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Watercolour Brushes Guide

Like most things when purchasing any sort of art supplies, there are a multitude of watercolor brushes to choose from.

It's dead easy to spend a lot of money, buy a lot of brushes, but still not end up with the best for your particular requirements.

Maybe you're not a painter yourself but you've a relative or friend who is just starting out and you want to buy some brushes as a gift...?

What we're going to look at are some basic facts, so hopefully you'll spend a lot less but get watercolor brushes that are right for you (or your friend!)

Better still, buying the right items at the outset will mean those brushes can give years of good service, even when other brushes are added in the future.

The Number 1 Secret to Improving Your Artwork

By the way, it's good to know that in this age of mass-production, most watercolor brushes are hand-made, even at the cheaper end of the scale.

Thus what you are paying for is traditional craftsmanship and a fairly labor-intensive production technique.

To make it easy to follow, we'll go through the following four simple stages...

How the various materials that watercolor brushes are made from, affect price and technique.

The different shapes and what effects they produce on your watercolor paper.

The way brush sizes will affect your painting style.

Finally, some suggestions for a starter kit of watercolor brushes that you can build on as your painting progresses.

Watercolor Brush Materials

You have a choice of hairs (filaments) used in brushes - natural and synthetic. Natural fibers are used from a variety of animals including squirrel, ox, goat and others, with the most expensive, sable and mink.

This is achieved as a by-product of the food & fur industry and animals aren't killed just to satisfy the needs of artists.

Natural hairs are more expensive than synthetic and if you want to get the best of the very best, then you're looking at the tail hairs of the Sable marten, a close relative of the mink.

Watercolor brushes using this hair are described as Kolinsky Sable and you can easily pay ten times the price of a synthetic equivalent due to the relative scarcity of supply.

However, the brushes are a masterpiece of hand-made craftsmanship and the hairs are tremendously strong and resilient.

If this is out of your price range, look out for sable brushes that may use a slightly lower quality hair. These are still first-rate watercolor brushes, considerably cheaper than the top of the range, but still quite a bit more expensive than synthetics.

Properly looked after, you will, literally, get a lifetime's use out of good quality watercolor brushes.

The main advantage of all natural hair is that it contains microscopic ridges along its length, which helps to hold a greater amount of watercolor paints. The more expensive hair types also have an unrivalled 'spring' that returns the brush it to its natural shape and in the round versions, maintains a superb point for years.

Your painting will also 'flow' better as you have to recharge your brush less often. This can impart a subtle, but important benefit to your painting technique.

If you're confident that one or two sweeps of the brush will cover the area you want with paint, it reduces the tendency to dab and 'fiddle' to make sure the paint goes where it's supposed to go.

Thus you start to develop what is termed an economy of brushstroke i.e. the less brushstrokes you make, the fresher your painting becomes. A good point allows the same brush to be used to cover both large areas of wash and very fine, detailed sections with equal confidence.

In my experience, you would need to use watercolor brushes at least 2 - 3 sizes larger in synthetic to achieve anything like the comparable paint holding capacity of the natural version - i.e. a nylon No.10 equating to a sable No.8.

Synthetic brushes are pretty durable and will take a fair amount of punishment. They're less likely to get paint clogged in the ferrule, thus splaying out the filaments and ruining the brush, ironically because they don't hold it quite as well as the natural hair.

However, they are also a lot cheaper than natural hair and excellent value.

Also, manufacturers have come a long way in closing the gap between the quality of real hair watercolour brushes over their synthetic counterparts.

As a compromise, you can get art brushes with a mix of synthetic and natural fibers, giving some of the qualities of both.

Brush Shapes

There are many brush shapes to be had, but for all practical purposes, we can keep this to two for watercolor brushes - the Round and the Flat. I find most people start to learn to paint with rounds and flats and then acquire other brushes as they progress. This is how I learned when I started.

Other brush shapes such as those found in oil paint brushes can be used for particular watercolor effects.

However for now, we'll concentrate on the two main shapes I've mentioned as even rounds and flats have sub-divisions.

The Round Brush is by far the most common. Whether it's the Kolinsky Sable pictured above or a cheaper, synthetic equivalent, this is the classic round brush shape.

All good quality round watercolor brushes will have a seamless nickel or coated brass ferrule (the metal tube that joins the bristles to the handle) to prevent rusting and hair loss.

The hairs will have a good 'belly' at their widest part for holding lots of paint which is released evenly. The handle will be usually be of painted wood and laquered to prevent distortion by water and chipping. It will also be well balanced to permit comfortable use.

The size is stamped on the handle as is the name of the Maker and Series type.

Remember, the width of a round brush does not mean this is the width of the line it will paint. This depends on how hard or lightly you press, the sort of hairs or filaments it's made from and the type of paint and painting surface used.

As we've seen, a large round, quality brush will paint a big wash or a fine line equally well.

However, there are other 'round' watercolor brushes which are for more specialised tasks.

Have a look at the pictures below...

The large round-headed brushes are made from much softer squirrel hairs or similar. These are much less springy than the sable and don't return easily to a point.

However, they are ideal for putting down really broad areas of watery wash very quickly - skies for instance - and therefore don't need to have a hairs that return to a fine, sharp point.

They're also cheaper than Kolinsky Sable although a good quill brush will still cost you a fair bit.

At the other end of the scale is the Rigger. This is also a round brush but its long, fine hairs are perfect for painting very thin lines. Good examples are thin branches & grasses or ship's rigging - which is how the brush first got its name.

Now onto the Flat Watercolor Brushes. As the name implies, the hairs or bristles are laid out in a flat formation, with a straight end to the bristles. This allows you to paint a square edged mark - windows and doors for example.

They come to a lovely sharp chisel edge when charged with paint and if used vertically, they're ideal for making thin straight lines such as ship's masts or fence posts.

However, they are a versatile tool and the larger versions can be used equally well as large wash brushes.

The 'Hake' is particularly good at this although its special properties take a little getting used to. It's usually made of goat-hair which is not as soft as most of the other natural hairs but more flexible than the hogs-hair brushes used for oil paints and acrylic paints. It's also good for large areas such as skies or, using the corner, tree foliage.

It usually has a plain, flat wooden handle and is a lot bigger than the normal flat watercolor brush.

After a little practice, it becomes invaluable as an all-purpose painting tool and it actually encourages a looser painting style.

Flat watercolor brushes have a different way of size identification than the round brush. (See below)

Watercolor Brush Sizes

Round brushes are normally sized by number. No.1 is the lowest size, whilst at the top end No.24 is usually the largest - about 3/4 inch (approx.18mm) diameter. I say 'usually' because I have seen a No.50 Kolinsky Sable advertised, which I guess would be to special order. That is if you've got about $1000 to spend...

Well, I did say they weren't cheap!

There is also a range of very fine brushes smaller than No.1 size. These run from the smallest (0000 or 00000)- about 1/64 inch (approx.0.5mm) diameter, to '0', the size immediately below No.1. These are most frequently used for modelmaking or painting miniatures.

However they are used in watercolors as an alternative means of painting very fine detail, where you need a great deal of fine control that isn't available with the rigger's longer hairs.

The large squirrel mop brushes are similarly numbered but the actual size of the brush doesn't equate to the 'normal' Round watercolor brushes. For example, a typical squirrel mop No.'0' equates to a No. 10 round, with a No. 6 being equivalent to a No.16 and so on.

Flat brushes are a bit easier. They are simply measured by the width of the brush at the ferrule, eg: 1/2 inch, 11/4 inch etc.

Regardless of which make you use, the advice you will find from most professional artists - and which I thoroughly endorse - is to use the biggest brush you can for can as long as you can, on your painting. Go down to a smaller one only when you absolutely have to. Even then try to use a bigger one than you think you'll need.

This stops you fiddling and 'pecking' at your picture. Believe me, we've all done it - I still do at times. But remember, watercolor is a fluid, flowing medium.

Part of the fun is letting large areas of color move around, not knowing quite what the paint will do on the paper.

If you want your paintings to achieve a look that others admire - spontaneous and unlaboured - then use the 'big brush'!

And to Finish - Let's Look at Starters!

I promised earlier to suggest some watercolor brushes to get you started. If you've read this far, hopefully you've been given some food for thought before you visit the art-supplies store.

Have a look at the brushes I've suggested below. I've specified alternatives which should cover most preferences and takes account of whether you use natural or synthetics. Think about the bigger sizes for synthetics to give you more paint-carrying capacity.

  • No 12 or 14 Round
  • No 6 or 8 Round
  • No.1 or 2 Rigger
  • 1/2 inch Flat
  • 1 inch Flat

If you can run to it, the following are also worth considering...

  • No. 6 Squirrel Mop, or
  • 11/4 inch Hake or
  • ⅞ Inch Flat Wash Brush - the hairs have a rounded appearance rather like a make-up blusher and often sit in a flat ferrule to spread the filaments for better coverage.

Talking of make-up brushes, don't do what I did and experimented once with my wife's best brush.

Not only did it wreck the brush, but all the hairs that came out on the wet paper ruined my picture.

And then followed the cost of a new brush, flowers, out for a meal, and sundry other grovelling. I'd have spent less buying one of those No 50 Kolinsky Sables. As they say, don't try this at home...

And Finally...!

Whatever brushes you buy, be sure to read the article on looking after your art brushes.

Remember, these brushes are an investment. Treat them with love and be rewarded with a lifetime's pleasure!


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Tips on selecting the right watercolor paper for you
The Watercolor paper you use can make or break your painting if you don't select it wisely...

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