Archive » Arts and Entertainment

Local artist makes brushes out of animal fur, feathers

December 16, 2021   ·   2 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

On average, in an arts supply shop, the great majority of brushes are made of synthetic material, primarily replacing hair brushes. However, Orangeville’s Sum-é artist, Roslyn Levin has been making her own brushes, since, as she told us one sunny morning this week, “In 2009 the Sum-é Artists of Canada had a joint exhibit with the American

Sum-é artists and one of the workshops was making brushes. So, I took the work shop and started making brushes.”

“This is wonderful,” she declared, “because the brushes are so strange.”

The main problem was sourcing the fur or even feathers, which pushed her to look in unexpected places. She could not get the fur and the feathers but she met a lady in Paws and Claws (the second hand shop that was a fund raiser for the local animal shelter), whose husband was making fish flies and there were fur and feathers. Then, she got goat hair from the tanned hides of the goats she had had on her goat farm.

“Then,” said she, “people began to bring me fur.”

For the handles, Dragonfly owner, Joan Hope, where Ms. Levin has a small studio, brought some applewood, old vines and knew of a chap who grows bamboo in Niagara. In the Grand River Outfitting and Fly shop in Fergus, Ms. Levin finally found a place that sells supplies for fishing flies and she could buy fur and feathers there.

“Feather can be difficult.” she admitted. “If I have the entire back of the bird, it’s easier but with individual feathers, I have to align them in order for them to come to a point.

Like a punch line about anything unruly, “There are so many ways to use them but none of them are controllable.”

Learning curves: “I had tried to make brushes years ago from goat fur and I was sneezing all the time until I learned to wet the fur. Then, they’re easier to handle.”

To assemble a brush, she takes the hairs individually. Longer hairs go on the outside, the smaller hairs in the middle so they can be rolled “sushi style.”

When a person comes to her hand stand in the shop, attracted by the poetry of her mainly black and white paintings, she tells that person that everything on her stand is made by hand.

She means it too: “The paper is handmade paper from Japan; the ink is made in Japan from various kinds of soot.”

Ms. Levin uses pine soot because she likes the tone of it on the paper. The more expensive inks are better because they are more firmly packed.

“Some come with essential oils blended in and they smell glorious. One whiff and I think, ‘Okay, I can paint now.’”

In Japan, the process for creating the soot from pine and mixing it is a matter of great labour and aging of the product.

“All the hair in brushes for oriental painting have never been cut,” she instructed us. “Almost like we would bronze the baby’s first shoe, in Japan after a baby’s first haircut, they make a brush from it but not to use.”

According to her mother’s wishes, Ms. Levin went to university which led her to a job working as a computer system analyst for the federal government. She was so unsuited to it, she suffered physically – “It nearly killed me,” she attested. “I wanted to go to OCAD but my mother insisted I [do something practical].

“Now, I make a very nice living and I do work hard. I’m in Dragonfly every day in December.”

Back to brushes. 

Wild mountain horses, bears, one brush made from a rat’s hair, hair from a wolf, a badger, moose hair, polar bear, possum, the beard from a turkey that had recently died on the farm of the gentleman who brought it to her; skunk! Whew. 

When using a fur or feather brush, we were advised to paint with Japanese ink, water colours but not acrylic. Never use soap to clean them. Use water based paints but not plastic.

She told the story: “One day I was driving and saw a dead squirrel on the road. I called my husband and asked him if he could come down it fetch it and put it in the freezer … People give me birds that hit their windscreens,” explaining the technique simply: “cut [the hair] at the base but the top is not cut or it would spoil the tip.”

Personality. We were warned the brushes are very uncontrollable: “You have to move slowly – you have to follow the inclination of the brush and it may not align with the rest of the painting. One little hair might make a fine line up the side of the picture. You may have change what you’re painting if the brush decides to change it.”

They each have a personality.

So much so that Ms. Levin said, “I don’t go out of my way to sell my brushes because I love them all.”

All such wonderful thoughts. Delightful.

Bluntly, we asked: What is the magic? But Roslyn Levin who has been painting Sum-é for decades was ready.

“The unexpected. I’ll use my hand made brushes for calligraphy – you don’t quite know what’s going to happen and you have to follow the inclination of the brush.”

Even with something as demanding as Japanese calligraphy. Still, she had an answer for that too.

She explained, “Because I have won so many awards for my calligraphy [in competitions in Japan], I am given a lot of leeway. I watch people sometimes here at Dragonfly. I’m sitting at my desk watching people and they look at me and they say, ‘You did this?’ 

“And I just say, ‘Yes.’”

Readers Comments (2)

  1. Ruth MacDonald says:

    Your work is amazing. I would love to take one of your classes. I love love love your brushes and your art.
    Just sending a card of yours to my niece. Newborn my niece works for Holstein canada

  2. Roslyn Levin says:

    Thank you Constance! I will share this on my FB ArtByRoslyn site.


Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.