Mink, Squirrel and Pig
This may sound like the beginnings of a fairy-tale but it’s a quick and easy way to think about brushes. Most traditional 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 makes ‘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, which hair is best for which medium.
- Sable (Mink) is soft, holds loads of water and 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! Most manufacturers make sable brushes with a short handle because artists mostly use them for watercolour on the flat, no poked eyes here!
Pro Tip: There are some specialist brush manufacturers that give you the choice of a long or short handle.
- 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 synthetic 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 nylon 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.
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 sables, are their ability to hold a lot of water in the ‘belly’ of the brush.
What shape do I use?
- Rounds are commonly used for watercolours because the fine point allows precision work and 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 use filberts in 90% of my paintings.
As a general rule of thumb, I use:
- A square-tipped flat 2-inch decorators brush for applying a coloured ground to my canvas.
- A medium sized synthetic blend filbert shaped brush for most of the painting
- A small round brush for details.
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.
How does brush sizing work and where do you start?
Selecting the right painting brush size can be very tricky as every manufacturer’s sizes are different. There isn’t a universal sizing system, so a size 10 in one brand can be completely different from a size 10 in another brand.
Confused? Here is a quick painting brush guide to keep in mind next time you visit the art store:
- All brushes increase in size depending on the number, so a size 14 will always be larger than a size 12, whatever the brand.
- There are other numbers on the brushes that indicate the series number (often abbreviated to SER). This is usually 4 digits long, for example: SER 6474. This helps to identify a brush correctly when ordering.
- Brushes can come in short and long handles. Short handles are best for detailed work or painting on the flat. Longer handles are best if you intend to stand at the easel.
- The longer the length of bristle, the more flex there is in the brush. A short length of brush hair will appear to be much stiffer and coarser than a longer length– even if the bristle is the same softness of hair. This length is called the ‘length out’ and a long length out was favored by the Old Masters.
Pro tip: When you are next in the art store, flick your thumb from left to right over the edge of the brush. This will give you a feel for the ‘snap’ of the brush. The brush will ‘crack’ when you first flick it, this is the gum arabic that has been used to set the head. It’s advisable to rinse the new brush before use to remove any excess gum arabic.
So the ultimate question is, which size should I buy?
I tend to go by the width of the brush and the length of the bristles, rather than the size or number.
To get started with a small acrylic paintings or oil painting art piece (under A3), I would recommend:
- Round brush 6mm – 7mm in width with a 25mm length out.
- Filbert brush 10mm in width with a 16mm – 20mm length out.
Of course, to find the perfect brush for each person can take a little while but this should point you in the right direction.
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:
1. How to choose a basic beginner acrylic palette
2. The 8 key differences between student grade & artist quality paint
3. Getting Started: Choosing a Painting Surface for Acrylics – Getting your Absorbency Right