Art Education: Artists’ Brush Tips


Written by John T. Weber

Unlike most products that are manufactured today, fine artist brushes, with few exceptions, are manufactured the same way as they were in the 19th and early 20th century.  Brushes are laboriously made by hand by apprenticed artisans that have passed through many stages of the process to become master brush makers. A skilled brush maker makes the process look easy, but it requires years of training to become accomplished. Many brushmakers begin their apprenticeship as young as 14 years old, and will not be recognized as master brushmakers until they have spent 5 to 7 years learning their skills.

The handmade brush making process is fascinating to watch. Both synthetic and natural hair comes from a supplier in one-pound bundles, a portion of which the brushmaker lays out in a row. By feel and weight, a master brushmaker can pick up the exact amount of hair for the size brush she is making, and then cups it for shape. The round brass cups are called cannons and resemble the barrel of a cannon when viewed from the receiving end. The hair is inserted into the cannon, tip down, and the cannon is tapped to settle the hair into the desired shape. The brushmaker removes the hair from the cannon and inserts it tip first into the base of the ferrule, then taps and pulls it through to the proper length. Cannons come in many sizes and shapes, depending on the brush being made. For flats, the brushmaker uses a flat bottom cannon and the ferrule is crimped.  For rounds, the bottom of the cannon is pointed and the ferrule left un-crimped. If the round is crimped, the brush becomes a filbert. Hair lengths are fairly standard, so the finished length most often depends on the amount pulled out of the ferrule. Bristle brushes are assembled in a different way, which is discussed later.

At a separate station a measured amount of epoxy adhesive is inserted into the base of the ferrule to secure the hair. After the epoxy in the brush heads cure, the heads are sent to the assembly area where the handles are inserted. Ferrules are glued and then crimped onto wooden handle. Watercolor wash brushes have glued on acrylic handles. The assembled brushes are inspected for any loose or reversed hair. They are then dipped in an inert water-soluble sizing to protect their shape and make them attractive for display in the art store. The sizing is important so the brush head will not get damaged in the process of shipping. The handles are imprinted, some brush heads are sleeved to protect the head in shipping and then they are boxed for distribution. The protective sleeve that some brushes have is for transport only; end-users never need to replace the plastic sleeve.

With bristle brushes the assembly process is slightly different. On better bristle brushes the hair is wet before brush construction to accentuate its natural curve. The brushmaker selects the proper amount of hair and one half is reversed, with each half curved inward to give the brush its natural and distinctive interlocked shape. Interlocked bristle brushes maintain their shape in continued use. On low cost bristle brushes the hog bristles are boiled and straightened and will not hold their shape as well.

1.   What are the benefits of Natural Hair?

The outer casing (cuticle) of natural hair is covered in scales which helps the hair hold moisture, while synthetic does not. Natural animal hair also has a hollow tube (medulla) within each filament and allows the hair to absorb a great deal of moisture. Natural hair is wear resistant and will work in all mediums. The greatest benefit of natural hair vs. synthetic hair is its absorbency.  While great progress in moisture retention has been made in the world of synthetics, natural hair will always hold the most color for the artist.

2. What is synthetic hair?

DuPont invented the process of making Taklon, in which polyester fiber is extruded and tapered to a fine point. DuPont sold the rights to this process to the Toray Chemical Co. of Osaka Japan. Taklon was originally designed to mimic the handling characteristics of natural sable. It is now offered in several sizes from 0.08mm to .15mm, which mimic hair, and .20mm, which mimics boar bristle. Variations of percentages in diameter affect the stiffness or softness of the brush. Varying diameters also creates more space between the fibers, allowing the brush to carry more liquid. Taklon is an excellent alternative to soft natural hair brushes.  These filaments are originally white and are often dyed to a golden color.  Some brushes have a mix of synthetic and natural hair.  This allows the use of a less expensive natural hair which is better at retaining moisture while the synthetic filaments help holds its shape. There are several new filaments designed for specific uses. These usually are varied in color and stiffness depending on the application.

3.   What are the differences in natural hairs?

Bristle – The strongest of the epidermal filaments and it comes from the body of hogs. Boar bristles differ from hair in that they are hollow tubes and the top of each strand is divided into two or more tips called flags, like a miniature twig, which allows the relatively stiff bristle to carry a considerable amount of color. They are tougher and more rigid than most natural hair brushes and are best for applying thick layers of paint. Top quality white boar bristle hair comes from the Chongqing area of China. Boar bristles also come from many areas of China or India, but most are of lesser quality and the bristle is yellow and mottled. A bleaching process gives us uniform white bristle, but as with human hair, it can make the bristle brittle and susceptible to breakage. Top quality Chunking (Chongqing) bristles are naturally whiter and require little bleaching, so they retain their natural oils and do not become brittle.

Sable – Good quality sable type hair used in brush making is finely pointed and has a long taper to its thicker midsection called the belly, then tapers slightly back to its base or butt. Great in wet strength, most red sable comes from the tail of a male marten (sable is actually a made up name). Sable is coveted because of its ability to maintain its shape and spring while still carrying a maximum amount of color. The quality of sable hair is determined by the climate in which it is raised. The colder the climate, the richer and thicker the animals’ fur. The most expensive sable hair comes from weasels in Siberia and northern China. The true Kolinsky weasel is now protected in Russia and most “Kolinsky” hair now comes from an Asian weasel. Male sable is preferred to female due to its longer length, finer tip and plusher tail. Due to the excessive cost of male “Kolinsky” hair, it is often mixed with 60% female hair. Top quality sable hair comes from the male winter coat mid way down the tail where the hair is more protected, has more body and has a longer taper. Often any hair’s name alone is of perceived value, as the quality of any hair varies with the age and quality of the animal, location of the hair, time of year shorn, hygiene and hair dresser.

Please note: Animals who provide the hair for brush making are predominately farm raised for the food they provide the populous.  Most rodents are raised for their pelts and the tails used in brush making are only an additional source of revenue for breeders. No animal that is endangered is ever destroyed for artist brushes.

Squirrel – This is the softest and finest of the brush making hairs and comes from the tail of the squirrel. It is a thin hair with a pointed tip and fairly uniform body. Most squirrel hair comes from Russia and the Yukon Territory of Canada. When we talk about hair strength we mean wet strength. Squirrel has the least “wet strength” but its extremely fine hairs carry the most liquid. It is very limp when wet and will not hold its shape. Squirrel hair makes an excellent watercolor wash brush where its superior liquid carrying ability is of benefit, as the hair is pulled across the surface, making long, smooth, broad strokes. Quality squirrel hair is expensive and is often used in a mix with other natural hairs to control cost. It is sometimes mixed 50/50 with synthetic hair to improve its tensile strength. Kazan is the finest quality squirrel hair followed by Blue Squirrel, Taleutky, then Canadian or Golden Squirrel.

Pony – The best comes from the belly of the pony. It is usually a soft light brown hair. It is often mixed with other hairs unless it is used for wash brushes. These are often called “camel hair” even when the less expensive pony hair is used; however, top quality pony hair makes a great soft-hair wash brush.

Goat – These hairs have no spring, but do have a fine point. The quality of the hair varies with the area of the body, with the belly hair being the softest. Black goat hair becomes stiffer when wet while white goat hair does not. It is most often used in making wash brushes, blending brushes, watercolor and oriental hake brushes.

Sheep – This hair is very soft and carries a lot of liquid. It is used mostly in Oriental brushes and is often mixed with goat hair.

Ox – This hair comes from the ear of certain species of South American, European and Asian oxen. It is very coarse and strong and has good snap, but it lacks the fine tapered tip of sable. This hair is closest to the handling characteristics of sable and is often dyed brown and called sablene. It is firmer, stiffer and springier than red sable.

Horse – A very stiff hair from the tail and mane of a horse. It is popular in the Orient due to its long length and is mostly used in making Sumi brushes. Traditional Faux Finish Flogger brushes are made with horsehair.

Camel – Camel hair artist’s brushes are usually a selection of mixed lower grade natural hairs and can contain almost any hair except camel. The name Camel’s hair actually came from a Mr. Camel who developed this mixture.

Badger – Badger hair is thickest at the point and thinner at the root. This gives Badger brushes a bushy appearance. True Badger hair has a dark stripe through its center. Badger hair is usually relatively stiff, but comes in many grades and tensile strengths. It is most often used as a blender.

Mongoose – The Mongoose hair that is in brushes in the US today is from North Africa and Spain, which have warmer climates that prevent the coat of the mongoose from thickening. Hence, the quality of these brushes is not what it was 20 years ago when the hair came from India. The finest Mongoose hair came from India, but the animal source of that hair is on the worldwide threatened species list. The animal and its products may not legally be exported from India or imported to the US. Mongoose hair has a dark brown tip, cream colored center and dark base. These brushes have good snap and are very long lasting. Their tensile strength is about half way between a sable and a bristle. They were a very popular decorative painting brush, but when its import was restricted in the US, synthetic brushes were developed to fill the void.

Fitch – This hair is coarser and lower in quality than sable and comes from the polecat, a cousin of the weasel. It is lower in quality and is sometimes called Russian sable or black sable as a marketing gimmick.

There are several natural hairs that are no longer used in brush making, as they are either difficult to obtain, or they come from endangered species. I have only covered the most popular types used today, but for a departed brush of dis-stink-shun, skunk hair was once used in making varnish brushes.

Note: During the Renaissance period it was common for an artist to go to a tanner and ask him to make brushes with left over materials from his tanning process.  During the Revolutionary period here in the US turkey bones, turkey feathers, chicken veins were used commonly in home prepared artist brushes.

4.   What are the differences in long and short handle brushes?

Historically an oil or acrylic painter stands at a distance from the canvas and paints with a long handle brush on a vertical easel while the watercolorist sits and paints much closer on a horizontal surface, using a short handle brush. Watercolorists usually do not use a stiffer hair than sable, while oil and acrylic painters use hog bristle and hair with the tensile strength of sable or greater, as they are working with heavier bodied paints. The exception to this is soft blending brushes. Crafters and hobbyists generally sit while they are involved with their close detailed work and use short handled brushes with a broad range of hair types. Craft brushes also come in a large variety of shapes and often use some different names. A “flat” artist brush is a “shader” and a “bright” artist brush is a “chisel blender” to a decorative artist.

5. Other than the quality of the hair, what makes a good brush?

Ferrules: There have been many materials used over the years for ferrules. Through trial and tribulation artist brush manufacturers have come up with the best solutions for today’s colors. The ferrules on the best brushes are made of seamless brass, copper nickel-plating for protection from corrosion. Generally the longer the ferrule, the better the holding capacity on the handle, hence a stronger and a higher quality brush.

Aluminum ferrules are a very soft and typically anodized (colored) silver or gold. They are generally used in children’s brushes, store bought canister brushes, or on the most inexpensive brushes in the market. Seamed ferrules or tin ferrules that can corrode easily are used primarily for one-time use throwaway brushes. Some brushes are being imported from Asia with metal ferrules called Cupro nickel, which will pit and discolor easily. They usually look dull even when new.

Ferrules vary in sizing from one country to another.  Unlike the printing business that has standardization in sizing, for unknown reasons ferrule sizing went off in different tangents from country to country, so the German sizing is not the same as Japanese sizing, nor is the English sizing the same as the French.  To add to the confusion, different manufacturers can put different sizes on the handles at will.  Although a brush may have a size 20 imprinted on the handle in reality it may be just a size 12.   Short handle brush sizes are larger than long handle sable sizes, but not as large as long handle bristle sizes. There is no international standard. The best bet is to measure the brush head.

Handles: Handles have been made of many different types of materials over the years.  Beechwood was typically used in Europe because of the large number of trees in the Black Forest in Germany and in the Alsace region of France.  There have also been handles made of ivory and bone.  Today wood is the most common handle, but plastic (acrylic) handles are used on many watercolor brushes.  An easy way to see if the brush is well made is to hold it out for balance. Precision handles will balance on your finger regardless of the size.

Testing: To test a watercolor or soft-hair brush, wet it with water and brush on a sheet of test paper, which most art stores carry, or use heavyweight watercolor paper. Pay attention to the length of stroke, which is determined by the amount of liquid carried by the hair. Check for maintenance of sharp point or razor edge. For round watercolor brushes wet and flick the head. The hair should immediately come to a fine point. The brush should maintain its shape when being used. Bristle type brushes can be tested dry to feel for snap. They should retain their shape after sizing is removed.

6. How do you clean and maintain an artist’s brush?

All brushes need to be cleaned before storage. After cleaning, a brush should be hung head-down or laid flat to drain. An easy way to get the head to rest lower than the handle is to put the brush on an old ashtray with cutouts. Let the ferrule rest on the cut out and the moisture will flow out of the head without the head touching any surface. If a brush dries standing up, the cleaner and color residue can drain into its ferrule, which can weaken the epoxy holding the hair in place. A buildup of paint residue in the ferrule is one of the reasons brushes become disfigured. After the brush is dry it can be stored standing up. If natural hair brushes are to be stored for a length of time, place a moth deterrent product in the storage box, or use a well-sealed container to protect the heads from small arthropods. Insects love to munch keratin and will cut the brush hairs off at the ferrule.

Cleaning Natural Hair Brushes: Natural hair works well with all mediums and is not affected by solvents and cleaners. There are several cleaning techniques for oil colors, including the use of baby oil instead of solvent. The standard practice has been to use turpentine or a turpentine substitute to remove the oil color. First wipe the brush clean of paint with a paper towel before cleaning with the appropriate solvent. After each use, rinse thoroughly in the appropriate solvent as soon as possible. For acrylics and watercolors use a mild soap and water. There are also excellent, environmentally friendly brush cleaners on the market, which work well for all mediums. For longer life, natural hair should be periodically treated with lanolin or similar hair conditioner before storage to keep the hair from becoming brittle. Use animal oils to condition, not vegetable oils which will harden.

Cleaning Bristle Brushes: Hog bristles do not like water. A bristle will hold its shape far longer when used exclusively with oils and solvents. Each hog bristle filament is hollow it has a tendency to retain the first liquid in which it is immersed. If the artist paints in oils and then washes the bristle in soap and water, the conflict between oil and water will cause the hair to loose its natural shape. Clean oil color from the bristles with turpentine, turpentine substitute or water free brush cleaner and then periodically treat with lanolin or similar conditioner before storage. Often a bristle brush is used with acrylics due to its economical cost and strength and if so, it should not also be used for oil painting. We do not recommend using high quality hog bristle brushes for acrylics, as the artist will not realize the true benefits and the long life of a superior bristle brush. It is best to use a synthetic brush for acrylic painting.

Cleaning Synthetic Brushes: Synthetics are now made for all artists’ mediums; however turpentine will soften polyester fibers. The finer the filament the faster it is affected. It is recommended that the artist use turpentine substitute, odorless turpentine, or one of the newer environmentally friendly brush cleaners. After washing with soap and water, there is no reason to treat synthetic fibers with conditioner before storage.  Synthetics were originally developed for use with water base colors, but due to their high performance, they are now being used for all media.

Brush Restoration: The most common disfigurement of brush heads comes from leaving the brush head-down in cleaning solution. Natural hair is more forgiving than synthetic hair and can be more easily retrained to its original shape after being disfigured. Dip natural hair in boiling water and reshape. Then take the brush and dip in a solution of sugar water for a quick sizing of the brush head.  It is important to clean any impacted paint from the ferrule when reshaping a brush head. Dipping the brush head half way up to the ferrule into boiling hot water quickly will help dissolve impacted paint in the ferrule. However, impacted paint left in a ferrule is extremely difficult to remove and ruins the shape of the brush head.  However there is no need to throw away a quality artist’s brush due to dried paint. There are brush restorers on the market that can work miracles on rock solid brush heads. If a lot of money has been invested in a top quality natural hair brush, it is worth an attempt at restoring. Synthetic brushes may also be reshaped, but use hot, not boiling water, to keep from affecting the fibers.

7.  What are the different shapes of artist’s brushes and how are they used.

Flats/Brights/Strokes – The flat with the shortest length of hair are called brights or chisel blenders. The second length out are called flats or shaders and the longest length out are called stroke brushes. The longer hair allows more paint to be carried, thus lengthening the stroke. Pressing down on the surface widens the width of the stroke. The shorter hair in brights allows for greater control. Flats are used for coverage. Sable flats should maintain a razor edge.

Rounds – Rounds are used for detail painting. A good quality sable type round should come to a needle point when wet and maintain its shape in use. A round bristle brush should maintain its shape when wet or dry.

Filbert – The filbert is considered the brush for advanced artists. It can be used in place of flats for broad coverage and in place of rounds for detail work by turning the filbert on its side. This reduces the requirement for the artist having to stop and switch brushes to achieve different effects. The extra long filberts allow for the greatest variation in stroke width, while carrying a large volume of color. These brushes are the most flexible of the artists brushes, but are the most difficult to master.

Cats Tongue – These brushes are similar to the filbert. They are crimped at the belly making the hair out shorter, which increases control. They are made from sable type hair and come to a point.

Angular – These brushes have an angled edge and the short handled angles are popular in decorative painting for creating curved and varying width strokes. They are also popular with for painting on large canvases as the artist can paint flat while holding the brush at an angle.

Liner / Script Liner – The script liner has longer hair out than the liner. They are used for lettering, for tree branches and fence wire in landscapes and many other fine lines. This brush is also called a rigger; the primary need for this type of brush is for the signature as the long length out allows a large flow of paint to run in a continuous stream for the entire name to be painted.

Mop – These brushes are used for watercolor wash brushes and for blending in oil and acrylics. These are most often made from goat hair. Black goat hair gets stiffer in water while white does not. Mops come either round or an oval shape to the head. They are also called a Sky Wash brush.

Fan – Fan brushes are used for blending colors or softening edges. They are also used dry to simulate grass or fur. The best fan blenders have a key hole, or open area on each side of the ferrule to keep from cutting the hair as the artist moves the brush backward and forward.

Grass Comb® – These brushes are used, as the name suggests, painting the simulation of grass. They are also used to simulate fur and certain types of foliage. The scratching technique gives animation to texture painting.

Fitch – The chisel Fitch is a flat in a wedge shape, with the hair receding back on each side of the center edge. This is a way of achieving a thin edge with boar bristles and allows it to hold a large quantity of paint. Not to be confused with the animal of the same name.

Dagger – The dagger striper was originally designed as a pin striping brush. It is still used for thin lines, but it is popular with decorative artists for painting single stroke petals and leaves.

Deerfoot Stippler – This very stiff brush is usually made from chopped ox ear hair or horse tail hair and is used to dab on the paint in dry brush technique to simulate flowers, pods, grass, hair and texture.

Lettering Quill – These brushes have long soft hair and are flat on the end and use a feather quill for a ferrule.  They were designed for lettering in sign painting. With a metal ferrule they are called show card brushes. The original use for this type of brush has disappeared with modern technological advances.

Bulletin Cutter – These brushes are shaped similar to house paint brushes, but have a wedge shaped tip and are usually boar bristle. This was originally a large sign painting brush and today is used for base coating canvas, glazing, varnishing and lacquering.

Stencil – The hair for this brush is usually chopped hog bristle. This gives it a very stiff blunt tip. It is used, as the name suggests, for dry brush stenciling.

Hake – This brush was designed for oriental art, but is often used as a watercolor wash brush. It is very soft and made from goat and sheep hair. It is pronounced similar to the game player on ice with a puck.

Bamboo – This brush is made with two strengths of hair. The inner core is a stiff hair required for control in Japanese Sumi painting and the outer core is softer hair. The core is often horse hair which will not hold the required tapered shape so it is wrapped with a softer hair like goat or pony.

The Artist’s Handbook by Ralph Mayer states “There is no item of greater importance to the successful execution of a painting than a sufficient quantity of the very-highest-grade brushes that it is possible to find. It is one department of the artists equipment where no skimping or compromise should be allowed: one may go without or use makeshift supplies of some items but poor brushes are a severe handicap to good painting”.


The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer, Colors and Materials for Oil Painting by Jacques Turner, The Artists Handbook by Ray Smith, The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials by Stephen Saitzyk