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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

The Paintbrush: an Ancient Tool of Global Expression

The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

Our creative expression is sometimes aided and abetted by a common, simple tool: the brush.

The versatile instrument, used for centuries to clean and for personal grooming and decoration, has been a fundamental agent for painting and artistic expression since before recorded history.

Humans have painted forever and a day

Humankind has long expressed creativity and important parts of life through art and specifically through painting. Ancestors from the Paleolithic Period used all sorts of materials from leaves and bones to sticks and wood shavings to depict their lives in cave paintings.

Early Egyptian tombs were often illustrated with a primitive brush made using the smashed end of reeds. The hieroglyphics themselves also detail people painting as part ancient Egyptian life.

The earliest ancestor of the paintbrush that we know today was developed for writing and came from China. Meng Tian, a Chinese inventor and general from 300 B.C., developed the first ink brush used for calligraphy. Over time, the paintbrush continued its world travels and its evolution.

Quills and bristles

Since the sixth century in Western Europe, bird quills were long-used as the principal writing instrument.

In the 1400’s, Tuscan painter Cennino Cennini introduced the classic round paintbrush of quills. The round shape allowed for detailed paint strokes and easier manipulation. For centuries beginning with the Italian Renaissance, these paintbrushes made of soft bird quills reigned supreme.

Paintbrushes expanded to also include bristles of pigs, hogs and boars because of the stiffness and coarseness of the animals’ hair. These fibers were strong yet flexible and better able to hold paint. Other animal hair like that of squirrels, badgers, oxen and horses were used for cleaning brushes especially due to their coarseness.

Over time, factory farming in Europe changed the natural rough bristles of their once-wild pigs. With it, the production of the highest quality paintbrushes moved east: through Russia and returning to their Chinese roots.


Prior to the Industrial Revolution, brush-making was a skilled trade with individual animal hairs glued by hand to handles by artisans trained for years in the craft.

As production moved to factories, the small artisan was replaced by machine as brushes, like many products, were fabricated in mass. Industrialization brought new materials and ways of manufacturing to paint and other brushes. Animal hair was replaced with synthetic materials like nylon, rayon and plastic.

New materials and options

New materials and production expanded the possibilities for the paintbrush.

The new artificial materials worked better with different paint types, and the introduction of the metal ferrule or band brought a new level of flexibility for paintbrush shapes.

After centuries of the round brush that defined the artistic standard, new flat shapes allowed 19th-century Impressionist painters a new kind of paint-stroke previously unavailable.

With changing filament and shape, new production methods changed fibers were glued or cemented into handle variations – newly expanded into different sizes, shapes and types of wood, metal and plastic.

An example of this paintbrush evolution is Curly Brush with a head of salt and pepper curlicues – at the ready to help inspire creative juices.

No end to varieties available, paintbrushes today are expressly made to work differently depending on the type of paint, surface to be painted and even the painter.

The ancient tool of the paintbrush has come a long way from crushed reeds.

Over its long history, the simple paintbrush has helped humanity share thoughts, feelings and a common experience.


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