Brushes Shapes & Hair
Sometimes called a one stroke, these are chisel-shaped brushes with
a straight edge that can smoothly release a very long stroke of paint,
used for laying down large areas of even color or water, precise color
edges, graded washes, and a variety of shapes less convenient to render
with a round. Nearly all the strokes made with a flat have
an angular or straight edge to them, so they are often used wet in wet
(which disguises these characteristic brush marks) or boldly in
"angular" painting styles. Sizes are usually measured in inches
along the flat edge, and typically include 1/8", 1/4",
3/8", 1/2", 3/4" and 1".
Rounds made with very fine, soft hairs (usually squirrel hair) that can
hold a large quantity of water when wet or can wick up a large quantity of
water when thirsty. Good mops come to a precise point and can be used for
very controlled applications of color or water from thin lines to sky wide
washes. These soft hairs limit the range of brush marks in
comparison to a round, but this coarser, "out of focus" effect
makes them ideal for backgrounds and large color masses. Sizes run from #0
Looking like miniature house painting brushes, wash brushes extend the
range of flats to much larger widths, hold much more water, and release it
over a wider area. Sizes typically include 1",
1-1/2", 2", 3" and sometimes 4", depending on
manufacturer and type of bristles used.
paintings will require two or more of these basic brushes. In addition,
there are a number of specialty brushes that are less frequently needed
because they are designed to serve limited purposes, usually some kind of specific
texturing effect which the basic brushes handle less effectively:
Flats with shorter (and usually stiffer) hairs -- usually about as long as
the brush is wide. They hold less paint than regular flats, but can be
used more assertively in lifting, splattering, scumbling, and similar
texturing techniques. Sized as flats.
Flats with synthetic fiber bristles and a clear plastic handle that ends
in a beveled edge, useful for burnishing, rubbing or scraping the
watercolor paper. Sized as flats.
Oval flats that come to a point when wet, usually made with soft bristles
such as squirrel hair, and used for graded washes where the
width of the wash strokes must be varied, or the wash is laced through
detailed brushwork requiring a point. Sized as rounds.
Brushes with very long, thin hairs, originally used to paint the rigging
lines in nautical paintings, but great for any rendering of fine long
lines. The long tip of a good rigger will hold a fair
amount of paint and will disguise minor wobbling in the hand through the
spring of the tuft. Sized as rounds.
Basically a rigger wrapped in a round. The hairs often do not come to a
needle point, so that the line rendered can be made thicker, while the
length of the liner tuft allows the line to keep a more consistent width
than the line possible with a round. The belly hairs hold a large charge
of paint, which lets you paint a rather long line for its width. Sized as rounds.
A stubby round tapering quickly to a precise point, used for painting
signatures, short lines that vary in width, stippling, hatching, rendering
single leaves, and similar effects. Sized as rounds.
As the name indicates, brushes with a fan shape used for drawing
grass or twig clusters of parallel lines and for softly
adjusting washes. Sized as rounds.
brush. Collapsible round or
mop brushes that encloses the tuft in the handle for protection during
travel. Only useful for quick sketching with a pocket pan
set and a small block of watercolor paper. The largest sizes can be used
for washes, and travel mops are also available from Isabey.
Sized as rounds.
These come in many styles and sizes. The gyokuran or koraku
are basically calligraphic tools: they deliver elegant flowing strokes
that characteristically change texture as the fluid in the brush is
exhausted, from the wet beginning of the stroke to the dry finish. This is
partly because the brushes have a poor carrying capacity, and release
liquid fairly quickly; and also because the goat hair tufts are coarse and
soft. For the traditional Japanese calligraphy, which develops a skill in
handling the old kanji ideograms as artistic icons, this variation
in texture has a lovely expressive effect. In most other painting
situations, it can be a nuisance. Sized in inches.
flat hake brushes are used dry (without any water or paint in them)
to gently stroke and coax the distribution of paint or water in wash areas
after the wash solution has been applied with another (wash) brush. Some
are designed as individual tufts set in a row of bamboo stalks; others are made as a single row of hairs set in a thin, flat
wooden handle. They are quite limp when wet, and shed hairs relentlessly,
which makes them nearly worthless as direct painting tools; when the hairs
are wet they also straggle across a wash, leaving unsightly marks. Sized
Nearly all the magic in a brush is in the selection of the tuft materials and how they are shaped and secured to the handle. This determines the resiliency or "spring" in the brush, how much water it can hold, the variety of effects it can render, and how long it stands up to use.
most exalted hair for use in watercolor brushes is kolinsky sable,
made from the winter pelts of the Siberian kolinsky, Mustela siberica,
a variety of weasel or mink (shown at left, wondering why you are so
interested in his tail). Considered the ideal hair for watercolor brushes,
kolinsky sable is durable and holds a lot of water; at its best, it has a
spring and resilience unmatched in any other brush material.
the brush maker's world, the strict definition of "kolinsky"
refers to hair from the tail of the winter pelt of a male animal; this
hair is a distinctive orange brown with a dark tip. The animals must live
in extremely cold climates for the hair to achieve the desired thickness
and length; kolinskies do not breed in captivity, so the animals must be
caught in the wild by vodka fortified trappers.
desirable grades of hair also called "kolinsky" come from the
back or flanks of the pelt, from female animals, and from summer coats;
this hair is sometimes very different from the winter male tail. The point
is simply that the kolinsky does not have a year round consistent crop of
hair, as your cat or you do (with or without Rogaine); so the label
"kolinsky" cannot refer to a specific set of hair attributes.
it gets worse. Some "kolinsky" brushes are actually made from
the pelt of related species of sable or mink, usually grown in captivity
in somewhat warmer climates. These are more accurately described as types
of red sable, but are marketed as "kolinsky" all the same.
Conclusion: the label "kolinsky" as applied to currently
available watercolor brushes does not mean any consistent type of hair or
hair attribute. The right attitude is always to replace the word
"kolinsky" with the word "varmit," and proceed to
evaluate the brush from there.
special merit of a kolinsky hair is that it gently tapers at both ends,
with a very sharp point at the tip and a widening of the shaft (the belly)
about two thirds of the hair's length from the tip to the root. The taper
of the hair from the belly to the tip is what allows kolinsky brushes to
point so well.
kolinsky brushes are expensive, sometimes exorbitantly so. There is heavy
marketing emphasis on kolinsky hair brushes, which is ironic since many
experienced artists feel that the quality of kolinsky and sable hair has
declined significantly over the past few decades. And this marketing
pressure distorts the integrity of the final products.
are many steps from harvesting the hair to tying off the tuft of a brush
-- the wholesaler sells a range of qualities, and the hairs purchased from
the brush manufacturer must be further inspected and sorted, and some
manufacturers are more rigorous than others about discarding broken, short
or falsely labeled hairs from their stock. The supplies available to
wholesalers vary because of many business and environmental factors; some
wholesalers are better than others about informing their clients of these
In short, without manufacturer or import regulations, and given the fundamental variation in the seasonal pelts of these sexually dimorphic mammals, the mere label "kolinsky" tells you nothing about the quality of the brush you are buying, and as often or not is misleading as to one or more qualities of the hair actually used. If you can visit a well stocked art retail store, compare the brushes from different manufacturers and see for yourself!
Them: Here's a way to test
them, Pick out a few medium size brushes comb out the glue holding the
hairs together, and soak them in some water for a few minutes. Stroke them
against some watercolor paper until they form proper points. Take each
brush separately and hold it perpendicular to the paper surface, then
lightly press down on the brush until the point bends. Lift the brush.
Those made of male hair will snap back straight, while others hairs ( red
sable or mostly female kolinsky) will remain slightly bent.
sable. This is usually hair
from the marten or sable Mustela martes or Mustela zibellina,
slightly thinner and stiffer than kolinsky but comparably resilient and
thirsty. Red sable is usually a somewhat darker and duller brown than
kolinsky, and the tips are a little blunter because the hair has a more
abrupt taper. Because red sable hair is not as long as kolinsky, there
usually is less hair visible outside the ferrule in a red sable brush (the
ferrule must pinch the hair just below the belly to get the tapering
effect). Sable can make excellent brushes when the hairs are high quality
and are arranged properly by the brush maker. In many brush brands,
"sable" hair is almost indistinguishable from the
hair. A dark, soft, dense
hair that is normally used in brushes that must hold a lot of water or
that do not need spring in the tip (for example mops, flats, filberts,
wash brushes). Squirrel is an exceptionally soft, absorbent hair. All
varieties produce a brush that is very absorbent, not springy, but that
comes to an excellent point. Kazan squirrel hair is brown, thin and quite
soft, sometimes with a salt-and-pepper speckling of white. Canadian
squirrel is a slightly thicker, less resilient, considerably shorter hair
with more belly; it is usually a variegated yellow and black.
hair. Usually a brown or
reddish hair, long yet stiff, taken from the ears of cattle. It will not
come to a point because the hair is roughly cylindrical throughout its
length. It is inexpensive, strong and springy, which makes it great for
rougher brush techniques. It is also often mixed with other less resilient
materials (such as inexpensive sable or synthetic fibers) to give the ox
hair tuft a better pointing capability. Sabeline is very fine ox
hair, dyed red to match the color of red sable, and either used by itself
or with sable (or nylon fibers) in blends.
bristle. A pale or white
bristle, very stiff, taken from the ears of hogs. "Bristle"
means that the shaft does not come to a single point but frays or splits
near the tip into "flags" or small protrusions. These tend to
reduce the capillary action, making bristles more suitable for oil or
acrylic brushes. Watercolorists sometimes choose them in brights or fans
for textural effects, or in brushes used for scumbling or scrubbing away
(lifting) paint layers or painting mistakes.
hair. Another hair more
commonly used in acrylic or oil brushes. Has a very distinctive and
delightful coloring: brown tipped, white banded, then dappled white and
black along the shaft. Holds a lot of liquid, and is stiff but with
velvety tips. Some watercolorists use these brushes for textured washes
and a variety of scumbling effects.
hair. A long, coarse, wavy
and limp hair that is most often found in Japanese wash and calligraphic
brushes. Because the shaft is very soft, wavy and cylindrical (does not
taper to a point), it is not suitable in traditional rounds that require a
The most appropriate translation for this label is "an inexpensive
brush not made from a camel." The hair is not from a camel, is too
inexpensive to label accurately, and may be many other types of hair
besides sable (typically the hair is black squirrel, or a blend of two
natural hairs such as squirrel and ox).
The variety of synthetic fibers on the market is large and growing. The
best synthetics are as resilient as sable and as thirsty as squirrel,
though they soften and wear quickly in use. Tapered synthetic fibers
retain their shape better than "level filament" (untapered)
fibers. They are used in the same shapes as other brushes: flats, brights,
filberts, and rounds. Synthetic fibers are made of nylon, polyester, or
other filaments. Color is not a factor in judging their quality.
best synthetic fibers are extruded and treated in different configurations
to resemble natural hair. Increasingly sophisticated extrusions are making
it possible to produce much less expensive brushes with many of the same
qualities as natural hair. Synthetic brushes also combine filaments of
different diameters to achieve various qualities. Brush fibers are mostly
of Japanese manufacture, though they are also made in the USA and Europe.
generally don't point very well when used alone in rounds, so they are
often mixed with natural hair. Many lines of brushes available today mix
bristle types, for example natural sable with synthetic fibers, or ox hair
with red sable (these are called blends). These mixed bristle
brushes are often bargains and produce perfectly satisfactory results.
Many artists purchase synthetics by the dozens because they are so
inexpensive, and throw them away as soon as the brush begin to wear or
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