Picking a Brush – Guest Blogger Saraswati mân Ikkam

Greetings once again I have a guest blogger writing a post.  Lady Saraswati mân Ikkam now in the Middle Kingdom is an excellent scribe and a very good teacher.  This is her take on how to pick a brush for painting.  For more of her work and insights please visit her blog:

Diaries of a Manuscript Junkie


Remember my friends that this is simply how I do it.  Your preferences and mileage may vary.

How do I Saraswati choose and use a brush?


The first thing I consider is the size and length of the brush.  If you have great big hands, don’t purchase a tiny 5 inch brush.  Likewise, if you have tiny hands a long fat brush might not be for you.  I’ve done that, and I get cramps between my finger bones.  Unpleasant.  While it’s a beautiful brush to use for short periods of time but for more than 10 minutes it doesn’t work.  The handle of the brush should fit comfortably in your hand, and using it should not give you hand cramps.  I tend towards thinner, shorter brushes just for comforts sake.

The ferule (the metal part of the brush) should be tight against the handle and against the bristles.  If it wiggles, then it is more likely to come apart on you.  You can of course buy it if you wish, but be prepared to have to glue the brush back together.  I find this inconvenient and just don’t buy them.  If the bristles come out if you pull the brush between your dry fingers then put it back on the shelf.

All of the bristles of the brush should come to a point.  If I am choosing a new brush I hold it up to the light in the store and turn it right in front of my face.  I go a little cross-eyed but the idea is to make sure there are no stragglers that point in a weird direction and no individual bristles that don’t match up with the rest of the brush.   I always take a micro bottle of water with me and a bit of paper/perg in my purse when I shop for brushes so I can dip them and repeat the process.  Sometimes dry brushes have weirdness that goes away when the bristles are wet.  If they can’t leave a tiny line of water on the paper/perg equivalent to the size of say whitework you are partial to, then don’t purchase it.

I check each and every brush in the bin before moving on to the next size.  That said, size doesn’t necessarily matter if the brush comes to a fine, sharp point.  I try to keep on hand an 18/0 Round, a 10/0 Round, a 10/0 Liner, a 5/0 Round, a 00 Round, a 2 Round , an angle shader and last but not least a 10 flat shader. A new brush that I am experimenting with and liking is the LaContello 7000 round.  It has more control than I was expecting for a brush I found on clearance and it’s tiny point makes fine details just a breeze.  My kit contains a number of Da Vinci brushes and Simmons Sapphire –for those that want brand names.  However, all those pale in comparison to a good red or black sable brush.  If I could find them for a reasonable price I would replace all but my Sapphire liners immediately.  Isabay makes a squirrel and sable brush that is growing on me, but it isn’t the greatest at laying down steady swaths of color especially if you are doing fine white work.  I might need more practice with a ‘real’ brush, for now though I am content with synthetic sables.

Once you buy a brush take it home and play with it on scratch paper or perg scraps or whatever you have on hand to get to know the pressure you need for each specific stroke with each new brush.  Some use stiffer bristles and require a firmer or lighter touch on the page.  Some brushes don’t play nicely and I put them in a brushes version of time out and soak them briefly in brush cleaner before rinsing them out really really well.  If they still don’t play nice- then I chuck them or use them for painting on gold size.

If you find a brush that when you take it home and use it you say “I’m in love”  then go back to the store and buy every single one of those brushes that is worthy.  Chances are when you need a new brush they won’t have the one you love and all the experimentation will be for naught.

You’ll notice that at no point in this decision do I look at the price of the brush.  Brushes are expensive. It’s just part of the game, and sometimes the brush that is the highest quality that does exactly what you want it to is costly.

When to discard a brush:

This is harder, because I know brushes are expensive and it can be somewhat of a tragedy when they wear out.  But they do wear out, and when they do continuing to use them is not a good idea.  If you are suddenly having issues with paint flow where you didn’t have before- make sure you’re not having a bad painting day and if not chuck the brush.  If the bristles curve in a way that is not correctable- chuck the brush.  If the hairs of the brush are no longer meeting in a point or are beginning to fray- chuck the brush.  If it’s only one hair, you can pull it to the side with a tweezers and snip it off at the ferrule with the smallest pair of scissors you can find.

Care and Feeding:

Brushes are only happy when you use them.  So use them!  I’m not really gentle with my brushes unless they are laying paint on something particularly nice.  I scrub them around in the paint well and get them really full of paint.  This means you can paint one color longer, but also means sometimes you get dried paint up in the ferrule of the brush.  You can get this by careful washing under a running tap or by using brush cleaner.  I’m not really a fan of brush cleaner in most scenarios.  I clean mine under a running tap, rolling the brush in the palm of my hand until the water comes away clear.  I know some people soak theirs in water.  Never ever leave a brush point down in a water pot, unless of course curved bristles are what you desire.  I’m a fan of my precise point so, the last thing I want is to curl my bristles.  When you’re done painting give your brush a good wash in clean water and then put it in whatever case you have.  Generally speaking you should not put them away with paint still in them.  Most brushes come with a protective sleeve.  When you’re done using them, just slip the protector back on.  I’m anal retentive about this most of the time, but I also have a brush case or 3.  I have a separate brush case for brushes that I use for gouache, for ink, and for gold sizing.  I do not under any circumstances use an ink brush for gouache.  Generally speaking the only brushes I bring to events are my gouache brushes.  I however am a little OCD on this, and know that you can use them for all if you clean them out really well.  There is a brush protector, which involves felt-y soft fabric and ties that I would use if I had one.  Basically you slip your brushes into little pockets of fabric, and then roll it up.   I saw one at the last event I was at and I want one.

One response to “Picking a Brush – Guest Blogger Saraswati mân Ikkam

  1. Pingback: Brush Basics and Buying – An Itinerant Scribe·

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