Natural Brushes or Synthetic Brushes:  What’s the difference?

Natural Brushes or Synthetic Brushes: What’s the difference?

Natural Brushes or Synthetic Brushes: What’s the difference?

When it comes to paint brushes, some artists prefer to paint with natural bristles and others prefer synthetics. What’s the difference? Does it even matter? Are you fancy enough to care? Do you have to be fancy to care? Let’s explore the features and benefits of each type of paint brush to determine which is right for your artistic purposes. Before we delve into the finer points of brushes that are specific to creating artwork, let’s define the terms “natural” and “synthetic.”

Natural Paint Brushes
An easy way to think of and remember the properties of natural vs. synthetic brushes might be to think about and compare them to clothing. Natural fibers include wool, silk, cotton, and flax (linen). So, all those fabrics you aren’t supposed to put in the dryer or are supposed to have dry cleaned? With the exception of cotton and maybe linen, natural fibers are typically delicate and require special care to maintain their shape and size. The same goes for paint brushes—natural brushes need special treatment but perform so exceptionally well that there’s a whole type of faux product that mimics their every property.

Trekell Natural Hair Brushes:

Artist: Elizabeth Zanzinger

Synthetic Paint Brushes
Synthetics are made to act like natural fibers without all the special care involved and are easily mass-produced, less expensive and require a lot less special care than their natural counterparts. Think:  polyester, spandex, lycra, rayon, acrylic, nylon, etc. The drawback of synthetic fibers is that unlike wool, silk, linen, or cotton, they usually can’t be exposed to super high heat and harsh solvents or they’ll melt and curl at the tips.

Trekell Synthetic Brushes:

Artist: Lola Gil

Let’s compare:
Natural brushes can be used with basically any type of paint except acrylics which may damage the delicate hairs. What kind of hair even is in natural brushes? Sable, hog, squirrel, badger, ox, pony, etc. are common animal hairs used in natural paintbrushes. So, yeah--vermin, hogs, cows, and horses all contribute to artwork if one is going the natural brush route. Synthetics, on the other hand, simply attempt to mimic the properties of natural animal hair brushes. Much like clothing fibers--a rayon acts like cotton, polyester can act like silk, and while the natural hair can never be duplicated, it can certainly be replicated to the point that one can paint just as well with a faux hair brush as one can with the “real” thing.

How do you choose?
First, you’ll want to consider your medium. Do you typically paint with oils, watercolors, or acrylics? Next, you’ll want to think about your level of expertise and what you wish to accomplish when painting. Are you a beginner, and simply want to begin creating art for fun? Or are you interested in becoming a more advanced artist and want to achieve the best possible level of detail? Also, what is your budget? Do you paint infrequently and are looking for the best bang for your buck, or do you expect your brushes to last for years? These are all concerns that will shape your decision when choosing natural or synthetic brushes with which to paint your masterpiece.

So, let’s have one of those recaps we all know and love:

Natural brushes:
  • work well with oil paints –oil conditions the bristles or hairs making them more pliable
  • work well with watercolors—really soak up water and redistribute onto canvas
  • are not super compatible with acrylics
  • tend to hold shape well-good shape retention
  • are more expensive
  • can become damaged by acrylic paints
  • tend to leave brushstroke marks—can be good or bad depending on your intent
  • animal rights and other environmental sustainability issues may be a concern for you

Synthetic brushes:

  • are made of nylon or polyester or mix of both
  • are budget-friendly
  • work well with acrylics, oils and watercolors
  • tend to hold and release a lot more paint
  • splay more easily/faster
  • leave a smoother finish, and few to no brush marks
  • don’t exploit animals
  • are good for all levels of expertise

Let’s paint!
No matter where you are on the spectrum of beginner to expert painter, it’s always important to use the right tools to achieve the best results. Learning about the tools of your trade is key for those who really want to hone their skills and get serious about their creativity. If you’re becoming serious about your artwork or if you plan to maintain a very casual relationship with anything art-related, make sure you are equipped with the right tools for the job.


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