What are the best brushes for acrylic painting?
You can use many different types of brush fibres and shapes for acrylic painting.
Acrylic is a versatile medium, you can thin it with water and add medium to make it similar in viscosity to watercolour. You can paint straight from a tube of Heavy Body paint and spread it thickly across the canvas, and the result will emulate oil.
Whether a brush will be suitable largely depends upon how you like to work, on the consistency of your paint and the scale of your painting.
Discover the best brushes for acrylic painting in this guide and find some product recommendations too.
What type of bristles should you get for acrylic painting?
Generally speaking, synthetic fibres work the best with acrylic. The reason for this is that natural fibres are either stiff or soft. They’re one or the other, plus they don’t have both these attributes whilst also being springy and flexible. Whereas synthetic brushes can be stiff, soft, springy and flexible all at the same time. This means that they can manoeuvre thick acrylic paint across a surface with ease. Most brushes that have been designed for work with acrylic will have synthetic bristles.
Acrylic paint is more difficult to remove from natural fibre bristles than synthetic. So if you do use natural fibres, make sure to clean them properly and remove all paint before it dries. Treat your brushes every now and again by washing them with Master’s Brush Soap—it helps the brush retain its shape.
Synthetic bristles are more durable than animal hairs and acrylic paint is actually pretty harsh on the natural fibres.
Natural hairs can have advantages for some acrylic applications however, so I have included them in the list, so that you can learn more and choose.
Hog hair is the stiffest brush fibre you can get. It works brilliantly with oil paint and is suitable for work with heavy body acrylic or acrylic that has been thickened with impasto medium. The bristles are absorbent, so they will hold a lot of colour.
Just to make it confusing, if you hear the name ‘bristle brush’ it means that the bristles of the brush are made from hog hair. So the word bristle refers to both the hair of any brush and also a specific kind of brush hair.
The drawback of hog hair is that it doesn’t perform well when it’s soaked in water. You can get around this by painting straight from the tube or mixing a medium with the paint to change its properties instead of water.
Hog bristles are especially useful if you are working on canvas with thick paint and are blocking in colours. Use it to cover large areas and work paint into the weave.
If you want to create some interesting textures in your work, get a paint or medium that retains brush strokes and use it with hog bristles. Singer Sargent was famous for creating this effect.
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Value pack of quality hog hair brushes in varying sizes and shapes.
These brushes are made by interlocking hog bristles. This gives the bristles elasticity and prevents shedding. The set contains 5 best selling Maestro 2 brushes, a palette and painting cloth.
The term ‘sable’ is used to describe natural hair fine art brushes that are soft. The colour holding abilities of sable brushes are superb and the tip forms a natural point.
Sable brushes are most frequently made from a Kolinsky weasel. Squirrel hair brushes perform in a similar way to sable.
Sable goes hand in hand with watercolour, because they are so soft that the paint has to be runny in order for the brush to form a point and for the colour to release from the brush.
There are drawbacks to using sable with acrylic aside from the bristles being almost too delicate for the medium. Surfaces used to paint with acrylic are rougher than watercolour surfaces, for example a rough sanded gesso panel or canvas compared to soft watercolour paper. This abrasiveness can cause breakage on the brush hairs.
Be mindful that acrylic isn’t resoluble like watercolour is and the paint is harder to remove from natural hair bristles than synthetic. If you let the paint dry in the brush bristles, you won’t be able to get it out without a struggle. When you wash brushes, get a paint scrubber and really work it into where the bristles meet the ferrule. It’s a good idea to double wash natural hair brushes and condition them after each session to ensure they stay in a good working order. It’s better to get synthetic sable, as cleaning up and using the brushes will be less hassle.
Regardless of this, if you’re set on using natural sable, if you thin your paint to the consistency of watercolour, it should work for you.
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Other natural fibres
Brushes can be made from a multitude of different animal hairs. Goat, pony and camel hairs are extremely soft, so lend themselves to techniques such as blending and creating washes. You’ll most frequently see ‘mop brushes’ made from goat hair.
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Synthetic bristles are the best choice for acrylic painters. The bristles are durable, resistant to the chemicals in acrylic paint (acrylics are alkaline, which natural fibres don’t react well to), and they have a spring to them, which is useful for moving thick paint.
There are many different types of synthetic fibres, that all have slightly different working properties. On a scale of brush stiffness, they will be between the stiffness of hog and the softness of sable.
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These brushes perform like hog in terms of their stiffness, but they are more resilient. They work wonderfully with water thinned paint. Hog hairs don’t react well to water, but these bristles are much more responsive. Really, these are the best alternatives to hog to use with acrylic, although they do come at a higher price point. These brushes even have flag shaped tips to replicate chungking hog, with superior colour holding properties.
Paint glides off of the synthetic hairs of the Princeton Aspen brush and the colour holding properties are second to none. These brushes are designed for use with acrylic or oil and are especially useful for taking out to paint plein air, as they come with a non-glare ferrule. The set contains a bright 4, filbert 6, round 2 and flat 8.
These brushes are made from a unique synthetic mongoose fibre. The brushes are professional quality and resist wear from harsh chemicals. They hold thicker paint well, but use them also with thin and fluid paint.
These softer synthetic acrylic brushes are springy however, so no matter how much pressure you apply, they will spring back in place in an instant, lending themselves to vivid, gestural work.
Different brush shapes and what they do
So we’ve talked about bristles, now let’s talk about shape. Decide which brush shapes are going to be the most useful to you…
The first decision to make when it comes to the shape of your brush is to decide whether you want one with a long or short handle. A short handle brush is better if you work on a flat surface, like on paper or canvas that is laid out on a table. Long handle brushes are perfect for if you prop your painting up vertically against an easel. This is because the length of the handle has more weight to it, making it easier to balance in your hand, giving you greater control. You can use either long or short handled brushes for acrylic painting, but it is something to consider.
The next thing you need to decide is the shape of the bristles. Here’s a diagram illustrating some of the different brush shapes available and the marks they make on paper:
The acrylic paint used in the image above is heavy body, which was thinned to use with the rigger brush.
Find out how to use these bristles and learn about some of the other different brush shapes…
The bristles form a round shape and taper to a point at the tip. Round brushes are the perfect tool for detail work and filling in small areas of the canvas.
This brush shape is built for spreading paint evenly across the canvas, the end is square in shape, but slim in volume. So you can use it to create wide washes of colour, or rotate it 90° to create a thin line. You can cover a lot of ground quickly with a flat brush, it’s perfect for blocking in colour, creating washes or glazes.
The same shape as a flat brush, bright bristles are much shorter. This gives the artist more control when applying paint. If you are working on a textured surface, this brush shape is best for working the paint in to cover the whitespace, as the bristles will feel stiffer.
Due to the shorter length of the bristles, bright brushes can’t hold as much paint at flat bristles, so expect shorter strokes.
A filbert is like a wide round brush. The bristles are broad near the ferrule, but have a soft round tip. It is perfect for blending and creating glazes. This brush is best used with paint that’s on the more fluid side. A filbert with stiff bristles is useful for creating scumbles.
A rigger brush has long bristles and the tip tapers to a needle point. Because the bristles are so long, they absorb shakes from your hand and create a drag effect. This makes painting lines feel smoother and more precise.
A liner brush is a type of rigger brush, but in a smaller size. Rigger and liner brushes are designed for fine detail work and creating ultra thin lines. This type of brush is suitable for work with low viscosity paint.
Long bristles are wide and flat near the ferrule and taper to a dagger point at the tip. Variegate the pressure of your brush strokes to alter between thick and thin lines. Because the bristles are thick at the ferrule, the brush can hold a lot of paint. The consistency of the paint really needs to be ultra runny to work with this brush. This is the ultimate brush for creating ocean waves.
A swordliner is a type of dagger striper, but the bristles are longer and come to a thinner point.
A fan brush is a versatile addition to your paintbox. Use it with a light touch to create special effects and textures. You could use it to create the textures of leaves on the trees in the distance, of hair or feathers. If you apply more pressure, the bristles fuse together, making it a brilliant tool for blending.
This brush only usually comes made from very soft hair. It is a large round brush used for creating washes and blending. This brush is should be used with low viscosity paint. They carry a large amount of colour, but don’t have any spring, so avoid using them with stiffer acrylics.
This brush is flat with an angled tip. The tip of the brush makes working on rough surfaces feel smoother, allowing you to create clean lines. With the slanted edge you can paint some interesting textures, rotate the brush head while painting to create a natural look of water ripples and waves.
This is a large wide flat brush, that you might associate with wall painting and decorating. They’re incredibly cheap to buy and you can get them at any hardware store. A chip brush can be useful for varnishing, covering large areas of canvas.
What size brushes do you need?
Paint brush sizes range from around 5 inches to size 20/0 which tapers to a needle point.
The brush size you choose will depend upon whether you anticipate you will be painting in fine detail, or whether you want to create large washes that span the width of the canvas.
For medium and large scale work, get some brushes in a larger size, Liquitex make large synthetic brushes, see here.
The best acrylic brushes for fine detail
To paint in detail with acrylic, you want flexible bristles, that taper to a point, don’t splay easily, with a nice spring to them. The fibres of the bristles are just as important as the size of the brush you choose when approaching detail work.
This is because you’ll need to make your paint more fluid to spread small amounts finely over tiny sections of the surface. If the brush is too soft then it won’t hold much paint if it’s any more viscous than water. You can alter the viscosity with an acrylic paint medium.
Our product pick
Silver produces a range of ultra mini brushes perfect for tiny details. The synthetic taklon fibres are soft, so be sure to increase the fluidity of your paint with a medium. Silver’s round brushes go down to size 20/0. You can get their range of small brushes in a set, which includes a spotter and a liner brush.
How many paint brushes do you really need?
When you first start out, you’ll want to get a few different sizes and shapes to experiment with. Many artists swear by using only a few cheap brushes, while others will take pleasure in owning a range of quality tools. If you are going to be doing detailed work in your pieces or create glazes, you will need some extra brushes in small sizes and softer varieties. If your work is more abstract, you could get away with having just a few stiff brushes.
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