Anatomy Lesson: Get To Know Your Paintbrush

How well do you know your paintbrushes? Part of any artist’s supply cabinet, the paintbrush is a tool that helps you express who you are, who you want to be, or maybe just helps you paint a picture of a flower. In addition to other mixed-media supplies, it’s a staple. Which one you use and how you use it is up to you, but as we all know, knowledge is power. Scroll down to read a free article from “The Informed Artist” column of Cloth Paper Scissors (March/April 2014).

Photos by Willow Wolfe

The Anatomy of a Paintbrush
by Willow Wolfe

The creation of a quality paintbrush involves skills perfected over centuries. Although some of the processes have become automated over time, many aspects of a brush are still manufactured by hand. When I began developing a mixed-media brush line more than seven years ago, I met with craftsmen who had learned the art of brush making from previous generations. It was fascinating to witness the creation of one of my favorite tools. In order to truly understand the paintbrush, it’s imperative to have a grasp of its anatomy.


The part of the brush that does the painting is commonly divided into three types: natural hair, bristle, and synthetic. The quality of the brush and what the brush is best used for are dependent on hair type, blend, and its construction.

Natural Hair
Natural hair, like sable, has a fine tapered point and “flags,” which are similar to split ends. The soft, fine hair and flags allow the brush to hold more paint, or other mediums, and spread color evenly. Natural hair is ideal for thin applications of paint and for detail work.

Bristle is a stiffer, coarse, natural hair that often has flagged tips. Bristle is great for base coats, heavy-bodied paint, and for adding texture.

Due to production requirements and the high cost of many types of natural hair, synthetic filaments were created from man-made fibers, such as PBT resin, and are often referred to as Taklon or Syn-Sable. The diameter of a synthetic filament and the blend of different filaments affects how soft or stiff a brush is and how the brush performs with various media.

Hair Blend
The paintbrush lines that incorporate natural hair and synthetic filaments, as well as various blends of these, offer a range of options for artists. Frequently, the standard shapes and sizes in a brush line are made of a similar hair blend. Your chosen medium and the effect you’re looking for will determine which brush blend works best for you.

Examples of Hair Type and Blend

An Oval Mop Wave is a brush with innovative synthetic hair that is crimped to mimic the shape and movement of natural hair. This brush is recommended for softening and blending, decoupage, and varnish because it shows minimal brushstrokes.

A Flat brush has a blend of different size synthetic filaments that allows for even paint distribution and flow throughout the bristles.

The Lunar brush is comprised of a 50/50 blend of stiff bristles and synthetic hair. This blend allows paint to settle on the outside of the hair, while at the same time distributing the paint evenly throughout the bristles for textured effects.

The Round Blender has soft, natural hair that makes this brush great for techniques that require a light, feathery touch.

Handle and Ferrule
The handle of a paintbrush is frequently made of wood, and several brush lines use environmentally conscious coatings on the wood. Brushes with short handles allow you to get in close for detail work. For that and their handle balance, short- handle brushes are recommended for mixed-media artwork. Handle balance involves the thickness of the handle in the mid-section and how it tapers to a point, making the brush comfortable in the hand.

The ferrule is the metal band that connects the brush head to the handle and is usually glued on both ends and crimped near the handle. A good quality nickel-plated brass ferrule will resist corrosion. ~WW


Have you experimented with different paintbrushes for your art? If not, I hope that Wolfe’s article has shed some light on the topic. When you subscribe to Cloth Paper Scissors, you’ll get issue after issue of advice on mixed-media supplies and so much more.


Until next time,

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