The Mystery of the Missing Sables

When I was 14, I was introduced to Elmer Woggon. Elmer was a comic strip artist and he introduced me to the wonders of the kolinsky sable brush. From that point on, I always had a kolinsky around. Now, I find that harder and harder to do.

Throughout the United States, artists have begun to realize the scarcity of kolinsky fine art brushes.
Are kolinsky brushes the next endangered species?

Throughout the United States, artists have begun to realize the scarcity of kolinsky fine art brushes. In fact, they may not be available for the foreseeable future. Finding a solution to the problem will take international cooperation. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) plays a major role in this issue. The 178-nation CITES treaty governs the import and export of kolinsky hairs.

The Problem
There is a tug of war between the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the authorities of the European Union and the United Kingdom.

In America, the FWS is responsible for the enforcement of CITES regulations. Two years ago, the FWS found some shipments of kolinsky hairs that did not have proper CITES documentation. The FWS is now requiring CITES documentation regarding the sources of all kolinsky hairs imported to the U.S. The FWS has prevented-and in some cases confiscated-shipments that for decades have been compliant with CITES.

However, European Union authorities do not agree with the FWS interpretation of CITES regulations. The EU believes the documentation in question was in full compliance with CITES. At present, the issue is at an impasse and no solution is imminent.

The Irony
CITES is concerned with protecting endangered species. The kolinsky sable is usually called a sable brush but it is not made of sable. It is made from the hairs of a Russian weasel, the Mustela sibirica. The Mustela sibirica is not an endangered species. Rather, the IUCA Red List of species tags it with a rating of “LC”, least concerned with extinction. It goes on to state, “…there are no known threats to this species.” However, the Mustela sibirica is listed as an Appendix III species on CITES, which means it is “lightly regulated.”

All of this revolves around a sable brush that is not really made of sable and an endangered species that isn’t really endangered.

The Rainbow
There has been a lot of time and money invested in the research and development for a true synthetic sable brush. One source reports that they are very close and that the brush could be available as early as this summer. in the meantime, treat your sable brushes with all the loving care they deserve. Your old kolinsky brushes may become the next endangered species.

–Paul Sullivan

I want to acknowledge the help of many sources in the research for this report. Among them are:
Rosemary Thompson, Rosemary and Co.
The Product Information Department of Blick Art Materials
The International Art Materials Association, “Kolinsky update”
Brian Dubberly of Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff


Related Posts:


The Artist's Life Blog
Paul Sullivan

About Paul Sullivan

After a long career in advertising art, Paul Sullivan is now a full-time watercolor artist. A graduate of the University of Toledo and the Toledo Museum School of Design, Paul has a BA in Fine Art. He is a Silver Signature Member of the Arizona Watercolor Association and a Signature Member of both the Pennsylvania Watercolor Society and the Watercolor Society of Alabama. Paul's work has been featured in exhibitions throughout the U.S. and in China. Visit his website → View all posts by Paul Sullivan →

16 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Missing Sables

  1. I love my Kolinsky brushes. And my red sable and my mongoose. And have not found any synthetic that comes anywhere close to them. So, as the saying goes, “they can take my brushes when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers.” 🙂

  2. i have often wondered how the fur of animals are procured.
    trapping? shooting?
    i am an animal lover/vegetarian and it does bother me.
    i would be very excited about a good synthetic brush from sable/squirrel/wolf and etc.

  3. I have one old sable brush that was given to me from my grandfather 50 years ago. He had it for at least 20, and even though it has lost it’s point and several hairs, I still use it from time to time. But I will not buy one now. I feel it is extremely irresponsible and cruel to kill or maim an animal, so that I can paint a picture. I don’t care if its squirrel or any other “least concerned with extinction” animal. We humans have done enough damage to all the other animals, that at one time were “least concerned with extinction”, and are now endangered. I wonder if all the artists, who have to have natural hair brushes, would feel the same if they actually saw what is done to the animals the hair comes from.
    There are many perfectly fine synthetic brushes that can be used and hopefully the synthetic that the author is speaking of can fulfill the desire of the animal hair fanatics.

  4. “in the meantime, treat your sable brushes with all the loving care they deserve. Your old kolinsky brushes may become the next endangered species.”
    REALLY? The BRUSHES deserve loving care? NO, they do not– the animals who were tortured and killed so their hair could be stolen to make a stupid brush should be treated with loving care.
    A brush is an endangered species? NO–the animals who were killed so they could be robbed of their hair are endangered species.
    The exploitation of animals is in not syncretic with the spirit of the creation of art. To exploit, torture and murder the innocent and defenseless is antithetical to the creation of beauty and harmony.
    Get high quality synthetic brushes and move on. If your art is good, it won’t be the microcosmic difference in the hair of your brush that will make the difference, but rather the quality of the passion and COMPASSION with which you imbue your work.

  5. I, too, still have a kolinsky brush left over from college days. these are the ones that were bought with saved-up spare change. there is nothing that compares to working with natural materials. nothing. while I respect the viewpoints of those who choose not to use natural fibers, I hope that they, in turn, will respect the choices of those who do.

  6. While I love my old Kolinsky, I would never buy another one nor do I buy any brushes made with real fur. It’s bothered me for over 30 years and as a Retired Veterinary Technician, I cannot buy something that any animal was killed for just to further a hobby (or even if it was my living).

    While I won’t say anything about those that do use them and “assume” things without knowing, I emplore you to look deeper and further into these matters, because yes, they DO matter. Their lives matter as do ours.

    This website says it all:

  7. @marbydonna: your quote:

    “while I respect the viewpoints of those who choose not to use natural fibers, I hope that they, in turn, will respect the choices of those who do.”
    NO—WE DO NOT. You are not talking about respecting someone’s choice to drive a blue car instead of a red one, or to eat banana ice cream instead of vanilla; you are asking someone to respect your choice to exploit, torture and murder an animal? The animal doesn’t have a choice, does it?
    What an ABSURDITY–to ask someone to RESPECT that!

  8. Fellow Artists—

    It is good that many of you have had the opportunity to express your feelings about natural brushes. It should be noted that, to some extent, many of your concerns are championed internationally by CITES and nationally by FWS.

    In a few weeks I plan to open a thread as a follow up to this blog. Perhaps at that time the many parts of this issue can be discussed in depth.


  9. I stopped using natural fur brushes a long time ago. The expense and the fact I am a mixed media artist and rough on brushes just did not make it a sane choice.

    I also see no sane reason to kill one work of living nature art to create a non-living facsimile.

  10. Synthetic all the way!

    I very much doubt the fur of these animals is gathered humanely, especially for any sort of mass production. I’ve already read awful news about how rabbit fur is ripped right off living rabbits, leaving them bleeding and in shock. Mink fur, used for faux lashes, is NOT gently brushed from their bodies and they don’t like being locked up in little cages to facilitate this harvesting either.

    No matter which way you slice it, it’s just not humane. No slight benefit to my artistic convenience could make this cruelty worthwhile. I don’t begrudge anyone using old brushes but I don’t feel happy about any new ones being made.

  11. No one needs to kill animals in order to paint well. Some of the best artist I know use only synthetic brushes – and they are well known successful artist. What arrogance for anyone to think their art is worth killing animals. In a world where people make kind, non-egocentric humane choices there would be no natural hair brushes. Do something good and use synthetic brushes.