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The Beauty Primer: Brushes
by Dain

Picking foundations—and moisturizers and lipsticks and everything else—can be tricky business. It takes considerable trial and error before you figure out individual preferences, but with a little common sense it eventually resolves itself. For the most part, specific concerns are directly determined by anatomy. Someone with oily skin might find themselves gravitating towards a matte longwear foundation, alternating with a mineral powder for lighter coverage, while developing an aversion to dewy "illuminating" silicone bases. So, what then happens when you go shopping for the perfect brush to apply your beloved Colorstay?

Take your pick: flat synthetic filberts, dense flat-top kabukis, fluffy tapered goat hair, duofiber stipplers, sponges, or just your fingers. All of these methods are equally viable. In this case, a fast-setting longwear foundation is best suited to a damp sponge. The decision is ultimately settled by the properties of the product itself, rather than anatomical considerations like skin type or undertones or bone structure. It is simply the nature of a tool; its value lies in how it manipulates the material, and of course in the skill of the wielder.

Like any other product, brushes can be evaluated according to quality. A brush badly made is harsh against the skin, falls apart quickly, and generally fails to perform. They are also among the more expensive investments you will make; it's a disappointment if you choose unwisely. For that reason, it's advisable to choose for specific effects, keeping in mind that most brushes excel only at a limited number of techniques. For example, at right is the RMK Cheek Brush, a personal favorite. Manufactured by Chikuhodo in Kumano, Japan, this is a medium-sized face brush, full and tapered, with a short handle: a fairly basic shape. I was drawn in by the exquisitely soft hair: I'd guess uncut blue squirrel with hidden synthetic fibers to create extra fluff and volume, ideally suited to a sheer and subtle application of powder. Somewhat to my chagrin, I discovered it was much too soft, and I like my blush strong. Blue squirrel can build up pigmentation if densely bundled, but in this case the squirrel is even more than usually diffused. To make the most of this brush, I needed to make a switch. It's brilliant for loose powder, diffusing pigment so well that the finish is never cakey but featherlight, its small size an unexpected bonus, all more maneuverable around tricky corners. It's also my bronzer brush, not for contouring of course but for a naturalistic allover glow of summer sunshine. A sheer application of bronzer is the most my cool complexion can handle.

You see, you can't really eyeball a brush for quality, even if it's available for testing at the counters. Like all tools, you'll have to use it a few times before you can accurately assess its utility. You'll find that repeated use will change the shape, that it sheds like crazy after washing, that what might have felt soft against your hand scratches your eyelids, that you might have had one specific purpose in mind only to find it unexpectedly performs better at another. It's helpful to have a clear idea of the products and techniques you favor. Brushes interact first with pigment, then with the skin. If the products you tend to wear are sheer, shimmery, relatively neutral midtones, or a cream formula, you don't have to be so careful about the brush, but if they are pigmented, matte, dry powders, extremely dark or extremely pastel, you will need maximum precision and control. Indeed, precision and control, combined with ease of use, are the hallmarks of a good brush.

The performance of a brush depends on the combination of the type of the hair, or the raw material, and the way it has been shaped (size, density, tapering), which affects its movement against the skin. Especially for eye brushes, consider also the size.

The type of hair will determine how the brush interacts with pigment: how it picks up pigment, then deposits it on the skin. Each type of hair has its own unique characteristics. At left are two brushes very similar in shape and size, but from the pressure of their own handles, it's clear that utilitarian goat hair retains its shape better than the decadently soft, yielding squirrel. The highest quality brushes utilize the noge, the ultrafine, uncut tips of natural hair. The expense is more than a question of rarity; noge must be shaped by hand before it's bundled, a labor-intensive process, unlike the vast majority of commercial brushes cut by lasers. Uncut hair is not only softer against the skin, it creates diffused edges that practically blend themselves. Most brands do not identify the type of hair, much less the grade used, but uncut hair, once you've experienced it, cannot be counterfeited.

Perhaps the most versatile natural hair is goat; it's neither too firm nor too soft, durable enough for cream products, and not too expensive. The way it fluffs out when bundled makes it ideal for diffusing pigments, i.e. blending, so it's great for blush and eyeshadow, as well as buffing in foundation and concealer. It's a particularly good match if you tend to wear heavier makeup, because it handles large amounts of pigment very deftly. Keep in mind, however, that goat hair comes in a wide range of quality. The highest grades, saikoho, sokoho, and ototsuho, can rival indifferent squirrel hair in softness, but uncut low-quality hair is quite rough. Raw goat hair is usually white, but it's often dyed; you can more readily identify it by its soft but firm texture.

Squirrel hair is undeniably the height of luxury; blue squirrel is a dark, ultrafine hair, soft as a breath of air on the skin, while canadian squirrel is a distinctive, variegated golden brown, thicker but also fragile. Though decadent, keep in mind that squirrel is not always the most versatile choice. It is is extremely delicate—the hair is yielding, rather than flexible—it should not be used with cream products and requires extra care when washing and drying. It's a great choice when a sheer application is warranted, such as loose powder or highlighter, but it does not manipulate pigment as efficiently as a stiffer hair would. If your design is to build up pigmentation, make sure that the brush is dense and compact; the smaller size compensates for the softness of the hair. Properly made, a squirrel brush is the superior choice for detail work: the hair is fine and without too much fluff, so a densely bundled brush can be tapered to a precision point.

Inexpensive pony hair is common, but its rough texture, too scratchy for the delicate skin around the eyes, relegates it to face or body use, even with brands for whom brushes are an afterthought. Badger is a very stiff, thick, flexible natural hair; it keeps its shape well. It excels with brow brushes, sometimes it's bundled in shaving brushes, but it's definitely too harsh for anything else.

In recent years, synthetic hair, sometimes called taklon, has become very popular. It's relatively inexpensive, cruelty free (though many of the better brush manufacturers use natural hair that's been gathered without harm to the animal), and is completely non-porous. For that reason, the majority of foundation, concealer, and eyeliner brushes are synthetic, many lip brushes too—pretty much anything that's likely to encounter cream products. The synthetic hairs are firm and straight as a pin, so while you can bundle a full kabuki-style brush, most brushes are usually flat. Unfortunately, synthetic hairs are inferior at manipulating dry pigment, no match for the finest uncut natural hair; you'll never get a truly polished effect with powders. Over continued washings, you'll find that they don't retain their shape so well. When synthetic hairs are incorporated into natural hairs, it applies with a softer, lighter, sheer touch.

Sable, or weasel, hair boasts the most well rounded performance: firmer than goat, flexibility equal to synthetic, durable enough for both cream and powder products, with squirrel's softness against the skin. Sable seems to respond sensitively to pigment, so that you have a great deal of control over application, even with the fine noge tips. Unfortunately, it is phenomenally expensive, and only very select brands offer sable. It's usually reserved for the smaller eye or lip brushes, in economically shaped filberts. All the same, sable brushes do return on the investment; not the lavish shadow brush that commands a phenomenal $280 perhaps (too large for anything but blending), but the more modestly proportioned ones, 10mm or less. Sable hair is nearly straight, so the filberts tend to be very flat, making it particularly useful for extracting the full potential out of pigment, whether it's the multifacted quality of a shimmer, the intensity of a dark matte, a precise, sculpted crease, or impact from an ethereal pastel.

Makeup application isn't static. From wiggling pigment back and forth between lashes (tightline), buffing in foundation with a kabuki, laying dark lipstick down flat, or dropping a concealer exactly onto a blemish, technique depends on movement. This is why the type of hair matters, since its strength and flexibility determines how a hair will move against a surface, how it manipulates pigment. But even more important is the shape of the brush. The highest quality hair in the world, if not properly shaped, will flop uselessly against your skin, while a well designed brush makes the most out of the hair's properties, even compensating for its deficiencies. Ultimately, the shape of the brush should work in concert with the type of hair.

Always, always check for the density, the amount of hair bundled into the brush. The density determines the amount of product that will be deposited on your skin. Don't select a diffuse, loosely bundled brush if you want to build coverage, but remember that a dense brush is more likely to scratch. If synthetic fibers have been integrated into natural hairs, it will also reduce the density. The size, measured according to the width of the ferrule, the thickness of the belly, and the length of the hair, should be appropriate for your needs. A large brush is more efficient, even luxurious, but it lacks precision. On the other hand, a too small brush may require blending afterward, especially with a dark matte. Take the type of hair into consideration: if a softer hair, like goat, has been left long, it should be fatter at the belly, denser, so there's some firmness to the brush overall. You don't want too compact a brush, however, as the pigment will go on too intense. Finally, unless you specifically want crisp edges, make sure that the brush has been well tapered, the hairs incrementally graduated to create soft, easily blended edges; if the hair is uncut, rather than tapered by lasers, the edges may be soft enough to blend as you apply. Some brushes are tapered to a point, for precision without any hard lines, but most brushes leave the sides or the top gently blunted, for a balance between surface area and softness of the edges.

I don't know if there is an official nomenclature for makeup brushes, so I've divided them into four major shapes.


All the great masters painted their oils with round brushes. Indeed, script brushes—long, thin, and pointed for liquid liner or pinpoint concealing—aren't too different from what you would find at an art store. Most crease brushes are round because they fit so well into the socket. They tend to be quite full, so they'll either taper to a point, for a detail brush or precision crease, or lowered slightly in density and elongated, for a sheer but narrow crease. Some round brushes are angled; they're good for a strong cut crease. Occasionally, you'll see a round blush left blunt, especially face brushes intended for buffing: dense compact kabuki brushes, sheer flat-top stippling brushes, and contouring brushes.

RECOMMENDATIONS  Laura Mercier Smoky Eye Liner (far left), Shu Uemura 5R (second from the right), Edward Bess Luxury Eye Brush, Paula Dorf Eye Contour, Paula Dorf Sheer Crease, Hakuhodo Kokutan Eye Shadow T E0183/G5528BkSL (center), Hakuhodo 210 E0108, Louise Young Super Foundation, Make Up For Ever HD Kabuki. For inexpensive script brushes, Hakuhodo offers several; it's not worth paying more than $10.


At the other extreme are flat brushes, with a crimped ferrule, used to create line effects on the brow or lashline. Whether flat or angled—a matter of personal preference—a flat brush should be thin, as thin as possible. It's not a lot of hair. Out of the hundreds of options out there, find one that's densely packed (unless it's a fan brush), with short, compact hairs that keep their shape, not a hair out of place. They may be ever so slightly tapered. Strength is a virtue here. You won't see a weak hair like squirrel, rather taklon, badger, and sable. Badger is the classic choice for brows, synthetic for eyeliner. Synthetic brushes excel with gel liner, but they grip powder poorly, so if you like to use shadow for lining, sable will prove a worthwhile investment. Finally, there are fan brushes; these are extremely diffuse, for a sheer, delicate application of highlighter. All flat brushes should be carefully washed and dried, particularly the synthetic ones, which have a tendency to lose their shape.

RECOMMENDATIONS  Hakuhodo K005 E0158/Kokutan SL E0189 (far left), RMK Brow Brush (third from left), Laura Mercier Fan Powder Brush. Inexpensive synthetic flat brushes are everywhere, so I won't recommend one.

Full and tapered

More full than flat, this classic shape excels at techniques that depend on circular motions, such as blending, contouring, buffing in foundation or concealer, bronzer, and blush. Goat and squirrel, which have some fluff to them, are most commonly used, sometimes pony. Often generously tapered, the top is gently blunted, to cover more surface area. Though a more economical use of hair than round brushes, especially for the face, it can be manipulated just as easily in all directions. On occasion, a fluffy brush is angled, usually designed for contouring.

RECOMMENDATIONS  MAC 217, Trish McEvoy 2B Sheer Blush, Hakuhodo Kokutan E0179 (second from right), Hakuhodo S110 E0007, Shu Uemura 18 Goat Foundation Brush.


More flat than full, filberts lay pigment down flat, building up its intensity. Therefore, they are well suited to colors trickier than neutrals: pastels, brights, and dark shades. Depending on the size, they are also called thumbnail (eye) or paddle (foundation) brushes; some are even fan brushes. Some are blunt but most are tapered, sometimes tapered to a point, for lip or concealer. Usually, they're this softly rounded shape. One peculiarity of filberts is that, unlike flat, fluffy, or round brushes, you can use both the tips or the flat side equally, so you can manage both surface area and precision work, depending on how the brush is held. Perhaps for that reason, you will see the characteristics of the hair shine very clearly: the delicacy of squirrel, taklon's preference for cream rather than powder product, goat's middle range, sable's sensitivity to pigment. Though a shape known for its versatility, filberts are not ideally suited to blending, though well tapered noge shouldn't leave any harsh edges.

RECOMMENDATIONS Shu Uemura 6M Natural (far right), Shu Uemura 10 Natural, Hakuhodo's weasel filberts E0023/E0110/E0186 (second from left), Paula Dorf Smudge, Kevyn Aucoin Concealer Brush, Bobbi Brown Foundation Brush.

Dampen brush with running warm water—not too hot, not too cold—try to avoid getting too much water onto the ferrule, which might detach the glue. Then, in the palm of your hand, massage some liquid soap like Dr. Bronner's, which cuts through accumulated oil and makeup especially well, into the hairs. Be especially thorough with big or dense brushes, making sure the soap penetrates into the core of the brush; no point in just washing the outside. If the hair is rough or seems to shed inordinately, leave in some conditioner for a few minutes. Rinse thoroughly and well. Blot dry in a towel, then allow to dry. Sometimes, particularly with flat or fluffy brushes, you'll have to continue to shape it as it dries, so it retains its original shape. Synthetic or goat brushes used with cream or liquid product should be cleaned frequently, but delicate squirrel hair, which requires extra attention, should only be washed every month or two.

For storage, I recommend a large water goblet.

* Except for the first, all images are of my personal brush collection; I figured taking my own pictures would be more aesthetically consistent. However, they do reflect my personal preferences in brush shapes, so I've included recommendations that might be more inclusive.
** This one's for Anne, who requested a brush primer months ago. I'm sorry it took so long.

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5/29/2011 [3]

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