Equipment: Paintbrushes is another in the series about what tools I use when I illustrate; so feel free to check out my earlier blogs on what watercolour paper to use, the guest blog on waterproof inks, watercolour paints, pencils and erasers, and another on what science stuff you might need.
As with all of these posts, it’s vital to stress that what equipment one uses is a very personal choice, and we often finesse our techniques according to the equipment and brands we use and like most. I’d love people to add their own favourites in the “Comments” section at the end of this blog, then the post would serve as a much more balanced resource for artists starting out, or for established practitioners looking for new ideas.
Illustrating Rowan Sorbus aucuparia
I absolutely love, and have always used, Winsor and Newton series 7 sable paintbrushes. They’re expensive, yes, but I’m yet to find another brush that comes close to their quality. They hold plenty of paint. Their points stay true and tiny. They rarely shed, and when they do it’s a discrete one hair at a time. The paint on the handle doesn’t peel or crack off and fall onto whatever you’re doing. The metal part (the ferrule) never rusts.
Series 7 brushes with another vital tool of the trade, a hand lens
You can get them in “Miniature Painting” and “Round”; I’ve tried both and tend to go for the round ones, simply because that’s what I’m used to.
Size of paintbrush
Size-wise, I do almost all my illustrating with a number 1. I have a stash of about 10 ready to go at any given time, and work through something like one every 6 weeks. As I say, they don’t shed much, but inevitably they do suffer from the wear and tear of daily hard use. There’s no need to dispose of these worn brushes, just use them for more detailed work. After all, in effect they’ve turned into a smaller size 0!
Comparison of two Number 1 paintbrushes; above is a new one, below is one I’ve been using for 4 weeks
I use the larger number 2 size for looser washes, and have a number 4 and a number 6 for when I do big washy backgrounds (in my landscapes). These bigger brushes still have good points, and can hold loads of paint, so doing a big area of sky, forest, grass, or fields is possible.
Using a number 4 brush for background washes
As well as my worn and thinned number 1 brushes, I also use the tiny 000 and 00 sizes for painting in almost invisible hairs, and details within flowers. The tips of these are the ones that make people think you’re almost mad to use them, but they’re vital when getting the minutae down. I used 00 brushes a lot when illustrating a series of mosses.
A 00 size brush alongside a pencil for scale, and illustration of Woolly fringe moss Racomitrium lanuginosum
I know there are other brush brands out there, some of which I’ve tried and some which I haven’t. A lot of other botanical illustrators really like Rosemary brushes – they didn’t work brilliantly for me, but they’re probably worth trying. They certainly are good quality, and are significantly cheaper than Series 7.
I once had a comment questioning the ethics of using sable brushes, and it is true that these brushes are made of sable hair, a species similar to a pine marten. As a vegetarian committed to all sorts of ecological and environmental causes, I would certainly appreciate having a top-quality, animal-free alternative brush, so if anyone knows of one, please leave a comment.
Completed sketchbook study of hawthorn berries Craetegus monogyna, completed with a well-worn Series 7 no. 1 brush
Zen Art Fineline Minature brushes
I was recently sent a set of ZenART fineline minature paintbrushes to try and review by the manafacturers. Obviously, the company sent them to me for free, looking for a good review, and some decent social media feedback. I’m a little cynical, so I tried them without a great deal of conviction. It’s important to have full disclosure about these things, I think…
They came in a cardboard box, and inside is a lovely canvas carrying thingy, all bound in red ribbon. There’s a great assortment; riggers, filberts, and angled brush, and several round ones. I only use round ones, so those are the ones I can speak for.
I’m surprised to say they were really good, and potentially a welcome alternative to my beloved Winsor & Newton series 7 brushes. They held their points, didn’t splay, had decent wells to hold paint, and produced consistent tiny lines. The number 2 was good for pale top washes, holding lots of paint and having the required sharp point. Accuracy was good with the number 1 and the 5/0.
They are also synthetic, which is an excellent thing in terms of my feelings about using animal hair to make brushes.
However, by the third of fourth day of use, the tips had become slightly blunted and weren’t holding the crisp point I require. In every other respect they remained really good; they didn’t shed any hairs, rust, nor discolour. The paint on the handle remained in place and didn’t peel or crack. For me, the loss of tip is a deal breaker. I would suggest folks who don’t need such a precision-perfect tip could do a lot worse than go for these (very reasonably priced) brushes, but if you need a very crisp point then for me, they haven’t made the cut. But definitely worth a try.
So there you are. The easiest of all these equipment blogs. What paintbrush do I use? A Winsor and Newton Series 7, size 1. And no, they don’t pay me or give me free brushes to say this (however, if someone working for the company is out there and has a whole load of brushes they want to get rid of….?)
Mulberry Morus nigra with paintbox and Series 7 brush
Other alternatives are the Rosemary brushes (which some people adore) and the Zen art minature fineliner brushes reviewed above, both of which are a lot cheaper that W&N. But thus far I’m still to find a real potential replacement for my Series 7s.
You can order these brushes direct from Winsor and Newton, or from your local art shop. If that’s not possible, look for good online art suppliers like Jackson’s, Cass Art, London Graphics Centre, or Ken Bromley. In the US I believe Dick Blick to be a good art store.
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