Art Term Tuesday: Paintbrush

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Recently, I stumbled across a discovery that has left me rather confused. David Shapiro, an artist in our Special Collections & Archives, employed a multitude of paintbrushes to create his enigmatic paintings, some that he even constructed himself! In our last large exhibition of his works, we included some of his paintbrushes to show visitors how he accomplished such large canvases. It got me wondering where the paintbrush came from—especially after seeing other brushes, such as ones you might brush a horse with, commandeered for artistic purposes. As a lover of all things trivia, particularly historical trivia, I was appalled at the almost complete lack of information on this most integral tool of painters. How can we know so little about an instrument that has played such a large role in our visual history? And what does that mean for understanding our visual history?

A can holding paintbrushes in all shapes and sizes.
Paintbrushes come in all shapes and sizes. Photo courtesy of Katy Thompson.

Humans have painted since the dawn of time, starting with cave paintings like the Bulls of Lascaux through to the present-day, we have always used pictorials to communicate. The decorated caves in Montignac, France, which date back to 17,000 years ago, include pictographs applied by a brush. Cave paintings found as early as the Paleolithic Period (2,500,000 years ago) show the use of a brush to apply pigments. Egyptians used brushes to create their tomb paintings and ancient Chinese employed the tip of a brush to make the characters for their writing. In a few sources, the invention of the paintbrush is attributed to the Chinese, a general in the Qin Dynasty named Meng Tian whole lived around 300BC, though there is no formal documentation for its movement around the globe. Most likely, traders such as Marco Polo brought it from Asia to Europe. Tuscan painter Cennino Cennnini is credited with the first mention of the paintbrush in the Western world in his book Il Libro dell’Arte, a 14th century how-to on late medieval and Early Renaissance painting. The handbook includes information on paintbrushes, pigments, drawing, and frescoes. What is missing is the provenance, or the record of the beginning of the paintbrush as a tool and its movement across the globe and refinement into the instrument we recognize today. So, what do we know?

 What we have copious information on is the technical aspect of a paintbrush. The paintbrush can be an aid or an impediment to the artists’ vision if they choose the wrong one, therefore, the artist selects their brush based on its intended use; as each brush material and design designates the medium it should be used for. Once an artist knows if they are painting in oil, acrylic, or watercolor, they can choose their brush. Up to the 19th century, artists were most likely constrained to the use of a round brush whose hair, or bristles, were tied to the end of a wooden handle. This changed with the invention of the ferrule, the small, ring-shaped metal piece that connects the bristles to the handle, because it permitted different brush shapes. The different hair types, shapes of the bristles, width of thickness of the bristles, and lengths of handles diversified the mediums and marks that artists could make. The Impressionists, for example, were able to make their flat strokes thanks to the invention of the ferrule.

The mechanics of the brush are as follows: the bristles, the ferrule, and the handle. The bristles are either natural or synthetic hair fibers that hold and deliver the paint to the surface. The ferrule is the metal band that holds the bristles to the handle. The handle is either hardwood or plastic, and its length determines its use: a long handle is for oils or acrylics on an easel while a short handle is for detailing on a flat surface. The handles include the number, which designates the thickness or width of the bristles. This number varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, so a six from one designer is not the same as a six from another. It also includes the type, or the shape, of the brush. There are eight main brush shapes: flat, bright, round, angled, script, filbert, fan, and mop. Each shape creates a different effect, so artists may switch between multiple brushes on one painting. A flat brush can aid the painter in blending colors while the fan brush creates texture and the round brush produces detailed, controlled marks that permit strokes to appear. The choice of the brush is dependent on the application, or the marks you want to make and the media, or the consistency of the paint. The most important choice for the artist, however, is the bristle type, or the hair in the paintbrush, as the hairs ability to hold paint makes it suitable for certain mediums over others.

A variety of hairs are used to make brushes, both natural and synthetic. Sable, hair from a mink or weasel, is best with watercolor and oils. Hog, ox, goat, and pony are also used with watercolors while oils only use sable or hog. Tempera is best with ox and pony and acrylic brushes are made from hog and pony. Ink brushes are squirrel or goat hair. Synthetic brushes, which are nylon or polyester, can be used with any media: watercolor, tempera, acrylic, oil, and inks. Each animal hair has a separate characteristic, whether springy and soft like sable or coarse and sturdy like pony that dictate the medium it should be used with; whether thick paint like an acrylic or a thin paint like watercolor.

So, what does all this mean? Or, put more bluntly, why do we care about the tools of an artist? A blog post we keep referring to is Amanda Shepard’s Reality Check about choosing our words more wisely. Understanding the process and decisions that go into making a painting, whether a masterwork hung in a museum or a masterwork taking center stage on our fridge, helps us better understand the message the artist was trying to send. Art is a tool used to communicate; when you learn a language, you start with words and phrases, not full sentences. In this way, the paintbrush provides you with a word or phrase, another method for divulging the intent of the artist by understand the tools of their trade.

A photograph showing the display case of artist David Shapiro's paintbrushes, of multiple shapes and sizes and some he made himself.
A variety of brushes used by FWMoA Special Collections & Archives artist David Shapiro, including those he made himself. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

FWMoA is currently exhibiting a rotating exhibition of David Shapiro paintings. Come on in and see if you can use the visual clues left behind by a brushstroke to discern Shapiro’s message.    

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