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[I’ll be away on vacation for a short while. Look for my next post in October. Thanks!]

One of the things I like most about decorative painting are the paint brushes. They’re made for every purpose, some designed specifically for certain effects, others so versatile that they can make a wide variety of marks. Here’s my work desk, crammed with cans of chip brushes, fine brushes, stir sticks and a slew of other tools.

When I was in art school about 25 years ago, I received one of my grandfather’s brushes. I don’t remember how it came into my possession, but it’s been with me ever since. It’s huge, with a giant pouff of soft hair.

When I established my business in 1999, I knew that my grandfather and great-grandfather were painters, but I didn’t know that I was a fifth generation painter. I began to get an inkling of the family history when I visited Germany in 2000 for my grandmother’s 90th birthday.

I stopped in to visit my dad’s cousin, Karl Heinz. He said, “Well, if you’re going to continue the family business, there are a few things I need to give you,” and down into the musty old basement we went. Out came a canvas bag full of painting supplies: stipple brushes, boxes of silver leaf, gilding tips, wonderful old brushes with polished wooden handles, metallic powders and hundred of brush tips. Here’s a sample of the bounty. I’ve placed a pencil in the photos for a sense of scale.

I love these old brushes with their wire-wrapped handles.

Although I’ve used a couple of the wire-wrapped brushes for gold leafing, generally I don’t use these brushes at all. They’re more precious to me as keepsakes from my family than they are as tools.

The triple-headed brush on the right is probably for marbling. It has seen better days! Although many of these brushes have been used, the bristles are meticulously clean.

These two brushes are for wood graining, but unfortunately the one on the left is missing one of its heads.

This is a gigantic stipple brush, unused, from its original box. I can’t imagine working with a stipple brush this large — you’d have arm cramps in about ten minutes.

Here comes the avalanche of brushes! I have dozens upon dozens of these brush tips. Each fits into a holder, which I don’t have. I’m not sure what these brushes are for; my instinct is to say for lettering, but if you have other ideas, I’m all ears.

Many of the brush tips were carefully folded inside paper and packed into old cigarette tins.

Another little tin, and a whole variety of brush sizes. It was probably cheaper to buy brush tips than it was to buy an entire brush. Because there are so many tips, it makes me think that they were for one-time use. Otherwise, why have so many? Almost all of them are unused.

When I look at some of the oldest brushes with their weathered handles and little splotches of paint, with their taped up necks and exhausted bristles, I wonder where they spent their days and what has happened to the art they helped create. I think of how far they’ve traveled, from the basement of a house in Bavaria across an ocean to an apartment in New York, that they were purchased to do a job and are now sheltered in old glass jars and little metal tins, retired and admired.

And I think of how odd it is that I became a painter just like my relatives; I decided that a dying profession was the place for me without even knowing the extent of the family history. In the blood? Destiny? Strange coincidence? It remains a mystery.

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