Creating Your Paintbrush Collection: Hair and Bristles Guide

Complete Guide to Paint Brush Bristle Types and Shapes Whether you’re painting with watercolors, gouache, oils, or acrylics, having the correct paint brushes is essential for getting the most out of your materials. If you’ve ever been to an art store, you’ve no doubt seen the hundreds of different paint brushes in different shapes, sizes, and hair varieties. Each of these brushes serves a unique purpose when painting, and it’s up to you to choose the correct brush for each piece.

In this guide, we’ll review these different types of paint brush hair and bristles, common brush options and shapes, as well as how to choose the right paint brush for your project and how to clean them properly so they stay clean and workable for future use.

Natural Hairs Found in Paint Brushes

Many paint brushes are made with natural hairs to properly glide and hold paint. Paint brushes with natural hairs work best with certain types of paint depending on the hair that the bristles are made from. It is important to learn about the different natural hairs found in various brushes to make sure that you choose the correct brush and hairs for your project.


Sable Paint Brushes are Best For Watercolor Painting There are a few different sable options for paint brushes. Kolinsky sable hairs come from a marten, which is a mink-like weasel found in Russia, Ukraine, and Northern China. They are considered one of the best brushes for watercolor and oil painting, and they can last a long time if cared for properly. Red sable brushes also come from the marten family found in Ukraine and Romania, but they have a redder coat. These brushes are a great less-expensive alternative to the more expensive Kolinsky sable. Lastly, black sable brushes are a bit thicker, making them more fitting for blending and glazing oils.


Squirrel hair is commonly used for watercolor painting and has a finer tip to work well in lettering, too. There are actually two types of squirrel brushes: the gray squirrel and brown squirrel. Gray squirrel brushes are less common, so you’re more likely to find brown squirrel hair in your squirrel brushes. Squirrel hair is best for use with watercolors, inks, and fluid paints because the hairs are a bit too delicate for heavy paints like oils and acrylics.

Hog Bristle

Hog bristles have thick, coarse hair that, unlike squirrel brushes, can withstand medium and thicker paints like oil and acrylic, but should not be used with thin paints like watercolors. There are a variety of quality and shapes of hog bristle brushes, so you can find one that fits the project you’re working on.


Although you would assume that the hair from camel brushes come from actual camels, the truth is that they are actually called this when referring to other hairs like pony, ox, goat, squirrel, or a combination of these. No matter what they are made from, these brushes are soft and best suited for thin paints, making them work well with watercolor and fine lettering.


Ox hair brushes have strong, durable hairs that come from the ears of oxen and cattle. Unlike squirrel or camel brushes, ox hair brushes will not work well with a fine point because of its soft hair. These brushes are great for watercolor and are commonly mixed with other hairs for more versatility.


Pony hair brushes are very resilient and strong, yet supple. They are commonly used for watercolor, acrylic, and tempera, and are typically a cheaper option great for beginner painters to use. They don’t hold a point well, so they are not the choice to use for any fine line painting.


Goat brushes are great for soft blending with paint and water washes. Similarly to squirrel brushes, you are painting with watercolor, these are a great option. Plus they come at a much cheaper price. They also are a good choice for washing, varnishing, and priming.

Brush Options

There are a number of brushes that you will come across often when choosing which paint brushes you need, varying in their bristles and shapes.

Bristle Stiffness

The stiffness of the brush bristles you work with matter for the paint you will be using, as well as what type of project you are using this paint brush for. Below are the bristle options to choose from.

  • The Difference Between Sort and Stiff Paint Brush Bristles Soft Bristle Brushes: Soft bristle brushes, such as those made from squirrel, camel, and goat hair, work best for projects with staining or washing. Oil paints and soft bristle brushes are a great pair so that there are no odd streaks or ridges in your work.
  • Stiff Bristle Brushes: Ox and hog bristle are examples of stiff bristle brushes. These brushes are best for doing fine detail work, because it’s easier to get a uniform line with stiff bristles. You can make a stiff brush softer if needed.

When discussing bristle stiffness, you’ll often hear the term “snap” used. Snap is another way of referring to how stiff the bristles are. A brush with a lot of snap is stiff and will go return to its original shape easily. A brush with low snap are soft, and if you get it wet and press the bristles down with your finger, they’ll stay in that shape.

Brush Shapes

Paintbrushes come in many shapes so that you can work on any project and be able to get more intricate with the details. Certain brush shapes lend themselves to different types of brush strokes.

  • Round: Round brushes are the most popular brushes for all paint types because of how versatile they are. They can be used to fill large spaces as well as delicate details depending on how you hold them.
  • Flat: A flat brush has a square end and works best with straight edges and fine lines, as well as fitting wide spaces, although it does not always have to be very thick. This brush shape is great for varnishing or putting down large washes of color.
  • Filbert: A filbert shape is almost a cross between round and flat, as it is flat and narrow with an oval edge. They can cover more space than the round shape, yet also work for more detailed things.
  • Bright: For short and controlled strokes, a bright shape has short, flat bristles that work well with heavy paint, but not when painting wet over wet as it will create streaks.
  • Fan: The fan brush has its name because it is flat and fans out into a round shape. This shape is great for creating texture and blending colors.
  • Pointed Round: The pointed round brush is similar to the regular round shape, except it is much more narrow with a sharply pointed tip. This brush shape is ideal for fine lines and details, as well as retouching and spotting.
  • Angular Flat: Like a flat brush, the angular flat brush shape has a flat edge but with an angle at the end. For filling in corners and creating curved strokes, this brush can also fill a lot of space.
  • Detail Round: As its name suggests, the detail round shape is perfect for filling in smaller details with its shorter hairs and handle.
  • Wash Brush: A wash brush shape looks like the typical home painting brush that you may think of. These wide, flat brushes can hold a lot of water and pigment to create a lot of square-edged color.
  • Different Brush Shapes and How They Help You Paint Quill Brush: Quill brushes are unique because they combine features from several different brushes. They have an elongated point and a large mid-section for carrying a lot of pigment. They are most often used in watercolor.
  • Mop Brush: Mop brushes also are used for washes. Their thick, round shape usually is pointed or oval at the edge, and can create shapes that range from broad to narrow all in one stroke.
  • Dagger Striper: A dagger striper shape brush has a fine tip that curves gradually, and is used often for pin-striping and freehand lettering. Its shape resembles a dagger or sword, which is how it got its name.
  • Liner: A liner brush, also called a rigger, is very thin with long bristles. For creating fine lines with a consistent width, a liner brush with either a round or square edge is ideal for anything that needs to be painted with thin lines.
  • Cat’s Tongue: A cat’s tongue brush is almost like a 3-in-1 brush, as it allows you to paint with different sides or angles of the brush for either fine lines with the tip, medium strokes with the side, or the flat side of the brush for wider areas and washes.

How to Choose a Paint Brush

Choosing the right paint brush for your needs depends on a few factors. First, determine what you are painting as well as the type of paint that you’ll be using. Once you know these things, think of how much paint each brush holds and figure out what you’re going to need to get the project done.

Bristle Type

Though we’ve went over the natural bristles earlier in this guide, there are both natural and synthetic bristles you can use.

  • Natural: Natural bristles come from animal hair, such as the hairs listed previously. Since these brushes use real animal hair, they are typically more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. The natural fibers hold paint more than synthetic bristles and have less chance of streaking. They may be more difficult to use for painting with precision, though, as some of the hairs will naturally shed the first few times.
  • Synthetic: Synthetic bristles are made from materials such as polyester, nylon, or a mixture of both. Most beginning artists will start with synthetic brushes purely due to how affordable they are compared to natural hair brushes. Synthetic brushes can be used with any type of paint, and some synthetic bristles are even specially made to mimic natural hair as closely as possible. Nylon bristles are durable and give a smooth finish, while polyester brushes maintain their shape well and are a good choice for detail work.

Brush Width

The width of the brush is important so that you can get your project done as quick and precisely as possible. Round brushes will usually be able to have a smaller width, while flat brushes can get very wide. You can easily tell the width of a brush by seeing its number printed on the handle—the smaller the number the smaller the width. The numbers on the side can vary from different brands and makers, so a size 1 in brush may not be the same size as it is from another maker.

Brush Shape

The shape of the brush is important for the types of lines you’d like to create for your next project or piece of art. If you’re trying to blend paints, or create simple strokes, or fine line details, the shape matters so that you can achieve the final outcome that you are looking for. All of the shapes that we listed above have certain aspects that they are good and bad for, so knowing what shapes you may need to create or lines you will paint should be kept in mind when choosing different brush shapes.

Bristle Tips

Bristle tips can vary in shapes and sizes, from very thin to wide, as well as different shapes such as round, flat, oval, and more. The bristle tips are made of different materials that may be natural or synthetic, and different tips should be used for what kind of lines and painting you are trying to achieve.

How to Care for Paint Brushes

How to Wash and Care For Your Paint Brushes Caring for your paint brushes correctly is vital so that they will last you to use over and over again for a longer lifespan. Unless you want to buy new paint brushes every few months, follow these instructions.

While you are painting, avoid letting paint get on the ferrule. Thick paints like acrylics can dry attached to the base of the bristles, which will cause them to become misshapen and affect your ability to paint. When you rinse your brush off in a cup of water, never let the brush sit in the water. This will cause the bristles to bend, fray, and lose their shape, ruining your brush.

When cleaning your brushes after finishing a piece, use some sort of paint brush soap that is appropriate for your medium. This will ensure you get all the paint residue off of your brushes so it won’t discolor any later paintings you do with them. If you’re using oils, you will need an appropriate solvent before the soap.

When letting the brushes are drying, never put them vertically with the bristles up. If you do this, water will get trapped inside the ferrule and dissolve the glue that keeps the bristles in place, ruining your brush. Let your brushes dry horizontally on a table, or you can get a tool that will hold your brushes vertically with the bristles down so any water can drip down freely. Once the brushes are completely dry, you can store them vertically with the bristles up.

Having Your Variety of Paint Brushes

Now that you know all of the options available for paint brushes with different hairs and bristles, you will need to get some of these for your collection. It’s important to have different brush types because of all the variations you may need when painting, such as thinner or thicker lines, blending colors, different shapes, or larger or smaller areas. Whether you want to paint larger areas and have wider strokes, or create a smaller piece or art that requires lines and shapes that will show more details, you cannot achieve a full piece without a variety of brushes.

Hopefully, this guide helped you realize all the brush options out there and how the hair and bristles that each type and shape of paint brush has will help you with your project.