Kolinsky sable hair brushes: R.I.P.

BAD NEWS: it has become effectively illegal to import Kolinsky red sable hair brushes into the U.S.A. I’ll include links below with more details, but first let me explain the impact this could have on the comic book industry.

Basically, the Kolinsky brush is and always has been the best brush for inking comics. All the professional inkers I know of (as well as generally most professional cartoonists who ink their own work) use only Kolinksy brushes for their brushwork. It’s been the standard inking tool since at least the 1930s. (Some of you may know the brush better by the names of its most respected manufacturers: Winsor & Newton, and Raphael.) The hairs on the brush come from a type of weasel (“sable” is, in this case, a longstanding misnomer) that lives in Siberia, and they happen to be the best hairs on Earth from which to make ink brushes. Brushes made from Kolinsky red sable hair have just enough ‘spring’ in them to hold or resume a firm, thin line on the drawing surface, but just enough ‘give’ to widen with pressure. This results in lines that thicken and thin responsively when you press the brush harder or softer against the paper. Brushes made from other types of hair lack this duality: synthetic brushes tend to have too much spring and too little give, while brushes made from camel hair or other animals’ hair have too little spring and too much give. The Kolinsky hits a sweet spot that no other brush comes near to matching.

Let me stress this as strongly as I can: it’s not that the Kolinsky merely edges out other brushes. For the kind of nuanced drawing cartooning typically demands, Kolinsky brushes are THE ONLY brush. Not the “best” brush, not the “preferred” brush. THE ONLY BRUSH.

Granted, you may have a style that’s purposely rough-hewn, where the Kolinsky’s delicate responsiveness is unneeded. A rougher look has worked well for many artists — Sam Hiti and Edmond Baudoin are two fine examples. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, you may prefer the cleaner, less flexible line of a synthetic brush, or a pen. (I myself prefer the dead line of a pen, when I’m not inking others’ pencils.) Or you may be a hobbyist, content with cheaper brushes, or brush-pens, or even a Sharpie. But as far as common professional practice goes, those are the shallow ends of the bell-curve. The vast majority of professional cartoonists and inkers prefer the options afforded only by the Kolinsky. (This is also true of watercolorists, but my main concern here is comics.)

If Kolinsky brushes become unavailable in America, comic book inkers here will be unable to ink comics within the style range they’ve occupied for the past 80 years. And any students of comics who are attempting to learn the craft & techniques of their favorite ink artists will be out of luck. (You CANNOT get the juicy/precise lines of a Dave Stevens or Bernie Wrightson without a Kolinsky brush.) Either a flurry of underground brush-smuggling operations will emerge, or the face of American comics is about to change.


Below are a couple of links explaining why the brushes can’t be imported. In a nutshell: Kolinsky sables (Mustela sibirica weasels), though not endangered, enjoy protected status in at least one country. This means products made from their hair can’t cross certain borders (such as America’s) without proper documentation. But proper documentation is hard to come by in the remote regions where Kolinskys are found… so until that glitch is resolved (it’s been about a year and counting), America will import no Kolinsky brushes.

Winsor & Newton

Arcane Paintworks