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Where Have All the Kolinsky Sable Brushes Gone?

by Deb Shaw with A LOT of contributing authors. Please see the contributors’ list at the end of this article.

I’ll begin with two apologies: the first is for the length of this article. There is a lot of information and misinformation about the disappearance of Kolinsky brushes from art suppliers in the US. It’s a complicated subject, and I’m attempting to gather everything together in one place. The second apology is for the delay in posting this article. Each month I’ve heard rumors that the stockpiles of brushes being held in US Customs were about to be released, and so I’ve erroneously concluded it was a moot point to publish. We’re still waiting, so I’ll dive in.

Background, History, Rumors and Facts

Kolinsky brushes are made with the hair of the Siberian weasel, Mustela sibirica. Some internet information about Kolinsky brushes states that the best brushes are made only with the hairs from the tip of the tales of male weasels, gathered in winter. Some sources claim the hair is gathered from wild populations where the weasels are a pest; some say the hair is a by-product of the fur trade; others state the hair is collected only from humanely and sustainably farmed animals. There is also information that says the animals do not do well in captivity, so it’s impossible to “farm” them. All sources agree that Siberian weasels are not endangered: the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies these animals as “least concern for extinction.”

Siberian Weasel (Mustela sibirica), Zoo Dresden, Winter 2002/2003, By Altaipanther (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Siberian Weasel (Mustela sibirica), Zoo Dresden, Winter 2002/2003, By Altaipanther (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Barry MacKay described them on the GNSI ListServ: “These weasels weigh about 360 to 820 grams, with males, on average, larger than the ladies. That puts them bigger than most animals tagged with the name “weasel”, but smaller than our mink. They are a lovely soft brown in colour, with a blackish face mask and a touch of white near the tip of the muzzle.” In addition to his bird art, Barry works on animal trade issues, and has attended several Conferences of the Parties to CITES. His understanding is that Mustelids do not do well in captivity, due to their high metabolism, activity and home range sizes. Apparently, they have a lot of stress-related illnesses in captivity.

Weasel hair for brush manufacture typically comes from Russia, China, India and Japan. Mustela sibirica populations also are found in Bhutan, Korea, Nepal, Laos, Burma, Taiwan and Thailand. Once gathered, the hair is then made into brushes either in China or the country of origin, or is sent to Europe or the UK to be made into brushes there.

For us to be able to buy Kolinsky sable brushes in the United States, the appropriate paperwork is required for exporting the hair from the country of origin, and then “re-exporting” the brushes from the country of manufacture. The problems with our supplies of Kolinsky brushes started in 2012, when a US Fish and Wildlife Service inspector was requested to research paperwork and permits from Europe for “re-exporting” Kolinsky hair.

Research and interviews about the disappearance of Kolinsky brushes turned up a multitude of reasons, rumors and innuendos. I emailed the US Fish and Wildlife Service directly, and, much to my surprise, on February 14, 2014, received a reply from Craig Hoover, Chief, Wildlife Trade and Conservation Branch, Division of Management Authority. I’ll confess, I’m still impressed to have even received a response. I’ve edited Mr. Hoover’s reply slightly (for example, taking out my complaints about their website not working), but am posting his answers verbatim below:

Dear Ms. Shaw,

…We appreciate your inquiry and the concerns raised by the industry. We’ve had numerous consultations on this issue and are happy to share additional information with you. Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Kolinsky hair brushes use hairs derived from the Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica). This species was added to Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989 by India. CITES, as you may know, is a treaty to prevent species from becoming endangered or extinct because of international trade. Under this treaty, countries work together to regulate the international trade of animal and plant species and ensure that this trade is not detrimental to the survival of wild populations. Appendix III includes species for which a particular country has sought help to regulate international trade.

Under the terms of the Treaty, and US regulations implementing CITES, any export of an Appendix-III species from a listing country (in this case, India) requires the issuance of a CITES Export Permit after a determination is made that the specimens in question were legally acquired. Exports from a non-listing country (such as China) require the issuance of a CITES Certificate of Origin essentially indicating that the specimens did not come from the listing country.

Under CITES, member countries have an opportunity to take a reservation to a listing, essentially meaning that the country chooses not to implement the listing. With regard to Mustela sibirica, 22 European countries have taken a reservation to the listing. Neither the United States nor China has taken such a reservation.

Much of the Kolinsky brush hairs are produced in and exported from China to Europe where they are then made into brushes. Because the importing countries in Europe have a reservation to the listing, they do not require a CITES document from China. However, because we require a CITES document for import into the United States, European exporters have obtained CITES re-export documents to send shipments to the United States. However, it came to our attention that the shipments going from China to Europe were not accompanied by CITES documents. We have confirmed with Chinese CITES officials that they require a CITES export document and were not approached to issue one. Therefore, because the shipments were exported from China to Europe in violation of CITES requirements, the subsequent re-export to the United States was also in violation of CITES requirements here.

We have explained this to our European CITES counterparts and advised the industry that specimens that are not lawfully exported from China will not be accepted in the United States. It is incumbent upon Chinese exporters to obtain the necessary CITES Certificate of Origin for export to Europe or directly to the United States.

[In answer to my question as to when or if we can expect the brushes to once again be imported into the United States]:

There is no prohibition on imports to the United States either from Europe or directly from China. However, if the brushes are made with Mustela sibirica hair, then the specimens must comply with all CITES requirements.

[In answer to my question as to whether or not it is legal for an individual artist to receive a gift of Kolinsky sable brushes from a fellow artist in Europe]:

If your question relates to whether someone can receive a gift of such brushes in Europe and then import them to the United States, I would refer you to our CITES regulations for personal and household effects, which are found at 50 CFR 23.15 and are  found at:

(d) Personal effects. You do not need a CITES document to import, export, or re-export any legally acquired specimen of a CITES species to or from the United States if all of the following conditions are met:

(1) No live wildlife or plant (including eggs or non-exempt seeds) is included. (2) No specimen from an Appendix-I species is included, except for certain worked African elephant ivory as provided in paragraph (f) of this section. (3) The specimen and quantity of specimens are reasonably necessary or appropriate for the nature of your trip or stay and, if the type of specimen is one listed in paragraph (c)(3) of this section, the quantity does not exceed the quantity given in the table. (4) You own and possess the specimen for personal use, including any specimen intended as a personal gift. (5) You are either wearing the specimen as clothing or an accessory or taking it as part of your personal baggage, which is being carried by you or checked as baggage on the same plane, boat, vehicle, or train as you. (6) The specimen was not mailed or shipped separately.

[In answer to my request for information about whether these animals are farmed, are caught from the wild, and/or are in danger of extinction]:

The requirements described above apply regardless of the method of production or the status of the animal in the wild. The CITES Parties are obligated to implement the provisions of the Convention unless they have taken a reservation. Just as we would expect India to enforce CITES provisions for a U.S. native species for which we have sought assistance, we will do so. And the CITES document would in fact make clear whether the specimens were produced in captivity or collected from the wild as well as the country of origin. Thus, it would give the industry some level of assurance about the impacts of the trade on the species.

Other Explanations and Updates

Most of our art store suppliers belong to The International Art Materials Association (NAMTA). NAMTA has been working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, CITES, Global Arts, and European brush companies to resolve the problem. They have been posting updates on their website page “What’s Going On With Kolinsky Brushes?” (although their last post was in February, 2014). Their update postings include links to a copy of NAMTA’s letter to CITES Secretariat-General John Scanlon, and email addresses for people on the NAMTA team who will respond to questions.

Some of our art supply retailers have posted articles and sporadic updates as well, although many have simply labeled their Kolinsky brush stock “indefinite back order.” Dick Blick has a posting on their facebook page from July 26, 2013, titled “Tip of the Week – Why can’t I get my favorite Kolinsky brush?

Current Status as of Today

For the last few months, art store buyers I have been checking with have been clinging to a rumor that NAMTA had finalized negotiations with US Customs to release the back inventories currently being held. They thought the negotiations, however, only applied to the “back orders” and that there are ongoing negotiations for FUTURE deliveries of Kolinsky sable brushes. The days and months have dribbled by, and as of now there still are no brushes on the shelves. Perhaps we will find our store shelves filled to capacity soon.

So, Where Can I Buy Kolinsky Sable Brushes? (US and Canada)

Unverified rumor has it that Canadian art stores were cut off from Kolinsky brushes that came to Canada through the US, but that Canadian art suppliers could order directly from the UK and Europe and receive those brushes without problems. I don’t know whether or not they can then ship orders to the US. If you reside in the US and have a favorite Canadian art store, check with them before ordering.

There are art stores in England who have informed me and other contributors to this article that they can ship directly to customers in the US, either because they use a single-source hair supplier, and/or they have all the necessary documentation. Three wonderful UK resources are Rosemary and Company, L. Cornelissen & Son, and Ken Bromley Art Supplies. Each of these companies are great to work with, and have said they can export brushes from the UK to the US, no problem. Given how quickly the situation (and inventory) keeps changing, I highly recommend double checking before ordering. See the review of Rosemary and Company brushes below. If you’re ever in London, be sure to stop off at the L. Cornelissen & Son store, for a jaw-dropping treat of an art shop. It’s a wonderful step back in time, with an incredible array of supplies.

A Quick Review of Brush Options

From top to bottom: Rosemary and Company, Series 33 Kolinsky Sable brush, #4; Escoda Reserva Kolinsky Sable Brush, #2; Winsor & Newton, Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brush, #1. Photo by Deb Shaw.

From top to bottom: Rosemary and Company, Series 33 Kolinsky Sable brush, #4; Escoda Reserva Kolinsky Sable Brush, #2; Winsor & Newton, Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brush, #1. Photo by Deb Shaw.

As artists, we are not alone in our desperate search for Kolinsky brushes or substitutes. Art suppliers have been amazed at the wide variety of industries using sable brushes—industries they never knew they served. These include archeologists, the dental industry, various sciences, curators—the list is long. Some of the brush options described below have been well-loved in other industries. It may be time to look in new areas for supplies.

In the course of online discussions and correspondence, many of the participants discussed their favorite brushes, or new brushes they were trying out as substitutes for favorites that are no longer available. Please double check availability in the US and that the brushes meet international regulations. There are numerous brick-and-mortar art supply shops and online stores. The following is a brief, and by no means comprehensive, synopsis. There are other favorite online suppliers we did not have time to research.

Rosemary and Company: There are many wonderful hand-made brushes from Rosemary and Company, all top-notch quality. Kathleen Garness and Patricia Savage had enthusiastic endorsement of Rosemary brushes on the SciArt ListServ, comparing them to Winsor Newton Series 7. Holly Butlett liked the sable points, water holding capability and the feel. Bruce Bartrug endorsed their brights. (Added advantage for Bruce, “The brushes were also carefully packed in crumpled newspaper, and it was fun reading through the Yorkshire Post.”) Everyone commented on how quickly they shipped. Personally, I find the 33 series is a little long for botanical art (I tend to prefer shorter brushes anyway, especially for working on vellum). Margaret Best extensively tested the Rosemary 33 and 22 series. She thought the 22 series was too long; the 33 series seemed a touch long at first, but by the end of her painting it had become her favorite “go to” brush for botanical watercolors. Margaret also received a Series 323 Spotter she has yet to test. Rosemary and Company makes these for botanical artists, and Margaret reports that it looks like what she would call a miniature.

Pro Arte: I know a lot of folks who adore the Series 1 Pro Arte brushes. These are from the UK. Pro Arte also has a combination synthetic/sable brush called The Connoisseur, a blend of Prolene and Sable. Some artists are testing these out, but I haven’t heard any definitive feedback yet. The Pro Arte Connoisseur brushes are available in the US at Jerry’s Artarama, and other venues.

The Pro Arte brush above is not to be confused with the Connoisseur 007 brush. These are Kolinsky sable brushes, and, from their website, appear to be available in the US. Again, I know some artists who are testing these out, but I haven’t heard any results as of this writing. I also don’t know if they are readily available. Margaret Best will be testing this brush and reporting back. She says, “It is not a normal round brush length and also not a miniature. Somewhat in-between. May be better suited to vellum.”

One of the product buyers at Dick Blick, Nate, (who is also a watercolor artist), has been testing out synthetic brushes for his own work, using synthetics whenever he can to prolong the life of his Kolinsky brushes. He has the following recommendations for us to try: The first is the Escoda Versatil brush, a synthetic brush which is supposed to perform very much like the Escoda Kolinsky Sable brush. Nate also liked the Raphael Kaerell Synthetic—he said he even preferred the point on this brush to those on a real sable. He said that it would not be a great choice for those artists who need a fuller body for large color washes, but it has a good snap and keeps its point for a long time.

1026 Interlon synthetic brushes from Japan, in sizes #2 and 3/0. Photo by Deb Shaw.

1026 Interlon synthetic brushes from Japan, in sizes #2 and 3/0. Photo by Deb Shaw.

At the ASBA conference in Chicago, 2012, Asuka Hishiki introduced her masking fluid workshop to a lovely synthetic brush, especially in the small sizes: the 1026 Interlon Brush Japan. It turns out that this is the go-to brush for the dental industry in Japan, used for whitening teeth. The brush keeps a sharp point, is great for dry brush work and is inexpensive (approximately $3.50)! Here in the States we were under the impression that the brush was only available in Japan, and we’ve been imposing on our Japanese colleagues to send us brushes. I just found them available at Best from Japan, who ships worldwide.

Several artists have reported decent results using Princetons for dry brushing, but I’m not sure which ones they used.

Cat Hair Brushes: In the September 2014 issue of “The Botanical Artist” (the Journal of the ASBA), Akiko Enokido wrote a techniques article in which she mentioned using a hand-made cat hair brush. She also mentions that these beautiful brushes, used in fine Japanese lacquer painting are not available for import into the US. Customs regulations for the United States bans importation of anything from any part of any cat. I haven’t investigated the reasons behind that ban…

Last, but not least, the beloved Winsor & Newton Series 7: I have heard many reports that the Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes has been discontinued, and am embarrassed to confess that I had just accepted the news as fact. This too appears to be misinformation; we will have to ask Winsor & Newton directly. It looks like the Series 7 is still available in the rest of the world, and will continue to be manufactured, but Winsor & Newton pulled shipments to the US due to the Kolinsky Sable ban. Just goes to show we need to check everything from the source these days.

What We Can Do

  1. Make your voice heard. It’s time for us to start voicing our concerns to manufacturers, governments and international agencies. Speak up about safety, quality, availability and sustainability.

  2. Organize a “BRUSH OFF.” (My name—feel free to use it.) I spoke with our local art supply store about bringing our BAGSC botanical art chapter in to test various paint brushes for a nominal fee. They were enthusiastic, and it is something we will organize in the future. They don’t want to lose us as customers, and it’s expensive for each of us to test new brushes for the qualities we need as individual artists.

  3. Scour the internet and art supply stores for leftover brushes. Brick-and-mortar art stores have been allowed to sell the Kolinsky brushes they already had in inventory throughout the ban. I’ve found one or two of the last, lonely Kolinsky sable brushes in some out-of-the-way places.

  4. Let other artists know your finds. Have you discovered some new favorite brushes? Some suppliers for old favorites? Post comments to this article and let us know, or post to other online resources or publications.

The Big Picture: Green Art Supplies, Vegan Art Supplies, and Sustainability

An interesting side discussion has developed while talking about Kolinsky Sable brushes and the Siberian Weasel. Many of us didn’t realize where our brushes came from, or how they were made. Artists who wouldn’t think of wearing a fur coat are taking a second look at their supplies. There are efforts to recognize the impact of our art supplies, and artists are discussing balancing environmental and philosophical concerns against the use of synthetic materials (largely made with products derived from oil and plastic). It is worthwhile to have an ongoing debate about the responsibility, safety and sustainability of our materials. There are lots of resources on these topics—food for thought, and for another article.


There are a LOT of contributors to this article—more than I can possibly thank for sharing resources, opinions and information. It’s been a long process, and my apologies if I’ve forgotten to include your name here:

  1. Businesses and Agencies: Dick Blick, Ken Bromely Art Supplies, Mr. Craig Hoover, US Fish and Wildlife Service, NAMTA, Rosemary & Company

  2. ASBA and BAGSC members: Margaret Best, Akiko Enokido, Asuka Hishiki, Clara Josephs

  3. Facebook, Botanical Artists Group: Laura Dicus, Marilyn Garber, Kathleen Marie Garness, Vicki Lee Johnston, Jessica Rosemary Shepherd, Leslie Schramm

  4. GNSI SciArt ListServ: Karen Ackoff, Bruce Bartrug, Holly Butlett, Kathleen Marie Garness, Gail Guth, Mary Beth Hinrichs, Barry Kent MacKay, Kathleen McKeehen, Mali Moir, Lore Ruttan, Ph.D., Patricia Savage

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