Brushes 101


In this blog post we will be comparing brush types for watercolours, oils and acrylics to aid anyone starting out in their choice of medium. We will discuss materials, shapes and sizes you can expect to find in each category and help you chose the right brushes for your needs. We also asked three artists working at Lawrence Art Supplies to give us some hints and tips and share their experience with different brushes.



Materials available: sable, squirrel, synthetic, synthetic-animal hair mixes
Shapes available: flat (wash), round, rigger, swordliner
Sundries: water-filled brushes, retractable (travel) brushes

Kolinsky Sable on top, Synthetic Pro Arte Prolene on bottom, both Size 6. The sable is visibly bushier and ends in a sharp point.

Picking the hair of your watercolour brushes depends on many factors (price-range, animal-synthetic preference, etc). Most traditional artists swear by using sable hair for the high quality. It holds a lot more water than synthetic brushes and its pointing ability is superior. Squirrel hair holds even more water than sable and you will find it in special ‘mop’ brushes which are used mainly for washes.

Some artists prefer synthetics because of their affordable price-tag and to avoid using animal hair. As the quality of synthetic hair is becoming higher and higher, these brushes become more and more popular with serious watercolourists, not just students.



Flat/One Stroke

A flat brush is a very versatile shape that is a must-have for anyone painting with watercolour. Usually expressed in inches, the larger the size of the brush, the quicker to lay down a flat or graduated wash for your background. The edge is very useful for details as you can use it to create very fine lines, edges and corners other brushes would have a hard time getting to.


A round brush is a watercolourist’s go-to tool as you can complete a painting with a single round brush! The point of the brush will help you create fine lines while the body holds enough water to cover a large area without having to dip it again. For beginners we suggest going with a larger size (8-10) as an all-rounder and a smaller size (2-6) for detail.


A rigger brush is a thin brush with long hair which makes it very springy. It holds a lot of water so when creating thin lines you don’t have to lift it from the paper to dip into paint again. Watercolourists who swear by it are usually abstract or landscape painters who use it for creating spontaneous lines or natural looking tree branches. A rigger may be harder to control while you are learning but a fun tool to play with!


These water-filled Aquash brushes are quite a recent invention. They are very helpful for on-the-go painters as they eliminate the need for water pots. Their tips vary in shapes and sizes. When you squeeze the barrel, it gradually releases the water which dilutes the paint on the ferrules. For cleaning, use the water inside and keep blotting it on tissue until the water runs clear.

Judy Csiky ‘Catcircle’ – watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper

Judy’s tip: “I have many brushes now but I started out with only a handful. I mainly do small illustrations so my go-to brush is a no 6 round synthetic Lawrence brush. I prefer synthetics because I care about animals and I would be scared to use the more expensive sables. I get most of my painting done with my mid-size no 6 then I switch to a size 4 for small detail. I also use a size 12 round brush for mixing up colours in my daisy palette and a flat 1″ one for washes.”

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Materials Available: hog, synthetic, sable, mixed hair
Shapes Available: round, short flat, long flat, filbert, rigger
Sundries: gesso brush (for priming surfaces), varnish brush

Animal vs Synthetics

Acrylic paint on Clairefontaine oil paper, hog brush on top, synthetic below. Brush ferrule marks are visible with the hog brush while you can achieve fine brush strokes with synthetics.

Brushes for oils and acrylics are largely the same selection as both are heavy paints. Traditionally, artist have used hog or similarly strong bristled brushes for oil and this carried on with the more modern invention of acrylic paint until synthetics started getting high quality. The fine, smooth synthetic hair of today’s brushes are perfectly suited for acrylic painters who seek smooth blending and no brush marks in their painting. On the other hand, hog bristles help to avoid a ‘flat effect’ as the result is more textured and the application of paint is more varied.


Oil Brushes

Most oil painters still use hog hair brushes for the majority of their painting. Pro Arte hog brushes come in 3 versions: Series A is the best artist quality, Series B is middle range and Series C (available in our shop only) is student quality.  Another great economy range is the Lawrence Value Super Hog brushes. While hog hair gives you a traditional oil painting look, high quality sable brushes are also used for techniques such as glazing in thin layers, fine details, traditional painting techniques and smooth blending. Oil painters who like to consider animal welfare can buy good quality synthetic brushes too, they should look out for springiness and strong bristles as oil is the most dense heavy substance to paint with which is very trying on your brushes.

Victoria Homewood ‘Swimmers’ – Oil on Arches Oil paper

Vic’s advice: “One of the most important things to remember with oil brushes is that you really need to take care of them and wash them up ASAP.  If you leave them even a few hours they will be ruined and almost unsalvageable, such is the nature of oil paint. There are a few useful products which could help maintaining your brushes such as Masters Brush Cleaner, Zest It, Gamsol and also Walnut Oil for finishing and to condition the hog hair brushes.”


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Acrylic Brushes

Synthetic Brushes vary in quality and brushes are always subject to personal preference but generally speaking synthetics work best. A good synthetic acrylic brush is springy, soft, easy to clean and holds its shape well. They are better suited for small details than hog brushes and require less maintenance such as conditioning.

Alexis, our shop managers, advice: “I personally prefer using the Pro Arte 201 series (with the long silver handles) for my acrylic paintings. They have really nice silky smooth bristles, and they have never shed a hair on me yet! I also found that the clean up nicely, and hold their shape well. I like using filbert brushes, as I find them great for curves, and for giving a more delicate edge, rather than a flat angular brush. I also use the really fine round brushes, a flat brush for blocking out large areas, etc, and riggers for long continuous lines.”

Acrylic Brushes: Round – for detail, Filbert – for blending and curves and Flat – for covering large areas

We hope you enjoyed Brushes 101 and don’t forget: all items mentioned in this post can be purchased in our shop at 208-212 Portland Road and ordered through our website at