Da Vinci are considered to be one of the finest manufacturers of artist brushes in the world. Artist Anna Zadorozhnaya, an ambassador of the da Vinci brand, visited the company’s factory in Nuremberg, Germany, and shares what she learnt about the production of the brushes, as well as the characteristics of da Vinci’s most popular watercolour brushes.
By Anna Zadorozhnaya
The production cycle for da Vinci brushes is slightly different for natural and synthetic hair. Natural hair brushes can only by manufactured by hand and in no other way, while synthetic brushes can be produced by machines. In any case, the process starts with the formation of a brush bundle.
Synthetic brushes are usually done by a machine and in the case of natural hair, a master brush maker measures the necessary amount of hair (depending on the size) with the help of a jewellery scale or a special hair-portioning device. They then knock the bundle in a metal tool. The hair is then tied with a cotton thread, shaped, and inserted into the ferrule.
After that the glue is poured inside and the construction is planted on the handle, then crimped. The shape of the brush and its tip are additionally controlled, then the printing process of the series and numbers is carried out. After that the finished brushes are sent to the warehouse for packing.
Of course, in the case of different types of brushes, the process may be slightly different. For example, flat brushes go through an added stage called “the press”. In the case of quill brushes, there is an extra step involving wrapping the wire and so on. But, in general, the process is exactly as described above.
More than 6 million brushes are produced per year at the da Vinci factory, which are subsequently sold on five continents. The factory uses both manual labour and machine production. If we talk about automatic production and machines (their appearance and working principles are the strictest commercial secret, and they are not allowed to be photographed), the da Vinci staff consists of several engineers, whose main task is to monitor the working equipment and to develop new ones. By the way, I personally saw that most of the machines are electronically controlled, which means it’s a fully automatic process.
Each brush has its own “recipe” stored in a special book, which includes information about the series, type of hair, handle length, size range, and other features. Surprisingly, this is just a notebook (though red!) and all the information is written down by hand. And it exists in a single copy.
In total, the factory employs about 130 people. In order to receive the title “brush maker”, an employee of the company must undergo intensive three-year training, and only after these three years they can work for da Vinci as an independent brush maker.
The most famous and popular series of da Vinci watercolour brushes is Maestro, made with Siberian kolinsky sable. The best kolinsky brushes only use male winter tail hair – the hair of the female is not as thick and of lower quality. In addition, their origin should be only in Manchuria or Siberia. Due to the extremely low temperatures and Siberian frosts, the hair gets the unique characteristics needed.
Finally, in the kolinsky brush, the length of visible hair should correspond to the length of the hair inside the ferrule – if they are not identical, the brush does not hold the necessary amount of water. Da Vinci purchases raw materials at auctions and the company strictly complies with international legal norms for the protection of natural resources – certificates of conformity are issued for all natural hair. The natural hair process also takes time: the hair needs to be treated, degreased, and left for several months to be lathered. There is a special room for storing natural raw materials in the basement of the factory.
A common misconception is that the gumir, a special solution used to process brushes for transportation, somehow affects the shape of the brush. This is not true: it is necessary to protect the hair and to simply show the brush shape to the buyer. The shape and properties of a brush are affected only in the very first stages when the hair is tucked into a bundle and dressed.
In the company hall on the wall there is an interesting brush exposition, which is a kind of unique historical artefact. The wife of the owner of the company, Marianne Defet, spun in circles of artists and made friends with many of them. She invented an interesting ritual: when she visited her friends she gave them a new brush, and in return asked for a brush that was used by the artist. Now these used brushes hang on the wall of the factory, clearly demonstrating the connection between the company and its customers.
Da Vinci is very proud of the fact that the brushes are produced only in Germany and under strict control. After each stage there is mandatory quality control (i.e. after each operation, a person sits down and manually checks if everything is correct), and in most modern production lines this is more of an exception than a rule. This is probably why da Vinci regularly wins prestigious awards, such as ‘German Brand of the Century’, and why their brushes are famous all over the world for their quality.
Overview of watercolour brushes by da Vinci
There is a common name for the series of each brush, which relates to the family of hair. For example, Casaneo will use synthetic hair, Maestro series use kolinsky, Petit Gris use natural squirrel, and Cosmotop-Spin and Nova-Synthetics are synthetic.
Da Vinci brush sizes are different from the usual sizes, and I would say that the size of da Vinci is smaller than normal. The difference in size ranges between manufacturers is due to the fact that the European brush industry has no agreement on a single size designation and standard. So, before ordering a brush, you should check the dimensions specified directly by the manufacturer.
Let’s have a brief look on the most popular da Vinci artist brush series.
Maestro is made with selected Siberian natural kolinsky and is one of da Vinci’s most famous and popular ranges of watercolour brush. Kolinsky brushes are appreciated among watercolourists because they hold the perfect amount of water and are very elastic. They also have a sharp, long-lasting tip which does not wear down.
Da Vinci kolinsky brushes are labelled in three variants: Harbin-Kolinsky – a kolinsky found in Manchuria, and Tobolsky-Kolinsky and Ussiri-Kolisnky – from Siberia in the Ob, Lena, Amur, and Ussuri regions.
The Maestro line includes round brushes, flat brushes, a special series of riggers, and a travel series. Maestro brushes have black handles with gold embossing and a metal ferrule. All the brushes in this line are made exclusively by hand.
Casaneo brushes have earned the watercolourists’ love because of its very interesting hair: it is a very soft synthetic squirrel imitation, and the hair is slightly more elastic than natural squirrel. It also holds quite a lot of water and the tip is perfectly sharp, allowing you to paint very fine details.
The Casaneo line has all kinds and types of brushes: round, flat, filbert shape, angle, liners, and a complete line of pocket brushes. In addition, these brushes are presented not only with a standard ferrule, but also in the traditional quill version, which has an even greater water holding capacity due to the length of the hair.
The Cosmotop-Mix B series is an interesting option for watercolourists. The hair of these brushes consists of a mix of synthetic and natural hair, which holds a large amount of water and has a sharp tip. It has a very stable behaviour with different types of washes. In addition, the brushes in this series are slightly more elastic and resilient than natural squirrel.
Da Vinci Petit Gris series are brushes made of natural squirrel hair. Petit Gris Pur is pure squirrel with 100% natural hair, while Petit Gris Mix is a mix of natural squirrel and imitation squirrel. These brushes have a sharp tip and retain their snap for a long time. They absorb a lot of water and are ideal for large washes. I would say that the da Vinci squirrel are the best on the market.
This series also comes in different versions (flat, round, liner brush), but the most interesting is the traditional quill version.
Cosmotop-Spin brushes use a fully synthetic hair with a light brown colour. It is very thin and smooth, and due to the mix of hair of different lengths and thicknesses it has a high absorption capacity.
This series has red hexagonal handles which use a technology patented by da Vinci. The thickest part of the handle is designed to reduce fatigue in your hands when painting, and also to prevent the brush from rolling off the table.
As the name suggests, Vario-Top are a unique range of brushes that feature varied synthetic hair lengths. Made from a blend of Nova and Top-Acryl fibres mixed in different lengths, these brushes are ideal for textures and effects, be it drawing trees or leaves, landscapes, foliage, and more.
Anna Zadorozhnaya was born and lives in Moscow, Russia. Anna has an MA in Art from Oxford Brookes University and is a da Vinci and Schmincke ambassador. Anna is also a member of the International Federation of Aquarellists.
She shares her watercolour paintings on her Instagram page, @draw_better.
Art supplies that are cruelty-free or made without the use of animal products are an important concern for many artists. We stock a wide range of cruelty-free art supplies and work hard to support the preferences and needs of all of our customers. We encourage and support the development of synthetic fibre brushes but offer natural hair to those that want it.
Care should be taken in the maintenance of brushes to ensure their longevity. This helps to reduce the number of brushes that are bought and therefore made, and as a result this can help minimise the use of animal hair. The same applies to synthetic brushes, whereby reducing use helps to minimise the amount of plastic that needs to be produced (which generates both pollution and microplastics).