Sunday, 2 September 2012

Watercolour Brushes PT 1 - Synthetics

 For some time I have been contemplating doing a series of posts on brushes. The problem is that being a poor amateur I don't get free samples and can't afford to spend ever more on products just to review them. Over the course of the last few years I have become friendly with a number of fellow enthusiasts through Wetcanvas and Facebook.  John is one such friend. Originally from Norfolk, East Anglia, he is long established in Australia. John is a similar person to me in that he accumulates art materials, actually though he seems even more acquisitive!

I switched to sables fairly early in my painting hobby so don't have a great deal of experience with synthetic brushes. You will find many - not all - professionals advocate the use of sables. What some don't seem to understand is that many amateurs cannot afford the very high prices and even prefer synthetics. Yvonne Harry does and has mainly Pro Arte brushes, often bought as `seconds, at the annual Patchings Art Festival. I partly  persuaded her to try some of the Jackson's own label sables which they introduced last year but she still mainly prefers synthetics. Johns piece follows. All illustrations have been supplied by him.

Synthetic Watercolour Brushes by John Softly

These days synthetic brushes are, for many artists, a viable alternative to the traditional natural sable brush and the quest to produce a synthetic brush with the properties of sable is a task which research and development departments of major brush manufacturers strive for but have yet to achieve. The insurmountable problem is liquid retention and, so far, no synthetic fibre has been able to match the liquid retention of natural hair.
Some manufacturers have managed to produce brushes that come close to the characteristics of sable and synthetic squirrel hair which is very similar to the natural product, albeit also lacking in water retention. After trying several products to find a synthetic brush that behaves like a sable I have put the search in the "too hard basket" and gone back to my sables with the odd foray into synthetics.
My conclusions are as follows:

Daler Rowney System 3 Brush

These are listed as acrylic brushes but, together with one other, are the closest I have found to sable. As a traditionalist I am used to a tapered wooden handle and almost didn't buy these as the handle is yellow plastic with a similar diameter throughout the length. The ferrule is black aluminium and there is no indication as to what the hair is. Water retention is similar to every other synthetic I own but it is soft, points remarkably well and feels very much like a sable. The big surprise with the brush is the balance. The first time I used the size 10 all negative thoughts about the yellow plastic handle vanished and the sizes 8,10, 12, 14, and 18 all have the same well-balanced feel, something one doesn't expect to find in a cheap brush.

Neef Series 552 David Taylor Riggers

I first saw these brushes being used by Herman Peykel and, apart from a squirrel quill mop, they are the only ones he uses. Most manufacturer riggers finish at a size 6 but the Neef 552's, and incidentally Rosemary's Shiraz series, go to size 12. Used like a standard round brush they are very expressive and water retention is good due to the length of the Taklon hair.  The handle is long and well  balanced. Ideal for a loose tecnique and together with the Daler Rowney System 3s are the closest I have found to sable. I have a couple of Neef white Taklons which are similar to the Escoda Perlas.

Rosemary Series 344 Golden Synthetic Designer Brush.

These brushes, like all designer brushes, have longer hair than their round equivalent. In theory this should mean a softer brush but in this instance the hairs are not as soft as the previous two products. and are much stiffer than sable. In other words they are what one has expected to see from a synthetic brush. There is an long-handled option , something I should have chosen as I found the regular handle a little short. I also have a Paul Weaver Freestyle, Paul being a well-known Bristol artist who has received various awards at the annual Bath Prize Exhibition . This is a `One size fits all brush' and the only one he uses. It is equivalent to a size 32, is longer than usual, and comes to a fine point. It can be used as a wash brush but falls down on water retention, although a good try.

Jacksons Synthetic/Sable Series 777 Quill Brushes

Although these brushes look like a quill  mop there is nothing `moppish' about them.The six brushes in the series are a pleasure to use and are slightly softer than Rosemary's 344s but firmer than the Daler Rowney's. Not a true synthetic. If you want  a true synthetic quill try Rosemary's series 304 - better still you could mortgage  your house and buy a Rosemary series 1 Kolinsky quill, brushes to dream for!
The Jackson's are a well made brush and it's nice to see the quill method used in brushes other than squirrel mops. I have quite a few older brushes that have shrink wrap where the ferrule meets the handle - due to the ferrule becoming loose. That doesn't happen with quills.

Pro Arte Connoisseur brushes

Before discussing these brushes I have to say mine are over fifteen years old  and are rarely used. The reason is that when I started I purchased sables from ABS (now Rosemary) that pointed perfectly. I then bought Pro Arte synthetics and did not like the way they pointed, with the tips folding over. After failing to make them point, using starch etc, they went into a container and were forgotten. Bringing them out for this appraisal  I find I was far too critical fifteen years ago. The tip problem remains but only when using a dry brush tecnique. Fully loaded the brushes behave like other synthetics. The fibres are similar to Daler Rowney System 3 and the smaller sizes don't bend at the tip. I haven't read any similar complaints so assume that (a) The problem has been rectified or (b) I am too fussy. I have purchased Pro Arte squirrel hair brushes and rate them highly.

Escoda Perla Synthetic brushes

 These are a recent acquisition and are the stiffest of the group. Escodas sizing is smaller than most, as are all Escoda rounds , and one of their champions, Joseph Zbukvic, uses them for detailing - putting red lights in cars, white highlights etc. They are excellent for placing thick paint as they are tightly flexed and very precise. I have yet to be convinced of their value for overall general watercolour work. There is no doubt Escoda make attractive brushes and I am an admirer of their sables and squirrels.

In the 1980s Grumbacher  used a slogan in their sable brush advertising "Some say synthetic brushes are equal to natural ones. We say that claim doesn't hold water" To me that sums up the situation nicely.
I will still use my sables mostly and revert to synthetics if and when I think a painting will benefit from a different approach. I look forward to the day that someone comes up with a synthetic that actually imitates sable.
 I will close with a quote from Virgil Carter, a fine and knowledgeable artist,that was posted on Wetcanvas when discussing brushes.

" A squirrel mop must be used in a certain way, while a synthetic must be used in a different way, if one wants to get the maximum from both. Using brushes of every fibre type in the same manner is pointless and frustrating. It's a lot better to stick to a single fibre type and learn how to use it effectively. REMEMBER IT'S THE ARTISTS SKILL. NOT THE TOOLS, THAT MAKE STRONG PAINTINGS"

These then are Johns conclusions on synthetic brushes and I will make a few observations to round them off. My own experience with synthetic brushes involve the Pro Arte Prolene and Prolene plus series which are claimed to be the largest selling brushes of their type in the UK. They are well made and well priced. Yvonne Harry uses mainly these type of brushes. Pro Artes wide distribution in UK art shops undoubtedly contributes to this popularity. Pro Arte also make the popular Connisseur series which is a blend of sable and synthetic. I bought a size 16 years ago when starting and it is still in good shape but it never pointed terribly well and is only useful as a wash brush. The Daler Rowney brushes System 3 are usually listed along with the acrylic paints of the same name. They don't normally appear on the brush pages and are very cheap, size 8 from Jacksons only £4.75p.

As to synthetics manufacturers continue to make claims about closing the `sable gap' and Rosemary herself states in her latest catalogue that "The development of nylon continues to improve....." . John Yardley wrote that he had frequently been given synthetics to try with the statement they were equal to sable but found such claims to be false. He does use Winsor & Newton series 7 size 10 though costing over £100!

An alternative choice are the many sable/synthetic mixed brushes that are generally superior to pure synthetic in water retention but nothing like the price of sables,  Rosemary's series 401 is one such and the SAA have recently introduced another under the SAA own  label. There are many other options, in fact the choice is bewildering. The Da Vinci Cosmotop series, a mixed hair brush, is the preferred choice of Viktoria Prischedko and Piet Lap, two very fine artists. Available from Jacksons  and Great Art 

One thing John did not mention is that controlled paint release is also something where sables are considered much superior to synthetics.  John also mentioned the ABS Pure Kolinsky Sable Mop. This is now the Rosemary Kolinsky Sable Mop, exactly the same brush. This ranges from size 1 to 12 with the 12 costing £420! I have a size 1 ABS that cost around £50, the dearest brush I've bought. It is very large, more than double the size of the Connisseur size 16 round. I wouldn't recommend it unless you know exactly what they are like and what you wish to do with it. You can get a good wash brush for a fraction of that price. I wish I'd bought the smallest size 0. I rarely use it.  I do use the Da Vinci Artissimo 44, available in three sizes from Jacksons and others. It isn't in the latest printed catalogue but I expect is still available on the web. Many products are now only listed on the web due to the need to keep the printed version within bounds. 

I'm very grateful for John for giving us  the benefit of his  experience with these brushes. Thanks John. Comments and additional information welcome. I plan to do a future piece on sable brushes and have been accumulating material.


L.W.Roth, said...

You are a true artist Vic, not just a hobbiest. I have done no studies of brushes. I go, I look, I choose the forms that I know will handle the jobs I tend to present in my paintings. Synthetic is fine with me; I'm heavy handed and lazy about thoroughly cleaning. But I am particularly protective of my slant flats; they serve me best--and then there's the make up brush I borrowed from my vanity for for wet into wet watercolors. I haven't used it for make up since. It's sable.

Mick Carney said...

Peter you must never sleep. Interesting stuff however. As you know I'm a simple soul and minimalist as far as gear goes although I must confess to moments of weakness after reading your stuff late at night and finding myself heading to the Jackson's web site and pushing buttons that result in parcels arriving at the door. My paint boxes are starting to look like those of a pal of mine from the SW. I am determined to stick with the brushes I'm using in the vain hope that I may conquer them at some stage.

Anns Art said...

What a great and interesting post, so full of information and very helpful. Like most of us I search for the ever perfect brush, and for me I do have some that are 'special' to me. One I keep going back to and use time and time again is in fact a Rosemary brushes Size 2 from the 304 series, yes a synthetic quill. It holds enough water for my needs (after all, how many gallons do we want in the brush!) and it has a super point.

Carmen said...

This is really interesting. As someone who can only afford to buy one or two brushes at a time and who, quite frankly, has no idea what I'm buying this is a great post.

I wonder - I use Acrylic as well as Watercolour (and very much a beginner in both) - would I mess those Acrylic brushes you recommended up if I invested in some and used for both paints?

And slightly off topic - have you considered emailing a few companies and offering your blog to do honest reviews of their tools? I've done this with a couple of book publishers and you'd be surprised at how many might take you up on it and send you a few brushes to review. The worst they can say is no.

Peter Ward said...

Thanks Linda for your comments. Why do you keep calling me Vic though?

Peter Ward said...

Thanks Mick. Well it's only money and there are such a lot of tempting art materials out there.

Peter Ward said...

Thanks for commenting Ann. We're all different and if you find something that suits you then all is well.

Peter Ward said...

Thanks for commenting Carmen. I wouldn't personally mix acrylic and watercolour with the same brushes but as I've no experience with acrylics? The system 3 are so cheap though.....

Interesting about reviews. I doubt whether any of the UK companies would respond. Possibly I'm wrong but I don't wish to just become a reviewer. It's part of the mix on the blog and there is sufficient material for me to keep posting a few.

Rui said...

Hi Peter,

Fantastic start on this series of threads. Looking forward to see what follows.

I wish I had more time to contribute as I do have some artifical brushes you might be interested in, e.g. Zoltan Szabo's synthetic slant brushes which I used to use years ago. Unfortunately 50 hours a week of work and related travelling there and back is taking its toll on me.

Kind regards,


Peter Ward said...

As a long retiree I (I retired early) I sympathize with you Rui. I'm always open to contributions from someone like yourself and always read what you say with keen interest.
Actually at one time I was very interested in the late Zoltan Szabo and made enquiries to see if I could obtain his special brushes but cost, including carriage charges from the USA, put me off. These days I'm somewhat cynical about all these `special products' with attached artists names.

Oscar Solis said...

Excellent post Peter.

Possibly because I didn't wish to spend the small fortune to purchase a kolinsky I bought a 12 round synthetic. I didn't think I'd use it much, but, of course, it has become my go to brush for nearly everything, including very small details.

Of course it doesn't hold and release paint like my sables (which have been neglected), but that doesn't make it any less worthwhile to me.

Virgil Carter's statement has never been truer. Unfortunately, and this is probably my only gripe about wetcanvas, too many postings seem to stress that one has to have only artists quality paint, 100% rag paper, etc. I recently gave advice to someone that they use what they can afford and if they're good it'll show through regardless of what they use.

Peter Ward said...

Thanks for commenting Oscar. I think too many don't realise not everyone can afford the `very best' materials. Very good paintings have been produced by some artists using cheap everything. The advice to use the best isn't confined to Wetcanvas though.

Steve PP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve PP said...

A very illuminating and educatioal post Peter, thank you! I have used W&N Sables, Pro Arte synths and have just bought an Escoda Perla 12, which is so sleek and balanced that I feel like I'm fencing, haha! I agree with your other contributors though, use the best you can afford, but don't be afraid to try anything and everything, after all an open mind is a truly creative one!
Have a good day!

Peter Ward said...

Welcome Steve and thanks for commenting. I agree - use the best you can afford and keep an open mind. After all the original cave artists used all sorts of things, sticks, stones whatever! They certainly didn't have sables.

Crystal Hart said...

Mr Ward, I hate to be such a pest, but I have searched the internet for information on Old M. Grumbacher Copper Edge Paint Brushes, these came from the Same Florida Esate as the Schmincke Tin/metal Palette Box with the old Schmincke Logo. These are also very old I'm guessing... I would appreciate any assistance you could offer.
My Kindest Regards,

Peter Ward said...

Sorry Crystal. I know nothing about these either Don't Grumbacher still exist? Why not contact them as they are an American company.

Crystal Hart said...

Mr. Ward,
Thank you again for your Time... I won't bother you any future... I have enjoy your Blog, and going through all your informative conversations, Your Love of Art stands out in every one of your Pages... Have a Happy and blessed Thanksgiving.
My Kindest Regards,

Peter Ward said...

No bother Crystal unfortunately I don't know everything so can't always help.

jorg gray said...

Who's using our brushes? As our name implies, we are experts in the design and manufacture of customized brush products for a diverse range of industrial brushes.

Peter Ward said...

Sorry never heard of your brushes so wouldn't have a clue who is using them. In any event this article is about hobby brushes not Industrial, and we can only comment on ones we use of know about. Are our lines crossed here somewhere?,

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Peter Ward said...

Thanks for comments Barbie. Glad you found it useful.