Types of Western Brushes

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Each style of brush is designed to have the optimum performance with a particular type of paint or with a certain technique. Nevertheless, at this time there is no government agency regulating their use, and if you wish to use, for example, a watercolor brush for oil painting, the only penalty you might suffer is that the brush will not last as long and will no longer work with watercolor. The following are only guidelines. The rest is up to your own creativity.


The process of watercolor is extremely sensitive to the quality of the brushes used. Watercolor paint is too light to pull together a badly shaped brush the way oil paints can; it is also too sensitive to hide any imperfections in the tools used. All the finest watercolor paints and all the most expensive watercolor papers cannot compensate for a brush that does not perform well. The selection of at least one fine-quality watercolor brush is an absolute must.

Watercolor brushes perform best when they are soaked in water for a minimum of five to ten minutes before they are used. Wetting a brush first allows for the expulsion of all air bubbles, which can create streaks in the applied color, and permits the hairs to soften and come into a proper shape. To take the fullest possible advantage of a well-made watercolor brush, it should be held as perpendicular to the working surface as can be managed. A technique has developed over the years to compensate for badly made or badly worn brushes. It involves holding a round brush at a 45-degree angle to the working surface and slowly twisting the brush as the tip is drawn across the surface to produce a consistently drawn line. I have known people who spent years developing this technique and were startled to learn that a well-made brush held at the appropriate 90-degree angle produces this effect with little skill and effort.

There are also differences in watercolor brushes, other than quality and the name brand on the handle. There are considerable differences in style within the different shapes. The most common round brush sold for watercolor, for example, is an English-style round, although the English style of watercolor is not nearly as popular as styles that have developed through the years in North America. People who do detail rendering, or draw, or do line work, all require different variations on the watercolor brush. Equipped with sufficient information, you should be able to make the best selection for your own needs.

Testing is of prime importance when buying a brush. Whenever possible you should test, or at least thoroughly inspect, a brush before you buy it. The following are some methods of inspection.

Check Uniformity. Many brushes have starch in the hairs to protect them until use. The starched tip has to be loosened to inspect it. This may be done by gently rolling the starched brush tip between two fingers. After you have done this, the individual hairs can be spread out by gently pressing the hairs near the

ferrule to fan them out for inspection. Look for uniformity in length and appearance. There should be no blunt ends (hairs that are inverted), and the tips should not have been cut or trimmed in any way.

Check Fullness. The hairs of a brush should be gathered tightly so that there is a feeling of fullness when the hairs are pinched together near the point where they enter the ferrule. Brushes made with fewer hairs are gathered loosely to give a full look; these brushes have a hollow feel and compress easily when pinched. When the hairs of a genuinely full brush are bent sharply to one side

near the ferrule, there should be no gap between the lip of the ferrule and the hairs.

Check the Point or Edge. To do this, it is necessary to wet the brush. To give it a fair test you should wet it thoroughly, not just dip it and flick it around a few times. Sable or sablelike brushes will readily present a point in the rounds, or an edge in the flats, when removed from the water and the excess water is flicked off the brush. Small, soft-hair brushes like squirrel will point, or edge, like sable, but larger ones have to be shaped to a point.

Check Spring. Spring is the ability of a brush to return to its original shape after use. One method for testing the spring of a dry sable brush is to place the brush near your ear. Bend the hairs and quickly release them. You should hear the hairs snap back. To test a wet brush, bring it to a point and hold it perpendicular to a piece of paper. Then draw a line that starts thin and is made wider by slowly pushing the brush down. When the brush is pushed down halfway along the length of the hairs, lift it as the line is completed. The line should look like a cross section of a discus, and the degree to which the brush returns to its original shape determines its spring. The finest kolinsky brush will not only return to its original shape, but can perform this maneuver quickly and repeatedly. Kazan squirrel can perform this maneuver only if the first quarter of the brush is used and will not return at all if the entire brush is used. (This characteristic is ideal in squirrel and a drawback in sable because these hairs are used for different purposes.)

Standard Watercolor Rounds

Standard watercolor rounds are the workhorses for traditional watercolor technique. Currently, the most popular brand and style is Series 7 by Winsor & Newton. The name is derived from the time when Queen Victoria commissioned Winsor & Newton to make her a brush in her favorite size, which was seven. It is said that it was made of the finest kolinsky with a silver ferrule and an ivory handle. Although brushes of this quality are no longer available, the name remains on the finest Winsor & Newton kolinsky sable brushes. With the exception of the West German brush manufacturer daVinci, which exports under the names Cosmos and Realité, Soviet prohibitions on the export of the finest Siberian kolinsky have resulted in a change to the Asian kolinsky. DaVinci claims that its finest watercolor brushes are made with 100 percent Siberian male, winter coat, kolinsky. The ferrules of the brushes are gold plated. Sizing of the da Vinci brushes is modeled after the English. Grumbacher claims that in its finest watercolor brushes it’s using old reserves of Siberian kolinsky that it had stockpiled before the restrictions.

Series 7 has dominated the American market because of its quality and its availability in larger sizes. The hairs needed to make such sizes as 12 and 14, which are difficult to find, must be quite long, between 1 ½ and 2 ½ inches (to obtain maximum spring the hair must be crimped at its belly resulting in half the length being buried in the ferrule). Winsor & Newton claims it requires six hundred tails in the size 12 and one thousand tails in the size 14 to find sufficient hairs of quality and length to make one dozen of each of these sizes.

The increasing rarity of quality long hair and the astronomical prices of the larger brushes have resulted in a greater openness toward other brands and styles of rounds. Some attention has focused on Raphael brushes, which is the artist brush division of the Max Sauer Company, one of the oldest Western brush manufacturers. Americans have not yet quite adjusted to the different size standards between the French or International and the English. English brush companies, although not as old as the French, are better established in the North American marketplace. I once asked the representative of a French brush company, in a typically American way, “Why do the French make their larger watercolor brushes smaller than the English?” To which he replied, “Why do the English make theirs so different from us? We have been making brushes for forty years longer than they!” In any case, French brushes seem to gain some of their economy, in the larger sizes, by using shorter hairs. This can often be a reasonable tradeoff when money is short as well.

Both English and French brushes are the same diameter in the small sizes up to about size 7, but the French brushes are a little longer, particularly in sizes 000 through 1. After size 7, they do not increase in diameter and length as much as the English brushes do. A French size 12 brush, for example, would be roughly equivalent to an English size 10. French brushes are shaped or cupped a little differently, resulting in a bit more point. English or French, companies such as Winsor & Newton, Realite, and Raphael still make among the finest watercolor brushes available today. When buying a Winsor & Newton brush, always look for the “made in England” stamp on the brush to be certain it is actually made by Winsor & Newton.


Very few brush manufacturers are using the Siberian kolinsky, which is recognized by its light yellowish-red hairs. Commonly seen in the marketplace are shades that range from light to medium reddish-brown. The darker Chinese sable is used in the lesser-grade sable brushes. A sign of a well-made sable brush is a dark tip that lightens toward the ferrule. The best indicator of quality is whether or not the brush performs well. You should, therefore, always test a sable brush before you buy it.

Red Sable.

The dividing line between a fine-quality red sable brush and a lesser kolinsky sable brush is often unclear. A beginner might not be able to tell the difference. In the marketplace, however, there is often a clear difference between the “average” red sable brush and the “average” kolinsky sable brush. Whether a red sable brush is average or not, it should still point easily and well and, despite the reduced spring and responsiveness, should return to some semblance of its original shape. The sable hairs used to make red sable brushes are usually of the darker shades.

Sable, or Brown Sable.

Sable hairs from the various marten animals are becoming more common as red sable continues to increase in price and diminish in availability. Well-constructed brushes of this hair are excellent for student use.


White or golden sable, which are nylon substitutes for sable, are less costly and do get the job done. Brushes made from these filaments do come to a point, but have difficulty maintaining it, especially in the larger sizes, in spite of an excessive amount of spring. There are many inexpensive sable brushes that still cost more than nylon, yet will not point well to start with and have little spring at all. Point and spring are still more desirable than absorbency, which is nylon’s most serious drawback. Nylon has no absorbency and watercolor tends to run quickly off the tip of the brush when brought into contact with a more absorbent surface such as watercolor paper.

Attempts to improve the ability of synthetic brushes to hold more paint have met with only limited success. Etching or coating the surface of nylon filaments does help reduce the surface tension (which improves capillary attraction) and slow the runoff of color, but the total volume of liquid held by the brush is not significantly changed. Synthetic filament brushes just do not hold the same volume of liquid that natural hair brushes do and, therefore, their value in applying washes or large amount of color is limited. It often takes two to five times more applications of material to cover the same area with a synthetic filament brush than with a natural hair brush.

One encouraging development in the attempt to improve the characteristics of nylon brushes has been made by the new company ProArte, which is attempting to market what it claims is a third-generation nylon named Prolene. The surface tension does seem to be lower than conventional nylon filament brushes. This can be seen by wetting a flat watercolor brush and then draining it until it is almost dry. A conventional nylon flat will develop a serrated edge and a Prolene flat will not. This indicates that watercolor should flow more slowly and evenly with this new filament. However, it still does not seem to resolve significantly the question of the small total volume of liquid held by synthetic brushes. Prolene is among the best performing of all synthetic brushes that I tested, and is also the most expensive. For a bit more money it is possible to buy a serviceable red sable brush.

Nylon filaments wear differently than natural hair; the filaments tend to curl at the tip rather than wear down. The curl can usually be removed by running almost-boiling water over it. This method will also restore the shape of nylon filaments that have been accidentally bent. (Never do this with natural hairs.)

Blends of Nylon and Natural Hairs.

The addition of natural hairs to a nylon filament brush does improve the performance without substantially increasing the price. This combination has reduced the excessive spring of nylon and increased the brushes’ absorbency. Although such brushes are not equivalent to an average red sable brush, they do perform well and are an acceptable alternative when cost is a serious consideration.

These blended brushes consist of 10 to 15 percent natural hair with the balance made of synthetic filaments. Several manufacturers have used misleading advertising, which implies that their brushes consist mostly of natural hair when they do not. Natural hairs can be distinguished from synthetic filaments on close inspection with the naked eye, although it is easier with a magnifying glass. I have tested blends with sable and those with sheep, and I feel the less expensive sheep blends perform better. The use of sable blends seems to be more of a marketing gimmick. Sheep is more absorbent and has less spring than sable, which is precisely what a nylon brush needs.

Ox (Sabeline).

Sabeline, or ox hair, has excellent spring and no point because of the nature of the hair. Consequently, it makes a poor round and I would recommend a brush that is a blend of nylon and natural hair instead.


A well-made squirrel brush can be just as valuable a tool as a wellmade sable brush, for there are times when a softer, more fluid look is needed. Since squirrel has little spring and greater absorbency than sable, it would be a far better tool for producing this effect. Squirrel brushes should not be acquired as a substitute for sable, but as an adjunct. A squirrel brush should be at least twice the size of the red sable brush that is used most often. Squirrel brushes that come in extra-large sizes are called mops, which describes their use as well as their appearance. These brushes hold a tremendous amount of liquid and make excellent wash brushes.

Soft hair brushes like these need to be thoroughly wet, and soaking them in water for five to fifteen minutes (the larger the brush, the longer the time) before use will remove trapped air and reduce the natural surface tension of the hairs. Using a brush like this upright, or perpendicular, to a level working surface will give a better result than holding it like a pencil. In the larger sizes, squirrel has to be shaped to a point, which the brush will tend to maintain if it is held upright and only if the tip and not the belly of the brush is used.

Designer Rounds

Designer Rounds are virtually the same as the standard kolinsky sable round watercolor brush, but are shaped to give a longer tapered point. This particular shape is ideal for quick and precise brushwork, and is also better for line work and illustration. This style of brush is quite versatile and I feel should be the brush of choice for the watercolorist, graphic artist, and illustrator who prefers a detailed appearance over that of a semiabstract one.

Designer Quills

Designer Quills are similar to the rounds except that the shape is thinner and longer, and the hairs are held in ferrules made of quills or a plastic substitute. The reason for the quill ferrule is in part tradition and in part to protect the hairs from the hard metal ferrules that might damage them during manufacture or during use. With this type of ferrule, the brush cannot be used when harsh solvents are involved.

These brushes are made of red sable or kolinsky sable, and are constructed with two to three lengths of sable hairs “stacked,” or arranged in levels. “Stacking” can be done by taking a group of short hairs of equal length and surrounding them with a second group of longer hairs of equal length, and then repeating this with a third group of still longer hairs. This creates a brush that holds liquid color up close to the ferrule so that it can then be fed to a extraordinarily fine pointed tip.

This brush is known for its point, spring, and quick response, in which it has no equal. Designer quills are superb for line work, illustration, and egg tempera.

Script Brushes

Script Brushes have the longest hairs of all the watercolor round brushes discussed so far. Script brushes are lettering, or showcard, brushes and have a pointed rather than a chiseled.tip. This is a large category of brushes in which various qualities and types of hairs are used. They may be set in metal or quill ferrules and they are primarily used for commercial lettering. The advent of dry transfer lettering and other innovations in the sign and lettering industries have considerably reduced the demand for these brushes. However, they are also used for special effects in watercolor, line work, and illustration.

Many script brushes are made of sable hair, but squirrel and sabeline are also commonly used. The longest sable hair does not possess much spring because the belly of the hair is exposed beyond the tip of the ferrule to gain usable length. The great length of the hair enables a skilled artist to draw a long, consistent line without all the stops that would be necessary when using a conventional watercolor round.

Spotter Brushes

Spotter Brushes are used to apply little round dots of liquid color. There is a common misunderstanding that a spotting brush is an extraordinarily small brush with a long narrow point. Such a brush produces tiny dashes, not tiny dots.

A true spotter is a very short-haired sable or kolinsky brush that has a short taper to a definite point. Although spotters are made in extremely small sizes, sizes up to 10 and 12 are useful not only to graphic artists and restorers, but also to watercolorists who need to apply color in a tight corner in one stroke rather than with the many overlapping strokes that are necessary when using a conventional round brush.

Lettering, or Showcard, Brushes

Lettering, or Showcard, Brushes include riggers, lettering quills, and onestroke brushes. Riggers and lettering quills are round brushes that have long hairs that are shaped to a chisel tip, rather than a pointed tip. The one-stroke brush is the same as a regular flat watercolor brush, but the hairs are ‘/a to 3/s” longer. These brushes are used primarily for lettering, but many are also used for special watercolor effects.


Riggers are like script brushes that come to an abrupt end, which is shaped, not cut. They are made of sable and have a metal ferrule. They range in size from approximately ‘/is to ‘/a inch in diameter. The numbering system for each size may vary, depending on the manufacturer, since there does not seem to be an agreed-upon size standard.

Lettering Quills

Lettering Quills are like riggers, except that they have quill ferrules instead of metal ferrules. They are available with hairs of squirrel, nylon, and ox (sabeline), as well as sable. Squirrel, with its minimal spring and, greater length, works best with paints that are of a heavier consistency such as that of enamels. Sable, nylon, and sabeline, with their greater spring and control, work better with more fluid paints such as watercolor.

Watercolor Flats

Watercolor Flats are used for watercolor washes, for rendering edges or geometric shapes, and for filling in large areas. The most common numbering of sizes is in inches such as 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 1 inch. Flats have the same short style of watercolor handles, but with an additional variation-a plastic handle that has a beveled end. Grumbacher was the first to market this style of brush, which it called Aquarelle. The name has stuck and is commonly used when describing this style of brush without regard to the actual manufacturer. The beveled handle serves as a tool for burnishing areas of a watercolor to produce a special effect. Beveled handled brushes are made only with hair that has spring, such as sable, ox (sabeline), nylon, or nylon blends.

Sable flats

Sable flats for watercolor have become increasingly rare because of their high price and the unwillingness of manufacturers to produce brushes that are slowselling. A great deal of sable hair is required to make a 1-inch flat sable, and it would sell for between sixty and one hundred dollars. Most people find it hard to justify the expense of a brush that is used less frequently. For an individual who uses a flat watercolor brush more often, however, sable does have some distinct advantages.

Because sable hair has spring, absorbency, and point, a flat sable brush can form narrow edges at the tip. This can easily be seen by wetting the brush and flicking off the excess water, then turning the brush sideways. As you look down the edge, the shape will resemble the cross section of an airplane wing; the hairs near the ferrule will be tightly compacted, the body of the brush will be the thickest part, and the tip will come to a razorlike edge. This unique edge allows the brush to be used in two ways; the first is simply to use the flat part of the brush to cover large areas; the second is to use this edge to draw or paint a narrow line, which is accomplished by placing the brush edge perpendicularly to the working surface and moving the brush along the narrow edge rather than the flat edge. It is far easier to paint a straight line with this kind of flat brush than with a round brush.

A poor flat sable brush, or one on which the tip has been cut to correct poor craftsmanship, will not give this edge. You can inspect a dry, flat sable brush by first looking down the length of the hairs, with the tips pointing toward you; if the brush has been cut it will have a faint, two-tone suede look. Wetting the brush will provide the final test to see if it produces a fine edge.

Ox Hair Flats

Ox (Sabeline) has spring but no point. Flat brushes made with this hair behave similarly to sable flats when used to cover large areas with color, but sabeline will not form a narrow edge that could be used for drawing lines.

Nylon Flats

Nylon has spring and when used in a flat brush it will form a narrow edge for drawing. But since nylon has no absorbency, it does not perform as well as a natural hair with wash techniques. One wash technique, for example, involves the slow application of color, and also a dry brush to soak back up part of the still wet color. The nonabsorbency of nylon makes this difficult.

Blends of Synthetic and Natural Hairs Flats

Blends of Synthetic and Natural Hairs are good, low-cost substitutes for sable. I particularly recommend the blends of nylon filaments and sheep hair where 10 percent or more of the brush is natural hair.

Sheep or Goat Hair Flats

Sheep or Goat have excellent absorbency but no spring. Consequently, the brushes made of these hairs are excellent for washes, but are not adequate for rendering.

Squirrel Hail Flats

Squirrel, like sheep, lacks spring but has great absorbency. The better-quality squirrel hairs, such as kazan, are finer and softer than sheep and are therefore better for more delicate washes or applications of color.

Watercolor Ovals

Watercolor Ovals look like squashed, round brushes. In appearance, they are halfway between round and flat brushes, and are made primarily of squirrel hair, the best ones being of kazan squirrel hair. This style of brush is designed for creating washes where the color is applied gradually. When you apply color with a traditional flat brush, the straight edge of the brush begins the application of color abruptly, leaving a hard edge. With an oval brush, the application of color starts more gradually with a narrow point and then expands for wider coverage.

An oval brush should not be purchased as a substitute for a sable or a sablelike flat. It is best used as an adjunct to a flat brush.

Mop Brushes

Mops are large squirrel hair brushes. The first choice in squirrel hair is kazan squirrel, with blue squirrel a close second. The lesser-grade mop brushes are often made with pony hair or with other less costly hairs, which produce a coarser brush. Large, good-quality mops are difficult to make and it is not uncommon to find that the lesser grades of mop brushes have been cut into shape with scissors. If your sole concern is the application of a great deal of color, these lower-cost and lesser-quality mops should prove adequate. If you wish to have more painterly control, however, it will be necessary to select mops made of hairs like kazan squirrel. Inspection is particularly important because if the brush has been cut, it will not point or provide good control.

There are mops in which the hair is built up around a “plug,” or. spacer, to save on the amount of hair needed to fill the brush and also to provide a better point. In the larger sizes you can feel for this plug by pressing your little finger toward the center of the gathered hairs near the ferrule. The reduced concentration of hairs will reduce the amount of liquid that the mop can carry at one time. This is not a serious drawback if a point is more important to you than the ability to carry truly large amounts of color.


Quality is not as important in an oil painting brush as it is in a watercolor brush because the viscosity of the oil helps pull together and give control to a brush that would be questionable for use with watercolors. This is not to say that quality is not important, but rather that the techniques of conventional oil painting are not as sensitive to small imperfections in brushes as are the techniques of watercolor. Possible exceptions are tole painting, miniatures, and photorealism, where the quality of the brush may be integral to the technique. For these styles, the finest oil painting brushes and, in some cases, the finest watercolor sables, are selected for use, regardless of price.

There is also a greater cost consideration with oil painting brushes. With watercolor brushes, it is not unreasonable to spend a great deal of money on brushes. When cared for properly, the brush can last for decades. When painting in oils, it is not uncommon to use up a set of brushes, especially sable brushes, in the production of one painting. With the exception of pig bristle, the guidelines for brush testing and inspection are the same as those for watercolor brushes.

The primary reason for using sable oil painting brushes is to be able to apply paint with a minimum of texture and a maximum of control. Kolinsky sable provides the greatest control, but kolinsky oil brushes are rare. They are not as expensive as kolinsky brushes made for watercolor because shorter hairs are used in oil painting brushes, which makes for better control in pushing around thicker oil paint. Unless meticulous detail and control is needed, kolinsky sable oil painting brushes are unnecessary with conventional techniques.

Red sable oil brushes are adequate for figurative painting where control is needed to render details, and for abstract painting when a smooth surface or a sharply defined edge is desired. (Blends of nylon and natural hair are not yet available in oil painting brushes.) Nylon oil brushes have filaments of a thicker diameter than those used in watercolor brushes and are therefore stiffer. At one time a still thicker nylon filament was used to make a substitute pig bristle, but it never caught on. The brushes were more expensive than natural bristle and did not perform as well.

The lack of absorbency of nylon is not a serious problem in oil painting. There are, however, two additional drawbacks to oil painting with nylon brushes. The first of these drawbacks is that when a nylon brush is rubbed vigorously over a gessoed canvas surface, the friction causes the ends of the nylon filaments to curl. (The curl can sometimes be removed by placing the tip of the brush in water that has been brought to a temperature just below boiling.) The other drawback is due to the thicker nylon filaments, which result in a brush with excessive spring. Too much spring in a brush can cause previous layers of paint to be disturbed during application of fresh layers of paint. The great advantage of nylon is the cost savings, which can sometimes outweigh the drawbacks.

Oil bristle (hog, pig, or boar) brushes are used for the application of thick paint, for scrubbing and scumbling (a technique of applying a lighter, semitransparent color over the surface of a darker color), and to impart texture to the painted surface. Sable brushes apply paint smoothly and consistently, while bristle applies paint roughly and inconsistently, giving a more impressionistic appearance to the painting. The stiff quality of bristle can leave streaks or gaps in the application of a fresh layer of paint, and this can allow the underpainting to show through for effect. Sables are used to create a more refined version of this technique by glazing (a small quantity of paint is dissolved into medium and applied thinly over another layer of paint so that the layer beneath can be seen through the top layer of paint).

To inspect a bristle brush, check the amount of flagging and see if the tips of the bristle have been cut. The flagging should be plentiful because it is the softer split ends of that flagging that give control to the tip of the brush. If the flagging is minimal, because the bristle has been taken from domesticated animals, or because the tips have been cut to improve the appearance of a poorly made brush, the performance of the brush will be excessivly coarse and erratic.

There are two styles of brushes for which the bristles are treated and assembled to make oil bristle brushes. There are “interlocked” and “noninterlocked” brushes. Part of the process of treating bristles is to boil them to clean them and remove part or all of their natural curve. The longer the bristles are boiled, the straighter they will become. Noninterlocked bristle brushes are produced from bristles that have been boiled until they are straight. These are then made into a brush that resembles a small broom in appearance. In a finely made brush this broomlike appearance means that there is plenty of flagging and the brush has not been starched to improve its appearance. When such a brush is loaded with paint, the splayed, broomlike look will change as the weight of the paint draws the bristles of the tip closer together. In a cheap brush made with inferior bristles, the splayed broomlike appearance will change little when loaded with paint, and, the bristles tend to spread even farther apart with the slightest pressure.

Interlocked bristle brushes contain bristles that still have part of their natural curve, and in which the curved bristles are assembled so that the brush narrows toward the tip. For example, a flat brush would be made from two groups of curved bristles, each gathered into the ferrule so that one side is curved toward the other. This gives the brush the opposite appearance to that of a splayed broom-the bristles curve outward rather than inward. The purpose of making a brush this way is to give greater control to the tip of the brush so that it resists spreading under pressure. Greater care is needed to make an interlocked bristle brush, and such brushes are therefore more expensive than those with noninterlocked bristles.

Although it is common practice to starch the hairs of a brush to help protect them from damage until they are sold, you should beware of noninterlocked, lesser-quality brushes that have been heated, starched, and molded to look like interlocked brushes. Visual inspection of a bristle brush can indicate only some of its strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, there is no adequate pre-sale testing procedure for bristle brushes as there is for sable brushes. After you have checked the flagging and tested the spring by pressing the brush down, bending the hairs in a 90-degree angle in the palm of your hand, and comparing the resistance, the next step is to buy the brush and test it under actual use.

It is my experience that buying the very best bristle brush you can afford is not always a good idea. Many artists have established styles that depend on the lack of consistency and control that is derived from lesser-quality brushes.

Oil Sable Rounds

Oil Sable Rounds are made with shorter hairs than the traditional watercolor round brushes. This is to allow for the manipulation of the heavier oil paint. A few brush makers still produce rounds of shorter and longer lengths for special effects. These brushes, however, are not generally stocked by retailers in North America, although they can be specially ordered. When a special-purpose brush is desired, most artists make a selection from the more available styles in the watercolor rounds.

Oil Sable Flats

Oil Sable Flats also have shorter hairs to allow for the heavier consistency of oil paint. The term “flat” in reference to a sable flat oil brush is misleading. There are two basic styles of sable flat oil brushes, one is a “bright,” which is a flat brush with short hairs, and the other, a “flat,” which is a flat brush with long hairs. The brights are better for general painting and the flats for glazing. Since the glazing technique has not been as popular in North America as in Europe, most of the flats that are available here are brights.

The purpose of an oil sable flat is to cover larger areas, to render edges, and to apply thin, smooth layers of paint with a minimum. of texture.

Oil Sable Filberts

Oil Sable Filberts are said to resemble worn flat brushes. The shape of a filbert is halfway between that of a round brush and that of a flat brush. So what is so good about a brush that has neither a point nor an edge? When paint is applied with a filbert, there is little or no textural beginning or end to the brush stroke. Consequently, paint can be applied smoothly and the brush strokes that are left behind in the paint film are difficult to see.

Bristle Rounds

Bristle Rounds are used for impressionistic rendering, or drawing with oil or acrylic paints. The coarse bristle does not permit detail rendering as sable does. A noninterlocked brush that is not starched and has good flagging will appear to have a very blunt tip, although when the brush is loaded with paint the tip should narrow considerably to a workable point. An interlocked round bristle will display this tapered point before use, and will spread considerably less than the noninterlocked round, and will maintain better control with extended use.

Bristle Brights

Bristle Brights are flat brushes with less bristle exposed. The bristle used is approximately one-third shorter than that used in the round or flat bristle brushes. Using this length provides a much stiffer brush and allows the handling of very thick paint mixtures (almost as if the brush were a miniature palette knife), and enables the use of such techniques as scumbling (scrubbing the paint into the surface for effect). Here again flagging is important, and if more precise control is desired, the interlocked bristle is preferable.

Bristle Flats

Bristle Flats have approximately the same length of bristle exposed as the round bristle brushes. This length allows for a softer technique where heavy paint can be applied with less texture than would be left by a bristle bright. Interlocked bristle is most effective in the larger sizes of flat brushes.

Bristle Filberts

Bristle Filberts look like flat bristle brushes with the edges worn down. It is not uncommon to find that a painter’s favorite tool is a flat bristle brush with the edges worn down, yet few such painters have tried a filbert. A filbert is a bristle brush made to duplicate this oval shape. The rounded edges allow the application of paint without the abruptness that occurs when painting with a flat or a bright bristle brush. With a filbert, an artist can draw thin lines by using the edge, or thick lines using the flat of the brush, giving an overall softer look to the painting.

Oil Blenders

Oil Blenders are used primarily to remove brush marks and texture. The painted surface, while still wet, is rubbed with the tip of a blender. There are fan-shaped blenders and round blenders. Blenders, particularly those that are fan-shaped, are also used to apply paint when special effects are desired..

The round blenders are actually large, round, squirrel lettering quills or mops. Fan-shaped blenders are available in bristle, badger, sable, and nylon. Bristle fans are the least expensive and, in most cases, the least effective because of the coarseness of the hair. Sable fans are very expensive and most effective in areas where precise and delicate blending is necessary. Nylon is more expensive than bristle but far cheaper than sable and, in most instances, is adequate only for blending. Nylon does not hold up well if the blending requires a great deal of scrubbing because the filaments tend to curl. Badger blenders are an excellent compromise because they are significantly less expensive than sable and perform almost as well.

A blender rapidly becomes ineffective if paint is allowed to build up on the tip of the brush. It is helpful to clean the blender frequently.

Winsor & Newton and the daVinci Company still make a pure red sable fan blender. Raphael (Max Sauer Company) makes a uniquely large badger fan blender, which is labeled “12 12,” or “double 12.”


With the one exception of Winsor & Newton, size 14 Series 7 watercolor brush, the Max Sauer Company sets the world standard for extra-large artists’ brushes.

This company is one of the few brush makers that still makes fine-quality extra large brushes. Raphael is the name placed on the brushes made primarily for artistic use, and Sauer is the name on brushes made primarily for industrial use. Raphael supplies conventional artists’ brushes with extra-long handles (36 inches long), as well as extra-large bristle (or ox hair) brushes (up to 120mm or approximately 4 ¾ inches wide) with conventional handles. Sauer’s industrial brushes are made primarily of bristle, have heavy-duty handles, and are available in flat sizes up to 300mm (or 11 ¾ inches) wide, and round bristle brushes up to 2 inches in diameter.

Industrial brushes, regardless of the manufacturer, are certainly acceptable for artistic use if they will get the job done. There is a great range in quality among industrial brushes and proper examination is important. In addition to inspecting these brushes as you would any artists’ brush, it is important to look for an excessive amount of loose hairs, cut hairs (some cut hairs can be tolerated in extra-large brushes), weak handles or badly crimped ferrules, and plastic spacers, which are sometimes set into the ferrule to cut down on the amount of hair needed to fill out a big brush.

Loose hair can be checked for in a large round by spinning the brush in the palm of the hand, and in a flat brush by slapping the ferrule against the palm of the hand. This will help force loose hairs up and out of the brush. Most large brushes will lose some hairs at first, but this shedding should stop with normal use. Weak handles or badly crimped ferrules are easily checked by applying some pressure at these points. (One buyer for an industrial paint store used to test brush handles by breaking them over his knee.)

The hardest thing to test for is a plastic spacer that is used to scrimp on the amount of bristle. The outside of the brush will appear quite normal, but in use it will not carry, or hold, very much paint. Medium to large spacers can be felt for by pushing the small finger into the center of the bristles near the ferrule. Small spacers, however, are difficult to detect without destroying the brush in the process.

Because of price, nylon has almost totally replaced natural bristle in the large brushes available in hardware and house paint stores. Nevertheless, I do not recommend large synthetic brushes because of their lack of absorbency. All professional house, or industrial, painters know that it takes twice as much work to paint something with a synthetic brush as it does with a natural bristle brush, because the brush has to be dipped into the paint twice as often and there is also far less control.


At one time, a variety of synthetic filament brushes were specifically marketed as “acrylic brushes.” They rapidly fell into disfavor when people discovered that these brushes had no special advantages and, in some cases, were priced higher than brushes made for other media.

When acrylics or vinyls are to be used like oil paints, oil painting brushes are best. If the acrylics or vinyls will be used in a watercolor technique, then traditional watercolor brushes are best.