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What to Look for in a Watercolor Brush
Birgit O’Connor goes art supplies undercover — exploring a day in the life of a watercolor brush and tells how to shop for them, what to look for and what snap and shine have got to do with it!
For more from Birgit, get her latest watercolor instruction book — Paint Watercolor Flowers — available now.
Watercolor brushes can be expensive but are well worth the investment. A few good brushes can last a lifetime (or close to it) if you take care of them. Many beginning artists try to get by with inexpensive brushes from sets or use the ones they already have on hand from experimenting with other mediums. These can be too hard or too soft and often too small and usually do not hold enough water.
This doesn’t mean that if you buy the most expensive watercolor brush you’re guaranteed a masterpiece; the dollar amount won’t determine the right brush for what you need. It’s more important to know about the hair or synthetic ﬁber used to make it—whether it is natural hair, synthetic or a sable/synthetic blend, as that will affect its performance and what tasks are best suited for it.
Think of this like you would any other craft, sport or hobby, or even if you were building a house—in order to get the results you want, you need the best tools that you can afford.
Parts of the Watercolor Brush
Brushes are made of three basic parts:
• The tuft: The tip of the brush made out of natural or synthetic hair, tightly tied together at the base. Traditionally the hair and ﬁbers have been carefully chosen and shaped by master brush makers. To keep the cost down and more affordable for artists, many manufacturers today allow brushes to be machine made and cut into shape, instead of hand shaping.
• The ferrule: The metal sleeve that protects the hair or ﬁber and adds the support needed for handling.
• The handle: Made of lacquered wood. Compared to acrylic or oil painting brushes, watercolor brushes usually have a shorter handle length.
When painting, you may wonder why you can’t get the results you want. The answer often involves the brushes you’re using. For instance, your painting may look dry if your brush is stiff and doesn’t carry the amount of water you want. Working with a brush that is too soft and ﬂoppy or adds too much water can also give you poor results. The ﬁber or hair a brush is made with affects how it works and what it can do.
Synthetics Today there is such a wide variety of high-quality synthetic ﬁbers available that many synthetic brushes can be good alternatives for some of the more expensive brushes. Depending on the quality of the ﬁber, some lesser ones can be too stiff and easily lift the previous layer of color when layering. Higher quality synthetics are softer and compare to some sable/synthetic blends.
Synthetic brushes spring back to form quickly and hold much less water than blended or natural-hair brushes. That they hold less water can be useful for the right task. For instance, when applying paint to a damp surface, the stroke has the ability to hold together without dissipating as much, making it ideal for some techniques, such as applying a fold or bend to a petal.
Synthetic/Sable Blend The most versatile brushes for most techniques are the sable/synthetic blends. These have a good balance between both synthetic ﬁbers and natural hair. They hold a nice amount of water similar to some of the natural brushes, while being soft enough for layering without lifting, along with having the spring and control of a synthetic.
Natural Hair Natural-hair brushes are softer and hold the most water compared to blends or synthetics and are easier to use for layering color upon color without lifting the previous layer. When wet, these brushes can easily be ﬂicked back into shape without splaying or splitting. When painting they hold a consistent bead of color. Many natural brushes are made of not only kolinsky but also a blend of other natural hair. Pricing depends on the type of hair used. Many of us feel that we have ﬁnally arrived as an artist after we purchase our ﬁrst pure kolinsky brush, but it can be a little disappointing if you don’t know how to use it, because it’s soft and ﬂoppy and doesn’t spring back to form like some other brushes. To some artists, the challenge of a pure kolinsky is that it is so soft it can have a tendency to skip over the surface, catching the tooth of the paper and leaving white spaces of the paper showing though. It all depends on the technique you’re trying to achieve. These are best used on lighter weight papers such as 140-lb. (300gsm) or papers with a smoother surface.
Shopping for Brushes
In the art store you will ﬁnd brushes in different groupings of brands, types and mediums, such as watercolor, oil or acrylic. Within the watercolor section you will ﬁnd brushes sorted by size, brand and type (synthetic, sable/synthetic blend or natural hair), but once you leave the store it may not always be so clear as to what kind of brush it is, because most often you will ﬁnd that the handles are not labeled with the brush type.
In the store you can ask a salesperson, but if it’s not their medium of choice, they may have limited information. So, it’s good for you to have a better idea of what to look for when purchasing a brush.
While at the art store, ask if you can get the brush wet and test it on a piece of Magic Water painting paper or a Buddha board or Art Advantage brushstroke paper (most art stores will have one of these). All three brands are basically the same, and with only water you can test the brush, feel the spring of the tip, see the type of stroke and water release. Then within minutes the paper dries, leaving no visible mark or residue. If these papers are not available, see if you can test on a piece of plain paper, watercolor or note paper. You just want to get a feel for the brush. Try to notice if it’s stiff, soft or somewhere in between. Does it spring to form or stay ﬂoppy? Does it hold a good amount of water or not much?
Spring and Bend If you’re able to get the watercolor brush you’re testing wet, that’s great; if not, that’s okay too. Try to get a feel for the brush and how the tip feels when pressing it onto a surface. Synthetic brushes feel stiffer and harder on the surface, and their ﬁbers stay tighter together. They don’t hold as much water, and they spring back to form quickly. Sable/synthetic blends have more bounce and go from wide strokes to thin strokes easily. They hold more water than a synthetic, with a smoother stroke and can stay slightly bent when wet. Natural brushes are the softest when pressed onto a surface and hold the most water, with the tip staying bent longer.
The Shine Before testing, look at the hair and ﬁber in the tip. If the sizing is removed and the tip is pliable, bend the hair to the side. If the ﬁbers all look the same and there’s a consistent shine, most likely it’s a synthetic. If you see shine with some duller ones mixed in or an uneven sheen, this would be a blend of sable/synthetic. If you don’t see any shine, then it’s a natural brush.
Many watercolorists have a tendency to work with smaller round brushes such as nos. 6, 8 and 10, with no. 10 being the largest. Depending on the technique and size of your painting, however, these sizes may be a little limiting, because with a smaller brush it takes many more brushstrokes to cover a large area than it does with a larger brush. For wider brushstrokes and fewer limitations, consider increasing the size of your brushes to nos. 14, 20 and 30.
To find the watercolor brush size, look for the number on the side of the handle. While painting, you are going to be using multiple brush sizes. If it’s difficult for you to remember the sizes, write the numbers out larger on pieces of artist’s tape and place on the handles until you are familiar with the sizes that you’re using.
The larger watercolor brushes can still be used for smaller paintings. Some larger brush sizes can be harder to find, because many art and hobby supply stores make a large investment in inventory and the smaller sizes sell much faster. If your local art store doesn’t carry the brush size you’re looking for, go online and look for art supply mail-order companies that have a larger inventory.
Wash brushes hold lots of water and cover large areas quickly. They’re usually about 2″–3″ (5cm–8cm) wide and are either synthetic, natural or a blend. Depending on the pressure applied to the brush, wash brushes can easily release larger amounts of water.
If using a ﬂat synthetic or blend wash brush, try not to slice across your wash on an angle, otherwise, you risk lifting some of the previous color. By using a very soft or natural wash brush, this is less likely to happen. For smaller areas where more water is needed, consider other brush types to apply water, such as cat’s tongue, round, sable, mop or oval.
For the type of painting that we’re going to do, we will be using the wash brush more to apply water rather than color. The bamboo hake brush is an inexpensive natural brush that has the ability to hold lots of water, but it can lose hair easily. A synthetic wash watercolor brush won’t lose any ﬁber and applies an even layer of water, but, depending on the angle, can cut into previously applied color. Natural wash brushes are softer and less likely to slice into the previous layer, and they have the ability to apply more of a puddle to the paper.
When to Replace the Brush
This is really going to depend on the type of painting you do. Some artists feel that as soon as the tip has rounded off, it’s time to replace it. Others like myself don’t mind, and in some cases actually prefer it—it just shows the love of your tools. Depending on how you paint and hold the brush, a ﬁne point can ﬂick the color around your painting, tossing little spots everywhere, but a point also has the ability to give you ﬁner detail.
If you have old brushes, there is no need to throw them away, because at some time in the future you might use them for something else or another technique, such as scrubbing, creating surface texture or masking, and who knows—it might be just the right brush at another time to give you a particular stroke that you need.
There is no real reason to wash your brushes with soap; I only rinse mine in clean water. But if you feel you need to wash them, use a mild dish soap such as Ivory or brush soap. Place soap and water in your hand, then gently swirl your brush in it and rinse with cold water. Repeat until the water runs clear. Some colors may stain watercolor brush hairs or ﬁbers, but this will not affect the brush and its performance. Once dry, place it tip up in a container.
Watercolor Brush Tips
Brushes can last a lifetime if you take care of them.
• Use watercolor brushes only for watercolor.
• Do not store in direct sunlight.
• Dip your brush in water to prepare the tip before painting.
• Do not submerge the ferrule; it will weaken the glue and loosen the tip.
• Never leave your brushes tip-down in water; it will ruin the point.
• Between paintings, store brushes tip-up in a heavy jar.
• Lay brushes ﬂat to dry.
• Do not dig or gouge the brush into pan colors or dried palette colors; the excess paint builds up around the ferrule and can easily migrate into other colors.
• Inexpensive brushes will need the same kind of care as the more expensive ones.
• Use only old, inexpensive brushes to apply masking fluid.