Brushing up on the facts

By Sarah Thomas, The French Art Shop

Little is known about the first artist paintbrushes, though the earliest records point to 2000 BC when Chinese had the idea to insert natural hairs into bamboo to write Ideograms. In France before becoming commercially available, artists made their own brushes and paints.

In the mid 18th century the metal ferrule was invented leading to the first brush workshops opening. France led the way in brush manufacturing for many years, later Germans travelled to learn the technology and thus the knowledge spread.

A scrupulous respect for tradition is still the guiding principle, and the finest quality brushes are shaped and knotted entirely by hand by highly skilled “pincelieres”. These craftspeople receive long and rigorous training taking up to 6 years before fully mastering the manufacture of a sable paintbrush. The Pincelieres are usually women due to the need for sensitivity and precision of the fingers! The brush shape is created with regard to the “flag” (tip of the fibre) and the “belly” (about 2/3 down from the flag). Only the “root” of the hairs is cut, allowing the ferrule to be fitted.

Extra fine hairs make the best watercolour brushes and are treasures passed down from one generation to the next. The Capillarity (capacity of colour absorption) is greater in fibres with accentuated taper and belly. The hair type is chosen for its intrinsic qualities; squirrel hair is the finest, producing an excellent point, whilst kolinsky sable which is almost as valuable as gold, is well known for its softness and resilience.

ARTISTS ON BRUSHES: Artists tell about their preferences and experiences with brushes

George Thompson:

My immediate response was overwhelmingly in favour of fine sable brushes but upon reflection I found that I actually reserved my best Kolinsky sable brushes for certain more important areas of a painting and used any manner of tools to apply washes and colour as I saw fit. Mostly natural hair, mops and squirrel/camel and a mixture of synthetic and natural hair, sponges, rag etc. etc.

It is easy to contend that the most expensive equipment must be superior. However manufacturers are continually improving the performance of synthetic brushes to the degree it is difficult to determine any difference in performance.

Natural hair has "scales" and it is the scales that reputedly retain more water, yet new synthetic brushes are sometimes a mixture of synthetic and natural fibres and exceedingly good at retaining bounce, point and water.

Cost is an overriding consideration for most of us. The price difference between brushes made from the diminishing resource of long hairs from the male tail of a Kolinsky sable animal and a competent synthetic brush can be hundreds of dollars. Despite cost constraints the use of the best materials will enhance the experience of watercolour painting. There is little point in attempting to create a fine painting using cheap materials. Keep cheap papers, brushes and pigments for practicing. Like anything of value the best materials make the task easier and more rewarding and make the pricing of your paintings more justifiable. If you can afford to include a few top quality natural hair brushes in your kit do not deny yourself the experience of using the best. Your work will take on a new dimension. And it may not necessarily be from the perceived greater benefits of an expensive natural hair brush but from the added confidence you will gain from using the best.

Look for specials and special promotions. Treat yourself to the best and create better paintings forthwith.

Nancy Tichborne:

When considering a new brush, it is important to realise that there are very good and very poor animal hair ones - it is not always the ideal fibre. And I include in this the so-called ultimate - sable. Likewise it should be said that synthetic brushes can be either brilliant or useless. Consideration of other factors is probably more important and this is where personal likes and dislikes dictates one‟s choice.

First of all (for me anyway) the resilience or „bounce back‟ should be tested with water in the shop. I dislike floppy fibre that won‟t spring back! Trying it out also shows whether the brush has a good point or not.

Secondly the reservoir capability is important - the more liquid it can hold the better. This goes for all sizes of brushes. Going backwards and forwards too often from your water jar is distracting. For me a long reservoir in a brush is far better than a short, fat one.

Size and shape come next - most artists have a variety of brushes with possibly more than they really need. Let‟s face it, we all have our constant favourites. Mine is a size 14 round one. Made in the USA by Robert Simmons and of unknown fibre - I'd guess a mixture of animal and synthetic. This has lasted me for 20 or more years and only recently has the fine point worn out.

Unfortunately it is no longer available in New Zealand, so I‟m in the process of shopping around, discovering to my relief that I don't like the most expensive sable ones! Too soft, not long enough and I wonder about their long-term durability. Time will tell as to which of the other new purchases I will reach for on a constant basis.

Synthetic, sable or a mixture… To me it doesn't matter which so long as they fulfil the criteria I've outlined above. I use the Robert Simmons (USA) "Series 86" RS brushes. These are a mix of sable and synthetic. I use a size 14 for 90% of my work - although this is a big brush, it has a fine point and a good reservoir (i.e. water holding capacity). I can paint anything from a cat's whisker up with this brush... I have had one brush for over ten years and still uses it. There are paintings I painted entirely with one brush. My trusty round size 14 Robert Simmons.

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