Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Artisan Painter Series: Part 1 - Anatomy of the Brush


Welcome to the first in my series on becoming a better painter. In this series I will talk about the tools of the trade, preparing your subject, basic, intermediate, advanced and master level techniques. I will also discuss basic colour theory, composition, layout, execution and presentation, including photographing your finished projects, and post image processing.

For now though, let's look at the tools of the craft!

Anatomy of the Brush

The first step to becoming a better painter is to know your tools. The painter's primary tool is the paint brush. These come in a vast assortment of shapes and sizes, but in the end, they are all constructed primarily the same way.

The main construction of a brush consists of a handle. Attached to the handle is a Bristle Head. This is attached by a metal Ferrule, which is typically crimped to the handle.

Pictured here is an example brush. This particular brush is round, with long bristles and a fat belly.

The handle of a good brush is usually made from wood. The handle is often turned in a tapered long shape, designed to be comfortable for the hand. But, with the increase in suppliers making fine quality paint brushes, new handle shapes are appearing that are supposedly designed to increase comfort, improve grip, and overall brush control. The style of handle you select should be based on what you find is comfortable, but be warned, not all handle shapes are available from all manufacturers. For this, you'll have to go into a store and try gripping several brushes. Imagine yourself painting with them, holding them in your normal comfortable grip, and trace the shapes and outlines of the back of your other hand with the bristles. It will quickly become apparent if the brush is suitable for your grip.

Though there are some brushes available that have handles made from moulded plastic, these generally are lower cost brushes, meant for adhesives, or generally mixing messy materials. I do not recommend them for painting as they are usually of cheap quality. These are the likes of brushes available in water colour paint sets for children, or model builder kits. If you have brushes like that, they make excellent stir sticks and mixing brushes. But that's all I'd recommend them for.

The ferrule is typically made from stainless steel, or some other corrosion resistant nickel or tin plated material, sometimes brass or aluminum. The ferrule is often a tapered cylinder. It is designed to hold the bristle head at the narrow end, and fit onto the handle at the wider end. Some manufacturers only glue the ferrule to the handle. Unfortunately, that compromises the quality and lifespan of the brush, so you want to look for a brush that has a good crimp. Otherwise you may experience a brush head that falls off the handle in mid stroke, spoiling your piece.

Bristle Head:
The bristle head is the business end of your paint brush. It is typically made from a bunch of hand selected fibers, often a form of animal hair, but is also avaialable in synthetic fibers. Typically, the bundle is shaped, and tied together, to form the general shape of the brush. Longer hairs or fibers will result in longer bristle heads, and shorter fibers, shorter bristle heads. The selection of fibers can also influence the overall breadth of the brush, making them fat, or skinny. They can also influence the shape of the brush, weather it is round, flat, tapered, fanned, etc.

After the fibers are tied together, they are inserted into the ferrule. The handle is then inserted into the ferrule, and pressed in so that the brush head is tight. The point where the brush head contacts the handle is the Heel. This is pressed together snuggly to avoid the bristle head coming loose, and is often lightly crimped, especially on flat brushes.

Finally, the ferrule is Crimped to the handle to ensure a solid contact. Different manufacturers may crimp more than once, to distribute the forces and ensure a longer lasting brush.

When selecting brushes, the Bristle Head is the aspect of the brush which you will pay most attention to, and will vary depending on your painting task. The key to this is to determine the appropriate size of brush, and to understand how you will be using the brush for varying techniques. The factors you will look for are overall length and thickness. The longer the bristle, generally, the more paint you can load onto the brush, but the more difficult it becomes to control. The shorter the brush, the less paint you can load, but the easier it become to control. However, if you get too short, then the diameter of the brush may be larger than the length, and your brush no longer can be pointed. Ideally, you want a brush with a length not much more than 4 times longer than its diameter. This will give you decent control, and paint volume.

The aspects you normally will be looking at here are the Tip and the Belly.

Often called a Tip, Point, or Toe, (depending on the shape of the bristle head) this is generally the very end of the bristles. This can be used for creating fine point detail, stippled effects, sharp lines, etc. When selecting a brush, you should ensure the tip is well shaped. There should be no splayed or damaged bristles, or you will never be able to get a good result no matter how good your brush control. When selecting your brush, hold it as normal, and gently bend the bristles, as if you are doing a paint stroke. When the pressure is released, the bristles should bounce back, and the tip should return to normal, and not remain splayed.

Sometimes also called the Edge, the Belly of the brush is what holds the majority of the paint. A nice full and thick belly will allow you to hold more paint and water, and reduce the amount of times you need to load the brush. It will also be able to keep the paint on the brush wet longer, as you can hold more water or thinner. This portion of the brush can also be used for broad brush strokes, especially when base coating models or painting wide expanses, like on banners. A finer brush with a finer belly can also be used for making nice long flat strokes, and for hardline edge work, by running the belly sideways along the surface. So when choosing a brush, it's wise to have detail brushes with thinner bellies than if you are selecting large base coating brushes, but not too thin as to avoid the paint drying out too quickly.


This concludes the Anatomy of a Brush.

In future articles, I will refer to this terminology when describing techniques, so familiarize yourself with the terminology described above, and get comfortable with holding and manipulating a clean and dry brush.

Artisan Painter Series: Index

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