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Choosing the Correct Brush

Choosing the Correct Brush

Have you ever tried to perform a job without proper tools? If you have tried to tighten a screw with the wrong screwdriver, remove a staple without a staple remover, or measure a tablespoon of liquid with a household spoon instead of a measuring spoon, you know the task is harder without the proper tool, and may not be accomplished at all!

For the painter, choosing the right "tool" for the job, selecting the proper brush shape, size and hair from a sometimes confusing array of choices is often the key in the success or dissatisfaction with a painted piece.

"How do I know if I want camel hair or bristle?" "Why is one size 6 sable brush $10 and another $50?" "Is a sable brush the best brush you can buy?" (Yes and No!)

Any brush is an applicator of paint, but for maximum performance and durability, certain hair types and shapes work best for certain tasks.

Brush selection is best determined by evaluating the brush's ability to work with the following:

  • the properties of your PAINT/MEDIA (composition, viscosity, and cleaning solvent required)
  • the properties of your SURFACE (texture, firmness, absorbency)
  • the TECHNIQUE used and the desired final effect
View our brushes:

Learn how to choose a paint brush with us. But first, let's look at a brush's anatomy.

Basic Brush Anatomy

Brush Anatomy Picture


Hair for artists brushes can be divided into three categories: Natural soft animal hair, Bristle, and Synthetic (manufactured hairs).


Red Sable

Brush hair obtained from any member of the weasel family with "red" hair. Quality and characteristics of weasel hair vary greatly.

The finest soft brush hair is that obtained from the Kolinsky, an animal found in cold regions of Russia and China. Each Kolinsky hair has a fine point, and its overall structure ensures that the hairs cling closely together when wet. More specifically, the guard hairs from the tail of a male Kolinsky make the best brushes. These hairs, unsurpassed for spring and strength, are the standard by which all other soft hairs (synthetic or natural) are judged.

Red sable brushes of lesser quality may be made of hair taken from other body areas of the male Kolinsky, female Kolinskies (shorter hair) and other European or Chinese weasels.

Red Sable hair has a natural thickness at the belly which provides superior spring and snap. This thickness can be placed just inside or outside the ferrule and the performance characteristics of the brush will vary accordingly. In order to do this, long hairs must be used and about half of their length will be contained inside the ferrule.

Because of their strength, spring, and absorbency, high-quality red sable brushes are considered to be the best for watercolour, an art which requires that a brush hold liquid the longest and retain a fine point when wet.

Important to this ability to hold liquid are the absorbent properties of a brush. This is its ability to act as a reservoir and release liquid in a controlled manner according to a painters actions. Natural hair has a centre structure called the medulla which is covered by a thick sheath known as the cortex and layered by a shell of scales. These scales and hollows within the centre structure hold and trap the liquid, releasing it as pressure is applied to the brush.

Oil painters use red sable for producing smooth, flat, precise strokes, subtle blending, or if the artist is working with thinned oil paint.


Weasel tail hair is commonly used to manufacture most medium and low-priced red sable brushes. The weasel is a small member of the family Mustelidae, and is native to North America, Europe and Asia, but only weasel tail hair from Asia is long and fine enough to be suitable for brush making. The hair can be distinguished by their reddish brown color were Kolinsky is golden brown. Weasel hair is also shorter than Kolinsky.


Closely related to the ferret, the fitch also know as polecat, is a member of the weasel family. The best varieties come from Siberia and Northeastern China. The color of the hair can vary from a light tan to a deep brown black. Is seldom used for watercolor brushes, but makes excellent oil painting brushes.


Mongoose is native to a number of different countries but the tail hair from India has proven to be the best quality for artist brushes. Mongoose hair is a very resilient pointed hair hand wears very well. It is ideal for the manufacture of brushes for oil and acrylic painting. Unfortunately, it is not fine enough for watercolour brushes.


Badgers are native to many parts of the world. China is the main producer of badger hair, the bulk of which is used for making men's shaving brushes. The best and most expensive varieties are white-tip badger or high-mountain badger, which come from the Pyrenees Mountains. Traditionally used for making blending brushes.


Sabeline (imitation sable) is ox hair that has been bleached and then dyed to resemble red sable. Most sabeline brushes do not contain any genuine sable hair. They are easy to spot from real sable because the dye is not consistent along the length of the hair.

Ox Hair

Ox hair, generally taken from behind the ears, is silken and durable in strength, but lacks a fine tip. Light coloured ox hair is often dyed red and used alone in the production of moderately priced watercolour and stroke brushes. These brushes are often marketed under the name sabeline. A brush labeled red sable may also include ox hair mixed with weasel hair. Other hairs are sometimes given the illusion of being red sable when marketed under names such as "brown sable," "black sable," or simply "sable."


Pony is a cylindrical hair that is less expensive than squirrel and more expensive than goat. Most pony hair is dressed in Japan or Europe but the bulk of the hair comes from China. It is used primarily for making school-grade watercolour brushes and touch-up brushes. Is often mixed with squirrel to reduce cost, and is used in camel hair brushes.


It is used mainly for making cosmetic brushes and is not very good for brushes that are to be wet. Some very special types of of single-drawn goat hair is carefully dressed for the making of Oriental calligraphy brushes. In the West, black goat hair is used to make watercolour mops, and is often mixed with pony hair to make school-grade camel hair watercolour brushes.

Camel Hair

An all encompassing term for a variety of animal hairs none of which are camel, used alone or in combinations to create brushes.

Hairs commonly used in "camel hair" brushes include ox, goat, squirrel and pony hair. The least expensive camel hair brushes are made of pony hair cut from the back or mane. Mane hair, because of its long length, can yield many brushes when cut into short pieces, but this eliminates the natural tip on the hair necessary for good performance. Soft hair brushes categorised as "a school grade" are quite often made from this long pony hair and utilise production methods where the brush maker can make multiple brush heads at one time.

Generally considered to be inferior to red sable brushes, camel hair brushes are desirable for specific applications. For example, camel hair mop brushes can be perfect for blending oils or doing watercolour washes; squirrel hair for lettering and china painting. These hairs can also be blended into synthetic brushes to soften the brush and increase its absorbency without a large increase in cost.

Squirrel Hair

Squirrel hair is often simply categorised among camel hair brushes but also merits individual mention because it is used in so many styles of good quality brushes for a variety of tasks. These include lettering quills and stroke brushes for sign painting, large round watercolour wash brushes, and china painting bushes. These soft, fine absorbent hairs offer a fine point but little resiliency, so are best used in lighter mediums.

Red sable, ox, and camel hair are the broadest groups of natural soft hair brushes. Others of value include Fitch (grey or black weasel), Skunk and Badger which are often used alone or in combination with other hairs to make brushes suitable for work in oils where blending and texturising are of primary importance.


As its name implies, bristle is a stiff hair derived from a hog, pig, or boar. Its resilience is ideal for oils on canvas (heavy paint, slightly textured surface).

Two characteristics of a quality bristle brush are flagged tips and interlocked construction. Natural bristle has a split tip called a flag. This flag helps the brush hold maximum paint and acts as an extra "paintbrush" during application. The lack of flags on a bristle brush indicates a brush which has been cut, not hand shaped.

The bristle desirable for a good artists brush has a natural curve. In a quality brush, this curve is turned inward for "interlocked construction," which provides superior spring and shape retention.


Synthetic brushes were once the choice for painting the outside of your house, but little else. Today, with the technology to produce a variety of synthetic fibers, synthetic brushes are now the choice for many applications, including fine art.

The word nylon is often used to generically represent synthetic fibres. In artist brushes this synthetic fibre is actually a polyester. "Taklon" is a tradename commonly used. Each filament is tapered, ending in a fine point. Often the filaments is dyed, to make it softer and more absorbent.

As claimed above, the performance of the finest Kolinsky brush is the standard by which all others are judged. However, Kolinsky, and other natural hairs, are not without problems:
  • Natural hair is usually a by-product of other industries, such as fur and food. The quality, price, and availability of hair can be determined by economic factors in these markets.
  • General climatic and environmental conditions can effect the population and health of a particular species and the quality of their hair.
  • Fine quality red sable brushes can be an expensive investment.
  • Production of natural hair brushes is, in general, more costly and time consuming than making synthetics. Uniform quality is also harder to achieve.

Advantages of synthetics include:

  • A synthetic brush is usually less expensive than a comparable quality natural hair brush.
  • Synthetic filament, being manmade, is less prone to damage from solvents, bugs, or paint.
  • Easier to clean. Synthetic hairs do not have an animal cell structure which can trap paint and other liquids.
  • Less prone to breakage and durable on many different surfaces.
  • Can be used with both watercolour and oil paint and is best suited for use with acrylic paint.

Note: Acrylics are a popular medium because of their low cost, easy clean up, and quick drying time. These same traits, however, make acrylics destructive to natural hair. Acrylic PH is the opposite of natural hair PH. This can be destructive to the hair over time. Acrylic paint also accumulates and dries quicker in the brush, making it necessary to submerge the brush in liquid frequently during working sessions.

It is important to note that synthetic brushes, like natural hair brushes, are also available in degrees of quality. For example:
  • The filament may be of inferior strength and spring.
  • A blend of thicknesses of filament provides a more accurate duplication of natural hair with maximum spring, point, and edge.
  • The taper of a filament, point to base can vary.

Synthetic Bristle

For painting on rougher surfaces, white synthetic bristle is also available. Although not a substitute for a good natural bristle brush for oil painting, synthetic bristle offers stiffness and some flagging of the tips. They are ideal for fabric applications, stenciling and unique effects on hard surfaces.

Hopefully you've learn a thing or two about the different types of paint brushes.

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