What brushes do I need for miniature painting?

What brushes should I get? This is the number one question that I get asked. In this guide we’ll look at what makes for a good brush to give you a better idea of the brushes you want to use for water-based medium.

Lining Brushes

The art of the lines is the core of Eastern painting, and a variety of brushes have been made and crafted to perfection for this purpose. It’s not surprising that artist can be impartial to other tools but always picky about their lining brush.

So what makes for a good quality brush? There are three main criteria to look for when you select your brush:

Fine point

The most obvious characteristic is how well the tip retains its point. Brand new brushes are usually coated with gum arabic and shaped to a nice point  when they are being sold, but not all actually possess a good point. On the other hand, if the brush isn’t coated and appears loose, dipping the brush into clean water then flicking it should make that point appear. So whenever possible, try a brush with clean water on paper before buying it. A high quality brush will have a finer point and will be able to maintain it over time.

Close up of an Indian squirrel hair brush, note how fine the tip is.
Springiness  

To make a firm, clean line, the bristle also need to have a good amount of spring.  This allows the artist to maneuvre the brush with more ease especially for curved lines. Soft hair that lack the spring would lose its strength at the tip, and the line would not be forceful.

Sable hair has excellent spring and is widely used as a lining brush, with the Kolinsky sable considered as premium quality. The Kolinsky sable, harvested from a specie of male weasel found in Siberia, is rare and that’s reflected in the market price of the raw material as well (the hair of Siberian weasel is said to be three times the price of gold by weight. Why is it so expensive). Other kinds of bristle, such as squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, etc. also give an excellent spring and are great for lining. There isn‘t really an universally superior type of bristle; an artist may develop a preference over time to match a particular expression and usage.

Water retaining capacity

Natural bristles have pores that act as reservoirs for paint, when the brush is put in contact with the paper, paint in these pore naturally flows to the tip, allowing the artist to make long, smooth lines without having to constantly reload the brush. This is the major advantage for using natural vs. synthetic brushes, while different types of natural hair also have varying capacity to hold water.

A good lining brush should be able to retain a good amount of water, if the line breaks when it runs out of paint, it looses its strength. For this reason, the tiniest brushes with very short bristle and small body aren’t actually the ideal type for outlining, these are better suited for painting small details such as furs or rendering. A good length for outlining a miniature painting would be somewhere between 12-18mm. 

Recommended lining brushes   

Lining brush used for Indian miniature is made from hairs of squirrel’s tail, which curves to form a fine point. The curvature allows the artist to hold the brush at an angle while painting, as in holding a pencil, which gives the artist great stability and control of movement. Sometimes a new brush does not work nicely at the beginning; after some time of use, the most tender hair on the tip will wear out and a firm, springy tip will come out, this is when the brush is perfect for making smooth and forceful lines. This kind of curved hair brushes is rarely sold outside of India, however. I recommend using the high quality brushes which are more easily accessible and have been used by miniaturists from other traditions:

Handover Pure Sable #00

Da Vinci Series 1200k liner #0 or 1

The Japanese lining brush (shown in the heading image) is a personal favorite. It has the perfect spring and the size also makes it easy for making precise, flowing and uninterrupted lines: Kurojiku Itachi Choho Menso small

edit: use the Itachi Kinsen Kegaki which has smaller body for doing miniature work.


For rendering:  Isabey Kolinsky Sable #1
US link

For synthetic: Isabey Isaqua #1 or 2

Detailing using Isabey Syrius series #1

Coloring brushes     

Indian miniature brushes used for color filling typically are round and do not form a point at the tip. The ideal bristle would be softer and has great water retaining capacity, mongoose, goat, or hair from the ear of cow have been used for this purpose. That said, you don’t need to spend out on the finest Kolinsky sable for coloring brushes, but it’s important that the brush is well crafted that it doesn’t shed hair easily while painting. 

My favorite coloring brushes are these round brushes without pointy tip, the two on the right are traditional Chinese goat hair brushes.

A few round brushes in small and medium sizes (say size 2,  4 and 8) can be very versatile and will suffice for most miniature paintings, you can also use a combination of small and large Chinese goat-hair brushes and that’ll handle just about any surface size.  

Saishiki-fude

Liuyun mixed hair sumi brush

Wash Brushes

These large flat brushes are useful for applying uniform background washes over large surface. My preference is for goat hair Hake brushes. Since goat hair is very soft, it will be less likely to leave streaks where you want an overall flat color.

Hake brush set of three

To wrap up..

You don’t need a whole lot to start with, a few well chosen brushes can go a long way. If you’ve painted for a while, you’ll probably have quite a handful of brushes. Use the ones you are already comfortable using and only get those that really can’t match with your own.

So, if you’re interested in learning Indian miniature painting, here’s a helpful, free downloadable ebook about what you’ll need to get started:

The Essential Material and Tool Kit for Miniature Painting

Until next time 🌻

Disclaimer: some of the products mentioned are affiliates so I get a tiny commission when you purchase through the links.

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