brushes for oil painting – How to choose the perfect brush

The brush is one of the must-have tools in oil painting. In this post I will explain the materials which compose the brush, the main brush shapes, how to choose the best brushes for oil painting and how to look after your own brushes.

Material and


The brush is composed by three parts:

  • handle
  • ferrule
  • bristles

    “Types of Paint Brushes” by Shazz sued under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Modified

The handle has to be in varnished or lacquered wood otherwise it will ruin itself over time.

The ferrule connects the handle to the bristles and it prevents them to fall off; It must be in inoxidizable metal (like nickel-plated brass).
The purpose of bristles is to put the paint on the canvas. They can be made of two types of material:

  • Natural bristles
  • synthetic bristles

Natural bristles

The natural bristles are made of real fur. There are a lot of kinds of natural bristles, some of them are more fine (and more expensive) whereas other are more cheap. The fur has to be sterilized through boiling and it has to be refined in order to keep its features over time.
Here is a list of some natural bristles:

  • China bristle (hog bristles)
  • ox ear hair
  • sable hair brush
  • pony hair bristles
  • horse hair bristles
  • etc..

The china bristles are of a beige colour and they are taken from the back of the animal. This fur has been used to paint since ancient times. Hog bristles are very suitable for oil painting because they are durable, flexible and elastic. Moreover, brushes made with these bristles make a very precise mark and they are neither difficult to wash nor expensive.
China bristles brushes are suggested for beginners.

The ox ear bristles can be a black, Grey or brown colour. This kind of bristles are very durable but when compared to better quality brushes they are less precise. This kind of bristles are more cheap than China bristles.

The sable hair is red. It is taken from the back or the tail of the animal during Winter, when it becomes very soft, elastic and subtle. This kind of hair is very suitable for the most precise details.

There is also a special kind of sable hair called “Tolobosky-Kolinsky”. This hair came from a specific area of Siberia. This is the best quality hair for brushes.

Because of the high-quality these brushes are veeery expensive so they are not recommended for beginners.

Synthetic bristles

synthetic bristles are be made of materials like nylon or polyester. These bristles are a viable alternative to natural bristles because they can hold a candle it terms of quality and price.

Scale of size

Brushes are classified by size. They scale usually varies from 00000 (for the tinier brushes) to 24 however, it can reach higher numbers for some brushes. The size of a brush in terms of length and diameter can be found on the site of the company which produces them.

Types of brushes

Brushes have different shapes each of which has different aims and features.

Here is a list of the most common shapes:

  • Flat: This shape is used for almost everything, especially for the underpainting or with thick colours.
  • Bright: Similar to flat but with shorter bristles which make it easier to control. It used for wide application of colour, for precise brush strokes and to make glazes.
  • Filbert: Similar to flat but the edges are rounded. It makes a line which is blended at both sides.
  • Round: Also this shape is used for almost everything, above all to draw lines.

These aren’t the only types of shapes used in oil painting, shapes like Fan, mop, rigger, etc. are also used.

The information given about the shapes are “theoretical” because it is up to the painter to decide which shape fit him better when he has to paint a subject or to give a motif.

It isn’t forbidden to use brushes which are not designed for oil painting, e.g. make-up brushes, in order to create special a motif or effect. However, this brushes can be of a low quality and lose bristles on the canvas or they can create undesired effects so it is better to pay attention when using these brushes.

Choosing the brush

If it is the first time that you get in touch with oil painting it is better to purchase only brushes with bright, flat, round or filbert shape. In my opinion beginners should choose a ROUND BRUSH of tiny size (click here to purchase) (e.g. 6)  and a FLAT BRUSH of medium  and large size or a BRIGHT BRUSH of medium and large size (e.g. 12 and 18). The other brushes will be purchased later.

It’s better to purchase medium-quality brushes like China bristles brushes or synthetic corresponding because they offer good quality and don’t cost too much. Buying high-quality brushes is not recommended firstly because of the price and secondly because they are more fragile. Also buying low-quality brushes isn’t recommended because they ruin themselves right away and lose bristles on the canvas.

The size of the brushes should be chosen in accordance with the size of the canvas: small brushes should be used with small canvases whereas big brushes with the bigger ones. Also, this rule is “theoretical” because the choice of the brush size depends on personal tastes, the subject and the effect that the painter wants to achieve.

Taking care of the brushes

The brushes have to be cleaned after having finished to paint. It could seem banal but it is important: dirty brushes ruin themselves right away and they pollute the colours with old pigments. NEVER leave the brushes dirty for too much time because dry paint is difficult to take off and remove it could spoil the bristles. Another thing that should never be done is leaving the brushes in a solvent (like turpentine) for too much time because it dissolves the glue which hold the bristles together.

Many people suggest cleaning the brush only with turpentine however, this can make the brush forked.

The best way to clean the brushes after having painted is the following one:

  1. Take two jars. One has to be filled with 1/3 turpentine and 2/3 oil (e.g. linseed oil). The second one has to be filed only with oil.
  2. Rub the brush it a rag in order to take off most of the paint.
  3. Wash the brush in the jar with turpentine and oil
  4. Rub the brush it a rag in order to remove the residues of pigment (repeat the steps 2 and 3 if the brush is still dirty).
  5. Wash them in the second jar
  6. give to the brush the desired form with the fingers and let them dry with the bristles upsides.

On the market there are also oil soaps, like  Jack Linseed Studio Soap, which are perfect to clean brushes especially if there is dry painting on them.

As said in this post Oil painting mediums explained the oil prevent the bristles to become rubbery over time. If brushes aren’t used for much time some books suggest dunking the bristles in olive oil. If the bristles are rubbery it is enough to dunk them in oil to get back in their original softness.




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