If you had to guess what camel-hair brushes were made of, would you go for:
- Lord only knows
There’s only one thing you know from the term ‘camel hair’ – and that is that a camel wasn’t involved. Camel hair itself is wooly and would make for a terrible paintbrush (although I do hear it’s very good for dusting).
So why call them camel-hair brushes?
There’s a bit of a legend floating around the internet that says camel-hair brushes are got their name from fabulous inventor named ‘Mr. Camel’. Sadly this is an urban legend; no person, or his company have ever been identified (although we have loved telling this tale since 1922).
The real origin of the camel-hair brush lies in the Far East – and it’s actually linked to the Great Wall of China. In 250 BC, there was a rather brilliant Qin dynasty general named Meng Tian, who we remember today for three things:
- In his life, he had a distinguished military career in which he repelled several Mongol invasions, and was subsequently put in charge of building a very big wall.
- In death, Meng Tian had the surreal honour of being deified as a Taoist door god. To this day, he’s usually painted on the entrance to temples.
- In his spare time, Meng Tian also invented the first ink brush pen for calligraphy. His brush pens were made from camel and rabbit hair lashed to a branch – this is the origin of name camel hair brushes.
Meng Tian’s easy-to-make prototype helped spread the art of calligraphy around China, and in the years since they’ve experimented with a lot of interesting fibres other than camel hair. We’ve found fowl feather, deer hair and tiger pelt used in ancient brushes – and there was a legend that if you used the hair from a baby’s first haircut, your brush would guarantee you’d pass the imperial examinations.
So what are modern camel-hair brushes actually made from?
Most of the time, modern camel-hair brushes are made from squirrel hair. I say most of the time, because camel-hair brushes can also be made using goat hair, ox bristle or pony mane (the last is especially common in school-grade brushes).
In some weird cases, they can be a blend of all these hairs. In other cases, they’re just made from Nylon. In the worst cases, it’s a mix of synthetic and natural hairs.
What I’m trying to say is that camel-hair brushes are the Frankenstein’s Monster of the brush world. You can never quite tell what you’re getting, or what’s been cobbled together to make it in the first place.
If you end up with a blended brush, it can pose a real problem. Not all hairs absorb water equally well, and if your bristle is made from multiple different sources (especially if it’s natural-synthetic blend) you might find it’s performance is uneven at best.
If you do have the more common squirrel-masquerading-as-camel-hair brush, then great! These are definitely workable watercolour brushes. Squirrel hair is absorbent and cheap, and although it doesn’t come to the same natural tip as Kolinsky and Red Sable, it does make for a great mop brush for washes and backgrounds. Having said that, squirrel hair also isn’t as springy and lacks ‘snap’ – so while it’s an A+ for absorbency and price, it’s a C- for control-ability. If you want to do detailed work, squirrel hair just isn’t going to be the right fit for you – and if you use heavy paint, its lack of resilience will mean that the brush will collapse under the weight of your paint.
In a nutshell (no pun intended): if you’re on a budget, paint loose watercolours, and are not that keen on the little details, squirrel hair might be a perfect fit for you. However, if you are do think you might want to do any kind of precise work in watercolour, you might find other fibres are better suited for you.
… which begs the question, if squirrel hair can make for a decent and reputable brush in certain circumstances, why not brand your ‘faux camel-hair’ as a squirrel in the first place?!
So, next time you pick up a something proclaiming to be camel-hair, please think twice. It’s not what it says it is, and no one needs a brush in the midst of an identity crisis.