How to choose which paint brush to use

Choosing the best pencils or paint brushes for your next project isn't always an easy decision. After all, different effects require different tools so it can be difficult to know which to use. To simplify the process of choosing my paint brushes, I make two major distinctions: the type of hair the paint brush is made of and the shape.

If you're struggling with which paint brush to use, the best thing to do is to try the various shapes. For example, you could start with only bristle rounds. Then, try and paint with only flats, and then finally filberts. And check out our best paintbrushes for oils guide, if you're using oils.

Remember, it takes time to become familiar with the various shapes. Practice makes perfect. So how do you pick the perfect tool? Here are 20 tips to help you decide which paint brush to use, for any painting. 

Remember – whichever brush you choose, if you want it to last, you need to look after them properly. Check out our definitive guide on how to clean paintbrushes for some advice on this.

01. Two types of hair

paint brush hair

Choose from bristle or sable

The first way I categorise paint brushes is by the type of hair they use. The two main types of hair are bristle (A) and sable (B). Both come in many different shapes and sizes, and can be made either from natural animal hair or synthetic fiber. I generally use bristles for rougher marks and sables for smoother strokes.

02. Bristle brushes

paint brush bristle

A bristle paint brush will hold a lot of paint

Bristle brushes are made of thicker, stronger and sometimes rougher hair. They originally came from animals such as wild hogs, but now synthetic bristle brushes are very common. Bristles are great because they can hold a lot of paint. I use bristles to do the bulk of my painting, especially when covering large areas.

03. Bristle marks

paint brush bristle marks

Create painterly strokes with a bristle paint brush

To help you choose which paint brush to use, here is an example of some marks made with bristle brushes. Bristle marks tend to be rougher and the paint strokes can be easily seen. These are often called "painterly" strokes. I like the rough look for adding texture and variety to my paintings. I also like bristles for making drawing type marks because of their stiffness and durability.

04. Sable brushes

Sable paint brush

Sable paint brushes are subtler

Sable brushes are generally made of finer and softer hair. Sables can be made from soft animal hair such as a mongoose or mink, or from soft synthetic fibers. I like sables mostly for blending edges and creating softer and more subtle marks. I also enjoy using smaller sables for adding fine details and finishing touches..

05. Sable marks

Marks with a sable paint brush

These are the marks you'll make with a sable paint brush

Here is an example of some marks made by sable brushes. Sables make very clean marks and the paint strokes tend to be hidden. Because of this sables are great for achieving a more "realistic" look in a painting. I like to use sables for making soft, airbrush like marks and for blending.

06. Three paint brush shapes

paint brush shapes

Paint brushes come in three common shapes

The next way I categorise paint brushes is by shape. The three most common shapes are: flat (A), filbert (B) and round (C ). All three shapes can come in both bristle and sable hair. They also come in many different sizes. It took me years of practice and experience to decide which shape worked best for me.

07. Round brushes

round paint brush

Round paint brushes are great for mark-making

The first common brush shape is round. Round brushes are shaped like sharp tear drops or large needles. I like to use rounds for drawing and making drawing like marks. I'll often begin my paintings with a small round brush to draw with, and then use larger rounds to fill larger areas.

08. Flat brushes

flat paint brush

Use flat paint brushes to define form

The next common brush shape is flat. Flat brushes have a rectangular shape. Flat brushes make square shaped marks. They can also make chisel like lines, especially when using a sable flat. I use flats mostly to model form. There square shaped marks are great for defining planes and form in a figure or portrait painting.

09. Filbert brushes

filbert paint brushes

Filbert paint brushes are good for many tasks

The final most common brush shape is filbert. Filberts are combination of both round and flat. The have the rectangular shape of a flat brush, but also come to a point like a round brush. Because of their unique shape, filberts can create a wide variety of marks. I use filberts for many painting tasks including blending edges.

10. Round bristle brush marks

bristle paint brushes

Bristle paint brushes make these sorts of marks

Here are some examples of marks made by round bristle brush. Rounds can create a variety of marks. Like a pencil or marker, they can also go thick to thin. Because the shape resembles a pencil, I like making drawing and hatching marks with round bristles. I almost always start every painting with a round bristle.

11. Round sable brush marks

Sable rounds are great for detail

Sable rounds are great for detail

Here are some examples of marks made by round sable brush. Sables have finer and softer hair and they also retain their shape well. I use round sables for a variety of tasks including blending edges and for fine details. Small sable rounds are my favourite brushes for adding small details.

12. Flat bristle brush marks

flat bristle paint brushes

Here are some examples of marks made by flat bristle brush

I love the square shaped marks for painting planes on forms. When I paint figures or portraits I do most of the work with a flat bristle brush. I also like the way the paint strokes are very visible with bristle brushes.

13. Flat sable brush marks

sable flat paint brush

Here are some examples of marks made by flat sable brush

A sable flat can make square shaped marks, but with a much cleaner edge. The rough, painterly edge is gone, but instead is replaced by smooth and polished look. I use sable flats for blending edges and making softer strokes on a portrait or figure.

14. Filbert bristle brush marks

filbert paint brush

Here are some examples of marks made by filbert bristle brush

Filberts can create a wide variety of marks, from thick to thin and back again. Because of their versatility, they are great for drawing and for painting the head or figure. I use filbert bristles to add variety and texture to my paintings.

15. Filbert sable brush marks

filbert sable brush mark

Here are some examples of marks made by filbert sable brush

Like the bristle version, sable filberts can also make a wide variety of marks. Sometimes it feels like drawing with ink or charcoal. I like to use filbert sables for both making crisp, drawing marks and edges and also for blending edges.

16. Large brushes

Bristle paint brushes

Bristle holds more paint

Larger brushes are almost always flat shaped and made from bristle since bristle holds more paint. Large brushes like these (A) come in 1/2 inch to 1 inch in size. The large long handle flat (B) is a size 12. I use large brushes for painting large areas, but also for applying gesso and varnish.

17. Small detail brushes

small paint brush

Small brushes can go from size 1 to 00, or even to a single hair!

Small detail brushes are almost always made from sable hair, because they retain their stiffness and shape well. I use small sable brushes like these for adding fine details, but also for blending edges in small forms.

18. Build up your brush set

Paint brush collection

Get the essential paint brushes

Once you know which paint brush to use and when, start building up your collection. This is my personal brush set for painting indoor subjects like figures and portraits. For brushes that do most of the work, I have two of each size. I also work mostly in bristle, using small sables for detail and blending.

19. Know your tools

paint brush selection

You need different paint brushes or different tasks

For painting outdoors and landscapes, I've settled on this set of brushes. I do most of the work with bristle flats so I carry two of each size. I have a small round for drawing and a large round for large areas. The small round sables are for adding details and finishing touches.

20. Three of the best

best paint brushes

My favourite paint brushes

Still struggling with which paint brush to use? If I was on a tight budget and could only use two or three brushes, these are the brushes I would use. A size 4-6 flat (A) will accomplish many painting tasks and a size 2-3 round (B) will complement the flat well. I would also add a slightly larger 6-8 flat (C) for covering larger areas quickly.

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX bookazine How to Paint & Draw.

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Chris is obsessed with figure drawing and painting. He loves sharing great information on art, picture-making and topics like which paint brush to use.