Paint brushes come in many forms. As a beginner, you may choose your brush according to factors like size and shape, but did you know that your brush's bristle material is just as important?
Know Your Brush Bristles
The type of material your brush bristles are made of can affect your painting as much as the size and shape of your brush. Learn what different brush materials can do for your art to help you find the best brushes for your painting needs.
1. Natural Bristle Brushes
Natural bristle brushes have bristles made of natural fibers sourced from animal hair which can come from hog, horse, sable, and many more. Of course, each type of natural bristle comes with advantages and disadvantages as well as uses.
One of the most popular natural bristle materials comes from hog hair.
Hog bristle brushes are naturally strong and springy with coarse split-ends giving them better grip and less likelihood of skipping. They're also quite affordable.
However, being made of natural hair means hog bristle brushes shed bristles more easily. They're also not as soft as other natural bristle materials.
When it comes to uses, hog bristle brushes are great for painting animal hair, fur, and feathers.
Horse hair was and still is a common material used in paintbrushes.
This natural fiber is coarse, tough, often kinked, and can hold a lot of paint so you won't have to stop painting to reapply paint as often. They're also inexpensive.
Unfortunately, you often get what you pay for, so don't expect top-quality performance from horse hair brushes as they don't keep their shape very well, even when wet.
Due to their propensity for holding a lot of paint, horse hair brushes are best used for filling in large areas of your canvas more quickly. Their softness also makes them great for adding texture and blending.
Sabeline brushes are made from light ox hair dyed to resemble (the far more expensive) red sable hair.
Sabeline brushes have softness similar to that of red sable but at a fraction of the cost.
That said, while sabeline brushes may be as soft as red sable, they just don't come to a fine point, unlike the real thing. They can't compare to red sable brushes when it comes to fine detail work.
Sabeline brushes are ideal if you're looking for a soft natural bristle brush to use for fills, washes, and dry brushing.
Goat or Sheep
Goat or sheep hair brushes have similar qualities.
Both have excellent absorbency (sheep being a bit more absorbent) with little to no spring.
Goat or sheep hair brushes are great for applying washes.
Badger hair is one of the oldest natural hairs used in brush bristles.
Badger hair is naturally strong and springy. They're thinner at the base and wider at the tip giving them a bushy appearance.
They're ideal for oil painting on canvas.
Squirrel hair brushes are popular for their sable-like qualities.
This thin hair has a pointed tip which helps it form a sharp point. Another advantage of this natural fiber is its price compared to sable hair brushes. That said, squirrel hair virtually has no spring, making them somewhat difficult to control.
Squirrel hair brushes are ideal for lettering and for when you need to leave a very smooth finish.
Sable brushes are by far some of the most sought-after natural hair brushes today.
The term "sable" can refer to martens of different colors, the finest of which are red sable and kolinsky. Both types have superb springiness (kolinsky having a bit more), have great absorbency, and can still hold a fine point despite being wet.
Perhaps the only flaw with sable brushes is that they're quite expensive to purchase.
Because of their springy and absorbent qualities as well as their ability to retain a point, sable hair brushes are great for many painting techniques.
2. Synthetic Bristle Brushes
Synthetic brushes have bristles consisting of man-made materials such as nylon, polyester, and more. These brushes are made to mimic or improve the performance of natural fibers. While these synthetic materials may look similar in brush form, they possess unique qualities that make for advantages and disadvantages.
Nylon was first used on February 28, 1935, and has since become one of the most commonly used polyamides.
As a bristle material, nylon is known for its durability and ability to leave a smooth finish due to its being a very low abrasion material. While you can use nylon brushes with oil or alkyd paints, they're best used for water-based acrylic paints.
Nylon's ability to load acrylic paint and leave a smooth finish makes it great for many acrylic painting techniques.
Another popular synthetic brush material is polyester.
This material holds its shape well, giving you better control. Polyester brushes are also quite inexpensive compared to natural bristle brushes.
One flaw polyester brushes do have is that they don't pick up paint very well.
Other Synthetic Materials
Most synthetic brushes use nylon, polyester, or a combination of both. Some manufacturers do use other materials like lycra, spandex, or rayon in their brushes in varying amounts.
3. Blended Bristle Brushes
Not all natural or synthetic brushes exclusively use just one.
You can find natural brushes that combine the springiness of hog hair with squirrel hair's ability to form a point. Of course, other combinations of natural fibers are also possible.
As mentioned earlier, synthetic brushes can also come in a combination of nylon, polyester, and other materials to mimic the performance of even the most expensive natural brushes.
4. Natural vs. Synthetic: Pros and Cons
Now that you've learned what natural and synthetic bristles can bring to the table, how do they stack up as a whole?
On the one hand:
Natural brushes pick up paint exceptionally well. Animal hairs develop split ends naturally, which results in a smoother finish. Natural brushes are also great for brushwork and visible brush strokes.
Since natural fibers are harder to obtain (often not cruelty-free), high-quality natural brushes are usually more expensive. They also require special care to maintain their shape, size, and performance. Additionally, they don't work with acrylic paints very well and they tend to shed.
On the other hand:
Synthetic brushes are very durable and require less maintenance overall. They work well with any paint, especially acrylics, and can create fine details, smooth finishes, and little to no brush marks if you so desire. Synthetic brushes are also quite inexpensive and cruelty-free.
Do make sure not to expose synthetic brushes to high heat or harsh solvents.
Paintbrush bristles can be made up of natural animal hair or man-made synthetic materials. Each material offers its own blend of unique qualities. These materials can also be mixed with another material to make a brush with the qualities of both.
We hope that you use what you've learned in this post to find the best paintbrush for your artistic needs.
We also offer a top-notch quality line of Jack Richeson fine art brushes that you can check out in our shop.