Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Tools of the trade part 1. Brushes.

A significant part of the fun of investigating medieval painting techniques is the tools themselves. From my very first forays into this, circa 1991, I have tried to source the proper tools for the job of a would be medieval painter. It has not been easy, some things do not survive in the archaeological record from which to copy despite being well documented in manuscripts and paintings, a prime example is paint brushes. Images of paintbrushes are common enough, the many paintings of St Luke painting the Virgin Mary show brushes amongst other tools. Cennini in his Libro d'ell Arte describes how to make two sorts of brushes, miniver and bristle.

Miniver brushes are made by gathering the tip hairs of the miniver tails into small bundles, they are wetted and shaped and leveled off, ie the cut bases of the hair are set at the same level. Each bundles is then add to another, shaped in the same way etc. Once graded they are assembled in bunches suitable for all manner of quills, goose right down to dove. The bundles are tied off with a waxen thread of linen or silk using two knots. The quill is cleaned and cut tubular part of the lower feather, the hollow end, the brush ends are then pushed gently down the quill until it sits snugly and does not fall out. A stick is then set into the other end to form the handle, approximately 9 inches long. 

I tried this method, but my skills were lacking so I sought another solution, I found a traditional brush maker who was happy to supply me with just the brush tips, gathered and tied. I simply set them into the quills I had acquired. I found that if the quills were soaked in water first, they became pliable and made insertion of the finer brushes easier and when the quills dried made for a snugger fit. I added some whittled sticks, using any hardwoods appropriate to England at the time, eg oak, walnut. See top image.

Hog's bristle
These are much simple to make than than the above, the initial process is much the same, the bristles are gathered and leveled, but are tied up in small bundles, a number of bundles are then gathered as required and tied to a tapered stick. He describes making rather large brushes, large enough for whitewashing, or laying down lime on wall, this made the brushes more supple and the abrasion tapered the bristles. When supple enough he took them apart and made them into smaller brushes, tied onto the stick as described above.

Note that the bottom brush is caked in a white substance, this is not a dirty or neglected brush, but one that has  been covered in wet chalk dust to prevent insect damage.

I made mine after sourcing some commercially available Chinese hog bristles, I had had no luck with local pig farmers, of which there are many, the main reason being the pigs were dehaired at the abbatoir. I also made brushes up out of old house paint brushes.