The humble paint brush is probably second only to the craft knife as the most essential modelling tool. Almost every modeller will very quickly build up a large collection of brushes in different shapes and sizes.
Therefore, no modelling guide would be complete without a section about the care and use of paint brushes. Yet it is with some trepidation that I set about writing this tutorial. That is because this seems to be one of those subjects where there are many different opinions, so it is difficult to give advice with any authority.
This article will attempt to give general advice about choosing and using paint brushes for modelling. However, it is recognised that everyone will have their own favourite type of brush and method of using it. Finding out your own preferences is part of the fun and challenge of modelling, so please take this tutorial as advice rather than gospel. If you find that you can produce great results using a toothbrush then good for you.
What are paint brushes good for?
These days the airbrush is king and every serious modeller will have an airbrush that will be used for the majority of painting. The possible exception to this would be figure modellers, although even they are likely to apply base coats with an airbrush. Some of the latest airbrushes are capable of producing lines thinner than the human hair, so why do we need paint brushes at all?
1. Paint brushes are easier than airbrushes
There are two aspects to this. Few modellers have the luxury of having an area permanently set aside for airbrushing. An airbrushing session often involves preparing an area – perhaps in an uninviting garage or shed – and then clearing away afterwards. Getting out a paintbrush and dipping it in a pot of paint is so much more convenient. Secondly, using an airbrush usually means masking off the areas that are not to be painted. In some cases, such as the tools on an AFV, the masking process can be time consuming and tricky. It is so much easier simply to paint the tools with a paint brush which with a steady hand will not require any masking.
2. Better results
There are many things that an airbrush can do better than a paint brush and vice versa. Technically, an airbrush can paint a spot smaller than a pin head. However, in practice it would require a very good airbrush, with the settings just right and a very experienced user to make it work. A paint brush will almost always produce better results for fine detail work. Paint brushes are also essential for blending different colours. The effectiveness of paint brushes for detail work and blending is why figure modellers almost always use paint brushes for everything except base coats.
3. More enjoyment
Many modellers (including myself) find using an airbrush a bit of a chore. There is the effort of setting it all up and packing it away (after careful cleaning of course). Due to the possibility of fumes and overspray, airbrushing is often done in the garage or shed. It is necessary to wear a filter mask that can be uncomfortable. To top all this, airbrushing can be quite nerve racking. There are so many things that can go wrong with an airbrush, such as paint runs, splatter etc. and it is easy for a model that has taken weeks of work to be ruined in a matter of seconds.
However, painting the old-fashioned way with a paint brush and a small pot of paint is much more relaxing and forgiving.
4. There are some things an airbrush cannot do
There are places that can be reached with a paint brush where it would be impossible to get an airbrush to spray, such as the inside of cockpits or wheel wells. There are techniques such as applying washes and dry-brushing that rely on a brush to apply the paint in a specific way. Even the best airbrush with masking in the hands of an expert cannot replicate these types of effects.
Although it is possible to buy a starter airbrush quite cheaply and run it off compressed air cans, this type of set up will be very limiting. To produce good quality results a modeller will eventually need to get a good quality airbrush and compressor and that will involve an investment of hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros. That is before you start to consider the extras such as a quality filter mask or spray booth. Quality brushes are not cheap, but it is possible to get a good selection of quality brushes for a fraction of the cost of a top quality airbrush kit.
For all these reasons there will always be a place on the modellers’ workbench for a collection of good quality paint brushes.
Brushes In Detail
Anatomy of a paint brush
Paint brushes have three main components:
- Handle – obviously this is where you hold the brush. Normally handles are circular in cross section tapering towards the end, although some are oval or triangular in cross section which is supposed to improve grip. Commonly made of wood, but sometimes plastic. The handle should be long enough to give a comfortable grip, but no so long as to get in the way or poke out an eye. I have sometimes shortened the end of handles to increase the ability to get into restricted spaces.
- Hairs or bristles – this is the business end of the brush and what makes the difference between a good and bad brush. The material that the hairs of made of, how they are bunched together and their length and shape all affect the characteristics of the brush. More about this later.
- Ferrule – this is the metal collar that grips the hairs tightly together and clamps them on to the handle. The base of the hairs should be held firm with glue and the ferrule acts as an additional clamp on the hairs. On cheap brushes the ferrule may break off easily from the handle, or there may be no glue holding the hairs, so the occasional hair will pull out when painting which can spoil the finish.
Paint brush sizes
One feature of paint brushes is the wide variety of sizes. Generally, the size of a paint brush can be identified by a number, the larger the number the bigger the size. Size ‘0’ is a very small brush and the sizes go up to at least size ’40’.
There are some exceptions to this sizing method. The current standard was invented before scale modelling as we know it existed and nobody thought that there would be any need for a brush smaller than size 0. However, any modeller who has tried to paint the eyes on a 1/76th scale figure knows that you cannot have a brush that is too small. When I started modelling in the 1970s, I remember cutting the hairs on a size 0 brush to make it smaller for extreme detail work.
These days that is not necessary because brushes can be found in sizes 0, 00, 000, 0000 and 00000, getting progressively smaller. When using these very small paint brushes it is often necessary to use heavilly thinned paint because otherwise it might dry out on the brush before it is used.
Another exception to the sizing convention is flat brushes. Sometimes, they are identified by their width, so you might have brushes referred to a 1/4 inch or 1/2 inch flat.
One other point about brush sizes. There does not appear to be consistency between manufacturers. I have brushes made by several companies and a size 4 brush from one will not necessarily be the same as a size 4 from another. The length of the brush hairs in particular seems to vary. Furthermore, brushes will appear to be different sizes if their shape is different (more about brush shapes below).
Thus a round number 2 brush may look quite a different size to a flat number 2 brush. All you can be certain of is that a size 4 from one manufacturer will be smaller than a size 5 from the same manufacturer.
The most common shaped brush used for modelling is a ’round’ with the second most popular being ‘flats’. In fact these are the only types that most modellers will use. Round brushes are ideal for all general use whilst flats are best for covering large areas such as applying washes and filters. However, there are a few specialist shapes used by artists that might be of use to modellers from time to time.
Rigger: These are similar to round brushes, but have very long hairs. The name is thought to come from the fact they were designed to paint the rigging on sailing ships and they are ideal for drawing long thin lines. The long hairs hold more paint than a normal round brush and so they can draw a longer line without running out of paint.
Fan: The name comes from the fan shape of the hairs which are normally relatively stiff. These are used in painting for representing bushes and trees which are created by dabbing the brush on the paper rather than using a normal painting motion.
Bright: This is a short haired flat brush with stiff hairs normally used on rough paper or canvas or for syles of painting with thick paints (impasto).
Filbert: A flat brush with a rounded end. Something of a compromise between a round and a flat which is good for large areas whilst still allowing the facility for some detail work.
Angle: Like a flat brush but the hairs at the end are cut at an angle. Useful for covering large areas whilst being easier to get paint into corners and awkward areas than a standard flat brush.
Mop: A large brush with hairs that flair out – much like a mop. These hold a large amount of paint and are used for large area coverage. Unlikely to be used for modelling except perhaps for preparing scenery for a diorama.
Quality and materials
There is no doubt that paint brushes vary enormously in quality and that cheap brushes will normally be poor quality and the paint finish will reflect that fact. The main factor in brush quality is the type of hair used. On a quality brush, the hairs will naturally form a point and will have a good spring to them, so that they can be bent, but will quickly return to their normal shape. Good brushes will also hold more paint and will deliver that paint consistently instead of in a rush as soon as the brush touches the subject.
Traditionally, paint brushes were made with various types of natural hairs or bristles. They could be soft or stiff depending on the intended use. For some time now, brushes made from synthetic hairs have been available. Initially, synthetic brushes were of dubious quality and the only advantage they had over natural hairs was that the brushes were cheaper. However, synthetic bristles have improved enormously over the years and now match the best natural hairs in both quality and cost. Some artists will still insist that the best brushes are made from Kolinsky Sable hairs, but there are many who have found synthetic hairs to be just as good, so perhaps it comes down to personal preference and what people are used to.
Personally, I have found that the manufacturer is just as an important factor in brush quality. I have had extremely good and distinctly average brushes made from both sable and synthetic hairs. The following is list of the some of the commonly used hairs in brushes:
- Sable: This is considered by many to make the ultimate soft brush. It is made from the hairs on the tail of a sable marten. These creatures used to be hunted just for the hairs on their tail and whether this practice continues is unknown, so some people may be reluctant to purchase these brushes for ethical reasons. Sable hairs have a natural taper, so when they’re put into a brush they form a point. Sable brushes are normally the most expensive, but are famous for their softness, flexibility, fine point and ability to hold paint. Kolinsky sable from Siberia is generally considered the best type of sable.
- Squirrel: Cheaper than sable, squirrel hairs are soft, but do not have much spring. They tend to work better when used in large brushes.
- Hog/bristle: These are used on brushes which need to be hard and springy. Traditionally used for oil and acrylic paints (thick paste acrylics – not the sort used by modellers). Hog or bristle brushes would not be suitable for most modelling purposes.
- Camel: These do not make good brushes being too soft and woolly. Often used in cheap brushes. Avoid.
- Ox: These produce strong and springy brushes. May be mixed with other hairs such as squirrel to get the best qualities of both. Mixed hair brushes can produce good results and be inexpensive, but the quality can vary enormously.
- Miscellaneous/mixed: At some point somebody has probably tried to make brushes out of almost every type of animal hair. If the brush does not indicate what it is made from then be very wary about it.
- Synthetic: Nylon was often used in the early synthetic brushes. The bristles were course with thick ends and did not perform well. There one advantage was being cheap and durable so were often used in schools. Modern synthetic brushes can be made from a variety of materials and the production process has improved immensely, so that the best examples mimic natural hair very closely. These can sometimes stay in good condition longer than natural hairs, but increased quality has meant increased cost. The best synthetic brushes are on a par with the best natural brushes, but it is still possible to get some very poor synthetic brushes (as it is with natural hair brushes)
There are two main sources of paint brushes:
- Modelling suppliers – all of the places that sell modelling supplies and scale models will almost certainly stock one or more ranges of paint brushes (see the article ‘Where to Buy’) . They will tend to sell brushes manufactured (or at least branded) with names familiar to modellers such as Tamiya, Revell, or Vallejo. Modellers’ brushes used to be poor quality, but modellers nowadays demand the best and many manufacturers like Vallejo and Tamiya have responded and now produce top quality brushes.
- Art suppliers – Art shops and Internet Art Suppliers will have a wide range of brushes aimed at traditional artists. The brands will be those more familiar to artists such as Winsor & Newton and Daler-Rowney. The quality of artists brushes can be extremely good. The advantage of an art shop is that you can actually hold and inspect the brush and check how flexible the hairs are and whether they naturally form a point (although you may get a foul look from the shop keeper). Not all brushes sold in art shops are suitable for modellers. Brushes designed for oil and acrylic painting usually have stiff hairs. Brushes designed for water colour painting are normally ideal for modelling, but if in doubt ask advice from the shop keeper – that is what they are there for. Art shops are unlikely to stock brushes smaller than a ’00’ size since there is very little call for such small brushes from traditional artists.
Since brushes vary considerably in quality, it is advisable to buy one brush from a manufacturer and try it out before commiting to a set. Getting a recommendation from fellow modellers helps, but be aware that painting is very personal and different modellers may prefer quite different brushes.
Be wary about buying brushes that come in a set and appear to be very good value. They are likely to be poor quality.
This will depend very much on the type of models you make and the scale. A figure painter will require more fine detail brushes than an aircraft modeller. Modelling in 1/76th scale will require smaller brushes than modelling in 1/16th scale.
In an ideal world you would probably have a fairly new round brush in every size from ‘00000’ up to 12 plus a variety of flat brushes. However, in reality this would be very expensive and is not really necessary. Some modellers believe that a good quality ‘0’ size brush is capable of painting the finest details and there is no need for smaller brushes.
The following list should cover most situations for most people:
- A ‘00000’, ‘0000’ or ‘000’ round brush;
- A ’00’ or ‘0’ round brush;
- One each of size 1, 2 and 3 round brushes;
- A size 5 or 6 round brush;
- A size 8 round brush;
- A 1/4 inch and 1/2 flat brush.
If you can afford more sizes then do so, since painting is always easier with exactly the right brush. You may find that it is helpful to have more than one brush in some of the sizes that you use quite often.
When you have used a brush for a time, it may loose a few hairs and they will have less spring. You will find that you will want to buy a new brush for when you need the best performance and keep the older brush for less demanding work. In this way, most modellers build up quite a collection of brushes.
If you use both water-based and oil-based paints then really you should have two examples of each brush because it is not recommended to use a brush that has been used for oil based paints with water based paints. This is because a small amount of residue from the oil paint may be left on the brush after cleaning and this will resist the water-based paint. Whether this is really necessary is a matter of opinion. I keep separate brushes for oil and water-based paints, but on the odd occasion when I have switched use, I have never had a problem.
Using paint brushes
Getting good results from a paintbrush is not difficult but does require practice. To get a good result you will need a good quality paint brush – even the best artist will struggle if the brush hairs have no spring and the brush head will not form a point. Therefore, buy good brushes and treat them well.
Make sure that the paint you are using is thinned to the right consistency. Using paint that is too thick may leave brush marks and the paint is more likely to dry on the brush. If in doubt, err on the side of making the paint too thin (it goes without saying that you also need good quality paint that has been thoroughly stirred). It is almost always better to apply two or more thin coats of paint rather than one thick coat.
Avoid dipping you brush directly into the paint pot. You are likely to contaminate the paint and you want to minimise the amount of time that the paint pot is open to the atmosphere. Use a pipette, cocktail stick or some other means to transfer a small amount of paint to a palette. Ceremic palettes are ideal. Put the lid back on the paint pot as soon as possible.
Dip the end of your brush into the paint, there is no need to completely cover the brush hairs and normally dipping a third to a half of length of the hairs into the paint will be sufficient. Wipe off any excess paint on the side of the palette and you are ready to paint. How you hold the paint brush is up to you. Most people hold the brush as they would a pen, but there is no set method, so just make sure it is comfortable and you are able to finely control the brush. Use the brush gently, there is no need to scrub or to bend the bristles sharply. Generally, you should draw the brush in the direction of the bristles, but to get into corners it may be necessary to ‘push’ the brush a little against the bristles.
Clean the brush every few minutes to stop paint drying on the bristles, or building up at the base of the bristles.
It is very important to thoroughly clean brushes after use and between changes of colour. The solution to use will depend on the type of paint. Most manufacturers will recommend a good cleaning solution. For water-based paints such as acrylics then water may be sufficient but a proprietory thinner cleaner or water/alchohol mix may get better results.
For oil-based paints, white spirit or turpentine works well although some people use parafin/kerosene or other spirits.
I find the best way to clean the brush is to twisel it against the side of a jar at an angle of about 45 degrees. Do not be tempted to scrub the brush on the bottom of the jar. This may bend the bristles and you will be rubbing the brush in the residue that has settled from previous cleaning.
When all the paint has been removed I normally finish off by giving the brush a final swill in water with a few drops of liquid dishwashing solution added. This removes any final paint residue whether oil or water-based paints have been used. The brush is then gently dried by wiping it against paper towel. I normally form the hairs into a point by drawing the brush against my finger after first licking it. Saliva has a tackiness that helps to keep the bristles together. Do not directly lick the brush as you may ingest any residual substances on the brush hairs.
The important thing is to avoid damage to the bristles. Some brushes will come with a transparent plastic cylinder over the bristles and you may wish to keep these and replace it after each use to protect the hairs. The downside with these is that the hairs will take a very long time to dry out when enclosed by a plastic cylinder and it is easy to damage the hairs when sliding the protective cylinder in place.
Art shops will sell wallets for storing paintbrushes, but these are intended for artists and so will normally have slots for large brushes that are not suitable for the tiny brushes ofter used by modellers.
Perhaps the easist method is to store the brushes upside down in a jar or similar container. A desk tidy intended for pens and pencils may work well.
Frequently Asked Questions?
Should I buy cheap brushes for dry-brushing and similar harsh techniques?
It is true that some modelling techniques such as dry-brushing can be very hard on a brush. Good brushes can be expensive so it is tempting to buy some cheap brushes for rough work. Generally this is a mistake. Cheap brushes may have bristles that lack spring and will splay out which makes them more difficult to use and produces poor results. A better solution is to buy good quality brushes and to keep certain brushes for different uses.
For example, when a brush is brand new, only use it where good brush control is needed. After repeated uses and washing, even the best brushes will start to show a little wear and at that point the brush should be relegated to more general brushing uses such as applying washes. Get a new brush for your best quality work. After a little more wear your original brush should be demoted again and used for dry-brushing. Although the brush will be old and worn at this stage it is still likely to be better than a new cheap brush. Eventually, your brush will be relagated to the really meanial jobs such as applying PVA glue or masking fluid. At the end of it’s life, cut off the bristles and use it as a paint stirrer.
Can I shorten the hairs of a brush?
Not normally. The hairs of a brush are not uniform and usually taper towards the end ending in very fine points. If you try to shorten the brush hairs you will be removing the delicate ends of the hairs and will completely change the characteristics of the brush. The hairs will no longer clump into a fine point necessary for detail work. However, if you have an old brush on it’s last legs and you want to extend it’s life for something rough like dry-brushing then it may be worth trying.
Can I cut away brush hairs to make a smaller detail brush?
Usually this will not work. A good brush will have the right number, type and length of hairs to give optimum results. If you try cutting away some of the hairs around the circumference to make a brush with fewer hairs, you will find the brush will not hold much paint, may loose it’s springyness and might no longer form a fine point. If you need a detail brush then buy a smaller brush. If you really need a brush with long hairs then buy a rigger brush.
Can I use the same brushes for water and oil/spirit based paint?
The advice generally given is that you should keep one set of brushes for water based paint e.g. acrylics and another set for oil based paint e.g. enamels. It is OK to use a brush that has been used for water based paints for oil based paints, but when you have done so it should not be used again for water based paints. This is because oil based paints will always leave a residue on the brush. However, if brushes that have been used for oil based paints have been well cleaned with spirits and then warm water with detergent and then thorougly dried, you will probably get away without any problems.