An art brush is the instrument through which an artist channels his or her art. It is an extension not only of the hand and arm, but of the eyes and the soul of the artist as well. Without it, the vision and the truth of what the artist sees in himself and in the world around him cannot be given life.

Choosing a brush for an artist, then, is a serious task and a number of areas should be given careful consideration.

Match the Tool to the Job

Before selecting your brush, think about what you want it to do and what materials you will be working with. There are three main areas here:

  • The surface. Will you be painting on canvas, wood, metal? How smooth or rough will this surface be? How much flex will it have? How will it absorb the paint?
  • The paint. What type will you use – oils, acrylic, watercolour? How thick will the medium be? Will it require solvent?
  • Style. How will you apply the paint? What effects are you after – blobbing, bristle marks, untextured washes?

You brush must accommodate all these variables.

Quality Components

A good brush will have:

  • A hardwood handle.
  • A ferrule (the metal barrel that holds the bristles to the handle) that is seamless and made of metal that won’t react with solvents or paints.
  • A “tuft” of quality bristles.

Bristles

There are three main types of bristle used in art brushes: soft natural hair, hog (or China) bristle and synthetic filament.

Natural Hair

The gold standard in natural hair brushes is Kolinsky sable, but many other hairs are also used including, ox, squirrel, weasel, mongoose etc.

Natural hair brushes have good resilience and strength, hold a good amount of paint, leave fewer brush marks and are excellent for delicate work.

Natural hair brushes are generally used with oils rather than acrylics as they will not stand regular immersion in water and the composition of acrylic paint will damage the hair structure over time.

Hog Bristle

A stiffer brush made from pig hair (often that from around the ear), hog bristle brushes function well against coarser surfaces, produce a textured finish and are good for impasto and dabbing or blobbing techniques.

Synthetic Filament

Made from polyester that has been processed to increase its absorbency, these brushes are robust and versatile and far less expensive than natural hair brushes. They can be used with all types of paint and are ideal for acrylics. Certain synthetic brushes, though, may be prone to damage from solvents.

Glue

The glue that holds the bristles to the handle, though not readily visible, is an important component of any good art brush.

As brushes made for use with oils are not expected to come into much contact with water the glue used in these brushes may not be entirely waterproof. Using such a brush with acrylics or watercolours, then, might result in bristle loss.

Size and Shape

It is unlikely that you’ll be able to complete a painting of any complexity with a single brush. You may need a broad brush of 2 inches or more to start with (for washes and support colour etc.) and then move through several progressively smaller brushes as the need for delicacy and fineness increases. When buying an art brush think carefully about the function it must perform.

Shape, too, is an important consideration. A fan brush, for instance, will be no use for line-work and a liner brush would be a poor choice for blending large areas of colour. Again, keep function in mind.

Your Choice

When you take that trip to the art shop, don’t be seduced by all those beautifully-lit racks of gorgeous art brushes. Think less about the brush as an object, and more about exactly what it is you want to achieve with it. Your end goal, after all, is the creation of a work of art, not to amass the best collection of wood and bristle in your neighbourhood.

That said, a good art brush is essential for producing good work. A warped brush that sheds hair will choke your art before it has a chance to surface. A good quality brush will make the experience of painting far more enjoyable and productive and will almost certainly last longer than an inferior counterpart.




Learn more about art brushes in this video.

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