How To:
Choosing Fine Art Paint Brushes

Fine Art Paintbrushes:

The paintbrush is an essential tool in any successful painting as it is an extension of the artist’s hand. Learn  all about the brushes and how to use them for your fine art painting.

Dissection of a paintbrush:

First things first, what are the different parts that make up a brush?

The Tip:
The slender extremity of fine bristle or hair. This is the first absorption point of the brush. It is this extremity of the bristle or hair that dictates how much paint will be absorbed. Fine bristles have one single extremity. Hog bristles however, have multiple extremities, as their tip is divided into several sections. 

The Belly:
Serves to hold colour in the bristles. The belly is also referred to as the ‘reserve’. This part of the brush head ensures that your paint is released in a progressive, uniform manner when the brush touches the surface on which you are painting. The better quality of the brush, the better the final result. 

The Ferrule:
The metallic part of the brush head, in either copper or brass, encases the bristles and provides their attachment point to the handle. For some methods of painting (such as a colour wash), the ferrule may be replaced by a quill. 

The Handle:
A short handle, or a long handle? The length of the handle allows the artist to decide how much distance they want between themselves and their work. For watercolours, we recommend a short handle for precision work and for work done on a table. For acrylics and oils, both types make good choices, it really comes down to the artist’s preference. The main difference between the two is that long-handled brushes are mainly intended for work at an easel, where one stays a certain distance from the painting. 

The Brush Head:
One of the most important decisions to make in the choosing of a brush, is the shape of its head! In the diagrams below you will find a selection of brush heads and suggestions on what they could be used for. As with many art materials, these are merely suggestions and guidelines! 

Brush Bristles

It is also really important to be aware of the major differences between synthetic and natural fibres and how this may effect your material and mark-making capabilities.

Natural bristles have scales which naturally absorb and hold liquids. This makes them highly retentive of both water and colour. 

Synthetic hairs are also conical, but their surface is smoother. They are more resistant to over-use, but they are less retentive of water and colour. Some imitations are/or combinations now meet and exceed the needs of many artist’s today. 

  • Natural Bristles: Isabey Pure Squirre

    Exceptional water retention capacity for very long strokes and colour washes. Essential for watercolour, its flexibility and unrivalled colour retention capacity makes extensive solid colour application possible. Its extreme finesse gives this brush a very precise tip.

  • Synthetic Bristles: Isabey Isaqua Brushes

    Imitation sable, responsive and springy. Isaqua is a synthetic fibre brush with similar characteristics to a sable brush. Very responsive, these fibre bristles are ideal for high precision work. 

  • Pictured above are two images of the same brushes. The first image portrays the behaviour of brush bristles outside of water, and the second portrays what happens when dipped into water. 

    The brushes pictured are (from left to right):

    Gray Squirrel (natural bristle)
    Sable (natural bristle)
    Synthetic Fibre (synthetic bristle)

  • Historically, there has been as significant difference in quality between natural and synthetic bristle brushes - the natural hairs were far superior. Thanks to technological developments, this is no longer always the case. In some instances, an imitation synthetic brush will perform better and retain its point longer.

    An added consideration in this area of brush choice is an ethical factor - synthetic bristle brushes are a vegan option!

Understanding Brush Sizing

Brushes, for all purposes and mediums, come in a variety of different sizes and the sizing scale will differ between brand, or manufacturers, which can make it difficult when comparing brushes - especially online! At M.E.S, we like to suggest to our customers to note the brush codes and sizes of the brushes they like, so they can always replace them if needed. Taking a photo of a new brush on your mobile phone is a useful way to keep track of the brushes you like.

Brush manufacturers use a sizing scale to dictate the individual brush sizes within a range. The number on the side of the brush, i.e. #4, will refer to the thickness, the length or the width of the brush hair. While this number will be different with different manufacturers, it's good to be aware that it may also vary across the ranges of one manufacturer.

From smallest to largest, an example brush scale is as follows:20/0, 12/0, 10/0, 7/0, 6/0, 5/0, 4/0, 000, 00, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30 + so on!

Looking After Your Brush:

It is essential to look after your brush carefully to extend its lifespan and preserve its properties. A good rule to follow is simply ensuring any paint residue that could become encrusted in the ferrule is removed as it can cause bristles to break.

For water-based colours (watercolours and gouache): rinse the brush in warm water and soap until all traces of colour have disappeared. Dry the brush horizontally or hang the brush vertically with the bristles facing downward

For oil colours: with a cloth, wipe the brush from the ferrule to the tip to remove excess colour, clean the brush carefully in a suitable solvent (turpentine or brush-cleaning liquid)

For acrylic colours: as you work, immerse the brush in water once you have finished applying colour as acrylic dries and hardens very quickly. To clean, rinse the brush thoroughly under running water, wash with soap until the soap lather is clean.

We recommend using our beloved Sennelier Honey Soap to wash your brushes.