Sunday, August 14, 2016

Watercolor Basics: The Great Brush Off

A few years ago, Heidi Black generously wrote a guest post for this blog on how to select brushes.  Although that post was focused on selecting brushes for inking, much of what she covers is also applicable for watercolor brush selection, as many of the qualities that make a brush good for inking ALSO make a brush (usually a Round, to be honest) good for watercolors and details in watercolors.

How to Pick Watercolor Brushes for your Collection

Don't judge your brushes by their dry appearance, the true way to tell if your natural hair brushes are wrecked is by wetting the bristles and seeing how well they come to a point.  Some stores provide a small cup of water for this purpose, but dont, so many artists will put the brush in their mouths to draw a tip.  This is not recommended if the brush has sizing in the bristles.  Without sizing, sables tend to become bushy when dry, but will come to a point when wet again.

Heidi, in her guest post, outlines a simple way to test for brush quality.

Before you purchase your brush though, an important test must be made.  Either ask for a small container of water, or bring one with you (or if you don't mind germs, just use your spit), and some paper.  Dip the brush in the water and make sure it forms a point, then drag it across the paper as you would to ink and see if it retains the point or splays.  You can also give it a sharp twist and see how it reacts.  I would recommend testing several different styles of brushes with this method – you may find a brush you thought was going to be amazing has a cruddy tip, or won't stay together; or a brush you were going to disregard is actually perfect for you. 

When travelling, you can reseal your brushes using a mixture of gum Arabic and water, or replace the protective cap most natural brushes come with.

What to look for in a good brush

-Decent sized belly
-Comes to a fine point when wet, regardless of size
-No long, loose hairs
-handle should feel well balanced in your hand

What to watch out for in a bad brush
-loose fibers
-loose ferrule
-Pinpoint ferrule (the ferrule doesn't wrap around the bristles, the bristles are set in the ferrule)
-Shoddy handle

I outlined seven of my favorite inexpensive watercolor brushes (as well as what to look for when buying a brush) in this post.

Example of Bad Brushes

Brush wrecked from use:

Image Source
Even when wet, this brushes bristles are frayed and split.  This brush is ideal for special effects or drybrush, but you would never pull a straight line with this brush again.  (Note:  the owner of this brush states in their post that they deliberately wrecked it for special effects and foliage, but I thought it was a good visual, and it's surprisingly difficult to find photos of wrecked watercolor brushes online)

Bad From The Package

Royal Langnickel Brush Value Pack, reviewed during the Walmart section of the Cheap Art Supplies series.

Left: Crayola brush included in Crayola watercolor set.  Right:  Royal Langnickel Brush, after conditioning

This was a multi pack of natural hair brushes- mostly squirrel and camel.  Some of the brushes came bent, the smallest two rounds don't have a ferrule that actually surrounds the brush, but rather the fibers are set into a hole in the brush.  The ferrules are lose on the plastic handles, and the plastic handles feel cheap and light.

Even the Crayola watercolor brush from the Crayola set was an improvement over these brushes- the hair used does come to a point when wet, has a small amount of belly, and the ferrule is crimped tight on the plastic handle.

It all comes down to:
What you want to paint vs what the brushes can do

Almost any brush can be a good or bad brush, depending on your needs and how you treat your brush.

Natural brushes (first three from left) and Synthetics (last two from right)

Natural Brushes (first three from left) and Synthetics (last two from right).  Note the full belly on the middle natural brush as compared to the lack of belly on both synthetics.  Also note that the natural brushes have a better point than the two synthetics, which have a more rounded cut.

Synthetics- stiff, don't hold a lot of water, tend to pick up pigment when painting layers
Good for:  Gouache, Impasto, pulling sharp details, large fills, to fill in the gaps for larger rounds in your collection, as mops and larger flats.  Tend to be far less expensive than most natural fiber brushes.

From left:  Creative Mark Mimik (Jerry's Artarama), Halcyon (purchased at David's Art Supply), Creative Mark Mimik, Utrecht Red Sable Blend

Creative Mark Mimik (Jerry's Artarama), Halcyon (purchased at David's Art Supply), Creative Mark Mimik, Utrecht Red Sable Blend
Brushes shown in these photos have double crimped metal ferrules and well turned wooden handles.  These brushes, although synthetic fibers, are comfortable to use and are well balanced in the hand.

Natural Fibers
Good For:  Fills
Sable or Kolinsky
Great snap, able to hold lots of water, able to pull fine details, delicate
Good For:  Adding in details and glazes

From left to right:  Creative Mark Squirrel (Jerry's Artarama, Squirrel), Creative Mark Rhapsody (Jerry's Artarama, Kolinsky Sable), Creative Mark Squirrel (Jerry's Artarama, Squirrel), Blick Master Natural Pure (Squirrel, DickBlick)

When Good Brushes Go Bad

Can happen when
  • You have cat who chew on your brushes
  • You have had a moth infestation due to someone giving you a bunch of sweaters that WHOOPS had moths
  • You don't clean your brushes properly
  • Scrubbing non-activated pan pigments with delicate natural fibers
  • Your brushes are dirty and have paint caked into the ferrule
  • You ink with your painting brushes and vice versa

What to do:

Clean your brushes
-Can use Masters
- Can use baby shampoo

Condition your brushes
-Can use Masters
-Can use inexpensive conditioner

Prepping Your Watercolor Brushes For First Use-Becca Hillburn

Sketchbox Basic Vs ArtSnacks July Overview- Becca Hillburn

Occasionally you should clean AND condition your brushes.

But what if you're brushes are shedding hairs?

Artist Problems- Age Related Hair Loss- JerrysArtarama

How to Handle Your Brushes


  • Properly clean out your brushes in cool running water after use
  • Occasionally clean and condition your brushes- they're hair and require care
  • Allow your brushes to completely dry out before you put them away, they can mildew otherwise
  • Store your brushes properly, don't just shove them in a drawer unprotected

Do Not:

  • Ever, EVER leave your watercolor brushes just sitting brush down in a cup of watercolor water.  You will ruin the bristles. 
  • Allow ink to dry in your brushes, once its up in the ferrule and dry, it will not come out
  • Use your good watercolor brushes to apply masking fluid.  Again, once it dries in the ferrule, it will never come out
  • Put your brushes away while wet

Storing your brushes

  • For regular use, you can use a cup, a jar, or a bamboo cup
  • Store your brushes with the bristles in the air, not pressed against anything
  • For longterm storage, you can use a brush box or a brush easel- something that closes securely, or a large brush tube
  • For transportation, you can use a brush tube, or you can use a pouch so long as your brushes have caps on them

What to do if your brushes are already wrecked

So your brush is all splayed out, even when wet. You've allowed paint, maybe even ink to dr in the bristles, and you're pretty sure there's some in the ferrule.  Should you toss your brush?  Not yet!

First off, try cleaning your brush, and continue doing so until the foam is clean.  I recommend you use Masters if your brush is well and truly wrecked- it's brought brushes back from the dead.  Once your brush is clean, condition your brush, and leave the conditioner in overnight.  Repeat until the brush forms at least a moderate point when wet. 

If your bristles are bent out of shape, there's still something you can do.  Sometimes you can salvage your brushes by 'resetting' the bristles.  I go over that in this tutorial.

But if you can't salvage the brush?  Don't toss it, wrecked brushes are great for textures!  In this guest post from the past, Sarah Benkin explains how she used wrecked brushes in her inked art.  Many of these techniques can be applied to your watercolors as well.

What about waterbrushes?

Waterbrushes (plastic brushes that carry water in the handle) are great for your travel kit, or for swatching colors, but not be useful for larger, more elaborate illustrations.  They're fun to play around with, and well worth having in your watercolor arsenal, but present unique challenges that make them frustrating to use for serious projects.

Some waterbrushes have a tendency to leak while you paint, even if you aren't squeezing the handle.  Others require a lot of squeezing to advance the water, making them finicky to use.  Almost all waterbrushes on the market are synthetic and have fairly stiff plastic fibers

Outside Resources
Are New Brushes Supposed to Look Like This:  Wet Canvas (forum)
Brush and Nib Care
The "Scary" Brush-Whatcolorit: (also used for wrecked brush example)
Watercolor Resource Link List