Brush Selection Guide

One of the most personal choices you can make about your art is what you use to apply paint. Here are some tips to help you buy the right brush for your needs:

General Tips:

  • Judge a brush by what you see, what you feel and what you need. If you choose a brush based solely on aesthetic appeal, you may end up with a brush you won’t use.
  • Remember that the price of an exceptional brush may be secondary to its ability to perform consistently over time if it’s taken care of.
  • Consider what you intend to use the brush for. If you want to make soft edges, for example, you might choose a fan-shaped blender.
  • Evaluate the shape and amount of visible hair outside the ferrule. Less hair showing outside the ferrule means it will be stiffer; more hair means greater flexibility.

Soft-hair Brushes:

  • Flatten the dry brush with your fingers to check the evenness of the ends.
  • Feel along the length of fine-hair brushes for those that have a belly–the fattest part of a soft-hair brush–which holds the liquid paint.
  • To see how well a brush retains moisture, twirl it head down in clear water. Then see how far you can drag it across paper before it runs out of water. This test is particularly critical when choosing a brush that should hold a great deal of fluid, like a mop brush. (You can tell when a brush is thoroughly wetted when bubbles rise to the top.)
  • For a round detail brush, moisten and snap it against your hand to make sure it resumes its original shape and points finely.
  • For a flat brush, wet it and look side-wise for a knife edge at the end.
  • Apply wet brushes to a surface as if you were painting, and check to see how easily they resume their original shapes.

Bristle Brushes:

  • Hold the end of the bristles against a dark surface to see whether the ends are well flagged or cut straight across like a stencil brush. Brushes with longer and more consistent flags hold more paint.
  • Compare the depth and number of flagged to unflagged bristles in various brushes. You’ll rarely see a brush with flags on every bristle.
  • Expect to pay more for well-flagged bristle brushes.

Zora Pinney is an artist, conservator and consultant in Los Angeles.


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