can make a huge difference when it comes to choosing brushes. Here are some very general recommendations for brush hair types for specific media

Media Type Brush Type Recommendations
Acrylics
  • Natural or synthetic hog bristle
  • Somewhat stiff and snappy bristles
Oils
  • Natural or synthetic hog bristle
  • Natural or synthetic sable
  • Somewhat stiff and snappy bristles

Watercolours

Gouache

Drawing Inks

  • Natural or synthetic sable
  • Goat hair
  • Natural or synthetic squirrel
  • Soft, absorbent yet springy hairs


 

Question #3

Subject Matter

Knowing what image you intend to paint will definitely help with brush selection because subject matter does impact your brush options. Some brushes are better suited to a specific subject matter than others.

(For a full description of each brush shape listed here, please see ALL ABOUT BRUSHES chart in the next section)

Also, ROUND brushes are not specifically mentioned in this chart because they are suitable for EVERYTHING, so get yourself a nice round brush to start with.

Reference Image Subject Matter Scene Description Brush Shape Recommendations

Cityscapes

Buildings and street scenes
  • Bright/Wash
  • Flat
  • Liner/Rigger
  • Angle

Landscapes

Natural lands and flora, may include fauna and/or distant buildings, people
  • Bright/Wash
  • Fan
  • Rake/Comb

Skyscapes &

Seascapes

predominantly sky and/or sea
  • Mop
  • Fan
  • Wash
  • Stipple

Nature

Portraits

Flora and/or fauna up-close (macro)
  • Bright/Wash
  • Fan
  • Rake/Comb
  • Liner/Rigger
  • Cat's Tongue
  • Dagger

Portraits/

Figurative

A human as the central subject
  • Filbert
  • Bright/Wash
  • Liner/Rigger

Abstraction

non-representational, conveying a feeling more than a literal scene
  • anything goes
  • whatever brush or tool excites you

Illustration

usually hard edged contours often including large fields of colour
  • Liner/Rigger
  • Mop
  • Bright Wash
  • Spotter
​​


 

STUDENT: Who is Filbert? ...and what the %!$&? is a Cat's Tongue?!

Brush Overview

Well, now that we've thrown a bunch of weird words your way, here's a handy little guide to help clarify all the brush shapes and what kinds of strokes they make...

STUDENT: Can you please just tell me what to buy
ME: *sigh*  ...Okay

What to Buy

If I have to recommend  a few single brushes to get you started, I'd say ...

  • a medium/small ROUND: good quality, size #6 or 8 should do
  • a wider BRIGHT: for covering larger areas, a 3/4" or 1" should do
  • a medium sized brush of your choice: 1/4" to 1/2" FILBERT or FLAT
  • a FAN; for fun, and for playing with texture and blending

If painting is something that you're committed to learning then you may want to consider a buying a nice set of brushes.

The advantages to buying bushes in sets:

  • A selection of shapes, sizes, and sometime even brush hair types. You may find that you absolutely love a brush you wouldn't have otherwise chosen
  • A great value: Brushes are always less expensive when bought in sets
February 01, 2019 — Karen Bullaro

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