It can, indeed, be a bit overwhelming when you're just getting started, and the up-front costs are substantial as well. While you can build up your assortment of paints over time, you'll need a decent number to get you started, along with at least a few different brushes.
Since a craftsman is only as good as his tools, I believe that good brushes, as your paint-delivery-system, are of paramount importance in getting the most out of your miniatures. It is all well and good to understand the techniques of painting, but if you can't apply the paint exactly where and how you want it, they won't do you any good.
Brushes come in a wide range of prices and qualities, from cheap craft brushes that cost a few dollars apiece to Kolinsky Sable brushes that run from twenty-five to thirty-five dollars each. My advice here is simple: you get what you pay for, so buy the best brushes that you are able to afford. The cheapest craft brushes, like the kind you can buy at Michael's may seem like a good deal, but they aren't; they will wear out very quickly and need to be replaced so often that your 'savings' will evaporate rather quickly.
What you want for painting miniatures are round tip water colour brushes. These are commonly available with synthetic bristles, synthetic/sable blends (also known as 'gold sable'), and natural hair bristles (e.g. Kolinsky Sable). I have brushes of all three types, and each has its uses.
Kolinsky Sable Brushes
Kolinsky Sable brushes are made from the tail hair from the winter coat of the Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica). They are the finest art brushes made and are superior to all other natural or synthetic bristles. Because they don't breed well in captivity, the tail hair is widely-sought and, therefore, expensive. But boy, oh boy, once you try painting with one you will know where your money went. The fineness of the tips are unparalleled and allow you precise control and superior handling. Upgrading to one of these fine brushes will elevate your painting to a new level and if you are serious about painting and can afford it, I strongly recommend purchasing at least one Kolinsky Sable brush for detail work at least. They are also the most durable of bristles and, properly cared for, a Kolinsky Sable brush will outlast any other type of brush, serving you for years to come.
I use Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes, mainly because they are the Kolinsky Sable brushes most readily available in Canada. Another popular choice among serious miniature painters are Raphael 8404's, which I have long wanted to try, but have not been able to find in Canada and when I recently tried ordering some from the online retailer DickBlick.com I discovered that, due to U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations, natural hair brushes cannot be shipped out of the U.S.A.
|Winsor & Newton Series 7 pointed rounds|
Synthetic and 'Gold Sable' Brushes
Brushes with synthetic bristles or synthetic/sable blends (gold sable) are much less expensive than Kolinsky Sable brushes and can be had for less than ten dollars per brush. Synthetic brushes are the least expensive, and I have a set of Grumbacher Goldenedge 4620 rounds that I use for base-coating, washing, and metallic paints that I don't want to subject my Winsor & Newtons to. At about five dollars per brush, the Grumbachers offer decent value and last me about a year before needing replacement. The Grumbacher Goldenedge bristles are made from Taklon fibre which is fairly durable and handles well, with a nice spring to it. All synthetic brushes will develop a hook at the tip after a while and, assuming you paint with them regularly, a year is about the best you can hope for from them before the tip either hooks or separates.
Gold sable brushes contain mostly synthetic bristles with some sable mixed in. They are relatively inexpensive, running about eight to ten dollars per brush and are often advertised as having the same performance as pure sable. They don't. They are also presumed to be more durable than synthetic, but the gold sable brushes I've tried haven't lasted any longer than the synthetics, so I'm not convinced that they are worth the extra cost. Citadel paint brushes sold by Games Workshop, that many painters use, are synthetic/sable blends. GW calls them Kolinsky Sable brushes, but this is outright prevarication. Citadel brushes aren't horrible, as far as sythetic/sable blends go, and I believe that they are actually manufactured by Winsor & Newton, but Kolinsky Sable brushes they most definitely are not, and buyers should be aware that are not getting what is advertised.
Care and Feeding of Brushes
Not even the best brushes will last long if they aren't cared for, and whether you've bought a set of synthetic brushes or Kolinsky Sables, you'll want to prolong their lifespan by taking good care of them. Here are a few tips to keep your brushes in top form:
1. Never leave them resting on their bristles in the water pot (this should go without saying).
2. Rinse them out frequently while you are painting. This prevents paint from drying on the bristles.
3. Avoid getting paint in the ferrule. To prevent this, dip only the tip of your brush in the paint. Once paint drys in the ferrule you'll need to plan a trip to your art supply store for a new brush.
4. After your painting session wash your brushes thoroughly in cool water (never hot water) and reshape the point before putting them away.
5. Every now and again give your brushes a good washing with brush soap. I use The Master's Brush Cleaner. Don't use hand or dish soap on natural hair brushes, it will strip the oils from the bristles and destroy their suppleness.
What Sizes of Brush Should You Use?
This is a commonly-asked question and you will rarely need a smaller brush than a 00 or larger than a #2. There will be one brush size that you prefer to do most of your painting with, but there is no conformity of size within the industry and one company's #1 will not be the same size as another company's #1.
The picture above shows three of my brushes. The one on the left is a Winsor & Newton Series 7 #2, the red-handled brush in the middle is a Grumbacher Goldenedge #2, and the one on the right is a Winsor & Newton Series 7 #1. You can see that the Grumbacher #2 is about the same size as a Winsor & Newton #1. You should also be able to see the points on the Grumbacher and the W&N brushes. I've used the W&N #1 far more than I've ever used the Grumbacher #2, but the point of the Kolinsky Sable is still pin-point sharp whereas the tip of the synthetic is not nearly so fine.
I do most of my painting with the Winsor & Newton #1; it has a large holding capacity and very fine point so I can paint both large areas and fine details with this one brush. I use the W&N #2 mainly for big miniatures and large surface areas. I also have a W&N 00 that I use for very fine details, such as eyes and the precision of its point allows me to paint pupils inside of irises and a light-spot across the pupil-iris boundary. Some people like even smaller brushes, like a 000, but they hold so little paint that I can't see much use for them. Ultimately, you'll have to decide for yourself what size of brush suits you best, but if you get a 00, 0, 1, and 2 you'll be well-set for any type of painting you want to do.
Where Should I Buy My Brushes?
I think part of the reason that so many people use Citadel brushes is that they are sold in most game stores where you buy your paints and miniatures. But an art supply store is a better source for quality brushes at reasonable prices. You can also buy brushes from many on-line retailers, including Amazon, and they often sell them for much less than you will pay in a brick and mortar store. Indeed, DickBlick.com sells its brushes for about half the listed retail rate. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind about buying brushes online: firstly, you can't examine the brush before you buy it, and this is important particularly if you are purchasing an expensive brush. You always want to give it a good look-over to check the point and look for bent bristles. If you order from an online retailer you are stuck with what they send you. Another reason to beware buying online is that, as I mentioned above, sizes vary greatly among companies and, because brushes are hand-made, sizes can vary even within companies. So you are often better off buying the brush personally so you can make sure that it is the size you want.
That about covers it. The advice given here is based on my own experience, and I don't claim any special expertise. Nonetheless, I do strongly feel that you should always buy the best quality brush that you can afford. I've seen many people advise new painters to just buy cheap craft store brushes to start, but if you are serious about painting I think a good brush should be one of the first things you buy. There is quite a learning-curve to painting, but starting out with the right tools will make that curve a little less steep.