Student Inna recently gave a talk on brushes as part of her half de Laszlo scholarship. Here she writes on their anatomy, the different types, and the artists that used them.

Recently, I gave a lecture on a topic that often gets overlooked in the art world: brushes. Well, it’s not just about my own experience but also about the experiences of many of my artist friends. When you start your artistic journey, paint is the most obvious material to choose and decide upon. It’s so tangible, the first thing you inevitably think about. The absence of certain pigments can be incredibly frustrating because you simply can’t achieve the appearance you want. This is why many beginner artists end up with an extensive collection of paints (which isn’t recommended when you’re just starting).

After a while, artists begin to think about the surfaces they use. They usually find out that linen feels better than cotton, and oil primers work better than gesso. However, I’ve rarely heard people questioning the effectiveness of the brushes they use. Moreover, I’ve heard many artists saying, “I only have two brushes and use them for everything,” and some even said they had just one! The thing is, accomplished artists usually have lots of brushes. They use them differently for various purposes and have their favourites, each serving a unique role in their art.

Anatomy of an Artist Brush

An artist brush is composed of three main parts.

Handle: usually made of wood or plastic, handles can be short or long. Short handles are ideal for detailed work on flat surfaces, like watercolour or ink painting, while long handles are perfect for oil or acrylic painting, allowing artists to work on vertical surfaces and maintain distance from the canvas for perspective.

Ferrule: this is the metal part that holds the bristles to the handle. Common materials include aluminium, copper, and nickel-plated steel. Ensures durability and stability of the bristles.

Tuft: consists of the brush’s bristles, which come in various shapes and materials, influencing the brush’s performance and suitability for different techniques.

Let’s dive into the types of brushes and why they matter:



Hog bristle

Sable hair


Brushes made from hog bristle or sable hair are the two main types used for oil painting, although nowadays synthetic brushes are becoming increasingly popular.

Hog bristle brushes are made from pig’s bristle which has been bleached. They are the most common type of oil painting brush and the most versatile. Hog brushes have bristles with split ends, helping them retain the paint.

The best sable brushes are made from the tail hair of the Siberian Kolinsky Sable which is a type of mink and consequently they are expensive, but there are cheaper alternatives like squirrel or ringcat.

Synthetic brushes come in the same shapes as hog and sable and are extremely hard wearing. Historically, their flexibility was somewhere between the hardness of hog and the softness of hair. Nowadays the range of synthetic brushes is vast and extensive.


Hog brushes are usually listed in increasing sizes from 1 to 14, sables start very small at 000 and go up to 12 or 14, but a number 14 sable is not the size of a large hog hair.


The four main shapes of hog hair brushes are: Rounds, Flats, Brights and Filberts.

Rounds are used for applying thinned paint to large areas and for painting lines.

Flats have long bristles and broad, bold applications of colour can be made with them as can lines and short marks with the sides.

Brights are like flats, but have shorter bristles.

Filbert shaped brushes are similar to flats, but curve inwards at the end. These are most useful and can produce tapering strokes and dabs of colour.

Rounds are the most common shape but flats and brights are also available. They will apply paint in a smooth layer, will help to fuse brushstrokes (which is not always desirable), and are excellent for detail.

Fan blenders in both hog and sable are produced for the purpose of blending colours together and smoothing the surface of the paint.

Here’s how Frederick Palmer suggests beginners should start building their brush collection:

“A variety of types and sizes may be collected over a period of time, but to begin with a limited number is all that is necessary, for example:

Hog hair rounds:

2 No. 8

2 No. 4

Hog hair flats or filberts:

1 No. 12

2 No. 8

2 No. 10

1 No. 2

Sable or sable and ox (optional): 1 No. 7.

Even this small selection may be too expensive and it is perfectly possible to start painting with fewer of them. But it is a mistake to cut costs by buying only small size brushes. Similarly, it does not pay out to purchase cheap brushes. They will not last and will adversely affect your painting. A few good quality brushes are a more sensible investment than a large number of cheaper ones; they will also prove to be less frustrating.”

Popular at LFAS

Ivories: Filberts, Flats, Rounds, Long Bristles

Hogs: Filberts, Flats, Rounds

Sable: Flats

Tutors’ Favourites

Cristina: Pointed Ox Ear Hair, Synthetic Long Filberts

Mark: Fans

Nneka: Golden Synthetic Rounds, Ultimate Bristle Filberts

Impressionists: Hogs and Filberts

XIX century: two opposing teams (of brushes)

What characterised the nineteenth-century accepted tradition, was torpid brushwork bent on erasing itself, so to speak, in an effort to hide the intervention of the painter’s tool for the sake of a smoothness and finish.

The Birth of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel

Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), Paul Cézanne

Among the many things the impressionist tradition stands for is a brushstroke that speaks a language of its own. It expresses concepts with a spontaneous quality and a sweeping assurance that captures the most volatile perceptions onto the canvas.

Claude Monet holding a big selection of hog filberts while painting his Waterlilies.


1. Use cheaper hog brushes for toning your canvas

2. Always hold your brush near the end of the handle

3. Start with bigger forms and bigger brushes, moving to smaller ones as you progress

4. Use different brushes for your darks and lights, as opaque colours contaminate your darks.

5. The shape of a good brush is due to careful selection, grading and arranging of the hair by the brush maker. The ends of brushes are shaped by selection and should not be trimmed by the artist.

6. If you like the style of a certain artist, it’s helpful to find out what brushes they use (best case scenario, Rosemary already has their set).

7. Sable brushes must be washed straight away.

8. If your brushes are loosing their shape, it’s good to wrap them in a piece of slightly damp paper towel. Another way to do so is to use hot water.

Brush Care

Proper care for your brushes is crucial. All brushes should be cleaned at the end of a painting session. Here’s a quick guide:

1. Wipe off excess pigment.

2. Immerse bristles in turpentine and roll the handles between your palms to remove most of the paint. Rub the brushes on a piece of paper towel.

3. Rub bristles with soap under running water until all traces of colour are gone.

5. Rinse in clean water and store brushes with bristles upright to maintain their shape.

The key point I want everyone to remember from my lecture is this: brushes are essential. If you can’t achieve a certain effect, it might be due to the lack of the right tools, not a lack of skill. Brushes are extremely important and can make a huge difference in your artwork. So next time you’re working on a piece, remember to pay attention to your brushes. They might just be the key to unlocking your full potential as an artist.