What is the Best Brush for Miniature Painting?
The choice of best brush for most miniature painting is personal, but the general consensus is the pointed round size #1 or #2, which has a bristle length of about 8-12mm, and a belly diameter of 1.5-2mm. For most 28-35mm scale miniatures, this brush size and shape allows for efficient paint application and blending for larger surfaces, as well as the precision to apply detail. Quality synthetic or natural hair bristles within this size range can be the go-to brush for a majority of miniature painting. Good snap or spring (the ability of a brush to retain its shape) and tip retention (the quality of a brush to hold a fine bristle point) are interrelated attributes to consider when choosing a brush for detailed miniature painting.
Searching for The Best Brush….Miniature Painting
What qualities of size and shape of a brush make it great for miniature painting?
When I did my initial research online, everywhere really, I wanted the tool that could do the most work (versatility) with precision and control to allow me to freehand or perform details of a miniature painting when called upon. But, the brush also had to be an efficient painter. It needed to hold paint sufficiently so that I’m not refilling the bristles with paint after every brushstroke.
When it comes to pure speed, getting the job done quickly, I highly recommend the Citadel Medium Basing brush.
But, if you want a brush for miniature painting that will last a long time, fit almost-all your miniature painting needs after the base coating step (general workflow for speed here and here, or for larger models), give you the power to paint details without bottlenecking you with annoying split bristle tips or splaying fibers, I wrote this article to put as much as I’ve learned in one place.
Brushes are Diverse…like People?
Brushes are unique tools, each with a different behavior and dare I say personality.
There are so many types of brushes out there, it can be hard to even decide on the special few (or one) that you’ll need for painting miniatures. If you are like me when I first started painting miniatures, then you’ve probably chosen the kinds of brushes that you saw at your local game or craft store.
Or, maybe you’ve watched others paint in videos using various brushes.
As someone who is also learning, I’ve seen the gamut of brush types just by walking through all the art stores I’ve visited. I’m guessing that they all have uses, like all tools that have developed over generations. Each with a purpose and a specific application.
And, if you’re like me, you wonder sometimes if your painting could improve if you just had that one perfect brush that could make that technique this much easier….
Well, with any tool you kind of have to know what your goals are. Once your goal is set, it does become easier to decide what materials you’ll need to accomplish what you want to do.
The carpenter who is building a house knows they’ll need a hammer because nails need to be pounded into wood. They key here is that a hammer does the job of pounding nails, but not of building the house. The carpenter builds the house with many tools designed for many tasks that come together to make the house.
The same is true for miniature painting. Your paint brush is just a tool for a single task of painting a miniature. Of course, painting a miniature is mostly just that, painting.
So, our goal is easy, right?
So then, choosing the right and best brush for the miniature painting task ahead of you should also be easy?
Yes and no.
Again, there are so many techniques and approaches, and I think the problem starts with nailing down what you actually are trying to do when painting a miniature.
The Best Shape and Size for a Brush Used in Miniature Painting
The best brush shape is a pointed round. This shape gives you the most surface bristle area to apply paint (using the sides of a brush, in a swishing or feathering motion), whilst the sharp tip provides for the precision to perform controlled line work required for applying details.
The best brush size for miniature painting is a brush with bristle lengths of about 10mm (0.39 inches), and a belly diameter of 2mm (0.79 inches). For most 28-35mm miniatures, this brush size allows for efficient paint retention in the “belly” of the tuft (see below). The length is long enough to provide good belly (where most paint would be held for a period of time over a series of applications on larger surfaces), and short enough to keep bristles “snappy” or “springy” so they reform after deforming after a brushstroke. Brushes all have numbers to define their size. But, the size number of a particular brand may not mean the same thing size-wise for another different brand. For example, a pointed round size #1, does not mean it will have bristles of the length or diameter that is ideal for your miniature painting needs.
Miniature Painting Brings You a Unique Challenge
Miniatures require a different perspective compared with traditional art, e.g., canvas paintings, drawings.
I’ve learned through my years of painting miniatures that although there are many challenges of painting miniatures, it is actually quite simple; much simpler than painting a 2D canvas painting, in fact.
Well, for one thing, you aren’t working on a blank two-dimensional canvas. The scariest thing in the world for a traditional painter, or even a writer is the blank canvas. Where do you start? Maybe a sketch. If you can draw, great, but even then it takes quite a bit of additional skill and talent to start a new project depicting a three spatial object in an environment. I’m not so fortunate or talented.
But, painting miniatures offers a leap forward, and dare I say very different artistic medium.
The type of miniature I refer to in this article are those scaled at the 28-35mm size, which are usually the scales used for board games, tabletop wargaming, and other hobby collectables. There are certainly larger miniatures, which are usually from the historical military genre, e.g., tanks, planes, dioramas. But, for this article, we’ll focus on miniatures at the 28-35mm scale size, which seems to be the more popular and least expensive of the miniature painting hobby.
So, we have a sculpture, albeit a small one. They are usually made of metal or plastic, and we want to apply beautiful coats of paint to make them come alive. A painted miniature is an amazingly different creature than the blanks they start out as.
The challenge is that miniatures are small 3D objects. Our tools must be capable of giving us the control to apply paint in a precise controlled fashion. And with any physical limitation based on scale, the smaller an object, the higher the resolution we will need to interact with that object.
3 Important Parts of a Brush You Need to Know
Want to save money and time in the pursuit of the best brush for your miniature painting hobby? I’ve spent many, many dollars ($) on expensive brushes of all kinds, trying hard to find the single brush that would end this crazy search.
Probably the most boring aspect of choosing a brush is just knowing the anatomy. It’s important to know these basic parts because as you do your research elsewhere, you’ll hear these names of a brush part a lot. When choosing the best brush for miniature painting, I’ve learned that it’s good to start with the basics.
There are many parts to a brush, and many other sites describe them well (better than me; and it’s kind of boring to talk about). Really, at the end of the day all I want is to put paint on the miniature as efficiently as possible in a controlled fashion– I have this vision in my head of this amazing miniature and I want to make it happen.
What does my brush need for me to do this, and how do they help me control paint application to my miniature?
1. The Handle
- It’s usually wood. I’ve seen some plastic ones. But, it doesn’t matter what the brush handle is made of as long as it’s comfortable for you. Control of a brush in part from being able to manipulate the handle, which is connected to the bristles.
- And, if the brush is comfortable you’ll likely use that brush more for longer periods of time, and there is no substitute for good miniature painting than a lot of in-the-seat experience with your tools. Paint more, paint better.
2. The Ferrule
- The ferrule is that metal part that connects the brush to the bristles or tuft. I never knew why this was really important for determining a good brush. But, I’ve discovered that a lot of the higher quality brushes have ferrules that don’t have crimps on them at the tuft end (a crimp is a bend or crease formed in the ferrule metal). Good quality brushes have ferrules that are smooth near where the tufts/bristles come out from under the metal.
- Crimped ferrules on cheap brushes usually fall off after some use. The whole working-end of these brushes have literally disappeared into my water pots while I’m washing them, leaving me to pull out the wooden handle stick devoid of bristles.
- Look at the ferrule; find brushes that have smooth metal attachments near the tuft. These seem to be the better assembled miniature brushes. They also seem to be more comfortable to use if you’re the kind of painter who holds your brushes closer to the bristles. I sometimes keep my fingers close to the bristles to give me more control. The cheaper brushes feel a bit wobbly when you have a good grip on ferrule. It can be quite unnerving when you’re painting details.
3. The Tuft
- We all know what this part of a brush is. You would also, like me, think this is the most important part of the brush for miniature painting–the tuft. You might be right; but without the other parts above, the handle and the ferrule, the tuft is just a bundle of hairy filaments harvested from the bodies of mammals (natural hairs) or made in a machining factory somewhere (synthetic filaments).
- There are many configurations of bristle bundles or tufts (e.g., the shape or volumetric organization of the filaments), attached together in various sizes. You’ve got the pointed round shapes (the primary shape for miniature painting), flats, fans, mops, liners, pin-stripers (which are fun), and all kinds of other funny names that hint at what they are used for. The quality of the attachments is just as important as the shapes and sizes. As above, you want to find a brush whose tuft is attached to the handle with a ferrule with no crimping.
- At the end of the day, of course, the attributes of the tuft are what determine the overall ability for you to control the paint application to a miniature.
Natural Versus Synthetic Brushes?
This is a common question. In choosing the best brush for miniature painting, I generally recommend that everyone start with a natural hair brush.
Natural hair brushes of good quality hold their shape much longer than their synthetic relations, and yield a more subtle (dare I say smoother) paint application feel. Until recently, natural hair brushes also have better water retention attributes than synthetics that make paint stay consistent while it is held in the bristles. More expensive synthetic brushes may have similar properties, but they aren’t as easy to find. Either way, I’ll just note that natural hair brushes also have another advantage in that they are generally easier to clean.
Here’s a quick breakdown of where you might want to start when looking for high quality natural-hair brushes for miniature painting
There are broadly two kinds: Red Sable and Kolinsky Sable.
- Red Sable – This is your bog-standard, best-bang for your buck natural hair brush. I think many out there in the traditional medium (e.g., canvas painters, aka 2D-ers as I’d probably term them), would hoist these up as the best quality that money can buy. But, the problem I think is that many don’t realize that red sable can come from any animal within the weasel family of mammals. It’s hair taken straight from their bodies. So, as you can imagine the quality and characteristics of bristle hair behavior as it interacts with paint is going to differ a lot.
- Kolinsky Sable – This is the premium, top-of-the-line, mink tail hair; the highest quality red sable available. This has been the go-to for professional watercolor artists, and now in recent years, the most popular among commercial studio artists for miniatures in the gaming/modeling community. Kolinsky sable is soft, but holds its original shape. It is also durable and long-lasting. I’ve had quality Kolinsky sables (of the famed “Winsor & Newton Series 7” brand) last years before needing to be replaced, and I have painted for hours on a daily basis.
There are other kinds of natural hair brushes; including, horse hair, squirrel hair, sabeline ox hair, or even camel hair. These all have their special uses and applications. But for miniatures, red sable and kolinsky sables should be the top choices.
Synthetic hair brushes are great, too.
Synthetic tufts are usually mixed with natural materials. In general, synthetic brushes are less expensive and could be an excellent choice for the miniature painter who isn’t looking to break their budget. Modern synthetic brushes of the 21st century are usually really good, reflecting many of the qualities found in natural brushes. They can hold their shape, are resilient to abuse, and can be great for controlled application of paint.
- The only issue I’ve found in my experience with synthetics is that even the high quality brushes tend to have bristles that form into “hooks” or “curls” that won’t go away. You can work around these permanent deformation in the synthetic tufts, but if you have a tad of obsessive compulsive tendencies like me, then this will get on your nerve very quickly.
Buying Strategy for Synthetic or Natural Brushes: My Two Cents
At the end of the day, I’d recommend buying a brush with a tuft made from pure Kolinsky sable. But, the exception here is to purchase the more expensive brushes, e.g., Series 7, Raphael 8404’s, only if you can try them out at a local art or craft store in-person.
This is because these types of brushes are assembled made-by-hand, and with hairs that come from animals (which themselves may have hairs that are diverse, even with family species), you’re never quite sure what you’ll get until you get up close and personal.
Every brush is good-looking from afar until you get to know them.
If you’re unsure you can do this, and are only able to purchase brushes online, then you may want to buy a brush with synthetic tufts. Synthetic brushes are generally less expensive, and they are manufactured through machine process. This provides a better guarantee of quality control and consistency across a brush line. A synthetic brush from a good company has the least risk of being a lemon in the mailbox.
How to Test a Natural Sable Hair Brush for Quality?
Sable brushes are expensive. I’ve spent hundreds of US dollars on good kolinsky sable brushes over my miniature painting career (… hobby). You want to test your sable brushes before you buy them, and you should. Most art stores and craft places that are reputable will let you test-drive a brush before you buy it.
Here’s what you do to make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for:
- Dip the brush in clean water. Ask the sales representative nicely to let you do this. Be gentle, you didn’t buy the brush, yet!
- Swirl the bristles around to remove any of the powder/binder that was used to hold the shape of the tuft. A brand new brush will have bristles that are tightly held together with a powdery substance. Wash that off.
- Flick the brush against your hand, then swirl the bristles again.
- Remove the brush and snap the handle against your wrist to get rid o the extra water.
- Did the tip of the bristle come back to a perfect round point? If yes, this is the sign of a really good brush. If you have to use your fingers to reform the bristles back into a fine tip, then this particular brush doesn’t have the “spring” or “snap” you’re looking for in miniature painting. If the bristles do not form into a sharp tip that is uniform around the entire circumference of the brush looking down the handle, then be wary. Some of these flaws reveal themselves only a little, and when you get home, rear their ugly heads when really put to the test at the painting desk (real paint, rather than simple water, in a brush puts a lot more demands on a brush and is the final test, isn’t it?).
If you got to #5, and confirmed the auto-tip reformation properties of the wet-flicked natural hair brush, and the presence of a fine-sharp bristled tips that uniform all around, confidently pull out your credit card or wad of cash and hand it over. This is probably the furtherest you’ll be able to test a brush in a store, beyond actually having the establishment allow you to paint with these expensive sables without paying for them.
Quick Note on Sable Brush Care
I won’t go too deep into how to care for sable brushes (covered ad nauseam throughout the internet, just do a Google search), but the breakdown for primary brush care is this:
- Rinse after every paint session and in-between color changes.
- Try not to let paint dry too long, too far up the bristles near the ferrule. Acrylic miniature paint polymerizes very fast and forms into an incredibly hard and durable product after the liquid medium dries up. If bristles are trapped in an unnatural shape, they will become damaged at the microscopic level. Yes, there are ways to restore brushes, but they really won’t behave the same after a bit of neglect.
- Store your brushes flat on your table or upside down with the bristles down. Excess water that seeps up into the ferrule toward the handle will cause the wood and hairs underneath all these components to swell. Water induced swelling will pop glue and binders out of place and accelerate brush hair-loss–a balding brush isn’t very pretty or useful.
Brush Quality that Gives You More Paint Control: Snappy or Floppy?
Go for snappy.
Simple as that. What do I mean by “snappy”?
A snappy brush is just that. The tuft holds its vertical shape after it is wet with paint and following application to a miniature. After applying paint, the bristles literally spring back into their lengthwise position, longitudinally with the handle, and preferably back into a fine-sharp tip.
Brushstroke after brushstroke, you want a brush that returns to its original shape. This lets you apply paint consistently and predictably over its use during a miniature painting session.
There are situations when you want “floppy” or soft, bendy bristles, such as when you’re applying heavy coats of a thinned wash over a delicate layer of airbrushed acrylic paint that hasn’t had a varnish. A floppy brush will be gentle as you slop on paint in this matter, where you want to just apply as much pigmented liquid over a surface as possible without disturbing the material already applied on the miniature.
Summarizing What To Expect in the Best Brush for Miniature Painting
Choosing a brush is a personal choice, but make it an informed one. The best brush for miniature painting can significantly affect the overall appearance and quality of your painting work.
Ironically, I’ve written that it doesn’t matter at the end what brush you use for most projects… Granted, this previous article was written when I was still sort of new to the professional/competitive side of painting miniatures.
If you’re looking to achieve a professional look, investing in the right tools goes a long way. No matter what you end up doing, picking the perfect brush isn’t very straight forward, but it is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to make sure your tools don’t get in the way of your vision of what you want your miniature painting to end up looking like.
Based on my experience and time with painting hundreds of models, for many years, as well as scouring the internet, e.g., forums, social media, trying to see what the most frequently used brush type, size, material composition, and brands most of the miniatures painting professional artists use out there; I’ve come to the conclusion that the best brush for miniature painting will have the following specific qualities:
- Natural, Kolinsky sable tufts
- Metal ferrules that do not use crimping to attach the tuft to the handle (crimping is a sign that the assembly isn’t of very reliable quality)
- Bristle or tufts should be shaped with a pointed round configuration
- Bristles with about 10mm in length, and dense enough to form a circular even diameter of around 2mm
- The total responsiveness of the bristles should be snappy or springy enough to return to their total original shape following deformation after paint application, and while still wet (this should be tested in-person before purchase)
- The tips should be sharp and uniform without many stray hairs in a brand new brush (which could be a sign of underlying issues that arise later after real miniature painting use)
You can expect the cost of a brush with all of the above qualities to be between $15-35 USD. Although this may seem expensive compared to many hobby/craft level brushes, or those brushes you find in your local game store, getting the right brush for miniature painting can make learning and just simply doing the hobby more fun and relaxing.
Two Highly-Recommended Brushes for Miniature Painting
This is based on simply the amount of use I’ve gotten out of these brushes, as well as confirmation from talking with other miniature painters at conventions or through forum discussions. There are other brush brands out there who sell natural Kolinsky sable brushes of the proper size and qualities that are best for miniature painting. These brands and companies include Broken Toad, Artis Opus, Rosemary and Co., as well as others.
However, for brushes that are likely available to see in-person, or I currently use on a daily basis for commissioned painting work, these are the ones I’ve constantly reached for in almost all application needs.
They just work. These brushes are also easily available through Amazon at discounted prices with super fast shipping. I still recommend you try them in person if you can before you commit. But, I know many online places that sell these high-quality kolinsky sable brushes also have policies in place that all you to exchange or return brushes that don’t meet your expectations.
There are two brushes in my recommendation for best brush for miniature painting. I’ve tried a lot of brushes, but narrowed my favorites for more general miniature painting.
Here they are:
Stuff I’ve Painted with Just One Kolinsky Sable Brush
(…excluding the base coat paint application, which I generally do with a bigger brush or airbrush)
Do you have a favorite brush for miniatures that you constantly reach for?