Mink, Squirrel and Pig
That’s it, that’s all you have to remember to understand brushes… oh okay I’ll tell you a bit more.
This may sound like the beginnings of a fairytale but it’s a quick and easy way to think about brushes. Most brushes are made from animal hair and the quality of the brush; its bounce and feel is dependent on the quality of the hair used.
Mink hair makes ‘Sable’ brushes and pig hair make ‘hog’ brushes…
Are you matching the right brush to the right medium?
By thinking which of the three animals have a softer tail, you will understand one of the most important things about brushes and that is which brush is best for which paint.
- Sable (Mink) is soft, holds loads of water but has a great spring making it ideal for Watercolour, also for fine finishing with oils. It returns to its natural point after use.
These are the most expensive brushes due to the rarity of the hair, pound for pound it’s more expensive than gold! Usually, it would be available in a short handle because you usually work with watercolour on the flat, no poked eyes here!
- Squirrel is super soft, holds a lot of water and has some spring. Due to the longer length of squirrel hair it’s great for big watercolour washes. It returns to its natural point when dipped in water. This is priced much more reasonably. Again, usually available in a short handle.
- Hog (Pig) is a lot stiffer, holds little moisture but has strength and resilience. It’s great to stand up to the thinners used in oil painting and also great for moving thick paint around the canvas.
As these are generally used with oils they tend to have long handles allowing you to work upright at an easel and stand away from the painting.
- Synthetic the vast majority of these brushes are a blend of synthetic bristles and natural hair (Mink, Squirrel or Pig). This enables the manufacturer to produce a good priced, fine tuned commercial brush perfect for beginners.
For painters who object to using animal hair, there are pure synthetic brushes available. For Watercolours you’d notice a big difference between natural hair and synthetic because they just don’t hold enough water but maybe useful for the larger washes, however, for Acrylics and Oils these can be fantastic and a good alternative to pure natural hair. They come in both long and short handles depending on the medium you want to work with.
How much do brushes cost?
No.8 Sable – £87.00 (Winsor and Newton series 7)
No.8 Squirrel – £42.99
No.8 Synthetic Sable Blend – £10.20
No.8 Synthetic Pure – £8.50
No.8 Hog – £7.50
The tone is in your fingers
You could have the most expensive Kolinsky sable brush available but if you use it to scrub in the under painting of your oil painting the brush will be ruined in no time and it will be very hard to move the thick paint around. It’s like trying to mix custard with a piece of paper. The custard won’t move easily, the paper will get wet and disintegrate.
The same thing would happen, albeit at a slower rate, to your brush. If you try attacking a watercolour scene with a pig brush ‘hog’ you’re destined for trouble.
You’ll run out of water in your first stroke. The joy of natural brushes especially sable are their ability to hold a lot of water in the ‘belly’ of the brush.
What shape do I use?
- Rounds are used 90% for watercolours because the fine point allows precision work but the belly of the brush holds enough water that you can still paint quite large areas.
- Flats are good for blocking in and large areas of colour, usually oils and acrylics but in watercolour there is an equivalent called a one stroke.
- Filberts are just great for oils and acrylic. They have a feathered top to them so are great for blending and can be used to block in areas as well as detail work for portraits I’d use 90% filberts.
As a general rule of thumb if I could only buy one brush for each paint type, it would be a Round for a watercolour, Flat for acrylic and a Filbert for oil.
I love my brushes, in fact, it is astonishing how attached I can get to them. I haven’t started sleeping with them under my pillow but I do get slightly edgy if I misplace one.
There’s something about an old brush that remembers how you work, how much pressure you put on the canvas if you’re scratchy or have a feather touch.
Of course, to find the perfect brush for each person can take a little while.
In the video below I assess the different qualities of choosing a brush for painting an acrylic landscape painting.
Below are a few articles to point you in the right direction: