Walk into any artists’ store and the sheer number of brushes on display can seem overwhelming at first. Should you choose natural or synthetic fibres? Which head shape is most suitable? Is it best to go for the most expensive? Fear not: by exploring these questions just a little more you can narrow down the number of choices you need to make and find the right tool for the job.

Hair type

Different media, such as watercolour or acrylic or traditional oil, require different types of brushes, and they come in four main types:

  • Natural hair
  • Hog hair (bristle)
  • Synthetic hair
  • Blends (synthetic and natural)

Natural hair

Natural hair brushes are a good choice for working in watercolour or gouache, because they tend to be softer and more flexible than hog hair brushes. Natural hair brushes come in different varieties.

  • Sable brushes maintain a perfect point, allowing for great control, and are excellent for precision marks. Sable hair is also naturally absorbent which means these brushes hold a lot of colour for excellent flow. Sable brushes are very high quality, with the best – such as Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes – handmade from the tip of the tail of the Siberian kolinsky sable.
  • Squirrel brushes carry colour very well because they can hold a lot of water. They are very good as mop and wash brushes, as they do not point as well as sable.
  • Goat brushes also have a good colour carrying capacity but tend not to release the colour as well as squirrel or sable, and  have no point.
  • Camel is a term used for an array of miscellaneous low quality natural hair brushes.

One exception where a natural hair brush can be used effectively with thicker media is pony brushes. Pony brushes have coarse hair which does not form a point and offer little spring. Their stiffness is useful when using oil or acrylic.

Hog hair (bristle)

If you’re using oil or acrylic, hog hair brushes are a good choice. They are naturally stiff and each bristle is split into two or three at the tip. These splits are called flags and they allow the brush to hold on to more paint and apply it evenly. Remember, hog brushes come in different shades; if they are white, you need to make sure this is natural and not bleached, which will have weakened the bristle. Hog hair comes in different in qualities.

  • Best hog has the stiffest hair, plenty of flags, allowing it to carry more colour, and is extremely resilient – so the brush keeps its working edge and shape for longer. Winsor & Newton Artists’ Hog Brushes are made with the highest quality hog.
  • Better hog has hair that is a little softer than best hog and will not wear quite as well.
  • Good hog is even softer. This type of brush will not maintain its shape well.
  • Poor quality hog is soft, weak, and tends to splay, which makes controlling the colour difficult.

Synthetic

If you are on a budget or would prefer an alternative to natural hair, then it is worth considering synthetic brushes. They can be soft or stiff; the soft brushes work well with watercolour, while the stiff brushes work best with oils. Synthetic brushes often have an excellent point and can carry colour very well. Winsor & Newton offers a wide range of synthetic brushes including Monarch Brushes, Cotman Brushes and Galeria Brushes.

Blends

Sable and synthetic blends such as Sceptre Gold II provide a performance that is close to sable at a price that is close to synthetic.

Head shape and size

Brushes come in different sizes and these sizes are given numbers. However, each number does not necessarily equate to the same size brush in different ranges, and this is particularly noticeable between English, French and Japanese sizes. Consequently, if you are choosing a brush it is important that actual brushes are compared rather than simply relying on the sizes of the brushes you currently own.

Handle length varies as well. If you are working in oil, alkyd or acrylic you may often find yourself painting at a distance from your surface, so a long-handled brush would be best. If you are a watercolourist then it is likely you will work closer to your painting, making a shorter handle a good investment.

Different brushes come in different shapes. Natural sable brushes are generally round, but they do come in different sizes. However, hog brushes and other bristle brushes are offered in a range of shapes, as well as sizes, allowing different types of marks to be made. Shapes include round, long flat, filbert, short filbert, short flat/bright, and fan.

Cost

When it comes to brushes, you tend to get what you pay for, so buying the best quality brushes for your work will always be the preferred option. Poor quality brushes may not perform well. For example, a poor quality hog hair brush will splay and soften, making messy marks and hindering the control of the colour. Cheap, softer synthetic brushes will hold little colour and may not keep their point. Poor quality brushes will also deteriorate quickly, and you may find yourself spending more money on two or three cheap brushes than on one high quality brush that lasts for years.

Caring for your brushes

Taking good care of your brushes will extend their lifespan and mean you can work with tried and tested tools year after year. Take a look at our guide to caring for and cleaning brushes for more information.

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