When I first started doing makeup, I bought cheap drugstore brushes. Probably most people do that. Some of the brushes, like the REAL TECHNIQUES brand, are quite decent; others are pretty bad. The biggest problem with drugstore brushes is that they are good for applying creams and gels, but suck at eyeshadow and powder application. So everything looks nice until the beginner does their eye makeup. Not knowing any better, the budding makeup artist blames themselves for the patchy and uneven eye shadow application when the real culprit is the brush.
Brush technique comes from proper instruction, practice, experiment, and above all, by watching people who are better at makeup than you are. Even if it could be taught in an article, there's not enough room here. But I do have a few suggestions.
People often wonder what brush they should choose. Choosing the right brush is essential, but it's even more important to let the brush do the work. Many (maybe most) people use way too much pressure, making all brushes act and look the same. If you press too hard every brush turns into a blob. You need surprisingly little pressure, and when you find just the right amount, you'll see the brush begin to express itself. Watch the line it draws and decide for yourself whether or not that's the line you want to create. Do this enough times and with enough different brushes, and you'll soon find that you're an expert.
When applying shadow, it's natural to dip your brush into shadow and then wipe it on to your face with a dusting moton. That's not the best way to go about it. Apply the shadow by gently pressing it into the skin with a light patting motion. Save the dusting motions for cleaning your house.
You've probably heard that blending is essential. It is, but I rarely see people blend with proper technique. Keep your blending brush clean, and never use it to apply product. Instead, apply the makeup with your chosen brush, then immediately blend with your nice, clean, fluffy brush. If you need to blend an area much smaller than your blending brush, clean off the application brush first and then reuse it. However you do it, the principle remains the same: The best blends come from a product free brush.
Finding Good Brushes
My first excellent brushes were made by Robert Jones Beauty. Robert was my primary makeup teacher. He is a wonderful teacher and a fantastic makeup artist. I bought his brushes (gasping a bit at their price) a few at a time because I wanted my makeup to turn-out like his. That's when I learned that not only do you need good brushes, you also need knowledge and lots of practice. But I still remember the first time I applied shadow with a real sable brush - what a difference just using the right brush made!
I've learned a lot about brushes since then and added more than a few to my collection. Still, Robert's brushes remained my favorites until the ones from ESUM stole my heart. The ESUM brushes were designed by Alphonse Wiebelt, also a fantastic makeup artist. He learned his craft by working with Kevin Aucoin, who is my favorite makeup artist. It is certainly no surprise to discover that the best brushes seem to be made by practicing makeup artists rather than faceless national conglomerates.
Brushes are made from both synthetic and animal hair. There is currently a lot of pressure for people to use synthetic brushes, which are viewed as kinder to animals than natural hair brushes. I love animals and hate me if you must, but I have yet to try a synthetic brush that does as good a job with eyeshadows as a natural hair brush. There is simply no comparison.
Just because we use natural hair brushes doesn't mean we have to be monsters. No animal dies just to make an ESUM brush. The hair either comes from shaving animals or it comes from animals who would have died anyway.
The ESUM Natural Hair Brushes
The care ESUM uses in selecting its raw materials is extraordinary. In addition to being responsibly sourced, all of the hair used by ESUM is grade A, first cut, virgin hair, the highest quality that you can get. ESUM insists on specific breeds. They also specify the precise place on the animal they want the hair to come from. This ensures quality and helps keep the brushes consistent from one manufacturing run to the next. Should you need to replace your current ESUM brush in a year or two, you can be sure that the next one will be similar to the one you are using today.
Why Natural Hair is Better for Some Things
Natural hair works better for powder because it has a cuticle layer. Cuticles are little scales that occur naturally during hair growth. They give a rough surface that holds onto loose shadows and powders. Artificial hair, such as the Taklon fiber used in ESUM's (and most others) makeup brushes is an utterly smooth cylinder. Here's a magnified picture of goat hair and Taklon:
The only way they've found so far to get Taklon to hold onto powder is to curl it (like the artificial hair in a wig). The hope is that the curves in the hair will hold on to the shadow better. It does work better than uncurled fiber, but does not come close to natural hair brushes.
Every animal species has a unique cuticle layer, and every unique cuticle layer has a different effect on makeup. Here are some drawings of some typical types:
ESUM uses different kinds of hair in their brushes, so you can get different types of effects. For example, sable hair (weasel) has a very open cuticle and efficiently gathers up and deposits shadows. Extra fine goat hair has a much finer-grained cuticle, and its application will be sheerer. You can tell which animal the hair came from by the brush's identifier. Each brush is given a letter and a number. The letter refers to the animal the hair comes from. Here's a chart of the different animal hairs used, the code, and what they are best at:
To get an idea of what differences the hair makes, let's look at two otherwise similar brushes, the large sable contouring brush and the medium soft goat contouring brush:
The S33 (soft goat) brush has a very fine cuticle. This brush shape is sometimes called "the windshield wiper" brush, because you often use it that way to apply shadows. It's very much like a watercolor brush and has a very fluid feel to it. It will lay down an even but very sheer and light coating of powder.
By contrast, the W35 sable brush has a much more open cuticle, which holds much more powder and will deposit it well. It's a much sturdier brush hair. To experience this, you can try a "whip and snap" test: Take the S33 brush and hold it upright in one hand. Then take the index finger of your other hand and move it through the hairs. As you move the finger through the strands, they will bend (this is called the whip), and then, when the finger has pushed all the way through the hair, they will rebound back (this is called the snap). Now do the same whip and snap test with the W35 Sable brush. You will notice a dramatic difference as the sable brush is much sturdier and snaps back with much more energy.
The soft goat hair of the S33 brush is the sort of hair that they use for art brushes with only four hairs that are so expensive that they lock them up in cabinets at the art store. Suppose you were using the S33 brush for something other than makeup. In that case, you might use it to paint some delicate eyelashes on a painting or as a fine line detailing brush for acrylic makeup. As a makeup brush, it will apply shadow beautifully, but it will be quite sheer.
But as makeup artists, that W35 sable brush will be with you all the way as you execute that smokey eye, winged eyeliner, or signature red lip. It won't fan out or spread as you use it. It's not surprising that Sable brushes are a staple of every natural hair makeup brush sets.
When you use natural hair brushes, it is quite common for them to lose a few stray hairs when you first start using them. It should be only a few and stop pretty quick. If it continues, you should call the manufacturer. Before you do that, make sure you are not causing these problems by mishandling the brush. For example, the X51 brush is one of the more delicate brushes:
If it is losing a lot of hair, carefully open the hair with your hand, so one half is on each side of the brush. Look closely at the inside of the brush. If you see many short hairs, you are probably using the brush too aggressively and causing the hairs to break. Many people really grind on blush and bronzer, using a lot of pressure on their brush. If you like to do this, then don't use a brush like the X51. Instead, choose a more compact, domed brush for that kind of application technique.
Adequately taken care of, natural hair brushes will last a very, very long time.
Here are pictures of a few of the brushes. All the classic shapes are included, along with a few new interesting ones. This is only a few samples - the entire ESUM brush set contains 33 brushes!
I particularly like the T11 Mascara wand brush. It is actually made out of two kinds of hair: Stiff nylon at the base (similar to the usual mascara wands) and Taklon fiber on top. This a fantastic brush for applying mascara to both top and bottom lashes. It is effortless to blend natural lashes with false ones using this brush.
These brushes are unusually sturdy. Sturdiness is a plus, but the brushes are unusually heavy. You might find these brushes too heavy to carry around in your purse. This is mostly because of the ferrule, which is solid brass. This is unique; most brushes have aluminum or plastic ferrules. And it does a fantastic job of holding the brush shape.
The handles are made from oil-cured birchwood. This is also a very responsible choice of material and the oil curing makes sure that the wood is resistant to expanding and contracting when it gets wet.
Each brush is built with a "knuckle," which makes it very comfortable to hold, and the brushes are perfectly balanced. Many of the handles are on the long side. This is good for doing makeup on clients because clients tend to not like it when you have your hand right in their faces. It can be a bit awkward when you are doing your own makeup and want to get close to the mirror. The handle can get in the way in that case. But if you use a magnifying mirror, that should not be an issue.
As hair grows, it is natural for it to lose a bit of keratin. This causes the hair's ends to become slightly tapered and naturally soft - desirable features in a brush. Unfortunately, most brushes are machine-made, and the brush heads are shaped by cutting them. This removes the soft tip and replaces it with a hard edge, which can hurt the skin and cause breakouts.
All of the ESUM brushes are handmade. The craftsman gathers the proper amount of hair to make the head and places it upside down in a hand-carved mold. The hair is then hand-tied and removed from the mold. A special tool is then used to groom the brush and remove any excess hair. If the brush needs additional shaping, the hair is not cut. Instead, it is adjusted from the bottom of the brush until the shape is correct. It is never necessary to cut the tips using this method. The hair is not dyed. It is left in its natural state for maximum softness.
To clean natural hair brushes while you work, I recommend spraying a cloth or paper towel with the cleaner of your choice (my favorite is Japonesque) and then gently wiping the brush hair from the base of the hair to the tip. Spraying the cloth instead of the hair avoids the risk of getting any cleaner down inside the ferrule, which could weaken the glue and cause the brush to fall apart.
I do not recommend using brush cleaner on any synthetic brush. These cleaners all contain alcohol, which causes synthetic hair to get brittle or melted. If you need to clean your synthetic brushes between clients, just shampoo them as you would at the end of the day. Being synthetic, they will dry quickly.
Shampoo your brushes at the end of your work day. For natural brushes, I like to use solid brush cleaners; Japonesque makes a nice one. But any mild bar soap with no fragrance will work. You can also use mild hair shampoo, but avoid baby shampoo, which is very acidic. For the synthetic hair, I use Dawn dishwashing soap.
Hold the brush upside down (hair pointing down) and place only the hair under running water, never the handle or the ferrule. It is crucial to avoid getting water inside the ferrule. That will weaken the glue and make your brush fall apart. After wetting the brush carefully, swirl it on the sold cleanser, then massage and lather it with your fingers or a slightly rough silicon brush mat. Then rinse the soap out, blot it dry, and comb it gently. The ESUM 13 Styling tool is perfect for this. If you have an antibacterial spray, you can use it now. Then lay the brush down flat on a towel. Never put a wet brush in a storage cup, you will dramatically reduce the life of your brush if you do
One of the best accessories for these brushes is the included brush guards. I wish more brushes came with these. Brushes need to be reshaped while wet, and the guards help a lot. Just squeeze out the water from the brush with your hand, shaping it as you do so, then slide the guard onto the brush. Incidentally, as you use the brushes, they will "bloom" a bit. This is both natural and desirable.
Some people use hair conditioner on brushes. This is a bad idea since conditioner works by coating the hair. It will just cover the cuticle, which will limit the brushes effectiveness.
Comparison with Other Brushes
The ESUM brushes are extraordinary. Among the brushes that I own, the only serious competition is from Robert Jones' Brushes. Some of Robert's brushes are not quite as soft as the ESUM set. Perhaps the hair isn't as good, or maybe the brushes have been shaped by cutting them. Robert's brushes (like most makeup brush sets) contain only Sable and synthetic brushes. Having experienced the variety of hair in the ESUM brushes, I miss that in Robert's.
There are many more brushes in the ESUM set, with more shapes and sizes. I wouldn't rate this difference as very important. The additional brushes are nice to have, but I could live without them. Meanwhile, Robert's brush number 41 and his big fluffy blending brush number 28 don't really have equivalents in the ESUM brush set, so I still use both of these quite a lot.
I also own quite a few MAC brushes. I love MAC, and as you know, I am a MAC pro artist. I'm sorry to say that I have never really been blown away by their brushes. Now that they do not make any natural hair brushes, the situation is even worse. But even their natural hair brushes were not that special, with their cut ends and dyed hair. The MAC brushes really lack the master makeup artist's personal touch. Above all, that's what makes Robert's or the ESUM sets so special. And MAC brushes are not particularly inexpensive, although they should be. Their price point is about midway between the Robert Jones' brushes and the ESUM set.
The only real problem with the ESUM brushes is the price. Their quality is beyond compare. They have the most beautiful hair, fantastic handles, and gorgeous ferrules. Everything is hand made with exquisite craftsmanship. They are marvelous brushes. I love them. Unfortunately, you have to pay for excellence, and this much excellence comes at a high price. You can buy a few at a time, and most people won't need the entire set. They also go on sale from time to time. So if you have money, patience, or just someone who loves you so much, they will give them to you, the ESUM brushes are my top recommendation: ESUM Brushes Website
On the other hand, if you want a wonderfully usable set of brushes, well thought out and beautifully made without spending an enormous amount of money, then the Robert Jones' Brushes are the ones for you.
I hope you found this interesting. Even if you don't buy the ESUM brushes, it's good to learn about some really classy and wonderful products! As always, questions, comments or anything friendly can be sent to me on Twitter