Shannon Fennell's Blog

My life, cooking, make-up, travel, art and the occasional rant!

brushes and sponges

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Brushes and sponges are the tools of the trade in face painting and in make-up artistry too!  But there are differences in what works best for face paints aka water activated/based cosmetic products and what works best for oil based make-up and dry products.

As a make-up artist I have a very large collection of make-up brushes – many are M.A.C. brand simply because as a student and now as a pro I am a member of M.A.C.’s PPID professional discount program.  They are expensive and very good!  Most of my make-up brushes are 12+ years old and still in fantastic shape (with a few exceptions.)  These brushes are meant for use with loose powders, pressed powders, some for use with oil based foundations and almost all are made from natural hair – sable, goat, pony, etc.  Not many, however, work with the water activated make-up.

This link is to the M.A.C. brushes:

For the water activated make-up I use regular artist’s brushes – mainly those meant for working with water colours.  They were created to work with water and therefore hold the colours and the water and let you work and shape the bristles the way you want.  Brushes designed for make-up application won’t let you control them that way as they are meant to apply dry products or for applying for coverage, not detail work.

I buy most of my “face painting” brushes at art supply or big box craft stores – where I live the store where I buy most of my brushes is Michael’s.  I like using round sables: #2 for detail work and small dots, #4 for lines and almost anything, #6 for stripes, drops,  and just about anything.  I also use synthetic medium filberts/cat’s tongues (#8 filbert), 1/4″ angle brushes and a 1″ flat brush for some type of designs. 

There is a difference between natural fibre brushes and synthetic brushes.  Natural hair tends to hold water better and lets you load brushes up very well, and synthetic brushes have more snap and can often last longer.  You will have to try them to figure out what you like and works best for you.

I have quite a collection of brushes though and sometimes experiment with different styles and shapes.  Deerfoot are interesting brushes, so are rake or wisps, daggers and riggers, and fan brushes also have their uses.

Some different brushes and what they can do

Some different brushes and what they can do

When you start out face painting you won’t typically get the best results with any brush no matter how other artists can make it work!  There is a learning curve to using any tool and you will need to practise to get any technique to work for you.  It took me about two years to finally “get it” so don’t be discouraged if what you have doesn’t seem to be working right!

I have found, however, that with brushes it is a case of “you get what you pay for.”  The more expensive brushes to tend to be better made and of better quality and last longer than cheap brushes.  There are excellent brushes in the less expensive lines though, and with proper care and cleaning they can last a very long time.

I do have brushes that are branded by the various face paint manufacturers – Snazaroo, Fantasy Worldwide, Paradise/Mehron… but, most of these are equivalent to art brushes that can be found anywhere.  Sure, the companies have chosen styles and sizes that work best for face painting, but the brushes themselves were not specifically designed for the purpose.

Sponges for make-up and for face painting also have their differences.

 Typical “make-up” sponges are latex or non-latex rubber-like foam and they are very dense and absorbent.  These sponges are usually sold in bags of wedges, often in blocks that you tear apart.  They are meant to be used with oil based foundations and make-up – they absorb the excess oils in the products allowing the pigments in the make-up to stay on the skin without the oil staying as well.  They do not work well with water as they suck up the water completely and leave no moisture to work with.

For face painting the best sponges are of high density foam and of a soft but firm texture.  My personal opinion is that a sponge is a sponge is a sponge!  It doesn’t matter where you find your sponges as long as they do the job they need to! 

There is no manufacturer of high density foam or foam rubber that only manufactures “face painting” sponges – all sponges and foam products like packing foam, mattress foam, etc. come from the same factories.  Then another company will cut it and package it for whatever purpose their customers want.  There are different types of foam – some are soft and squishy, some are porous and rough, some are dense and stiff… and they all have their uses.  Just make sure to wash any sponges you acquire before using them to apply make-up of any description.

I like tack sponges (round disks sold for cleaning leather – typically found at feed & tack stores selling saddles and other equestrian supplies).  Here is a link to a photo of what they look like (note I DO NOT buy from this site but the photo is of the exact sponges)

The cost is about half of what the prices of sponges that are being sold as “face painting sponges” is.  Add to that how long they last!  My original purchase of tack sponges are still in use 8 years later and they look as good as new.

They are a bit firmer than the typical face painting sponge but still, they are sponges therefore are soft by definition.  I like the extra firm texture as it allows me to work clean – the paint does not squeeze through or get on my hands when I am holding and pressing on the sponge.

Another sponge I love is those large car wash sponges that are shaped like a big peanut.  They are usually sold where you would find any car care products.  Cut the sponges up into the size and shape you prefer – I like fist sized chunks for body painting and smaller wedges for face painting.  You can use an electric knife or a large pair of shears to cut them.  The sponges are very dense and very soft and work really well with the water activated products.  Once you have cut the sponge into pieces your cost per sponge will be pennies!

Try out various sponges to see what you like.  Buy some at the dollar store and see if they work for you – it will only cost you a dollar or two and you might just find the perfect sponge for how you like to work.


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