A Painter’s Guide to Brush Shapes

For several centuries, brushes could only be round due to their construction being based on the quill of a feather. However, once metal ferrules were introduced in the 19th century, brushes could be produced in various shapes, most notably, the flat and the filbert. The Impressionists embraced this new development in brush making and turned the art world on its head with the new mark-making options that the new shapes offered.

Today, there are many different shapes – some more necessary than others – but the round, flat and filbert remain the most essential types.

Round brushes

Ask people to draw an artist’s paint brush and most will probably draw a round brush – a slender handle with a fat, round head tapering to a fine point.

A sable round brush

A hog bristle round brush

Part of the reason for this is that, for several centuries, brush-making technology was based on the quill and, in using a tube as the starting point of the construction, Round brushes were all that could be produced. Even today, with a whole host of brush shapes available, the round is the one that you’re likely to be given as a child in your first paint set and the brush type that will be supplied with more advanced sets.

A round can be used in a number of ways such as to fill, to draw, to apply washes, to spot on small amounts of colour from the tip or produce a thin line for detail and varying thick to thin marks by drawing the brush away from the surface.

Varying pressure on the brush head produces tapered marks

Water-carrying properties of a Sable Brush

Also useful for filling in larger areas.

Flat brushes

A Flat Brush has a row of hair clamped flat in the ferrule and trimmed square across the top edge to create a rectangular brush head.

A long flat hog brush

A short flat synthetic brush

There are two-types of flat brush – a long flat with quite long hair protruding from the ferrule and a short flat, otherwise known as a bright, which has shorter hair. The long flat carries more paint and, because of the longer hair, has flexibility for more flourished marks.

The bright, with its shorter hair, is more suited to ‘dabbing’ marks such as used by the Impressionists, offers more control for detail and can withstand being ‘scrubbed’ into the surface.

There are two things to note about flats. One is that there are no standard brush sizes so one manufacturer’s long flat may be very similar to another’s short flat and the other is that the ‘Short’ and ‘Long’ title in no way refers to the length of the handle – it just describes the brush head.

When choosing a flat, look at the brush head and compare the width of the brush to the length of hair to enable you to judge whether the range suits your style of painting.

Filbert brushes

A Filbert is a flat brush with the hair rounded into an oval at the tip. It is probably the most versatile of the brush shapes and a staple of oil and acrylic painting.

A filbert brush with synthetic fibres

The filbert gets its name from its supposed resemblance to the nut of the filbert tree – a type of hazlenut – which in turn gets its name from Saint Philibert on whose feast day the ripening of the nut coincides. However, based on shape, I think a more fitting title should have been ‘tombstone’.

The main brush stroke produced is broad but with a soft, subtle top line allowing marks to instantly blend with previously laid down marks. Turned on its side, it can produce a thin line or, when swivelled in mid stroke, gives a tapered line. Its versatility makes it a very popular shape and most artists working in oil or acrylic will certainly have a number of filberts – if not just the one essential one – in their brush collection.

Fan brushes

As can be expected, this brush is in the shape of an open fan and used for blending and making marks to resemble foliage in landscapes.

Dabbed marks with a fan can suggest foliage, fur, waves or clouds …

… but is especially useful to blend colours or to smooth brush strokes.

Rigger brushes

A round with far longer hair than a standard round for painting fine lines. The longer hair allows the hand to hold the brush nearer the brush head for better control and absorbs any hand shake as the brush is steadily moved across the surface.

Perfect for fine linework

Spotter brushes

A round where the hair has been clamped in the ferrule around the belly of the brush head to shorten the hair for a more controllable mark due to its flexibility being limited.

Next to the marks of a round brush, it is possible to see the very fine detail a spotter or miniature can achieve.

Angled flat brushes

A flat where the hair or fibres have been cut at an angle across the top edge to paint lines and edges particularly vertical lines.

The angled flat can produce thick and thin marks rather like a calligraphy nib.

Deerfoot brushes

This is a round that appears to have been cut in half at a slight slant and can be used to stipple to effect foliage or just to give texture.

The stippled marks of the deerfoot brush create a textural look.

Comb brushes

Name given to any type of brush that has varying lengths of hair so that tufts of hair protruding from the others make repeated little marks to produce the look of foliage or fur. Combs are available as flats, filberts or fans – as above.

This flat comb demonstrates how the small marks that the protruding tufts make gives the impression of fur.

The comb produces many small marks in one stroke.