Picking the Right Paintbrush (Part 1)

July 08, 2020 0 Comments

Picking the Right Paintbrush (Part 1)

Picture this: You’ve just walked into your favourite art store and asked the friendly staff to point you in the direction of the paintbrush section. He does, and you round that last corner to be greeted by…

Rows upon rows of paintbrushes of all different shapes and sizes, enough to make your eyes spin. You start sweating, but not from the heat. How on earth will you pick which paintbrush to buy?

I’ll admit – this was how I felt the first few times I tried to buy a watercolour paintbrush. I say “tried” because I was so overwhelmed I ended up not buying anything at all! These upcoming paintbrush articles can help your decision-making for your next paintbrush purchase.

Relax and Breathe

While it may seem like there are tons of different types of paintbrushes, in reality, paintbrushes can be divided into 3 basic categories: synthetic, natural, or a blend. What’s most important about a paintbrush isn’t so much its size or shape, but what the bristles are made out of. Let’s take a look at the first.

Synthetic Paintbrushes

Synthetic Paintbrushes

Pros:

  • Comparatively cheaper
  • Good “spring” to the bristles
  • Long-lasting
  • Easy to find
  • Can be made into more unique shapes
  • Versatile
  • Bristles tend to stay together while painting, so good for precision work
  • Vegan-friendly

Cons:

  • Can’t hold as much water
  • Sometimes has too much of a spring
  • The tip is easier to ruin (i.e. the bristles don’t come to a sharp point anymore)
  • Can feel "cheap"

Ah, the most basic of brushes. Often made from nylon and/or polyester “hair”, these are a great option for those just starting out to paint! Affordable, practical, and vegan-friendly to boot, the synthetic paintbrush can be used just about anywhere, from watercolours to acrylics to oil. A well-made one can even perform quite similarly to a natural-haired paintbrush.

The biggest downside would have to be the fact that they can’t hold as much liquid, which is ok for acrylic and oil painters, but not so good for the watercolourist. You’ll notice your brush running out of paint a lot sooner, as demonstrated in the picture above.

They also have a bit more of a “spring” to the bristles, meaning they snap back to their original position faster than natural bristles. Depending on your art style, this could be a good or bad thing. In any case, having a decent synthetic paintbrush in your arsenal is a great start, and will be a useful workhorse – for as long as the bristles stay pointed.

Natural Paintbrushes

Natural Paintbrushes

Pros: 

  • Flexible bristles that still have a good spring, but not as much as the synthetic brush
  • Natural hair fibres absorb water like a sponge
  • Comes to a very fine point
  • If made and maintained well, can last for a very long time
  • Feels more professional
  • Best for more free-flowing techniques
  • High pigment (i.e. paint particles) load
  • More “brush-like” effects can be achieved (a pro or con depending on your art style)
Cons:
  • Most costly option, as they're made with real fur
  • Not vegan-friendly
  • Can start shedding

First off, I want to emphasise that you should ONLY use natural paintbrushes with paint mediums that can be easily washed off. This includes watercolours, inks, and sumi-e. Anything that would “cake up” a natural paintbrush would potentially ruin the brush forever, and that would be quite tragic, especially after seeing how expensive one is! 

And expensive it is, because it’s been handmade with real animal hair. Common hair types include squirrel, kolinsky sable (a type of weasel), and badger, as they’re very good at absorbing water. This gives natural paintbrushes their best feature that synthetic brushes can never fully imitate – they can absorb and hold liquid for a much longer amount of time.

With that said, you should probably avoid natural paintbrushes until you’re willing to invest more in your watercolour practice, or if you want to splurge. The extra cost goes into extra quality, and a smoother experience with watercolours. So when you’re ready to take that next step, then go ahead, and marvel at the difference. Check out our guide all about paintbrush care to keep your brushes long-lasting and in top shape.

Blended Paintbrushes 

Blended Paintbrushes

Pros:

  • A good in-between option
  • Pricing is middle-range
  • Feels more like a natural hair paintbrush
  • Higher pigment load than a synthetic brush
  • Comes to a fine point 

Cons:

  • More expensive than synthetic brushes
  • Not vegan-friendly
  • Can start shedding
  • The tip can also be ruined, but not as quickly as synthetic bristles
  • Carries about the same amount of water as synthetic bristles

Blended paintbrushes are pretty much a marriage of synthetic and natural paintbrushes. They’re not as absorbent as natural bristles, but not as expensive either. Not as “springy” as synthetic bristles, but still flexible, and comes to a good point. A happy medium. 

Conclusion 

If you’re just starting out with watercolours, or prefer the vegan option, get a synthetic paintbrush. They’re great to practice with, and cheap to boot! There are even some high-quality versions with bristles that mimic real hair, which are a little pricier but still work really well. Grab yourself a Cold Press Sketchbook too and you'll be all set!

If you have a little more money to spend, you can try the blended bristles. You can consider them as a “taste test” for the natural-haired paintbrush.

Once you’re invested in watercolours, go for a natural paintbrush. Though it may take a little practice to adjust to the softer bristles and the amount of paint it holds, once you do, it works like a dream! Just make sure it says “pure squirrel”, “sable”, or “kolinsky” on the brush handle and you’re good to go.

But wait – what about the size or shape of the paintbrush? Well, we’ll have to leave that for part 2!

Was this guide helpful? What have been your experiences with paintbrushes? Let us know in the comments below! 

Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.