Painting & drawing blog
ARTISTS’ PAINTBRUSH TYPES
(Know your Filbert from your Egbert)
Choosing an artists’ paintbrush probably sounds like it should be straightforward enough but as with many art materials, the choice on offer can be overwhelming! Learning the lexicon of different shapes helped me to choose brushes more effectively. Here’s a list of the different brush head shapes you’ll come across and their suitability for different mediums including oils, acrylic or watercolour paint.
A few things to be aware of when choosing your brushes
Characterful names for brush shapes have emerged over time from various different painting traditions (the ‘Rigger’ brush shape, for example, derives from the type of brush traditionally used for painting the rigging of ships). This has resulted in the fact that there isn’t any industry standard for describing different brush types, and whilst the names are applied by manufacturers reasonably consistently, there are sometimes confusing overlaps. For example although the terms ‘Rigger’ ‘Liner’ and ‘Script’ technically describe slightly different shapes of brush head, they are often applied interchangeably.
Manufacturers may also make up new, modern descriptions for brush shapes: for instance traditional ‘Bright’ brushes are now sometimes rechristened more descriptively as ‘Short Flats’ by the companies that produce them. Sometimes a brush shape may also be named differently depending on what sort of bristles or hairs it contains. For example the ‘Flat’ brush and ‘Wash’ brush are identical in shape, but a brush is only called a ‘Wash’ if it is designed for watercolour painting and is made from very soft hairs.
Brushes will always have their ‘size’ number printed on the side of the handle. Most brush ranges will offer different brush shapes in a number of sizes. In the UK brushes are normally sized with a numerical scale that starts at ‘0’, although tiny ‘Spotter’ brushes sold within watercolour ranges may start at size ‘000’, which is known as ‘triple ought’ and will literally just contain a few hairs. Not all brush shapes within a range will be available in every size. For example a ‘Wash’ brush may only be available in size 2 or larger, because you’d be unlikely to want a smaller brush for applying washes of paint. A few ranges may categorise their brushes according to their width measurement – given either in millimetres or parts of an inch – instead of using a numerical scale.
Where a numerical system is used, it’s important to note that once again there is no industry standard or set measurement for each grade of the scale. Manufacturers establish their own scale relating to each brush range, and therefore a size 1 brush in one range may be different in size to a similarly numbered brush in another. If you’re lucky the marketing images for a brush will include a photograph of it placed against a ruled scale, so you can see the dimensions of the head. If not, then buying brushes ‘sight unseen’ online can mean that it’s difficult to know the exact size of the brush you are ordering.
THE BRUSH TYPES
All photo credits below: Jackson’s Art Supplies which I have no affiliation with, but recommend for their very large range of brushes and very informative website)
The Flat brush
‘Flat’ is a pretty self explanatory name for this blocky brush, whose hairs are arranged in a rectangular shape. The round metal ferrule of the brush (the metal section that attaches the hairs to the handle) will be crimped at the end to hold the hairs in place in the flattened shape. A Flat brush is useful for covering a large area with paint quickly and evenly, and for maintaining a ‘choppy’ brush stroke. It isn’t ideal for blending paint on a canvas, because the hairs are too long. When the head of a Flat brush is in the shape of a particularly elongated rectangle, it may be described as a ‘Long Flat’.
The straight end of a good quality Flat brush head should always be achieved by lining up all of the individual hairs before crimping them to the ferrule. In contrast the hairs on a cheap Flat brush may simply be trimmed to form a straight line. This type of paintbrush is known as a blunt’ and it won’t apply your paint very smoothly.
The Bright brush
The Bright brush is very similar to the Flat brush but it is stubbier, and is often actually square in shape. This gives more control than a Flat brush and makes the Bright useful for mixing, for working dry paint into a canvas weave, for spattering or scumbling or for applying thick ‘impasto’ paint.
Given their unusual and non-descriptive name, Bright brushes are sometimes rechristened by manufacturers as ‘Short Flat’ brushes. They are more likely to be found in ranges designed for oil or acrylic painting and to be made from hog hair or from stiff synthetic bristles. In a soft-haired watercolour range they are likely to be renamed as ‘Wash’ brushes.
The Wash brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)
‘Wash’ brushes are usually sold exclusively within watercolour brush ranges made with soft hair such as Sable, Goat, Squirrel, or a synthetic alternative. They are designed for applying watery washes, and therefore will never be made with the stiff hog hair used for oil painting. The shapes of Wash brushes can actually be quite varied, and therefore it’s fair to say that the name refers more to the intended use of the brush rather than to any one specific shape.
Wash brushes will commonly have the same flat shape as a Flat or Bright brush, but they can also have a pointed tip and look similar to a ‘Cat’s Tongue’ brush, but a little bit wider. Alternatively they may have a rounded head and ferrule, in which case they are very similar to a ‘Mop’ brush but a little less flared in shape to afford you more control.
The One Stroke brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)
In a soft watercolour brush range, the Flat brush will usually be renamed as a ‘One Stroke’ brush. One Strokes are like slightly longer versions of the flat and rectangular variety of Wash brush, and like the Wash they are intended for use only with watery paint such as watercolour, gouache, or ink. They derive from the signwriting industry where they are used to paint block letters.
The Mop brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)
Like Wash brushes the Mop brush comes in a variety of different shapes. It may have a flat ferrule with a rounded or domed end. However it may also be round or even oval in section and flare out widely (although some round Mops may have a pointed tip instead). Mops are large brushes, and whatever their shape they are all designed to carry as much water as possible. They are most often used in watercolour painting for laying in very large areas of watery colour and are always made from soft hair, such as Squirrel.
The Filbert brush
The Filbert is what I think of as the classic, multi-functional paintbrush. It comes in all types of bristle and hair, and you can use it to make lots of different marks. As a wide, flat brush you can cover a large area with a Filbert, but thanks to the rounded end you can also blend paint and apply more of a pointed stroke. Therefore unlike with the Flat brush, a small enough Filbert is suitable for doing very detailed work. If the rounded end is less pointed and more dome-like as it is here, it may be called a ‘Domed Filbert’
The unusual name has a charmingly complex origin, deriving from an obscure association with the hazelnut whose shape the Filbert brush is thought to resemble at the tip. It is named after the seventh century French saint called Philibert whose feast day in August coincided with the annual ripening of the hazelnut.
The Egbert brush
The less-common ‘Egbert’ brush is a variation on the Filbert. It has a more elongated shape than the Filbert but is a smaller brush in general, and was a favourite of the Old Masters. The extra long hair allows for a more expressive stroke and a better paint ‘reservoir’ (the name given to the volume of paint the brush hairs or bristles can hold).
The Angled brush
Like a Flat brush but with an angled tip, the Angled brush allows for wide coverage and more precision because the angle makes it possible to do more controlled work. It’s particularly effective for making really decisive and choppy brush strokes. The bristles on an Angled brush are short, to help maintain this control.
The Round brush
The name of the Round brush is self explanatory, as both the head section and the metal ferrule are round in section. The Round is probably the most versatile of all brush types because the pointed tip allows both for detailed work (using a small brush) and for achieving quite a wide coverage with a larger one. Rounds are available in every size from tiny 000 brushes (sometimes labelled as ‘Spotters’ when found within watercolour ranges) to really thick chunky brushes.
The Spotter brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)
This is a tiny version of the Round brush which only comes in the smallest sizes. It may have just a few hairs and is designed for doing very fine details such as eyes, or for foliage such as grass or twigs. It’s always made with soft bristles and therefore you won’t a Spotter brush within the hog hair brush ranges, because they aren’t intended for work with thick paint such as oil or acrylic.
The Fan brush
Fans are used for lightly dragging paint in order to blend or soften colours, or for creating wide textural or feathered effects such as painting grass or foliage. They may be made with either stiff bristles or softer hairs.
The Rigger brush
Rigger brushes are fairly small brushes with rounded ferrules and long hairs that taper to a fine point. They can sometimes be every elongated in shape. They’re useful for doing fine detailing and for painting thin but continuous lines, as they hold a greater volume of paint than a Round brush or a Spotter. Confusingly the terms ‘Rigger’ and ‘Liner’ or ‘Script Liner’ (see below) are often used interchangeably although there is technically a slight different between them. What they have in common however is that they are always made of soft hairs and never stiff bristles.
The Liner/Script/Script Liner brush
Various terms are used to describe this very small brush which is like a sightly smaller version of the Rigger. Like the Rigger the Liner is long and fairly thin, but it is shaped more like an elongated Round brush whereas the Rigger has more of a taper. The Liner has a rounded ferrule and its hairs are always soft and taper to a fine point for very fine thin detailing. It carries more paint than a tiny Spotter brush and is better for doing small detailed lines including lettering. It usually has a short handle.
The Stippler/Deerfoot Stippler brush
It’s easy to see the reference to a deer’s foot in the short, flared shaped of this angled brush. Its semi-soft bristles typically mix soft and coarse hairs in order to produce a stippled effect, allowing the Deerfoot to be used to suggest textures such as trees or foliage. This technique is most successful with slightly dry paint.
The Striper/Dagger/Dagger Striper brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)
These soft, exotic looking brushes have a flat ferrule, and a long curving angled shape with a pointed tip. The unusual shape is designed for the creation of very expressive strokes, allowing as they do for a wide wash that can end in a fine point. Daggers are used largely for watercolour and gouache, or in sign writing.
The Swordliner brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)
These are very similar in shape to the Dagger but generally come in smaller sizes and have slightly longer hairs, making them more difficult to control but producing very expressive marks.
The Cat’s Tongue brush (mainly for watercolour or ink)
An uncommon but rather handy brush type used by watercolour artists, this brush is like a triangular Filbert with a point at the end. It is versatile because you can use it both for washes and for finer detail work.
Now that you’ve learnt all about the different brush shapes, this article on choosing artists’ paintbrushes will help you to decide between the types of animal and synthetic hair brushes best suited to the type of painting you want to do.