'January' Monthly Column - Brush Anatomy and Types
“Use the right tool for the right job” – Anonymous
“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" – Abraham Maslow.
It’s self-evident that the most important tools miniature hobbyist uses are their paint brushes. Fortunately -- or unfortunately if your easily overwhelmed-- no other tool is offered in such a wide variety of shapes, bristle types, and manufacturers. This results in most hobbyists making their brush purchases based on anecdotal evidence or through blind trial and error. Even worse, many people aren’t even aware of the variety of brushes, which most artists are well familiar with. Exploring these can provide some new options for applying paint beyond the ‘pointed round’ or the cheap flat brush.
In Part 1 of this series, my goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of brushes and their properties allowing you to make informed purchase decisions based on your budget, painting needs and personal preferences. I want to stress that there are no right or wrong brushes to purchase, save avoiding the most useless or poor quality brushes.
*** The only brush I think you should NEVER consider are disposable ‘chip’ brushes.
These brushes have the worst of all worlds; they have terrible paint retention, flow and shed bristles like a husky shedding its winter coat in April. Enough said. ***
In Part 2, I will cover my current brush collection, how I have been using them, and my thoughts about each. I’ll make some suggestions for brushes to have on hand as well. In Part 3, I’ll be covering cleaning and maintenance of paint brushes, including my own experiments.
Even if you are new to the miniature scale hobby, understanding brushes in more detail will speed your learning and enjoyment of the hobby. But for those who are completely uninterested in understanding brushes, you could skip to Part 2 of this series. But knowing the properties of brushes will provide you with an understanding of why I chose them and how to use the brushes I recommend. So intrepid artists… Let’s look at brushes in minute detail.
*** Disclaimer – As a vegan, I work to avoid using natural hair brushes in my art. But I promise to give unbiased assessments of their qualities, properties and uses. While I would love for you to only use synthetics, *grin*, I respect personal preferences and natural hair brushes offer qualities not available in synthetics. I have had many natural hair brushes on my bench over the years, and still have several, so I have plenty of experience with them as well.
Bristle Anatomy –
The shaft and tip of a paint bristle has a large effect on paint retention and flow. Although you can’t see the details with your eye, knowing what is there is an important first step in choosing a brush.
Bristle tips can either be “flagged” or tapered (or square if they have been cut). Flagging refers to the individual hairs having ‘split ends’. Flagging improves paint retention as well as the even flow of paint from the bristle.
The shaft of a natural hair bristle is unique in that it has scales. These scales increase the surface area of the bristle giving it improved paint holding abilities.
While scales are only found on natural hair bristles, flagging has been used in large synthetic bristles for a long time. New technological improvements are allowing for flagging on very fine bristles, but it is still rare among synthetic artist brushes. Read the manufacturers description of their brushes to see if their synthetics that have flagged tips.
Princeton Polytip Brushes have this flagging for example. (I wish I had bought one for this column but I just discovered them as I write this.)
Bristle Types –
This is a brief overview of the most relevant bristle hairs useful to miniature modeling. There are several other natural hairs not covered. For additional reading, see a good summary provided by: Silver Brush Series – bristle type and softness
Sable – The beloved ‘Kolinsky Sable’ has confusing information about the source of the hairs as well as which hairs are best. There is also confusing information about the status of the 'sable' animal. So what follows is the best I can do:
The name ‘Sable’ is a common name for a marten (Martes zibellina), which is in the weasel family.
It can also refer to the Siberian Weasel ( Mustela sibirica ).
I’ve read that original Sable Marten is a protected species now and the Siberian Weasle is harvested for sable hair brushes. But the status of the Sable Marten is ‘least concern’ so clearly martens should be o.k. to harvest. They were under serious threat during the first half of the 20th century due to trapping them for their fur. The Soviet Union put in trapping limits and the population rebounded. It appears that they are farm raised now, though I’ve read they can’t be farmed? Maybe it is the weasel being farmed now? It's pretty confusing.
The quality of sable can supposedly vary widely, depending on the climate the marten lived in, where on the body the hair was taken from (the tail being best) and even whether it was a male or female marten – males are best. And weasels, which are substituted for martens (perhaps?) are considered to have a lower quality of hair. On top of that most brush manufacturers blend hairs to lower costs while retaining quality.
Red Sable however is used to indicate the hairs are specifically from the weasel. I’ve read that good quality red sable brushes can approach the quality of marten sable brushes.
So, what Sable am I getting when I buy a brush? Who knows? But I think that for the most part, it might not matter too much. Personally, I’m not going to notice huge differences between sable hairs based on my level of skill as a painter. However, a higher level painter may notice and be willing to pay $28+/brush for a Winsor Newton Series 7 miniature painting brush . I will say though, I have noticed problems with sub-par sable brushes and I’ll share that with you in part 2.
The main advantages of sable brushes is their ability to form excellent tapered tips, excellent paint holding, and good spring. I do notice the difference in taper and paint holding between sable and synthetics and sable is definitely superior in these regards.
Sable/Synthetic Blends – Now companies are producing brushes with blends to maximize the benefits of each bristle. (Again, I wish I had bought one for these columns but I just discovered them as I write this… Who knew?)
Fitch – A coarser and lower quality bristle compared with sable. It is sometimes marketed as Black Sable or Russian Sable. I have not seen any brushes labeled as Fitch to date, but I think I have seen Russian Sable in the past.
Hog/Boar (a.k.a ‘White Bristle’ or ‘China Bristle’ where most is imported from) – A stiff bristle with a natural flag at the tip. It has really good durability and resists splaying and fraying. It’s best suited to heavy bodied paints like oils, latex and heavy acrylics and holds up even when using them to scrub paint in.
Badger – Unusual in that the bristles are thickest at the tip giving it a bushy shape. It’s a relatively stiff bristle.
Taklon – Originally delveloped by DuPont, it was sold to Toray Chemical Co. and is sometimes labeled as ‘Toray’ instead. It is the most common synthetic material used in brushes. It’s an extruded filament with a very fine taper to the bristle. Usually multiple diameters of bristles are combined in a brush to affect its stiffness and paint holding ability. It is available in white or dyed yellow/orange and the dyeing process can soften the bristles and increase their paint retention.
Natural hair brushes overall: * Have superior paint retention due to hollow shafts, flagging, and/or scales. * Are more difficult to clean and maintain – for the same reasons above. * Offer a wider selection of stiffness * Provide the best pointing (in sable brushes) * Have higher pricing * Can vary in their quality based on environmental and economic factors * Are susceptible to damage from acrylics. (The pH of acrylics is damaging to natural hairs)
Synthetics Overall: * Tend to be lower cost * Are more resistant to damage, both mechanical and from acrylic paints * Are easier to clean and maintain * Have excellent consistency in quality
Brush Sizes: a.k.a “What do those numbers mean???”
The quickest answer is to say that brushes get smaller as the number decreases. Duh! But the problem in providing a better answer is that there are no standards for labeling brush sizes. They vary from company to company making direct comparisons impossible. The only chart I could find with actual measurements was Dick Blick’s chart for their own line of brushes – included in the resources section.
Unfortunately, the artist is left to purchasing brushes from a single company to predict sizes, or sampling brushes from multiple companies to find the correct size desired. *shrug* I thought I would sleuth out this mystery since I’ve wondered about it for a long time. Turns out, I can’t.
Brush head shape:
There are a wide variety of brush shapes but only a few are relevant for our purposes.
The most common for miniature painting and detailing is the ‘pointed round’.
The points allows for detailed painting, but tends to have a narrow brush belly. The brush belly affects how much paint the brush will hold and how often you need to return to the palette for more paint.
A full-bellied round improves the amount of paint that can be held which can be very useful for thinned paints/washes over large areas.
Having now used a full-bellied round, I can see its advantages in many applications.
Another useful shape is the ‘flat shader’.
The shape allows paint to be applied over a wider area and this can be helpful for applying washes to large areas or for drybrushing. A small shader can detail drybrush areas of a miniature and a larger shader might be suitable for a building for example.
A ‘bright’ is a variation of this where the corners are rounded slightly.
This shape allows a broad contact of the tip with less risk of the corner striking an adjacent area. Useful for drybrushing right up against a building for instance.
Related is the ‘angle shader’.
For our needs, the angle shader fills the same role as the flat shader. But the angled brush tip allows the brush to be held at an angle when working on a horizontal surface which improves control and can reduce fatigue.
A rarely considered brush is the ‘script/liner’
It is designed to hold a large amount of thinned paint for creating long strokes (like signing your work). I’ve been experimenting with a liner and I find it to be very useful where many thin strokes are needed with a pointed round. It holds a large amount of paint reducing the time to go back to the palette, but it needs thinned paint to work properly. I used it extensively for painting the stitching of the hide roof of the ork hut I completed.
Another specialized brush is the ‘angle detailer/spotter’
Designed to get into tight areas, I found I needed it (and was glad I purchased it) for a skull tucked in a tight area. There was no other brush I could have used to paint it.
However, for any sizeable work such as terrain requires a larger brush. Here you should examine ‘area brushes’ 1-4” in width. When covering large areas a larger brush will create more uniformity in your painting, especially when drybrushing!
When doing very large areas, consider even larger brushes such as a 3-4” house paint brush.
A larger brush will hold much more paint and will save A LOT of time when drybrushing a large playing surface.
Obviously there is a crazy ton of brush options out there. Selecting the right brush at the right time can make painting – of any sort – go faster, yield better results and possibly save you some money.
I purchased a handful of new brushes for these columns and now have over 20 different brushe shapes, sizes and bristles to choose from. I can genuinely say that each brush has a specific role in my arsenal. Obviously that many brushes are not needed since several can fill multiple roles. But knowing I have a brush for every need lets me make the best choice for the task at hand.
But before you go out and start buying new brushes, I encourage you to read Part 2 of this brush series. I’ve been using a wide variety of brushes lately and I’ll be sharing my experiences with them. Not all brushes are equal after all.