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A watercolour artist’s choice of brushes is a very personal thing. Watercolour brushes come in a confusingly wide range of sizes, types and price and some may be more useful to you than others. You will find that if you speak too any professional artist they will have at some point in the past have bought a brush or brushes (seemingly a good idea at the time) then found that years later the aforementioned brushes are still sitting in the studio unused because they have never had cause to use them. This can be an expensive mistake if frequently repeated.
Choosing a Watercolour Brush
When choosing your brushes you would do well to remember that every watercolour brush should do three important things and it is how well your brush measures up in these areas that separate the best brushes from the rest. Here are the three important benchmarks that every watercolour brush aspires to:
- A great point - The brush should come to a crisp point, an excellent brush will hold that point during use allowing the artist to create edges and fine detail.
- Perfect ‘snap’ or spring - The brush should spring crisply back into shape during use. The right degree of spring allows the artist to have control with an element of ‘give and take’ between the brush and the surface.
- Even flow control - The colour should flow evenly and consistently from the point of the brush and there should be capacity within the belly of the brush to allow the artist to lay down flowing strokes of colour.
One piece of advice I would give artists is to set a budget before you start buying brushes and do not be tempted to go over this budget buying expensive or specialist brushes just because your favourite artist said in his book that he can’t paint without them. Every artist applies their paint differently and your style may be better suited by another type or size of brush e.g. if your style is mainly abstract with little detail there is absolutely no point in paying out a fortune for a set of fine detail riggers regardless of how in expendable someone else finds them. An awareness of the brushes that are available, and the major differences among them, will help you find the tools that make you feel comfortably at your best, and lend those subtle touches of brush stroke and texture that make your work unique.
Most paintings will require two or more of the basic round and flat brushes. In addition, there are a number of specialty brushes that are less frequently needed because they are designed to serve limited purposes, usually some kind of specific texturing effect which the basic brushes handle less effectively.
Watercolour Brush Shapes
You can choose from a huge range of shapes & sizes but here is a breakdown of some of the main ones and their purposes.
- Round brushes have a round full body that holds adequate pigment and taper to a sharp (sable) or near sharp (synthetic) point. A high quality round allows the artist to render a wide range of shapes and effects, holds a good charge of water, wipes up excess paint, and rinses out quickly. The extraordinary flexibility of this brush means it is the instrument of choice for “gestural” painters who want a lot of expressiveness in their brush marks. Rounds come in three subtle variations: the standard round, where the length out is slightly more than 4 times the belly diameter when wet, with a slight flaring in width at the belly, the full bellied round in which the length out is about 4 times the belly diameter when wet, with an exaggerated belly widening in the tuft, and the pointed round in which the length out is usually 5 or more times the belly diameter when wet, without any belly widening in the tuft. The cupping of the brush determines these brush proportions, and some brands tend to one or the other extreme in their “standard” rounds. These variations affect the carrying capacity and flexibility but not the pointing of the tuft.
- Flat Brushes hold a large amount of paint and are useful for blocking in large areas. They are chisel shaped brushes with a straight edge and are specialized as two types - the bright and the one stroke. The bright has an approximately square tuft profile (the length out is the same as the tuft width), usually with stiffer hairs; they hold less paint than regular flats, produce sharply angular stroke edges, and can be used more assertively in lifting, splattering, scumbling, and similar texturing techniques. The one stroke has a distinctly rectangular tuft shape with flexible, soft hairs; the tuft can smoothly release a longer stroke of paint and produces a more calligraphic range of brush marks. Flat brushes are ideal for laying down large areas of even colour or pure water, for shaping precise colour edges, building graded washes, and creating a variety of shapes less convenient to render with a round. Nearly all the strokes made with a flat leave an angular or straight edge in the brushstroke, so they are often used wet in wet (which disguises or softens these characteristic brush marks) or boldly in “angular” painting styles.
- Mop brushes have a large quantity of very fine soft hair (usually squirrel hair) and can hold a large quantity of water when wet or can wipe up a large quantity of water when thirsty. They are best used for wetting paper, painting large, soft, fluid passages such as skies and colour blending. Unfortunately because they take a long time to dry and take more effort to rinse completely, mops are not the best brush for paint application, but they are exceptionally good for wetting large areas of paper or for blotting or blending paint that is already applied. Good mops come to a precise point and can be used for very controlled applications of water from thin lines to sky wide washes. The soft hairs severely limit the range of brush marks in comparison to a round, but this coarser, “out of focus” effect makes them ideal for softening edges, for lifting vague lights in backgrounds, and applying large colour masses.
- Filbert brushes are oval flats that come to a point when wet and are usually made with soft bristles such as sable, mongoose or squirrel hair. They are used for blending or shaping washes and for washes where the width of the wash strokes must be varied e.g.: where a large wash area must be laced through smaller passages that require detailed manoeuvring with more of a tuft point. They are also great for foliage work due to their oblong blunt ends.
- Fan brushes as the name indicates are brushes with a fan shape head. Although predominantly used for blending in oil or acrylic painting more and more watercolour artists are starting to experiment with these brushes. They are generally used for scrubbing out linear strokes and for drawing grass-like or twig-like clusters of parallel lines, for irregular line hatching or texturing, and for softly blending the edges of or gradations within wash areas. Different parts of the arcing fan edge should be used from one stroke to the next, to produce the greatest variation in the irregular line spacing.
- Rigger brushes are noted for their long pointed length that holds a lot of paint. They are used for fine details and expressive line work and the brush was first designed to paint the rigging on boats in nautical paintings (thus the name). The long tip of a good rigger will hold a fair amount of paint and will disguise minor wobbling in the hand through the flexibility of the tuft. Also very similar to a rigger are Liner brushes (also script). These brushes are basically a rigger wrapped in a round brush. The hairs often do not come to a needle point (as in a rigger), so that the line rendered has a consistent thickness, which is scaled to the size of the tuft. The length of the liner tuft allows the line to keep a more consistent width than the line possible with a round, while the belly holds a larger charge of paint than a rigger which allows you to paint a rather long line for its width.
- Spotters are stubby brushes with a fine point. Used primarily for retouching but they are also excellent for miniature and detail work.
- Wash brushes look like miniature house painting brushes and extend the range of flats to much larger widths. They hold much more water or paint than a flat brush and release it over a wider area. Like mops, wash brushes are best for wetting large areas of paper or charging already wet wash areas with water or paint; their large size and blunt edge makes them unwieldy for certain paint applications, especially when the painted area is bounded by complex edges.
- Japanese sumi brushes come in many styles and sizes. The gyokuran or koraku are basically calligraphic tools and they deliver elegant flowing strokes that characteristically change texture as the fluid in the brush is exhausted, from the wet beginning of the stroke to the dry finish. This tends to happen quickly, because the brushes have a poor carrying capacity and release liquid fairly quickly, and because the goat hair tufts are coarse and soft. For the traditional Japanese calligraphy, which develops a skill in handling the old kanji ideograms as artistic icons, this variation in texture has a lovely expressive effect. However in most other painting situations, it can be a nuisance.
- Hake brushes are unique flat, wide brushes made with goat/sheep hair sewn into a plain bamboo handle. They are ideal for applying paint over large areas. The flat handle and the select soft hair give excellent brush control. It’s an indispensable tool when used on delicate and absorbent Oriental papers. The hair is coarse yet soft and ideally suited to applying delicate washes and holds much more water while remaining soft & flexible. They are a good choice for washes and background work. They are also fantastic for achieving a huge variety of dry brush and other textural effects.
Natural Hair or Synthetic brushes - Which are best?
The common viewpoint is that Pure sable/ Kolinsky watercolour brushes are without a doubt the best you can buy but they are also very expensive and for artists just starting out a set of pure sable brushes although desirable may not be within the constraints of their budget.
Fortunately the cost and scarcity of high-quality natural fibres such as sable has fostered the development of good synthetic alternatives and with the technological advances that have been made in recent years even the traditional sable is now being challenged by the latest synthetic brushes with the standard constantly improving. Mixtures of natural and synthetic filaments can also provide excellent brushes.
I personally use a mix of the two for example my large mop brush is made from squirrel hair but my large flat is a synthetic mix both have been picked for their own particular unique properties. You will find as you gain more experience that you will find your own particular favourites and they will become like good friends.
Anyway hopefully this article has armed you with the necessary information for your next artistic shopping trip.
[p.s. - In the market for some new brushes? Why not have a look at my favourite brushes! Click here for more details]
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