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Thursday, October 2, 2014

All About Brushes

    Have you ever wondered, "What's the difference between Kolinsky Sable and Taklon?" or, "Why do they make some brushes with super long handles while others are rather short?" I look forward to getting lost in the paintbrush isle. If you spend a little time there, you may start to see some familiar faces. After all, the difference between a makeup artists' foundation brush and a synthetic fiber Filbert are only in the name.

    Makeup and canvas painting collide in this article to give body painters like myself a common ground to stand on. Many of us have come from a fine art background and just as many have come from the makeup artist realm without fine art experience. This is an effort to explain to both parties what they're looking at when they purchase, care, and feed their brushes.

    Now, to begin to understand the subtle differences in brushes we need to begin with their anatomy. Though fairly basic, the differences in length, shape, and width are what define the brush's purpose.


    Brush handles can be made of wood or plastic. Higher quality brushes are made from hardwood and well lacquered to prevent water damage. When purchasing any wooden handled brush, the handle should be sealed. Cheap brushes may have raw wood handles.

    Why are some handles long while others are short?

    Long handled brushes (anywhere from 9 to 14 inches, give or take) are generally intended for oil painting, allowing the artist the ability to work at a distance. This is especially convenient for artists who like to work on a larger scale. Shorter handled brushes may be labeled "watercolor/acrylic" but the modern oil painter can also use these. Knowing that you like to focus in on detail and work close to your canvas, regardless of medium, would narrow down your search for the perfect brush. 


    The ferrule is the metal joint between the bristles and the handle, most commonly nickel-plated steel. A well-crimped ferrule prevents water from seeping into the wood of the handle. It is not crooked and does not wobble. A poorly crimped ferrule will make the brush harder to control. Strokes will be less predictable and it may leave stray bristles behind in your paint. Not cool.

    Poor care can loosen the ferrule overtime, as well. My first set of oil brushes from highschool sounds like maracas. 


    The tuft (Bristles), will have a point (tip) and a belly (body). The most basic brush shapes, are rounds and flats. Both of which have specialized cousins. Let's broaden your view of the artists' brush family tree.

    The back row is all rounds, aside from the bright to the far right.
    The front row, starting left: Fan, large round, smaller round, angle flat, and a flat.

    • Round- My favorite brushes are rounds. The ferrule is always round but the tip may not always be pointed. Perfect for thick to thin lines.

    • Flat- A square ferrule with bristles that are long and flat at the tip. The body resembles a rectangular shape compared to the Bright.

    • Bright- looks like a shorter Flat with bristles that are as long as the ferrule is wide, basically resembling a square. Both spread paint quickly and evenly. Brights tend to be stiffer and provide more control.

      Meet the Angles
      The Angles' Dagger Tip cousins.
    • Angle- flats with an angled tip. Its cousin, the Dagger tip, has an even more exaggerated angle. Both can be useful for precision strokes, curves and interesting brushwork.

    • Filbert- flats with a rounded corners at the tip. They make good blenders.

    • Mops/Oval Wash/Domes have a broad, domed tip for washes or delicately blended paint and glaze application. This brush is the fine art cousin of the Dome brush found in makeup artists' brush sets.

    • Fans (whom also have relatives in makeup cases) can be used for broad blending, dry brushing, and creating interesting textural effects.

     Can you tell which are for paint and which are for makeup?

    Here's a Filbert full-length family portrait. The light blue handles are acrylic artist brushes I bought specifically for my makeup kit. The green handle is an oil artist's brush. The rest are from assorted makeup brush sets. Did you guess right?

    Badger Fan Brush

    Tuft Fibers

    What makes natural hair so special?

    The grade A, top-of-the-line, fiber is Kolinsky Red Sable.
    These fibers are from the tail of the sable, naturally tapering to a point. The hair is far superior to synthetics when it comes to collecting and distributing paints and pigments. Watercolor artists and Makeup Artists love Sable and Badger hair brushes for this reason. The color pay out is like night and day when applying eyeshadow. Squirrel hair is considered a cheaper alternative that still retains that super soft texture.

    What about natural hair bristles that are not soft?

    Hog bristle (AKA China Bristle or Chungking) remains stiff even with years (in the case of some of my oil brushes) of use. I need them to stand up to canvas. They grab paint and push it into textured surfaces, leaving textured strokes. Chungking has no place in the makeup/body art world, in my opinion.

    Is there a downside to natural bristles?

    The nuances of natural fiber that make them extremely valuable also make them harder to care for. As a fine artist you will have to baby them. Improper cleaning can destroy the bristles and improper storage can easily misshape the tips. For makeup artists, the brushes' ability to trap pigment also allows them to trap dead skin cells and bacteria.

    What are my synthetic brushes made out of? What are my options?

    Polyester or, its derivative, Taklon (a product of DuPont) or even Polyester Nylon blends.
    These are the ones that will be marketed "vegan friendly and allergen free."These fibers are also available in smooth or stiff varieties.

    There are a number of reasons to choose synthetics over natural fibers. Price being one of the strongest!
    All of the brushes I use for body painting are synthetic, mostly for ease of cleaning which I will go into later. While oil painting, I love the heavily textured, impasto feel so I reach for stiff synthetics and hog bristle. Painters with a smoother, more blended style will go for finer synthetics or natural hair. Of course, the ideal makeup artist's brush set would contain the finest natural hair.


    You're going to have to try them out for yourself. What feels right in your hand? The problem with the brush world is that there is not a universal sizing system. Every brand has their own idea of what a size 4 brush should be. Once you go beyond size 12 in almost every brand, they begin marking sizes by their tuft width, in inches. 

    Care and Feeding of Brushes

    Thorough cleaning is doubly important if the brushes are being used for makeup application. My soft synthetic body paint brushes are cleaned with an oil free facial cleanser meant to remove makeup, a clarifying shampoo will work wonders also. When in a pinch, I use regular hand soap. Natural brushes can be cleaned with a mild soap or shampoo. Synthetics can be treated just as delicately but, in my opinion, stand up to quite a bit of abuse.

    Use a solvent to remove paint from oil painting brushes before washing. If you don't clean it, you will lose it! I clean my stiff synthetic oil paint brushes with a pumice soap.
    I was taught to never leave brushes sitting in solvent and to never keep so much solvent in your container that it reaches above the brush's ferrule. This always made sense to me. I imagine the solvent can eat away at the epoxy that holds the bristles together or eat the wooden handles.

    Never wash with hot water as it may cause the ferrule to expand.

    This applies to ALL brushes. Let your brushes rest horizontally to dry. Drying bristles down, touching any surface, will warp the tip. Drying bristles up will allow water to seep into wooden handles through the ferrule and ultimately damage the brush.

    Tip: If you are concerned that your brushes will misshape while drying, wrap the bristles in tissue or toilet paper. As the brush dries, the tissue will contract and align the bristles.

    Can brushes be brought back to life? Will they ever look new again?

    If you forget your brushes in a container or store them bristle down (please don't do that), you will notice that all of our lovely rounds now have bed head.
    All is not lost! 
    I have used cold cream in the past with a fair amount of success. More experienced painters have recommended hair gel to me.

    From Denise Cold of  Painted Party- "I bent up the tips of a few brushes because I put 'em away wet like they say in old westerns. I lay my brushes down in the top part of my FatMax and I forgot to move the rounds on an angle and so they pressed against the side....anyway....
    I was going to share how I fixed them. I tried to wrap them but they were so small I couldn't do it so I used my air curler (like a curling iron only with air and bristles instead of a clamp. I heat it up for a few seconds and lay the wet brush against the warm metal and also dragged the brush against it while twisting....they were upright within a few seconds. I put some conditioner on them for giggles and they look great.
    It was a very uncomplicated way to fix them. It doesn't use a lot of heat, just enough to set them."

    Looking for more?

    Dynasty Brush's blog is jam PACKED with great info and the latest goodies in the world of brushes.
    Wet Canvas is an artist forum touching on any topic you can think of. Lots of great how-to's and explain-this's in there.