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THE BRUSH is said to date back at least thirty thousand years. The brush was probably first developed for the purpose of writing and later evolved into a tool for drawing and painting. Originally, brushes were made from plants or feathers. The bamboo brush  is an exam­ple  of a plant brush that is  still  made today in Japan. It is produced by sticking one end of a short stalk of bam­boo into moist earth and leaving it to decompose. The ground surrounding the bamboo  is kept  moist  for three to five weeks. The end of the stick is then sufficiently decomposed so that it can be mashed with a mallet to form strands of fibers that resemble coarse hairs.

The earliest records of brushes made with hair are found in Chinese writings dating from about 250 B.C. Commercial brush making in Europe  did  not begin until the late eighteenth century. The Max Sauer Company of France, one of the oldest brush makers in the West, established in  1793,  still  produces  brushes  under such names as Raphael, Sauer, Renard, and Gerard. The Raphael name is used primarily for its artists' brushes. Today, however, there is a proliferation of brushes in the marketplace sold under many company names; in reality there are few companies that actually manufacture the  brushes  available  under  their names. This makes it possible to see the same style and quality  of  brush  sold under different names and for different prices. Although the reputation of some manufacturers can help in making a decision  about  buying  a  particular  brush, this is still no substitute for basic knowledge of how to test for quality and performance.

The purpose of this section is not only to show you how to get your money's worth, but also to help you to acquire the correct style and type of brush to accomplish what you  wish.  After all, what is the point of getting  the  best value in a brush that will not do the job?


Hairs, Bristle, and nylon filaments work as devices for holding and applying ink or paint because  of  capillary  attraction-the  natural  attraction  of  a liquid  for a solid and its tendency to flow toward it. When hairs, bristles, and nylon fila­ ments are grouped together to form a brush and dipped into  a liquid,  the liquid  will tend to be drawn up between the hairs and  be held in place.  When the tip of the brush is touched to an absorbent surface, the liquid will  be transferred  to it with the help of gravity. Thick paints  rely  more on pressure  than on  gravity  to be transferred to an absorbent surface.

There are two main characteristics that distinguish one hair from another.  as  well as hair from bristle and nylon filaments. The first and most important char­ acteristic is the hair's degree of absorbency. Hairs have scales, and  the  more scales, the greater the surface area to attract and hold liquids. This increased absorbency provides greater control in the application of inks or paints  because they are held within the body of the brush, allowing  for even  flow off  the tip of the brush. Brushes made of less absorbent hairs, or nonabsorbent synthetic fila­ ments, accumulate liquids at the tip. Inks or paints tend to run quickly and often uncontrollably off the tips of such brushes during application. Spring or stiffness is the second most important characteristic. The presence or lack of it in a particular hair will define  how  it can  be used  and  with  what type of liquid. The large variety of hairs, bristles, and nylon filaments, as well as the way they can be blended  and shaped  into  brushes,  provides a vast opportunity for differing styles of expression. Only a knowledgeable painter can, however, take full advantage of this potential.

The availability of choice, natural hairs for brushes  is  shrinking  while  the price is rising. One of the major causes for  this  situation  is  the  increasing number of animals placed on endangered-species lists by  importing  and export­ ing countries. The current explosion of new  regulations  about  what is legal for one country to export and what is legal for another country to receive has led to absurd occurrences. There is one story of fill importer of hairs from around  the world who was attempting to declare to customs the importation of some nylon "hair." The customs agent insisted on knowing the name  of  the  animal  from which nylon "hair" was obtained so he could check it against his list of endangered animals. No amount of explanation that these were synthetic hairs would deter this agent from his appointed  duty.  Ultimately,  it took  a phone call to a local congressman to get the shipment released. 

The following descriptions are of hairs, bristles, and nylon filaments that are considered in most countries to be both desirable and legal for brush making.


The name "sable" was made up by trappers to refer to the marten, and  espe­cially one particular marten, Martes zibellina. The name "red sable" was used to denote both the weasel and the Asian mink (also known as the kolinsky), which have a yellow-reddish tint to their brown hair. All these animals are so closely related that they are part of the same family, Mustelidae. The red  sable  is  of primary interest to the artist because the finest sable brushes are  made from  its  fur. White sable and golden sable are merely trade names for synthetic filaments used as substitutes for animal hair.

Sable is chosen for its spring (the ability to return  quickly  to  its  original  shape) and its point (the ability  to return  to a fine pointed  shape).  The shape of  an individual hair resembles an elongated pear. There is greater width in  the middle of the hair than at the tip, which is pointed. This hair shape is what gives sable its strength to spring back and to come to a very fine point. The strength


  2. SABLE

  3. NYLON

  4. OX


  6. SHEEP


  8. HORSE



of the spring and the length and fineness of the tip of the hair together determine the quality and the price of the brush. Consequently, hairs collected from wild animals that live in colder climates are preferred because their fur grows thicker and longer. The best-quality brushes are made with hairs that are collected from  the middle, or belly, of the tail. The  hairs are longer at  the end of  the tail,  but  also are thinner, have less body, and are usually  damaged,  blunted,  or kinked from the animal's activity. These hairs are  used  in lower-quality  sable  brushes and sometimes as filler in medium-quality brushes.


Kolinsky is a particular strain of mink that lived at one time in the Kola Penin­ sula in the western part of Russia and was the source for the finest red sable brushes. Today, there are no kolinskys left in the area. This animal is virtually extinct and is, therefore, a protected species in Russia. The name "kolinsky," however, is currently used to denote the hair acquired from the Asian mink, Mustela siberica, that lives in Siberia,  northern  China,  and  Korea.  Hairs  from the tail of this animal were highly prized and  set the  world  standard  for length (up to 2¼ inches), spring, and point. The finest varieties, the longest and the thickest hairs, come from the coldest climates and, because Siberia is  farthest north, the best kolinsky comes from the Soviet Union.

The longest and strongest hair is taken from the male winter coat of the kolinsky. The Soviets have severely restricted trade of  the animal,  and  at  this time the German brush manufacturer da Vinci (who produces brushes under the names Realite and Cosmos). is the only one who claims still to be trading  with them and using this hair. It is the only manufacturer that I have found that will volunteer information about its finest brushes, such as whether it is using male winter coat hair and how much is being used. Other manufacturers, such as Grumbacher, claim still to be using old stock that they accumulated before the restrictions. Manufacturers that have exhausted their stock are now using the Chinese and Korean kolinsky.

The color of Siberian kolinsky hair is brown with a distinctive yellowish-red  tint. The Chinese variety tends to be slightly darker with less red. Tiny dark spots running the length of the hair are not unusual. The term "red sable" comes from the reddish tint this hair naturally possesses.  Because  this  hair often  sells for several thousands of dollars per pound, it is not uncommon  to find  hair  that has been cosmetically treated to look like the Siberian variety. Crudely  treated hairs can often be recognized by an unnatural bright orange tint.

Red Sable

Red Sable is a large category, which includes hair from  "seconds"  of  kolinsky and hair from the weasel. The kolinsky hairs are called seconds because they are thinner overall, particularly in the longer hairs. Hair from the  marten,  par­ticularly Martes zibellina, is included in this category by  some  manufacturers more because of the quality than the color. The finest red sable is always sepa­ rated from the rest and called either "kolinsky sable," "kolinsky mink," or just "kolinsky."

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Hairs, Bristles and Synthetics
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Red sable hair has slightly less spring than kolinsky and is a little stiffer,  and the tips are a little blunter. These characteristics can be attributed more to the warmer climates in which the animals are found than to the differences among species. Most red sable hair, darker in  appearance  than  kolinsky,  can  vary widely in quality and appearance. In some cases, the better red sable is almost indistinguishable from the kolinsky. In general, red sable makes fine-quality brushes when the hairs are selected for quality and are arranged properly during brush making. When hairs from the end of the tail, which are often thin  and kinked, are used, and quality control is poor,  the performance  can  be far  less than that of synthetic "sables."


Weasel is a Mustela, as is the kolinsky. The hair is  similar, but of  inferior quality, shorter and  with less thickness,  or belly. This hair is commonly  used  as a filler in sable brushes. Weasel hair is preferred in certain styles of Oriental brushes.

Sable or Brown Sable

Sable or Brown Sable brushes that are not designated either red  sable  or kolinsky, are made of hairs obtained from varieties  of  the  marten,  or  are  left over from the production of the other sable brushes. The quality of brushes made from these hairs varies greatly, from a brush that is virtually useless to an ade­quate student-grade brush.


Ermine was used a century ago in Europe and America when better sables were less common. The hairs are very short by comparison and could only be used for making small brushes. Ermine has essentially been replaced by red sable.

Synthetic Sables

Synthetic Sables are known by many names. The two most common are White Sable, created by the Simmons Brush Company, and golden sable. White or colored, all synthetic sables are some variation of nylon filaments developed and manufactured in Japan. Most of the brushes, with or without handles, are assembled in Japan, regardless of the label. There are some differences in syn­thetic brushes because of variations in the assembly of the filaments, which are specified by those commissioning their manufacture. These differences are small, however, when compared to the difference between synthetic and natural sables. The shape of the nylon filament is pointed at the tip, and the body is straight and uniform. The filaments used to duplicate hairs range in  diameter from 0.08mm to 0.15mm; those for bristles are 0.20mm or more.  Nylon has remark­ able spring, so much so that many professionals feel it is a drawback. Some manufacturers have attempted to deal with this by varying the width of the filaments or blending the synthetic with natural hair.

Another common  complaint is the non-absorbency  of the synthetic hair. This is a particular problem with watercolor because the color gathers excessively  at the tip and runs quickly off the brush onto the more absorbent  surface, making  control difficult. Recently, some manufacturers began trying to increase the absorbency of nylon either by etching the surface of the filament to simulate the scales of natural hairs or by coating the hairs to reduce the surface tension.  Both  do help a bit, but there is the question of whether the improvement is worth the extra expense.

There are significant advantages to synthetic  brushes.  These  include the cost  of the larger-size brushes, which can be one-tenth the price of red sable. A good synthetic filament is better than a bad red sable.


Ox (Sabeline)

Sabeline is light ox hair dyed to a reddish tint so that the brush's appearance will resemble that of red sable. Only the astronomical price of sable and the lack of absorbency in synthetic hairs keep ox hair in  use.  Ox  hair,  which  comes from  the ears of oxen, has springiness similar to that of sable, but it does not have the  fine tip. The tip of the hair is actually quite  blunt  when  compared  to sable and will not form a fine point when used to make a round brush, or a fine edge when used to make a flat brush. Both Grumbacher  and  Winsor &  Newton claim  that the lighter shades of ox hair are superior to the darker shades. Max Sauer Com­pany claims that the color has less to do with quality than do the method of preparation and the origin of the animal. I believe, light or dark,  you should test the brush first to see if it is right for you. 

Since the darker varieties of ox hair are longer, they are more commonly used in large flat brushes. The lighter-colored hairs are shorter and are usually used in watercolor flats and round brushes.



There is no such hair as camel hair used in the making of  brushes.  "Camel  hair" is a trade term for various inexpensive, poor-quality hairs such as pony,  bear, sheep, lesser grades of squirrel, or whatever else is available at the time. These brushes are unprofessional and have no redeeming qualities, except that they are inexpensive and .resemble artists' brushes.


Squirrel hair, with one exception, is a thin hair with a pointed  tip and a more or  less uniform body. It is soft and absorbent, and it has a natural affinity for itself, which means that when a brush made of squirrel  hair is fully  wet, it can come to an exceptionally fine point. Squirrel hair, however, has little or no spring.

Squirrel is basically misunderstood. When sable rose dramatically in  price, many artists turned to squirrel as a less expensive alternative and became disillu­sioned when it did not perform like sable primarily  because  of  the  lack  of spring. A good-quality squirrel brush was never meant to  be  used  as a  cheap sable replacement. Its particular qualities make it ideal for watercolor wash tech­nique, lettering, and for the application of paints when an exceptionally smooth finish is required. There are four kinds of squirrel that are primarily used in the making of artists' brushes.

Kazan Squirrel

Kazan Squirrel is named for its home province in the Soviet Union.  Hair  derived from the tail of this animal is highly prized for its superb  tip and elastic­ity, and is considered the  best of  the squirrel  hairs. This hair is used in making the finest watercolor brushes. It can range in color from black to black with red tips and flecks of gray along the shaft.

Blue Squirrel

Blue Squirrel hair is similar to kazan, except that it is longer and of slightly lower quality. The hairs are blue-black with a gray root.

Taleutky hair  

Taleutky hair is stronger and longer than the other squirrel hairs and is primarily used to make lettering quills.

Canadian or Golden Squirrel Hair

Canadian or Golden Squirrel hair is shorter and thicker than the other Soviet varieties; it is the only squirrel hair that possesses a "belly."  This  belly  resembles sable hair not only in appearance but also in handling.  Although  it is too  short for round brushes and possesses little spring, it does make a fine-quality watercolor flat and is a reasonable alternative to the high cost of sable. The hair appears variegated with gold and black coloring.



Hog, boar, and pig hairs are called bristles because of their stiff and coarse appearance. They are actually so stiff  that they  were  used  as the balance  spring in the first pocket watch. Bristle has a relatively uniform body with natural curve and a "flagged," or split end. The curve is either removed or reduced during the boiling and preparation of the bristles. Interlocked brushes are made from  hairs  that have been boiled for only two hours so that some curve remains. An inter­ locked brush takes advantage of the curve; the bristles are assembled so that the curved bristles oppose one another. As with a broom,  this  helps  keep  the  tip from splaying to give better control.

One of the desirable characteristics of hog bristle is flagging-the multiple tips provided by split ends. The greater the flagging,  the  better  the  control.  Wild hogs have more split ends than the domesticated animal. Currently, the best hog bristle comes from China, where there are more wild hogs. Bristle from the Chungking province of China is said to be the best.


Badger hair, which has a variegated black and white appearance, is not  com­ monly used to make artists' brushes. The one important exception is in blending brushes, for which it is excellent. Sable is too expensive for this purpose, and because of the fineness of the hair it has to be frequently cleaned of paint build­  up. Badger, however, is longer and thicker than sable and less costly.



There are more than forty species of mongoose throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, all of which are considered in most countries to be endangered. India at this time seems  to have far more  mongoose  than  it cares  to, and is, therefore,  one of the few legal sources for this hair.

Mongoose hair is closer to sable in appearance and performance than it is to bristle. The tip of the hair comes to a tapering point like sable, but the belly  is much thicker and therefore stiffer. The hairs, on average, are a  bit longer  than most sable. Mongoose is also similar in appearance to badger; both have a varie­ gated  colored body.  Badger  is  often  used as a cheap filler for mongoose brushes. One way to tell the difference is that mongoose hair has a dark  tip  and  badger  hair has a white tip.

Brushes made of  mongoose  are made primarily for oil painting, and are excel­lent for times when  bristle is too  crude  and sable is  not stiff enough  to push thicker paint mixtures over the painting surface. Mongoose is  priced  between sable and bristle, and is often sold as a cheaper alternative  to sable.  It makes a fine brush for certain jobs, regardless of the price.



Fitch, pony, and monkey, as well as the lesser grades of badger and  mongoose hair, are animal hairs used in the making of Western brushes to produce less expensive alternatives to such hairs as sable and squirrel. These hairs are  most often used as fillers. A percentage of sable, for example,  will  be replaced  with fitch hair to produce a more moderately priced  brush.  I tend  to  avoid  brushes that have filler because their performance is unpredictable.                                    

Monkey Hair

Monkey Hair,  a relatively  short hair that often appears light brown in the middle and almost blond at the tip, is usually found in combination with other hairs. These brushes are produced as a less expensive  sablel-ike  oil  painting  brush. I find the savings and the performance not great enough to overcome my own inhibitions about using brushes made of primate hair.

Fitch Hair,

Fitch Hair,  which is from  the polecat  (a close relative  of the weasel), is similar  to but coarser than weasel. The hair ranges from dark brown to almost black. Brushes made from fitch hair can be a cost-effective alternative to sable oil  painting brushes. I have found that these brushes are not manufactured with the same quality control, possibly due to the low cost, and should be examined carefully for defects and for tips that have  been  cut  to make  them even.  Fitch hair brushes are sometimes called Russian sable, black sable, or Russian black sable as a marketing gimmick to promote sales.

Pony Hair

Pony Hair is coarse, often kinked, and very inexpensive. This hair is used to manufacture school brushes and can sometimes be found  as a filler in  squirrel  hair brushes. Pony hair does not perform well and should be avoided.



Samba, horse, deer, weasel, cat, sheep, and goat are the animals whose hair  is  most often used in the manufacture of Chinese and Japanese brushes.  The coars­est and stiffest hair is that of the samba, the horse, and the back of the deer. The hair of the weasel  and the inner arch of  the deer is less coarse and stiff. The hair  of the cat, sheep, and goat is softer, finer, and has less spring. Brushes made of bamboo resemble samba hair in coarseness and behavior.

There are Oriental brushes that are labeled or called wolf hair. All  such brushes that have been shown to me were actually sable or combinations of sable and weasel. One of the oldest importers of  Oriental  artists' materials explained that the confusion lies in some old and poor translation from Chinese  to Jap­anese. Today, when a Japanese importer orders wolf from a Chinese exporter he knows that sable or weasel will be delivered. This situation  is further  compli­cated by the recent involvement of Western importers and the English language. Rather than add to this confusion, suffice it to say that Chinese  brushes  called sable are usually made of high-quality sable and Chinese brushes called wolf are usually sable and weasel mixed, and are of a slightly lesser quality.


Samba, or Sambar

The Samba, or Sambar, which  is also  called  the mountain  horse in the Orient, is a large Asian deer that is the source of a stiff and coarse  hair  used  in  the making of Oriental calligraphy brushes.  The hair appears slightly  kinked  and has a variegated dark brown and tan appearance.


Horsehair is one of the commonest hairs used in Japanese brush making; it is particularly popular for calligraphy brushes. Horse hairs do not have  a  great affinity for themselves even when wet; they will not necessarily maintain a brush-like shape without assistance. Consequently, horsehair brushes are often left partially starched near the ferrule, or are wrapped with a layer  of  sheep  hair, which can keep the horsehair in shape. In general, horsehair is strong, slightly coarse, resilient, and long. The better hairs  are  a  cream-colored  brown;  the darker the shade the poorer the quality. White horsehair is strong like other horsehair, but more flexible and used fully loosened. Microscopically, horsehair appears as a series of tapering scales stacked on top of one another. Where one scale ends  and the next  begins there are little  pockets that trap the ink and hold    it until used. It is these pockets that make horsehair more absorbent  than  most other hairs. (The exception is sheep hair, which has many more pockets.)

The quality of a horsehair brush  is, to a great extent,  determined  by the part  of the animal from which the hairs come. Hair from the  mane or back  is coarse and of poor quality. Tail hair varies greatly in quality. It is often  sorted  into various grades and is used primarily for making large brushes. The finest horse­ hair is obtained from the belly and the ears. The shorter, better-quality hairs are used mostly in watercolor brushes, the longer and coarser hairs in calligraphy brushes.

Deer Hair

Deer Hair From the Back is similar  to that  of  the samba,  but is not as coarse and has more spring than stiffness. The hair is usually variegated white and tan. This hair is used as an additive to increase  the  resilience  of  softer combinations of hairs.


The Weasel is common to both Japan and China, while sable is found only in China. Greater availability of weasel  than  sable has played  an important  role in its popularity, but since a brush made of  weasel  hair has less spring  than sable it is even more desirable. Too much spring is considered a drawback. The Chinese, who do not generally distinguish between calligraphy and painting brushes, use weasel for both. In Japan, weasel is used mainly for detail-painting brushes.

Deer Hair

Deer Hair From the Inner Arch is similar to so-called wolf hair, but is a little coarser. The combination of deer with other, softer hairs adds  resilience  to  a brush. Deer hair is used for painting brushes in Japan.

Cat Hair

Cat Hair is popular for making detail brushes. It  is therefore  not uncommon  in the Orient to find the village cat missing large clumps of hair, yet not suffering from any particular ailment. Cat hair is soft with some spring and has a natural affinity for itself, causing it to hold a good shape.

Sheep or Goat Hair

Sheep or Goat Hair is the hair most used in Oriental brush  making. It  is made into large calligraphy brushes and flat wash brushes, and is combined with other hairs. The hairs are boiled to straighten them, and resemble squirrel hair in behavior. They have no spring, but do have  a fine  point and a uniform  body that, under a microscope, appears to consist  of  tapering,  individual  scales  that are attached end to end. As on horsehair, there are small pockets where these scale-like shapes meet that allow ink to be trapped  and  held, until  used.  Both sheep and goat hairs have these pockets,  which contribute  to their  absorbency, but sheep hair has many more. The Japanese word jofuku is used to describe calligraphy brushes made of sheep hair. It means, "dip once, lot of ink." The best-quality sheep or goat hair has a very fine tapering tip. When made into a  brush, this tip will have a distinctly yellow tint, but brushes of this quality  are rarely found in the West and are extremely expensive.

Miscellaneous Animal Hair,

Miscellaneous Animal Hair, including badger, rabbit, and tiger, is used in Ori­ental brush making.

Badger Hair

Badger hair has a variegated black and  white appearance. The  hair is longer and thicker than sable, especially the belly of the hair. Badger is used in com­ bination with other hairs to lend resiliency and to act as a filler in Japanese painting brushes.


Rabbit hair

Rabbit hair, from nondomesticated rabbits, is similar to badger hair but is shorter. It is used in combination with other hairs to make Japanese painting brushes and in China, for both calligraphy and painting brushes.

Tiger hair

Tiger hair resembles a longer wolf hair. It is white, yellow, and black. It is said that the best hairs are obtained by plucking from a startled wild animal. Brushes of this type are extremely rare and may now exist only in legend.

Brushes made from goats' eyelashes, squirrel and  rat  whiskers,  and  even human baby hair (taken from the first haircut) are not uncommon in the Orient. These brushes are more novelties than practical artists' brushes and are not avail­ able in the West.



 EACH STYLE of brush is designed to have the optimum performance with a par­ ticular type of paint  or with  a certain  technique.  Nevertheless, at this time there is no government agency regulating their use, and if you wish  to use, for example, a watercolor brush for oil painting, the only penalty you might suffer is that  the brush will not last as long and will no longer work with watercolor. The following are only guidelines. The rest is up to your own creativity.



The process of watercolor is extremely sensitive to the quality of  the  brushes  used. Watercolor paint is too light to pull together a badly shaped  brush  the way oil paints can; it is also too sensitive to hide any imperfections  in the tools  used. All the finest watercolor paints and all the most expensive watercolor  papers cannot compensate for a brush that does not perform well.  The selection of at least one fine-quality watercolor brush is an absolute must.

Watercolor brushes perform best when they are soaked in  water for a mini­  mum of five to ten minutes before they are used. Wetting a brush first allows for  the expulsion of all air bubbles, which can create  streaks  in  the  applied  color, and permits the hairs to soften and come into a proper shape. To take the fullest possible advantage of a well-made watercolor brush, it should be held as perpen­dicular to the working surface as can be managed.  A technique  has  developed over the years to compensate for badly made or badly worn brushes. It involves holding a round brush at a 45-degree angle to the working surface and slowly twisting the brush as the tip is drawn across the surface to produce a consistently drawn line. I have known people who spent years developing this technique and were startled to learn that a well-made brush held at the appropriate  90-degree angle produces this effect with little skill and effort.

There are also differences in watercolor brushes, other than quality  and  the name brand on the handle. There are considerable differences in style within the different  shapes.  The  most  common round brush sold for watercolor, for exam­ple, is an English-style round, although the English style of watercolor  is  not nearly as popular  as styles that have developed  through the years in North Amer­ica.  People who do detail rendering, or draw, or do line  work, all require different






variations on the watercolor brush. Equipped with sufficient information, you should be able to make the best selection for your own needs. Testing is of prime importance when buying a brush. Whenever possible you should test, or at least thoroughly inspect, a brush before you buy it. The fol­lowing are some methods of inspection.

Check Uniformity. Many brushes have starch  in  the  hairs  to  protect  them until use. The starched tip has to be loosened to inspect it. This may be done by gently rolling the starched brush tip between two fingers. After  you  have done this, the individual hairs can be spread out by gently pressing the hairs near the ferrule to fan them out for inspection. Look for uniformity in length and appearance. There should be no blunt ends (hairs that are inverted), and the tips should not have been cut or trimmed in any way.

Check Fullness. The hairs of  a brush  should  be gathered  tightly  so that  there is a feeling of fullness when the hairs  are  pinched  together  near  the  point  where they enter the ferrule. Brushes made with fewer  hairs  are  gathered  loosely  to give a full look; these brushes have a hollow feel and compress easily when pinched. When the hairs of a genuinely full brush are bent sharply to one side near the ferrule, there should be no gap between the lip of  the ferrule  and  the hairs.

Check the Point or Edge. To do this, it is necessary to wet the brush. To give it a fair test you should wet  it thoroughly,  not  just  dip it and  flick  it around  a few times. Sable or sablelike brushes  will  readily  present  a point in  the rounds, or an edge in the flats, when removed from the water and the excess  water is flicked off the brush. Small, soft-hair brushes  like squirrel  will point,  or edge,  like sable, but larger ones have to be shaped to a point.

Check Spring. Spring is the ability of a brush to return to its original shape after use. One method for testing the spring of a dry sable brush is to place the brush near your ear. Bend the hairs and quickly  release  them.  You should  hear the hairs snap back. To test a wet brush, bring it to a point and hold it perpen­ dicular to a piece of paper.  Then  draw  a line  that  stai1s thin and is  made wider by slowly pushing the brush down. When the brush  is  pushed  down  halfway along the length of the hairs, lift it as the line is completed. The line should look like a cross section of a discus, and the degree to which the brush returns to its original shape determines its spring. The finest kolinsky brush  will  not  only return to its original shape, but can perform this maneuver quickly  and  repeat­ edly. Kazan squirrel can perform this maneuver only if the first quarter of  the  brush is used and will not return at all if the entire brush is used. (This char­ acteristic is ideal in squirrel and a drawback in sable because these hairs are used for different purposes.)

Standard Watercolor Rounds are the workhorses for traditional watercolor technique. Currently, the most popular brand and style is Series 7 by Winsor & Newton. The name is derived from the time when Queen Victoria commissioned Winsor & Newton to make  her a  brush  in her favorite size, which  was seven.  It is said that it was made of the finest kolinsky with a silver ferrule and an ivory handle. Although brushes of this quality are no longer  available,  the  name remains on the finest Winsor & Newton kolinsky sable brushes. With the exception

Watercolor Brushes
Brush Construction.jpg
Watercolor Brushes.jpg

of the West German brush manufacturer da Vinci, which exports under the names Cosmos and Realite, Soviet prohibitions on the export of  the finest Sibe­rian kolinsky have resulted in a change to the Asian kolinsky.  Da Vinci claims  that its finest watercolor brushes are made with  100  percent  Siberian  male, winter coat, kolinsky. The ferrules of  the  brushes are gold plated.  Sizing of  the da Vinci brushes is modeled after the English.

Grumbacher claims that in its finest watercolor brushes it's using old reserves of Siberian kolinsky that it had stockpiled before the restrictions.

Series 7 has dominated the American market because of its quality and its availability in larger sizes. The hairs needed to make such sizes as 12 and 14,  which are difficult to find, must be quite long, between 1½ and 2½ inches  (to obtain maximum spring the hair must be crimped at its belly resulting in half the length being buried in the ferrule). Winsor & Newton claims it requires six  hundred tails in the size 12 and one thousand tails in the size 14 to find sufficient hairs of quality and length to make one dozen of each of these sizes.

The increasing rarity of quality long hair and the astronomical prices of  the larger brushes have resulted in a greater openness toward  other  brands and styles of rounds. Some attention has focused on Raphael brushes, which is  the  artist brush division of the Max Sauer Company, one of the oldest Western brush manufacturers. Americans have not yet quite adjusted to the different size stand­ ards between the French or International and the English. English brush com­ panies, although not as old as the French, are better established in the North American marketplace. I once asked the representative of a French brush com­ pany, in a typically American way, "Why do the French make their larger watercolor brushes smaller than the English?" To which he replied, "Why do the English make theirs so different from us? We have been making brushes for forty years longer than they!" In any case, French brushes seem to gain some of their economy, in the larger sizes, by using shorter hairs. This can often  be a reason­ able tradeoff when money is short as well.


Both English and French brushes are the same diameter  in  the small sizes up to about . size 7, but the French brushes  are a  little longer,  particularly  in sizes 000 through 1. After size 7,  they  do not increase in diameter and length as much as the English brushes do. A French size 12 brush, for  example,  would  be roughly equivalent to an English size 10. French brushes are shaped or cupped a little differently, resulting in a bit more  point.  English  or  French,  companies such as Winsor & Newton, Realite, and Raphael still make among the finest watercolor brushes available today. When buying a Winsor & Newton brush, always look for the "made in England" stamp on the brush to be certain it  is actually made by Winsor & Newton.

Kolinsky. Very few brush manufacturers are using the Siberian kolinsky, which is recognized by its light yellowish-red hairs. Commonly seen in the mar­ketplace are shades that range from light to medium reddish-brown. The  darker Chinese sable is used in the lesser-grade sable brushes. A sign of  a  well-made sable brush is a dark tip that lightens toward the ferrule. The best indicator of quality is whether or not the brush performs well. You should, therefore, always test a sable brush before you buy it.

Hair assembly.jpg

Red Sable. The dividing line between a fine-quality red sable brush  and a lesser kolinsky sable brush is often unclear.  A beginner might not be able to tell  the difference. In the marketplace, however, there is often a clear difference between the "average" red sable brush and the "average" kolinsky sable brush. Whether a red sable brush is average or not, it should still point easily and  well and, despite the reduced spring and responsiveness, should return to some sem­ blance of its original shape. The sable hairs used to make red sable brushes are usually of the darker shades.

Sable, or Brown Sable. Sable hairs from the various marten animals are becoming more common as red sable continues to increase  in price and diminish in availability. Well-constructed brushes of this hair are excellent for student use.


Nylon. White or golden sable, which are nylon substitutes for sable, are less costly and do get the job done. Brushes made from these filaments do come to a point, but have difficulty maintaining it, especially  in the larger sizes, in spite of an excessive amount of spring. There are  many  inexpensive  sable brushes that still cost more than nylon, yet will not point well to start with  and  have little spring at all. Point and spring are still more desirable than absorbency, which is nylon's most serious drawback.  Nylon  has  no absorbency  and watercolor tends to run quickly off the tip of the brush  when brought into contact with a more absorbent surface such as watercolor paper.

Attempts to improve the ability of synthetic brushes to hold  more  paint have met with only limited success. Etching or coating the surface of nylon filaments does help reduce the surface tension (which improves capillary attraction)  and slow the runoff of color, but the total volume of liquid held by the brush is not significantly changed. Synthetic filament brushes just do not hold the same vol­ ume of liquid that natural hair brushes do and, therefore, their value in applying washes or large amount of color is limited. It often takes two to five times more applications of material to cover the same area with a synthetic  filament  brush than with a natural hair brush.

One encouraging development in the attempt to improve the characteristics of nylon brushes has been made by the new company  ProArte,  which is attempting  to market what it claims is a third-generation nylon named Prolene. The surface tension does seem to be lower than conventional  nylon  filament  brushes.  This can be seen by wetting a flat watercolor brush and then draining  it  until  it is almost dry. A conventional nylon flat will develop a serrated edge and  a Prolene flat will not. This indicates that watercolor should flow more slowly and evenly with this new filament. However,  it still does  not seem to resolve  significantly the question of the small total volume of liquid held by synthetic  brushes.  Pro­lene is among the best performing of all synthetic  brushes  that I tested,  and is  also the most expensive. For a bit more money  it is possible to buy a serviceable red sable brush.

Nylon filaments wear differently than natural hair; the filaments tend to curl at the tip rather than wear down. The curl can usually be removed by running almost-boiling water over it. This method will also restore the shape of nylon filaments that have been accidentally bent. (Never do this with natural hairs.)

Blends of Nylon and Natural Hairs. The addition of natural hairs to a nylon filament brush does improve the performance without substantially increasing the price. This combination has reduced the excessive spring of nylon and increased the brushes' absorbency. Although such brushes are not equivalent to an average red sable brush, they do perform well  and  are an  acceptable  alternative  when cost is a serious consideration..

These blended brushes consist of 10 to 15 percent natural hair with the balance made of synthetic filaments. Several manufacturers have used misleading adver­tising, which implies that their brushes consist  mostly of natural  hair when they  do not. Natural hairs can be distinguished from synthetic filaments on close inspection with the naked eye, although it is easier with a  magnifying  glass.  I have tested blends with sable and those with sheep, and I feel the less expensive sheep blends perform better. The use of sable blends seems to be more of a marketing gimmick. Sheep is more absorbent and has less  spring  than  sable, which is precisely what a nylon brush needs.

Ox (Sabeline). Sabeline, or ox hair, has excellent  spring and  no point because  of the nature of the hair. Consequently, it makes a poor round and I would recommend a brush that is a blend of nylon and natural hair instead.

Squirrel. A well-made squirrel brush can be just as valuable a tool as a well­ made sable brush, for there are times when a softer, more fluid look is needed. Since squirrel has little spring and greater absorbency than sable, it would be a far better tool for producing this effect. Squirrel brushes should not be acquired as a substitute for sable, but as an adjunct. A squirrel brush should be at least twice  the  size  of  the  red   sable   brush   that   is   used   most   often.   Squirrel   brushes that come in extra-large sizes are called mops, which describes their use as well as their appearance. These brushes hold a tremendous amount of liquid and make excellent wash brushes.


These brushes are made of red sable or kolinsky  sable,  and  are constructed with two to three lengths of sable hairs "stacked," or arranged in levels. "Stack­ing" can be done by taking a group of short hairs of  equal length  and surround­ ing them with a second group of longer hairs of equal length, and then repeating this with a third group of still longer hairs. This creates a brush that holds liquid color up close to the ferrule so that it can then be fed to a extraordinarily fine pointed tip. 

This brush is known  for its point, spring, and quick response,  in which it has  no equal. Designer quills are superb for line work, illustration, and egg tempera. Script Brushes have the longest hairs of all the watercolor round brushes dis­ cussed so far. Script brushes are lettering, or showcard, brushes  and  have  a pointed rather than a chiseled tip. This is a large .category of brushes in which various qualities and types of hairs are used. They may be set in metal or quill ferrules and they are primarily used for commercial lettering. The advent of dry transfer lettering and other innovations in the sign and lettering industries have considerably reduced the demand for these brushes. However, they are also used for special effects in watercolor, line work, and illustration.

Many Script brushes are made of sable hair, but squirrel and sabeline are also commonly used. The longest  sable hair does not possess  much  spring  because  the belly of the hair is exposed beyond the tip of  the  ferrule  to  gain  usable length. The great length of the hair enables a skilled artist to draw a long,  consistent line without all the stops that would be necessary when using a con­ventional watercolor round.

Spotter Brushes are used to apply little round dots of liquid color. There is a common misunderstanding that a spotting brush is an extraordinarily small brush with a long narrow point. Such a brush produces tiny dashes, not tiny dots.

A true spotter is a very short-haired sable or kolinsky brush  that  has a short taper to a definite point. Although spotters are made in extremely  small  sizes, sizes up to 10 and 12 are useful not only  to graphic artists and restorers,  but also  to watercolorists who need to apply color in a tight  comer  in one stroke  rather than with the many overlapping strokes that are necessary when using a conven­tional round brush.

Lettering, or Showcard, Brushes include riggers, lettering  quills,  and  one­ stroke brushes. Riggers and lettering quills are round  brushes  that  have  long  hairs that are shaped to a chisel tip, rather than  a pointed tip.  The  one-stroke brush is the same as a regular flat watercolor brush, but the hairs are ¼ to 3/8" longer. These brushes are used primarily for lettering, but  many  are also  used for special watercolor effects.

Riggers are like script brushes that come  to an  abrupt end,  which  is shaped, not cut. They are made of sable and have a  metal  ferrule.  They  range  in size from approximately 1/16 to ¼ inch in diameter. The numbering system  for each  size may vary,  depending  on the  manufacturer,  since there does not seem to be  an agreed-upon size standard.

Lettering Quills are like riggers, except that they have quill ferrules instead of metal ferrules. They are available with hairs of squirrel, nylon, and ox (sabeline), as well as sable. Squirrel, with its minimal spring and greater length, works best with paints that are of a heavier consistency such as that of enamels. Sable, nylon, and sabeline, with their greater  spring  and  control,  work  better  with more fluid paints such as watercolor.

Watercolor Flats are used for watercolor washes, for rendering edges or geo­ metric shapes, and for filling in large areas. The  most  common  numbering  of sizes is in inches such as ¼, 3/8, ½,  ¾,  and 1 inch.  Flats  have  the  same  short style of watercolor handles,  but  with  an  additional variation-a  plastic  handle that has a beveled end. Grumbacher was the first to market this style of brush, which it called Aquarelle. The name has stuck and is commonly used when describing this style of brush without regard to the actual manufacturer. The beveled handle serves as a tool for burnishing areas of a watercolor to produce a special effect. Beveled handled brushes are made only with hair that has spring, such as sable, ox (sabeline), nylon, or nylon blends.

Soft hair brushes like these need to be thoroughly wet, and soaking them in  water for five to fifteen minutes (the larger the brush, the longer the time) before use will remove trapped air and reduce the natural surface tension of the hairs. Using a brush like this upright, or perpendicular, to a level working surface will give a better result than holding it like a pencil.  In the larger  sizes,  squirrel  has  to be shaped to a point, which the brush will tend  to  maintain  if  it  is  held  upright and only if the tip and not the belly of the brush is used. 


Designer Rounds are virtually the same as the standard kolinsky sable round watercolor brush, but are shaped to give a longer tapered point. This particular shape is ideal for quick and precise brushwork, and is also  better for line  work  and illustration. This style of brush is quite versatile  and I feel  should  be the  brush of choice for the watercolorist, graphic artist, and illustrator who prefers a detailed appearance over that of a semiabstract one.

Designer Quills are similar to the rounds except that the shape is thinner and longer, and the hairs are held in ferrules made  of  quills or a  plastic  substitute. The reason for the quill ferrule is in part tradition and in part to protect the hairs from the hard metal ferrules that might damage them during manufacture  or  during use. With this type of ferrule, the brush cannot be  used  when  harsh solvents are involved.

These brushes are made of red sable or kolinsky sable, and are constructed with two to three lengths of sable hairs "stacked," or arranged in levels. "Stacking" can be done by taking a group of short hairs of  equal length  and surround­ ing them with a second group of longer hairs of equal length, and then repeating this with a third group of still longer hairs. This creates a brush that holds liquid color up close to the ferrule so that it can then be fed to a extraordinarily fine pointed tip. This brush is known for its point, spring, and quick response,  in which it has  no equal. Designer quills are superb for line work, illustration, and egg tempera.

Script Brushes have the longest hairs of all the watercolor round brushes dis­ cussed so far. Script brushes are lettering, or showcard, brushes  and  have  a pointed rather than a chiseled tip. This is a large .category of brushes in which various qualities and types of hairs are used. They may be set in metal or quill ferrules and they are primarily used for commercial lettering. The advent of dry transfer lettering and other innovations in the sign and lettering industries have considerably reduced the demand for these brushes. However, they are also used for special effects in watercolor, line work, and illustration.

Many script brushes are made of sable hair, but squirrel and sabeline are also commonly used. The longest  sable hair does not possess  much  spring  because  the belly of the hair is exposed beyond the tip of  the  ferrule  to  gain  usable length. The great length of the hair enables a skilled artist to draw a long,  consistent line without all the stops that would be necessary when using a con­ ventional watercolor round.

Spotter Brushes are used to apply little round dots of liquid color. There is a common misunderstanding that a spotting brush is an extraordinarily small brush with a long narrow point. Such a brush produces tiny dashes, not tiny dots.

A true spotter is a very short-haired sable or kolinsky brush  that  has a short taper to a definite point. Although spotters are made in extremely  small  sizes, sizes up to 10 and 12 are useful not only to graphic artists and restorers,  but also  to watercolorists who need to apply color in a tight  comer  in one stroke  rather than with the many overlapping strokes that are necessary when using a conventional round brush.

Lettering, or Showcard, Brushes include riggers, lettering  quills, and one­ stroke brushes. Riggers and lettering quills are round  brushes  that  have  long  hairs that are shaped to a chisel tip, rather than  a pointed  tip.  The  one-stroke brush is the same as a regular flat watercolor brush, but the hairs are ¼ to 3/8" longer. These brushes are used primarily  for  lettering, but many are also used for special watercolor effects.

Riggers are like script brushes that come  to an  abrupt  end,  which  is shaped, not cut. They are made of sable and have a  metal  ferrule.  They  range  in size from approximately 1/16 to ¼ inch in diameter. The numbering system  for each  size may vary,  depending  on the  manufacturer,  since there does not seem to be  an agreed-upon size standard.

Lettering Quills are like riggers, except that they have quill ferrules instead of metal ferrules. They are available with hairs of squirrel, nylon, and ox (sabeline), as well as sable. Squirrel, with its minimal spring and greater length, works best with paints that are of a heavier consistency such as that of enamels. Sable, nylon, and sabeline, with their greater  spring  and  control,  work  better  with more fluid paints such as watercolor.


Watercolor Flats are used for watercolor washes, for rendering edges or geo­ metric shapes, and for filling in large areas. The  most  common  numbering  of sizes is in inches such as: ¼, 3/8, ½,  ¾,  and 1 inch.  Flats  have  the  same  short style of watercolor handles,  but  with  an  additional variation-a  plastic  handle that has a beveled end. Grumbacher was the first to market this style of brush, which it called Aquarelle. The name has stuck and is commonly used when describing this style of brush without regard to the actual manufacturer. The beveled handle serves as a tool for burnishing areas of a watercolor to produce a special effect. Beveled handled brushes are made only with hair that has spring, such as sable, ox (sabeline), nylon, or nylon blends.

Sable Flats for Watercolor have become increasingly rare because of their high price and the unwillingness of manufacturers to produce brushes that are slow­ selling. A great deal of sable hair is required to make a I-inch flat sable, and it would sell for between sixty  and one  hundred  dollars.  Most  people find it hard  to justify the expense of a brush that is  used less frequently.  For an individual who uses a flat watercolor brush more often, however, sable does have some distinct advantages.

Because sable hair has spring, absorbency, and point, a flat sable brush  can form narrow edges at the tip. This can easily be seen by wetting the brush and flicking off the excess water, then turning the  brush  sideways. As  you  look  down the edge, the  shape  will resemble  the cross section of  an airplane  wing; the hairs near the ferrule will be tightly compacted, the body of the brush will be the thickest part, and the tip will come to a razorlike edge.  This  unique  edge allows the brush to be used in two ways; the  first is simply to use the flat part of the brush to cover large areas; the second is to use this edge to draw or paint a narrow line, which is accomplished by placing the brush edge perpendicularly to the working surface and moving the brush along the narrow  edge rather than the flat edge. It is far easier to paint a straight line with this kind of flat brush than with a round brush.

A poor flat sable brush, or one on which the tip has been cut to correct poor craftsmanship, will not give this edge. You can inspect a dry, flat sable brush by first looking down the length of the hairs,  with  the tips pointing  toward  you; if the brush has been cut it will have a faint, two-tone  suede  look. Wetting  the brush will provide the final test to see if it produces a fine edge.

Ox (Sabeline) has spring but no point. Flat brushes made with this hair behave similarly to sable flats when used to cover large areas with color, but sabeline will not form a narrow edge that could be used for drawing lines. Nylon has spring and when used in a flat brush it will form a narrow edge for drawing. But since nylon has no absorbency, it does not perform as well  as a natural hair with wash techniques.  One  wash  technique,  for example,  involves the slow application of color, and also a dry brush  to soak  back  up part of  the still wet color. The non-absorbency of nylon makes this difficult.

Blends of Synthetic and Natural Hairs are good,  low-cost  substitutes  for sable. I particularly recommend the blends of nylon filaments and  sheep  hair where 10 percent or more of the brush is natural hair.

Sheep or Goat have excellent absorbency but no spring. Consequently, the brushes made of these hairs are excellent for washes, but are not adequate for rendering.

Squirrel, like sheep, lacks spring but has great absorbency. The better-quality squirrel hairs, such as kazan, are finer and softer than sheep and  are  therefore better for more delicate washes or applications of color.

Watercolor Ovals look like squashed, round brushes. In appearance, they are halfway between round and flat brushes, and are made primarily  of squirrel hair, the best ones being of kazan squirrel hair. This style of brush is designed for creating washes where the color is applied gradually.  When you apply  color with a traditional flat brush, the straight edge of the brush begins the application of color abruptly, leaving a hard edge. With an oval brush, the application of color starts more gradually with a narrow point and then expands for wider coverage.

An oval brush should not be purchased as a substitute for a sable or a sablelike flat. It is best used as an adjunct to a flat brush.

Mops are large squirrel hair brushes. The first choice in squirrel hair is kazan squirrel, with blue squirrel a close second. The lesser-grade  mop  brushes  are often made with pony hair or with other less  costly  hairs,  which  produce  a  coarser  brush. Large, good-quality mops are difficult to make   and it is not uncommon to find that the lesser grades of mop  brushes  have  been  cut  into shape with scissors. If your sole concern is the application of a great deal  of color, these lower-cost and lesser-quality mops should prove  adequate.  If  you wish to have more painterly control, however,  it  will  be  necessary  to  select mops made of hairs like kazan squirrel. Inspection is particularly  important because if the brush has been cut, it will not point or provide good control.

There are mops in which the hair  is built  up around  a "plug," or spacer,  to  save on the amount of hair needed to fill the brush and also to provide a better point. In the larger sizes you can feel for this plug by pressing your little finger toward the center of the gathered hairs near the ferrule. The reduced  concentra­ tion of hairs will reduce the amount of liquid that the mop can carry at one time. This is not a serious drawback if a point is  more  important  to  you  than  the ability to carry truly large amounts of color.



Quality is not as important in an oil painting brush as it is in a watercolor brush because the viscosity of the oil helps  pull  together  and give control  to a brush that would be questionable for use with watercolors. This is  not  to  say  that quality is not important, but rather that the techniques of  conventional  oil paint­ ing are not as sensitive to small imperfections in brushes as are the techniques of watercolor. Possible exceptions are tole painting, miniatures, and photorealism, where the quality of the brush may be integral to the technique. For these styles,  the finest oil painting brushes and,  in some cases,  the finest watercolor  sables,  are selected for use, regardless of price.

There is also a greater cost consideration with oil paintiong brushes. With watercolor brushes, it is not unreasonable to spend a great deal of money on brushes. When cared for properly, the brush can last for decades.  When  painting  in oils, it is not  uncommon  to use up a set of  brushes,  especially  sable brushes,  in the production of one painting. With the exception of  pig  bristle,  the  guidelines for brush testing and inspection are the same as those for watercolor brushes. 

The primary reason for using sable oil painting brushes is to be able to apply paint with a minimum of texture and a maximum of control. Kolinsky sable provides the greatest control, but kolinsky oil brushes are rare. They are not as expensive as kolinsky brushes made for watercolor because shorter hairs are used  in oil painting brushes, which makes for better control in pushing around thicker oil paint. Unless meticulous detail and control is needed, kolinsky sable  oil painting brushes are unnecessary with conventional techniques.

Red sable oil brushes are  adequate  for  figurative  painting  where  control  is needed to render details, and for abstract painting  when  a  smooth  surface  or  a sharply defined edge is desired. (Blends of nylon and natural  hair  are  not  yet available in oil painting brnshes.) Nylon oil brushes have filaments of a  thicker diameter than those used in  watercolor  brushes  and  are  therefore  stiffer.  At  one time a  still  thicker  nylon  filament  was  used  to  make  a  substitute  pig  bristle,  but it never caught on. The  brushes  were  more expensive  than  natural  bristle and did  not perform as well.  The lack of absorbency of nylon is not a serious problem in oil painting.

There are, however, two additional drawbacks to  oil painting with nylon brushes. The first of these drawbacks is that when a nylon brush is rubbed vigorously over a gessoed canvas surface, the friction causes  the  ends  of  the nylon filaments to curl. (The curl can sometimes  be removed  by  placing  the tip of the brush in water that has been brought to a temperature just below boiling.) The other drawback is due to the thicker nylon filaments, which result in a brush with excessive spring. Too much spring in a brush can cause previous layers of paint to be disturbed during application of fresh layers of paint. The great advan­tage of nylon is the cost savings, which can sometimes outweigh the drawbacks. Oil bristle (hog, pig, or boar) brushes are used  for  the  application of  thick paint, for scrubbing and scumbling (a technique of applying a lighter, semi­ transparent color over the surface of a darker color), and to impart texture to the painted surface. Sable brushes apply paint smoothly and consistently, while bris­ tle applies paint roughly and inconsistently, giving a more impressionistic appearance to the painting.  The  stiff  quality  of  bristle can leave streaks or gaps in the application of a fresh  layer of  paint,  and this can  allow the underpainting to show through for effect. Sables are used to create  a  more refined  version of this technique by glazing (a small quantity of paint is dissolved into medium and applied thinly over another layer of paint so that the layer beneath can be seen through the top layer of paint).

To inspect a bristle brush, check the amount of flagging  and see if the tips of the bristle have been cut. The flagging should be plentiful because it is the softer split ends of that flagging that give control to the tip of  the brush. If the flagging is minimal, because the bristle has been taken from domesticated animals, or because the tips have been cut to improve the appearance  of  a  poorly  made brush, the performance of the brush will be excessively coarse and erratic.

Oil Brushes

There are two styles of brushes for which the bristles are treated and assembled to make oil bristle brushes. There are "interlocked" and "non­ interlocked" brushes. Part of the process of treating bristles is to boil them to clean them and remove part or all of their natural curve. The  longer  the bristles are boiled, the straighter they will become. Noninterlocked bristle brushes are produced from bristles that have been boiled until they are  straight.  These  are  then made into a brush that resembles a small broom in appearance. In a finely made brush this broomlike appearance means that there is plenty of flagging and the brush has not been starched to improve its appearance. When such a brush is loaded with paint, the splayed, broomlike look will change as the weight of the paint draws the bristles of the tip closer together. In a cheap brush made with inferior bristles, the splayed broomlike appearance will change little when loaded with paint, and the bristles tend to spread even farther apart with the slightest pressure.

Interlocked bristle brushes contain bristles that still have part of their natural curve, and in which the curved bristles are assembled so that the brush narrows toward the tip. For example, a flat brush would be made from  two groups of  curved bristles, each gathered  into the ferrule so that one  side is curved  toward  the other. This gives the brush the opposite appearance to that of a splayed broom-the bristles curve outward rather than inward. The purpose of making a brush this way is to give greater control to the tip of the brush so that it resists spreading under pressure. Greater care is needed to make an interlocked bristle brush, and such brushes are therefore more expensive than those with non­ interlocked bristles.

Although it is common practice to starch the hairs of a brush  to help protect them from damage until they are sold, you should beware of noninterlocked, lesser-quality brushes that have been heated, starched, and molded to look like interlocked brushes. Visual inspection  of  a bristle  brush can indicate only some  of its strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, there is no  adequate  pre-sale testing procedure for bristle brushes as there is for sable brushes. After you have checked the flagging and tested the spring by pressing  the brush down, bending  the hairs in a 90-degree angle in the palm of your hand, and comparing the resistance, the next step is to buy the brush and test it under actual use.

It is my experience that buying the very best  bristle  brush you can  afford  is  not always a good idea. Many artists have established styles that depend  on the lack of consistency and control that is derived from lesser-quality brushes.

Oil Sable Rounds are made with shorter hairs than the traditional  watercolor round brushes. This is to allow for the manipulation of  the  heavier  oil paint.  A few brush makers still produce rounds of shorter and longer lengths for special effects. These brushes, however, are not generally stocked by retailers in North America, although they can be specially  ordered.  When  a special-purpose brush  is desired, most artists make a selection from the more available styles in the watercolor rounds.










Oil Sable Flats also have shorter hairs to allow for the heavier consistency of oil paint. The term "flat" in reference  to a sable flat oil  brush is misleading.  There  are two basic styles of sable flat oil brushes,  one is a "bright,"  which  is a flat brush with short hairs, and the other, a "flat," which  is a  flat  brush  with long hairs. The brights are better for general  painting and  the flats  for glazing. Since the glazing technique has not been as popular in  North  America as in Europe,  most of the flats that are available here are brights.

The purpose of an oil sable flat is to cover  larger areas, to render edges, and to apply thin, smooth layers of paint with a minimum of texture.

Oil Sable Filberts  are said to resemble  worn  flat brushes. The shape of a filbert  is halfway between that of a round brush and that of a flat brush.  So what is so good about a brush that has neither a point nor an edge? When  paint is applied  with a filbert, there is little or no textural beginning or end to the brush stroke. Consequently, paint can be applied smoothly and the brush strokes that are left behind in the paint film are difficult to see.

Bristle Rounds are used for impressionistic rendering, or drawing with  oil  or acrylic paints. The coarse bristle does  not  permit  detail  rendering  as sable does. A noninterlocked brush that is not starched and has good flagging will appear to have a very blunt tip, although when the brush  is  loaded  with  paint  the  tip should narrow considerably to a workable point. An interlocked round bristle will display this tapered point before use, and will spread considerably  less than the noninterlocked round, and will maintain better control with extended use.

Bristle Brights are flat brushes with less bristle exposed. The bristle used is approximately one-third shorter than that used in  the  round  or  flat  bristle brushes. Using this length provides a much stiffer  brush  and allows the handling of very thick paint mixtures (almost as if the brush were  a  miniature  palette knife), and enables the use of such techniques as scumbling (scrubbing the paint into the surface for effect). Here again flagging is important, and if more precise control is desired, the interlocked bristle is preferable.

Bristle Flats have approximately the same length of bristle exposed as the round bristle brushes. This length allows for a softer technique where  heavy  paint can  be applied with less texture than would be left by a bristle bright.  Interlocked bristle is most effective in the larger sizes of flat brushes.

Bristle Filberts look like flat bristle brushes with the edges worn down. It is not uncommon to find that a painter's favorite tool is a flat bristle  brush  with  the edges worn down, yet few such painters have tried a filbert. A filbert is a bristle brush made to duplicate this oval shape. The rounded  edges  allow  the applica­ tion of paint without the abruptness that occurs when painting  with a flat or a  bright bristle brush. With a filbert, an artist can draw  thin lines  by  using  the  edge, or thick lines using the flat of the  brush,  giving  an overall  softer look  to the painting.

Oil Blenders are used primarily to remove brush marks and texture. The painted surface. while still wet, is nibbed with the tip of a blender. There are fan-shaped blenders and round blenders. Blenders, particularly those that are fan-shaped, are also used to apply paint when special effects are desired.

The round blenders are actually large, round, squirrel lettering quills or mops. Fan-shaped blenders are available in bristle,  badger,  sable,  and  nylon.  Bristle fans are the least expensive and, in most cases, the least effective because of the coarseness of the hair. Sable fans are very expensive and most effective in areas where precise and delicate blending is necessary. Nylon is more expensive than bristle but far cheaper than sable and, in most instances, is adequate only for blending. Nylon does not hold up well if the blending requires a great deal of scrubbing because the filaments tend to curl. Badger blenders are an excellent compromise because they are significantly less expensive than sable and perform almost as well.

A blender rapidly becomes ineffective if paint is allowed to build up on the tip  of the brush. It is helpful to clean the blender frequently.

Winsor & Newton and the da Vinci Company still make a pure red sable fan blender. Raphael (Max Sauer Company) makes a uniquely large badger fan blender, which is labeled "12 12," or "double 12."

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With the one exception of Winsor & Newton, size 14 Series 7 watercolor  brush, the Max Sauer Company sets the world standard for extra-large artists' brushes.


This company is one of the few brush makers that still makes fine-quality extra­ large brushes. Raphael is the name placed on the brushes made primarily  for artistic use, and Sauer is the name on brushes made primarily for industrial use. Raphael supplies conventional artists' brushes with extra-long handles (36 inches long), as well as extra-large bristle (or ox hair) brushes (up to 120mm or approx­imately 4¾ inches wide) with conventional  handles.  Sauer's  industrial  brushes are made primarily of bristle, have heavy-duty handles, and are available in flat sizes up to 300mm (or 11¾ inches) wide, and round bristle  brushes up to 2 inches in diameter.

Industrial brushes, regardless of the manufacturer, are certainly acceptable for artistic use if they will get the job done. There is a great range in quality among industrial brushes and proper examination is important. In addition to inspecting these brushes as you would any artists' brush, it is important to look for an excessive amount of loose hairs, cut hairs (some cut hairs can be tolerated in extra-large brushes), weak handles or  badly  crimped  ferrules,  and  plastic spacers, which are sometimes set into the ferrule to cut down on the amount  of  hair needed to fill out a big brush.

Loose hair can be checked for in a large round by spinning  the brush  in the  palm of the hand, and in a flat brush by slapping  the ferrule against  the palm  of the hand. This will help force loose hairs up and out of the brush. Most large brushes will lose some hairs at first, but this shedding should stop  with  normal use. Weak handles or badly crimped ferrules  are  easily  checked  by  applying some pressure at these points. (One  buyer for  an industrial  paint store   used to test brush handles by breaking them over his knee.)

The hardest thing to test for is a plastic spacer that is used to scrimp on the amount of bristle. The outside of  the brush  will appear quite  normal,  but  in  use it will not carry, or hold, very much  paint.  Medium  to large spacers  can be felt for by pushing the small finger into the center of the bristles  near  the ferrule. Small spacers, however, are difficult to detect  without  destroying  the  brush  in the process.

Because of price, nylon has almost totally replaced natural bristle in the large brushes available in hardware and house paint stores. Nevertheless, I do not recommend large synthetic brushes because of their lack of absorbency. All pro­fessional house, or industrial, painters know that it takes twice as much work to paint something with a synthetic brush as it does with a natural bristle brush, because the brush has to be dipped into the paint twice as often and  there is also  far less control.



At one time, a variety of  synthetic  filament  brushes  were specifically  marketed as "acrylic brushes." They rapidly fell into disfavor when people discovered that these brushes had no special advantages and, in some cases, were priced  higher than brushes made for other media.

When acrylics or vinyls are to be used like oil paints, oil painting brushes are best. If the acrylics or vinyls will be used in.a watercolor technique, then tradi­ tional watercolor brushes are best.



 IN THE WEST, a brush is considered simply a tool for self-expression; it needs little character of its own. A brush should  also  be  multipurpose-the  "vege­matic" approach to brush selection-so  one  or  two  brushes  fulfill all  needs.  In the East, however, there is a tradition of treating  artists' materials as friends, rather than as slaves to artistic expression. Artwork is a cooperative process that involves the unique characteristics of the tool as well as those of the artist. The belief is that no single brush does everything well, and to have true versatility several styles of brushes are needed. Thus it is common to find many different shapes and styles or Oriental brushes.

The actual selection of a brush is based on the calligrapher's aesthetic attitude and choice of technique. There are two major  types  of  aesthetic attitudes. The first proposes that calligraphy involves producing readable characters and  that their appearance should follow traditional laws, or rules, of  writing. This point of view is similar to the Western notion of fine penmanship. In the East, this attitude is referred to as the Old Style, or Chinese style, of calligraphy, and the selection of the right brush for the correct form is critical. The second, and more modem, attitude is more concerned with the state of mind and the aesthetic appearance of the characters than with readability. The emphasis here might be more on the ink or the paper than on the brush that is used. This style is referred to as the Japanese style, even though both styles are commonly used in Japan. Technique is the other major determining factor in choosing a brush. In Japan, there are four techniques, or styles, of writing. Jofuku,  which  means "dip once,'' is a style where the brush is dipped only once and narrow lines  are produced. Part of the idea is to finish before  the  ink runs  out, as well as  to do the stroke without hesitation. Of all the Japanese calligraphic styles, this one is most easily applied to Western watercolor techniques.

Cultural differences affect not  only style and  attitude  but also the composition of the brushes themselves. Chinese brushes, for example, are often composed  of just one type of animal hair: weasel, rabbit, or goat. While the Chinese do not differentiate between brushes that are used for calligraphy and those used for painting, the Japanese do make a clear distinction between the  brushes  intended for each purpose. Japanese brushes may contain one or more types of hair selected from horse, badger, sheep, goat, deer, cat, and, in some cases, weasel. Hair such as horsetail, badger, deer (from the animal's back), and weasel are selected for their firmness and are commonly  used  as the central core in building a brush. The softer hairs-sheep, goat, cat, and deer (from the inner  arch)-are selected for absorbency and are often wrapped around the  firmer central core. The softer and more absorbent hairs have a great  inclination  to  stay  together when wet. When used as the outer wrap, they tend to bind together the less absorbent firmer hairs of the core and give the brush more control.  Brushes  that are made primarily of coarse dark hairs such as horsetail are  left  partially  starched, up to one-third the length of the hairs near the ferrule, to give added control, and only the first half of the brush is actually used.

Oriental brushes are heavily starched to protect them until they are purchased. Before use, the starch should be removed by washing the brush in room-temper­ature water until the working length of the brush is fully loosened. The softer brushes, particularly the painting brushes, are always fully loosened.

A particular style of brush may have several names. One  name given to the brush may, for example, be taken from the family  who originally  made that style of brush. It might be a poetic description,  or simply  a listing  of  the composition of the brush. In some cases, no name is  used.  Since  names  cannot  be  relied upon, it is important to understand both the intended function  and  the composi­tion of an Oriental brush to make a proper selection. It might  be helpful,  how­ ever, to know that the Japanese have five descriptive terms that they use to distinguish the general appearance of round brushes. Flat brushes, as opposed to round brushes, are all lumped into one category and called hake.

The first category of round brushes is choho, which  means  "long  tip"  in  relation to the diameter of the handle. The Japanese use this type of brush in the jofuku style. The Chinese have a version of  this brush  in  which  the  hair can  be up to one-third the total length of the brush.  This  type of  brush  is commonly  used in the Zen style of painting, which resembles  the jofuku  style of calligraphy.  Chuho, which means "regular long hair," is the second category. Chuho refers to the basic painting brush. Category three is tanpoh, which translates as "short hair"  and  is  used  to describe brushes used for coloring. Menso, category four, means "small detail" and describes small brushes used for detail.

The fifth category, jakuto, or "peacock  head," is an  ancient  style of calligra­  phy brush,  which  is neither popular  nor even found  in the  West.  This brush has a long, thin handle with a ferrule that resembles a bulb and holds cat hair.

For the sake of simplicity, all the commonly used Oriental brushes have been broken down into two major types based on their intended use, whether for calligraphy or painting. The Japanese term for calligraphy is sumi, meaning ink.  The term for painting is sumi-e. Therefore, sumi brushes are for calligraphy and sumi-e brushes are for painting.  Because  of  the dominance  of Japanese  brushes  in the market, it has become common practice to refer to all Oriental brushes, regardless of national origin, by the Japanese terms sumi and sumi-e.


Calligraphy brushes are designed to be held perpendicular to the paper; the  width of the brushstroke is varied by  pushing  the tip down  into  the  paper or lifting  it up while moving the brush parallel to the  surface.  This  allows  for  the  proper flow of ink or watercolor from the belly of  the  brush  to the tip and  helps  the brush to maintain a  proper point. If  more than the first half of  the brush-the  tip  to the mid-length of the hairs-is used, or if the  brush  is  too  dry,  point  and control are lost.

Any brush that is to be used with watercolor or ink should  be  wet  before dipping it into the watercolor or ink. A large calligraphy brush should be  pre­  pared approximately fifteen minutes in advance by first thoroughly  soaking  it (hold the brush in water to soak-never allow the weight of  a brush  to be sup­ported by the hairs) in room-temperature water  to allow  trapped  air  to escape. The excess water may be removed by gently squeezing the hairs together without pulling on them. The brush should then  be  placed  upright  in a  jar to stand  for  the remaining length of  time.  Preparing  the brush  for this length  of  time gives the hairs a chance to soften and the scales to open and allow for the reduction of surface tension to increase absorbency.


When it is time to clean up, it is preferable to  rinse  the  brush  with  warm water. If Oriental ink (sumi) has been  used,  it is recommended  that some ink,  10 to 20 percent, be left in the brush to dry. This will cause a slight stiffness and  protect the hairs until the brush's next use. After the brush has been rinsed,  it should  be squeezed dry, reshaped, and hung tip down to dry. If wet  brushes,  particularly  large brushes, are left standing upright in a jar to dry, or stored away before they are thoroughly dry, the hairs will mildew, rot, and fall out.

Sheep or Goat Brushes are popular in China and Japan. Sheep or goat hair is long, at least 2 inches in length.  It is very  absorbent  and  can  be shaped  into a fine point when wet. Sheep hair has a natural  inclination  to stay together  when  wet and will, therefore, make it possible to maintain excellent control even  when all the protective starch has been removed and the hairs  have  been  fully  loosened.

Few types of hair will hold up well or make good control possible when the direction of a brush stroke is changed 180 degrees without stopping, or without lifting the tip of  the brush off  the working  surface. Sheep hair is very elastic and  is one of the few hairs that will survive this type of treatment.

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Horsehair Brushes are used primarily by the Japanese. Horsehair is popular because the length of the hair makes it possible to  create  extremely  large  brushes. Horsehair does not have any natural ability to stay together  when  wet,  and is often left partially starched, or is covered with an outside layer of  sheep hair. Calligraphy brushes made only of horsehair are loosened only one-half to two-thirds from the tip; the remainder of the brush is left permanently stiff, and  only the first quarter to one-half is ever used.

Horsehair is not as elastic as sheep and will not hold up as well if dramatic changes in direction are not accompanied by the lifting of the brush from the working surface. White horsehair, however, is an exception to this rule.

Weasel or Rabbit Brushes, or brushes made of a combination of weasel  and rabbit hair, are popular in China for calligraphy. Brushes made of these  hairs are for smaller calligraphy pieces and for everyday writing. They  are preferred  for their quick reponse and point. These brushes are used fully loosened.

Samba Brushes are highly prized among Japanese calligraphers because of the hair's great resiliency and point. They are used either partially or fully loosened. Samba brushes have become rare in the West and when found  are often expen­ sive. To the beginner, a samba  hair brush  often  tends  to feel  uncontrollable,  if not wild.

Badger Hair is used in Oriental brushes only in combination with other hairs. Badger hair adds resiliency to a brush.



Since watercolor painting is more sensitive to the quality of the  brush,  greater  care is often taken in selecting and assembling watercolor brushes than calligra­ phy brushes. It is not uncommon to use a watercolor brush for both watercolor and calligraphy, particularly in China.

The method of applying paint with a watercolor brush, although prescribed, is  not as restrictive as is the application of  ink  with  a  calligraphy  brush.  Most brush strokes still involve a combination of up and  down  movements,  onto and off the working surface, that are accompanied by parallel movements across the surface. The brush may be held at different angles, however, to give a greater variety of painterly effects. Skill at performing the various movements, coupled with knowledge of the way a particular style of  brush  will behave, allows the  artist to create spontaneously artwork  that is natural  to the eye  with a  minimum of effort and great economy of form.

Watercolor brushes are used fully loosened, and the full length of the hair is commonly used. Those brushes that are made with combinations of the more resilient hairs are not designed for 180-degree changes in direction without first being lifted from the working surface.

Watercolor brushes can be divided into those that are used primarily for ren­dering and those used mainly for sketching or shading.  Rendering  brushes, which are the menso style, are used  similarly  to  small  Western  watercolor brushes to produce detailed images through the use  of  multiple  small  brushstrokes and outlining. Sketching, or chuho-style, brushes and shading, or tanpoh-style, brushes are used for creating an image, often semi-abstract, with a minimum of brushstrokes. Sketching brushes are usually dipped into three values  of ink to create shading in one stroke. The brush is first dipped fully into the  lightest value, then it is dipped approximately one-half the length of  the hair into the middle value, and, finally, the tip alone is dipped into the darkest value.

Weasel, cat, and rabbit hair are used primarily in brushes designed for render­ ing. Sheep hair, horsehair, deer hair from the inner arch, bamboo, and blends of natural hair and synthetic filaments are used in brushes that are designed for sketching or adding color.

Japanese Weasel Brushes are sharply pointed, narrow, and small. The length of the exposed hair is longer than a Western sable brush of the same diameter. This brush closely resembles a designer's quill.  This  type  of  brush  is  commonly called menso and is used for detail drawing, line drawing, and  illustration.  It  can be used either partially loosened or fully loosened.

Chinese Weasel Brushes are sharply pointed and resemble Western watercolor brushes in shape and size. These brushes are used fully loosened. This style  of brush is commonly bought in a  set  of  three-small,  medium,  and  large.  The small is roughly equivalent to a size 7 Western watercolor brush and the large is comparable to a size 14. This style of  brush  behaves almost  identically  to that of a Western sable watercolor brush, and is one of the few Oriental brushes that can easily make the transition to Western watercolor technique.

Cat Hair Brushes are detail brushes that resemble Western spotting brushes in

Weasel or Rabbit Brushes, or brushes made of a combination of weasel  and rabbit hair, are popular in China for calligraphy. Brushes made of these  hairs are for smaller calligraphy pieces and for everyday writing. They  are preferred  for their quick reponse and point. These brushes are used fully loosened.

Samba Brushes are highly prized among Japanese calligraphers because of the hair's great resiliency and point. They are used either partially or fully loosened. Samba brushes have become rare in the West and when found  are often expen­ sive. To the beginner, a samba  hair brush  often  tends  to feel uncontrollable,  if not wild.

Badger Hair is used in Oriental brushes only in combination with other hairs. Badger hair adds resiliency to a brush.

Deer Hair (Inner Arch) Brushes are made in several styles. Deer hair  (taken from the inner arch) is used primarily by the  Japanese  in  brush  making.  It  is used to produce both chuho- and tanpoh-style brushes. There is one style called kumadori, a tanpoh brush, in which the better grades are made with 100 percent  deer hair. The lesser grades are blends of sheep, badger, horse, and, sometimes deer. Kumadori brushes look like  extra-large  Western  spotting  brushes;  the length of the hair is short and the shape  resembles  the  tip  of  a  bullet.  A kumadori brush is used for shading and to sketch semicircular  shapes,  such  as plum blossom petals. Shading is sometimes accomplished by loading this brush with plain water and running the tip of the wet brush along  a  painted  edge, causing it to bleed. This style of brush is popular among ceramists for applying glazes in designs to the surface of pottery.

Deer is often used in combination with such hairs as weasel and  horse  to produce an all-purpose sketching brush  that resembles  in appearance  the choryu, or seiryu, brush, but which  has a different  responsiveness.  The feel  of  this style of brush is like that of a Western watercolor brush, and it is commonly called by  the name of gyokuran or maruyama. This brush is used fully loosened.

Bamboo Brushes are made by leaving one end of a piece of bamboo to rot in the ground until it is soft. The individual fibers are then separated  by  mashing them with a mallet. This brush is used for both calligraphy and painting, when a distinct textured appearance is desired. Drawings or sketches with this brush will have an abstract quality.  


Blends of Natural and Synthetic Hair in Oriental brushes would seem to con­tradict romantic notions about the purity of the tradition in Oriental artists' mate­rials. Because of the substantial price increases in recent years, the temptation to use less costly ingredients for brush  making is no longer being resisted.  Because  of the sensitivity of sumi-e to the lack of  absorbency  inherent  in  synthetic brushes, the proportion of natural hair to synthetic hair  must  be  higher  than  would be found in Western brushes. If there is too little  natural  hair,  the paint  will collect at the tip of the brush rather than remain  in the belly.  The result will  be too much paint deposited at the beginning of  the  brushstroke  and  not enough at the end.

Early efforts by the Yasutomo Company to strike an effective balance between synthetic fibers and natural hairs to produce a more affordable category of Orien­tal brushes have been moderately successful. Their first efforts are in the choryu, menso, and hake styles of brushes. These brushes are  a  reasonable  alternative when cost is a serious concern.


Recommended Brush Assortments


THE FOLLOWING RECOMMENDATIONS are made without mention of quality' and are intended only as a guide.



Basic Assortment

One standard watercolor round, size 7 or larger. One watercolor flat, ¾ inch or larger.

One watercolor mop, twice the size of the standard round or larger.

General Purpose Assortment

Two standard watercolor rounds, one between sizes 5 and 7, and  one  between sizes IO and 12.

Two  watercolor  flats,  ½  inch  and  1  inch. One squirrel round, between sizes 10 and 14.

One watercolor mop that is at least twice the size of the larger standard water-,  color round brush.

For greater detail add:

One designers' round quill, English  size between  4 and  8 (or between  2 and  2/0 in French sizing where 8 is the smallest and 6/0 the largest).

One spotting brush, between sizes 4 and 8.

For a softer look add:

One oval wash brush, ¾ inch.

One hake brush, between 2 and 3 inches.

One one-stroke lettering flat, between I and I¼ inches.



There are  too many  variables,  such  as the size  of  the intended  painting  and the painting style to be used, to give specific recommendations. As for general rec­ommendations,  bristle is best if  a more textured  or an impressionistic  appearance is desired. Sable or sablelike brushes are best if a smoother or a more detailed appearance is sought.



There are countless styles in Oriental calligraphy, and brush selection would  depend on which style one intends to follow. However, if you wish to  begin without formal training and are interested  in  Japanese  calligraphy,  you  may begin  by selecting a round  brush  made with long sheep or goat  hair. This brush  is commonly recognized by a thin black stripe around the bamboo handle near where the hairs are inserted.

If a Chinese style of calligraphy is desired, select a Chinese weasel brush of a medium size.


Oriental painting technique is derived from calligraphy and, like calligraphy, has many styles. Its nature is less esoteric for Westerners and specific recommenda­tions are more easily made.



Basic Assortment

One basic painting brush like choryu, or seiryu,in a medium or large size.

One smaller and different-style basic painting brush such as gyokuran, or mar­ uyama, in a small size.

One detail brush, such as menso, in a medium  to  large  size.

One hake brush about 2 inches wide

For a general-purpose assortment add: 

One coloring brush like saishiki in a  small  or  medium  size. One shading brush like kumadori in a small to medium size.

One extra-small detail brush like those made of cat hair in small to medium size.



Basic Assortment

A set of  three  weasel  brushes-small,  medium,  and  large. If  cost  or availability is a problem, one large weasel brush will suffice.

One hake brush around 2 inches.

For a more general assortment add:

One rabbit hair brush in large to extra-large size. If not available you may sub­ stitute a brush like gyokuran.

One extra-long-hair brush made of sheep. You may substitute a long-hair sheep calligraphy brush.

Care Storage


There are four things that will end the life of a brush-wear, dried paint, mildew, and moths. Although there is little that can be done about wear, damage from dried paint, mildew, and moths can be easily avoided by proper cleaning, proper drying, and proper storage.



Thorough cleaning involves removing material that  gets caught  in  the scales of the hairs or that builds up near the ferrule. Material trapped in these locations prevents the brush from returning to its ideal shape.

Watercolor Brushes, both Western and Oriental, and calligraphy brushes made with natural hair, are best cleaned by rinsing with room-temperature water­ never use hot water on natural hair brushes-when watercolors or non-waterproof inks have been used. This preserves the natural oils in the hairs that protect them from becoming dry and brittle. However, since dyes are sometimes used, which stain the hairs and tend to dry out the brush and affect successive uses of other colors, and because it is difficult to be patient for all necessary rinsing, a clean­ing aid may be used .Do not clean watercolor brushes with anything  that  you  would  not be willing to use on your own hair. You would not  use  liquid  dishwashing  detergent  or paint thinner to wash your hair. Neither should these be  used  on  expensive brushes that could last for decades if properly cared for. True  soaps  such  as Ivory soap do far less damage  than chemical  detergents  and  are recommended  for cleaning fine brushes. Some of the new cake brush  cleaners  (the  Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver by B & J Company and Brush Soap  by  Grum­bacher) that have recently come on the market function like hair shampoos.


They contain mild chemical detergents combined with such conditioners as natural oils like lanolin, which replace what is removed in cleaning. Some  artists  use  their own shampoo and conditioner on their brushes. This would seem to be an acceptable alternative as long as the brush hairs are not made too oily from the conditioner, in which case they could lose their natural absorbency.

After a brush has been cleaned it should be reshaped and allowed to air dry thoroughly before being stored. The best way to allow a brush to dry, particularly a large brush, is to hang it with the tip down. This will help prevent moisture from being trapped in the ferrule, which would cause the brush to rot.

Acrylic Brushes

, or those used with vinyl paints, must  be  periodically  rinsed clean while you are working, because the paint that is trapped near the ferrule is drying while you are working  with  the tip.  Small amounts  of  paint  buildup in this area will not wash out once dry and will eventually render the brush useless. The only way to prevent this is to rinse the brush thoroughly every fifteen  to  twenty minutes with warm water. When finished, cleanup can be accomplished easily with soap and warm water, or with any of the new commercial brush cleaners.

If acrylic or vinyl paint has dried in a brush it can be removed with acetone. Acetone will, however,  rob a brush  of  a great deal  of  its life,  if  not destroy  it. (It should be noted that nylon brushes tend to dissolve in acetone.) Acetone is a hazardous substance, which can be absorbed through the skin, and frequent  use may reduce your life expectancy as well. Manufacturers of the new artists' brush cleaners claim that they can remove some dried acrylic paint. There  are  also artists' brush conditioners, such as Silicoil, which can help recondition a brush with dry and brittle hair.

Oil Brushes

Oil Brushes can be cleaned easily without the use of such solvents as turpen­tine, petroleum distillate, or paint thinner. (Paint thinner should always be avoided for cleaning brushes.) Plain soap and water, or an artists' brush cleaner, work extremely well after the  brush  has been wiped  free  of  excess  paint.  Ilut  this procedure is not workable when it's necessary to clean a brush quickly so that it can be loaded with a different color and continue to be used. In this case, the brush will have to be rinsed with thinner, but it should not be left sitting in thinner.

I recommend that a jar of solvent, such as turpentine,  be set  up with a coil  in the bottom of the jar. This provides a nonabrasive surface  to  scrub the  brush while rinsing it with thinner. The jar should have a cover to protect against evaporation when not in use. This will allow the rinsing of the brush  between  color changes as well as before final cleaning with soap and  water.  When  it is time for cleanup, the brush is first wiped clean of  excess  paint,  then  quickly rinsed in the jar of solvent, and finally washed and allowed to air dry. Peri­odically, a brush conditioner may be used to restore performance. This method keeps the exposure to thinners at a minimum.

As for brushes with dried oil paint, if an artists' brush cleaner is not suc­cessful, it is time to consider a new brush and better work habits.

Synthetic Filament Brushes can easily stand repeated exposure to solvents such  as turpentine, petroleum distillate, and most paint thinners. Solvents such as acetone, however, will dissolve nylon filaments. Synthetic brushes that have lost their shape, perhaps because the weight of the brush  was left resting on the tip,  may be restored by placing the brush in water that is hot, but  just  below  the boiling point.


After a brush has been cleaned, reshaped, and  air-dried,  it  has  to be protected. All brushes, whether made from natural hair or synthetic filament, have to be protected against mechanical  pressure.  Never store a brush resting  on the tip, or in a container so small that the tip is pushed  against  one of  the sides.  The hairs or filaments will take on a distorted shape that is difficult to undo. Natural hair brushes can sometimes be reshaped by giving them the equivalent of a shampoo and set. This involves rinsing the tip of the brush in warm water and attempting to reshape it. It  may  be  necessary  to repeat  this effort several times. Sometimes it is helpful to dip the brush into a solution of gum arabic after the warm water treatment to aid in reshaping.


Synthetic brushes may be reshaped with hot water. Natural hair brushes, especially expensive watercolor brushes, have to be pro­ tected from moths, which may lay their eggs on the hairs, which  will be food of the larvae when they hatch. Never place a brush in a plastic bag and put it in the dark. This may keep the moths off the brush, but you will be providing a fertile ground for mildew and rot.

I recommend using a Japanese brush holder for storage. This resembles a bamboo placemat with a string attached at  one end.  Brushes  are simply  rolled into the mat, which permits the circulation of air and protects the brushes from moths. If you are storing large brushes in a Japanese brush holder, it is a good precaution to wrap a cotton cloth around the holder to prevent insects  from crawling into the partially open end. Moth balls, or flakes, provide extra protec­tion and are particularly important when storing brushes in drawers.


These storage procedures are not necessary if the brushes are used every day; then they may simply be placed upright in  a  jar  when entirely  dry.  Whenever they are not to be used for several days, however, it is best to store them  away using one of the methods described.

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