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What makes a quality artists’ brush?

Series 7 brushesSometimes it is all too easy to forget about brushes, they are just the tool of application. Colour is the main player and naturally as artists we concentrate upon it. But the more you paint, the more you want tools that do what you want them to when you want them to.

In this article we are going to look at the three areas of brush, Natural, Hog and Synthetic; What they are, What they do, Where best used and Value.

A note about quality
As a student and for many artists afterwards in studios, money is tight. You may have little choice but to start with economically priced brushes. This is ok but bear two things in mind. Firstly, they will only just work, hogs will splay and soften, making messy marks and prevent you from controlling the colour. Synthetic brushes for inks, acrylics and watercolour will hold little colour and if very cheap will not even maintain their point. Secondly, they will deteriorate quickly and you are likely to find the cost of two or three cheap brushes is more than the artists' quality brushes that would work to start with and last longer.

Natural hair
There are three main natural hairs used for artists' brushes; sable, squirrel and goat. They all make relatively soft brushes and are therefore used for fluid colour whatever the medium.

Magnified sable hairSable is the perfect hair for brush making. Each hair is conical itself, springy and covered in microscopic scales (see diagram on left).

The conical shape and spring make a perfect point and the scales increase the surface area so the brush sucks up a lot of colour. The combination of all three also allows for the controlled release of colour.

There's only one problem with sable, it's costly. Over the years this leads to fragmentation and many many sables at varying prices. So, how do you know what to buy? Well at the bottom end a very cheap sable is probably worse (and more expensive!) than buying a good synthetic for point, or a good goat or squirrel for colour carrying, or a sable synthetic mixture.

Making a Series 7 brushAt the top end, both in quality and pricewise, is Series 7. Each Series 7 is made from a selection of different length hair, giving a longer and more tapered point. A worn down Series 7 will have the same profile as an ordinary sable brush. Series 7 are the only ‘taper dressed' sable brushes in the world.

Series 7 will hold more colour and form a stronger point and body because only the very best hair is used, only 5% of the available sable hair is used in Series 7 brushes. So in fact the higher price of these brushes is deceiving. When I moved from an ordinary sable to a Series 7, my painting time was reduced by 60%; I could complete washes in one go and I no longer had to keep swapping back to smaller brushes to get a point for the finer lines. I could spend more time on my ideas than on struggling with my materials. Couple that with the fact that they last longer, I would go for a Series 7 every time. Put some on your Christmas list! From Queen Victoria to artists on the Titanic, they've been the brush of choice for a very long time.

One last thing to remember too, the sizing of sables differs in different makes. Make sure you are comparing like for like before you invest. (See diagram below where both brushes are a Size 10 but differ in actual size.)

Size 10 sable brush size comparison

Now for the middle ground. When you have less available cash, invest in a good quality sable like Artists' Water Colour Sable. These are still much superior compared to synthetic brushes and will make glazing in oils and washes in watercolour far more accurate and controllable.

Squirrel hair makes good mop brushes because it has good colour carrying capacity. Comparing head sizes, a Winsor & Newton Pure Squirrel Pointed Wash is less than half the price of a good sable and if you mostly use washes then these are a good idea. The individual hairs are cylindrical and soft, so you will lose the good point and spring of a sable.

Goat also makes good mop brushes and they are very economical to purchase. Great at dropping large washes, the hair however is wavy and no point is possible.

Goat is the cheapest mop but squirrel is the better compromise before paying for the ideal sable.

Hog hair
Hog hair is a stiff natural hair, stout enough to pick up oil or acrylic colour straight from the tube. Each hair naturally ends in a ‘flagged' tip or split end, and this increases the colour carrying of the brush as it scoops up the colour from the palette.

Hog hair: flagged tipLike all things, hog brushes come in different qualities and therefore prices.

At the top end, the brush is made from the stiffest strongest hair, giving plenty of flag. Hog hair has a natural curve and each Artists' Hog is made carefully so that every hair curves inwards. This gives control when pressing on the canvas, the brush tip widens only to the size of the ferrule in general use. The strong, curved hairs stay in the brush head, no strays trailing colour where you don't want it. The best quality hogs also wear down gradually, maintaining their shape but getting smaller. These often become beloved brushes, you can't make them like that without years of painting! So here again we find that the higher priced brush has more value, at less than twice the price of a mid range hog it will outperform it and last much much longer.

The mid range hog is excellent value when your budget is restricted. It will be a little softer and will not wear as nicely but it is perfectly serviceable.

The most economical Winsor & Newton hog is the Azanta Black. This is a good entry level hog. It will get you started but it will not maintain its shape and will be softer than the more expensive ranges. Azanta Black is the right choice when you're strapped for cash, don't be tempted to go any lower, the cheapest hogs are so soft and weak and splay so much they are unusable.

Synthetic hair
Synthetic hair is made from polyester and can be made soft or stiff for both fluid media and thicker colour. It is a cheaper raw material than natural soft and hog hair, allowing more economical brushes to be made. But it's not only about the money, there are some aspects of synthetic brushes which are superior, so read on.

The softer brushes are made for the more fluid media. A good quality watercolour synthetic like Cotman gives an excellent point, especially in the small to medium sizes. Where you don't need the colour carrying of sable, Cotman are a really good choice. However, within their own category, Cotman brushes are particularly superior as they are made with different thickness filaments. This gives them greater colour carrying capacity than an ordinary synthetic brush.

If you need a little more carrying capacity combined with the economy of synthetic look no further than Sceptre Gold II, which is a blend of sable and synthetic but at a price much closer to Cotman than sable alone. Also have a look at Cotman mops which are around the price of goat but have a much more controlled release of the colour.

The stiffer synthetic brushes are made for oil and acrylic painting. Their benefit in comparison to hog is that they do not become floppy in prolonged contact with water. This is particularly important in Artisan, as oil colour takes so long to dry, the brushes are in use so much more during the painting day. The polyester is boiled to encourage it to turn inwards and the cheaper price of an Artisan versus an Artists' Hog should not be taken to indicate an inferior brush.

There are lower priced synthetics around but these have not been designed specifically for each type of painting, price being the priority. They will therefore not be as easy to paint with and they will not last as long.

Synthetic brushes also ensure vegetarians have the painting products they need.

Tips on brush care

All brushes will last longer if they are looked after but if you've invested in artists' brushes - make them work for you!

  • Don't stand your brushes head down in the brush pot whilst working.
  • Keep acrylic brushes rinsed whilst working so they don't dry hard.
  • Don't use sable brushes to mix large quantities, use a cheaper brush for any hard work.
  • After wiping and rinsing colour from brushes, wash them in warm water and soap, you will be amazed how much colour rinses away.
  • This will help to maintain their shape for much longer.
  • Shape washed brushes, dry handles and stand them uppermost to dry in a brush pot.
  • When not using regularly, store sables and other natural hair brushes away with a moth repellent.
  • Restore any bent synthetic brushes by dipping in slightly cooled boiled water for a minute or so.
  • Restore any splayed or bent brushes by washing thoroughly and then shaping up with Gum Arabic. Leave to dry for a few days at least before rinsing and using.

And finally........
When I was starting this article, my 10 year old asked what I was writing about. I answered, ‘Mmm, I have to write about brushes, what's a good one and how to make sure you have the one you need'. ‘Oh', she said, ‘that will be easy, just buy Winsor & Newton'!

For more information please see the individual ranges within Brushes.

Written by Artist Emma Pearce