A Tail of Making Brushes

Standing with the cypress

Standing with the cypress

With harvest season and market season for the apothecary behind me and fall fully in effect, I’ve had some time to explore in nature and create with my hand in other ways.  Wandering outside just to admire…without my pruning sheers or shovel…has just been delightful…providing some good juice for mah soul.

So, my artist friend Robin Whitfield and I were talking a few months ago about watercolor brushes.  I wanted to know what kind of brush to buy to play around with and dabble in watercolor.  She quickly skirted around my question and started to talk about how animal fur, namely squirrel tails…made great watercolor brushes.  She described the Sumi-e style of Japanese ink painting and how the brushes were made.

She planted a seed in my mind and I don’t think she realized that I had actually taken her seriously.

While visiting a friend in Asheville, NC, I had the perfect opportunity to harvest a squirrel tail from a road kill one afternoon.  I pulled my car over and dragged the dead squirrel to the side of the road and clipped its tail off (I then decorated its body with flowers I picked nearby).

Later, at my friend’s house, I asked for a blow dryer and epsom salt while holding the squirrel tail at my side…which created a pregnant pause…  I explained to my friend what I was doing…and this friend…having known me and my antics for awhile, allowed me to wash, clean, and blow dry my new tail.

She’ll be happy to know that such a strange request was not in vain.  We have finally completed the task of making squirrel tail brushes.

Sorry for the bad lighting, but here Maria and Robin are tying up some hair for the brush

Sorry for the bad lighting, but here Maria and Robin are tying up some hair for the brush

For the brush handles, we gathered beaver-snipped river cane at the largely forgotten but primordial and other-wordly Nanih Waiya mound in east-central Mississippi.  We also used some elder branches that I had shaved the bark off of for the apothecary.

We gathered the beaver-snipped river cane from this dried up creek bed (which is the driest I've ever seen it by the way)

We gathered the beaver-snipped river cane from this dried up creek bed (which is the driest I’ve ever seen it by the way)

We wrapped the squirrel tail hair with glue and dental floss and then snipped the hair bundle off the actual tail after it was securely tied off.  We then dipped the newly snipped end of hair into glue, attempting to coat as much hair as possible.  This was the end we would insert into the handle.

Robin and Maria tying up another bundle of hair for the brushes

Robin and Maria tying up another bundle of hair for the brushes

We let these hair bundles dry overnight and then inserted them into various lengths of river cane and elder the next morning.  The river cane is naturally hollow so that was easy.  However, for the elder, we needed to drill a hole to insert the hair bundle.

Our fancy air drying system

Our fancy air drying system

All in all, I’m pretty satisfied.  We’ve already taken them on a test drive with some black walnut ink that I’m experimenting with.  Normally the ink is much darker.  But, whatever I did (soak and simmer), made it more sepia tone.

Our eight rustic finished watercolor brushes

Our eight rustic finished watercolor brushes

My first test-drive with a few brushes using a black walnut ink and ash

My first test-drive with a few brushes using a black walnut ink and ash

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