Friday, February 26, 2010

Tips & Tricks #2: What's the Deal with Kolinsky Sable Brushes?

Kolinsky Sable brushes are, without a doubt, the most expensive brushes we carry at BINDERS, but why have artists through the last few centuries considered the Kolinsky Sable to be the most valuable variety of hair to use for fine art brushes? Perhaps the more important question is: should you consider investing in one of these classic tools?

Let’s take a closer look at these brushes and the animal whose hair is so particularly special. The name, Kolinsky Sable, is actually a misconception as it’s not actually a member of the sable family. The real sable is a type of marten that lives primarily in Russia and typically has black fur, and you can find real sable hair brushes under the name Black Sable or Siberian Fitch. The real moniker for the Kolinsky is the Siberian Mountain Weasel. It’s a fair bet that some marketing genius figured out that “weasel” just isn't a term that people tend to associate with anything high-end (who's going to pay $200 for a weasel-hair brush?) and that “sable” sounds much more luxurious and inviting. Call it creative license in advertising if you will...

The Kolinsky is a variety of weasel with reddish brown hair—but beware—there are also brushes called “red sable” and while they may superficially resemble Kolinsky hairs, they aren't the same thing (though they are a fine-quality alternative for a more reasonable price). Presumably, red sable brushes come from a closely related variety of weasel that evolved a softer fur coat. The hairs that go into true Kolinsky brushes are specifically from the tail of the males, which grow extra thick during the winter and are why they make such great brushes.

The Kolinsky lives in Siberia, where it gets really cold in the winter and the snow that falls doesn't melt until Spring. So the winter hair of the Kolinsky has evolved to have exceptional properties of holding snow and water away from its skin, which can then be shaken out to get rid it before it re-forms into ice. The male Kolinsky, like most other guys, is constantly interested in attracting the attention of the ladies, and one of the displays that they have evolved is their big, bushy tails, composed of long, water-retaining hairs. You may be beginning to see how this relates to painting!

Those long tail hairs are at once both strong, able to stand upright even when wet, and flexible, so as not to get in the way when the Kolinsky is going about his daily business. Looking closely at the individual strand, one could see that it has a tremendously complex structure with many tiny spines that are used to hold the water in place. When the hairs are bound together into a brush, the artist has, in effect, the tail of a male Kolinsky in hand!

The qualities these brushes are most noted for are their combination of stiffness and springiness, and the special structure of the hair that allows the brush to pick up and hold large amounts of liquid. The stiffness helps the brushes to retain their shape, particularly the pointed tips on round brushes; the springiness is ideal for graceful, emotive brushstrokes and the hair structure allows for longer marks and less time wasted dipping the brush in the paint over and over again. These are the qualities that “synthetic sable” brushes are usually trying to emulate, with varying degrees of success. The more expensive the synthetic brush is, the more complex the structure of the nylon bristles and the closer it is to an actual sable brush.

Kolinsky Sables are best used with traditional painting media like watercolor or oil paint. NEVER use your Kolinsky brushes with acrylic paint! Even if you clean the acrylics thoroughly after every use, the nature of the polymer emulsion will eventually dry out the hairs and cause them to break, ruining a brush that you have paid a pretty penny for.

Long handled Kolinsky brushes like those from Escoda and Isabey (currently on sale) are designed for oil painting and are typically used for the finishing stages, where fine detail and exceptional control are required. It's worth noting that Kolinsky brushes may be too soft to effectively manipulate some of the heavier pigments, but that can be easily solved by dipping the brush first in solvent and then applying the paint. The solvent will “loosen up” the linseed oil and help the paint to brush on more smoothly.

The short handled watercolor brushes are where the Kolinsky hair truly shines! Those qualities of strength, flexibility and water retention make for a superb tool for watercolor painting and there have been many an artist who had a single Kolinsky brush that was so versatile that it could be used for just about any kind of mark. The famous Winsor and Newton Series 7 brushes were originally designed for Queen Victoria, whose favorite watercolor brush was a round #7 Kolinsky. The company went on to create an excellent line in a variety of sizes based on that commission, which you can still buy today.

As we roll on through the beginning of the 21st Century, Kolinsky brushes are becoming pricier and less available. The main reason for this is the scarcity of the animal itself. The Kolinsky's numbers have been in sharp decline, possibly due to habitat loss from changing climate and/or human interference, and the Kolinsky cannot be farmed like minks, so they must be trapped in the wild. Most brushes that we see today come from supplies that brush companies have in storage that may have been collected many years ago. Hopefully, in the future, we can find a way to nurture these animals and the environment they live in, so that we may continue to enjoy the great art that is created with their help!

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1 comment:

  1. I've used Kolinsky Sable brushes for years and often tried many alternatives, but there is just no substitute, they are simply the best watercolour brush you can buy (W&N series 7).