Digital painting isn’t comparable to the real thing, despite the efforts and successes of companies like Corel with Painter 2021 and Celsys with Clip Studio Paint. The real thing still is an unparalleled experience and joy, provided you (can afford to) use the best tools for the job. Luckily, though, even the best brushes, artist quality paint, mediums and paint surfaces don’t cost as much as a digital tablet, a computer and the appropriate software.
In this short piece, I’ll focus on paint brushes as they are the ‘interface’ that sits between paint and surface. Brushes are the tools that make painting a sensual — sense-ual — activity. The brush may be the most expensive of the tools you need to paint with acrylic, oil or watercolour paints. You can spend a small fortune on a real sabre brush but, in many cases and especially with today’ knowledge to make synthetic fibres that come really close to that sabre hair, it’s almost a crime to buy a brush taken off the real animal.
I started out using Da Vinci Top Acryl brushes when I took up painting again after a pause of some 30 years. Instead of messing up my room with oil paint again, I decided I’d go with acrylic paint instead and I figured that as acrylic paint will ruin your expensive sabre brush after a short while anyway, I could just as well do with synthetic ones. I was wrong with regards to the first part of that sentence, of course. If you clean your brushes thoroughly after each use, your expensive sabre brush will survive many paint sessions. I was also wrong in the second part of that sentence, but only in the tone of voice.
Indeed, the Da Vinci Top Acryl is a very good brush. It holds much paint and releases it quickly and easily as well. That was what I thought when I started painting again, that is. Since that day, three years ago, I have learned that you can do much better than the Da Vinci Top Acryl brush. In fact, even the Da Vinci Grigio, which is much better and resembles real sabre much closer than the Top Acryl range, can be much approved upon.
Better than a Da Vinci Grigio: Princeton’s Polytip range
The improvement was not even subtle or gradual. When I read about Princeton Catalyst Polytip 6400 range brushes six or so months ago, I was determined to buy a few of these to try them out at the very least. They’re not so easy to come by in my corner of the world, so it took me a few months before I could finally find the “Egbert” version of the Princeton Catalyst Polytip range. The Egbert is a very long fibre filbert brush and I had never before seen one in local art stores across the UK and in Antwerp, where I was born.
I immediately fell in love with that brush and quickly ordered eight more, including the large Egbert, three filberts, two brights, and two short filberts. In contrast to Da Vinci, the Princeton company has an extensive and content-rich website — Da Vinci is European (German) and Princeton is based in the US and that’s clearly visible from the information, marketing and web design. Anyway, on the Princeton site I could read all about the Catalyst Polytip 6400 fibre design with split hairs, that makes the brush behave just like animal hairs. That results in holding a lot of paint and releasing it without holding up any of it, which the Da Vinci’s do — you can see that when rinsing the brush; there’s little to rinse with the Princetons vs. the Da Vincis that often still carry a lot of paint when cleaning them.
But there’s more to the Polytip 6400 range as they somehow — and I can’t really explain this without being subjective — feel better, especially with the heavy body Liquitex I use. With a Da Vinci brush, it feels like I’m painting with dried up paint, making it hard to get the effect I want. With the Princeton Catalyst Polytip, there’s no such feeling and the paint behaves like the buttery substance it’s supposed to feel like.
Even better yet, Princeton — I can now say from personal experience — is a firm that is in touch with its customers. Remember I said that I first purchased the small egbert brush from Princeton? I bought the brush from a Dutch vendor who, apparently, did not store these brushes as they should.
After a week or two, it turned out the ferrule’s black paint started chipping off. I’m a journalist and used to ask uncommon questions, addressing the CEO of companies that lack a PR, so instead of addressing a Dutch online store whose service I knew would be less than satisfying, I sent an email to the Princeton company’s info address. Much to my surprise, I got a reply from the founder.
Long story short: the ferrule paint chipping was not normal and he was going to send me a replacement, despite the fact that I told him I had been able to remove all the paint using a Dremel. Today I received my perfect small egbert replacement firectly from the US and I am a very happy customer.
If there’s any criticism that I would like to ventilate, it’s the scarcity of Princeton paint brushes over here in Europe. I got my first few brushes from a Dutch store, the next few from Amazon UK. I checked today and most of the brush sizes and types have been sold out. Aspen brushes are even harder to come by. The Aspen brush is newer than the Catalyst Polytip but if I’m not mistaken it doesn’t have the Polytip hair; nevertheless, I would love to try them out.
The Polytips are nowhere as cheap as the Top Acryls from Da Vinci, but they are also nowhere as expensive as a real sabre brush. They meet halfway. They’re somewhat more expensive than the Da Vinci Grigio and other brands’ top-of-the-range synthetic brushes but that premium is worth every single Eurocent.