Painting & drawing blog
WHICH ARTISTS’ PAINTBRUSHES TO BUY
In this post I’m going to look at what makes a good artist’s paintbrush, and we’ll examine all the different hair and bristle options including hog, sable, synthetic hairs, or more exotic types such as badger and mongoose. I’ll discuss which sorts of brushes are suitable for oil, acrylic or watercolour paint and how you can avoid using animal hairs if you want to.
Before we begin let’s take a look at the component parts of a paintbrush and learn a few useful terms. The ‘head’ of the brush is the part that is formed by the bristles or hairs (only hog, boar and pig hairs are known as bristles). The fattest part of the head which is nearest the metal ‘ferrule’ is known as the ‘belly’. The shape of the belly depends on the shape of the individual hairs or bristles that the head is made with, and whether those hairs have a natural taper. This affects whether the brush can hold a greater or smaller ‘reservoir’ of paint, as a fatter belly will allow you to pick up and apply more paint with each stroke.
The shorter the hairs or bristles that form the head, the greater the control you’ll have as you paint. Longer hairs are harder to control, but you’ll be able to make more expressive marks with them.
Your degree of control is also affected by the length of the wooden or acrylic handle. Oil or acrylic painters working on large canvases are most likely to prefer longer handles as they allow you to see your painting from further away as you work and get a better overview of it. For more finely detailed work, choose a short handled brush which will feel lighter and easier to control.
Brushes are sized in a numerical scale from the tiniest ‘000’ brush to around a size ’12’. There’s no industry standard for the width and length of the head of the brush, so for example a size ‘2’ paintbrush from one manufacturer’s range may be a different length to a size ‘2’ from another.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD PAINTBRUSH?
The brush head:
- This should be made by lining up the hairs at the tip, rather than chopping them to create the required shape at the end (this cheap type of trimmed brush is known as a ‘blunt’)
- It should be made with long enough hairs so that they can sit well into the ferrule where they are glued, and not fall out.
- For a brush with a round head, the hairs or bristles should come to a fine point and should retain this point when wet.
- After being pressed down, the point should ‘snap’ back into place with a degree of elasticity.
- The head should both hold a good reservoir of paint in the belly and deposit the paint easily, allowing you to make flowing, gestural strokes
- The hairs or bristles should be strong enough to easily manipulate the type of paint that is its designed for, and durable in the long term (hairs not becoming easily damaged)
The ferrule and handle:
- The ferrule should have a seamless seal, to prevent liquid seeping into the handle
- The bristles or hairs should be well glued and then the ferrule should be deeply crimped to the handle. You can see that the brush in the diagram above has two indentations to the ferrule where it has been tightly crimped.
- The ferrule should be rust-proof, by coating it in something like a brass or copper alloy.
- The handle should be smooth and well coated with layers of primer and paint
How can you tell whether any brush has these qualities? It can be difficult to assess when you’re in an art shop and can’t try a brush out to see how it handles, although you can try pressing it on a surface to see if the tip springs back well. Better made brushes will always be more expensive because they are so labour-intensive to manufacture, and so price is a fairly reliable guide to how well your brush has been made and from what quality of materials. Buying online can help because the retailer will usually provide a lot of marketing information about the particular qualities of their brushes.
Natural vs synthetic hairs
What makes animal hairs so good for making paintbrushes? Most natural hairs have taper towards their tip, and some highly prized varieties also have a natural ‘belly’, meaning that they are fatter in the middle and taper towards both tip and base. This helps them to soak up a greater amount of paint and deposit it smoothly. Animal hairs also have microscopic scales and cavities along their shafts which make them very absorbent.
Synthetic hairs and ‘bristles’ are made from polyester filaments. When first introduced synthetic hair filaments were simply straight-sided smooth cylinders with no shaping, and did not carry paint very effectively. Some of the cheapest synthetic brushes will still be made from hairs like this. These days however the best synthetic hairs are cleverly designed to mimic the qualities of different animal hairs, with tapering along the shaft and tiny cavities in the filament’s surface.
The technology of synthetic brushes is constantly improving. Depending on the type of animal hair they are intended to imitate they may also have qualities such as ‘flagged’, or split ends (like hog hair), hollows in the shaft (like mongoose hair) or a wave (similar to squirrel, badger and goat hairs). High quality synthetic brushes for oil painting may be made with curved filaments and arranged in an interlocking pattern just like a good hog bristle brush.
DIFFERENT PAINTBRUSH HAIRS AND BRISTLES
It can be difficult to work out which kinds of brushes are suitable for the type of painting you want to do. Sometimes a range will be specifically described as being suitable for oils, acrylics or watercolours, but other times it won’t be clear. Furthermore even if a paintbrush is described as an ‘acrylic brush’ or a ‘watercolour brush’ for example, this is only a suggestion by the manufacturer for which medium it may be the most ideally suited to. It doesn’t mean you can’t use it for types of paint.
Most brush ranges will use hairs or bristles from the same source for all their brushes, but sometimes different brushes may use different hair types. For example you might find a range using squirrel hair to make their ‘mop’ brushes but synthetic hair for their ‘flat’ brushes (you can read more on brush head shapes here). Sometimes a single brush can contain hairs of more than one type, often for the purposes of saving on manufacturing costs by mixing expensive hairs with cheaper ones. Others may combine different hairs for a brush that can create particular effects. For instance a ‘stipple’ brush mixes hard and soft hairs from different animals to make a brush that helps you paint a stippled texture.
Let’s summarise the types of brushes that may be suitable for for the different painting mediums:
Oil paint is the thickest type of paint and requires a strong brush. The classic brush for oil painting is made from hog hair, but some stiff synthetic bristle brushes are also available. Softer synthetic brushes designed for acrylic paint including imitation mongoose are good options for fine details or glazing, as are natural ox, black hog or black sable hairs.
There are many synthetic ‘Acrylic’ brushes aimed at acrylic painters which are softer than hog hair but stronger than the natural sable hairs used for watercolour brushes. Not only is acrylic paint thinner than oil paint making a very stiff hog brush unnecessary, but hog bristles go soggy when used with water-based paint as they absorb water very easily, making them a bad choice for working in acrylics. Imitation Mongoose brushes have a good texture for working with acrylic paint. Some people use natural sable brushes for fine details but they are very delicate and wear out quickly when used with anything other than watercolour paint.
WATERCOLOUR AND GOUACHE:
The best brushes for these mediums are sable (or Kolinsky sable) brushes, or synthetic watercolour brushes that mimic these types of soft animal hair. Squirrel and badger hairs are used for making mop (wash) brushes for watercolour because they are so soft and carry a large reservoir of paint.
Finally, let’s now look at all the different hair types:
Hog hair bristles come from the ears of the hog. A real hog brush is easy to identify as the stiff, coarse bristles are a bleached creamy white in colour. They have a naturally curving shaft and split or ‘flagged’ ends that hold paint well and deliver it consistently. The best hog hair is said to come from a wild hog, and the most highly prized hog hair comes from Chunking in China. Hog brushes are intended for oil painting, because oil is the stiffest, strongest type of paint and requires thick bristles to manipulate it.
The hairs in a hog brush will often be boiled to soften or entirely remove their natural curve. However some premium ranges will not boil them and instead will ‘interlock’ the bristles with the curves facing inwards towards each other, to give maximum strength and allow them to spread the paint smoothly.
You wouldn’t use hog brushes for watercolour painting. Some people do use them for working in acrylics but since hog hair is impervious to oil but soaks up water easily, you’ll find that they become a bit soggy and limp. If you are using water-mixable oils instead of traditional oil paints you’ll experience the same problem with hog hair, and it would be better to use synthetic bristles. Winsor & Newton make a synthetic brush range for use with water soluble oils as part of their ‘Artisan’ range for water-mixable oil painting.
Synthetic brushes for oil or acrylic painting
Hog hair is a difficult hair to replicate synthetically, due to its tough springiness and those flagged ends which require a heavy gauge of fibres to imitate. However there are quite a few synthetic brushes aimed specifically at oil painters, which are made with particularly thick polyester bristles. In my experience though, nothing is quite as stiff and strong as a natural hog brush.
Softer synthetic brushes which are marketed for acrylic painting are also perfectly suitable for doing finer details or glazing layers in oils unless your paint is very thick. When choosing a synthetic brush for use with either oils or acrylics, avoid anything called a ‘student’ or ‘graduate’ level brush because it won’t imitate an animal hair very successfully and therefore will carry a poor reservoir.
Mongoose and Imitation Mongoose
When painting in oils, you may not want to use very stiff hog brushes all of the time. For blending, glazing and detailed work many oil painters prefer to use slightly softer brushes but still require something with enough strength and spring to manipulate the oil paint. Mongoose was a traditionally a popular choice for oil painting due to its tough, pointed and springy hairs. Mongoose brushes are still found today but are now very controversial due to the mongoose’s status as an endangered animal.
Several companies have developed ’synthetic mongoose’ ranges which mimic the look and feel of mongoose hair and are suitable for both oil and acrylic painting. Some are actually made from a blend of synthetic and animal hairs, but will not usually contain any true mongoose. Winsor & Newton’s imitation mongoose ‘Monarch’ range is entirely synthetic.
Badger hair is cheaper than natural mongoose and was another type of hair traditionally used for oil painting. It is a coarse but soft and ‘bushy’ looking hair due to its shaft which is thick at the base. You wouldn’t be likely find an entire range of badger brushes in different shapes, but you will often see badger hair used to make brushes designed for blending, stippling or creating texture. It is suitable for use with all types of paint.
Ox hair brushes are made from hairs taken from the ear of the ox. They are semi-soft brushes that have traditionally been used for many different mediums including oil, watercolour and tempera painting. The hairs are absorbent, long, springy and inexpensive. They are considered inferior to ‘sable’ brushes because they don’t have a fine point at the tip. You’d be unlikely to see a whole range of ox hair brushes in an art store, except where they are being passed off as cheap sable.
‘Kolinsky Sable’ brushes
The world of ‘sable’ brushes is a confusing one! They are named after a species of animal called the Sable Marten. However the term may be used to denote any type of ‘mustelid’, which is a family that includes weasels, martens, and minks.
The most famous and expensive type of watercolour brush is the ‘Kolinsky sable’, or ‘Kolinsky red sable’. These exalted hairs come from the winter pelt of the male Siberian Kolinsky mink, which grow thick and long due to the cold climate. The hairs have a wide belly but taper at both ends to a very fine point and this allows the brush to carry an excellent reservoir. Very fine cuticles along the shaft add to the large carrying capacity. Kolinsky hairs are very strong, maintain a sharp point even when wet and snap back beautifully.
The Kolinsky won’t breed in captivity and must be specially trapped, explaining the very high cost of their hairs. However the name is frequently mis-used and the hair in many ‘Kolinsky’ brushes comes not from these very specific hairs but from different parts of their pelts: from their summer coats, from the tail, or from the female animal. These hairs do not have the same qualities, and can be thin and kinked. Red sable hair (see below) is quite often passed off as ‘Kolinsky’ and though it may be of very good quality, it is not the same thing.
The Siberian Kolinsky also lives in northern China and Korea. The best hairs come from the Russian animal because it lives the furthest north, but Russia restricts trade in the Siberian Kolinksy. A company called Da Vinci still sell incredibly expensive brushes made from the Russian Kolinsky, but other ranges are likely to be made with Siberian Kolinsky hair from China or Korea. Price is probably your best guide to identifying true Siberian Kolinsky brushes: unless they are in the very top price bracket they are likely made from inferior hairs of some description.
Sable/Red Sable brushes
Red sable is a term used to denote both the weasel and the Asian mink, but it can also be used to describe the ‘seconds’ from Kolinsky hairs . Red sable hairs are slightly shorter and thinner than Kolinsky hairs, but the best quality red sable can still make a very good brush for watercolour painting. Like Kolinsky hairs they taper at each end, giving an excellent reservoir.
‘Sable’ or ‘Brown sable’ brushes are made from hairs from the marten, and are generally of lower quality. You may also come across something called ‘White sable’ or ‘Golden sable’ but these are actually synthetic brushes.
The strongest type of sable brushes are ‘black sables’ which are made from the pelt of the Russian polecat, a type of weasel. You sometimes find these marketed as oil brushes for fine work and blending. They have good reservoir capacity and suited for use in a range of mediums.
Another name for the Russian polecat is the ‘Fitch’ and this name tends to be applied to lesser quality black sable. Confusingly, you’ll sometimes also come across a brush called the ‘Hog Fitch’ which is made not from polecat hairs but from hog bristles. This is because the name ‘fitch’ also seems to have become associated with certain brush shapes, whatever they are made from. ‘Liner fitches’ for example are popularly used by decorators and have a funny flat shape with a rectangular ferrule. Sometimes cheap round hog brushes are also called fitches.
Synthetic and part-synthetic ‘Watercolour’ brushes
Sable brushes are very expensive, and if you can’t afford them or object to them on ethical grounds, you can buy very decent synthetic brushes which mimic their qualities. Some ranges mix artificial hair with a small amount of sable as a mid-price alternative.
Squirrel hair is often used to make watercolour ‘Mop’ or ‘Wash’ brushes. The hairs are exceptionally soft, thin and pointed but have little spring. Therefore squirrel hairs aren’t suitable for all brush shapes but they carry colour excellently, making them very good for wash brushes.
Goat/Black Goat/White Goat
Goat hair is long, coarse, and quite limp. The best grades of goat hair can make a good substitute for squirrel hair in Mop and Wash brushes. Cheap goat hair makes poor quality, rather floppy brushes and is often used to make cheap watercolour brushes for children.
‘Pony’ brushes are actually made from the hairs of mature horses. They are another very cheap hair and are used to make soft, inexpensive watercolour brushes. They don’t hold their point well.