Understanding the different brush shapes and fibre types can help you to make better and more informed decisions when investing in new brushes, so that you end up with tools you love working with. In this article, we’re going to provide some insight into the different brush shapes, their uses and a few tips and tricks to try out yourself.
While knowing your tools is a great way to create strong foundations for your painting, the most important thing is to find the shapes and types of brushes that feel right for you. Every painter has a favourite brush and more often than not, they’ll use them for techniques and styles entirely different from what they were designed for. A good brush will last you a long time if you care for it properly, so take the time to find which ones are most effective in your own work.
Round shapes brushes are one of the most commonly used in painting. Available in a variety of sizes and bristle types (hog, sable, pony and more, as well as synthetic versions of each) the round brush is a versatile tool for any painter, illustrator or designer applying pigment to surface.
Round brushes are available with both blunt and pointed tips, each of which has a different suitability when it comes to painting. Pointed tipped rounds are especially useful for detail, as well as creating different line weights dependent on the pressure applied by the artist. Blunt tipped rounds are an excellent tool for filling in colour when used at a side angle in a scribbling motion, creating scratchy, textured marks.
Another versatile brush shape is the flat. A larger flat brush is ideal for washes. When painting with acrylic or watercolour, this brush is often thicker so it can pick up a larger amount of pigment and can be wetted before picking up the paint, so that thinner layers of pigment can be applied to a surface quickly. Wash brushes typically have a squared side edge, meaning they are also capable of creating controlled strokes with a solid edge when used with opaque pigments.
Smaller flat brushes utilise a longer bristle length to lay flat patches of colour smoothly, achieving a squared edge. They’re also excellent for producing long, smooth strokes allowing for a sense of gesture and motion in the application paint. When used with quality oil or acrylic paints, this can be a useful tool in highlighting the rich colour of the pigment. Flat brushes can also produce solid lines in varying thickness depending on weight, when used on their side.
Bright brushes are another example of a flat bristled brush but with some characteristics all their own. Due to their shorter bristle length, brights generate more resistance with the surface making them ideal for applying short, strong strokes of colour. The stiffness of the bristles can vary depending on the fibres but brights will generally be one of the harder brushes in your arsenal, ideal for creating hard-edged textures with heavy pigment.
Filberts are somewhere between a flat and a round, with long bristles and a flat tip. The key difference between a filbert and a flat is in their rounded edges, allowing them to create a variety of marks with a softer edge. A particular favourite of figurative painters, filbert brushes allow the artist to create a variety of marks based on the relationship between their hand and the brush. On its side, a filbert can create flat fields of colour without any distinct brush marks, if used with dry pigment on the tip, it’s possible to achieve scratchy textures and blurred edges between fields of colour. Although this is true of many brush shapes, the unique arrangement of bristles in a filbert helps to maintain an expressive, painterly feel to a surface.
Filbert brushes come in a variety of lengths and fibre types, meaning that different varieties of filberts will provide different results. Filberts are useful for producing a variety of different marks and effects, depending on the thickness of pigment and the angle at which the brush is held.
A mottler is the artist’s brush that most resembles a typical decorators brush. Available in synthetic or organic fibres, this brush type has a variety of uses throughout the process of painting. Mottlers can be useful when preparing a surface, suitable for priming due to their ability to hold large amounts of pigment. A mottler is also a useful shape for blocking in fields of colour, as well as under-painting. Mottlers are also useful when applying varnishes over significant surface area. Mottlers can also achieve many of the effects typically associated with other flat brush types, commonly used on a larger scale or to cover more of a surface.
Liner brushes resemble round brushes except much finer, usually with longer hair. The longer hair allows the brush to carry more pigment, creating long and flowing lines – whether its oil, acrylic, ink or watercolour, a liner brush is the perfect way to add detail and dynamics to your work. Another typical use for liner brushes is lettering. Available in a variety of sizes, liner brushes can be helpful for adding fine details, highlights or text.
Mop brushes are soft-bristled with a rounded head, most often associated with watercolour painting but useful for a variety of pigment types. When used with watercolour, they’re an effective brush shape for covering large areas of the surface with thin paint, referred to as a wash. Mop brushes are also useful for blending oil paints, softening edges and helping areas of a painting fit together more naturally – think different shades of clouds in a sky.
Another use for the mop brush is glazing, due to their soft bristles and rounded tip, you’re not going to end up with unsightly brush marks or hard edges when applying your glaze. When used dry, they can also be very effective in applying water transfers and similar types of collage media without damaging the material.
Angled brushes are one of the most versatile shapes in a painter’s studio, although sometimes an overlooked brush when bought as part of a set, their inclusion is both helpful and necessary.
Their shape allows for quick transitions between thin and thick lines, making them an optimal choice for people interested in painting the natural landscape or other organic material. Whether you want to create motion in blades of grass through flicking your brush at an angle, block in an area of colour or create texture, angled brushes can be very useful.
Additionally, their shape can be helpful in transitioning from a desk to an easel. An angled brush allows for a greater sense of control when working at an upright surface, affording you comfort when utilising the fine end of the brush for detail work or text.
Dagger & Dagger Striper
Dagger brushes are shaped like a filbert with half of the bristles missing at an angle. They’re particularly useful for creating teardrop shapes, moving from a wide rounded edge up to a fine point.
They’re often used in botanical painting, helping to create shapes in flowers and leaves with a natural sense of flow. You can load a dagger brush up with multiple colours at a time and drag it across a surface to create expressive shapes, particularly useful in trying to capture a sense of motion in something like a still life. With that being said, dagger brushes are also a great shape for creating abstract work using multiple colours. Their unique shape means that you can load pigment in different areas of the brush and pull single marks that introduce new colours throughout the line.
A dagger striper is essentially the same shape except featuring a more defined angle of cut on the bristles. These brushes, as the name would suggest, are excellent when looking to paint lines or stripes.
Fan brushes are soft bristled, and as the name would imply, shaped like a traditional hand fan. The bristles are generally thinner, not heavily layered so as to avoid picking up too much pigment, making fans a useful brush shape for blending paint already on the surface – In particular areas where you’re looking for a blurred effect or to make a gradient change appear smooth and subtle.
With that being said, fan brushes are more than just tools for blending. Their thin bristles are perfect for creating natural looking highlights in darker areas by applying thin, dry pigment.
They’re equally useful as a brush for adding texture. Fan shapes can be applied to a surface in a multitude of ways beyond standard brush strokes. Applying pigment in different motions with a fan brush can be an effective tool in creating a sense of depth or motion in mixed-media work due to the broad arrangement of the bristles. Fan brushes fan also be useful for creating stippling or splattering effects when the pigment is applied to the surface in a tapping motion.
Stippler brushes feature short, rounded heads and come in a variety of densities dependent on the hair used to make the brush. Something like hog hair would provide a more resistant stippler, whereas lighter bristles would allow for the tip of the brush to fan out more in the application of pigment.
Often used in painting foliage or fur, stippler brushes are a shape most associated with creating texture. Used in a dabbing motion, this shape is able to create dense, wiry textures dependent on the colours used as well as the speed
Due to their prowess in producing texture, stippling brushes can be a useful tool for making both abstract and representational pictures. Depending on the hardness of the bristle type you choose, your brush will produce different textures – equally important is the weight of your hand, the angle and the motion of the brush. This makes a stippler a fun brush to experiment with, exploring the different textures you can achieve and how they work within a painting.