Thursday, April 30, 2015

7 Inexpensive Watercolor Brushes to Start Your Collection

If you're a beginner artist, or an artist who goes through brushes like crazy, finding quality brushes that are also inexpensive is an important but daunting challenge.  While taste vary, I'm going to share the brushes that I regularly use when painting, in hopes that that will help some of you make informed choices when stocking your watercolor supplies.

My father, like myself, got the occasional craving for fast food.  At that time, he'd ask the family two questions.  The first was "do yall feel like hot fast and cheap?" and the second was "if you'll fly, I'll buy".  None of us ever mistook fast food for the real thing, but in today's post, you'll definitely feel like these inexpensive store brand brushes are the real deal.

With care and conditioning, these less expensive counterparts will not only last you a long time, but will perform impressively without breaking your budget. 

Before we delve into quality store brand brushes, I'm going to go over some important basics to keep in mind:

Most watercolor artists don't need a cup full of brushes.  You really need just a few basic workhorses to start with, and add to your stable as the need arises.  If you're just starting out, you'll want:

  • A mop brush for washes and stretching paper
  • A couple flat brushes- a 1/4" and a 1" should get you started
  • Several Rounds- I recommend 2, 4, 6 to start off with

If you do highly detailed work like comic pages or tiny faces, I also recommend a 0 and a 1 in round.

When painting, you should go from big to small- blocking in large areas first, leaving details last.

For a basis of comparison, I'm going to be pricing all brushes at a size 4 round.  Various sizes may have different price breakdowns that differ from brand to brand, so if you're interested in a brand, do your research before committing to purchasing several brushes.  Synthetic brushes are often much more affordable than their natural hair counterparts at larger sizes, so my collection is a mix of all natural hair brushes for really small sizes (0-2 in rounds) synthetic/natural hair mixes and natural hair for slightly larger rounds (3-6), and synthetics for my mops, flats, and larger rounds (8-12), as those are mostly just for applying washes and blocking in colors.

High quality brushes that often come with high pricetags tend to be made from natural fur fibers such as Kolinsky and fox.  When looking for decent performance in an inexpensive brush, you should consider exploring synthetic or synthetic blend options. Many of the brushes below are synthetics, but they perform very similarly to natural bristles, although they don't hold as much water, and do have a tendency to drip. Synthetics also tend to be 'snappier' than natural hair brushes, which you may or may not prefer.

While there are excellent store brand brushes available from stores like Utrecht (Vermeer), Blick (they partner with various brands), and Jerry's ArtARama (Creative Mark Rhapsody), which are much cheaper than their name brand counterparts, I'm going to turn my focus to even cheaper options that are a great starting point for any beginner.  All of the brushes below are brushes I myself own and use in conjuction with my more expensive brushes, so I can vouch for their quality.

Some of my recommendations include:

  • Utrecht Series 238 Sable Blend Brush for Watercolor Painting, Size 4 Round: $5.72
  • Princeton Neptune Synthetic Squirrel, Size 4 Round: $4.62
  • Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold Round, Size 4 Round $6.13
  • Ebony Splendor Short Handled Brush, Size 4 Round $2.63
  • Creative Mark Squirrel LE Limited Edition Brushes (four isn't available) Size 3 Round $3.49
  • Mimik High Performance Synthetic Squirrel Hair Watercolor Brush Size 4 Round $4.49
  • Beste Finest Golden Taklon Hair Brush Size 4 Round $3.99
When buying inexpensive brushes, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • You want a brush that's soft and fairly full- a teardrop shape is my favorite for rounds
  • If the brush looks bushy, and you aren't sure if it's beyond salvaging, draw it between your lips, wetting it slightly, and see if it draws a point.
  • I try to only buy brushes that are in good shape (with the manufacturer's conditioner still in the bristles) that have their plastic cap still on, but only if there are also examples of brushes that have lost their caps and have been noodled around with available so I can see how the brush holds up to abuse.
  • The metal ferrule should be tight on the body of the brush, and it shouldn't shed any hairs. 
  • There should be no cracks in the paint on the brush when you're purchasing it.
  • There should be no stray hairs sticking out at wild angles.

Even inexpensive synthetics need a little TLC, so these basic tips will help you get the most out of any of your watercolor brushes.

Brush Care Basics:

  • Never submerge your brush in water past the metal ferrule. 
  • Don't let paints, even watercolors, dry on your brush.
  • Don't leave your brushes submerged in your waterpots while you're painting.
  • When you're done painting, rinse out your brushes thoroughly.
  • Every so often, clean your brushes with a mild shampoo or brush cleaner, and condition with hair conditioner.  This can go a long way to restoring damaged brushes.
  • Don't leave your brushes out in the open after they've finished drying.  Not only will moths eat your brushes, but if you have cats, they may decide brushes are tasty to nibble on.
  • Allow your brushes to air dry before putting them away.