A long time ago back in the early 90s, when a 486 DX was considered fast, pop music was still worth listening to and Bruce Jenner was happy being Bruce Jenner, some friends introduced me to wargaming & miniature painting and I became hooked.
Sadly I gave it up a few years later after discovering more gratifying pursuits (hint: one comes in a bottle, the next is easier to acquire when lubricated by the other) and never properly returned to the hobby despite a few brief attempts.
Around the beginning of this year I was looking for a new passion and decided to give painting another shot, mostly as an artistic pursuit rather than part of a wargaming fetish.
Miniature painting has changed enormously over the years, from the days when White Dwarf was the only chance we had to gawk at professionally painted miniatures compared with today when serious painters have their own blog, CMON page, YouTube channel & Facebook page.
In the early days Citadel paints & brushes were all me & my mates ever used. We had no idea what else was out there and suspected art store products were inferior for our purposes.
How things change. Thanks to the power of the internet I've learned the virtues of Kolinsky Sable brushes and discovered how many different brands are out there.Bit by bit I've acquired a very modest collection, always deliberately trying different brands and hunting for "bargains".
So I decided to do a little comparison hoping other painters might find the info useful, especially beginners & neophytes.
I won't bother covering the basics like why you should use a Kolinsky Sable brush, how they should be taken care of and things to avoid to keep them in good shape. There's other articles floating around that describe those things much better than I can. Finally I want to thank the many Dakka Dakka posters who've offered advice and answered questions since I returned to the hobby. Nothing would please me more than giving something back to the community.
Citadel Basecoat, $7 (all prices are approximated)
It felt appropriate to start off with a classic. This is not the most recent version of the Basecoat brush, Games Workshop released a new brush range about a month ago (all with black ferrules) which are substantially different, but there should be enough of these old versions floating around in physical stores & online that picking one up shouldn't be too difficult. It wouldn't surprise me to learn they're now being discounted to make room for new stock either.
This was the first brush I bought upon returning to painting which was probably why I found it underwhelming to start with. Mine had many badly splayed hairs which I later ended up cutting off and forming a point was a challenge as I was out of practise.
I later came to realize its an excellent tool. The handle may be the most well-balanced of any brush I own except one, and although the wood isn't polished and has a kind of "chalky" texture to I find it very comfortable to hold, though lacking the luxurious feel of more expensive brushes.
Its quite a large brush by 28mm miniature standards, about a size 2. I'm not actually certain the bristles are Kolinsky Sable hairs, though they're definitely Sable of some kind. They aren't as soft and spongy as those of more expensive brushes and the step down in quality is fairly noticeable. The Citadel brush is still enjoyable to paint with although forming a point is a struggle I go through more often than with some other brushes, but that could just be my sample. I suspect a master painter could achieve breathtaking results with this brush assuming his sample had a good point.
Army Painter Wargamer:Regiment, $6
The Army Painter brush feels like a direct competitor to Citadel's Basecoat. Their prices are similar and I've found the size & performance of their bristles to be comparable. The Basecoat has a larger belly and is more naturally shaped to a point though, whereas the Regiment seems to have been designed explicitly for basecoating & layering work rather than detailing. I can form a point on it to use in smaller areas like Space Marine breathing masks but always have the impression it doesn't give me as much control over the tip as I'd like.
Maybe that's because handle is not to my liking. The triangle shape isn't necessarily a bad thing but it really needs to taper towards the ferrule and doesn't. As a result I always feel like my control over the tip is lacking because I can't angle my fingers in towards it, instead they must be kept straight due to the triangle design. The polished finish of the handle is very nice though, and its a very comfortable brush to use for long periods, it just feels like the triangle grip doesn't lend itself to precision.
eBay Kolinsky Sable Nail Polish Brush, $3 delivered
These are the cheapest Kolinsky Sable brushes I've found on eBay. I own the #2 & #4 and they both perform similarly. The bristles are shaped like those of the Winsor & Newton Miniature range and feel softer than the Citadel & Army Painter brushes.
Since the belly of the brush is so large the amount of paint absorbed is huge, making them ideal for basecoating. In fact I wouldn't recommend them for detail work since forming a point is tricky and the bristles tend to form splits or tip hooks pretty quickly.
I've had the paint on the handle of my #2 begin to crack near the ferrule after a couple of weeks' use but the handle on the #4 has held up OK. That suggests the handles don't cope well with water or its the kind of quality control issue you get with cheap products. The handles themselves are comfortable enough, though the ferrule is too long which enforces a slightly higher grip than I'd like.
Ultimately they're cheap workhorse brushes which may not last terribly long but are a good alternative to synthetics, US$3.39 including delivery for the #8 is outrageously cheap. I'd recommend picking a couple up to see what you think.
Back 2 Base-ix #2 Robots n Monsters, $10
These brushes are a bit of an oddity. Their gimmick is the aluminum handles unscrews from the thread in the center of the brush, and can then be screwed back in the reverse direction to cover & protect the bristles & ferrule while the entire thing takes up half the length of a traditional brush. This makes them more durable & portable for people who like to take their brushes to competitions for instance.
Unfortunately the price for this convenience is the handle isn't amazingly comfortable. It screws in without feeling loose or wobbly, but the weight is higher than the average brush and I've occasionally found my wrist complaining after rinsing them out. The nature of the design means the forefingers must grip the brush around the blue translucent area, which despite having a comfortable smooth texture is not terribly large. I find my thumb rests on the metal threads which feels a bit awkward, and the overall feeling is a bit unbalanced.
The quality of the bristles themselves seems similar to the eBay Nail brush's with the hairs again feeling slightly softer than the Citadel & Army Painter brushes. The shape is closer to the Army Painter Regiment and lacks a strong natural tip just as that brush does. For basecoating it performs well, though I'd just as soon use the eBay brush which is slightly more comfortable and a third of the price. This brush may end up lasting longer but it does share the same propensity for split hairs forming quickly.
All in all I'd only recommend this brush to painters on the go who want something that'll slip into a hip or shirt pocket nicely without damaging the bristles.
Green Stuff World #1 Standard, $3.50
I'm not going to beat around the bush, this is a horrible brush and you should not buy it.
The handle is awful. It has a similar 'chalky' feel to the Citadel brush which I quite like but the enormous triangular grip is positioned in such a way that you have no choice but to grip the brush at a specific point. Worse, the edges of the triangle are so heavily rounded you feel like your fingers are perpetually teetering on the edge of rolling off. It feels horrible to hold and I am always relieved to put it down.
The disaster doesn't end there. The bristles must be the coarsest Kolinsky Sable hairs on the planet. I don't know how a Sable brush could be made to feel this scratchy but somehow they managed it. There is no natural point at all, and good luck forming one.
The final insult is the lettering on the brush is printed upside down, and I almost forgot the ferrule is slightly crooked. I don't see why the CIA needs to waterboard terrorists when forcing them to paint an army with one of these would be enough make them confess to the Kennedy Assassination.
I bought the Winsor & Newton Series 7 about a month ago, the Da Vinci Maestro & Raphael 8404 last week and have been delighted with all three. The instant I picked up the W&N for the first time I knew the money was well spent. That's not to say I'll never buy a cheaper Sable brush again when there are tasks I'd prefer not to abuse my best brushes on, but for delicate work these three brands are streets ahead of the rest and I don't intend to look back.
Da Vinci Maestro #0, $11
Like the Winsor & Newton and the Raphael, the Da Vinci Maestro is a clear step up from the "contender" brushes in every department but price, yet isn't all that expensive either.
The handle has a lovely polished feel and is extremely well-balanced. If the W&N Series 7 did not exist I'd be gushing over it, but since it does its only fair to point out the Da Vinci handle feels extremely similar to the W&N but isn't quite up to the same magnificent standard. The W&N handle finish is more luxurious and it balances slightly better in the hand, the differences are small and it takes nothing away from the Da Vinci being superb ergonomically.
Interestingly when it comes to the bristles the same applies. Both the Da Vinci & W&N have lovely soft bristles and paint flows from them evenly, they form & hold a point effortlessly, snap back into place firmly and generally are a pleasure to use. However the W&N feels a touch nicer, the point itself offers a tiny bit more control and the snap is a little bit firmer. Again the difference is slight but its there.
The question I can't answer yet is how well the Da Vinci brushes will last compared with the other two brands, since that'll determine where the real value lies.
Winsor & Newton Series 7 #1, $19
Everything that needs to be said about this brush has already been said by everyone else, so I'll go ahead and say it again. After all its' the defacto standard and deservingly so.
The handle is amazing. I haven't held another brush that is more comfortable. It feels "just right" in the hand the way a Leica rangefinder does. The polish is luxurious, the length is perfect, and the circumference of the bulge near the ferrule is spot on. The first time I picked it up I knew this is the way a brush is meant to feel.
Of course it also paints like a dream. Its tough to describe but I feel each individual strand of hair more clearly than other brushes as if they're ropier while still being smooth as silk. The tip glides across the surface and I feel like I've much more control over where its going, painting immediately felt easier the moment I began using this brush.
They are absolutely worth the money, my only two gripes are limited availability compared with brands like Citadel and sample variance. If I spend $7 on Citadel Basecoat and get a bad sample I'll be annoyed, but if the same happens with a W&N I'll be twice as irked having spent at least twice as much.
Raphael 8404 #0, $20
I guess this is the part of the review where many of the old hands in the caper perk up and become interested. "Will he rate the Raphael higher than the W&N?". I've already given the W&N 10/10 so that'll be tricky but I am a Spinal Tap fan.
The Raphael has a different feel to the W&N. It doesn't feel like an inferior clone the way the Da Vinci does. The handle is much lighter, slightly shorter and has a shorter ferrule. It feels bouncier and more airy in the hand which will please some painters but not others. The W&N gives me a grip I feel better about trusting when I don't have to move the brush around much, but the Raphael feels more nimble and makes moving the brush feel like less of a problem.
This feeling is emphasized by the bristles. The Raphael has slightly longer bristles, a fuller more rounded belly, and -at least while the brush is relatively new- a shaper point, which extends out from the rest of the brush about 1 or 2 millimeters. That doesn't sound like much but it gives the point a tiny amount of flex, similar to a fountain pen flexing at the nib
The first time I experienced this it was pretty uncomfortable but I've since adjusted and now feel the Raphael gives me greater control than the W&N, although paint may flow from the W&N slightly more smoothly. The difference between the two is extremely minimal and both brushes are clearly fighting in the same weight division.
At this early stage my suspicion is the better brush will be determined by my painting style. If paint flows from the W&N more consistently it'll be better for layering but the more flexible tip of the Raphael would be superior for 2 brush blending & feathering.
So ultimately my advice to other painters is to try one of each and see what conclusion you come to. They're similarly priced and I don't think you can make a bad choice either way. The Da Vinci's are excellent and a great option for budget-conscious casual painters, but if you've bothered to read this far you're probably willing to spend the extra and I think the extra is worth it.