Paintbrushes

Do you know how much easier it is to make art, when you know your materials are not going to last forever? I’m not talking about fugitive colors, or student-grade paints: I’m talking about paintbrushes.

I’ve run up against the stressful part of writing fiction, again: being too close to the work. However, I did do some painting yesterday — and the potential sheer unpleasantness of the story I had been working on, is making me want to get back to the canvas. It’s relatively peaceful, that is, when I’m in a flow state — even if I’m not using the intellectual portion of my brain. All I’m worried about is making something — in this case — of beauty.

I’m actually kind of wanting to start some side projects along with my main canvas: my draw towards color (with more depth and saturation and broad strokes than I can get from drawing) is a very big reason I’m into painting at all, and right now I am feeling a bit restrained with the color palette of the, “goddess,” canvas. There are a lot of earth tones, with the breaks being a sky blue, and a yellow. I’m trying to figure out right now, whether I want to intentionally alter this, or leave it after the original.

I am, however, learning a lot about how brushes work…I had a #2 hog bristle filbert wet for so long, today, that the bristles actually got soft! It’s been a while since that has happened, as much of the time when I’m using the hog bristle brushes, I’m dipping them into Glazing Medium before using them with colors. I’m not, that is, putting them frequently into water. Today I was using it, then rinsed it and left it to sit on top of my water cup, with water in the bristles so that the paint wouldn’t dry in there. It was saturated and kind of floppy, by the time I got around to washing it.

I hadn’t resumed painting for a very long time…but I’m finding that for now, inexpensive hog bristle brushes are OK for my purposes. In the Art program, I found out the hard way that acrylics on gessoed board will wear these brushes down to nubs. Letting the bristles get soggy probably helps this along; and could be part of the reason why my Painting instructor said to save hog bristle for oils.

Of course, I was also using, “acrylic gesso (Liquitex Basics),” which is fairly toothy; not the calcium carbonate + rabbit glue mixture I’ve seen spoken of online (which Wikipedia states is only useful for oil painting; I’ll take the explanation for now).

We were also using Purdy brushes to apply the gesso. “Purdy,” is a specific brand name referring to a family of sashing (or, house-painting/artisan) brushes. The one I used for this specific canvas has bristles that feel like monofilament fishing line.

What I can tell you is that Purdy brushes — even though the one I used on this most recent painting, had flagged tips (that is, each filament ends in more than one tip) — are very tough, and they will give your gesso a texture. This was on top of the texture of the plywood we were painting on. I believe I sanded it before priming it…I’m not sure of what happened later. The thing about using wood is that the wood grain will rise up if it’s exposed to water. I’m pretty sure I must have had to sand that down multiple times, between applying coats of that water-based gesso. (This isn’t as much of an issue with hardboard, to the best of my recollection.)

Sanding dried gesso does seem as though it would come with its own health precautions (take, for example, the relatively recent classification of Titanium Dioxide as carcinogenic; not because it is necessarily toxic, but because — when ground down to nanoparticle size — it has other effects on the lungs). Even plaster of paris has its own precautions (which I must have been unaware of when working with it as a youth) — it’s just not good to breathe that stuff in, especially if it’s easily avoidable.

On a quick lookup, I should note: not all white materials commonly used by artists are the same. Chalk (calcium carbonate), talc (hydrous magnesium silicate), and Pigment White 6 (titanium dioxide) — and for that matter, plaster of paris (calcium sulfate hemihydrate), which is derived from gypsum (calcium sulfate)…they are different things. Because they’re different things in reality, they have different precautions one needs to take if one uses them — which does depend on a lot (that I’m not prepared to get into, right now).

(I’m not even going to talk about Lead White, though that particular pigment [or pigment family, as seems to be the case] is of more use in oil painting, than in acrylics. For obvious reasons [not least of which being the fact that I’ve never painted in oils; I saw what it did to others], I’ve never used it.)

Also because of this, not every gesso is as harmful as every other one. I was using student-grade Liquitex Basics in school, which has no warnings on its Material Safety Data Sheet. The regular Liquitex gesso, however, contains talc — which is dangerous if it is contaminated with asbestos. Even then, in my eyes, it might not of necessity be a large issue unless it is sanded and inhaled (as the asbestos would be bound by the acrylic polymer and would not normally get in contact with the user, except if they didn’t wear a glove while washing their brushes). If sanding something that did contain talc, it very well would be something with which to take precautions, if ever to attempt at all (given that I have not run across anything [anything recent, let’s say] mentioning the separation of asbestos from talc. Both minerals co-occur, in nature).

If we were going to look at everything associated with asbestos as dangerous, though, I’d look at watercolors made with ground Tiger Eye and Serpentine. Just saying.

Anyhow: I was apparently working on a very rough surface, which may have arisen in part from my teacher being a muralist. Letting the brushes get soppy and weak, and then using them on such unforgiving surfaces, probably didn’t help with avoiding wear.

I’ve reached the point where I realize that hog bristle brushes will not last forever, and aren’t meant to. Because of this, I tried out a very inexpensive set of them, for my current work: though I am very partial to Princeton Catalyst Polytip brushes. (No, they aren’t paying me; yes, I did buy them myself.) The Polytips — at least, the #4 round I have — perform like hog bristle, but (being synthetics) they don’t get soft with water absorption. They also are flagged at the tip of each bristle — like hog bristle — which means they can be very firm along their length and still have a responsive touch on the canvas.

Right now, for detail work, I’m mostly using a store brand of hog bristle brushes. I haven’t known (I mean, really known) how long I will continue to do this. I have had to see how I liked it, first — and I’m still seeing how I like it. I also had never given this particular store anything of a shot, where it came to their natural-bristle brushes. I have used one of their student-grade synthetics: trying to work with that, was almost worse than not having a brush at all (the fact that I didn’t know yet not to use water as a thinner, contributed to this) — but natural hair, I thought, would be different.

I’ve found that the store brand brushes are fairly decent, though I did not get them to last a long time. After bringing them home and washing the glue out of the ends, as well, I was a little worried with the stray hairs leaning away from the brush: this is not an interlocked-bristle model (all hog bristles have a curvature; the interlocked-bristle brushes have the bristles curving inward), so the brushes look a little wild when dry. Not to mention that the bristles are fairly long, so they don’t hold their shape as well as they could. I’ll try to keep that in mind, next time.

However, when it comes to how they actually perform, the store brand brushes are better than the worn ones I had, but not as accurate as I’d expect the Polytips to be. I’d also expect a Chungking interlocking bristle brush like my Signets, to outperform them — but I don’t have the Signets in such tiny sizes to compare!

Anyhow, when the store-brand brushes are in use (I’m using heavy-body paints, and fluid glazing medium more than water), the bristles actually do hold together pretty well.

I believe I could get better accuracy in detail if the brushes were of higher quality (that is, with firmer individual fibers), but right now I’m OK: especially since they worked out to cost about $6, each. That’s extremely inexpensive. For $6 each, I don’t feel bad taking a nail clipper to a persistent stray bristle. Nor am I going to feel bad when they eventually wear down; I’ll take it as a mark of passage, and buy better brushes, next time.

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