Selecting and Maintaining Your Watercolour Brushes
By Deb Leger
Paint brushes could easily be compared to wine - quality matters! But choosing the right brush isn't just a matter of spending the most money on it. There are many variables to take into consideration. A little bit of research *before* you buy that new brush can go a long way. Hopefully, this article will provide you with a few of those variables and make that choice a bit easier.
We need to adopt the convention that our brushes are not only our tools, but rather our partner, as are all of the materials used to reach the end point of our artistic endeavors. "Artwork is a cooperative process that involves the unique characteristics of the tool as well as those of the artist." Most artists find their brushes are very quickly delegated to their "most prized possessions" and as such, are treated with the respect they deserve, as a partner or extension of their creativity.
Unfortunately, going into your favourite art store and standing in front of the brush display rack can be very frustrating and confusing. Not too many dealers provide the detailed information needed on each brush. Experienced, as well as inexperienced, watercolourists could stand in front of these long isles of racks and waste countless hours trying to figure out one brush from another. This is where the online and/or catalogue companies have the one-up over local art supply stores. Most online companies, and most catalogue mail order companies, provide a good amount of information on their sites and in their catalogues, making the choice much easier.
When you are in a retail art store, the most basic courtesy is to not touch the brush tuft with your fingers. The tuft will pick up oils and dirt from your hands that you pass on to the eventual owner. If you want to test the snap or consistency of bristles, listen and feel as you stroke them across the back of your hand.
Many authors suggest that you examine brushes in a store with the bristles wet. This is impractical advice, as most stores won't allow you to wet their brushes and poke their merchandise, and many brushes come "wrapped" in a hard coating of starch or gum arabic.
One of the most common mistakes many watercolourists make is to start with brushes that are too small. (I am so guilty of this one, having collected oodles of tiny detail brushes that are now never used.) As you progress in your watercolour painting journey, you quickly learn that a quality medium or large brush with a good point will work with you far more favourably than several tiny, minute brushes that you once thought were necessary for fine detailed work.
If you asked ten artists what kind of brushes you needed, you would receive ten different answers. There is no "best" brush selection - no magic answer to "what kind of brushes do I need?" According to Handprint, "Keep in mind that there's no "best" brush selection. Barbara Nechis uses flats frequently to lay in her background shadows, while Nita Engle avoids them, claiming they make distinctive strokes and catch unwanted colors at the edges. Botanical painters often use very small rounds, while "California school" artists use the largest brush they can. It all depends on the style of painting you want to create, the kinds of effects you have discovered how to make with different brushes, your dexterity and skill, and your comforting habits."
Since no single brush does everything well, several styles of brushes are usually needed to have a good measure of versatility, making it important to know what you're choosing. "Can you imagine a mechanic working on your car with just one socket wrench or a surgeon working with just one needle?" But this is not to say that you need dozens of brushes. On the contrary! Again, according to Handprint, "if you begin with the seven basic brushes, and add brushes only as you need them, you will learn just as much about brushes and about painting with far less money."
Here are Handprint's recommendations for the seven basic brushes:
1) small sable round (#2 to #4 is a good minimum size) — for detailed textures, lines, hatching, and small forms or figures
2) a medium sable round (#6 to #8) — for small paintings, small paint areas, medium textures and rendering medium sized forms
3) a large sable or synthetic round (#12 to #14) — for rendering large irregular forms, charging washes, wicking up excess liquid
4) a small acrylic flat (1/4" to 1/2") — for sharp edged details, corners, and crisp edged texturing or stippling; also good for scrubbing or moving small areas of paint already on the paper (for example, to remove mistakes), and for lifting large amounts of paint from dry pan paint cakes (for example, to mix a wash)
5) a large natural hair flat (3/4" to 1") — sable, squirrel or a blend of bristles, for medium sized washes and glazes
6) a medium squirrel mop (#8 to #12) — for laying washes, prewetting the paper, wicking up excess paint or water, and subtly adjusting the density or texture of wet paint.
7) though it's not a brush, a natural sponge (a sea sponge or a block cellulose sponge, not the plastic kind) is very handy.
As you progress through the watercolour painting journey, which is never-ending, you will find that your brush preferences of today will not be the same as your preferences six months from now. As with everything else on this earth, everything changes and evolves, nothing remains constant. The same will apply to your brush preferences and painting style.
What is a brush?
Basically, the brush is a tool of wood, hair, string, lacquer, metal and resin glue. That is, while sitting on the store shelf. When it becomes yours, it becomes an extention of you with it's own personality but that's a different, and longer, story!
The hair used in brushes is usually from natural hairs, synthetic fibers or both. Following are some descriptions of the different types of hair used and their uses. (Please note, this list is not restricted to just watercolour brushes.) Knowing what the bristles are made of will tell you a lot about the brush you are contemplating buying. And, more importantly, once you know about the different types of hair, you can see that NOT knowing about the fibres or hair in the brush you are contemplating could be a costly mistake.
. Badger hair is available in many grades and of course, corresponding costs. The top grade is very soft and is excellent for blending - especially in oil painting. It is also used extensively in 'faux' painting , decorating the walls or furniture of homes.
. The best quality bristles come from a strip running across the backs of wild hogs in Chungking Province, China. Bristle hairs are stiff and coarse with natural curve and have a V-shaped split end called a "flagged tip". Brushes formed with the flags turning into (or interlocked with) the ferrule offer the most spring, shape retention and control. Bristle brushes are best suited for oils and acrylics.
. This is the trade name for brushes made of squirrel, goat, pony, bear, sheep or a blend of any of these. They range greatly in softness, quality and cost. Actual camel hair is too woolly for brushes.
. This is the most valuable and expensive soft brush hair. The very best hair for artist brushes, it comes from the bushy tails of the male "mustela sibirica", a marten found in the cold river valleys of Siberia and from Northern China. It is trapped in the wild as opposed to raised on farms as Mink is today. Martens from the coldest valleys produce the longest, best and highest quality hairs for brushes. It is very expensive. Strength, thickness, spring and fine point are the qualities associated with kolinsky red sable. This hair makes the finest watercolor brushes. Brushes made with quality Kolinsky hair provide the artist with control that surpasses all other brushes. Also, a well made Kolinsky brush will consistently snap back to a point in use.
. Softer than hog bristle but stiffer than ox hair, mongoose hair makes versatile, durable brushes for oil, egg tempera, alkyd and acrylics.
. Ox hair is taken from the ears of oxen. The best quality hairs come from the ears of South American and European oxen. They are strong in body, have good springiness and tapered points. Ox hair is coarser and stiffer
than sable, and less costly. Natural shades range from white to black. The coarser 'dark ox' hair is used for
stippler and stenciling brushes and the like. The finer 'light ox' hair is used for fine varnish and mottler brushes. Also, dyed 'light ox' hair is used to make sabeline brushes. Suitable for oil and water-media, ox hair is used alone or blended with other hairs. Because of its elasticity and color carrying ability, ox hair makes an excellent brush for heavier colors.
. Pony hair is from the mane of young horses or ponies. It is very fine and soft, and is the typical hair used in the traditional Cosmetic Brush. The finest-quality pony hair is excellent for blending and is also used in the hair-mixtures of inexpensive brushes, typically referred to as 'camel hair' brushes.
. Resilient, with good point retention, raccoon hair is used mainly in sumi brushes.
. This soft brush hair comes from the tail of the Asiatic weasel - a type of marten. Golden red in color, the hairs are not as fine or springy as kolinsky sable and are only half as expensive. Red sable hair makes outstanding brushes for watermedia and oil. Almost equivalent to the Kolinsky, Sable hair is used extensively in
artist brushes. (Sable and Kolinsky hair look similar but the Kolinsky is darker at the tips, especially when wet.) A good Sable brush also points and snaps well, and therefore is a good substitute for a Kolinsky at a slightly lower price. Sable hair is a bit stiffer than Kolinsky which may be desirable for some applications.
. This blend of high quality Red Sable hair and firmer Synthetic filaments yields a unique brush that has the fine control of Sable with extra firmness. It is useful in smaller sizes where a firmer point is desired.
. This name is applied to the finest grades of light ox hair, dyed to resemble red sable. Used primarily for watercolor and lettering, sabeline brushes yield good results at a cost below that of red sable. It is a bit stiffer and coarser than Sable, and less expensive. Sabeline brushes can be used in place of Sable, where suitable, to save 'wear and tear' of the more costly Sable brushes.
Sheep & Goat Hairs
. These are used alone, or blended, for sumi and calligraphy brushes. The best hairs are yellowish in color and are boiled for straightening. While hairs have excellent absorbency and pointing ability, they lack spring. Goat hair is very soft, has minimal resilience, and is inexpensive. It is most usually found in the classic Hake brushes made in the Orient.
This soft, absorbent hair points well when wet, but has little spring. Kazan, the best squirrel hair, has good elasticity - ideal for washes, lettering and smooth painted finishes. Blue squirrel is almost as fine as Kazan, and is also used in fine brushes. Squirrel mops typically use a 'squirrel mix' which is squirrel mixed with a small percentage of other hairs to achieve the desired 'mop' performance. Squirrel hair is extremely soft and more fragile than other hairs. Its holding capacity (for water or color) is unsurpassed, and is so fine that a stroke will leave no voids nor hair tracks.
. Synthetic 'hair' is not real hair, but polymer filaments made to look and act like hair. These are available in a variety of diameters, lengths, colors, stiffnesses, and qualities.
Brush Shapes and Their Uses
. The bright is a flat brush similar to the one-stroke or flat, but much shorter. The hair of a bright is approximately the same length as its width. It doesn't flex as the one-stroke or flat does and consequently
is better for shorter, more controlled strokes. In watercolor, it is sometimes referred to as an 'aquarelle brush'.
. This is a flat brush similar to the one-stroke, except that the end of the hair is shaped to a point instead of straight across. It is an extremely versatile brush and can be used to make almost any type of stroke!
. The dagger-striper is flat in the shape of a knife or dagger. It uses fine squirrel hair - Kazan squirrel - to provide an extremely soft brush for painting lines or stripes in fine art or automotive striping. In watercolor, it can be used to achieve very creative effects by pulling the brush around, and also by pulling it sideways.
. Short, precisely pointed bristles provide control for close detail work.
The fan brush uses a special ferrule that spreads the hairs into a thin layer to form a fan shape. It has two main uses. In watercolor, stiff hog bristle is used so that the individual hairs leave separate strokes on the paper. Consequently, clumps of grass or scrub can be made with one or two strokes. Soft-hair fans can be used to soften edges in both watercolor and oil painting.
. Capable of yielding thick to thin strokes without hard edges, it is shaped like a flat or bright with rounded corners.
. With its square end for broad, sweeping strokes, a flat offers great freedom and control for painterly effects and backgrounds.
. Pronounced ha-kay, this Asian brush is used for backgrounds or broad washes, in sumi or watercolor paintings. Wide and flat, it is usually made of sheep or goat hair. The traditional Oriental hake is a short flat brush made with goat hair and a flat handle. Hakes can vary in width, starting small and going up to five inches in diameter, the larger sizes being excellent for laying in large washes or wetting large areas of paper.
The liner is a round brush with hair length between a round and a rigger. It is used in the same way as a rigger where the extra length is not essential or where less flexing is desired. Shaped to produce continuous lines without reloading, it offers great control for architectural renderings and lettering.
. Full-bodied to hold a lot of fluid, it forms a controllable tip when wet and can apply large areas of color efficiently. The mop brush is typically round or oval, and domb-shaped. Squirrel mops are very soft and hold lots
of water or color. They are mainly used in watercolor to carry water or color to the paper. Mops are also used to soften or blend colors already laid down.
. The one-stroke is long flat brush is used for long sweeping strokes in watercolor. As its name implies, it holds a lot of color and can make a long stroke without reloading. Also, it flexes and is a favorite among many artists for that reason.
. This is a round pointed brush usually made of blue-squirrel hair. The ferrule is made of a plastic quill instead of the the usual metal to avoid breaking the very fine hair. The hairs come to a fine natural
point, leave no hair tracks, but do not spring back as kolinsky hairs do.
. The rigger or 'script' brush is similar to a round but with much longer hair. Its name is derived from its use in painting the rigging of sailing ships. It is ideally suited to this job, as well as electric lines, telephone wires, etc., because of it's ability to make long fine strokes without running out of color. It is also indispensible for painting tree branches and general calligraphy. With practice, it can be flexed and lifted to
create strokes that taper to fine lines.
Rounds are the CLASSIC BRUSHES of fine art painting. They are used in painting landscapes, florals, portraits, and just about any subject. Large rounds are great for laying in color while small rounds are
indispensible for painting detail. Many artists choose to use rounds exclusively while others prefer flats, or a combination of different shapes. The versatile shape of a round brush is capable of yielding thick to thin strokes and great detail. Kolinsky and sable rounds point more than bristle rounds when wet and will consistantly spring
back to a fine point, providing a controlled flow of color.
Its elongated shape offers optimal control for lettering or geometric line work. Long bristles hold enough paint to make long continuous lines.
. The slant-shader is a flat brush with a slanted end instead of a straight-across end like the bright or one-stroke. It provides a better view of the stroke in-process, and can be used creatively to make variable-
width strokes. It is very popular with flower painters.
. Spotter brushes are similar to rounds, but have much shorter hair lengths. Upon leaving the ferrule, the hair immediatly comes to a fine point. The shorter hair doesn't flex and so can be used to place a small dot of color accurately. The name originated in photography processing where it is used for eliminating dust spots. It is also used extensively in miniature painting.
. The stippler is a short-handle round with short ox hair that is slanted at the end like a slant-shader. It is used to used to produce special effects by 'dabbing' instead of 'stroking'. The small random shapes in the shadows of a tree trunk or shadows in rough shubbery are examples of its use.
Handprint has a fine article on how brushes are manufactured here.
Included are some photos of many different types of brushes.
Care of Brushes
After each painting session with a good quality brush, natural or synthetic, give it a thorough cleaning. For watercolour brushes, use a mild baby shampoo or liquid soap. Do NOT use harsh detergents. Rinse well under a lukewarm running tap (never hot) and flick back to shape. Allow to dry with the brush head down so water does not seep into the ferrules and cause damage to the glue and wood there.
Over a period of time with natural hair, the brush will become stripped of its natural oils. To replenish the hair, reconditon good brushes once a year with a hair conditioner. Squeeze a tiny bit into the palm of your hand and work it into the brush head. Allow it to soak in for a few seconds, then rinse well and flick it back to shape. This will not bring your brushes back to their brand new state before the oils were stripped, but it willl leave your brushes in a noticeably improved state. Let dry in a well ventilated area.
After washing, if the hairs or bristles are unruly, you can use gum arabic to shape a brush (most natural hair brushes come preshaped with gum arabic). Dip the brush in a gum arabic solution, shape with fingers, and set it down where it can rest undisturbed. Rinse off the coating when you're ready to work.
Some interesting do's and don'ts on brush care collected from Wet Canvas and the 'net;
- Expensive brushes purchased for their point shouldn’t be used for mixing and scrubbing. Use and old worn brush or purchase a cheap one solely for this purpose.
- Never use your watercolour brushes for other mediums. Never "cross over". If you paint in other mediums, have a separate set of brushes for each.
- When painting, try to avoid dipping the handle of your brush into water. Try to wet only the ferrule. This will prevent splitting or cracking of handles. If your handle does become split and is dropping flakes of dried paint onto your painting surface, you can always tightly wrap green florist's tape around the split section.
- New natural brushes all go through a settling in period which can result in a minor amount of moulting or shedding. Once you've used your brush, and washed it, several times, this should stop. It's a good idea to give a brand new brush a good wash before it's initial use to help avoid this.
- Never throw a brush away when it's worn out. With a little experimenting, you can achieve a variety of unusual marks.
- Storage is important. Keep brushes aired and wherever possible upright. Hair needs to breathe - otherwise mildew and mould can result. For the same reason, make sure your brushes are completely dry before putting them into any storage container.
- Do not store near heat.
- Don't leave your brushes in direct sunlight for long periods of time. The sun can ruin brushes.
- Pets can damage brushes, thinking they're a neat chew toy!
- Never use your good brushes to apply masking fluid. There's no better way to ruin them! An excellent tool for applying masking fluid is a shaper, the kind often used for pastel work.
- Never attempt to re-shape a good brush with scissors or razorblades, or even to trim stray hairs. (Re-shaping an old brush for other uses is different!) Scissors or razorblades will not be able to trim close to the ferrule without damaging the tuft. If you do need to remove a nuisance hair, grip the hair carefully with tweezers near the visible base (not the tip) of the hair shaft, pull it down and to the side against the edge of the ferrule, and snap it off at the edge, using the ferrule edge to cut it.
- Never attempt to "trim" stray hairs by holding the dry brush tuft near or against a flame. This will very likely burn off other hairs in the tuft and can invisibly blunt the tips of the hairs in the point as well.
- Don't leave your brushes sitting point down in water. Rinse and lay on your painting table or space, or in a brush holder.
- Never allow your brush to dry out with paint in the tuft.
- Forcing a brush into the paper until the hairs are bent back against the ferrule isn't too good for a brush.
- After a brush has been rinsed, it is easier on the brush to shake out the excess water rather than rubbing or squeezing it out with a cloth or paper towel. (Though often, this can be difficult inside.)
- Don't rest any brushes on their tips - this is especially important for synthetic brushes.
- Delegate one brush for use with whites, as this color is difficult to remove from brush hairs- especially Chinese White.
- Do not use a kolinsky sable for rejuvenating dry watercolors on your palette. A stiff natural or synthetic bristle brush is better suited for this task and can withstand the scrubbing.
For some very interesting reading, the following threads on Wet Canvas should be read:
Quality of Kolinsky male/female blends
The mysterious "Kolinsky" brush
Kolinsky sable brushes
Minimum wash brush size
Mask and brushes
Watercolor brushes ...........
Easy Feather Technique
Drying brushes in that stupid rack ...
Recommendations on larger brushes
WC member recommendations on brushes
Fan brush. Can someone explain....
Rod explains how to make your own sponge brush
Using watercolor brushes with ink
- discussion in Watermedia, including brush and cleaning recommendations
Some excellent articles, away from Wet Canvas, are:
Excellent article on oriental brushes
Peter Saw test results on Rosemary & Co. Sable & Kolinsky Sable Watercolour brushes
And last, but not least - Handprint