Getting to know your paint brushes. Brushes are made from stiff or soft hairs, which can be either natural hairs or synthetic fibers.

Soft brushes are ideal for thin paint which spreads easily, such as watercolors. They’re also popular for detailed work as they can form a sharp point which allows for precision painting.

Robust, hard brushes are ideal for pushing around thick paint. In particular for creating brush marks in the paint, such as when painting in oils using the impasto technique.

How you use your brush will, in large part, determine how long it lasts. It’s important to know your paint brushes because you want to use it for the purpose it was intended for.

Is natural hair better than synthetic?

Modern synthetic brushes are excellent and have the advantage of being cheaper than natural hair. Purists will tell you that no synthetic fiber can beat a Kolinsky sable, considered the ultimate of soft hairs, which give an artist great control. If you’re at all squeamish about or ideologically opposed to the sources of natural hair, then synthetic brushes are the way to go.

Synthetic brushes, man-made of either nylon or polyester filaments treated in various ways, are particularly good for acrylic paint. This medium can be hard on and damage natural hair brushes, and for large-scale work. Natural hair brushes for oil and watercolor should not be used for acrylics however brushes for acrylics can be used for oils and watercolours. Natural fibers suffer when you need to keep your brush immersed in water when painting with acrylics. This, along with the chemicals in the paint, can ruin natural fibers quickly.

Synthetic brushes are made to mimic specific natural hair brushes but do not function quite the same. For example, a synthetic brush won’t hold as much water as a sable for watercolor. Some manufacturers mix synthetic with the natural hair to make them function more like the natural hair brush.

Good synthetic brushes are rugged, maintain their shape well, and are easily cleaned.

Remember to keep your brushes for oil and acrylic painting separate.  Although you may use a brush for oil painting that you have previously used for acrylic painting, never use a brush that has been used for oil painting for acrylic painting.

Winsor & Newton hog bristle paint brushes
Shop for Winsor & Newton hog bristle paint brushes

Natural hairs used in paint brushes:

  • Sable: Sable hairs taper naturally, so when put into a brush they form a point. These brushes are renowned for softness, flexibility, and fine point but are expensive. Sable brushes are good for painting fine details and very thin paint.
  • Squirrel: Cheaper than sable, squirrel is a soft hair with little spring. Larger squirrel brushes work better than smaller ones because the mass of hairs together gives them support.
  • Hog/bristle: These brushes are the workhorse of the oil painter. Hog (pig) hair brushes are the ultimate hard brush. These hairs are strong yet springy and the bristles have natural split-ends, which increases the amount of paint they hold. Hog bristle brushes can load a lot of paint and are good for painting impasto style. Used for both oils and acrylics, they age well, becoming softer and more responsive with use.
  • Camel: Brushes labeled ‘camel’ hair are often made from other types of soft hair as camel hair is unsuitable because it is too woolly.
  • Ox: Long, strong and springy hair – most often used in flat shaped brushes.
  • Pony: Coarse hair that doesn’t form a good point. Often used in cheaper watercolor brushes
  • Goat: Lacks spring, but forms a good point. Used in calligraphy and Chinese Brush painting.

How Can You Tell Whether a Brush is Good Quality?

A new brush usually has a protective coating of starch that helps keep its shape when you first buy it. If you can find one without it, or if the store has samples, run the brush over the back of your hand back and forth a few times to test the hairs. They should return to their original shape after each stroke. Avoid testing brushes with your fingers, as that leaves dirt and oils on the brush from your hands.

The higher priced brushes are generally the higher quality brushes.

Once at home there are many other things you can do to test the quality of the brush. Read this thorough article on how to test watercolor brushes. This has a lot of information on getting to know your paint brushes.

Care for Your Paint Brushes

To avoid ruining the bristles it is important to care for your brushes properly. Cleaning them well after using them and store them properly so that the brushes are in good shape to give you the painting effects you want the next time you are ready to use them.

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