Watercolor 101: The Brushes

In this final installment of Watercolor 101, I’ll discuss a little bit about the background of brushes, which ones I use and why and also how to care for them properly. The first piece of advice I want to offer though is to keep your brushes separate for each medium you use. I’ve had questions before about using the same brushes for acrylics, oils and watercolors, and while I’m sure you can use some of the same brushes that doesn’t mean you should. Each medium has it’s own properties and best ways to clean brushes after, and it is in my opinion best to keep brushes for each medium separate so that each brush is getting the best care possible and you don’t risk mixing paints onto your canvas or paper.

I own A LOT of paint brushes.

Now, a little bit about the history of paint brushes. We’ve been using them for countless years now and historically the bristles have been made with the fur and hair of various animals. In the world of watercolor brushes, the best ones (as determined by popular opinion) are made from the hair of a Russian male Kolinsky red sable’s winter coat (very specific I know). These brushes have become renown for their ability to hold a load of paint while keeping a sharp and durable point. They are also very resilient and keep their shape over a long period of time. But, when the Russian fur farm industry started to decline after the 1980’s, it made the sought after Kolinsky sable hair and therefore brushes, extremely expensive.

Personally, I have never bought watercolor brushes made from the hair of any animals. You can purchase sable hair brushes at various price ranges. The most expensive being “pure” male Kolinsky sable brushes. There are less expensive ones that are mixes of male and female sable hairs. You can also purchase brushes made from other animals as well. For me, I stick with the higher end synthetic brushes. Why? Because I’ve used both animal hair (gifted to me) and synthetic brushes, and haven’t noticed enough of a difference to make me want to support any fur farms. Synthetic brushes have come a long way, and with proper care, will last as long as give you the same results as natural hair.

Some of my favorite watercolor brushes.

My watercolor brushes of choice are the Lauren Golden Synthetics by Princeton Artist Brush Co. I have a set of these watercolor brushes and they are the ones I use each and every day. The set I currently own was purchased over a two years ago. They are still holding their shape and paint load as if they were brand new. Many artists consider these a “student grade” paint brush, but for me they’ve held up better than any of the more expensive brushes I own. For quality and price, I think these are great for students and professionals alike.

When you go to purchase a set of paint brushes, you’ll find different shapes/sizes and it is important to make sure you get wide variety. Each type of brush is used for various watercolor techniques. Here is a great more in depth article to read about paintbrushes by ThoughtCo. that I think answers many of the questions I may miss about paint brushes.

The size of a brush is indicated by a number printed on the handle. Brushes start from 000, then 00, 0, 1, 2, and up. The higher the number, the bigger or wider the brush. Unfortunately, there is little consistency between brush manufacturers as to what these sizes actually are, so a number 10 in one brand can be a different size to a number 10 in another brand. I recommend looking for brushes in person the first time and only ordering online from brands you know, because one companies size 10 is another’s size 000. Here are the highlights for some types of brushes (pulled from the Thought Co. article):

  • A filbert is a narrow, flat brush with hairs that come to a rounded point. Used on its side, a filbert gives a thin line; used flat it produces a broad brush stroke; and by varying the pressure as you apply the brush to canvas, or flicking it across, you can get a tapering mark.
  • A round paint brush is the most traditional brush shape, and what most people imagine when they think “art paint brush”. A decent round brush will come to a lovely sharp point, enabling you to paint fine lines and detail with it.
  • A flat brush is, as the name would suggest, one where the bristles are arranged so the brush is quite wide but not very thick. The length of the bristles can vary, with some flat brushes having long and some very short bristles.
  • A rigger or liner brush is a thin brush extremely long bristles. These may come to a sharp point but can have a flat or square tip. (If it’s angled, they tend to be called a sword brush.)
  • A fan brush is a brush with a thin layer of bristles spread out by the ferrule. A fan brush is commonly used to blend colors, but is also perfect for painting hair, grasses or thin branches.
My Princeton watercolor brush set.

I have a fairly simple set when it comes to watercolor brushes, but it has helped me with all the techniques I like to use personally and it covers all the basic necessities. Pictured above is my watercolor set and it includes the following brushes from left to right:

  • 1″ flat shader
  • 3/4″ flat shader
  • 16 round
  • 12 round
  • 10 round
  • 4 round
  • 1 round
  • 10 flat shader
  • 1/2″ angular shader
  • 4 liner

I have on occasion needed a fan or filbert, but for most projects I use primarily my round brushes in various sizes. You’ll also notice that many of my brushes have plastic covers over them. Nearly all brushes will come with these protectors, don’t throw them away, they are perfect for keeping brushes safe and helping them hold their shape. With that in mind, we move onto the final part of our discussion which is keeping your brushes in good condition.

The first thing I always like to discuss is how we treat brushes when they’re not in use. As noted above, mine are kept in in their plastic protectors and in a simple brush holder. This keeps them protected from spills, dust, my animals and keeps them in the correct upright position. The upright position is also the correct way to keep brushes when they are in use. Too many times I’ve seen people dump their brushes into a water container with the bristles down which will ultimately cause your brushes to lose shape. If you’re in the middle of a project, it is best to either lay your brush down or if you want to put them in a container, bristles must be up.

And of course, the most important step in care is how to clean your brushes properly. Unlike acrylics and oils, watercolor tends to be a little more forgiving on your brushes but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clean them. You should never let any paint dry on your brushes because it will ruin them over time. When I’m finished painting, these are the steps I use to clean my brushes:

  • Place the brush under warm running watercolor and carefully rub the bristles until the water.
  • Moisten a plain bar of soap (unscented, chose something for sensitive skin), rub the brush in a circle motion on the soap bar. Run under water to rinse.
  • Repeat first two steps until water runs clear.
  • Do a final rinse to make sure there are no soap suds.
  • Gently squeeze brushes with towel to remove excess water and lay out flat to dry.
  • Don’t place brushes back into plastic protectors or holder until dry.

In place of soap, I sometimes like to use B&J’s “The Masters” Brush Cleaner and Preserver.  I’ve found that this helps synthetic brushes keep their shape. I normally use this at least twice a week instead of soap and follow the same steps as above.

And that is it for this short introduction to watercolors! If you enjoyed the Watercolor 101 series, please let me know by commenting and liking any of the posts in the series. If you’d like more blog posts like these, please let me know as well. As always, thank you to my friends, family and readers who’ve been there since the beginning and have stuck it out with me as I try to figure out this full time blogger thing! Next week, I’ll share what I’ve been working on and how I prepare for all the upcoming fall festivals.



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