10 Types of Paintbrushes Every Artist Should Know

Ingrid Christensen
Nov 14, 2018 4:42PM

Photo by Shraga Kopstein.

It’s likely that Leonardo da Vinci used round paintbrushes made from animal hair tied to the end of wooden handles. The same can be said for Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and countless other painters in the Western world, up until the 19th century. Change came with the invention of the metal ferrule—a small, ring-shaped object that fastens a brush’s bristles and handle together. The innovation allowed manufacturers to create revolutionary new brush shapes, each of which could create a different array of marks. By squashing the bristle end of the ferrule, for example, manufacturers could create flat brushes, which were embraced by the Impressionists, and have become a mainstay in artists’ studios today.

Modern-day paintbrushes come in many shapes, sizes, and bristle types—and all of these qualities can be either an aid or an impediment to an artist, depending on their desired results.


When it comes to bristles, artists can choose between animal hair (such as hog bristle, sable, and mongoose) or synthetic bristles, which either mimic their natural counterparts or make distinct and novel marks. And in terms of shape, artists must consider what they want from a brush—be that short, thick strokes that show the lines of the bristles; soft, smooth patches of color; long, fluid lines; or something else entirely. The vast quantity of choices can be overwhelming.

To help navigate the wide variety of paintbrushes on the market, we’ve outlined a few of the most common types below, and what they can be used for.

Brushes for oils and acrylics

Soft bristle brushes

Soft bristles make smooth paint strokes. For blended, flat paint surfaces, sable, mongoose, or soft synthetic brushes are ideal. The consistency of the paint needs to be rather fluid for these brushes, as they don’t have the strength to apply heavy body paint (like thick, buttery acrylics). This also means that they’re not useful for layering paint wet-in-wet, a technique that requires firm paint.

Long-bristled, soft brushes are excellent for making irregular, “hairy” marks at the end of a brushstroke—a feature that’s helpful for portraying subjects that require fine lines, such as hair and grasses.

Stiff bristle brushes

Brushes with coarser bristles are a good choice for creating rough effects or the thick layers of impasto. Hog bristle and stiff, springy synthetics are well-suited to heavy paint and will leave their painterly tracks in the pigment. They can be loaded up with paint and are a favorite among painters who work wet-in-wet—they can dragged over wet paint, making them ideal for working in layers.

When used with fluid paint, or not enough paint, these brushes make a scratchy, meager, and unappealing patches or marks.

Common brush shapes for oils and acrylics


Flat brushes are versatile. Their long bristles can lay smooth patches of color; make long, bold strokes; or, when using their edges, execute fine crisp lines. Marks made with a flat brush have a distinctive square edge.


Round brushes come in pointed and blunt tips. Both can be used to create a modulated, linear mark by applying more or less pressure during the stroke; the pointed round is ideal for fine detail. Used on their sides in a scribbling motion, they’ll make an irregular, broken patch of color.


Filberts are long-bristled, flat brushes with a rounded tip. A favorite among figurative painters, these brushes can create a variety of marks from broad to linear, without the square edge of a flat brush. Filberts can also make a flat patch of color with no distinctive brush marks when used on its side in a scribbling motion.


The bright is a short-bristled, flat brush that’s ideal for short, controlled strokes. It can be used with heavy paint and, like the flat, will deposit marks with distinct, square edges. It’s not suitable for layering wet-in-wet; the short, stiff bristles of a bright will remove the underlayer of paint rather than add to it.


The fan brush is a splayed, flat brush with a round tip. While it’s not used to create the bulk of a painting, the fan is helpful in creating modulating marks and interesting textural effects. Fans can be used to blend and soften the hard edges of a painted form, or they can be used to stipple or flick paint onto the canvas, making them useful for depicting grasses or fur.


Rigger brushes are thin rounds with very long bristles. They can hold a great deal of fluid paint and make long, smooth, continuous strokes. Artists use these brushes for creating delicate branches, tendrils, lettering, and other linear, calligraphic marks.

Watercolor brushes

Watercolor brushes.

Watercolorists use soft, short-handled brushes in many of the same shapes that oil and acrylic painters use, with two notable additions: the wash and the mop brush.

Wash brush

Wash brushes are very wide, flat brushes designed to hold a lot of water and pigment. They can create a broad, square-edged patch of color.

Mop brush

Also for washes, mops are thick, round brushes, either pointed or oval in shape, that create large, organic forms. When applied with varying angles and pressures, they can be used to create a wash of color that subtly changes from broad to narrow.

While it’s possible to increase the range of marks that a brush can make by experimenting with the way it’s used—for example, you can play with using the brush’s edges, pushing paint rather than pulling it, and vary the amount of paint you’re using—there’s no substitute for learning about the inherent strengths and limitations of each brush shape. With this knowledge, artists can determine the marks and paint consistency that they prefer to use, and the brush choices will be obvious.

Ingrid Christensen