I Heart Watercolors: Part IV

Before you start making your magnificent paintings you’ll need to get some brushes. You don’t need a lot, especially if you’re only going to use them for watercolors and especially if you’ll be working small (maybe 8”x10” or under). I’ll often use only one or two brushes for an entire painting.

Like all the other art supplies, there are a lot of options available! There are two main things to pay attention to when choosing which brushes to buy: bristle material and brush shape. Happily, most of the time there should be some sort of signage, or if you’re shopping online a note in the description saying what medium (watercolors and/or acrylics, acrylics and/or oils is the usual split) the brushes are appropriate for. These are guidelines more than rules, but while I’ll use brushes that are supposed to be for watercolors with oil paints, I won’t do the reverse because my oils only brushes have thicker, coarser bristles that don’t hold the water well. For watercolors you want something with soft, fine fibers that will really soak up the paint and water. I also like using this type of brush when painting fine details with oils. I’m probably shortening their lifespan by doing this but as I’ve got some brushes that are at least 15 years old I don’t think it matters that much as long as you’re dutiful about cleaning them after every use.

You can get away with just rinsing the brushes to clean them if you’re sticking to only watercolor paint, but don’t let them soak longer than necessary as the bristles will get distorted and if the shaft of the brush is wood it’ll make the paint crack. I absolutely have always followed this advice and do not have any brushes that are held together with tape, she said unconvincingly. For more intense cleaning you can just use a bar of Ivory soap. It works fine and while I know there’s special brush cleaning soaps available I’ve never felt like they were worth the extra money.

What I’m mostly looking for when I shop for brushes is shape. Here’s a photo of my watercolor brushes with the shapes outlined for clarity.

1: 1″ wide bright, and my go-to for covering large spaces
2: 5/8″ wide angled aka angular bright, as far as I can tell these terms are interchangeable
3: Another angled, 3/8″ wide (it’s tilted a bit in the photo, sorry)
4: ANOTHER angled, 1/4″ wide
5: 3/8″ wide dagger striper aka best named brush. Rare, often not included on brush shape charts, which is a pity as it’s my ~FAVE~
6: Probably 3/16″ flat, but is very old and has lost some shape, and the label on the grip is illegible. I almost never use this brush anymore, but included it as it’s the only example of this type I own.
7: 3/8″ wide filbert
8: 1/4″ diameter round
9: Fan. Never use this, not sure why I own it, I suppose someone must like this type but it’s not me.

So! There’s a couple bits of terminology in that list that might be confusing. There are two types of flat brushes with a straight tip–brights and flats. The main difference is that flats have longer bristles in proportion to their width. In general, the longer and softer the bristles the more difficult it’ll be to control the brush. I like to have pretty tight control, even when the effect I’m going for is something loose and painterly, so I prefer brushes with shorter, stiffer bristles no matter the medium. Rounds are exactly what they sound like–round–and are probably the most iconic looking brush, but they’re not my favorite to use. Sometimes I’ll pull one out to shake up my brushwork, but I kind of feel like they’re the worst of both worlds, neither good for washes nor precision. Filberts are flat brushes with a rounded tip, and, they’re fine. Unlike fans, which I hate. You have no control and the bristles are too sparse to hold enough water for washes, like can you see in the photo where it took me two tries to get enough paint down for it to even be visible. Uhg, WHY.

My favorite, and the type that I use for just about everything but covering large areas are the angle brushes. I love this shape and for some reason it’s the least common, like if I see one for sale that’s wider than a quarter inch I buy it because they’re that rare. That’s a pity because they are the BEST. They’re by far the most versatile! I can do both broad washes and precision lines depending if I use the flat or the edge of the brush, and in my experience they hold a point much better than even the tiniest round brush. You can see that in the photo above where I did a broad stroke and an edge stroke with each brush (except the terrible fan). A lot of times when I’m feeling lazy I’ll do an entire painting using just one or two angled brushes. The dagger striper is a more extreme version of the angle brush, and my feelings towards it can only be expressed by the heart-eyes emoji. Using it almost feels like drawing to me, and while I can think of situations where it might not be ideal it’s the most fun of my brushes for me to use.

Everything shown has synthetic bristles. They take more abuse and they’re cheaper or rather “cheaper”. If you can afford it I do recommend spending some money on nicer brushes. I feel like that’s a better investment than fancy paint or paper. They’ll last longer, several years if you take care of them, and won’t shed bristles all over your painting. I can make crappy paint and whatever paper work, but if the brushes I’m trying to use aren’t good I’ll have a much more difficult time getting my painting to look how I want it to. Brush preferences are going to be very personal, and while I obviously have my opinions, they’re just that: opinions. If you have no idea what shape or style of brush you want, consider picking up a variety pack of brushes (like one of these). Who knows, maybe you’ll even like fans.

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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