Tools of the Trade- Squirrel Mops

This is going to be another occasional series, like the Spotlight series.  This will be about tools and equipment, which I get a lot of questions about.  My goal is to share input on brushes and paints, paper and tools, etc. as I come to my own opinions about them. Today, I wanted to share about a new brand of squirrel mops I've found out about- Rekab. 

 

What I'm Looking For In a Squirrel Mop-

As I've learned over time, mops really vary by brand.  With the way I paint, I like my mops to be versatile.  I don't use them just for washes, but also for a variety of expressive strokes and details.  I often like to use a brush "just a little too big" for what I'm painting, to keep things loose.  When I want to get finicky, I have to make the conscious choice to shift to a smaller synthetic on purpose.  That means I need mops that a) hold lots of water for those big washes, b) have a very sharp tip, so I can go in for those details, all in one fell swoop, and c) I need to be able to deform them to create interesting, organic marks.  Because I move them around, not just using them for washes, I also like a bit of resistance.  Mops can vary in terms of "softness", so this is a nebulous detail that is really about feel.  But I honestly feel like it's true.  You've just got to try them out and see.

Here are some examples of what I mean by "deforming" the brush head-

You can get lovely interesting drybrush marks with this kind of brush.  Yes, I'm sure I'm shortening the lives of my brushes.  But I get everything out of them they have to offer me!  :P

Also, it's worth saying that some people take issue with mops being natural hair, and although I'm fine with it, I'm not one to judge.  I will say, however, that I've not yet used a synthetic mop that I've been satisfied with as a painting tool.  Perhaps that will come with time and technology.  Natural hair holds water better and manipulates differently against the paper.  Synthetic brushes have a great deal more "snap", which some people like, but for me, that's what I have synthetic rounds for.  For mops, I want a different kind of response.  As such, I don't recommend them.  However, there may end up being some comments below that offer recommendations for these types of brushes.

 

The Contender- The Rekab

Rekabs are made in Israel.  In the US, as far as I know, if you buy online you can only buy Rekab brushes from The Italian Art Store- a retailer based out of New Jersey.  Here's a link to the page- http://www.italianartstore.com/store/rekab_brushes.html.  I ordered mine online, and they arrived in about a week. 

Why am I recommending these brushes to folks?  They seem, so far, to be quality.  They have a very sharp point, they have that nice long, slender Castagnet-style handle that I like, they hold a lot of water, and they are AFFORDABLE.  As in, you-can-actually-explore-using-a-mop-for-the-first-time-without-breaking-the-bank kind of cheap.  How cheap?  Well, they are still mops, of course, so it's all a matter of comparison, but they run 15$ for a .25" wide mop (what they call a #2), to 50$ for a .75" wide mop (a #12).  That's a remarkable price point for natural hair.

I will note, however, that the heads of the Rekabs are slightly different from some of the other brushes.  They seem stiffer than the Isabey I have (not hard at all to accomplish, but important).  They also seem slightly softer than the Castagnet brushes I have.  The Alvaro brushes almost want to deform and bend stiffly.  I love this attribute when working dry and making marks.  These Rekabs will deform (as shown above), but I seem to have to work at it a bit more.  Who knows?  Perhaps I'll get used to it with time.  I'm not sure.  They're a little shorter (.25"?) and chubbier, with a fatter belly when fully wet.  Look here-

black rekab #12 (.75" wide) versus a big #10 Castagnet (.8" wide)

black rekab #12 (.75" wide) versus a big #10 Castagnet (.8" wide)

Black rekab #8 (.5" wide) versus brown Isabey #7 (approximately .6" wide)

Black rekab #8 (.5" wide) versus brown Isabey #7 (approximately .6" wide)

Will this shorter head affect the painting experience?  I don't know.  I don't think so, personally.  They honestly look pretty similar to the shape of Escoda mops to me, and people seem to like painting with those.  Will they last a long time?  I also don't know that.  I'll have to report back later on both things, if I find out more.

Still, despite these differences, in total the brushes seem lovely.  Good snap, good point, nice water capacity, nice long handle, will splay and deform, and the right price.

 

My History- Castagnet, Isabey, and DaVinci

For a number of years, I've been using Alvaro Castagnet brushes.  These are very good brushes, in my opinion.  Lovely fine point when they're new, and good water-holding capacity.  It has a longer handle than normal, presumably for more expressive, "dancing" brushstrokes (?), but the Rekabs have a similar length and handling quality.

When I first came to them in my workshop with Alvaro, I'd never really seen or bought a mop before.  So I was happy to just get some.  Why am I moving on to another brand?  The first issue is cost.  These puppies are expensive.  As in, 35$ US for a .25" wide mop to 130$ for the .75" wide variety.  An investment.  Also, depending on the brush you happen to get, they really shed.  Some mops shed some in the beginning but then sort of "discard" the loose hairs and stop.  That's pretty common.  But I've had a big #10 Castagnet for a long time, and it has shed like mad for years.  It's anecdotal evidence, but I'm not the only one I've met with that critique.  It hasn't stopped me from using it because otherwise they've very good, but it's a nuisance for such an expensive brush.  If these brushes didn't shed at all, would I be staying with the Alvaro brushes?  Maybe.  But they are expensive, and they have shed, and so... I'm moving to Rekabs for now.

I also recently bought a #7 Isabey mop. An Isabey #7 is about .6" wide.  It was also not cheap, at 60$, but it's about 40% cheaper than the Alvaro brushes. 

Here's a link to where I bought it on Dick Blick- http://www.dickblick.com/products/isabey-original-siberian-blue-squirrel-quill-mop-series-6234/ . My issue?  It's very soft and floppy, and has a relatively blunt tip.  It's fine for large washes, but it's not very versatile.  Again, my preference is for mops with a tiny bit of resistance and a very sharp tip, like Alvaro's.  This offered me neither, unfortunately.  Also, they use some sort of shellac on the handle that has started cracking and discoloring within about 3-6 months from purchase.  It's unsightly, and eventually it may also be uncomfortable if it chips.  It's a bit nitpicky, but for 60$, I expect a very good brush.

Finally, I've also tried a DaVinci in the past.  It was a #6.  When it was new, I liked it, but had no points of reference.  Then my dog ate it.  Really.  :(  After I put it back together, like Humpty Dumpty, it was never quite the same.  Now I use it to make scruffy marks or apply water to areas.  So, perhaps DaVincis are good brushes, but I sure don't know.  Hahaha!  Here's a link to it as well- http://www.dickblick.com/products/da-vinci-russian-blue-squirrel-brushes/#photos .

 

My Recommendation-

In the end, brushes are very personal.  They are an extension of your arm and mind.  They are the tool that makes your marks.  So by no means do I want to denigrate the choices others are making.  Some need control and tighter water management, and so use many synthetics.  Some don't want to use animal hair.  Some like the sharp edge of a flat (James Gurney!).  If you are interested in glorious wet into wet washes and "expressive and painterly" brushstrokes, a mop is near essential, in my mind.  At the very least, it's very useful.  It is the type of brush I use the most.

If you've not tried any mops and are curious, these Rekabs are my recommendation for those who are introducing themselves to the style and looking for a purchase.  If you paint 11" x 15" or smaller, I would recommend getting getting a #2 (about .25" wide) for small shapes and something like a #8 (.5" wide) for big washes.  I got a #4 and #8, and I find the #4 a tiny bit big for small areas.  I used to use a Castagnet #0, and this new #4 is just a little bit bigger than I'm used to for that smaller size.  Not a lot bigger though...

black rekab #4 (approx. .36" wide) versus a red castagnet #0 (about .25" wide)

black rekab #4 (approx. .36" wide) versus a red castagnet #0 (about .25" wide)

Anyways, two mops, plus a synthetic or two, should generally do the job in terms of brushes at that size of paper.  I got a #12 too (.75" wide), and it's also lovely, but I only use it on 1/2 sheets. 

If some of you have other recommendations or warnings, stories about brushes and how they've worn over time, links to online retailers you prefer, etc, please leave them in the comments for others to find.