The Truth About Brushes
What to look for when purchasing a brush for oils or acrylics.
The truth is, most artist brushes are mass produced in the same manufacturing plants to keep the costs down. Until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the trade of new materials were available, the Old Masters painted strictly with round brushes handmade by themselves or their apprentices using local materials. Now mass production enables some Companies to have their branded handle put in the same ferrule as their competitors. The country of origin can be found either on the handle itself or on the barcoded sticker usually found at the bottom of the handle. A lot of brushes are mass produced in the Dominican Republic or Sri Lanka. The three examples below are examples of excellent quality synthetic brushes and the brush made in spain, was entirely made by hand, in-house.
The best and most expensive brushes are made by hand, never by machine, by skilled expert hands with generations of experience and there are only a few artisans left in the world manufacturing the entire brush in-house. Not to say that in order to paint a competent or even a masterpiece you need to purchase the most expensive brush on the market. Most important is to be able to distinguish why some brushes cost so much and appreciate what you're actually getting (or not getting) for your money.
At the moment there is no International Standard for artist's brushes. This is why you'll find that a number 4 in one brand may look like a number 8 in another. Another drawback to not having a "standardization" means that any manufacturer is allowed to say their product is of "artist quality". They can also be ambiguous as to the quality of the hair in the brush. Brush hair and synthetic filaments vary greatly in grades and price. Natural hair should be flagged at the tip, which means each hair should have a 'split-end'. Expensive natural hair brushes should never be cut at the tip; the trimming should all be done at the root. Quite often there will be more hair beneath the ferrule than on the outside. The two brushes below are examples of the best you can buy. The bristles and filaments are of the best quality. They are secure. The handles are protected and the ferrules are tightly crimped.
There is currently a shortage of quality natural hair, hence the hefty price for many quality brushes. This is also why you'll never find a fine quality brush at a 2$ Shop. The cheap brushes are usually cut along the top of the bristle and they lose their flagged tip. Good quality Artist's brushes also have brass or copper ferrules that are nickel or gold plated. These ferrules are finely crimped and do not have a seam. Good handles should be made from hardwood and be well lacquered with several coats.
An example of a lower cost brush that has inferior qualities is this one below. Not only does it not have any paint or lacquer to protect the handle from swelling, it is poorly crimped so the water will easily crawl up the ferrule reaching the filament, causing it to fall out.
All brushes used for acrylic and oils eventually wear down and have to be replaced. The amount of time a brush lasts depends a lot on how vigorously you paint or how diligent you are with the cleaning. Don't throw away your warn out brushes though because often they can be used for scumbling; even the inexpensive Chinese brushes, which we call "suicide brushes" are useful for some techniques. Acrylic paint is brutal on all brushes, but your brushes will last longer if you wet the brush first before loading it. Never clean your oil brushes with linseed oil as this is a drying oil and will eventually clog the ferrule. Never let your acrylic paint get so deep into the ferrule that it can't be removed. Both will dry and spread the hairs on the brush leaving a gap right in the middle of the hair or filament.
Below is an example of a brush that has dried acrylic down in the ferrule.
The brush below is a another good example of what will happen. A customer brought this brush into our shop (purchased somewhere else!) to ask, why it started to lose the bristles. Notice the glue at the end of the bristles and how little glue there really is to keep the bristles in tact. Once the un-lacquered handle came in contact with water, the brush was history.
If you're going to buy cheap brushes, make sure that you pull all the loose hairs out before painting so that you're not spending time picking out rogue hairs in your artwork. Even the cheapest brushes should have painted or lacquered handles. If the paint cracks on the handle of the cheaper brushes, it means again, that the water has penetrated the handle and caused the wood to swell. The same applies if the hair or filament suddenly starts to fall out.
The two examples of brushes down below are similar in style and priced comparatively. The brush on the left however, has a highly lacquered handle and although you can't see from the outside, the hair runs half-way down the ferrule with a greater amount of glue. Also notice the sizing difference...not much although one is a size 2 and the other a 14.
Both synthetic and bristle brushes can be used for painting with either oil or acrylic paints. However, I used the brush down below only 4 times to acrylic prime my boards for the workshop, each time cleaning it well when I finished. It didn't take long for the ferrule to start discoloring the handle and the bristles are already starting to fall out. This brush retails for just under $25.00. I would have been better off using a cheaper Chinese brush instead of paying for a brush made in Germany.
Remember that anything goes! (see blow) And, some of the most amazing paintings ever created were painted with sticks, feathers, fingers, make-shift brushes and now, on a computer tablet! And finally, be weary of those "demos" where retailers are brand specific. This is usually because they have a vested interest in certain brands. Ask other artist's what they use to get certain effects, read unbiased reviews and remember that every brush has a purpose.
For more information on Watercolour brushes (a whole other animal!), please see our tips and techniques page.
Just for fun we had our Stig paint with his fingers in our studio. He painted for about an hour and a half. Below are the results and what we think is a good example of the importance of form and color no matter what the tool. Here is what le Stig said:
"I haven't finger painted since I was very little. It was fun but my detail pinky has grown. I much prefer my brushes as it was harder to clean the paint under my nails than in my bristles."
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About Takapuna Art Supplies
Located in downtown Takapuna Beach on the North Shore, our store has been serving the local art community for more than twenty years. We are owned and operated by working, professional artists and have become the place where like minded creatives choose to gather, share and inspire.
We are the only art supply store in the greater Auckland area that has a working artists' studio on premises. Our experienced and knowledgeable staff are always happy, willing and able to demonstrate techniques and share tips on the use of various artist materials.
Our focus is to encourage the pursuit of personal artistic expression and to share our expertise and love for the visual arts.
- Jim Auckland & Sandy Collins