|Kurt Plinke, Artist and Naturalist|
Between the Waters
life, Art and The Nature of things Between the Atlantic and the Chesapeake
Sometimes the value of a thing does not correlate with the amount of money spent on that object. I have found this to be the case time and time again. Some of the things accumulated in my life that I really would never want to be apart from are not what have emptied my wallet.
Paint brushes are often those kinds of things. The most expensive are usually not those that I find the most useful in the long run. And it seems that these particular brushes, the ones I have loved the most, when first seen showed their special nature right away. Like love at first sight, it's as though they were destined to be special.
It's easy to spend an awful lot of money on a watercolor brush. The first good brush I owned, I bought at The Letter Shop in Lancaster, Ohio, in the early 70's. I had just enrolled in a watercolor class taught by LeLand McClellan at the local YMCA. On his supply list for the class, he suggested a Winsor Newton series 7 # 8 round brush. I remember it well, not only because it had a gleaming black handle and beautiful polished nickel ferrule, but also because it was so expensive. I can still recall the price... $33.00. Back in the day, that was a load of money. And I have to say, it was a really nice brush. Hand-made in England, Winsor Newton series 7 brushes are arguably the best watercolor brushes that can be bought. A brush like it today sells for well over a $100.
It's strange though... I don't consider that long-gone brush to be one of my favorites. And what is stranger... None of my truly favorites cost anywhere close to that much.
Probably my all-time favorite brush is an old beater one inch flat I bought when I was in college. A blue-handled student-grade Grumbacher, I purchased it for five dollars at the Bowling Green State University book store in 1977. I've used that brush ever since, softly washing watery backgrounds on many hundreds of sheets of Arches, Waterford and Winsor Newton paper. The supple snappiness of the long nylon bristles are always predictable, leaving a smooth as satin sheet of water in its wake. Each time I reach for that battered blue handle, I know what I'll get... a lovely layer of clean wash. About ten years ago, the pewter-toned ferrule wiggled it's way loose from the handle. If it had been a lesser brush, I would have tossed it, using the handle to mark a garden bed. But I loved this brush, and even in two pieces, I couldn't bring myself to discard it. Instead, I wrapped a couple of turns of masking tape over the end of the battered stick, and twisted the ferrule back into place. Amazingly, since then I have only had to replace the tape once.
Another flat, this time a two-inch Robert Simmons with a burnt sienna-toned handle, is my other favorite always faithful wash brush. I found this one on sale in a huge cardboard box of close-out brushes in the back of the Ben Franklin craft store in Easton, Maryland. The box was about as big as a washing machine, and I dug through it one day about fifteen years ago. The handwritten sign on the box said, "all brushes, 2.99." When I saw that sign, it felt like Christmas. I found about twenty brushes in there that were spectacular. This big flat was the best of them. Most of the others, approaching an equal caliber, I gave as gifts to artists I knew would appreciate them.
I think I like this particular flat so well partly because it was such a great deal, and partly the way the leading edge of the bristles are cut. Usually a flat is cut cleanly, leaving an edge like a knife. This one, though, is just a tiny bit ragged. It was that way when I found it. That ragged edge, when half-loaded with pigment and dragged lightly across a page, leaves the most amazing textural trail behind it. Those subtle little streaks add so much interest to a painting and really can bring unity to an entire composition as they can be faintly found across a painting. A good flat brush is something special.
I must say have had some very expensive round brushes, but none of them matched the black-handled Robert Simmons long #12 that I also found that day in the close-out bin at Ben Franklin. My first Winsor Newton Series 7 #8 Kolinsky Sable brush perhaps came close to being as good as this old reliable Robert Simmons. Over the years, the tooth of every piece of cold-press paper has taken its toll, and the fine tip on the old RS brush is long worn away. Even so, all of the part-sable hairs on this brush remain flexible and wonderfully adept at going where they should with a tiny wrist flick or roll. I love that round. And it was only $2.99 on close-out.
I don't even remember how I came into possession of another of my favorites; a small stick-handled French quill brush with what I assume is squirrel hair that makes up the head of the thin little detailer. I like it because it was a surprise to find, and because the soft barrel holds a ton of paint, while still allowing a hair's-width line to flow from the tip. The handle could perhaps have been a little thicker for my pork-chop hands, but the rough natural feel of the stick/handle in my hands make up for the narrowness. Plus, the tip, held in place by a goose quill and twisted copper wire looks awesomely cool.
Another "brush" I reach for all the time is actually one of many like it that I made myself. A chop-stick handle on each, trimmed bits of sea sponge were affixed to the former eating utensils with waxed fly-tying line. Technically, I suppose these are not brushes, not having any hair. But they are wonderful mark-makers. Dragged across a surface, they leave very un-brushy smudges, perfect when painting a fallow field or autumn tree line. I should probably make lots more, patent and market them.
My other two favorites are liner brushes. One is longer than the other, with a slightly thicker barrel. Both, because of the length of their flexible heads, hold a lot of liquid, making them great for tiny technical marks. Weirdly, I also use them a lot for drybrush and scumbling, dragging them side-while across rough paper, The smaller of the two, a Robert Simmons Expressions #2, is probably my smallest brush, and unlike the the French quill brush, has a huge fat handle. I love grabbing for that brush, because I know it will never fly loose and add streaks of paint where I did not intend on an almost-finished piece. It's not just the easy to hold ball bat handle that I like, though. While the turquoise-green handle is massive, the head is delicate. I've found that if I load this petite little package of hairs just right, I can paint miniature rat whiskers by the dozen without having to re-load. I'm not sure why I would ever need dozens of miniature rat whiskers painted, nut it's nice to know that I could, if the need ever arose. At least as long as I have that little # 2 liner with the giant handle.
There are other brushes I love... maybe almost as much. A 3/4" filbert rake I bought at a decoy carver's show years ago quickly comes to mind, as does a cat's tongue detailing brush that I often seem to reach for when I need variable-width lines. If I thought about it, I could name more. But even though I have hundreds of brushes, each with a minor tale to tell, the seven, with their minor little stories, are destined to always be my favorites.
Kurt Plinke: About Life, Art and the Nature of Things on the Eastern Shore
I write about things I've noticed, places I've been, plans I've made and paintings I've finished or am thinking about.
See recent naturalist observations I have posted on iNaturalist: