Brushes come in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and types. Which brushes are suitable for acrylic paint, and what are the possibilities?
Synthetic or animal bristles?
For acrylic paint, you generally choose brushes with synthetic bristles. You can also paint with brushes made of natural animal hair, but this has a few disadvantages: acrylic paint is less easily applied, the hairs wear out quickly, and the resilience of the hairs decreases rapidly.
This is a brush with natural animal hairs. After six months of intensive use, you can see significant wear on the hairs.
Synthetic brushes apply acrylic paint more easily, wear out less quickly, and retain their resilience much longer (the hairs return to their shape well after use).
Above you see a synthetisch brush that’s used intesively for about half a year, no signs of wear.
Stiff or soft bristles
If you prefer to work with thick (pasty) paint, it’s best to use brushes with stiffer hairs. Use stiff hairs if you prefer to paint with very dry (lean) paint or if you like to keep your brushstrokes visible.
The top brush has imitation marten hair. These are soft hairs for smooth painting results. That’s why this brush series is called “precision.” The bottom brush has stiffer hairs, suitable for rough work. It is labeled “impasto” (thick strokes and blobs).
If you like to work with thin to very thin paint, then you should choose brushes with softer hairs. Soft hairs are also used when you don’t want the brushstrokes to be visible. You can easily create smooth transitions with soft hairs.
Left: Impasto (thickly painted) with a brush with stiff bristles. Right: Painted fluently with a brush with soft bristles (in this case, imitation marten hair)..
Whether you buy round, flat, or angled brushes, you can choose between wider and narrower brushes. If you work on small formats, you will need narrower brushes, and if you work on large formats, you will need wider ones.
It’s always useful to have various sizes per model. For example, with a wide flat brush, you can easily fill large areas. With a small flat brush, you can easily draw straight lines and fill smaller areas.
The width is usually indicated by a number. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers use a universal designation. Most brands express the width of the hairs in millimeters with the number.
You can buy wider or narrower variations of each type of brush. In the picture, there are two flat and two round brushes.
When working on small formats, it’s best to choose brushes with a short handle. You mainly move from your wrist, and a long handle is not practical. Besides, you’re close to your work.
Above you see two flat brushes with the same width, but one is suitable for large works, and the other is suitable for small works.
When working on large formats, use brushes with a long handle. This way, you can make large movements with your entire arm (from the shoulder). Moreover, thanks to the long handle, you stand further away from your artwork, allowing you to keep a better overview.
Long handle on big canvas vs short handle on small piece of paper
Brushes with a long handle often have a thickening, which keeps the brush well-balanced when you hold it further back.
Thanks to the thickening in the handle, the brush remains well-balanced when held at the end of the handle.
There are many different shaped brushes available. Below, I will list the most important ones.
The hairs run in a straight line and are flat against each other. They are suitable for filling areas and drawing straight lines.
The hairs are arranged in a round ferrule and either come to a sharp point or taper bluntly towards each other. You can easily make smooth lines with them. Also, they’re great for detailed work.
A big advantage of round brushes is that you can easily vary in line thickness; the more pressure you apply, the further apart the hairs spread, and the wider the lines become. You can also vary the angle at which you use them.
This is a versatile type of brush: you can use it for straight lines, filling areas, smooth lines, lines with variation. They are frequently used by portrait painters.
These brushes can be put on your canvas at a pleasant angle. You can easily fill areas with them, but also draw precise lines and fill tricky corners. They are also widely used for graphic applications, such as lettering.
Fan brushes a great to create soft transitions between colors. They are also frequently used to create certain effects, such as leaves, blades of grass, and waves.
These are round brushes, but with very long hairs. With them, you can easily draw long, flowing lines. The long hairs give a very continuous and slow paint application as you “drag” them over the canvas.
These are wide brushes that allow you to quickly fill large areas. You can also use them to spread gesso over your surface.
Large price differences
Avoid the cheapest brushes, yet you don’t have to immediately pay top dollar either. There are plenty of good brushes available at a relatively soft price.
For example, brushes from AMI are pleasant to use, they last a long time, and they are relatively inexpensive. Talens and Winsor & Newton also have relatively inexpensive good brushes in their range.
More expensive brushes are more precisely made, have a seamless ferrule, and the bristles are interlocked, meaning the hairs are evenly distributed and slanting towards each other, and they will return to that position after use. They are made for more intensive use and last longer (if treated well).
The bristles are “interlocked”; slanting towards each other and evenly distributed.
Tips for absolute beginners
The tricky thing with brushes is: you can only know what you like when you have gained some painting experience. For acrylic paint, choose synthetic hairs in the beginning and buy a few flat and round brushes (different sizes).
Practice a lot with these brushes. Once you have gained some experience, occasionally buy a completely different type of brush, such as an angled or a cat’s tongue. Or a brush with stiffer hairs than you are used to or more supple. Since you have gained some painting experience, you can now determine if you find it more enjoyable or less enjoyable to work with.
Have fun painting!