Brushes, Brushes Everywhere: Anatomy

Well, it’s time I finally got around to one of the hottest and most debated topics in the miniature painting world, paint brushes! There is a TON of information out there that can be conflicting and confusing at times and I’m hoping to help make it a little easier to pick out what the right brushes for you are.

“Awesome! What brushes do I buy?”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. There is a lot to know about brushes. There are also many opinions on what the “right brush” is. Whether it be brand, shape, or size; someone, somewhere will have an opinion on it.

“What is the ‘right’ brush?”

The “right” brush is the one that works for YOU. No matter what suggestions you may get or information you may read. Ultimately the best brushes are the ones that you like the most. 

Artist brushes are what are generally used for miniature painting, either watercolor or acrylic brushes. 

There are many factors to choosing a brush, just to name a few; how they’re made, what they’re made of, and how they act when painting.

But we’re not going to talk about any of that today. Today we’re going to be discussing the anatomy of a paint brush. 

“Anatomy?”

Yes, anatomy! 

Knowing what parts make up a paint brush will help you immensely. 

Like I mentioned, there are many factors to picking a paint brush but, whether you’re painting on canvas or on a miniature, brushes are more or less universal and are made up of three main parts: handle, ferrule, and bristles (also sometimes called the tuft). Most paint brushes will also have a number (the size) and one of, in some cases both, the type of brush and company that produced it. Below is a handy diagram so you can see what I mean.

brush_anatomy-diagram
Diagram drawn by Ian Allen Bird

“Tell me about handles first.”

Handles are pretty self explanatory. They are the part of the brush that you hold. There are many different types of handles and several materials they can be made from. They also come in long and standard, which varies from company to company. 

Because you will spend so much time with it you want to make sure it’s comfortable when held. Ask yourself “Is it too light or too heavy?”. If yes to either, then you want to pick a different brush. You’ll also want to pick the type of material that is comfortable. Handles are generally made from wood or plastic. I find that the really cheap synthetics are made with plastic whereas almost everything else is made of wood. I can’t stress this enough, if it doesn’t feel comfortable, don’t buy it.

However, if you live in a remote place without a hobby or craft store nearby, testing out how it fits your hand is not necessarily an option. If you know someone who paints you may ask to feel how their brushes feel.  

None of these are options, you say? You then might turn to the internet to purchase brushes. This is not a bad thing. In fact, you can sometimes get really good brushes online that you may not find in a store. This can end up being trial and error which can get expensive depending on the brand of brush you buy. If you find a brush that you find paints well but isn’t quite comfortable enough you could always make or buy grips or simply look for a different brush. I will talk more about grips at a later date.

A word of warning though, buying name brand brushes, like Winsor and Newton, off of Amazon or eBay is not necessarily the best idea. While it may be convenient and maybe even cheap there are lots of people that sell them and it’s never guaranteed to be a legitimate brush of that brand. I’m not saying you can’t buy brushes off of Amazon, I have tons of synthetics that I’ve purchased there that work wonderfully, just be cautious if you do.  

“What is a ferrule and what does it do?”

It is a piece of metal, higher quality brushes it is generally made of copper or brass alloys but they can also be made of tin or aluminum. The ferrule holds the bristles in place and serves several different purposes.

The ferrule is crimped at the bottom to hold it to the handle. If not crimped properly the bristles can fall out or the ferrule itself may come off the handle completely. Neither of these things are good. There are a couple things to fix a ferrule that is loose or that has come off the handle. 

First assess how loose it may be. If it only wiggles a little you may be able to re-crimp it. You can do this with either a crimping tool (that can be found easily online) or some needle nose pliers. With pliers gently squeeze where the original crimp marks are. After each squeeze rotate the brush a little until you’ve gone all the way around.

If the ferrule comes off the handle glue or epoxy is the way to go. Start by gently sanding (or otherwise roughing up) the handle. Next take super glue or (preferably) a fast curing epoxy and apply some to the inside of the ferrule. Now this step can be tricky. If you use regular super glue, as opposed to a gel type glue, you need to make sure that it doesn’t drip down into the bristles. If it gets into them then you may have just ruined your, possibly, expensive brush. You will want to then leave the brush upright until the glue or epoxy sets completely. Just let it sit, don’t touch it.

If none of these work you may be out a brush.

PROTIP: If you get paint in the ferrule, if you’re not quick to clean it out, it can dry and this will cause your brush to splay out and split in an undesirable manners as seen below. 

If this does happen, stop what you’re doing immediately and rinse your brush very well. You may even want to run it under some cool water to help. Continue to rinse until the water runs clear and you can no longer see paint near the ferrule. While rinsing you will want to periodically dry the brush on a paper towel putting a very small amount of pressure at the heel (where the bristles meet the ferrule) and see how much paint may remain in the brush.

If paint does dry in the ferrule don’t despair! It can sometimes be saved, not always though. There are products out there that can remove even the most stubborn of dried paint. These products, however, can be very harsh on the bristles. I’ll do a whole post about brush cleaning in the near future and go into detail about the product and process that I use to clean and maintain my brushes.

“So it seems like the most important part you’ve left for last? The bristles?”

You are, indeed, very observant. The bristles are the heart and soul of the paint brush. Without them it’s impossible to paint. This can be the really confusing part about picking brushes. There are many types of shapes, sizes, and materials that the bristles can be made of.

“That seems like a lot, where do we start?”

Let’s start with materials. There are many types of hairs that make up the bristles or tuft. There are two broad options, synthetic and natural hair. 

Synthetic hairs are usually made of nylon or polyester, these are sometimes labeled as “Taklon”. Brushes with synthetic hairs are, generally, much cheaper than natural hair brushes. Taklon is generally white or golden in color. I have not found much difference between the two.

Natural hair bristles are made up of different animal hairs. The two most common natural hair used in high quality miniature brushes are Red Sable and Kolinsky Sable hairs. Both types of hair come from animals in the weasel family not from a Sable.

Red Sable, while still of decent quality, are much cheaper than Kolinsky. They come from an animal that lives in a warmer climate than the Kolinsky thus making the brushes work in different ways. Red Sable can also come from the female of the same animal from which a Kolinsky comes from. It also does not come to as fine as a point as a Kolinsky because of the nature of the hairs; and because of this they generally will not hold a point as long or as well making it difficult to control.

Kolinsky Sable hair comes from an animal that lives in a much colder climate than the Red Sable hairs do. To be a true Kolinsky they must be made from the hair of the male. They will keep a point much longer than most any other type of hair on the market. A good Kolinsky brush can last years if properly cared for.

“Okay, what’s next?”

Now, like the brush itself, the bristles have their own anatomy. 

Bristles are made of the tip (or point) and the belly. The tip of the brush is one of the most important aspects in choosing one. The shape of the brush will determine the shape of the tip. The important thing to look for is that it comes to a point without flaws. 

The belly will vary based on the size of the brush. It is where the majority of the paint should sit after you have loaded the brush. The size will determine how much paint it can hold. The larger the belly the more paint it will hold. Very small brushes have very small bellies. This can cause problems because, depending upon the climate of your surroundings, the paint can dry on the brush before you even touch the brush to the mini. That is why it is recommended to use the biggest brush you are comfortable with. This is, however, not always practical; you probably can’t paint those tiny eyes with a size 4 brush, no matter how sharp the tip is. 

That is where we are going to leave off for today, thanks for reading!

“Wait! You mentioned that size and shape also affect how brushes work. What about all of that?”

That is for next time! It is much more information than this one post can hold.

Happy painting,

-S

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