A little guide to paintbrushes

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

A miracle has occured: the creative thought has started spreading within my family, and my sister started painting. Last weekend I was watching her with slightly bulging eyes as she played around on thin print paper with some brushes that were in appalling state. At this point I decided that instead of my old article on art supplies, I’d need to write a more thorough piece on what you should buy if you choose to pass your time painting. So much more thorough that I am going to split them and talk about papers in a separate blog post, while today I’ll tell you all I know about brushes. So let’s jump right into paintbrushes A-Z.

Are brushes important?

You can pay enormous amounts on paintbrushes and yet achieve horrible results, but the opposite is also true: a cheaper brush can be suitable as long as you choose consciously. A good brush is hand-made, even the relatively cheaper ones, so you should consider it as an investment. At the same time, I’d like to crush the legend that only a super expensive brush can be good quality: I have been working with synthetic for a few months now and reach just as good results as before.

Paper, paints, brushes: if these 3 are picked carefully, then everything is given for you to create a good painting. A brush is like a magic wand, which plays a part in how vivid colours get, what texture you can achieve and in creating those beautiful watercolor effects. If you use the right brush, it works as an extension of your hand, whereas the wrong brush will lead to your tearing at your hair and blaming your “unexsisting talent” for something that might be the bad brush’s fault.

All parts of the brush play a part in how well you two can work together, so to avoid misunderstandings, let’s see the anatomy of a brush.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

About the bristles, a.k.a. the hairs, I’ll talk later. The ferrule plays a part in protecting the brush – also see below – and the handle’s role is to balance the brush in your hand. Different brushes have different length handles. As a rule of thumbs, you can say that the thicker the brush, the longer the handle, but that’s not true in every single case. It is worth experimenting with different handle lengths to see which fits you best.

The shape of a brush

It is perfectly normal to get confused in an art supply store when you get your first glimpse at how many shapes and sizes brushes can get. Don’t forget your wallet when choosing: look for a brush that you can use for as many techniques as possible. Here is an incomplete list of brush shapes and how to use them.

Round, pointed

These are the most versatile kinds: their points enable you to paint small details while pressing them more heavily onto the paper will result in thicker lines. Personally I use these most.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

Flat

To tell the truth, I am not great friends with flat brushes. They help you paint straight lines more accurately than a round brush, and it’s also great for painting large, even surfaces. It is slightly less important in the case of flat brushes to choose high quality bristles, though flat sable brushes are available.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

Flat, sword shaped

Suitable for painting larger surfaces, just like a simple flat brush but its diagonally cut bristles help colouring details and acute angles.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

Filbert

This is practically a cross between flat and round brushes and is perfect for painting gradients. I have one brush like this, which I only use occasionally.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

Detail, round

Even though this is usually a simple round brush, it still makes a separate category, as it serves a special purpose: painting details. Look out, it usually holds more pigment than you’d think!

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

Fan

This brush gets its name after its shape. It is yet an undiscovered area for me, as far as I know you rarely use it for watercolours. It could be interesting when painting different textures, plant leaves or clouds. Here is a more detailed article on using a fan brush.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

Waterbrush

This is kind of the odd one out: it could best be described as a cross between a round brush and a fountin pen, which you fill with water instead of ink. You get the water onto your palette by pressing the handle harder or lighter, depending on how much water you need. If you like painting while on the road this might be a good choice for you.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

So what about hair?

Once you’ve decided the shape you want to buy, the next thing to consider is the brush’s bristles. Look for size (this I’ll talk about later), quality, flexibility and of course, price. Besides size, it is important that a brush should hold enough pigment and/or water, and to keep its shape as long as possible.

Professionals often prefer brushes made of animal hair, which can cost you a fortune, and which are generally more flexible and can hold more pigment than synthetic brushes. The finest animal hair brush is sable, but you can also find squirrel, ox or goat brushes for watercolour.

It is important to mention that you can reach beautiful results with some synthetic brushes for a lot less money. These are usually made of nylon or polyester, and can hold their shape pretty well, even though not as long as animal brushes. Unfortunately the quality of synthetic brushes vary, so you might want to try different brands. I am currently using the brand Da Vinci and I’m quite happy with it.

Some manufacturers make brushes in which synthetic hair is mixed with sable. They are obviously cheaper than pure sable brushes, and can still reach excellent results. Or so they say… I have not tried these yet.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

Image source: Creative Bloq

Why does size matter?

When buying a brush you definitely want to consider size. It seems easy enough: brushes are sized from 0 upwords, which indicates the width of the brush. However, it is more tricky a business than it seems beacuse sizing is unique to the brand. This means that one brand’s size 8 brush can be thicker than another brand’s size 10. Only flat brushes seem to have some logic in their sizing because the number on the handle usually indicates the width of the bristles in millimetres – though you cannot count on this in every single case.

The length of the bristles is not indicated anywhere, but it’s also a quality you want to pay attention to. You need to experiment whether longer or shorter bristles suit your needs better, but the main question here is flexibility: try bending the bristles back and see how well and how quickly they regain theur original shape.

Another important thing is how thick the hair is. The denser the hairs are placed, the more water/pigment they can hold.

Unless you are very experienced, always choose a brush slightly larger than you initially think should suit the job. A larger brush can hold more water, which enables you to paint more even surfaces in the case of watercolours. The more you need to place your brush in water the more times you need to reproduce the same pigment-water ratio, which is practically impossible. So the larger surface you can paint in one go, the more even surface you can achieve.

Protect your brushes

Even though brushes made of animal hair generally last longer, you can also contribute to the saving or destruction of a brush, so you might use a synthetic brushes for years (obviously depending on how intensly you use them). These are my tips on protecting brushes:

Don’t ever let your brushes soak in water. For one thing, the entire weight of the brush will lay on the bristles, which will deform the tip, for another, the glaze finish on the handle can diffuse into the water, damaging the bristles.

This is also true of the case when you dip your brush too deep into water while cleaning it. You want to clean the bristles, right? So why soak the entire thing?

Once you are finished, leave your brushes to dry horizontally. If you place them upside down into a jar, the ferrule will act as a gutter and forward water onto the handle. The wooden handle soaks up the water, swells, the ferrule loosens up, and once the handle gets dry and thin again, the whole head of your brush will fall off.

You can place your brushes in a jar upside down when you are sure that they are fully dry. The only thing to consider is that nothing should disturb or deform the bristles.

If you want to take your brushes with you while travelling, use a cap. I used to use a pouch like this, which was a catastrophe: probably these pouches are meant for less delicate brushes, not for watercolours. If you buy a brush in an art supply store you probably get a transparent plastic cap with it, but if not, you can protect thinner brushes with a straw, as it was shown in the creative travel kit.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

A small guide to choosing your brush

To sum it all up, here are a few points, which will help you choose when the assistant asks you confusing questions in an art supply shop:

  • always consider what brush fits your chosen technique.
  • always choose the largest brush with which you are able to create the desired level of detail. Or one size larger…
  • try different brands, more expensive brushes are not necessarily better.
  • don’t be snobbish and stick with animal hair. Try and experiment, a synthetic brush might suit your needs at this point.
  • buy your brushes in art supply stores instead of simple stationery shops, unless you know what you need with pin-point precision. You are more likely to find good quality, yet affordable brushes in art supply stores.
  • keep in mind that a brush is always personal preference. What works for me might not work for you. Again: experiment!
  • concentrate on quality rather than quantity. For a start, a thin a middle and a thick round brush is probably enough until you figure out what you want.

A little guide to paintbrushes - watercolor techniques

I based this article on my own experiences, but I have found other helpful sources here:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7


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