Thursday, July 10, 2014

Kolinsky sable brushes banned

Artists have long admired the qualities of Kolinsky sable brushes, but American customers are finding them hard to purchase due to an import ban earlier this year from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.

The ban includes popular—but expensive—brushes such as Winsor and Newton Series 7, Escoda Optimos, Richeson Siberian Kolinsky and Da Vinci Kolinsky, all known for their unique "springy" quality.

Kolinsky brushes are not made from sable martens, but rather from the tails of male Siberian weasels, found in Russia and northern China. Siberian weasels don't do well in captivity, so they are obtained by trapping wild animals.

Some have noted that the animals are trapped mainly for other economic uses, and that the tail fur can be regarded as a byproduct. In China, Kolinsky weasels are often regarded as pests because they kill chickens. But for those troubled by the ethics of brushes sourced from a wild animal, there are synthetic brushes that attempt to match the characteristics of Kolinskys, such as the Escoda Versatil Synthetic.

The ban, which affects only U.S. customers, was brought about because the species was grouped into a list of endangered species, though the level of endangerment is reported to be relatively low. According to a Winsor and Newton spokesperson quoted on Artist's Daily, "Kolinsky Sable is not an endangered species."

Manufacturers of Kolinsky brushes are still making them, and U.S. dealers are still able to sell them as long as their supplies hold out, but it's illegal to import new stocks, even to do so personally.

Symi Jackson at Rosemary Brushes, mentioned that they are still manufacturing brushes made from materials that were purchased before the ban, and said, "At the time of purchasing all of the ‘Kolinsky Sable’ hair it was both legal and ethical. Indeed, it still is legal and ethical, though it is now under restriction in the US only."

Further discussion and press releases at Arcane Paintworks


Excessit said...

I have used sable brushes for years now, but lately I have grown aware of how these animals are killed for fur... rather brutally in countries where they're harvested.

I know that painting isn't a green choice by itself, and I'll be keeping the W&N / Rosemary's sables I have with great care (they've lasted years so far), but I have decided to stop purchasing natural hair altogether; I have got to say that the quality of synthetic fibers can equal that of natural hair and since these brushes are so cheap, they're absolutely worth trying in case of skepticism.

Tom Hart said...

I read this news with mixed feelings similar to Excessit. I also will pamper and continue to enjoy the W&N sable brushes I have owned for years, but frankly the expense has kept me away from adding or replacing those brushes with other sables for a while now. I too have found some synthetics to be very serviceable (to say the least)- especially considering the price. I should quickly add, though, that I paint much more in oil than in watercolor these days. I find the W&N Monarch series to be great for that application - somewhere between bristle and sable in feel.

Drew said...

I was really surprised to see this notice on Dick Blick a few weeks back. If anything it's given me a good opportunity to see if I can find a synthetic that handles inking chores as well as W&N series 7. Any suggestions from anyone on a synthetic they particularly enjoy that has a good spring and snap to it?

Marian B said...

Hmm...I had no idea that the sables were trapped; I thought that they were just farmed and their tails shaved every year. Did not know that the sables don't do well in captivity.

While I agree that a substitute needs to be found, I'm don't think synthetic brushes are the answer. After all, synthetic brushes are made from fossil fuels (petroleum byproducts.) Probably the worst polluters on the planet. Aren't we encouraged to cut down on the use of plastics?

Le Grand Veneur said...

I can't make art with animals suffering. I only use synthetic brushes, even if hte quality is not here.

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

I'd rather use a brush from a wild animal than from one that has been farmed - there are so many absolutely horrible stories about how animals are treated in the Chinese fur industry, even if they aren't killed (such as angora rabbits).

But I must admit that I have been a bit worried about the sourcing of hair for brushes. Exact information seems to be hard to find. If there is going to be a bit more focus on this area, that would be a good thing.

Richard said...

True the Siberian weasel is on the list of endangered species that the government uses. I frankly think the government is wrong here. We are talking about the weasel that is all over Asia. They used to live on the Kolo Peninsula next to Finland which is sometimes considered to be in Europe and not Asia, but I think they were all killed there, and as a result they were presumed to be endangered elsewhere. Actually the law says that all the brushes being made with this fur must be labelled with country of origin (it really was intended for fur coats). True it kills chickens but in Beijing were it kills rats, cars stop to let it cross the road! The best hair is from a male that is living in very cold climates.

K_tigress said...

And that's yet another reason to learn how to make my own. The other is expense and the third is scarcity. Just wonder where are some of the parts sold at. I already have a good source for the handle and experimental hair like my kitty's wonderful back hair and my really soft and fine hare. But I need that little metal ring thing that goes on top of the bundle of hair and attaches to the wooden handle.

jytte said...

I recently bought an Escoda versatil brush no 12. It is absolutely excellent :o)

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

K-tigress: Back in the olden days, the ferrule (that's what that metal ring thing is called) was a quill from a bird feather, so maybe you could use that?

Mario said...

Thank you for the useful info.
I have never liked the idea of killing animals for making art material, so I bought my first sable brush only after having tried many synthetic alternatives (with no success). The problem is inking; for watercolor synthetic brushes are pretty good. I've never seen Escoda brushes here in Italy, I will look for them.

Dan said...

Hmmm. Doesn't sound like Siberian weasels are being trapped into extinction just to make artists' paintbrushes.

Truth is, we use a lot of animal-based products. Bone black pigment and bristle brushes are examples. I don't know how much the animals suffer, but I like to hope that these materials are "harvested" as humanely as possible. Ultimately, if they stopped making Kolinsky brushes, would fewer weasels be trapped? Sounds like maybe not. I don't personally feel like when I buy a sable brush I'm causing animals to suffer needlessly.

A good Kolinsky brush ought to last years if it is taken care of. And who wouldn't take care of it, considering the high cost?

Truly endangered species ought to be protected, yes indeed. It sort of sounds like Fish & Wildlife is being a bit hysterical in this particular case.

M. Christopher said...

I'm curious if Fish and Wildlife has comprehensively studied the impact to animals that the oil industry has, as it is them enabling synthetic brushes and myriad other things to be produced... said...

I exclusively use WNS7 Kolinsky sables. For the level of detail I require, synthetics (and frankly cheap sables) simply aren't good enough.

I only know one miniature painter who doesn't rely solely on Kolinskies (and he's an utter madman, there's always one).

There seems to be a lot of confusion and mis-information about this topic. I've yet to see an authoritative article on the topic (no offense to Meg). I'm surprised by what the Winsor & Newton rep said about personal import, as I had previously heard that was legal and it was only business import that was impacted by the lack of CITES documentation (I stocked up when the news of this first broke a year ago).

Indeed, from what I can tell, the core issue seems to be that there was a bureaucratic change on the US's end (requiring a new form) and the rest of the world is not complying with the form change.

As I said, lots of mis-information and I'm not sure you'll ever hear a straight answer when your sources are a governmental bureaucracy on one side and a self-interested capitalist entity on the other.

Gary Brookins said...

For those looking for a good inking brush, I highly recommend the Pentel Pocket Brush. They are synthetic and hold their points for a very long time (up to a year or more, if taken care of), and run about $20. The replaceable ink cartridges are somewhat pricy, but I just refill them with Rapidograph Universal black india ink. I've been using them for about 15 years for drawing my cartoons (after using #2 W&N Series 7s for 20 years), and find them as good for line work and a heck of a lot more convenient than dipping a brush in an ink bottle every 30 seconds.

Tom Hart said...

Gary, I have the Pentel Pocket Brush too, and like it for certain situations. How do you refill the cartridges? I assume some sort of syringe, or...?

James Gurney said...

Tom, I regularly refill Niji water brushes and Waterman fountain pen cartridges, and I use a hypodermic syringe that I got with an inkjet printer refill kit. Some art stores also sell syringes that end in a small nozzle instead of a needle. An eyedropper is a bit too blunt.

Cashwiley, thanks for bringing up those other issues. There's a lot more to this story, of course, and people who are interested should follow the links I provided to read the message boards, which include various press releases and artist comments. Also there are letter writing campaigns afoot to try to change the designation, and you can find out about those on those links. I just tried to boil down the whole issue into a brief blog post to act as an introduction for people who haven't heard about it.

Kris Marquardt said...

While I appreciate trying to condense the issue saying that the brushes are banned is incorrect. If a company fills out the right paperwork they can continue to import their kolinsky sable brushes to the US. I believe that Raphael has gone this route since Dick Blick, at least, has been receiving regular restocks of those brushes.

Gary Brookins said...

Hi Tom,

It can be a little messy, so I hold the empty cartridge in a paper towel. I use the small 3/4 oz bottle of ink and hold it a half inch or so above the cartridge opening. I slowly squeeze and fill it one drop at a time. I usually get air bubbles at the top, so I pop those with a toothpick or paper clip. It only takes about 40 or so drops to fill it up, and takes only about 30 seconds. I probably get a couple dozen refills from the small bottle (about $5), much cheaper than paying a buck-and-a-half each for the cartridges.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Kris, for clarifying that.

Gary and Tom, you can get syringes with blunt tip fill needles at any medical supply place or online.

They make the refill process very neat and quick.

Gary Brookins said...

Thanks, James.

Christian R. said...

This is an excellent decision. Whether the Kolinski is endangered or not, they are trapped and most are certainly left to die a slow, horrible death. Think overnight in the Siberian winter.

Anybody thinking art can have any value when made with tools "containing" the DIRECT death of such an animal is not an artist. This is the 21st century, people. For the same reasons, other sable brushes and squirrel mops mustn't be bought anymore.

Also consider the record of Russia and China -where the Kolinski are killed- regarding human rights, and guess what their policies are about animal rights, ethical treatment etc. Winsor & Newton saying that Kolinski brushes are ethical is a most shameful example of profit-motivated bad faith.

I can recommend the Escoda Ultimo mops and rounds. They are affordable, soft, springy-yet-shapable brushes. They snap back gently, without returning to the rigid, always-the-same shape of other synthetics.

Thanks to others for mentioning the Escoda Versatil, I will try it!

chris d said...

"Anybody thinking art can have any value when made with tools "containing" the DIRECT death of such an animal is not an artist. This is the 21st century, people. For the same reasons, other sable brushes and squirrel mops mustn't be bought anymore."

Say what? Why do they have to die in the first place?

"Whether the Kolinski is endangered or not, they are trapped and most are certainly left to die a slow, horrible death. Think overnight in the Siberian winter."

The hair is supposed to be removed from the tail! I'm not so sure about the picture being painted with your new Peta brush.

Kolinsky sables are inextricably linked to the entire HISTORY OF PAINTING! You cannot wake up and say, oops, it appears we've irresponsibly harvested our resources and will be forced to now, very sneakily remove all the brushes from the market, in a deceptively much lower quality which has doubled in price over the last decade, I might add.

Stop misdirecting blame and marginalizing artists that prefer natural hair.

How do you support the alternative brush of the same brands which irresponsibly sourced such a catastrophic impact on the species in the first place?

How can any human that eats meat be of value to society when they are DIRECTLY linked to the death of animals. Maybe that's true, I really don't know, but I like burgers and I like Kolinsky.

Christian R. said...

In reply to Chris d:


That says it all. "The worst deaf is the one who doesn't want to hear."

To me, bad faith is the worst human failing, and that's my last comment in this post.

chris d said...

My point is that by your logic that anyone using Kolinsky is not a "true artist", is like saying anyone that eats meat is incapable of producing anything of value, which seems unfair.

I understand your compassion about the animals but you should also take into account that every painter in history used these brushes, and for good reason.

The problem isn't that they are using the hair from the animal. It shouldn't be, because it isn't necessary to kill the animal!

Mahala Urra said...

Sorry to come late to the conversation, but here's an article which should clear some things up re. the harvesting of sable fur and other animals whose fur goes into sable brushes:

I came on it a few years ago because I love my Blue Heron waterbrushes and it says on the package that they are 'goat' brushes and 'wolf' brushes respectively. I was a bit worried about the 'wolf', so I did some research. Imagine my feelings when I found out about other brushes altogether! Basically all natural-hair brushes are harvested in ways that do not leave the animal alive. It makes me sad as I love the lush feel of natural brushes, but as someone on this board said, it's like eating meat. You have a choice, but to make a fully informed choice you need to know where the meat comes from.

Sorry for the long comment Mr Gurney! (I have been a fan of yours since Dinotopia first came out - I still have my first edition!)

André Drammen said...

Hi to all out there,
I ask my self why this is illegal in US only. I take all my sable brushes from Norway to the best prices found on the net.

LindieLee said...

Finally, Lizard Licks are available at Cheap Joe's!

ladykicks said...

All you need to do is google Chinese fur farms to see the suffering animals are subjected to before being being inhumanely slaughtered for our art tools. I cannot in good conscience buy products that contribute to the pain and agony of any living being. There are some great synthetic alternatives out there, please give them a chance. I don't mind the extra time required to rewet my synthetic wash brush, and good quality paper is the most important material for a watercolourist anyway.

CIolereyn said...

Gary Bookins: Have you ever tried the Kuretake brush pen? I find it even better than the Pentel brush pen. I have both and I prefer the Kuretake slightly more because of it's spring. It is available at Amazon

CIolereyn said...

Gary Bookins: Have you ever tried the Kuretake brush pen? I prefer it over the Pentel pen. I have both and I find that the Kuretake has better spring. I've read, but never tried it yet, that the proprietary ink cartridge can be switched out with a converter and permanent black ink can be substituted. These pens can be found on Amazon:

Gary Brookins said...

I have seen those on Amazon and thought about trying them, but I haven't yet. I do have some of the Kuretake disposable ones with what I think is a nylon tip? ... They are ok, but don't have the variation of line I like. Plus, they don't seem to last very long. I will give their brush pen a try. Thanks for the recommendation.