They say a worker is only as good as their tools. By extension, an artist is only as good as their painting brush. It’s a painter’s magic wand, an irreplaceable instrument for making music on paper and canvas.
But the sheer volume and variety of paint brush shapes, sizes, and materials are enough to overwhelm any novice at the art store. Choosing an artist paint brush can get confusing if you don’t know what you need, let alone what to look for.
With this dizzying array of brushes, we’ll list the types of paint brushes in four ways: by size, bristle type, compatible art medium, and shape.
You might already be wondering: Can acrylic paint brushes handle watercolor paints or oil-based paints? What’s the perfect brush type for beginners? And do you really need all these brush shapes in all their sizes?!
Don’t sweat, this article is for you! We’ve consolidated everything you need to know about the types of paint brushes out there—and what exactly you’ll need along your creative journey.
Anatomy of a brush
Art has been around since time immemorial, and so has the paint brush. Fun fact: There’s evidence that paint brushes were already being made during the Stone Ages.
In the eras preceding the industrial revolution, painters made their brushes painstakingly by hand. They bound soft animal hair into quills or wooden sticks—for this reason, the early paintbrushes were always round. And then the ferrule was invented in the 18th century and thus popularized in the 19th century.
The ferrule changed everything. Artisans could now create new shapes for paint brushes beyond the round brush. No longer limited to the palette knife, painters had flat brushes now to create flat and bold strokes of color.
The artist’s most important tool has evolved alongside mankind. And just like us, the paint brush has specifically named body parts. How many of them do you know?
The part you hold while painting. Brush handles are commonly made of varnished wood, plastic, or metal. Sometimes bone. A good quality paint brush handle should feel comfortable and balanced. Its length will depend on what you’re comfortable with. However, shorter handles are better for painting on flat surfaces or smaller surfaces like a table. Meanwhile, longer handles make working on easels and larger surfaces much easier.
Yes, that metal thing on the brush has a name. As we said, the invention of the ferrule changed art-making forever. This part keeps bristles in shape and keeps them attached to the handle.
Pro-tip: Be good to your brushes. Metal ferrules can fall off the handle, or the bristles may start to shed. This means either your brush isn’t good, or you’re not taking proper care of it.
A ferrule can be further broken down into these parts:
- The crimp keeps the metal ferrules attached to the paint brush. It’s that notch in the metal tube that keeps it crimped unto the wooden handle. Shoddy manufacturers will just glue this bit on.
- The heel keeps those bristles in place and shape. The heel often determines the shape of the brush, be it flat or round.
Hairs or bristles
What makes a brush a brush. Bristles hold the paint—pigments suspended in a binder or activated by water. Here’s where choosing brushes gets difficult. There are soft bristles, stiff bristles, short bristles, very long bristles, natural bristles, synthetic bristles, and even combination bristles! We’ll unpack these later.
Also, the brush itself has body parts. Take a look at the bristles and how they’re shaped.
- The belly is the widest area of the paintbrush and, with watercolor brushes, the part that holds the most liquid. Some brushes are stouter than others, wider in the middle then tapering to a point.
- Since a paint brush has a heel, it also must have a toe or tip. Here’s the end of your paint brush. Some shapes flare out, some are straight-edged, and some have a pointy toe.
Brush sizes and maker’s marks
You’ll find the size number printed on the handle. From smallest to largest, these numbers typically range from 000 up to 30. Sometimes, you’ll see the printed size in inches or fractions thereof.
Unfortunately, there’s no standard to paint brush sizes and dimensions. You’ll need to do some research (or bring a ruler to the art store).
Most manufacturers will print their logos and the size of the brush on the handle. And if they have product notes, you can take a look at how they size their paint brushes.
Here at ZenART Supplies, we go the extra mile with our product design. Our brush handles show you the exact size, shape, and bristle type so you know exactly what you’re using. You can take a look at our product pages to see each brush’s size and measurements:
- Length: How long the hairs are, from the end of the ferrule to the brush tip.
- Diameter: The distance around the ferrule, if round.
- Width: For flat brushes, this is the length of the brush across the ferrule.
Take a more in-depth look at our paint brush size chart, here!
You can also classify the types of paint brushes by the material that makes up their bristles. Typically, you have synthetic hairs, natural hairs, and combination hairs. Bristles can also be soft and swishy or firm. Which one to choose depends on the different types of paint you’ll use.
Pro-tip: Choose your paint brushes by bristle type first, then shape second. Some bristle types can’t handle certain paints.
Soft vs. Stiff Bristles
Thinner, more fluid paint flows better with soft-bristled brushes. Meanwhile, denser media like oil paint needs thicker and stiffer bristles so the paint moves around easier. Acrylic paint brushes can be somewhere in between—not too stiff and not too swishy—since acrylic paint is softer than oil but less fluid than watercolor.
Paint brushes with firm or coarse bristles can also create textural effects. These types of paint brushes are better for working with layers of acrylic paint or oil paint but not so much with watercolor.
The stiff brushes you normally use for oil paint aren’t ideal for water media since they don’t hold water so well. Also, the bristles tend to leave marks with the paint, so it can leave unwanted streaks or scratches on watercolor paper.
Soft bristles are best for water media because they give you that swishy, smooth flow and control. Some soft brushes have memory—they snap back into their original shape better than others. Snappy brushes give you better control when the brush hits the paper.
When you encounter a paint brush made with natural hair, this means the bristles are made with real animal hair.
We’ll briefly cover the common types of natural hair. You can read more about them in our guide to watercolor brushes.
These bushy paint brushes are commonly used for oil painting and are one of the oldest types of paint brushes.
Contrary to its name, a camel hair brush is made with hair from ponies, goats, oxen, or a combination thereof. Ideal for thinner, fluid media like watercolor and traditional calligraphy.
The Chungking Hog brushes are the ones with white hair. Brushes featured above are form ZenART's Renoir Collection.
The best quality hog hair brushes are sometimes referred to as China brushes, made with hair from Chinese hogs. These brushes are thick and coarse, so they work well with oil paints.
Sable brushes are made with hair from a type of mink or weasel. Known for their softness, absorbency, and ability to hold shape, these are the best types of paint brushes for watercolor. You’ll find different kinds of sable brushes: red sable, black sable, and Kolinsky sable. The latter is the most professional-grade of sable bristles.
Silky with a good snap and strong as the animal it comes from. Ox hair is another good option for watercolor, though it can’t maintain a fine tip. It’s often blended with other natural or synthetic hairs for extra durability.
Mostly used in student-grade brushes since it’s an inexpensive type of natural hair. Pony hairs aren’t as snappy or strong as other brushes.
A close alternative to sable hair, squirrel bristles are taken from a squirrel’s tail so the fibers are thin and fine. Artists love these brushes for their water-holding qualities—perfect for water media and inks.
A mix of different types of natural hairs or a mix of natural and synthetic hairs. Manufacturers combine hairs to enhance different qualities of the paint brush, like resilience, snap, and stiffness.
These brushes are from the Turner Collection.
The brushes above are all from one set, Black Tulip. A squirrel and synthetic mix.
Though manmade, synthetic brushes are just as versatile as natural brushes—plus, more affordable. Synthetic brushes can be designed to mimic the qualities of natural brushes.
These are the best types of paint brushes to use with acrylic paints. The polymers in the acrylic paint can damage natural fibers over time. Common types of synthetic brushes include acrylic, nylon, or polyester brushes. They’re much stronger, sometimes even snappier or springier than natural hairs. And much easier to clean and maintain, too.
There are also foam brushes—synthetic brushes made with whole pieces of foam, good to use as stencil brushes.
(Almost) every brush shape explained
Again, choose your bristle type first so you know what will work best with your preferred media.
There are so many brush shapes out there but you probably won’t need all of them. It’s best to just start with the most common shapes: round, flat, filbert, and liners or detailers. Pick one small, one medium, and one large-sized brush per shape. That’ll leave you with an all-around brush set.
Still, it’s worth knowing the different types of paint brush shapes to inform your decision.
Perhaps the most common of brush shapes, the round brush works across all media. There are two kinds of round brush tips: a pointed tip and a more rounded or domed tip.
When watercoloring with round brushes, most of the fluid paint is held in the belly and flows to the tip where the brush meets paper.
With a flat ferrule and straight edges, the flat brush is a versatile must-have for different types of paint. You can create bold strokes and thin lines. A flat brush makes painting long lines and spreading color so much easier than round brushes.
It’s easy to confuse this with the flat brush. The main difference is that bright brushes have shorter bristles and a more inward curving edge. Ideal for acrylic paint, brights give you more control when creating lines of color. They work best with thicker media like acrylic paint or oil paint.
Another flat ferruled brush, this time with an angled or slanted tip. It’s easier to control an angled brush versus a flat one, so you can better paint clean lines and even curved strokes. Angled brushes are helpful for filling corners, too.
Dagger brush or sword brush
Here’s an even more slanted brush with a much finer tip and a curved, angled edge. It looks like a blade, hence the name. You can use a dagger brush like a liner brush—that’s why it’s sometimes called a sword liner brush. It was originally crafted for signmakers, so it’s an excellent choice for calligraphers. You can do a lot with this: curved strokes, thick to thin lines, and various embellishments.
A filbert brush is like a rounded flat brush, with long bristles and an oval-shaped end. It functions like a flat brush but the brush marks are less harsh and straight-edged.
I love using filbert brushes when I want extra paint coverage. Many artists love this brush shape for painting petals, creating soft strokes, and covering more area than round brushes do. Filbert brushes also make blending oil paint or acrylic paint a breeze.
Rigger brush or Liner Brush
You’ll see artists interchange between calling them liner brushes or rigger brushes—they’re the same. A liner brush is a round, thin brush with a sharp tip.
Rigger or liner brushes and detail brushes are often confused with each other. Riggers have very long bristles. Meanwhile, detailers have shorter bristles, usually with a sharply pointed tip.
Don’t let the thinness fool you! Liner brushes hold quite a lot of water or fluid paint. These types of paint brushes are made for long drags along the page. They’re the best to use for making smooth, continuous lines or even dabble in lettering or calligraphy.
Don’t mistake a detailing brush for a liner brush. Also known as a pointed round brush, a detail brush has a sharply pointed tip with short bristles and a short handle. They’re ideal for painting fine details, spot-correcting, retouching, and adding subtle highlights. Just like a pen!
Cat’s tongue brush
The cat’s tongue brush—a.k.a. an oval wash brush—gets its name from its distinct shape: flat, but with a pointed tip. It’s like a flat brush and a pointed round brush had a baby. Despite its pointed tip, the cat’s tongue brush can create soft edges! Many artists love this for watercolor and fluid media.
You’ll know one when you see it. A fan brush has a flat ferrule with bristles that spread outward in a fan shape, creating a rounded edge—hence the name.
Though not a necessity in a beginner brush set, a fan brush can prove to be quite useful especially if you love painting nature elements like leaves, petals, clouds, and waves. Its fanned-out shape lets you create beautiful textures and special effects with your acrylic painting. It’s also good for blending, softening harsh edges, and stippling acrylic paints onto your dried work.
Look for fan brushes made with natural hair if you want to use them for blending and softening. Fan brushes made with synthetic or firmer bristles are better for special effects.
Typically a watercolor brush, the wash brush is a large, flat brush with a very wide foot. It’s short-handled for better control since these are used to cover large areas with watercolor.
An acrylic wash brush has stiffer bristles. Another type of wash brush is the hake brush: an oriental style or Japan-made brush often made with natural bristles. It’s got a distinct, short handle that widens toward the ferrule.
Another type of watercolor brush, the mop brush is a supersized round brush, or a round version of the wash brush if you will. These thick, round brushes are designed to lay down large mops of color. When made with natural hair, the mop brush can absorb a lot of fluid paint. Love this for painting backgrounds!
When in doubt, pick a brush set
Do you really need all of these different types of paint brushes in your arsenal? Not really. You may need just the essentials. Sometimes the most cost-effective option is to get a brush set. In this case, we’ll walk you through all the paint brush sets we have available here on ZenART Supplies.
Spoiler alert: We’re not like other brushes. We believe that high-quality artist paint brushes needn’t come with high prices. ZenART brush sets are carefully crafted and specially curated for and by artists!
Inspired by the renowned landscape and watercolor artist, JMW Turner, this 14-piece set has all the different types of paint brushes you need to master watercolor! These brushes are made with a combination of natural squirrel hair and synthetic hairs for extra spring and snap.
This comprehensive set also has a palette knife for mixing paint or making textural effects. And it comes in a water-resistant case, so you can continue painting nature elements en plein air while keeping your brushes safe!
The perfect brush set for essentialists is here! This six-piece synthetic brush set is specially designed for water media but can also be used with acrylic paint. Our best-selling Black Tulip set is a vegan option designed to behave like a squirrel brush.
It’s got all you need to start a brush collection: two flat brushes, two round paint brushes, a rigger brush, and a cat’s tongue brush.
Need a comprehensive set of oil or acrylic paint brushes? Check out our Renoir Collection, a 14-piece set comprised of eight different types of paint brushes:
- Filbert brushes (5): sizes 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12
- Flat brushes (2), sizes 3 and a wide 1"
- Fan brush, size 3
- Bright brush, size 7
- Angled brush, size 8
- Round brush, size 2
- Detail round brush, size 00
- Rigger brush, size 4
Half of the paint brushes in this set are made with natural Chungking hog hair, perfect for creating texture and base coats with oil paints. The other half uses a combination of 70% badger bristles and 30% synthetic bristles, ideal for blending and brush strokes.
You also get a palette knife for mixing or making textures.
You can't have enough filbert brushes, at least if you're playing with oil-based paints and acrylic paints. This set has six filbert brushes, in sizes 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12.
Like some of the brushes in our Renoir Collection, these filbert brushes are made with a combination of 70% badger bristles and 30% synthetic bristles. They're designed specifically for oil and acrylic painting. It gives a lot of paint coverage. As for stiffness, it's semi-firm. That is, it's soft enough for blending but stiff enough to make controlled brush strokes.
The filbert is truly the magic wand of oil and acrylic paint brushes. Compared to other brushes, the filbert brush is perhaps the most versatile. The oval-shaped end can do anything, from softening straight edges, to layering on more acrylic paint, to adding subtle highlights.
These oil-slash-acrylic brushes have long, tapered handles so you can work comfortably while painting on an easel.
Here's a set for detail-obsessed artists. A whopping 12-piece synthetic paint brush set designed for oil, watercolor, and acrylic painting.
You needn't keep searching for the perfect thin brush. Zen Art's top-selling fine line brush set contains different types of paint brush shapes, all at a precise, ultra-fine point:
- Pointed round brush (4), sizes 5/0, 2/0, 1, and 2
- Rigger brush (3), sizes 4/0, 2/0, and 1
- Flat brush (2), sizes 2/0 and 1
- Angled brush, size 1
- Filbert brush (2), size 2/0 and 0
Paint fine lines, very thin lines, or dot on minute details with these fine liners made with Japanese synthetic bristles. They mimic squirrel and kolinsky sable hair, sans the cost!
The handles are ergonomic and comfortable to grip, too. Detailing and filling corners are a lot easier with these brushes, even after hours of work!
Sure there’s no one-size-fits-all brush set that fits all media, but our latest Verbena Set comes close. It’s an ultimate 17-piece starter set with most of the different types of paint brushes you need.
The Verbena Set has 14 synthetic artist brushes, two paint shapers, and a palette knife. Plus, it comes with a handy woven roll-up case!
Here’s what you get in the set:
- Mop brush, size 1/2"
- Slant brush, size 1"
- Varnish, size 1½”
- Round brush (3), sizes 4, 12, 16
- Flat brush, size14
- Dagger brush (2), sizes 10 and 14
- Angled brush (2), sizes 8 and 12
- Feather brush, size 12
- Fan brush, size 12
Handmade with a blend of synthetic hair that hits the sweet spot between soft and firm, this set is specially designed for acrylic paints. The added tools enable you to have more fun with textures and techniques. So easy to clean, too. Not to mention, the handles are ergonomic—no more hand fatigue after hours of painting!
What are your go-to types of paint brushes?
We'd love to hear from you. How many of these different types of paint brushes have you tried? What brushes do you use the most? Which ones do you tend to overlook?
Bookmark this guide to (almost) all the types of paint brushes so you can avoid confusion next time you hit the art supply store. Or better yet, shop for your next favorite paint brushes only here on Zen Art Supplies!
- MEET THE AUTHOR -
Belle O. Mapa is a writer and artist based in Manila, Philippines. She believes that everyone is born with an inner creative spirit—we just need to nurture and discover it on the blank page. Currently, she lives out her passion: writing stories, hosting journaling workshops, and advocating for mental health awareness.