The sole aim of this article is to offer information to curious consumers to help illuminate some manufacturing materials and processes for products they may want to buy; not to judge, upset, or alienate anyone. 

As consumers, we all have the right to spend our money how and where we see fit (that's the beauty of capitalism), however the importance of the choices we make as consumers cannot be overstated. Our purchasing choices can drive the economy and direct new innovations. 

Over the years I've heard a number of people express concerns about the use of animal by-products in the products they use everyday, and art materials are no exception. The world of fine art products is indeed vast; fortunately, the number of animal-based products is small and easy to outline.

  1. Paint Brushes
  2. Oxgall
  3. Sizing
  4. Carmine Red Pigment

(There may be more, but these are the ones you're most likely to encounter)

Paint brush manufacturers are the single biggest users of animal by-products in the art materials industry. 

1. Paint Brushes

Brushes can be made of hog bristles, badger, mongoose, pony, squirrel, sable, wolf, goat, ox, camel, raccoon, rabbit... the list goes on.  Each type of hair offers its own unique strengths.. The method of harvesting animal hairs varies from place to place, and from animal to animal. The only thing that is universal about animal hairs is the secrecy of their harvesting. 


Trying to find a straight answer on the internet is completely infuriating. Most of the information available is offered up by brush manufacturers or animal hair suppliers to the brush-making industry who are all trying to sell us something. They'd have us believe that all animal hairs are delicately harvested in a warm sunny field by teenage girls wearing white gloves... This is a nice thought, but it's just not accurate.

The other side of this issue is championed by organizations like PETA, who have documented animal abuse atrocities that cannot be contested; however, whether their evidence is indicative of industry-wide practices, or of individual companies behaving deplorably is up for debate.

Some natural hairs used in brushes are worth highlighting for the concerned consumer...

Hog Bristles:

Overview: Hog bristles brushes are made from the coarse hairs on the back and neck of a pig, which are strong yet springy. The bristles have natural split-ends (flagged ends), which increases the amount of paint they hold and helps to maintain precision in the brush's edge or point. Hog bristle brushes can be used for both oils and acrylics. They age fairly well, becoming softer and more responsive with use, but natural bristles will become dry and brittle after longer use, and will eventually begin to break off.  Hog bristles can be white or black, depending on the colour of the pig.


Facts: Whether a bristle brush was made in Sri Lanka, Germany, or Italy the hog bristles themselves almost certainly came from China.  China has a monopoly on hog bristles; it has been the worlds main supplier of hog bristles for decades (and possibly centuries).  Specific breeds of pigs were/are raised specifically for their bristles.  However, times are changing and these breeds are less common on Chungking factory farms now (as farmers in China are raising pigs more for their meat than for bristles) leading to a growing shortage and sharp price increase on hog bristles.  (Higher prices often give consumers the impression of something being better or of higher quality, which is not necessarily the case.)


Opinion: China doesn't really have a good record when it comes to protection of animal rights.  I can say with absolute certainty that teenagers wearing white gloves ARE NOT involved in the harvest of hog bristles. The actual harvest methods range from bad to worse to horrific, with little to no regulation and monitoring of animal welfare. 


Overview: Goat hairs are white or black (depending on the goat) and are very soft and absorbent. Goat hairs are commonly used as flat wash brushes for watercolours and inks. (All Japanese hake brushes are white goat hair.)  The best goat hairs for brush-making are taken from the breast of the goat.


Fact: Once again, China is the main supplier of the worlds goat hairs.

Opinion: I couldn't find any in-depth information on the farming and harvest of goat hairs.  Although goat meat is a staple of many diets around the world,  goats are also raised for their milk so it's feasible that goats are simply being sheared regularly for their hairs.


Overview: A sable is a mink-like weasel (from the marten family) that lives in forested mountain regions of Russia (Siberia), northern Mongolia and Kazakhstan; this animal is a black sable which is known for its luxuriously soft black and silver hairs.  Black sable makes an ideal brush for blending with oils. There is also another member of the marten family that can be found in the Ukraine and Romania that has a reddish coat; the hairs from this animal are marketed as red sable and are sought after by watercolourists for their absorbency and resilience.


Facts: The finest quality black sable hairs come from animals that are trapped in the wild because domestic/farm-raised sable don't grow the same quality coats as their wild counterparts do.  The red sable is mainly farmed (as opposed to trapped) making red sable brushes less expensive and easier to find than black sable. 


Overview: Traditional Chinese and Japanese calligraphy brushes use soft and absorbent goat hairs in the center of the brush surrounded by long, strong wolf guard hairs that enable the brush to hold an excellent point.

Fact: Wolf are also farmed in huge numbers specifically for their fur. 

Opinion: If you're someone who would never support wearing fur, you may want to consider sable and wolf brushes with the same critical eye; the unfortunate reality is the rest of that animal is being worn on someones back, or as boots or a purse... you get my point.  Sable and wolf hairs used in paint brushes are off-cuts from the fur industry.  It just so happens the the fur on the animal's chest, abdomen, neck and tail are parts not generally used in making fur coats and collars, but they do make excellent paintbrush hairs. (Waste not, want not, I suppose.)


Overview: Badger hair brushes are the oldest, most traditional type of brushes used for oil painting on canvas because the hairs are strong and snappy.  Strands of badger hair are thinner at the base and get wider at the tip giving the brush a “bushy” appearance.  This shape allows badger hair brushes to work very well for painting specifically with oils.  Badgers are very common animals in the wild so their hair is more abundant than most other natural hairs used to make brushes. Badger hair is also used for cosmetics brushes (men's shaving brushes especially). 

Fact: China is the world leader in badger hair production.  Badgers are plentiful in southern China and are regarded as land/crop destroying vermin, and detested as carriers of rabies.  Badger meat is inedible but their pelts have value; this has lead to badgers being trapped and hunted en masse for the bounty on their hides. It's not possible to breed badgers on farms so they are always harvested from the wild.  Although badger hunting requires a license, it is otherwise unregulated and is carried out mainly by individuals using whatever methods they see fit.


Overview: In the artistic world, Squirrel hair brushes are sought after by watercolourists for their sable-like properties but at a much more affordable price. In addition, most brushes made for the cosmetic industry consist of some (if not all) squirrel hairs.

Facts: Squirrels are farmed in large numbers for both brush-making purposes, and for the fur industry equally.  The long hairs from squirrel tails become brushes, and the pelt generally becomes a garment or fashion accessory of sorts.


Overview: Most natural watercolour or tempera brushes for kids are camel. For the artist, wide camel hair brushes are useful for washes in ink and watercolour.



Facts: Camel brushes are not made of camel hair.  The term camel is used industry-wide by paintbrush manufacturers for a brush that is a random mixture of short, low-grade, soft hairs from heaven-knows-what animal; it could even be rabbit or cat hair.  This is why children's watercolour paint brushes (labeled as came)l are often ridiculously inexpensiveReal camel hair is very similar to muskox wool; fine, frizzy and extremely soft and downy (great for making cashmere, terrible for making paint brushes). 

Try Synthetics?

Here at Cowan's we admittedly carry a very minimal supply of natural paint brushes, but that's not by accident, or by ignorance.  I'm a painter too so I definitely do understand what a great brush is all about, but as a purchaser for an art supply store I have many choices to make about what products to carry.  I personally prefer not to support natural hair brushes when synthetic brush technology is so fantastic, and getting better every year!

This is a natural Squirrel brush (Atelier Russian Blue Squirrel).

This is a synthetic Squirrel brush (Princeton Neptune).

Not only do they look the same, their performance is nearly identical.

Many consumers have the impression that synthetic brush fibers are cheap nylon mono-filament (like fishing line) cut bluntly and glued together, but the truth is quite the opposite.  Synthetic brush development has become a highly competitive industry, with companies racing to develop the best synthetic brushes at the best prices.  Artist quality synthetics are engineered to exactly mimic the structure of the animals natural hair, even on a microscopic level!  Synthetic squirrel hairs have a wavy, undulating form with a naturally tapered tip just like real squirrel hairs (like Heinz Jordan's Kazan Gold and Princeton's Neptune brushes).  Synthetic hog bristles also mimic the taper of a natural hog bristle and are just as snappy and responsive (like Connoisseur's Pure Synthetic Bristle Brushes) and far less prone to breakage. 

Artist quality synthetics are often less expensive than artist quality natural hair brushes, plus they'll likely have a longer life because the fibers don't become dry and brittle like natural hairs do.


2. Ox Gall (Oxgall)

Overview: Ox gall serves as a paint flow improver when added to water media. It works by lessening the surface tension of the water and enhancing the flow of washes (especially when working on hot pressed or synthetic papers which can repel washes and cause puddling).  Ox gall also aides in colour mixing and blending techniques.  If a watercolour wash is not covering the paper evenly, is beading up, or failing to absorb into the deep texture of the paper (leaving tiny white specks), artists will add a drop of ox gall to improve flow and even out the absorbancy. Ox gall can also be diluted and applied to paper before painting to make it more receptive to watercolor paint.  Overuse can result in a dull finish, so it should be used sparingly.

Facts: Ox gall is gall (bile) obtained from cattle after slaughter. It's mixed with alcohol and used as a wetting agent in paper marbling, engraving, lithography and watercolour painting.  It can be a clear to yellowish to greenish-brown liquid and is a natural mixture of cholesterol, lecithin, taurocholic acid, and glycocholic acid.

Opinion: Ox gall is indeed a very handy medium to have as a watercolourist. But, even if you're not a vegan or vegetarian, the whole notion of painting with bile is pretty gross if you stop to think about it. The good news is that synthetic ox gall is readily available and functions exactly like the cow-based stuff, just less icky. 

3. Sizing

SIZING AND WATERCOLOURS: Sizing is a substance (such as hide glue, gelatin, or acrylic polymer) added to watercolour paper during the manufacturing process, serving several key purposes:

  • to reduce the absorbency of the paper (helping paint sit on the outer surface of the paper, as opposed to soaking into the interior of the sheet)
  • to maintain the structural integrity of the paper (so the paper can be soaked with water without falling apart)
  • to reduce paper buckling and warping once dry (encourages paper to shrink back to it's original shape; flat)

Sizing can be internal (added to pulp during manufacturing) and/or external (added to the paper's surface after production).  The highest quality watercolour papers have both internal and external sizing.

When it comes to watercolour papers, information is difficult to find because paper manufacturers closely guard their methods. I was able to find out that Arches and Saunders Waterford still use hide glue and gelatin as sizing, whereas Fabriano is proudly committed to using synthetic sizing in all of their products. I was unable to find any definitive information on the types of sizing used by other brands such as Winsor & Newton, Canson, BFK Rives, Strathmore, and Stonehenge.

Opinion: Since synthetic polymer-based size is far less expensive than using hide glue or gelatin sizing, I would think it's relatively safe to assume that most brands are not using animal-based sizing anymore.  As polymer-based size is not the most traditional sizing, manufacturers may worry that their paper will be viewed as a lesser quality product if it's known they use synthetic, hence the secrecy about the type of sizing used.

SIZING AND OILS: Raw canvas and boards should be sealed with sizing to protect them from the acidity and degrading effects of linseed oil.  (Acrylics are inert and can be applied directly to canvas without sizing.) The most traditional substance used as sizing is hide glue. The purpose of the sizing is to seal the fibers of the canvas or wood board allowing the ground (usually gesso) to bond to the glue instead of the support; this prevents the support from absorbing your linseed laden ground and paint.

Fact: The most traditional type of hide glue sizing is rabbit skin glue.  This is made by boiling rabbit skins in water until the soupy mixture thickens into a natural hide glue. Another traditional size is gelatin, which is made by boiling skin, horn, hooves, cartilage and other connective tissues from random animals (pigs, horse, cattle, sheep...).

An alternative to hide glue (as a support sealant) is Golden Paints' GAC-100 which seals the substrate and prevents transfer of acids through the substrate and into the ground, and vice versa.

4. Carmine Red Pigment

Overview: Traditionally, Carmine Lake is a deep crimson red colour, also called cochineal lake, crimson lake, or kermes lake.  It is a non-toxic, heavily staining colour used mainly in watercolours and gouache, as a textile dye, as a red food colour additive, and in cosmetics.

Facts: Carmine pigment is made of crushed Cochineal insects which are native to South and Central America.  After the Spanish explorers discovered the the popular red dye of the Maya people, it became one of Spain's leading exports for centuries. The cultivation and breeding the cochineal insects takes delicate human intervention, so in the late 19th century when a petroleum-based substitute was developed, the Carmine industry died overnight. The new synthetic replacement (Alizarin Crimson) was used for decades in place of the original Carmine, including as the most common red food colourant, until it was proven to be carcinogenic. Alizarin is not only carcinogenic when consumed, it is also is not ideal as a paint pigment. (Recent studies have shown that Alizarin is prone to chemically breaking down over time, thereby compromising the paint film integrity. Many paint manufacturers have since changed their composition of Alizarin Crimson paints and renamed it Permanent Alizarin)

Long story short: Because of our new understanding of Alizarin, most makers of Carmine red dyes and paints have returned to using crushed cochineal insects because of its vibrant colour, its permanence and non-toxicity.

Opinion: The crushing of insects to make paint may not be an issue for many people, but it does matter to some.  If you're one of those that is bothered, I encourage you to look into the many uses of crushed bugs, because they're everywhere.  These bug-based pigments are the pigments that are most commonly used in cosmetics and in food (red dye #4).  

If someone wants to emulate the iridescence of a butterfly wing, it can be achieved by using pigments loaded with mica (a type of rock) or with microscopic flecks of metal (such as anodized aluminum used in some automotive paints).  However, using metals can present many problems when it comes to toxicity.  Other iridescent pigments are created by using crushed iridescent beetles instead, which are considered to be non-toxic, hence why they're used in beauty and food products.

As always, have fun, stay safe and paint on!







October 05, 2017 — Karen Bullaro