By Rick Jones
Applying oil paint to canvas is a different experience altogether than applying acrylic and watercolor paints. Oil paint has more “body”, that is, it’s thicker and therefore requires a stiffer brush hair than other brushes. The best hair for oil painting brushes is hog hair. The hair from the back of hogs, known as “bristle” due to its stiffness, is considered to be the best. The finest hog hair is excellent for better quality oil painting brushes and comes from the Chunking region of China. The lesser quality “bristle” as it is known, is used for house painting. Applying gesso on canvasses requires a stiffer brush as well so brushes like Hake are made from hog bristle. Not only is the hair from a hog’s back used for oil painting brushes, but several other animals provide hair as well. These include a close relative, the boar, and the weasel, badger, and mongoose. All have prickly hairs that can serve as oil painting brush raw material.
Some of the finest oil brushes come from the Kolinsky sable. The hair of the sable marten, a relative of the weasel, has for centuries provided Kolinsky sable. The golden brown tail hair from the female is used for oil painting brushes. These are a bit stiffer hairs than the tail hair of the males and have better resilience and snap. The true Kolinsky sable harvested from trapped sable martens was banned from import to the U.S. in 2014. Today, Kolinsky sable actually comes from the Siberian weasel. The hairs are harvested from the tail of the males. The U.S. ban came about because sable martens where pure red sable comes from do not do well in captivity. The only way to harvest the hair was through trapping. Thankfully, that is now banned.
That’s both good and bad news for the artist. Good the little critters’ lives are saved, bad that these super high quality brushes are no longer available. But, the tail hair of the male Siberian weasel still makes a very fine — and more affordable brush. Because manufacturers had back stock of Kolinsky sable, you may still be able to occasionally find some on the market. But when they are gone, they are gone. You will have to travel out of the country to purchase them legally, since the ban was for export to the U.S. only.
Bristle are the best hairs for oil painting brushes since they hold a lot of paint, spread the paint uniformly, and blend the paint well. On better quality brushes, the bristles are arranged in an interlocking fashion with the bristles curving inward. Hog bristle is naturally split at the ends and arranged thus they hold paint well and spread it around nicely. Cheaper bristle will have stiffer hairs, be arranged more erratically, and may turn both inward and outward making the brush look fuzzy.
Horse or pony hair is typically used in cheaper natural hair brushes and marketed for different kinds of paint use. Although sometimes sold as oil painting brushes, they are better for acrylics and watercolor, but are used more in student grade brushes and cosmetics. In terms of cost, they are cheaper than squirrel.
Badger hair, due to its shape being thinner at the root and fatter at the tip, makes for a bushier brush. Oil painters like these for blending.
Weasel and a close relative, fitch, hair are very resilient with long conical shapes. Although close in quality to red sable, they are not quite as supple making them better for oils than for watercolor.
Mongoose hair is strong and resilient with good pointing. But they are better for oils for this reason since they are not fine enough for watercolors. They are difficult to find sometimes.
There are a number of synthetics on the market in several brands that are designed for both oils and acrylics. As with the natural hair brushes, you need to try them until you find one that fits your style of painting and feel in your hand. From a cost standpoint, synthetics are less expensive. In our store in Hamilton, Ohio, you can see many of these brushes, natural and synthetic, and touch before you buy.
Better brands that are easy to find are Winsor & Newton, Grumbacher, Princeton, Simmons, and Liquitex, to name a few.
One last tip: brushes will last longer if you always pull, never push, your brush across the painting surface. Visit http://firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.