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Artists Paintbrushes and Their Uses

Updated: Nov 19, 2023

The hair on a paintbrush must be able to pick up and hold paint, and yet it also must be of a nature as to release the pigment when placed upon a surface ie: paper or canvas. So too then is the surface you’re working upon as to what brushes will work best. We will, however, leave surfaces for another time.


There are basically two breeds of brushes. Natural hair and synthetic hair.

Under these two types are a few subcategories.

Natural hair may comprise many different types of hair.

- Pig

- Squirrel

- Camel

- Horse

- Weasel


These all have a similar makeup but will perfume differently depending on the animal they come from. Squirrel, camel and horse are all basically the same. They can carry a ton of pigment, and release a ton of pigment but due to their structure, they are really only suitable for water-borne materials. Brushes made with these types of hair tend to be very floppy. They have no rigidity and therefore are mainly used for washes.


Weasel hair is stiffer and can be used for heavier loads of paint and will work great for more detailed painting. Pig hair or hog bristles is a stiff hair holding a ton of pigment and used correctly will release a ton of pigment.


Synthetic hair brushes are a product of the petroleum industry. They are made of plastic fibres. They come in a multitude of shapes and have many different names. Generally, though all of these fibres, strands or hairs really boil down to two types. Soft or stiff. Let's have a look at the internal structure of both hairs.


Illustration of how natural brushes grab paint.

The cuticles in natural hair brushes allow for stronger paint absorption.



Illustration of how natural brushes grab paint.

Hog bristle brushes have a hollow core allowing for maximum paint adhesion. This makes them ideal for applying heavier layers of paint. Synthetic brushes will have a soft thinner stroke. Wide synthetic brushes are great for blending and moderate paint application.


All types of paint brushes in a row.

Round brushes:

Round brushes have large bellies and taper to a point. Use this shape when making bold strokes. It is a great brush to use too, not only when covering large areas of your canvas, but even when rendering fine lines and details.


Flat brushes:

Flat brushes have square ends. they are very flexible and will hold a lot of paint. Use it flat to create long, sweeping brush strokes and for blending and painting in large areas. Use the tips when making delicate lines and small touches. Because of its flexible nature, you can make a wide variety of marks. From thick and chunky to long and lean. From fat and sassy to smooth and delicate. A flat hog bristle brush is the ultimate workhorse for painting.


Bright brushes:

Bright brushes are ideal to use when making short and controlled brush strokes. It is a brush used for thick choppy marks. Because of its short hairs, this brush runs out of paint relatively quickly.


Filbert brushes:

Filbert brushes are for making soft and rounded edges. It is also ideal for blending colours.


Fan brushes:

Fan brushes are for smoothing and blending. If you want to achieve certain special effects and

textures on your canvas, the fan brush is ideal. Great for blending skies, clouds, water and reflections.


Detail round brushes:

Detail round brushes are great for making details on your artwork. Use it for short, fine strokes.


Bristle Brushes:

Bristol brushes are the perfect choice for oils. These hold a ton of paint and release a ton of paint. Thinner does not affect the brush and therefore these brushes can sit in thinner for extended periods of time. For acrylics, though they will hold and release a load of paint they do not tend to like water. The hollow nature of the hair absorbs too much water and the brush will bloat and lose its shape. It will return to its original shape when dry. i recommend hog bristle brushes for acrylic, however, do not leave them standing in water. Synthetic brushes can stir in water without a problem.


The Dos & Don'ts of Cleaning brushes:


- Do not use hot water on brushers. Tepid water only. Hot water can actually melt some types of synthetic brushes. Hog bristle brushes will lose their shape when washed with hot water and will not come back to shape. The ends will knurl and leave the brush misshapen. Bristle brushes with tepid water if fine when you’re using acrylics.


- Do not scrub with your brush. When cleaning do not swirl or scrub the ends of the bristles. This will actually dull the brush ends and you will have a fuzzy-ended brush that’ll leave nondescript blotchy marks...


- Do use tepid water and a good soap.


- Do use soap. Dawn dish soap is good, shampoo is fantastic and if I may, “Swinton brush soap” is the best thing on the market to clean brushes. It’s actually gardener soap with a bit of dirt in it to scrub the dirt away. Trust me it works!


Wash the hairs of the brush, then massage the hairs down by the ferrule (the silvery metal part

where the hairs come out.) This is where most fail in the brush cleaning department. If you neglect to clean the paint out of the ferrule, the paint will dry down there and cause major stiffening of the hair. It makes the brush chunky and renders it almost useless. Take the time you clean the base of your brush and you will have longer brush usage. You will thank me later.


After you have cleaned your brush with your fingers, pull the bristles back to shape, lay it flat to

dry and Bob’s your uncle. You’ll be happy next time to hit the easel. Cleaning your brushes will save you money. Don’t be lazy, just give them the love they deserve.


If you have brushes that look like the picture below they may have been left in the water by mistake.


A splayed out paint brush.


You can run the brush under some steam from a kettle and warm it up. Now you can pull the brush back to shape. Dip this bus in a solution of sugar water (2 tablespoons of sugar melted in a cup of warm water) and let it dry. This will turn hard and re-train your brush to stay in the shape it was intended.


Before and after shot of paint brushes getting clean.

Hope this saves you,

Your friend in art,


Doug.

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