Brush Care & Feeding: Pt. 1 - What's in a brush

There are a lot of brushes out there for the miniature painter to choose from. The selection of natural and artificial bristles can be a bit overwhelming - or you can, like most painters, simply ignore the brush and look for size and price.

This is the first of a two part follow-up to Ron's post, "All about (my) brushes," with tips on selecting the right brush.

Let me say right at the top of this post that there are decent low cost brushes out there and they will always have a place in your kit. From where I'm sitting I can reach 3 high quality Kolinksy sable brushes, two medium quality red sable brushes... and at least two dozen throw-away synthetic brushes I picked up at my local craft store for less than $5 each.

What I will cover is what to look for in ANY brush and how to care for, and extend the life of, both synthetic and natural bristle brushes.

This is an Army Painter detail brush that Ron posted in his article. I have added the letters to identify the parts of the brush.

A: This is the tip, obviously
B: Belly or reservoir of the brush
C: Ferrule

A: The Tip

In this example we have a liner brush and the tip comes to a fine point. When selecting a tip look at the density of the bristles and their spring. You can do this in the art shop by getting some saliva on your fingers and loosening the bristles. Bend them from side-to-side, gently, and see what it looks like when (and if) they spring back. The tip of your brush should always spring back together.

On a flat edged brush it is important to make sure it has a sharp, flat edge. This will help you avoid odd brush streaks when using it for drybrushing or large surface painting.

B: Brush Reservoir (The Belly of the Beast)

The reservoir functions as paint storage on a brush. The deeper the belly the more liquid it can store - in this case wet paint. The smaller the reservoir the more quickly paint will dry on the tip of the brush. If you've ever been painting eyes on a model and dip your brush and move quickly to the model only to find the paint is dry - that's the fault of a small reservoir. A small reservoir means you'll have to press harder on the brush to get paint to the tip or sides of the brush as the outside of the bristles will dry more quickly.

C: Ferrule (The Glue That Hold Us Together)

The bristles of your brush, whether natural or artificial, are glued into the ferrule and attached to the handle. The bristles are tightly packed into this space to help form the final shape of the brush head.

So What's Important?

When selecting a brush you'll want to examine the tip carefully (see above) to ensure it holds its shape. The spring of your brush, its ability to retain its shape, is a large part of what determines a quality brush.

The most important thing, in my opinion, for any painter to consider, whether you're using natural or synthetic bristles, or painting with the side of the brush or the tip, is the reservoir. The reservoir is where you should be storing wet paint on your brush. If you try to just use the tip of the brush, especially on a small brush, it's going to dry by the time it reaches the model.

Using Ron's tiny Army Painter brush as an example most people would consider this a fine detail brush - and it is sold as such. Looking at the lack of reservoir I would never use it for acrylic painting at all though. You can find a 0 or 2/0 brush with a deeper reservoir and similar point that will serve the purpose much more effectively - in both natural and synthetic bristles.

I'm going to pick on the Army Painter brush again by comparing it to three Raphael 8404 brushes.

The top photo shows the Army Painter detail brush next to a US penny. Although the tip is very fine you can see that there's no reservoir to speak of.

The second photo shows the Raphael 8404 brushes in #1, #0 and #2/0 sizes. Note that all three have very fine points but very different reservoirs when compared to the Army Painter brush. You can also see in this comparison that the #0 has a point as fine as the Army Painter brush.

If you were painting eyes with the Army Painter brush the paint on the tip will almost certainly be dry by the time you reach the model. This means you'll have to push down harder on the brush to get wet paint flowing. This will cause the brush tip to spread out and results in LESS control over your painting.

Ultimately a larger reservoir brush with a fine tip will give you greater control for detail painting because you'll be able to apply paint in a more controlled fashion by using less pressure. Those 20/0 fine line detail brushes just don't typically have the capacity to be effective brushes for acrylic painting.

Is Natural Hair Better Than Synthetic?

There are some excellent synthetic brushes on the market. They're less expensive than natural hair brushes and usually easier to find as most hobby and craft stores have a wide selection in stock. Well cared for you can expect a decent synthetic brush to last for at least six months.

A natural hair brush has more spring to it and will hold its shape longer than a synthetic brush. Sable hair has a natural taper to it and so also holds its point longer as this is the natural arrangement for the material. Well cared for you can expect a decent red sable brush to last at least one year - often much longer.

Red sable brushes are made from the tail hairs of a marten (a small rodent). These hairs have a natural taper to them and are specifically designed to wick water away from the body of the marten. This gives red sable an advantage as a material for your paint brush reservoir as the hair is doing exactly what it was evolved to do, i.e. move water away from the end (reservoir) to the tip of the hair.

Although there are synthetic bristles that retain moisture as well as natural bristles you won't usually find them in the local hobby shop. Some art stores do carry high quality synthetic brushes but they're also priced much like natural bristle brushes.

In Summary

Selecting a brush is a matter of preference but there are practical considerations to make.The reservoir of a brush is where wet paint is stored and channel to the tip. A brush with a small reservoir will dry paint more quickly than a brush with a similar tip and larger reservoir. Although synthetic vs. natural brushes is a matter of preference a sable brush has a natural taper designed to wick water away from the reservoir. Good synthetic brushes are typically priced in the same range as natural hair brushes.

Right now Ron is spending $5 on a brush each month. By taking proper care for his synthetic brushes he can extend that to $5 every six months. That's quite a savings!

Adding a red sable brush to his collection is going to cost $10-20 but by taking proper care of this brush it is going to last at least one year. That's still quite a savings!

Next: Proper Care and Cleaning

Ron, From the WarpIf you've got any questions about something in this post, shoot me a comment and I'll be glad to answer. Make sure to share your hobby tips and thoughts in the comments below!