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Home > A Guide to Artists' Paintbrushes

A Guide to Artists' Paintbrushes

11th March 2020
A Guide to Artists' Paintbrushes
Broad Canvas

Sometime after the invention of the finger and the perils of fingerpainting became too much, early man took it upon themselves to create a device that did away with the need to wash their hands once they had finished adorning their cave walls. Thus the paintbrush was born! I jest but the reality is that humans have been using paintbrushes from as early as the Paleolithic Period, about 2,500,000 years ago, to apply pigment. This is evidenced by cave paintings found in Spain and France. The technology has come a long way since what I can only imagine was a few hairs plucked from one's own head or last nights dinner lashed to a stick. With the advancement in technology has come the development of many different brush types from a multitude of different manufacturers. These brush types vary greatly in there shape, size, materials and uses. To the beginner artist or heck, even the most established professional things can get a little confusing when it comes to choosing the right paintbrush. What do you use for your watercolour painting, oil painting or acrylic painting projects? Help is at hand! Enter this handy print out and keep poster that details everything you need to know when selecting or purchasing your next paintbrush.

A guide to artists painting brushes infographic
A guide to artists painting brushes infographic

Round Brushes

A round brush has bristles that taper to a pointed tip making them very useful for detailed brush strokes. Excellent for initial sketches when painting and can produce a varying line width depending on the pressure applied. Useful for filling small areas.

Flat Brushes

The flat brush is a very versatile brush that can be used to spread paint quickly and evenly over a surface. It can also be used on its edge for finer more precise brush strokes. Produces a square ended brush stroke.

Bright Brushes

Bright brushes, although similar in shape to that of flats have a shorter stiffer bristle. Particularly useful when wishing to employ thick paint styles like impasto.

Filbert Brushes

Filbert brushes are flat brushes with long bristles that form into a rounded end and can be used to achieve a variety of marks.  Very effective for blending in figurative works.

Angled Brushes

Angled brushes, like the filbert, are very versatile and can be used in both general painting application as well as detail work. Can be manipulated to achieve a variety of line widths and effects.

Fan Brushes

Fan brushes great for smoothing, blending, and feathering. They can be used to add texture effects on clouds, leaves and trees for example or to achieve a very subtle paint application. 

Mop Brushes

The mop brush is a larger brush that holds a lot of paint. They are used to apply large areas of colour in one go, for example when laying down a watercolour wash. 

Rigger Brushes

A rigger has much longer bristles than other brushes that help it produce precise, consistent line work. It gets its name from its traditional use of painting the rigging of ships. However, it is also great for landscape painting, especially the long boughs of trees or tall grasses.

Brush Bristle Types


A natural hair from a species of weasel. Sable is favoured for its softness, flexibility and ability to hold a fine point. Kolinsky sable is regarded by many as the best bristle for watercolour brushes. 
Uses: Watercolour, Oil


A hard wearing natural bristle that is known for its durability. Stiff yet springy making it good for applying thicker paint mediums. Available in a variety of qualities for cheaper student ranges to Artists quality.
Uses: Oil, Acrylic


Synthetic bristles are a manmade fibre often consisting of nylon or polyester. A versatile material that is manufactured with a variety of properties to mimic it’s natural counterparts.
Uses: Watercolour, Oil, Acrylic

Brush Sizing

Artists' brushes are sized using several different identifiers. Some are measured in millimetres or inches where the larger the number the larger the brush. Others are simply given a number. (unfortunately, this number is not universal amongst suppliers and does not relate to an exact standard describing their physical dimensions) However, as with brushes using the metric or imperial standard, these brushes also increase in size as the number gets bigger. (see below)

SMALL - 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 - LARGE

Selecting artists brushes at Broad Canvas