Guide to Brushes

By Winsor and Newton


Walk into any artists’ store and the sheer number of brushes on display can at first seem overwhelming. Whether to choose natural or synthetic fibres? Which head shape is most suitable? Is it best to go for the most expensive? Fear not, by exploring these questions just a little more you can narrow down the number of choices you need to make and find the right tool for the job.

Hair Type
Different media, such as water colour or acrylic or traditional oil, require different types of brushes, and they come in four main types :-

•    Natural Hair
•    Hog Hair (Bristle)
•    Synthetic Hair
•    Blends (Synthetic and Natural)

Natural Hair
For working in water colour or gouache natural hair brushes are a good choice because they tend to be softer and more flexible than hog hair brushes. Natural hair brushes come in different varieties.

•    Sable brushes maintain a perfect point allowing for great control and are excellent for precision marks. Sable hair is also naturally absorbent which means these brushes hold a lot of colour for excellent flow. Sable brushes are very high quality, with the best being hand made from the tip of the tail of the Siberian Kolinsky sable such as Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brushes.

•    Squirrel brushes carry colour very well because they can hold a lot of water. They are very good as mop and wash brushes as they do not point as well as Sable.

•    Goat brushes also have a good colour carrying capacity but tend not to release the colour as well as squirrel or sable and they have no point.

•    Camel brushes is a term used to capture an array of miscellaneous natural hair brushes which have low quality.

•    One exception where a natural hair brush can be used effectively with thicker media is Pony brushes. Pony brushes have coarse hair which does not form a point and offer little spring. However their stiffness is useful when using media such as oil and acrylic.

Hog Hair (Bristle)
When using oil and acrylic then hog hair brushes are a good choice. They are naturally stiff and each bristle is split into two or three at the tip and these are called flags allowing the brush to hold on to more paint and apply it evenly. Remember, hog brushes come in different shades so if they are white then you need to make sure that this is natural and not bleached as this will have weakened the bristle. Hog hair comes in different in qualities.

•    Best Hog has the stiffest hair, plenty of flags allowing it to carry more colour, and extremely resilient so that the brush keeps its working edge and shape for longer. Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Brush is the highest quality hog brush.

•    Better Hog has hair that is a little softer than best hog and will not wear quite as well.

•    Good Hog is even softer. This type of brush will not maintain its shape well.

•    Poor Quality Hog is soft, weak and tends to splay which makes controlling the colour difficult.

If you are on a budget or would prefer an alternative to natural hair, then it is worth considering synthetic brushes. They can be soft or stiff; the soft brushes work well with water colour, while the stiff brushes work well with oils. Synthetic brushes often have an excellent point and can carry colour very well. Winsor & Newton offer a wide range of synthetic brushes including Monarch brushes, Cotman brushes and Galeria brushes.

Sable and synthetic blends such as Sceptre Gold II provide a performance that is close to sable at a price that is close to synthetic.

Head, Shape and Size
Brushes come in different sizes and these sizes are given numbers. However, each number does not necessarily correlate to the same size brush in different ranges and this is particularly noticeable between English, French and Japanese sizes. Consequently, if you are choosing a brush it is important that actual brushes are compared rather than simply relying on the sizes of the brushes you currently own.

Handle length varies as well. If you are working in oil, alkyd or acrylic you may often find yourself painting at a distance from your surface and so a long handled brush would be best. If you are a water colourist then it is likely you will work closer to your painting, and so a shorter handle would be a good investment.
Different brushes come in different shapes. Natural sable brushes are generally in one shape, namely round, but they do come in different sizes. However, hog brushes and other bristle brushes have a range of shapes as well as sizes which allow different types of marks to be made. Shapes include round, long flat, filbert, short filbert, short flat/bright, and fan. See the type of marks these differently shaped brushes make on the Winsor & Newton ‘Artists’ Hog Brushes’ web page.


When it comes to brushes you tend to get what you pay for, so buying the best quality brushes for your work will always be the preferred option. Poor quality brushes may not perform well, for example a poor quality hog hair brush will splay and soften, making messy marks and hindering the control of the colour. Cheap softer synthetic brushes will hold little colour and may not keep their point. Poor quality brushes will also deteriorate quickly and you may find yourself spending more money on two or three cheap brushes rather than on one high quality brush that lasts for years.