Paint Brushes ●
Bristle ●Hair ●Fiber
Until the later part of the 1600's,
European artist's brushes were made by the hand of the artist using
them. After this time, craftsmen started to create these tools for
the artists, freeing the artists to spend more time creating art.
Over the past three centuries the brush
makers and artists have worked together to create better and more
diverse brushes. As a result there are now a wide selection of
brushes with different shapes, sizes, and hair or fiber types.
We'll look at several types of brushes and
discuss their characteristics and intended uses. Although brushes have been developed all
over the world, we'll limit our discussion to western style brushes.
We'll also limit the types of western brushes to those used for oil and
Western brushes consists of six
primary parts: the tip, belly, and binding of the bristle/hair/fiber,
the ferrule, the crimp, the handle and handle adhesive.
The brush consists of bristles/hair/fiber
that is bundled together and tied before being placed into the ferrule
and glued to the handle with adhesive. Only about half of the
is exposed above the ferrule. The tip of the brush is the
most fragile part of the brush. With round brushes the tip should
come to a point. The tip is responsible for drawing up and
releasing the paint.
Below the tip is the belly. The
belly is the reservoir of the brush, where the paint is held.
Brushes created for liquid paints typically have larger bellies and can
hold more paint.
Beneath the belly is the ferrule,
which is typically metal and is often chrome, brass, in professional
brushes. In some cases the ferrule can even be gold in limited
edition high-end brushes. The ferrule provides the structural support
for the bristle/hair/fiber. Good quality ferrules are made out of
a single piece of metal and should not have a seam.
The ferrule is crimped onto the handle.
This crimp holds the ferrule onto the handle. Most
handles are made of hardwoods. Some exceptions are
watercolor brushes with acrylic handles. If the handle is wood, it
is typically painted to protect the handle from paints and liquids.
The only part of the handle not finished is the top where the
bristles/hairs/fibers are attached with adhesive. No finish is
applied in this area so that the adhesive may form a strong bond.
Although not applying a finish to the tip of the handle promotes a
strong bond with the adhesive it also leaves the wood susceptible to
damage by paint, solvent, or water if the brush is mishandled, such as
dipping the brush into water/solvent past the ferrule.
The ability of a paintbrush to hold and
transfer paint is a result of the capillary action created by the bundle
of brittles/hair/fiber and the surface area of the fibers. When
the brush is applied to a low viscosity liquid paint, such as water
color, the paint is drawn up into the belly of the brush by capillary
action. When tip of the brush is applied to the paper surface the
absorptivity of the paper and force of gravity pull the paint out of the
brush. As the viscosity of the ink increases and it becomes more paste
like, the paint no longer flows up into the belly on its own. It
must be "loaded". That is, the paint is drawn up into the belly of
the brush by pulling the paint up into the brush by physical
How much paint can be held in the
belly, the control with which the brush releases
the paint, and the ability of the brush to maintain its tip is a
reflection of the number of, size, and shape of scales on each hair,
which varies between species of animals and their environment.
The size of the belly and the length of
the handle vary depending upon the viscosity of the intended paint.
Watercolor brushes have fat bellies and short handles. Oil paint
brushes have narrow bellies and long handles. The difference in
the length of the handles is quite significant as illustrated in the
figure to the left. The image right illustrates the difference
between the slender belly of the oil round (a) with the fullness of the
belly of the watercolor brush( b).
Oil Paint Brushes
Brushes used in oil painting must contend with great
differences is the viscosity of the paint. That is, how easily or
difficult the paint flows onto the canvas. How the paint flows is
a result of many factors, but is chiefly a result of the combination of
the pigment/oil ratio of the paint, the medium used, and the surface of
the canvas/painting. Since oil paint can range from very stiff to
very fluid, different materials (bristles/hairs/fibers) are often used
to create brushes that can control the different viscosity paints.
in the process of painting, oil paints have less oil than they will in
later painting sessions (fat over lean) and the painting surface is
rougher at the start than it will be later in the process. This results is significant drag or resistance when the
brush is drawn across the canvas or board. As a result the brush
must have a head of bristles or hair that is fairly stiff so that it is
able to retain its shape and transfer the paint despite the resistance
of the thick paint. Most artists use a brush made of hog's
bristles for this purpose.
As more paint is applied to the surface
and if the painting is painted in layers, more oil is added to the paint
decreasing the stiffness of the paint, also mediums may be added further
changing the consistency. Additionally as more layers of paint are
applied to the canvas or board, the surface of the painting becomes
smoother. The result is less drag on the brush as the paint is
transferred to the painting. The paint no longer requires the
stiffness of the hog's bristles and other bristles/hairs/or fibers can
be used. If more detail is required artists often switch to a hair
that comes to tip such as sable.
For each bristle/hair/fiber type there are
different different sources (i.e., animals, geographic location, etc.)
that are considered more desirable than others due to their differing
characteristics. One significant problem with these different
sources is their nomenclature, that is how they are named and the lack
of stringency and regulation on whether the name actually describes the
hair in the brush. Luckily, with the exception of "sable" hair,
most large manufacturers are diligent in ensuring that the hair in the
brush is correctly reflected in its description.
The two most common materials for making
oil paint brushes are hog bristle and hair, typically sable or a blend
of sable and other hair or synthetic fiber.
Artists brushes made from pig, boar, or
hog's bristles are stiff and intended for use with very viscous paints
such a oils. The better bristles come from hogs found in the
colder regions of Asia. These hogs have longer and stronger
bristles than those found in more domesticated western countries.
Another and perhaps more important characteristic is abundant flagging.
Flagging is split ends found at the tips of fine bristles and
responsible for better paint transfer and control. The bristles are
boiled to remove some of the color and straighten the bristles.
the finest bristles come from the hogs found in the Chungking province
With some of the curve still left in the
bristles, the bristles can be aligned so that the bristles curve toward
the center of the brush. The result in called interlocked
and the brush will always maintain this shape and will have superior
control. The photograph to the right shows a filbert
(left) and flat (right) interlocked bristle brush.
Note how the bristles curve inward toward the center.
Excessive boiling creates very straight
and somewhat weaker bristles. These bristles are used to create
non-interlocked brushes which have the bristles pointing in all
different directions. These brushes are usually much less
expensive and lack the control found in interlocked brushes.
Bristle brushes come in various shapes and
sizes. The brush size is a relative designation and is not based on any
actual metric (numbered measurement such as inches). The only
exception is large flat brushes which are often given in inches.
a result, brushes that bear the same size designation, but are produced
by different manufacturers may not be the same actual size.
The round (a and c) is the
oldest style and was the only style available during most of oil
painting's history. Thus, it was the style brush used by
most of the masters. So what painting characteristics does this
brush have? The start and end of the stroke is a point with the stroke
widening with more pressure applied to the tip.
The filbert (b and d) is
essentially a flattened round and provides painting characteristics
similar to the round but with a broader stroke than the same size round
and even with a round two or three sizes larger. The figure above
illustrates the difference in shape and size found in a size 4 round (a)
and filbert (b) and size 6 round (c) and filbert (d).
The figure below shows a large interlocked
filbert (a, size 20), a large interlocked flat (b, size 20), and
close-ups of a medium sized filbert (c, size 10) and medium size bright
(d, size 10).
Flats have a sharp blunt
start and maintain a constant width during the stroke and ends with a
blunt lift. This brush is often used to paint buildings (as a
subject or actual) where a hard chisel edge is desirable.
The bright is similar to the
flat, but the length of the bristle is much shorter, only about half to
three-quarters as long. The stroke of the bright is the same as
the flat. The difference is in the execution. The bright is
much stiffer and provides more control. However the shortened length of
the bright holds less paint and therefore cannot create as long of a
stroke as the same size flat.
Another style is the brush fan (below). The bristle
version of this brush is often used as an "effects" brush and is used to
create texture or create foliage.
Artists brushes made from animal hair or
blends of animal hair and synthetic fiber are designed for use with low
viscosity oil paints such as those used when painting detail or glazes.
These brushes lack the stiffness to transfer stiff oil paints and can be
severely damaged if they are used for this purpose. Although the
quality of hair does typically not need to be as high as that used for
watercolor, the hairs should have excellent spring (the ability of the
hair to come back to its original position after being bent) and should
maintain a sharp point at its tip.
The most prized hairs used for artists
brushes come from the sable family. The term red sable was created
by trappers and refers to a family of animals as opposed to one
particular species. Here lies one problem in the naming process.
The term sable can refer to the kolinsky, the marten weasel, and the
Asian mink to name a few. It would be nice if the brush makers
used the scientific name, such as
for the Kolinsky, or the
for the marten weasel
since both are "red sables" (Steven Saitzyk, 1987).
The most highly prized hair used for both
watercolor and oil brushes is from the tail of the Siberian kolinsky's
winter coat. It's tail has long hairs
have excellent spring, holds a great deal of water and paint, and
releases the paint from the belly of the brush very consistently.
The color of the hair is light yellowish turning reddish and
darker toward the tips. The quality of these hairs are really only
needed for watercolor painting - at least in my opinion. The only
time that they might be needed in oil is for very detailed work with the
oil thinned out with lots of medium. However, I believe that the
red sable would do the job just as well.
I won't go into the background here, but
because of the cold war, trade restrictions, and over trapping, the
availability of true kolinsky sable has been an issue. In fact, the
original animal to hold the name, a
strain of mink that lived in the
Kola Peninsula in western Russia,
is almost extinct and no longer
used for its hair. Currently, the term "kolinsky" denotes the
Mustela siberica, found in northern Siberia (Steven Saitzyk,
As a result there have been numerous
instances of mislabeling in the brush world. However with the end
of the cold war, the availability of kolinsky hair seems to be
increasing, with some brush manufacturers offering a selection between
winter and summer and between male and female coats. This being
said, there are still a lot of "kolinsky" brushes that have hair that
range from red to black in color. The label for a kolinsky brush
typically read "pure kolinsky," "kolinsky," or "kolinsky sable"
and have hair as described above. One word of caution when
buying kolinsky brushes, since the hair is so expensive its not unusual
for unethical companies to bleach and dye weasel hair to make it look
like kolinsky. Remember to always try out a brush before buying it.
If a store won't let you try out a $100+ brush out with water, then shop
somewhere else. (image retrieved
Kolinsky and red sable are really the same
animal (most of the time), however the
brush makers reserve the term "Kolinsky" for the finest mink hair.
The label "red sable" generally indicates
that the hairs are not up to the same standards as the kolinsky,
typically due to differences
in climate that the animals are found in rather than differences in
species (Steven Saitzyk, 1987). So the short of it is, the
term "Kolinsky" is typically reserved for the better hair grown on the
minks in northern Siberia, while the term "red sable" is used for
seconds from the kolinsky brushes, the minks found in warmer climates
and/or the marten weasel or a combination of the three. Most
reputable manufacturers will tell you what constitutes their brush
hairs. After all these are still not inexpensive brushes and they
have pride in their work.
The hair of the red sable is similar to
the Kolinsky, but lacks some of the responsiveness, and spring. It
still comes to a sharp point like its cousin the Kolinsky (after all it
might be from the same species - just a different season pelt). It's
also typically less expensive, although the prices for these brushes can
easily reach $100. The hairs of this brush are reddish and darken
at the tip. (image retrieved
These brushes are often created from
various species of marten weasels and/or left over remnants from red
sable brush production and can vary tremendously in their
characteristics. (Steven Saitzyk, 1987).
A synthetic brush used for watercolor.
This brush fiber is found in the watercolor section.
Fitch comes from the polecat a relative of
the weasel with courser hair. The color ranges from a spotted gray
to black. Stiffer than a sable, but softer than a bristle, this
hair offers a good compromise between the two or a less expensive
alternative to sable. One word of caution, as with all other hairs
the quality of the brush depends upon the manufacturer and you often get
what you pay for. So be selective. I personally think that a
good fitch brush fits nicely between the soft sables and the stiff
bristles. It'll move paint like a bristle, but with control
similar to a sable.
Mongoose hair is similar to good Fitch
having similar characteristics Stiffer than a sable, but softer than a
bristle, this hair offers a good compromise between the two. The
tips of the hair are dark in color. The main source for mongoose
hair is India. I really like this brush as an intermediate between
the sable and bristle.
Size and Shapes
Like bristle brushes hair brushes come in
a wide range of shapes and sizes. The most popular are the rounds,
filberts, and flats.
The brush size is a relative designation
and is not based on any actual metric (numbered measurement such as
inches). As with the bristle brushes, brushes that bear the same
size designation, but are produced by different manufacturers may not be
the same actual size.
The filbert (b) is
essentially a flattened round and provides painting characteristics
similar to the round but with a broader stroke. Often sable
filberts (c) come to a fine point at the tip and are designated
as "cat tongues." Flats (d) have a
sharp blunt start and maintain a constant width during the stroke and
ends with a blunt lift. The bright (e) has the same on
canvas characteristics as the flat, but is stiffer and has more control.
As with the bristles the fan brush (f) is also available
in hair. However, the hair fan brush is used much differently than
the bristle fan. The sable fan is used as a blender and often o
manipulate direction of strokes to reduce glare.
Another type of hair brush is the
blender. These are generally large brushes and are used to
blend or fuse one color into another.
Artists brushes made from synthetic fiber
can be made either as replacements for bristle or hair brushes.
Synthetic fibers for artists brushes are monofilament fibers that have
been treated to create microscopic defects which attempt to replicate
the scales found on natural hair. This technique has improved
tremendously over the past three decades to the extent that good quality
synthetic "sable" brushes out perform the low end of natural red sable.
Middle and high end red sables and of course kolinsky still hold more
paint and come to finer points than their synthetic counterparts.
Although synthetic brushes generally only last a year or two compared to
the decades of the natural hair brush, the are relatively inexpensive to
replace. It's really up to the individual artists whether the synthetic
brush is a better fit for him/her.
When it comes to replacing the bristle
brush however, I have yet to find a synthetic that behaves as well as
the natural bristle. With the prices of the two almost the same, I
can't think of why one would select a synthetic over a natural bristle,
except for one characteristic. The synthetic "bristle" is softer
than the natural bristle which may provide an intermediate between the
natural bristle and sable.
Remember that the synthetic fiber brush
must be intended for use with oil paints. If you use one intended
for watercolors or acrylics you may end up melting the brush with
turpentine or mineral spirits.
Painting and Palette Knives
Although not actual painting brushes,
painting and palette knives are often used to create oil paintings.
The straight palette knife with a sharp diamond shape (a through
d) was designed for use on the
The straight edges are useful in scraping and manipulating the paint on
the flat surface of the palette.
The first two (a and b) have a straight
handle, while the second two (c and d) have an offset handle so that the
flat of the blade can be moved level with the surface while held at an
angle to the palette.
Although designed for use in mixing
paint with oil or medium on the palette surface, they can be used to
paint on the canvas. Other knives have rounded edges with the
blade being more of a raindrop shape (e and f). These knives are
also designed for mixing paint, but are often chosen over the diamond
shape knives for painting.
Knives labeled g and h are considered
painting knives and are exceptional in creating textures, sharp lines,
and hard edges.
Watercolor Paint Brushes
Brushes used in watercolor painting only has to
contend with the low viscosity of the paint. Therefore the
requirement for the stiffness of the oil brush is replaced with the need
to be able to hold and control the release of a fluid paint.
Additionally the oil in oil paints which helps to create and maintain a sharp
point is not present so the brush must maintain its shape on its own.
As a result, the quality or lack of quality is noticed more with
Kolinsky / red sable
As with oil, the most sought after hair
for watercolor brushes is the kolinsky followed
by the red sable. The
main difference between those brushes made for oil and watercolor is the
shorter length of the handle and the fuller belly of the watercolor
brush. The kolinsky and red sable brushes have superior
storage capacity, control, and spring than the other available hairs and
fibers. They also have a superior price tag. Luckily, if
they are properly cared for they can last for decades. One
warning. Never use watercolor Kolinsky brushes for oil.
These brushes have fuller bellies which not only make them more
expensive, but more susceptible to damage by oils. Additionally
the types of oils used in oil painting often stick to the surface of the
hair and change their ability to retain water. You'll ruin your
watercolor brush if you use it for any other medium.
Squirrel has superior storage capacity and
comes to a sharp point, but lacks the spring of the red sables.
It's good for washes.
squirrel from the former Soviet Union is considered to be the finest
squirrel hair having better spring. Blue squirrel is also praised
for its spring, second only to Kazan, but with a lower price tag.
(image retrieved from http://www.indeutsch.com/hair-types/sable-squirrel-goat-pammi.html)
I'll add more hairs when I get a chance,
but sable and squirrel are the most common.
have found success in use with watercolor brushes. They sometimes
have excessive spring and lack control, but recently have improved so
that they are comparable to some of the lower end red sables. In
fact, I know one artist (Mal Surrency) that prefers synthetics to his series seven
sables. What they may lack in control and longevity (approximately
2 years), they more than make up with their low price tag.
Synthetic fiber brushes are marketed under several different names
including those easily confused with natural hair such as "white sable,"
"golden fleece," and "golden sable."
Size and Shapes
Like oil brushes, watercolor brushes come
in a wide range of shapes and sizes. And like their oil paint
counterparts, there seems to be no absolute in their sizes. For larger
sizes, French brushes are typically thinner than English and American
brushes of the same size number. Some of the more common
shapes include the round (a , b, d), rigger (c), and flat (e). The
brush on the left (a) is a
while the rest are Kolinsky, although the photograph doesn't reflect
their true colors which are a yellow with slight red tint.
Rounds hold a great deal of
paint. The start and end of the stroke is a point with the stroke
widening with more pressure applied to the tip.
The rigger is used to
create long thin lines of uninterrupted paint. The rigger was
originally used by nautical draftsmen to paint the rigging lines (ropes)
of sailing ships on plans or technical drawings.
Flats are often used in
painting architectural elements where their hard edge start and end of
the stroke are useful in creating walls, windows, doors, etc. The
flat can also be used on its edge to create a sharp line of extended
Other brush shapes include mops
which are designed to supply great amounts of water and paint with
Steven Saitzyk, The Definitive Guide to
Artistsí Materials 1987