For a serious painter, choosing brushes can be vexing. When I began to paint, I mostly used brushes that were made of animal hairs--hog bristles and others. There are quite a few different kinds, including true sable hair (from an Asian marten), "red sable" (from the kolinsky, or Siberian weasel and other red-haired animals), fitch (an animal related to ferrets), mongoose, even squirrel and camel. Artificial hair brushes were available then but were relatively expensive in comparison. In the subsequent decades, synthetic fibers have become a significant part of the artist's tool kit as well. Synthetic brushes have been produced from nylon, polyester, acrylic and other compounds, and today they are often less expensive than natural hair. Over the years, my experience is that information about brushes for artists has been spotty, contradictory, and therefore confusing. This post is intended to set down what I know about how to choose, use, and maintain brushes and to discover the most accurate information available.
|Hog bristle brushes|
Artist brushes may be manufactured by machine or by hand. Several companies employ master brushmakers who make their top-of-the-line brushes by hand, using a process called cupping (or stacking, which is slightly different). Depending on the intended final size and shape of the brush, a metal cup is selected that will hold a tuft of hair or fiber. The fibers are placed in the cup, tapped into place, and then transferred to the ferrule which will hold them and glued together from inside. When dry, the hair and ferrule assembly is matched to a handle, with or without glue to strengthen the bond, and then the ferrule is crimped to the handle.
Natural fiber brushes are still the most favored kind by many painters. In general, oil painters use hog bristle brushes and red sable brushes; watercolorists may use true sable brushes (expensive) red sable (less money), mongoose, or squirrel for their soft yet springy action. Acrylic painters are probably best served by synthetic brushes, although I have personally used natural hog bristle brushes with acrylic paint without difficulty.
Hog bristle brushes are naturally quite stiff and resilient--new brushes spring back into shape nicely after being deformed--and are used mostly for oil painting. Hog bristles are naturally colored but are bleached white when used in brushes. These are best quality when their tips are "flagged," meaning they have naturally split ends that help the brush to hold more paint, so one of the critical steps in evaluating hog brushes is to check to see if the tips are split (use a magnifying glass); if they are trimmed square across the ends, as some cheap brands may be, the quality is considered poor. These brushes require significant care to maintain their spring and cleanliness.
Sable brushes, as noted above, are derived from true sables and other, usually related animals. They are prized because these natural hairs taper from a thicker center to a fine point, which makes it possible for them to hold more paint and release it easily and with control. Red sable brushes, which are common, are not made from sable hairs but from red animal hairs of various kinds of related animals, particularly weasels. Note that the best red sables are actually from a species known as a kolinsky, or Asian weasel. Even so, it's also important to know that if you see a brush listed as "red sable" it isn't likely to be from kolinskys because many other kinds of red hair might be used. Brushes advertised as kolinsky are likely to be genuine though, and also likely to cost more.
Mongoose brushes are made from hair obtained in India and Europe, predominantly. Mongoose hair is soft and has good paint holding and releasing qualities and is less expensive than sable, kolinsky, or red sable for brushes. They can be good substitutes for the more expensive brushes you might encounter.
Badger brushes are most often used by oil painters to blend passages of paint. The hairs are tapered, like other natural filaments, but the fatter part of the shaft is near the tip rather than in the central part so these brushes look bushier than others. I've used badger blenders for a long while and find them very useful as one softens and blends various strokes. Synthetic badger brushes are sometimes sold but are reportedly inferior to the natural ones (I have never used them). These can also substituted for sables, but don't receive much use that way.
Nylon or polyamide fibers were the original synthetics, as you'd imagine, since nylon was among the first polymers developed. Nylon fibers were produced in the mid-20th century in diameters comparable to hog bristles, but had no taper nor flagging. Eventually tapering fibers were developed, as well as finer diameters, which led to nylon being used for artist brushes. Nylon remains a favorite synthetic and is sold under many names. Nylon fibers can be made very thin (and therefore soft) or very thick and stiff to imitate bristles. They're sold for all sorts of uses besides art, as well.
Today synthetic brushes are also made from a number of materials besides nylon. In some cases it's not clear to me what the actual fiber may be, even if the name evokes nylon. At least one company markets a fiber named Interlon (Aquatec ) but that name is also claimed by another company (Silver Brush) for their own Ruby Satin line, which their materials says is a new fiber.
Taklon is a polyester fiber originally developed by DuPont but now owned by Toray, a Japanese company. Taklon is widely used by a number of companies to produce good quality artist brushes. Taklon fibers are reportedly smooth and reasonably resilient, but said to be somewhat less sturdy than others. Taklon brushes are often substituted for red sables, and are available in standard shapes.
Some companies list "Toray fibers" in their synthetic brushes. I suspect that these are probably very like Taklon. Like Taklon, Toray fibers seem to come in white or gold colors. For example, Escoda in Barcelona promotes White Toray and Gold Toray and says they are "...one of the softest [fibers] and typically used in watercolor," which sounds a lot like Taklon to me. Toray manufactures other fibers, including nylon and acrylic types, but I can't seem to find any actual polymer names. Proprietary fiber names abound though. Silver Brush, for example, mentions Mightlon, Bristlon, and Interlon as new fibers developed for them, but do not name the polymer involved. The final three letters might suggest nylon, but my hunch is they're a different polymer or maybe the same molecule with different wrinkles--sizes, split ends, etc.
A lot of painters don't pay all that much attention to brushes and alternatively there are those who refuse to let anyone touch their brushes. Certainly, top end brushes are expensive and require care in use and cleaning to get the most out of one's investment. But top quality brushes will perform better by holding more paint, releasing paint with more control and finesse, and retain their desirable qualities--stiffness, softness, etc.--longer. The problem is to get what one pays for. For me, the best course has been to try brushes from various companies, after taking time to look into what others I've respected have to say. Below are a few companies that have excellent reputations among professionals.
Brush shapes and their uses.