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On the Joys of Cheap Paintbrushes

or, why I can't have nice things.

When I was a kid, before the internet, I used to make my mom buy me 'artist' magazines from the bookstore so I could pore over them at home. I lived in a rural town, without a vibrant art scene, and any art advice I could find I took Very Seriously.

I remember reading an article about painting materials, and how the best artists only used sable brushes for their paintings. Specifically, Kolinsky sable brushes, made from the tail fur of a special kind of weasel, and only the hair from the male was used. Or was it the female? As I continued reading, the mythology only seemed to grow larger in my mind. Only one kind of fur was the best. This fur was rare and hard to obtain. Probably only harvested by specially trained experts under the light of a full moon. Probably involved cruelty to animals. Or maybe it required the guidance of a forest spirit to befriend the weasels and ask them three times for a gift of their tail fur before they obliged. The handles of these brushes are coated with so many layers of lacquer that they gleam like the hood of a Ferrarri. The balance, the weight, the handling---exquisite! The spring and resilience of the brushhead—unparalleled! The result of using these brushes, and only these brushes? The world will recognize you as a Master Artist. Artiste.

Man, I wanted a set of Kolinsky sable brushes so bad. It was like my fifth-grade obsession with Ebony brand drawing pencils. Only the best! If I was ever going to be any good, I needed a very soft, highly pigmented pencil with excellent blendability.

I'm not sure how (probably an indulgent parent) but at some point I actually got my grubby hands on a Kolinsky sable brush. And I found it floppy and unwieldy with the acrylic paint set I had. Of course I did, because soft, natural hair brushes are for watercolor, not oils or acrylics, and I didn't use watercolor. Into the cabinet it went, forgotten. In college, for a watercolor painting class, I again gave in to the hype and bought a few round sables. Even with the appropriate paint, I found the Magical Paintbrush exactly no better, exactly no worse, than the student-grade synthetic brushes I'd bought on clearance at the craft store. My color swatches were no more vibrant. My washes were no more or less washy.

Is it true that a really well-made, crafted brush could last you for years and ultimately be a better value than a bunch of cheap brushes that need to be replaced? An investment piece, as it were? Sure, but only if you don't lose or ruin that expensive brush.

I have never been an immaculate person. There have been times I didn't roll my brushes up neatly in a canvas roll. There have been times I've let them dry with the bristles up, allowing water to seep into the ferrules and wreak havoc. There have been times I've had to throw away brushes because I didn't clean them well enough.

I would like to be an immaculate person who could be trusted with The One Perfect Paintbrush. But I'm not. And I'm never going to be. I don't even want to tell you how many nice brushes I've ruined by my hasty, slapdash ways.

Enter the cheap paintbrush. You can buy them in packs of ten at Michaels. Hell, you can buy them at Walmart. They are made of golden or white taklon, come in all shapes and sizes, and have cheerily colored handles.

They also handle acrylic, watercolor, and ink just as well as the 'professional grade' brushes. Yes, their ferrules are not as securely attached, but some of them have lasted me for years. What they lack in high-end looks they make up for in the fact that you don't have to cry when you ruin them. When your cat rolls them under the fridge and chews off their bristles.

Don't I care about the environment, about using less? Indeed, I do, but I am a realist. I acknowledge that I am neglectful in my brush care, and brushes are going to need to be replaced whether they are expensive or cheap.

Don't I believe that serious artists use only the best materials? Nope. Not one bit. Not when it comes to brushes, at least. That's a bunch of marketing lies. Serious artists can and will use whatever is at hand. I've made some of my best drawings using a Blic ballpoint pen.

Even the most archival paper will degrade. Even the most expensive oils will someday crack and fade. Even the finest sable brushes will be chewed on by your local cat or toddler. In the immortal words of the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Life is pain. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something”.

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