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Watercolor 101: All About Natural Hair Brushes

Hey everyone, welcome back to my Watercolor 101 series!

This is my second post in the series, so if you haven't read the first one, go check it out here:Watercolor 101: Everything You Need to Know about Brushes

So, in the last post I covered the difference between watercolor brushes and other brushes, gave you a rundown of brush anatomy, and gave a snapshot of different types of brush shapes. That probably sounds like a lot, but there's still more to learn, so let's get to it!

Brush Materials

Once you get past all the different shapes of brushes, brush materials are probably the biggest thing that can be bewildering when choosing a brush in an art shop. What do you get? A pack of cheap synthetics? That huge natural fiber brush that's sitting in a glass case?

Well, probably neither of those, but let's see what makes one different from the other.

Natural Hair Brushes

Natural hair brushes are just what they sound like. They are brushes that have natural hair for their bristles. Sounds simple enough, right?

These brushes are generally more expensive than synthetic brushes. On the highest end, we're talking hundreds of dollars, but there are also affordable natural brushes.

The big advantage of most natural brushes is that they hold more water than synthetic brushes. Just like the hair on your head, these brushes have little hooks in them (the cuticle) that allows them to hold water. That's kind of a big deal when you're working with a water-based medium.

Not only do natural brushes hold more water, they also release that water more evenly than synthetic brushes do. They also release pigment more evenly, so it's easier to get an even wash.

One thing to keep in mind with natural hair brushes is that the majority of them are probably byproducts of the meat and fur industries. So if you are against that, or do not use animal products in your life, then natural brushes are not for you. But don't despair! There are lots of other alternatives in synthetic brushes that are pretty cool.

Sable Brushes

If you look up watercolor brushes, you're probably going to hear a lot of people talking about sables. So what are they?

Sable brushes are not actually made from Sables. They are made from the hair of the Siberian weasel, which is native to much of the Asian continent. I guess it was easier to get people to spend a lot of money on something they considered a luxury item (Sable furs) than an animal that's often considered a pest (weasel).

Kolinsky Sable

So this is the top of the top. Kolinsky is most luxury watercolor brush you can buy, and also the most expensive.

So what's the big deal about these?

They hold water amazingly well. They retain their shape and are very flexible, and so are easy to control. Also, these brushes will give you the finest point out of anything available. If maintained well, Kolinsky brushes will last for a very long time.

When I tried these brushes for the first time, I felt like all was right with the world. I was very frustrated with the synthetic brushes I had, and was having a really difficult time building layers and glazing. As soon as I got some Kolinsky brushes, those problems melted away. It was like magic.

Another thing that I really liked about Kolinsky brushes that cannot necessarily be said for all natural brushes is that pigment releases from them super easily. All I have to do is push it in water to get my brush totally clean. So I feel like I'm wasting less pigment in the water and more of it is ending up on my paper.

This is also great at the end of a painting session, because I don't have to grind the hairs in soap in order to get the pigment off. Most of the pigment is normally already gone when I rinsed them in my painting water.

So, a big pro for lazy painters!

Pros
  • Holds water well
  • Soft
  • Fine point
  • Retains shape
  • Easy to clean
Cons
  • Expensive!! No, but like seriously. Over $50 for a brush? What is that? Do I look like I'm made out of money?
Best For
  • Artists who use many layers and glazing techniques in their paintings.

  • Artists who can afford it, or will save for these expensive brushes.

Cost
  • As I said before, too much!
  • Anywhere from $4 to several hundred dollars for a single brush.

  • I have heard that you get what you pay for, so it may not be worth it to get cheaper priced Kolinsky Sables.

Brands

Red Sable

But what if you don't want to have to eat Ramen for a month after buying your set of watercolor brushes? Well, you’re in luck!

Red Sables, or simply Sable brushes are made from any weasel with red hair. High quality sable brushes are a pretty good alternative to Kolinsky brushes at a much cheaper price. They have many of the same qualities as Kolinsky brushes and the biggest difference you're probably going to see is the fineness of the point.

Sabeline

So, these are not actually sable brushes but I'm going to include them here because it can be confusing. Sabeline brushes are actually brushes made from Oxford hair dyed to resemble Red Sable. So they don't have any of the same qualities as other sable brushes.

Squirrel

Now for something very different.

If I have my art supply history correct, squirrel hair brushes were originally used by porcelain painters in France for glazing. They were adopted for watercolor painting when an artist needed to buy some extra brushes and just used the ones that were available locally.

Recently, these brushes have become more popular for very loose and expressive watercolor painting styles.

The most sought after type of squirrel is the Gray Squirrel (Petit Gris, Taalayaoutky). These are small gray or black squirrels that are native to Russia, and the brushes made from their hair is very expensive. After that is the Brown Squirrel (Kazan), which is very similar, but has less snap to it.

Squirrel hair overall is very thin and fine. It holds a ton of water, probably more than any other type of brush. So squirrel hair mops are the best for quickly getting your paper full of water. Also, since they are so absorbent, you can use them to lift up water and pigment very easily.

The difference between squirrel and Kolinsky brushes is that Kolinsky brushes come to a point and retain their shape. Many people who use squirrel brushes for the first time don't like them because they are very soft and squishy.

They are definitely not for detailed work. I like using them for wetting down my paper, putting in initial washes, and for making quick sketches.

Pros

  • Absorbs a ton of water and pigment
  • Very soft
  • Good for looser painting styles

Cons

  • It can be difficult to get pigment to release from this brush

  • Not for detailed painting

Best for

  • People who paint with large washes of color and water

  • Artists looking to loosen up their painting style

Cost

  • Midrange to crazy expensive. The most coveted squirrel brushes are made by Isabel, who claim to have invented the squirrel quill style. Their brushes are still handmade and insanely expensive.

  • I have heard, but not cannot verify, that there is not a huge gap in quality between cheaper and more expensive squirrel brushes.

Brands

Camel

These brushes are not actually made from camel hair. They are just camel colored. Generally, Camel brushes are some kind of mixture of squirrel, goat, ox, or pony hair. You may come across these in children's art sets that have natural hair brushes.

Ox

The highest grade of ox fiber comes from behind the ears of auction. It has a strong body and silken texture. The fibers are very resilient, and have a good snap, but no pointy tip. This makes them pretty good for being either large wash brushes or flat brushes.

Pony

This is probably one of the cheapest natural hair and is mostly used for student grade brushes. Not a great material.

Mixes

Sometimes manufacturers create brushes with a mixture of hairs in order to reduce price or optimize certain features. For example, one common mixture is squirrel hair and Kolinsky hair. This sort of brush would hold a lot of water, but still have more body and hold its shape better than a pure squirrel hair brush. However, it would not have the same sort of point as a pure Kolinsky brush.

OK, that's all for natural hair brushes! Check back next time for an overview of synthetic hair brushes.