A Brush with Greatness

March 29, 2017

Dip into the World of Watercolour Brushes

While pigments and paints often get all the glory, the smooth washes and expressive marks in a watercolour work owe much of their success to the artist’s trustiest of tools  –  the brush. This seemingly humble instrument holds the keys to a pleasurable painting experience and reliable results. Here are a few brush basics to help you find your perfect painting companion.

Quality Materials = Quality Results

Most watercolour brushes are made with natural hair, synthetic hair, or a blend.
Many natural hair options will be able to hold a lot of water. Hair from the tale of a red male Kolinsky weasel is regarded worldwide as the top of the line fine artist’s watercolour brush. The Kolinsky Sable brushes are rare and expensive, however with proper care, these brushes will last a long time.

Tip: Moths can be attracted to natural hair brushes, so it is a good idea to keep your natural hair brushes in a cedar box, as the smell of cedar deters moths.

Synthetic and blends (mixtures of natural and synthetic) have come a long way, and can offer a more cost-effective yet comparable quality to a high-quality natural hair brush. A top quality synthetic brush can last longer and work just as well as a natural hair brush. Escoda Versatil Brushes are a synthetic alternative to Kolinsky sable brushes. The important things to look for in a synthetic watercolour brush is its softness and snap.

Tip: New brushes are sized with gum arabic solution. To remove this, gently swirl your brush in water until it becomes pliable.

Whichever you opt for, quality is key, and two factors can help you determine that: water-holding capacity and snap.

Traditionally, natural hair has been the preferred bristle, with Kolinsky Sable heralded by professional artists as the ultimate for its superior holding capacity and snap. However, today many companies are producing man-made fibres with comparable softness, snap, and water-holding capacity of Kolinsky, while offering a lower price point.

The better the brush, the more water its belly can hold, and the longer you can paint without having to reload your brush. With all that water, you’ll find a lesser quality brush will fall limp and the hairs will split at the toe as the paint is transferred from brush to paper. What you want to see in a good brush is one that has some spring against the painting surface and holds its shape.

Brush Anatomy

Other indicators of quality are the ferrule and the handle. Ideally, the ferrule is brass or copper alloy plated in nickel or chrome, is seamless, and is double- or triple-crimped to ensure the brush head is securely attached to the handle. Varnished hardwood, often beech, is the standard for handles. When picking a brush, consider if the handle is comfortable and smooth. There are also plastic handled-brushes with which you can use the end as a scraping tool.

The Shape of Things

While watercolour brushes come in a number of shapes, the most versatile is the Round, which can hold a lot of water and comes to a definitive tip, perfect for everything from sweeping washes to detailed work. For the broadest range of mark-making options, keep a small, medium, and large round brush in your kit. Flat brushes are also great for washes, and for linear strokes as well. Having both shapes offers you a basic selection with the ability to paint almost any subject matter in any style.

Once you’ve set yourself up with an assortment of round and flat brushes, consider the nature of your artwork to further expand your options. If you work with a lot of detail, consider a small round brush called a Spotter, or a long, round brush called a Script brush. A Fan brush is a fun addition, great for adding visual texture to a piece.

If you’re planning on working en plein air, watercolour brushes are ideal as they have a shorter handle than most acrylic and oil brushes, allowing you to focus on the details with ease. You can also invest in a few water brushes. Made of synthetic bristles, their handle is a barrel that you fill with water: squeeze the barrel lightly to release water and wet your brush. You can even fill these with liquid watercolour!

Brush Care

When picking the tools that you want to keep in your watercolour arsenal, it is important to consider how the brush will hold up over time. The construction of the brush – hair quality, strength of the ferrule, and durability of the handle – is just a part of brush maintenance. Here are some steps you should follow to ensure the longevity of your brushes:

  • Do not store your brushes tip down or in water. This can permanently alter the shape of your brush, damaging its point
  • Use separate brushes for different mediums or grounds.
  • To wash your brushes, gently use some warm water and soap until the water runs clean. Gently squeeze or shake the water out, and store it on a towel; finally reform the point of your brush and store.
  • Have the brush dry flat, that way pigments will not sink to the base. Once dry, it is best to store them bristle-up.

How Brushes are Made

Most brushes are made by hand. Check out how two leading brush makers create top-quality brushes: